September 29, 2023

BRIGHTLINE VS METRO-NORTH

The railroad world is abuzz with the opening of the new Brightline high speed rail service to Orlando, an extension of that private railroad’s existing train service down Florida’s east coast to Miami.  This is really big news.

The $5 billion expansion to Orlando was privately financed but with generous tax exempt bonds the railroad will have to pay back.  Still, this is the first for-profit passenger railroad in the US in forty years.


How does Brightline compare with Metro-North?  Let’s look at the basics:

DISTANCE:     Brightline runs 235 miles from Miami to Orlando compared with Metro-North’s 67 mile run from GCT to New Haven, so they’re quite different.  To be fair let’s just compare Metro-North to Brightline’s initial I-95 corridor service from Miami to West Palm Beach (70 miles).

FREQUENCY:    Brightline trains run once or twice an hour from 7 am to 12 midnight.  Metro-North operates at least hourly from 5 am to about 1 am.

SPEED:    Though Brightline trains do run 125+ mph in some stretches enroute to Orlando, between West Palm and Miami the speed averages about 56 mph due to station stops and track conditions.  Metro-North’s fastest run from New Haven to GCT averages 45 mph on its few super-expresses but more like 35 mph on the regular trains making local stops.

EQUIPMENT:    Ah, that amazing “new train smell”!   Brightline’s seven-coach trains were built (in the US) by Siemens.  They offer 2 by 2 seating for about 60 passengers per car.  The leather seats recline, have power plugs and free Wi-Fi via Starlink satellite (at a smoking-fast 70 Mb/sec).  All Brightline trains are powered by diesel engines.   Metro-North’s M8 all-electric cars were built by Kawaski (also in the US) and started in service in 2011.  They offer 2 x 3 seating for about 100 passengers per car with power plugs in each row but no Wi-Fi… yet.

AMENITIES:   Brightline offers comfy lounges and waiting rooms with snacks and beverages at stations for passengers.  Metro-North offers no station amenities aside from a bench on the platform and, if you’re lucky, a waiting room.

FARES:     Brightline fares between West Palm and Miami start at $41 roundtrip ($84 in first class).  The new railroad also offers big discounts for families and groups.  Commuters can buy discounted 12 and 40 trip tickets.  On Metro-North their New Haven to GCT start at $47 roundtrip with similar discounts for seniors and multi-ride commuters.  But there is no first class on Metro-North.

West Palm Beach Station


FIRST MILE / LAST MILE:    You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so Brightline makes that easy, offering free shuttles to and from their stations as well as car parking.  Metro-North offers parking at CT stations (which are owned by CDOT) and administered by the towns and cities. Some towns have a 5 year waiting list for permits.

SAFETY:    Brightline is the deadliest railroad in the US as it regularly sees collisions at its 315 grade-crossings between Miami and Orlando.  Since its start in 2019, 98 people have died, most of them suicides.  Metro-North also sees a large number of suicides but because there are no grade crossings on the mainline, it’s nearly impossible for its trains crash into cars or trucks.

So yes, Brightline is a big deal in the transportation world.  But it’s not true HSR (high speed rail) in the global sense of the phrase.

 

 

September 22, 2023

FEWER TRAINS & BUSES, HIGHER FARES

How’s this for a double-whammy?  CDOT is proposing a cut in train and bus service while also raising fares… just as I predicted months ago.

Blame both plans on COVID and what it did to ridership… still down about 30% on Metro-North compared with 2019… but climbing, day by day.  On Shore Line East, CDOT’s railroad from New Haven to New London, the ridership is down 68% from pre-COVID numbers.  Low ridership like that, says CDOT, is unsustainable.

That’s why the agency is proposing to cut two Metro-North trains per day, Monday through Thursday, but eliminate eight trains a day on Fridays when ridership is now the lightest.  On Shore Line East instead of 23 trains a day there will only be 16.


This is how to kill a railroad.  Reduce service, make the train a less reliable option further discouraging ridership, then use the accelerating decline in passengers as an excuse for more service cuts… rinse and repeat.

The problem is CDOT has not announced which trains are being cut, just how many.  Riders’ reactions will depend on whether or not ‘their’ train is affected.

What will this mean to peoples’ lives?  Just look at the effect of service reductions imposed by Amtrak on September 5th on Shore Line East due to track work.  Where 22 trains used to run each day, now there are just 14.

For reasons never explained by CDOT, this track work is being done in the daytime, not at night when the impact on trains would be minimal.  Nor was there any substitute bus service planned as was run in years past.

For student Cassie Bianchi this service cut meant she had to drop out of college.

This Westbrook student used to take a bus, a train and another bus to attend classes at Southern CT State University in New Haven.  But her UPass student ticket is not honored on Amtrak.  And with the reduced service she’d have to leave home at 6 am to catch a 7:03 am train to make it to her 10 am class.  The return trip would get her home at 8:30 pm.  Talk about unsustainable.

For bus riders there will also be cuts on routes running across the state,

And yes, fare increases are also proposed:  almost 6% on Metro-North and 5% on Shore Line East.  Mind you, there hasn’t been a fare hike since 2018 so these hikes don’t even cover inflation.


What can be done to stop all this?  Not much, given that these changes were baked into CDOT’s budget this spring.  In other words, you can thank your state lawmakers (and Governor Lamont) for this double whammy.  They approved the reduced spending, but with CDOT’s support, I might add.

Sure, there will be public hearings in October, two held ‘virtually’ and two in person.  But why are those hearings being held in New Haven and Hartford and not in Stamford or Bridgeport or Old Saybrook where those affected by these plans actually live and ride?

One might think that CDOT’s leaders are trying to avoid their customers’ rage.  And one wouldn’t be wrong.  These hearings are what I call “political theater”:  cathartic but an illusion.  You think your opinions matter and might change minds, but let’s face it:  this is a done deal.


September 15, 2023

WALKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Diana Jackson walked 2192 miles. 

 

The Darien native is one of over 3300 people each year who try to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (the AT), from Georgia to Maine.  But she’s one of the 25% of them that actually complete the task.

 

She learned to hike with her parents in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and at age seven announced her goal of making the entire trek.  Her parents humored her, but on graduation from Wellesley College she got serious and spent six months in preparation. “I thought of this as my gap year”, she said.


 

“I have a tendency of psyching myself out,” she says, so she didn’t read too many books about the dangers of the adventure.  But she did drop a lot of money on a tent, sleeping bag and the first of four pairs of hiking boots… each replaced as they wore out.

 

Starting in late March south of Springer Mountain in Georgia, on her first night it rained and she got soaked.  Crude shelters are maintained by volunteers along the trail, but they are first come, first served and the early Spring nights were as cold in Georgia as the later nights when she finished in Maine.

 

If Diana was lucky, she’d find a hostel just off the trail where for $25 a night she could get a bunk.  But most nights her dehydrated dinners heated over her camp stove were her cuisine of choice. Her trail name was “Little Debbie” in homage to her favorite snack. But over six months she lost 40 pounds.

 

Though her backpack weighed 45 pounds, she was able to average about 20 miles of walking each day.

 

In most places the AT is described as “the green tunnel” but in others there are serious mountains to climb and rivers to cross (some without bridges).  She relied on an app called FarOut, using GPS to keep on the trail and lead her to drinkable water, shelters and hostels.  At least once a day she could find a cell signal to let her family know where she was and how she was doing.

 

Twice she suffered injuries, falling face first and hurting her knee.  She was all alone and without her usual first aid kit so she just kept going, “pushing through the pain” until she could find help.

 


After seven months she could see her goal in sight, 5269 foot Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, the official end of the AT.  But it took her a couple of days to reach the summit, alternately crying, laughing and filled with joy.  Her parents joined her for the final climb, though she put them on a slightly easier trail.

 

After the victory came the inevitable letdown but also some important life lessons.  “I had always doubted myself,” she says.  “But now I know I can do anything.”

 

She’s no longer jealous of classmates with high paying jobs.  “I can join the corporate world anytime, but now, when I’m young, is the time to live this dream. The trail is the happiest place for me.” As well as the beauties of nature, she misses the camaraderie of her fellow hikers.

September 08, 2023

PUTTING THE PUZZLE PIECES TOGETHER

There’s way too much news.  I’m a like thirsty man trying to drink from a firehose. 

Every day I read three daily CT newspapers, several CT news sites, the NYTimes, WSJ and then catch the evening news on BBC, France24, Deutsche Welle and PBS.  (I don’t even bother with the commercial networks or the ‘terror-tainment’ on the cable channels).

But while drowning in content, I sometimes find disparate news items that present a pattern, often disturbing.  For example…

Why are we still looking at huge service cuts on Shore Line East when the State’s Comptroller just reported a $200+ million surplus in the Special Transportation Fund.   And when will CDOT announce dates and times for their long anticipated public hearings on the Fairness & Equity of budget-cut-induced fare hikes and service reductions on Metro-North?  And will those hearings be at times / places when affected commuters can actually attend and be heard?

Another case in point, our state’s electric future.

It seems that some in Hartford want to ban the sale in our state of all but electric cars by 2035.  This would be to help our state fight the impending doom of global warming (as if there’s still time).  You’d still be able to keep your gas guzzler (which would probably increase in value), just not replace it with anything that doesn’t run only on batteries.

I don’t want to debate the merits of the plan beyond asking a question I first asked last November:  will Connecticut have enough electricity and transmission capacity to handle that growing demand for power? 

Eversource, one of the major electricity providers in Massachusetts, expects a 20% increase in demand there in the next decade and a 150% increase by 2050 thanks to a surge in transportation and home heating.  They plan to build new substations and expand others, expanding their grid by 180%, enough to handle 2.5 million more EVs and a million heat pumps in the Bay State. 


I asked Eversource for the specifics of their expansion plans in Connecticut but they could not provide details in time to include here.  However, Eversource says it’s committed to “building out” its transmission network.

But remember, Eversource just delivers the juice.  They don’t generate it.  That’s where the utility companies come in.  So… where will the new electricity come from?

While only 6% of current electricity comes from “renewables”, just 13% of that small amount is from wind power.  But that will change.

A massive wind farm is being assembled off Martha’s Vineyard that will, next year, start supplying over 700 MW of electricity to 350,00 Connecticut and Massachusetts homes using New London’s State Pier as a construction staging area.

But wind power isn’t free of its own problems.

Last week all nine members of RI’s Fisherman’s Advisory Board resigned en masse protesting the wind farms which they say will decimate commercial and recreational fishing.

So much news, so little time, even for a self-avowed news junkie like me to try to put the puzzle pieces together.

 

 

September 01, 2023

DON'T BUY AMERICAN

I’ll never be President of the United States.  Not that I would want to be… I just can’t be.  You see, I wasn’t born in this country.  I’m an immigrant.  And though I’m very proud of my Canadian roots, I’ve been a US citizen for over 45 years:  an American by choice, not chance.

While this country has always impressed me as a meritocracy, on this Labor Day weekend something strikes me as odd:   why do mass transit agencies in the US do all they can to bypass the Buy America laws governing spending of Federal funds on things like new trains.  Not very patriotic, eh?

Why would they pass up millions in Federal money to procure American steel and components needed to build new rail cars?  Why is CDOT’s new $315 million contract with Alstom (a French company) to bring us 30 new rail cars seeing them built in Mexico instead of their US plant in Hormel NY?

One reason is, since the closing of the Budd Company’s railcar plant in Red Lion PA in 1987, the US hasn’t had a large-scale domestic railcar manufacturing facility.  I toured that Budd plant in 1980 as they were finishing their last orders… Amfleet coaches (still in use), Metro-North’s original M2 cars and subway cars for Chicago.  But as demand for new railcars dried up, so did the mighty Budd Company.

Now that many cities are in the market for new subways, trolleys and commuter trains, there are only overseas firms to turn to, such as Alstom and Siemens.  Not that they build bad cars, just that they’re not American.

As with the solar energy market there’s interest in Washington at re-establishing a domestic railcar industry to keep our spending on-shore, so far with mixed results.

Look no farther than the MBTA in Boston for an example of how this can go terribly wrong.  When “the T” wanted to order 284 new subway cars they saw the chance to kick-start domestic train manufacturing, albeit with a foreign partner, China’s state-owned CRRC, the world’s largest manufacturer of rolling stock.

MBTA Red Line car

CRRC acquired the old Westinghouse Electric factory in Springfield MA, hired 150 workers and started building in 2015.  The initial subway cars were to start delivery in 2018.

Now, five years later, only 100 of the cars in the $870 million order have been delivered and those cars are not working properly.  Some are missing parts, others breaking down in service. Doors fly open as the train in running.  Pretty serious stuff.

Mock-up of Orange Line Subway

The MBTA says CRRC has “completely abandoned” its responsibilities because they seriously underbid the contract and realize they’re losing money.  And when the MBTA order is finished, the plant has no new orders.

The Springfield plant was described by the Boston Globe as “chaotic and dysfunctional”, moving cars down the assembly line lacking important components, just trying to keep up deliveries.  CRRC blames the pandemic and supply chain problems.  Others say it’s a clash of cultures.

The bottom line:  Buy America isn’t cause for much celebration this Labor Day ’23.

 

DROWSY DRIVING

In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...