April 28, 2023

A CRUISE SHIP IN THE SKY

Imagine a double-deck airplane with wings wider than a 747, sleeping berths, a sit-down restaurant and a separate movie theater, all designed to serve just 60 passengers crossing the Atlantic.  Such a plane was built in 1949, but it never was adopted by the airlines.

Built not by Boeing and long before Airbus even existed, the Brabazon was the creation of the UK company Bristol (and named after the government committee that dictated its specifications), a company best known for its heavy bombers in WWII.  But the Brabazon’s design was inspired more by cruise ships than aircraft.

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Catering to the well-healed passengers who’d otherwise opt for a luxury sea voyage, this beast was designed to pamper, not provide low cost travel.  And pamper it did, with private sleeping compartments with true beds (not just lie-flat seats) and a sit-down restaurant with a kitchen for preparing real meals aloft.  Continuing aft there was a cocktail bar for pre-dinner drinks and at the rear of the plane, a 23-seat movie theater.

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The Brabazon had a fully pressurized cabin complete with air conditioning.  It was so powerful that, despite weighing 130 tons (vs 200 tons for a 747), it could fly non-stop from London to New York even against the prevailing winds.  That was an impressive feat given that most flights going west, back then, had to stop for refueling at Gander in Newfoundland.


The jumbo was powered by eight piston engines, operating four counter-rotating propellers guzzling 16,000 gallons of fuel.  But mighty as it was, in its day, the Brabazon could only fly at 250 mph, meaning the trip across the pond would take 14 hours cruising at only 25,000 feet… low and slow.  (Today a London to New York flight takes about eight hours).

Even though they’d been collaborating with Bristol on the Brabazon’s design, even BOAC wasn’t interested in the new plane.  One reason… “The Comet”, the first commercial jetliner built by UK-rival de Havilland, which took its first test flight just months before the Brabazon.  The Comet could carry about 40 seated passengers at a smoother 42,000 feet and a much faster 400 mph.

Mind you, the Comet had its own problems when three of the craft suffered mid-flight disintegrations due to metal fatigue… never good for business.

The jet age had arrived and the Brabazon, a worthy competitor to cruise ships in decades past, was just the wrong plane at the wrong time.  Though the plane dazzled crowds at the Farnborough and Paris air shows, there were no orders.  By 1953 the few demonstration planes that had been built were sold for scrap and the £6 million development cost was written-off.

A few months later, the Comet was one-upped by Boeing which rolled out its four-engine jetliner the Dash 80, predecessor of the 707. Air travel became affordable to all, not just the ultra-rich who expected luxury meals, bedding and a movie in their cruise ship in the sky.

April 22, 2023

BRIDGE "FAILURES"???

 

On a recent hot, spring afternoon I was waiting at a Metro-North station to pick up a friend arriving from NYC when the platform PA system made an ominous announcement:

“Due to a draw bridge failure at Cos Cob the 4:28 train to New Haven is being held.”

Drawbridge failure?  WHAT?!?  Did the bridge collapse?  No, apparently the bridge had been opened but wouldn’t close.  Sure enough, checking my phone I found an earlier text from the railroad warned me of the bridge opening, at least.  And given the high temperatures that day and steel rails’ proclivity to expand, coupled with my knowledge of these old bridges, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  This used to happen… a lot.

Since 2015 the railroad has issued text warnings to commuters of upcoming bridge openings so they can plan accordingly.  Not that there are many alternatives if the bridge closing fails, aside from the railroad being able to say “Hey, we warned you”.

Bridge openings are controlled by the US Coast Guard, not Metro-North.  But for the past few years Metro-North has had an agreement with the USCG to delay bridge openings when the railroad determines it may be too hot for them to close properly.  For the most part this has prevented incidents like the one recently at Cos Cob.  And sometimes the bridges don’t close for reasons other than just the heat.  They’re very old and replacement parts have to be hand-crafted.

Whatever the weather, Metro-North says it deploys a 15-person MOW (maintenance of way) crew at any bridge opening… just in case.  They’re equipped with sledge hammers and, if the bridge closes and the tracks don’t align properly, they’re “nudged” back into place.


That’s right:  15 workers watching a bridge open and close.  Even if they’re not earning overtime (which they do, a lot), they make good money and could be working on other, much-needed repairs instead of watching a 100+ year old bridge, right?

To keep the rails cool in hot weather they used to paint the bridge tops white and even sprayed water on the tracks.  Sometimes that wouldn’t be enough.

The movable bridges between Grand Central and New Haven don’t usually open during weekday rush hours.  Most of the water-borne traffic they serve are pleasure craft; but at the “Walk” swing-bridge in South Norwalk, there are also barges pushed by tugboats.

The "Walk" Bridge - South Norwalk

That bridge, built in 1896, is undergoing a roughly billion dollar rebuild (finishing in 2029) after one memorable Friday evening rush hour in 2013 when the bridge opened but would not close, just as thousands of rail passengers were trying to get home.  It took 90 minutes to finally close the bridge, delaying both Metro-North and Amtrak trains.  The incident came just weeks after the derailment and collision of two Metro-North trains near Fairfield and just accentuated how old and unsafe the railroad had become.

Artist Rendering of New Walk Bridge

Hopefully this won’t happen again this summer.  But on hot days, just a heads-up to commuters:  be prepared for “bridge failures” which may interrupt your journey.

April 15, 2023

WORK ZONE SPEED CAMERAS

 

Visit the headquarters of the Connecticut Department of Transportation in Newington and inside the front lobby you’ll see a strange memorial:  orange safety cones draped in black.  It’s a tribute to the nearly 40 men and women of the CDOT who’ve been killed in recent years doing their jobs maintaining our highways.


On any given day there may be more than 1500 CDOT staffers and hundreds of other private contractors in highway work zones.  Some are fixing guard rails or picking up litter.  Others could be engineers surveying the site for needed improvements.

The highway can’t be closed down for them to do their work.  It can only be “coned” and warning signs posted.  Sometimes you’ll also see a “crash attenuator” truck with a sign on it warning of construction ahead.  Last year those trucks were struck 24 times. 

The real problem is speeding.

CDOT tells me that just last month in Hartford more than 60% of vehicles were speeding through a work zone.  Last November a car was clocked in Norwalk doing 90+ mph on I-95 while workers were doing their jobs.

Highway work crews receive special training when out on an open highway.  In addition to using safety gear, they’re taught never to turn their back on traffic.  While most construction is done from 9 am – 3 pm, many drivers wonder why it can’t be done at night when traffic is lighter.  Too many complaints about noise, says CDOT.  And nights are when impaired drivers are out.

This week is National Work Zone Awareness Week, a chance to remind us all that these CDOT employees put their lives in peril, not by the necessary road repairs they do day and night, but by careless drivers.

Nationally some 857 workers were killed and another 44,240 were injured in work zone accidents in 2020 alone.  Recently in Baltimore six road workers were killed in a single crash in broad daylight, even though they were on the other side of concrete Jersey barriers.  More often the only thing separating workers from oncoming traffic is a few orange cones, hence the memorial at CDOT headquarters.


Last week CDOT instituted some new technology that might keep its employees safer by discouraging reckless drivers from speeding:  automatic work zone speed cameras.


The cameras will record the license plate of any vehicle going too fast.  If you’re 15 mph or more over the speed limit, the tech will automatically issue the owner up to a $150 speeding ticket by mail.  CDOT even has
a website to tell us where the cameras will be operating.

The work zone speed camera legislation is the first type of “red light camera” allowed in the state. In Maryland where the same tech was installed they saw an 80% reduction in speeding violations in work zones.

But maybe, just maybe, these new work zone speed cameras will deter dangerous drivers and allow CDOT employees to fix the roads and go home to their families at the end of their shift.

 

April 07, 2023

LONG ISLAND: So Close & Yet So Far Away

On a clear day you can see it from the Connecticut shoreline (only about 20 miles away).  But actually getting to Long Island often involves a very long, out of the way journey.

Maybe you’re going to LaGuardia or JFK.  Or a Met’s game at Citi Field.  Perhaps you’ll want to see the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Or a Nets game in downtown Brooklyn (yes, officially a part of Long Island).  Or maybe you fancy a summer beach trip to the Hamptons or Montauk.  They’re all on Long Island… along with eight million residents.

With so much to do on Long Island one wonders why it’s so hard to get there from Connecticut.

Bronx - Whitestone Bridge

Assuming you’re driving, most people take the usually-crowded (and forever-under-construction) Throggs Neck or Whitestone Bridges, always a delight.  Or if you’re a real masochist you could drive to the RFK (Tri-Borough) Bridge connecting the mainland Bronx to Queens.  Want to avoid paying tolls?  You’ve got to first go into Manhattan, then take the 59th St, Manhattan, Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridges.  You’ll save a few bucks but it will cost you a lot of time.

History buffs will remember that developer czar Robert Moses once proposed a bridge and causeway from Rye (in Westchester County) to Oyster Bay (in Nassau County).  The 1966 plan would have seen a 6.1 mile cable-stayed bridge costing $150 million ($1.4 billion in today’s inflated dollars).  Seen as an extension of I-287 it would have connected with Long Island’s Seaford – Oyster Bay Expressway.  Of course, the plan never went through.

Rye - Oyster Bay Bridge Proposal

But in 2007 the idea was revived, this time as a two-tube tunnel with three lanes in each direction.  This would have been the longest in the world.  Price tag:  up to $16 billion.  That, too, never went anywhere.

There are two ferry boats connecting Connecticut and Long Island:  the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson ferry (a 75 minute crossing first established by PT Barnum in 1883) and  the New London – Orient Point ferry (an 80 minute cruise).  Both are well patronized, especially in the summer.  The Bridgeport ferry is even building a 300 foot-long new boat due in March of next year.

The new ferry "Long Island"

Amtrak has been dreaming of a cross-Sound railroad tunnel as a high-speed rail alternative to its current tracks along the Connecticut shore, but those ideas are still in the “hopeful and maybe” but unfunded stage.

What is a reality now is a much better rail connection between Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad.  No longer do you have to schlep from Grand Central to Penn Station (a taxi ride or two subways).  Now you can arrive at GCT and just go downstairs to Grand Central Madison, the LIRR’s new station 140 feet under Vanderbilt Avenue.  You can even buy a through-ticket, say, from New Haven to Montauk:  a six hour trip costing only $25.75 off-peak, one-way.

So yes, you can get to Long Island from the nutmeg state.  It just won’t be easy or fast.

 

 

April 01, 2023

GASOLINE'S ZONE PRICING SECRETS

 

Connecticut’s free bus fares are gone and lawmakers have allowed gas taxes to rise back to 20 cents a gallon as of April 1st.  But the end of our state’s “gas tax holiday” next month isn’t the reason gasoline prices vary so much from town to town.

 

Just why does gasoline cost 60 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than in Bridgeport… 84 cents a gallon more compared to Hartford and 90 cents a gallon more than in East Hartford?   Is it because folks in Greenwich are richer and can afford it?  Or is it because it costs gasoline station owners more to operate in that Gold Coast zip code?

 


While both factors are probably true, the reason gasoline costs more in some Connecticut towns than in others is because of something called “zone pricing”, an industry practice that does all but set the price for the commodity that is charged by distributors and passed along to their customers, the local gas stations.

 

Lawmakers have debated zone pricing many times in recent years, but it has never been killed. I wonder why, given its apparent unfairness.  But who’s to explain the mysteries of what our lawmakers do, influenced as they are by lobbyists.

 

Let’s follow the gasoline distribution process to better understand price-setting.

A tanker ship arrives in New Haven and offloads its cargo (there are no gasoline pipelines to our state) onto tanker trucks.  There are thirty gasoline distributors in Connecticut and as they truck their gasoline to gas stations, they obviously incur costs.

 

Big chains of gas stations can negotiate better deals than the independently owned stations.  So to compete, “Mom and Pop” gas stations often sell snacks and sundries.  In effect, your beef jerky is subsidizing your cheaper gasoline.

 

But it’s the secret zone pricing rules, set by the distributors, that breaks the state into about 50 different zones and determines how much gas station owners must pay for gasoline. Pricing is determined by traffic volume, nearby income levels, the competitive landscape and other factors.  And gas station owners, who set their own prices, say they are making only seven cents a gallon profit.  But if the station owners must pay distributors more for gasoline, so will you.

 

Distributors don’t tell us where their zones are or what their pricing difference is from one zone to another. 

 

If none of this makes sense to you, there’s a good reason:  it doesn’t.

 

When he was Connecticut’s Attorney General, US Senator Richard Blumenthal called zone pricing “invisible and insidious”. Yet, the courts say it’s legal and the Federal Trade Commission says whatever costs are added in one zone are probably offset by discounts in another.  So it all averages out, right?  Not if you live in Greenwich.

 

So while you may be willing to drive a few minutes out of your way looking for cheaper gasoline, remember that the savings may be illusory.  If your car only averages 25 mpg, driving ten miles roundtrip will cost you more than you may think you’re saving.

 

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...