June 29, 2023



As summer arrives I’m reminded of one of Metro-North’s greatest “fails” of all time, recounted in this column I wrote days after it happened…


Friday July 22nd  2011 was the hottest day I can ever remember.  The pavement in Manhattan was 147 degrees and I could tell that my commute home was going to be awful.  Luckily, I wasn’t on the 1:34 pm train to New Haven.


Three cars on that train lacked good air conditioning, so the remaining cars were standing room only.  Just past the Westport station, an aging pantograph snared the overhead catenary (power) line, sagging in the heat, and the train lost power.  No electricity meant no AC, no radio and no PA system.


Eyewitnesses on the train told me people started panicking as the temperature rose.  They asked a conductor to open a window or door, but he refused. Finally, two passengers opened emergency evacuation windows, pried open the doors, jumped out and walked down onto the tracks.


Realizing that they faced what they felt was an emergency and with no aid or communications from the railroad, people pulled out their phones and dialed 911.  Metro-North wasn’t going to rescue them, so maybe the police could.   People were crying, fainting, throwing up.  At least three pregnant women were in distress.

Courtesy WestportNow.com

When their 911 screens “lit up”, Westport Police called Metro-North headquarters asking the location of the train. At first they were told the train was empty, which delayed an EMS response.  After almost an hour in these unbearable circumstances, the train limped into the Greens Farms station where rescue workers from Fairfield and Westport tended to the sick and handed out water.  On the platform, the digital displays mocked the crisis by reading “Good Service”.


About the same time, the 12:07 pm from GCT became disabled between Stratford and Bridgeport.  The 3:27 pm from New Haven suffered the same fate nearby, also because of the pantographs snagging the drooping power lines.


At 4:45 pm I arrived at GCT, having heard of “wires down” delays from Clever Commute.  I asked my conductor what he knew, hearing the Metro-North radio crackling on his hip. “They haven’t told us anything,” he said.


Though a commuter using Clever Commute first reported the wires problem at 3:23 pm, it wasn’t until 4:15 pm that Metro-North’s e-mail alert system finally posted a vague message of “heat related instances” and “35 - 45 minute delays” from Stamford to New Haven. “Instances”?


Rush hour was screwed.  Dozens of trains pouring out of GCT would be delayed.  And because New Haven to NYC trains had been totally suspended, needed equipment could not arrive at GCT in time to take folks home. 


It’s not Metro-North’s fault that our catenary is so fragile… snapping in the bitter cold of winter and sagging in the summer’s heat.  And it’s not Metro-North’s fault that the pantographs on our 40-year-old trains can’t be adequately maintained.

Anybody who has ridden Metro-North over the years knows that “stuff” happens.

But Metro-North is responsible for its horrendous, potentially life-threatening lack of communications.  On the trains, at the stations and via e-mail, their silence and ambiguity about this crisis were just the latest in a litany of disregard for the commuter, their customer.


That time, the hottest day in recent memory, thousands sweated and were delayed, but nobody was hurt.  Next time, we may not be so lucky.




The old rail cars are gone, replaced by more reliable M8s.  Work continues on replacing the old catenary (overhead power lines).   Communications from Metro-North are vastly improved. 

June 23, 2023



What’s the fairest way to pay for our highways?

Any regular reader of this column knows I’ve been in favor of tolls for many years.  Let’s just say that stance didn’t win me any friends… or help make tolls a reality in Connecticut.

Why do I still support tolls?  Because they’re a user fee.  The people who use the roads pay for them. Those that don’t drive, don’t pay. That seems fair.

A gasoline tax is also a user fee… unless you’re one of the 21,000 Connecticut residents driving an electric car.  Sure, they pay for their “juice” but nothing for driving on our roads.  And with electric car sales projected to soar, that leaves gasoline-powered motorists paying for the Tesla-crowd.  That’s not fair.  (Full disclosure:  I drive a Prius hybrid, so I’m half-guilty).

Of course, nobody likes a tax they have to pay.  “Tax the other guy… the trucker, the out-of-state driver… just not me,” seems to be the refrain.

All of the alternatives for funding the state’s transportation future were studied in 2015 by Governor Malloy’s blue-ribbon Transportation Finance Panel which said we’d need tolls, a gasoline and sales tax increase, parking fee increases and other revenue sources to keep the roads in good shape.

But one of the funding ideas they wanted to include was blocked by the Connecticut legislature: a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT).  The idea is simple:  the more miles you drive, the more you pay.

But so controversial was that idea that nervous legislators, even Governor Malloy’s fellow democrats, passed a bill prohibiting the CDOT from using state funds to even study a VMT.

Why?  Because the “No Tolls CT” folks saw a VMT as just another kind of toll.  And the No-Tollers threatened to unseat any lawmaker up for re-election that defied them.  Their threats worked.  Our lawmakers were cowards.

But guess what CDOT is about to undertake?  That’s right… a study of VMT!

While this may defy the intent of the legislature, they’re getting away with it because it won’t be state money used for this study but federal funds.  And it’s technically not CDOT’s study but The Eastern Transportation Coalition’s, the Vice Chairman of which just happens to be CDOT Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto.

Up to 150 Connecticut drivers are now being recruited to track their mileage in-and-out of state (using an automatic GPS tracker) though October.  They are being offered a $100 gift card incentive for participation. Those too paranoid to let Big Brother know where they’re driving can also participate minus the GPS.

The reaction to the study has been swift and negative.  I can’t even repeat much of what’s been posted in social media but, to my eye, much of it is based on misinformation, especially about the GPS tracking.

The GPS tracking is only to delineate in-state vs out-of-state driving.  Your cellphone (and Google) and your E-ZPass already track your movements so, get over it:  we have no privacy.

A VMT (or MBUF – Mileage Based User Fee) makes sense and is widely used in Europe.  It’s fair and should be part of Connecticut’s future, too.

June 16, 2023



Looking for a career in transportation with good pay, incredible job security, free room and board and a chance to “sea” the world?  Check out the US merchant marine.

Though the US is heavily dependent on overseas imports, most of the big container ships and tankers serving our ports are not American.  But under federal law, any shipping between US ports must be on vessels owned, built, flagged and staffed with US crews.

Although there are only about 200 US vessels that meet those “Jones Act” criteria, they all need crews. So how do you break in to this biz?  There are two routes:

GOING TO SCHOOL:       Locally we have two Maritime Academies:  one operated by SUNY is in the Bronx, under the Throggs Neck Bridge.  There’s also the prestigious federal Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point NY and similar 4 year schools in Maine, Massachusetts and California.  You’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree ready to serve at sea starting at the level of third mate.

HAWSEPIPING:      This is the harder way to get aboard.  You start basically as an apprentice (Ordinary Seaman) for 365 days at sea doing things like cleaning toilets and literally “learning the ropes”.  Then you take a Coast Guard exam and after another 180 days service you become an Able Bodied Seaman.

After another year you take a test for your First Mate’s license.  Then you can “touch the mahogany”, using the tiller on the bridge to steer the vessel, always under guidance of a Captain.  You then work as a Mate for 365 eight-hour days and take another test to become a Captain.  If you can’t pass that test on three tries, you have to wait another year (presumably hitting the books again).

“We’ve got to get them started when they’re young,” says Captain Jim McGuire.  “If you’re right out of high school you’ll have time to build a career.”  But he admits he does work with middle-aged seamen who left careers in computers or the law to work afloat.  There’s no mandatory retirement age, but you do have to take a physical every five years.

But how’s the pay?

Ordinary Seamen earn “a bit better than at McDonalds” says McGuire. After five years on the job, Able Bodied Seamen make about the same as office workers.  And Mates (second in command to the Captain) pay “about the same as a mid-level management job.”

And there is a whole slew of other opportunities in Engineering.

McGuire’s crews serve on the Bridgeport – Pt Jefferson ferry working three days on and three days off.  They work 12 hour shifts with mandatory rest periods and actually live onboard the ferries.  They share a bunk room, lounge and mess, taking turns to cook.

Last year all crew members got a 10% wage hike and handsome 401K bonuses as well as full medical coverage.

McGuire says the job has other perks too:  you get to work outdoors, meet lots of people (the passengers), have great job security and, if you don’t like the crew meal you can eat for free at the snack bar.

June 11, 2023



As predicted in this column, the legislature has approved Governor Lamont’s new budget which will cause cuts in train service in the state.

WHY THE CUTS?   Post-COVID train ridership has not returned as fast as CDOT or Metro-North had hoped or predicted, stabilizing now at about 71% of pre-2020 numbers.  Though it looks like passenger loads are increasing (with more anecdotal reports of SRO conditions at rush hour), the lack of riders means huge, unsustainable losses.

HOW BIG A CUT IS COMING?             On Metro-North the CT budget calls for a 14% reduction in service.  But on Shore Line East the service will be cut back to 44% of pre-COVID timetables.

WHICH TRAINS WILL BE CUT?           Despite inquiries to both Metro-North and CDOT seeking details, all I’ve got in response was “stay tuned, we’ll let you know”.  But the tea leaves indicate mid-day trains will be all but eliminated on Shore Line East and significantly cut back on Metro-North.  Rush hour trains may also be affected.

WHEN WILL ALL THIS HAPPEN?         The new budget takes effect July 1st, but these service cuts probably won’t happen until “the fall”, i.e. after Labor Day.

WHAT ABOUT A FARE INCREASE?     The MTA (parent of Metro-North and the city subways and buses) has already announced a 4% fare hike, also in the fall.  Though Connecticut DOT sets fares in our state, there’s every expectation that Metro-North riders here will also see a fare increase.

Higher fares, less service… now, there’s a winning combination.

WON’T THERE BE PUBLIC HEARINGS?        Oh yeah, they’re required by law anytime there’s a fare hike or major reduction in service.  CDOT will offer its “equity & environmental justice” analysis of the impact of both on its customers.

But these hearings will just be political theater.  They will make for great TV… angry commuters, ranting about bad service, lack of seats and higher fares.  It’s all very cathartic but doesn’t change a thing.  Whatever gets said, these decisions have been locked-in by the budget that’s just been passed.  It’s the accountants at OPM (Office of Policy & Management) that really runs our commuter rail, not CDOT.

WHAT CAN WE DO NOW TO SAVE THE TRAINS?             Nothing.  That opportunity passed weeks ago when the budget was being finalized and the Governor was distracting public attention by dangling the shiny objects of a tax cut and bringing NHL hockey to Hartford.

WHAT WILL THE EFFECT OF ALL THIS  BE?          Reduced train service will initially cause more crowding.  Then commuters will opt for “work from home” or, when necessary, driving.  That will mean even more crowded highways and worse air pollution.  Further reducing ridership will increase deficits and calls for greater service cuts, feeding into what we call the ”transit death spiral”.

Pre-COVID SRO Conditons at Rush Hour

Transit oriented development projects will be scaled back.  Why live next to a train station with fewer, more expensive trains?  And the value of  your home will also be in peril for the same reason.

Does any of this make sense from a Governor who preaches faster trains, greener environment and more housing?  Of course not.

But as wiser minds once told me:  “Don’t listen to what they say. Watch what they DO.”


June 02, 2023



Gather ‘round and listen to how your grandfather helped lead a commuter revolt against the New Haven Railroad over 65 years ago, way back in 1955.

You see Timmy, folks were commuting by train from Connecticut to their jobs in New York City even back then. 

“You mean there was no ‘work from home’, Grandpa?”

No Timmy.  Back then we worked for a living… five or six days a week!

The railroad was privately owned back then and its President, the now infamous Patrick B. McGinnis, had finally succumbed to pressure and paid $3 million to pave the parking lots at train station.  But then he turned around and started charging us $5.50 a month for parking despite promises of no fare increases!

“Not fair, Grandpa!”

Then there was a truckers’ strike and freight shipments by rail soared 40%, further delaying commuter trains.  Yes Timmy, the New Haven used to carry a lot of freight, but that was a long, long time ago.

Then came that summer of ‘55.  It was hot, really hot.  And in most commuter trains there was no air conditioning, just fans.  And we used to wear jackets and ties to work in those days and, let me tell you, we were a smelly, sweaty bunch.

Courtesy Marc Frattasio collection

That’s when we started to fight back.

Some of my fellow passengers were “Mad Men”, those advertising executives you learned about in that TV show awhile back.  And to voice their anger at the old, 1920s rail cars, the heat and the delays, they started a PR campaign.

There was even a contest offering a $50 prize for the best essay about why commuting on the New Haven was so bad. 

“How did mean old Mr. McGinnis react, Grandpa?”

With a commuter survey, Timmy.  And he got an earful… but he didn’t offer much sympathy.  He basically said that Connecticut riders were spoiled brats.

One commuter complained that crowding was so bad he had to stand in the aisle.  Turns out he insisted on riding in the front car to make a quick getaway at Grand Central.  When the railroad suggested he sit in one of the emptier cars at the rear of the train, the commuter said “move the empty cars to the front of the train!”

And yes, even like today, folks complained about the crowding with the two-and-three seating we still have now.  The solution… new rail cars.

Believe it or not, Timmy, the railroad hired industrial designer Marcel Breuer (the guy who designed that famous chair) to work with the company that was building the cars to come up with some ideas, and boy did he design some cool trains:  articulated two-car units with two-by-two seating, full air conditioning, men’s and women’s lavatories, aluminum baggage racks and built-in florescent lighting. They were beauties, at least on paper.

“Did you ride in those cars, Grandpa?”

Oh no, Timmy.  Those cars never got built.  Just another railroad promise to quell a revolt.  It works every time, Timmy. 


Special thanks to the New Haven Railroad Historical & Technical Association, and author Marc Frattasio for sharing this piece of railroad history (and his photo) in the latest issue of their excellent magazine “Shoreliner”.  Drawing of the never-built railcar courtesy Paul Cutler III.


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...