February 25, 2023

ATTACKS ON TRANSIT WORKERS

 

“I’m going to cut your throat,” said the man wielding a knife and targeting a SEAT bus driver in New London who’d stepped off her vehicle for a quick break.  The female driver jumped back on the bus, closed the doors and called the cops who minutes later arrested the would-be attacker.

This incident in late December is just one of many in Connecticut, New York City and nationwide in what is an increasing incidence of violence aimed at our mass transit workers. On Metro-North alone they were targets of 16 assaults and 14 harassments last year.

Since 2019, the overall rate of violent crimes — murder, rape, felony assault and robbery — has more than doubled in the NYC subways even as ridership has decreased. And increasingly it’s not just passengers but the people who run our trains, subways and buses who are the targets.

In NYC anyone convicted of assaulting a transit worker faces up to seven years in jail… assuming the perp is caught and the DA prosecutes.  In Connecticut such attacks are a Class C Felony, the same as assaulting a police officer.


Not every attack or threat is potentially lethal.  Sometimes transit workers have had coffee tossed at the them or they’re spat at.  Whatever anger commuters may have about delays should not be taken out on the front-line workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances.

According to police many of these attacks in Connecticut seem to be perpetrated by homeless passengers riding the bus system all day taking advantage of the free fare program which expires at the end of March.  Lacking sufficient shelters and day-facilities it seems they prefer our buses to camping out in other public places.

Many of them are suffering from mental health issues.  They need our governments’ help, not a change of venue.  Keeping them out of sight and off our streets by having them ride our buses is not the answer.

Their presence on our buses and subways frightens other passengers, further discouraging badly needed ridership.  And transit workers who must cope with them are not social workers, so it’s not fair to ask them to intercede.  The fear of confrontations with angry or unstable passengers is one of the reasons MTA did so little to enforce the federal face-mask rules during the pandemic.

The free fare program on Connecticut buses has been immensely helpful to poor people struggling to save money.  They deserve those breaks… but not when the unintended consequences of such a pilot program leads to violence.

Mass transit is replete with security cameras and, in the case of vulnerable bus drivers, safety shields around their driving work area.  So the people making these attacks are usually caught but only after the damage, physical and psychological, has been inflicted.

The answer is not to put armed guards on every bus and train.  That’s impractical.  But whether attackers are mentally unstable or just drunk, whether their targets are transit workers or random passengers, something must be done to keep such people off of mass transit.

February 17, 2023

HOW SAFE ARE OUR RAILS?

 

Americans have been thinking about the safety of our railroads a lot in recent days, and with good reason.

On Valentine’s Day a Metro-North train made a slow speed crash into the protective rail bumper at the end of the line in New Canaan.  The train was unoccupied (aside from its crew, one of whom was slightly injured) and the train derailed, causing minor damage.

Photo courtesy NewCanaanite.com 

The location has seen similar derailments in the past but there’s no use speculating on what happened, or why, pending a formal inquiry. But if this had happened in the evening rush hour when the train would have been crowded with commuters, the outcome could have been different.

In the Fairfield derailment and crash ten years ago, many of those injured were out of their seats, standing in the vestibules and ready to detrain at the next stop. When the crash happened, they were tossed like rag dolls.  The lesson there:  remain seated.

The New Canaan branch line dates from the 1860’s and is due for work.  In fact the 8-mile-long line will reportedly be completely shut down for several weeks in a renovation planned long before the recent derailment.  While conductors on the branch are warning passengers about this, there is no information forthcoming about this work from Metro-North or CDOT as to when or why.

Of course, none of this comes close to what happened February 3rd when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine OH.  The 150-car-train was carrying all manner of freight, most of it not risky. 

But eleven of the 36 cars that derailed were very dangerous, including five transporting vinyl chloride gas, under pressure as a liquid.  Other cars were carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.  The EPA says many of those are dangerous and potentially carcinogenic.

To avoid even more perilous explosions, the authorities decided to burn off the gas in a “controlled explosion”.  The result was loud and perfect for prime-time TV.  But days later the real problems began.

"Controlled Explosion"  -  photo courtesy Axios

Neighbors reported 3500 dead fish in their rivers while many suffered from headaches and nausea.  Wells are being tested but bottled water seems in everyone’s future… if they decide to stay.

Initial reports say this accident may have been caused by an overheated axle on one of the 150 railcars.  The NTSB will investigate and, in a few months, give us a more definitive answer.

There are over 1700 derailments in the US each year, most of them non-lethal.  For Connecticut residents the good news is this won’t happen here, at least not to this extent.  Why? Because we have virtually no rail freight in this state. 

The bad news?  Those chemicals are traveling on our highways, albeit in smaller truck-sized loads, but no less likely to cause explosions or damage if they’re involved in an accident.  Those chemicals are what drive our industries. They need to get shipped.

Meantime we keep talking about wanting to take trucks off our interstates and put them on freight trains.  But be careful what you wish for.

 

February 10, 2023

AH, BRIDGEPORT!

There must be something in the water.  How else can we explain Bridgeport, our state’s largest city, and what goes on there?

Bridgeport politics are infamous.  The fact that they keep re-electing convicted felons to high office should tell you a lot.  But on the transportation front the locals’ behavior is equally hard to understand.

Case in point:  the city’s latest dreams of a high speed ferry.

Actually, more than dreams.  Because money is being spent, yet again, and this time not just on a study but a new dock…. without a ferry.

As Brian Lockhart writes in the CT Post, the city started back in October building a new dock on Water Street (near the existing slow-speed ferry terminal).  The $11.2 million dock is being paid for with $10.5 million federal money and $700,000 kicked in by the local Bridgeport Port Authority, just as goodwill.

Normally such a project would be announced with fanfares, but not in Bridgeport.  Why the stealth?  Well, they may be building a dock but they don’t have a ferry to operate there.

After the dock is built the city will then issue an RFP for a company to run a ferry service.  Usually such projects are done by seeking expressions of interest from vendors, then doing the construction… but not in Bridgeport.

I have written any number of times why ferry service makes no sense:  ferries can’t offer the frequency of trips, the fares will easily be double the train fare, they can’t operate in all weather, they’re fuel inefficient and may end up being slower than Metro-North.

A Bridgeport ferry would probably stop in Stamford on its way to NYC, maybe even in Glen Cove NY too.  That Long Island bedroom community built a beautiful $17 million high speed ferry dock, but it has sat empty for the last six months because the ferry couldn’t get enough passengers.

There are successful high speed ferries in the NYC area but they’re all heavily subsidized and don’t operate in direct competition with rail service.  And the operators of those ferry could very easily start service from Connecticut… if they thought there was a demand.  But they haven’t, because there isn’t.

Bridgeport is no stranger to water transport experiments.  You might remember back in 1976 the city hosted a private hovercraft service operating from that same Water Street location.

Hovercraft "Excalibur"

Bridgeport native Robert Weldon hoped to bring gamblers to the city’s new jai alai fronton on a 60-passenger, 50-foot-long craft.  In addition he would whisk fat cats to Wall Street in as little as 35 minutes.

But cutting travel times (compared with Metro-North) came with hefty fares:  $125 a month compared to the railroad’s $80 commuter pass.  The noisy craft first departed Bridgeport at 6:45 am on June 26th, stopping in Huntington LI on its way to the city.  By November the service was stopped, having never achieved better than a 30% load factor.

Ah, Bridgeport!  The city where expensive dreams never die… especially when they’re spending other peoples’ money.

 

February 03, 2023

LOONEY TIMES IN THE LEGISLATURE

 

The Connecticut legislature is back in session, saving us from ourselves (and each other).  And the collection of proposed bills this session, numbering in the hundreds, includes many that would affect our state’s transportation laws.

Once again lawmakers are debating our state’s “open container” law as Connecticut is one of only 10 states where it is legal for a passenger in a car to have an open can of beer, hard cider or even a bottle of Jack Daniels as the vehicle drives along.  Of course, the driver would never be drinking, just the passengers… so that would keep us all safe, right? 


At the same time, some lawmakers want to extend the pandemic-Happy Hour law to keep allowing “To Go” drinks from bars and restaurants.  That makes sense too, eh?  Let’s all keep partying after staggering out of the bar onto the streets or into our cars?

And of course there’s the annual battle to make booze even cheaper and more available by allowing wine sales in grocery stores, not just our state’s 1200 package stores… an idea popular with consumers but not liquor store owners.

Is it just me, or all these bills sending mixed messages?

While the CDOT’s “Vision Zero” program tries to stop the carnage on our highways, lawmakers seem to be heeding constituents’ cries to allow them to stay high on the highways.

You’ve seen the stats on highway and pedestrian deaths, soaring to 40-year highs.  And lawmakers too have felt the pain of this roadway slaughter with the recent death of State Rep Quentin “Q” Williams in a wrong-way driver crash on Rt 9 after he left Governor Lamont’s inaugural ball.  (By the way… where are the toxicology reports on that crash’s two victims?  Why is it taking so long to find out who had what in their bloodstream?)

But the most interesting bill of all is one submitted by Senate President Martin Looney regarding unhelmeted motorcyclists who die in traffic accidents:  Looney wants their organs harvested without their permission.


Looney received a kidney transplant in 2016 from a donor, which is admirable.  But to start dissecting corpses of motorcycle riders because they were not wearing helmets seems a bit extreme. 

The motorcycle lobby points out that this would violate the rights of those whose religious beliefs prevent organ donation.  Even New England Donor Services, which runs the New England Organ Bank, seems skeptical.

While the Looney bill certainly raises awareness of the need for more organ donations, does he really think this plan would incentivize bikers to play safe and wear head protection?  Or is this just a way of finding more, badly needed organs for transplants?

I have a corollary bill to suggest:

Each time a truck collides with a bridge on our parkways, the truck’s contents should be up for grabs for the first scavengers and looters who can reach the rig… unless they have open containers of alcohol in their cars.

 

 

BIG BROTHER ON YOUR TRIP

Ready for a summer vacation?  Car packed, airline tickets at hand?  You may not realize it, but Big Brother’s coming along with you.  Howeve...