July 28, 2023

NEW VOICE FOR COMMUTERS

Commuters:  who’s looking out for your interests as you deal with our roads and rails?  Good question, eh?


Way back in 1983 when Metro-North was created, the Connecticut legislature realized that rail riders need advocate watchdogs, so they created the CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, a body on which I served for 19 years, four as Chairman.

Taking advantage of the recent heat wave, I was doing a little “spring cleaning” and came across that Council’s Annual Report from 2007.  It was really discouraging to see that many of the problems with train service that we identified 16 years ago are still with us:  fare increases, crowding at rush hour, lack of parking at stations, the crumbling Stamford station garage and the lack of Wi-Fi on trains.

We did have some victories: the ordering of new M8 cars, expanded service on the branch lines (especially Shore Line East) and much improved communications by Metro-North with commuters when there are delays.

Apparently the Malloy administration found our constant complaining too annoying and tried to stifle us by legislating the Council out of existence.  With the help of some lawmakers we stopped that muzzling effort and the Council was reborn as the CT Commuter Rail Council, ably led by Chairman Jim Gildea.

Once again, the Council’s advocacy harped on the same themes to little effect, although the Council should be credited for a 44% increase in service on the Waterbury branch. The Council has also been a strong advocate of the soon-to-open new Stamford garage.

But despite the Council’s best efforts, lawmakers have plowed ahead with further cuts in Shore Line East and soon-to-be-announced reductions in trains even on the main line. All of the Council’s crankiness again got under the skin of the Lamont administration and the Democrats made another effort to suppress the Council’s powers, this time under the guise of expanding its mandate.

Thus has been born the new CT Public Transportation Council, now representing both rail and bus riders… a near impossible task given the state’s geography and, as in the past, a lack of any funding to do their work.


So yes, the 15 volunteer commuters who serve on the new Council do so by digging into their own pockets to pay for a website, Zoom account and their own transportation costs to and from meetings.

Will this new Council be anymore effective than the old ones?  Doubtful. 

Advocacy Councils such as these are a great way for pols to gather all the complainers in one place, give them the illusion of power and influence and get them to prepare reports and studies which never get read or acted upon.

Just watch in September when the CDOT holds mandated Service & Fare Equity public hearings on planned fare hikes and service cuts.  The CT Public Transportation Council will be there, front and center, rallying justifiably angry commuters.  Good for them.

But it’s all just political theater:  cathartic but ineffective. In over 25 years of attending such hearings I have never seen “public comment” change a planned change, especially one baked into the budget. 

 

July 18, 2023

SUMMER RAIL ADVENTURES IN CT

 

If you’re looking for family fun this summer, consider visiting one of Connecticut’s many living museums celebrating our state’s rail heritage.

 

The Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (www.shorelinetrolley.com) was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than one hundred trolley cars in its collection.  It’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the oldest continuously operating trolley line in the US, still running excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford.  You can also walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars.  There’s also a small museum exhibit and gift shop.

   Seashore Trolley Museum


 

The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ct-trolley.org ) began in 1940, making it the oldest trolley museum in the US.  It too was started on an existing right-of-way, the Rockville branch of the Hartford & Springfield Street Railway Company.  You can ride a couple of different trolleys a few miles into the woods and back, perhaps disembarking to tour their collection of streetcars, elevated and inter-urbans in the museum’s sheds and barns.

 

If you’re looking for a day-trip, especially for kids, I can highly recommend either trolley museum.  But if you’re looking for real trains, you’re also in luck.

 

The Danbury Railroad Museum (www.danburyrailwaymuseum.org) is walking distance from the Metro-North station in “the Hat City”, making this potentially a full-day, all-rail adventure.  They are open on weekends they offer train rides and, for a premium, you can even ride in the caboose or the engine.  They have a great collection of old rail cars and a well-stocked gift shop.

 

For nostalgia fans, The Essex Steam Train (www.essexsteamtrain.com) offers not only daily rides on a classic steam train, but connecting riverboat rides up to the vicinity of Gillette Castle and back.  In addition to coach seating you can ride on an open-air car or in a plush First Class Coach.  There’s also a great dinner-train, “The Essex Clipper” which offers a 2½ hour, four-course meal and a cash bar.

Essex Steam Train


In downtown South Norwalk you can visit what once was a busy railroad switch tower, now the SoNo Switch Tower Museum www.westctnrhs.org/towerinfo.htm) Admission is free (donations welcome) weekends noon to 4 pm.

 

Also open only on weekends is the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic (www.cteastrrmuseum.org).  In addition to guided tours, visitors can operate a replica 1850's-style pump car along a section of rail that once was part of the New Haven Railroad's "Air Line".

 

The Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston (www.rmne.org) offers rail trips on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays along the scenic Naugatuck River. Their large collection of restored engines and passenger cars includes a last-of-its-kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker”, complete with leather bucket seats.

Railroad Museum of New England


 

All of these museums are run by volunteers who will appreciate your patronage and support.  They love working to preserve our state’s great railroad heritage and will tell you why if you express even the slightest interest in their passion.  Bring your kids and let them see railroading history come alive.

 

July 13, 2023

HYPERLOOP UPDATE

Whatever happened to Elon Musk’s hyperloop? 

It’s hard to believe but this summer marks ten years since the billionaire inventor first unveiled the idea for passenger pods riding like maglev trains inside giant tubes in a near vacuum.  So it’s time to see how his vision of this super-fast transportation system is coming along.  Spoiler alert:  it’s not doing so great.

First off, Musk was not the first person to suggest tube-like trains running in a vacuum.  As early as 1799 British inventor George Medhurst came up with the idea, launching his Grand Vacuum Tube Company.  Interesting concept but it was never built.

1800's Illustration of a Hyperloop

Fast forward to August 2013 when Musk unveils his concept, claiming that for just $6B he could build a hyperloop between LA and San Francisco that could cover the distance in about 32 minutes at about 750 mph.

Musk built a scale model, mile-long test track at his SpaceX plant in Hawthorne CA (since removed) and, to his credit, in effect gave away his idea (well, George Medhurst’s idea) to encourage development.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Company launched Hyperloop One and even built a test track in Nevada where he ran a scale model prototype at 240 mph and conducted the first human test run at 100 mph.  But by 2022 the company pivoted, announcing it was dropping development of passenger service and focusing instead on just moving freight.  In two rounds of layoffs more than half the staff was let go.

Overseas another company, Hyperloop TT, is raking in millions in contracts to build a system linking Padua and Venice.  They’ve also secured deals in Dubai, India and Slovakia but so far there’s been minimal construction.  A plan to launch passenger service in Dubai by 2019 was, it seems, just more hyperloop hype.

The one system that Musk’s own Boring Company (get it… they bore tunnels?) has built was a $52M demonstration project in, of all places, Las Vegas.  In 2021 a less than two mile tunnel connecting both sides of that massive Convention Center was opened, not with 700+ mph pods but with a fleet of Tesla cars driving in a tunnel at 40 mph.  And yes, there are sometimes traffic jams in the tunnel… the very thing that Musk conceived his “loop” would avoid.

Vegas "Loop" Tesla-jam

What are the problems with the hyperloop concept?  Many things.

First, maintaining a near vacuum inside hundreds of miles of tubes is a major challenge if not impossible. 

Second, given the proposed speeds there’s a question of passenger comfort in the pods, accelerating at supersonic speeds that would subject riders to 2.4 Gs.

Third, what if there’s a problem mid-journey?  How can you evacuate passengers from a tube in a near vacuum?

Proponents say that flying is somewhat similar… sitting in a sealed tube going 300+ mph, albeit in mid-air.  We take that journey for granted now, so maybe future generations will think the same of hyperloop?

Time, and a lot of expensive innovation and engineering will answer that question.

 

 

July 07, 2023

TRANSPORTATION UPDATES

Even though it’s summer, there’s plenty of news to share on the transportation front:

PASSENGER PLEDGE:    Following on last week’s column about the “Great Summer Meltdown” on Metro-North on the hottest day of July 2011, one of the good things that resulted was the CT Rail Commuter Council’s endorsement of what we then called “The Passenger Bill of Rights”. 

Our requests of the railroad seemed reasonable:  heat in the winter and AC in the summer, updated info when there are delays, back-up transportation when trains get canceled and in all conditions, courteous employees.    We even were cheeky enough to say passengers deserved a seat, an idea rejected by the railroad.

We asked Metro-North to codify these “rights” but they only partially agreed.  But good luck finding any mention of the railroad’s “Passenger Pledge” 12 years later.  A search of their website turns up nothing though they say it’s still in effect.

CONGESTION PRICING:            The Feds have given NYC the final clearance to move forward with their congestion pricing plan to limit vehicular traffic in midtown Manhattan. 


Final details are yet to be announced, but the plan would call for tolls of up to $23 for all vehicles driving south of 60th St with the billions  raised helping fund mass transit.  The plan may go into effect as early as next Spring.

MORE ACELA DELAYS:   The next generation of Amtrak’s Acela trainsets, dubbed “Avelia” were supposed to enter service on the Northeast Corridor last year.  While the new, longer trainsets tested just fine at better than 150 mph on the Feds’ test track in Colorado, but they’re not faring as well in real-world tests on our old tracks and overhead catenary wires between Washington & Boston.  At highest speeds the pantographs lose contact with the wire, so further testing will be needed.


Meantime the original Acelas, now more than 20 years old, are not holding up.  Four of the 20 trainsets have been pulled from service, cutting two roundtrips between NYC and DC.

NEW CANAAN BRANCH WORK:         Work continues on rebuilding the New Canaan branch running north from Stamford, now closed until September.  So far commuters haven’t been too inconvenienced as New Canaan officials say most are just driving the few miles south and grabbing trains out of Darien where there seems to be adequate parking in the station lots.  Metro-North is still running bus shuttles connecting all branch line stations, but ridership is low.

VEHICLE MILES TAX TRIAL:     The VMT trial I wrote about a couple of weeks ago is now up and running here in CT, fully subscribed with over 200 volunteers testing the idea.  Full disclosure:  I’m one of those who signed up and so far the test has run seamlessly while providing me with great metrics on how many miles I’ve driven, how much CT gasoline tax I’ve paid and what the pricing might have been under a Vehicle Miles Tax.  Turns out my hybrid Toyota Prius would pay less under a VMT plan than pay a gas tax. The trial runs through October.

 

 

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