November 24, 2023

TRAINS, PLANES & AUTOMOBILES

Over Thanksgiving I’ve been musing on some recent developments.

TRAINS:

Are you heading into NYC to go shopping?  Veteran riders will remember when Metro-North would offer “Shopper Specials” trains to handle the crowds, but no more.  The trains may be seeing more passengers but the railroad tells me only that they are “monitoring ridership carefully and (are) prepared to quickly add trains to any of (the) lines if demand calls for it.”  Tell that to the standees on many rush-hour trains.


PLANES:

If you’re one of the 3 million Americans who flew on Sunday, congratulations.  That’s a new one-day record, according to the TSA.  But that’s nothing compared to the 5.7 million New Yorkers who take the subway, bus or commuter rail each day in NYC.  Just saying.

AUTOMOBILES:

What’s really been bothering me this week is the unchecked pedestrian carnage in our city streets caused by rogue drivers. 

In Stamford last week a 74-year-old woman was killed in a hit and run as she crossed the street at 6:15 am, apparently not in a crosswalk.  This follows the slaughter of two restaurant workers last December as they crossed the street in Stamford, in a crosswalk, and were struck by a 24-year-old from Greenwich who didn’t even hit his brakes as he fled the scene.

And last March a 63-year-old Greenwich woman, walking her dog away from the roadway, was killed by a motorist in the Glenville neighborhood.  Pedestrian deaths in other Connecticut cities are just as frequent.

Where are the local police departments?  Why don’t they enforce the law, ticketing jay-walkers and speeding drivers?  Why is walking a game of “Survivor” for people on foot?

As for the state’s plan to require everybody to “go electric” in their car buying by 2035, it seems there is far from universal support for the idea.

This summer DEEP (the Department of Environmental Protection) asked for comments on the plan to ban the sale of petroleum-powered cars and got more than 4000 responses.  While the agency says the public “overwhelmingly supported adoption” of the plan, a further review shows otherwise.

Analysis by The Yankee Institute showed that 900 of those comments came from the same email address in a Bridgeport-style attempt to stuff the ballot box.  Of the remaining responses, hopefully more genuine, 74% opposed the plan and only 25% voiced support.

That regulation can move forward by the vote of just 14 lawmakers later this month, members of the Legislative Regulatory Review Committee.  But if they vote no then the entire General Assembly would have to approve it next year, an election year… if they dare.

I’m guessing nobody is opposed to the cleaner air that would result from such a scheme.  But the price of electric cars and the lack of sufficient charging stations would give many pause when considering its impact on their lives.

And nobody, in this land of steady habits, likes being told what they can and cannot do when it comes to their cars.

 

 

November 17, 2023

MICROTRANSIT

 

Tired of fighting all the traffic and struggling to find parking?  Need to get to the train station, a doctor’s appointment or just want to go out partying on the weekend?  There’s a new solution coming your way:  Microtransit.

The folks at Uber told me awhile back that one-third of all their rides in Connecticut are to or from a train station, what transportation experts call the first / last mile.  But now the state is funding a new, town-based solution:  shared vans for as little as $2 per ride per passenger.

This week the CDOT announced nine pilot projects to bring Microtransit to communities from Stamford to Mystic, from Hartford to New Haven.  To see how this would work, look no further than Norwalk’s WHEELS2U which has been running since 2018.


To grab a ride there all you need is to download their app, plug in your destination and hit “go”.  A van will pick you up in 10-12 minutes for a shared ride, like an Uber Pool.  And you’re not allowed to tip the driver.

Norwalk’s WHEELS2U’s three vans only runs Thursday through Sunday from the afternoon to as late as 11 pm, but they hope to expand those days and hours.

Pre-COVID they’d carry as many as 125 passengers per day but these days it’s more like 30, a number they hope will grow as they’ve just expanded their service area north to the Merritt 7 office district.

Their riders not only go from the train to work but also head for the bars and restaurants, not having to worry about limited parking or less-limited imbibing.

WHEELS2U also operates a commuter service in Westport offering 150 riders a day a lift from their homes to the train stations.  The Westport service, run by Norwalk Transit, hopes to expand to other destinations in town, not just the train stations.

The low fares are not expected to cover operating costs, with the state subsidizing 82% of the cost in Norwalk and 67% in Westport.


“We receive a lot of feedback on our Microtransit services,” says WHEELS2U CEO Matt Pentz.  “People in Westport love it, people in Wilton want it, and our team in Norwalk is very excited about the innovative opportunities that CTDOT is providing though the pilot project”.

In Bridgeport the bus company, GBTA, has also been included in the new grant money. They plan to expand service north to Trumbull with their own app, RIDECO, with rides provided by the local taxi company.

“We don’t have to send a 40 foot bus,” says GBTA CEO Doug Holcomb.  “and as we gather data from the app we can track demand for possible expansion”.

GBTA is anticipating demand from office and factory workers.  Eventually the service may expand to Stratford and Fairfield.

Fixed-route bus service makes sense in densely populated cities but it’s hoped that Microtransit will bring on-demand, semi-mass transit to the smaller, more spread-out communities.

So next time you’re heading out, save on gas and driving / parking woes by thinking small… Microtransit.

November 11, 2023

WHERE'S OUR WI-FI?

Why is Metro-North the only major commuter railroad in the US that doesn’t offer its riders Wi-Fi?   That’s a question I’ve been asking for many years and I still can’t get a straight answer. 

Four years ago the Connecticut legislature gave CDOT $23 million to get Wi-Fi onboard, but it is still not there.  Governor Lamont promised us 5G Wi-Fi, but there’s still zilch.  Why?


A little history of this technology quest might help us to understand.

Ten years ago New Jersey Transit successfully demonstrated Wi-Fi on its new double-decker cars under the leadership of Jim Redeker, then that railroad’s Assistant Executive Director for Technology.  When Redeker came to CDOT he wanted the same tech for Connecticut commuters and told then-Metro-North President Joe Guilietti as much.

Guilietti was reluctant, given the railroad’s bad experience of trying to bring tech to its riders when they introduced pay-cellphones on the trains.  Months after they were installed the tech had advanced so much that everyone had a cellphone in their pocket and those pay-phones sat idle.  Burned by trying to be an “early adopter”, Guilietti hired the consultants at McKinsey to prove why you can’t put Wi-Fi on trains.  Being a good consultant, McKinsey took the pricey contract and told their client, Metro-North, what they wanted to hear.

Never mind that Amtrak has offered free Wi-Fi since 2011, admittedly with some problems, since resolved (too many people and not enough bandwidth).  European railroads have been offering connectivity since 2008, so the tech does exist and it works.

Fast forward to the Lamont administration and guess who’s the new Commissioner of the DOT… that’s right, Joe Guilietti from Metro-North.  Once again, no progress on Wi-Fi… until 2019 when then-State Senator Will Haskell (D – Westport) introduced a bill requiring the railroad to get wired and allocating $23 million to make it happen.

The bill passed and became law and CDOT was given the money.  But we still don’t have Wi-Fi.

Struggling to recover from COVID and still trying to persuade commuters to get back onboard, you’d think that CDOT and Metro-North would embrace Wi-Fi as an enhancement to taking the train.  Imagine how much more productive you’d be on your way to your job.

Even the CDOT’s own “Customer Experience Action Plan” mentions “enhanced wireless connectivity” as item #26 on its long list of initiatives.  Its status?  “In progress”.

The problem is that Wi-Fi on the trains is only as good as the cell signals along the tracks.  Train Wi-Fi doesn’t work with satellites, as airplanes do, but with good old cell signals.

So CDOT seems to be blaming AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile for dragging their feet on installing new cell towers to cover the “dead spots”.  But Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, running on the same tracks, seems to operate just fine.  So what’s the problem?

While CDOT says it remains committed to Wi-Fi and is “evaluating various options” to make it happen, Connecticut commuters are the real losers.  Wi-Fi is everywhere, even in the NYC subways, but not on Metro-North.

Our commuters deserve better.

 

THE MARVELS OF ENGINEERING

As a young man I wanted to become a civil engineer and design the railroads of the future.  So I went to one of the nation’s best engineering schools, Lehigh University, only to find out in my freshman year that I’d need calculus, physics and chemistry.  So I ran quickly to the Arts College and studied sociology. 

Still, my admiration of the work of engineers in designing and running our transportation network has never diminished.  Here are a few recent examples:

CDOT & ABC:

As we rebuild our crumbling interstate highways, the CDOT deserves credit for learning its ABCs… “accelerated bridge construction”.  Over two recent weekends they demolished and replaced two three-lane bridges at exit 17 in Westport with, considering the enormity of the tasks, minimal impact on traffic.


They even finished their work early:  under-promising and over-delivering.

The speed of the work on the $104 million project was enhanced by building the replacement bridges in advance so they could literally slide into place after the old bridge was torn down.  Just imagine the planning, the measuring and tight tolerances.  Yet, the first weekend project (for the northbound bridge) was finished 14 hours earlier than planned.

A similar bridge replacement in Stamford on I-95 in 2019 went just as well, with more such projects to come as Federal dollars rebuild our infrastructure.

METRO-NORTH VS MOTHER NATURE:

The same weekend CDOT was doing its bridge work in Westport, Mother Nature was closing down rail operations on the Hudson line near Scarborough in Westchester County.  A giant landslide poured down the hill, depositing 600 cubic yards of soil and rock on top of the railroad tracks, affecting over a hundred Metro-North trains and dozens of Amtrak trains.

The landslide happened on a Saturday morning, but thanks to the MTA’s engineers and construction crews, 43 hours later the tracks were reopened in time for the Monday morning commute.

An impressive effort, and not the railroad’s first in battling Mother Nature… nor its last.  But again, engineering prowess came to the rescue.

DRONES AT SEA:

The Danish energy company Orsted was embroiled in a labor dispute at the State Pier in New London last week.  The International Longshoremen Assoc (ILA) claims jurisdiction over loading and unloading the vessels there which are carrying the giant components for planned offshore wind farms.

However, thousands of miles away in the North Sea, Orsted is testing use of giant drones to deliver supplies to their offshore sites.  The four-engine drones have an eight and a half foot wingspan and can carry up to 150 pounds of cargo dangling below the craft.  Once carried out to sea over the construction site’s helipad, the drone releases its cargo and heads home.

More amazing engineering, this time with huge implications on jobs.  Drones require an operator but not a ship and expensive crew to complete their work.  If these trials work, that could mean massive cost savings for Orsted and fewer union jobs for seamen.

So, the next time you’re driving or taking a train, think of the engineering that went into that design.  There’s a lot of smart people working very hard behind the scenes to make your trip possible.

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...