May 31, 2024

CTFASTRAK: #1 IN THE US

Did you know that Connecticut is home to the “best BRT” system in the US?  Do you even know what BRT is?

Well, BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit, and Connecticut’s almost ten year-old CTfastrak has just been named the best such system in the US by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

CTfastrak is the express bus system between New Britain and downtown Hartford, operating on a dedicated “guideway” of 9.4 miles which runs along an abandoned railroad right-of-way adjacent to the New Haven to Springfield Hartford rail Line.  It’s a special buses-only highway with ten stations.


Fifteen years in the planning, CTfastrak was designed to provide an alternative to driving on the usually-congested I-84.  The first ever BRT system in the state, CTfastrak cost $567 million with 80% of the funding coming from the federal government.

Eight bus routes run along the guideway with headways of as little as seven minutes between buses.  When west-bound buses reach the end of CTfastrak in New Britain they either turn around or continue on along city streets to destinations as distant as Bristol, Central CT State University and Waterbury.

Fares range from $1.75 for a two-hour pass to heavily discounted fares for kids, seniors and monthly pass holders.  To expedite boarding, you must buy your ticket before hopping on the bus (perhaps using their Token Transit app) in case random ticket inspectors ride along.  Get caught without a ticket and the fine is $75.

Special 60-foot, articulated buses were ordered for CTfastrak, each capable of seating 60 customers.  Many of the buses are diesel-electric hybrids, using regenerative charging while braking.  Speed limits on the guideway vary but top out at 45 mph.  And yes, the buses include free WiFi (Metro-North take note!).


According to CDOT, ridership on CTfastrak last year topped out at 2.8 million passengers.

Because the buses operate on their own highway, there are plans underway to test autonomous driving.  But CT state law still requires a human behind the wheel acting as a Safety Operator.

Of the riders on CTfastrak, 50% earn less than $75,000 a year.  Fewer than half of them own a car so these buses are the best (or maybe even the only) way for them to get to and from work, doctors’ appointments and to see family and friends.  Signage and announcements on the bus are bilingual.

Around the bus stations on CTfastrak there has been “substantial development” according to Benjamin Limmer, CDOT’s Chief of Public Transportation.  Transit oriented development (T.O.D.) was always part of the plan, encouraging housing and offices within walking distance of the stations.

There has been discussion about expanding the BRT network to the east, possibly as far as the UConn campus in Storrs, but buses would have to take the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes on I-84 and I-384 and then switch to the local roads.

BRT will also be coming to New Haven in 2029, improving service for 40% of existing riders and, hopefully, attracting more.   CDOT is currently designing the new line, to be called MOVE New Haven, under a $25 million federal grant.

 

May 23, 2024

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 trucks.  I was so tired and did everything I knew to stay awake… open the windows, crank up the radio and keep on rolling.  Pretty dangerous, but what did I know?

Now, being older and wiser, I realize that as many as 100,000 auto accidents each year are tied to drowsy driving,  Those crashes are tied to 1500+ deaths and 71,000 injuries.  Nodding off behind the wheel is a serious issue.

Our circadian rhythms mean we have times when we’re ready for the demands of driving and others times when we’re not.  Nighttime, logically, is when our bodies most want us to sleep.

Is it by chance that many of the recent wrong-way crashes on our parkways and interstates have occurred in the wee hours of the morning?

But if you’re a “morning person” you should also know that we have an afternoon lull between one and five PM when our body wants to nap, our temperature dips and we’re again at risk of causing an accident.

Coffee will help, right?  Well, caffeine can keep you alert but it takes about a half-hour to kick in and the effect only lasts two or three hours.  Even quaffing a Red Bull (80 mg of caffeine in a can) can’t prevent you nodding off for “micro sleeps” of a few seconds.  At 65 mph, that’s long enough to travel 100 yards.

The AAA’s research shows that almost half of those drivers involved in crashes said they didn’t feel drowsy, even though they were.

So, be honest:  have you ever fallen asleep behind the wheel, even for a few seconds?  The AAA’s research shows that 41% of respondents admitted to nodding off sometime in their driving career and a quarter of them said it happened to them in the last month.

Alcohol, prescription (and illicit) drugs only make things worse.  So too do changing shift work and disorders like sleep apnea (both tied to the deadly  Metro-North derailment at Spuyten Duyvil in 2013).

Driving, especially at high speed, requires our full attention, so here are some tips for your next road trip:


·       Don’t drive if you’re feeling sleepy.

·       Travel with a passenger.  They can alert you if you’re showing signs of nodding off (drifting, tailgating, missing your exit) and can take turns behind the wheel.

·       Schedule a rest break every 100 miles.  Driving a max of 500 miles a day is asking a lot from your body and brain.

·       Try taking a 20 minute “power nap” in a safe location.

Take care of yourself, and here’s hoping your next road trip is a safe one.

 

 

May 17, 2024

NEW CARS FOR AMTRAK

Don’t you just love that “new car smell”?  Well, that’s coming… slowly… to Amtrak, as the nation’s passenger railroad replaces its old fleet of cars.

GOODBYE AMFLEET:      Amtrak’s remaining fleet of almost 600 Amfleet cars date back to the 1970s and was modeled after the Budd Company’s successful Metroliner cars, which ran from 1969 to 2006.  Some of those Amtfleet cars have traveled over four million miles by now so, despite maintenance and the $17 million “refresh” of their interiors in 2017, they are ripe for replacement.

Amfleet


The round-sided stainless steel cars, mimicking an airplane, have smaller windows than what’s planned to replace them.  Connecticut’s own Cesar Vergara, who designed the interior of Metro-North’s M8 cars, criticized the Amfleet design for trying to look like a jetliner. 

The vision for the future of the railroad should be based on defining its own dreams, not appropriating them solely from someone else's experience,” he wrote in 1992.

HELLO AIRO:                  The new cars Amtrak has ordered will be built by Siemens, which has an order for 83 trainsets which should be in service by 2026 if all goes well.  The first prototype debuted in October 2023.  The total contract is worth more than $3 billion.

New Airo Cars

The new cars will have the same two-by-two seating with AC and USB plugs for each row.  Their tray tables will be bigger and stronger than Amfleet’s clunky models and will feature a cup holder so your java doesn’t hit your lap if the train should lurch during the ride.  And yes, they’ll also have 5G Wi-Fi (Metro-North take note!). 

Pulling the trains will be electric locomotives, also built by Siemens.  Outside of the electrified Northeast Corridor these Charger locos will be diesel.  There’s also a hybrid engine in design that will run electric “under the wire” and use batteries on non-electrified lines.

When delivered, the first Airo trains will run in the Pacific Northwest then come to Washington to Boston trains in the Northeast.  There will be traditional coaches, first class and cafĂ© cars.

The new cars are based on Siemens’ Venture cars already running on Florida’s Brightline and Canada’s VIA Rail.  Those cars are similar to the company’s Viaggio Comfort electric trainsets running in Austria.

TESTING:     The new cars have over 4000 electrical connections, so extensive testing will be required before they go into service.  As Metro-North learned when it took delivery of its new M8 cars from Kawasaki in 2010, it takes a while to work the bugs out.

BUFF TESTING:     One of the most interesting tests that all new trains in the US must pass is called “buff testing”, to see how they’d survive a crash.  The cars’ under-frames must sustain 40 tons of stress without deforming, a much higher standard than European or Japanese requirements.

That means US trains are heavier and less fuel efficient but, as we’ve seen in European high speed train crashes, will be much more survivable in the event of a collision.

It will be a while before the new Airo fleet passes muster and joins the Acela-replacement Avelia Liberty trains that, after extensive delays, will go into service on the Northeast Corridor later this year.

 

May 10, 2024

HERO TRUCKER, WRONG WAY CRASH, TRAINS & FERRY

Kudos to the CDOT for their amazing work last week cleaning up from the fiery truck crash in Norwalk which closed I-95 causing countless hours of delays and detours.  It’s amazing what CDOT crews can do operating on a deadline and with $20 million in federal money.

HERO TRUCKER:    Kudos also to Hazeth Aracena, the truck driver turned hero who was involved in that crash.  When the Camaro that seems to have caused the crash (as was reportedly confirmed by the tanker truck’s dash-cam) swerved toward Aracena’s tractor trailer, he tried to move out of the way, only to strike the tanker truck.  But Aracena jumped from his cab and rescued the Camaro driver, pulling him from his car.

ANOTHER WRONG-WAY CRASH:        This week there was another wrong-way crash, this time on the Merritt Parkway, claiming four lives.  Police have yet to identify the driver going the wrong way, pending an autopsy.  Was that out-of-state driver “impaired” or just confused… or both?


We’re only in May but there have already been four wrong-way crashes in the state this year claiming 11 lives.  That compares to seven who died last year in similar accidents.

So if CDOT can return I-95 from a disaster-scene to regular service in 80 hours, why haven’t they been able to post all the new warning signs at parkway entrances they promised months ago, preventing further carnage?

SHORE LINE EAST:         The Connecticut legislature has adjourned, but not before finally restoring a bit more funding for train service on Shore Line East, the commuter railroad between New Haven and New London.  The railroad is still only operating at 40% of pre-COVID levels and advocates were seeking $10 million to bring back more trains.  The Governor said no, but lawmakers gave them $5 million, enough for four additional trains.

That still only gives Shore Line East riders 20 trains a day, far from enough to encourage people to leave their cars at home.  Still, it’s a small victory for the pro-train forces in Southeastern Connecticut, what one local resident calls “the forgotten corner”.

BRIDGEPORT FERRY:     A great start to the summer season for the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson ferry.  They started their three-ferry service early this year adding what VP / GM Fred Hall says is the secret for success: “frequency and capacity”.  In the first few days of this month ridership is already up 15%, perhaps helped by drivers trying to avoid the I-95 shutdown that weekend.

A fourth ferry, the “Long Island” has just been launched in Florida and they hope to have it in service by the late fall.

Nearing completion nearby in Bridgeport is that city’s new high-speed ferry dock, built with $10.5 million in federal funds and $700,000 from city taxpayers.  Of course, there’s nobody planning to offer fast ferry service there, nor do I predict there ever will be.

Just another Bridgeport boondoggle.

 

 

May 04, 2024

TRUCK INSPECTIONS

Another week, another fiery truck crash on a Connecticut highway, this time in Norwalk on I-95.

You’ll remember it was just last June when a similar inferno closed I-95 in Philadelphia as a tanker truck blaze practically melted the steel, collapsing the highway.  And last April there was another tanker fire on the Gold Star bridge in New London.

If your memory is really good you might recall a similar truck crash on I-95 in Bridgeport on the elevated section of highway back in 2004.  The resulting fire melted holes in the highway.

What the heck is going on?

As I’ve written before, trucks are most often not to blame for highway accidents.  Their seasoned, professional drivers are just trying to deliver their cargos to local stores and gas stations and get home safely.  But don’t get me started on why big-rig trucks are driving illegally on the Merritt Parkway, which they are!

It will take some time for the Connecticut State Police to finish their investigation of who and what caused the most recent crash in Norwalk, but we should still be asking “is the state doing enough to keep unsafe trucks off our highways?” 


Connecticut has weigh / inspection stations in Greenwich, Danbury, Middletown, Union and Waterford as well as roaming, portable scale teams.  When the trucks and buses roll in they are weighed, their drivers’ log books and loads are inspected and, most importantly, their brakes are checked.  This is done by skilled State Police and DMV staffers who take their job (and your safety) seriously.

Surprisingly, though I-95 sees the most traffic, the Greenwich weigh station was open the least but issued the most fines last year.

Connecticut receives federal funding to pay for this work and violators are hit with stiff fines… the most common tickets issued are for being overweight, having defective equipment, fuel tax or registration violations and, my favorite, “failure to stop”.  Of course, no trucks have to stop if the inspection stations are closed, which they usually are.

Remember:  overweight trucks are not only unsafe, they cause damage to our highways that we end up repairing and paying for with the gas tax.


For trucks just passing through the state, the word goes out on the CB radios and social media as truckers alert each other which stations are open.  If Greenwich is open, they avoid I-95 and take I-84 because Danbury probably won’t be open, etc.

For trucks traveling up and down I-95 and I-84 from other states, Connecticut participates in the PrePass Program, a kind of E-ZPass for truckers.  If a vehicle was inspected in, say, Maryland, it can skip a stop at Connecticut weigh stations.

Trucking advocates (yes, there are some) say the weight / inspection stations are a waste of personnel: that troopers should be patrolling the highways looking for dangerous drivers not standing around inspecting trucks, the majority of which are not violating any rules.

But I still think all of Connecticut’s weigh / inspection stations should be open all the time.

It looks like the Feds will pick up the $20 million tab for last week’s Norwalk incident.  But nobody can reimburse us all for the time we lost waiting in detours and delays, nor the lost business to local merchants.

 

 

 

BIG BROTHER ON YOUR TRIP

Ready for a summer vacation?  Car packed, airline tickets at hand?  You may not realize it, but Big Brother’s coming along with you.  Howeve...