Saturday, October 14, 2017

"The Long Haul Trucker"

Why do most motorists hate truck drivers?  Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating?  Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous?

I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us.  They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.  And unlike most of us driving solo in our cars, they are driving truly “high occupancy (cargo) vehicles”… 22 tons when fully loaded.

For an inside look at the unglamorous life of a trucker, I can highly recommend the new book “Long Haul” by Greenwich native Finn Murphy who’s been driving since he was 18 for the Joyce Moving Company.

Murphy is what truckers call a “bedbugger” because he specializes in high-end corporate relocations.  He’s at the top of the trucker food chain, both in income and prestige, far ahead of car haulers (parking lot attendants), animal haulers (chicken chokers) and even hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys).

While Murphy says a lot of long haul truckers do the job because they can’t find any other work, his career choice was an educated decision as his left Colby College before graduation, realizing he could easily make $100,000 packing, moving and unpacking executives’ possessions without a BA.

Forty million Americans move each year and from this author’s perspective they all have too much stuff.  They covet their capitalist consumption of furniture and junk (what movers call chowder).  And it ain’t cheap to move it, averaging about $20,000 for a long distance relocation.   But as he sees it, he’s more in the “lifestyle transition” business than simply hauling and is sensitive to clients’ emotional state.

Murphy’s African American boss nicknamed him “The Great White Mover” as, at age 59, he’s one of the last few white drivers.  Most of the industry is now handled by people of color, especially the local crews that do the packing and unpacking.  When self-driving trucks hit the road, thousands of minority drivers are going to be out of luck.  Robots already do most of the loading and unloading of trucked merchandise bound for big-box stores.

As an independent operator, Murphy incurs all of the expenses.  His tractor (the detachable engine part of the truck) costs $125,000.  That’s not counting the $3500 he pays to register it or $10,000 to insure it.  A new tire (his rig has 18) costs $400 at a truck stop and maybe double that if he’s stranded on some interstate.

The average rig isn’t just a tractor hauling an empty trailer.  Even before loading, that trailer has hundreds of pads (each of which must be neatly folded), plywood planks, dollies, tools, ramps and hundreds of rubber straps for tying things down.  Loading his truck is like solving a giant Tretris 3D puzzle.

Murphy’s driving hours are regulated and carefully logged, then checked at every inspection station.  But he thinks nothing of driving 700 miles per day, usually parking at a truck stop and sleeping in his on-board bunk equipped with a high-end stereo and 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets.

On the road he listens to audio books and NPR, which is probably how he learned to write so well (the book is not ghost written).  Finn Murphy isn’t the brawniest of movers, but he’s easily among the smartest and most articulate.  Even if you have no aspirations of life on the open road, you’ll enjoy this articulate author’s prose.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media



Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Death on the Tracks"

Nationally, more than 400 people are killed by trains each year, most at grade-crossings where highways go over railroad tracks.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration “ the average victim is most often a 38-year-old Caucasian male under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, with a median household income of $36,000. More than 25 percent did not graduate from high school, and 18 percent were determined to be suicides. “

In Connecticut last year the FRA says there were six deaths on the tracks, most of them involving Amtrak trains, but a few by Metro-North.  The question is: were they preventable?

When I started researching this story nobody wanted to talk to me.  The railroads told me that writing about suicides just provoked others to take their lives, even referring me to a psychologist who has studied this issue, Dr. Scott Gabree at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.  He also tried to dissuade me from writing about this.  The less people wanted to talk, the more interested I became.

But my focus here is not on those trying to take their own lives, but those who die by accident or out of ignorance.

Last month there were two such deaths in as many days, one in Port Chester and the other near Fairfield.  The results of the investigations into the deaths have not been released, but the victims are described as “trespassers”.  They were on foot, near the tracks, not in a car.

There are no grade crossings on Metro-North’s main line between Grand Central and New Haven, though the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines have 53 such crossings, most equipped with gates and lights.  In all, Connecticut has more than 600 grade crossings, most of them rarely used by trains.

But on Metro-North’s Harlem branch, a deadly collision in February 2015 took the life of a distracted driver stopped on the tracks and five others on the train that hit her car, killed by the resulting fire.  The NTSB blamed that auto driver, not the railroad, for the deaths.

After the Valhalla NY crash, deadliest in Metro-North’s history, the railroad started its own education effort:  TRACKS, or Together Railroads and Communities Keeping Safe.  They’re also working on preventing suicides with a phone hotline.

Working with the nation’s railroads, the Washington DC-based “Operation Lifesaver” tries to educate everyone about the dangers of getting in the way of trains, in your car or on foot.  With slogans like “Train time is anytime” and “Stand clear, Stand here” their PSA’s warn people that trains can be deadly.

In each state, local coordinators for “Operation Lifesaver” use grants for public education, including posters, PSA’s, brochures and such, in English and Spanish.  But the Connecticut DOT has not applied for, nor received, any “Operation Lifesaver” money in the past two years.

The CDOT tells me they are spending $2 million a year to improve grade crossing safety and that the lapse in Operation Lifesaver grant requests was due to a change in personnel.  Still, the state left a lot of needed money on the table.

Without education, the soon-to-open New Haven to Hartford commuter line will mean more trains and more danger at that line’s 25 grade crossings.  The message is simple:  stay off the tracks!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

.

"Riding The Bird: The Slow Train from Chicago"

How did you spend your summer vacation?  Probably by traveling, but hopefully without the disruptions my wife and I experienced.

In August we flew to Chicago and drove to Wisconsin.  That journey was relatively on time.  But the return trip became an adventure when our return flight from O’Hare airport was delayed five hours, and then cancelled, due to bad weather.

As any regular reader of this column knows, I’m no fan of flying.  So I was happy to be grounded rather than fly through thunder storms.  But how to get home?  Why not the train?

There are three daily trains from Chicago to New York:  the relatively speedy Lake Shore Limited, which follows the route of the old Twentieth Century Ltd;  the Capitol Limited which goes by way of Washington DC;  and the thrice-weekly Cardinal which meanders way far south into West Virginia, along to DC and then NYC.

Luckily, we were able to book a bedroom on the Cardinal, a.k.a. “the bird”, so named because the cardinal is the state bird of West Virginia and because this slow-poke of a train was rescued from being cut by then US Senator Harry Byrd of West Virginia.

While the Lake Shore Limited makes its trip in 20 hours, and the Capitol in 23 hours, the Cardinal takes 27 hours to go from Chicago to New York.  That’s a long ride, even for a rail fan (and longer still for my saintly wife).

As sleeping car passengers, we waited departure in the beautiful new Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago’s Union Station from which we had priority boarding of the train where our attendant helped us get settled and showed us our new home for the next night and day.
If you’ve never taken a long distance train you’re missing out on a real adventure.  Our bedroom had upper and lower berths, a private bathroom which doubled as a shower, and comfy day-chairs to watch the scenery roll by.

As a member of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, this $1200 bedroom was free thanks to all the points I’ve accumulated riding Acela in the Northeast.  Also included in the fare were four meals… two dinners, a breakfast and lunch, for my wife and myself.

Mind you, “the Bird” doesn’t have a fancy dining car with cooked-to-order meals like the Lake Shore and Capitol Ltd.  No, we ate in something like a CafĂ© Car with pre-plated, pre-cooked, frozen meals which were microwaved.  The food was far better than airline food, but hardly the cuisine of years past since Amtrak has been under pressure to cut costs, especially in food service.

It’s expensive to provide good meal service on a train.  But when passengers are paying $1200 they expect, and deserve, better than frozen food.  But as a captive audience, what choice did we have but to gobble down what was offered?

The train’s meandering route was smooth, so we slept well.  And the daylight portion of the route was certainly attractive as we journeyed along river valleys past some beautiful scenery.  But we had no observation car, unlike the Capitol Ltd.


“On time” is a relative term and shouldn’t be your reason to take a train.  Sure we were an hour late into New York City, but by then we had a real rail adventure to talk about.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sleeping on the Bus from LA to SF


We’ve all enjoyed a nap on Metro-North.  The swaying action seems to induce a nodding-off, especially on the way home after a long day in the city.  But it’s sleeping comfortably during long distance travel that seems like the holy grail for travelers.

On overnight flights to Europe we’re envious of those business class folks with their lie-flat seats.  And on Amtrak, even the comfiest reclining coach seat can’t compare with the beds in the sleepers… be it a one-person roomette or a deluxe bedroom.  And of course, on cruise ships, everyone has some sort of a bunk in a stateroom or otherwise.

Now, you can add a new form of transport offering “sleeper” accommodations:  the bus.
Yes, a new California start-up called Cabin is offering nightly bus service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in specially equipped coaches, each offering 24 “cabins” (bunk beds).  The coach leaves each city at 11 pm and arrives at its destination at 7 am the following morning.

Driving time from LA to SF can be as little as six hours, but this “hotel on wheels” looks for the smoothest route, not the fastest, so as to not disturb slumbering passengers.

The “cabins” look small but offer clean linens, duvets, free earplugs, melatonin-infused water and free Wi-Fi.  One six-foot tall reviewer said she had plenty of room to stretch out, though she did have trouble sleeping.  Mind you, all cabins are single occupancy only, so don’t get any ideas.

For the insomniacs, there’s a small passenger lounge and a 24-hour attendant.  All passengers share one lavatory and, unlike Amtrak’s overnight trains, there is no on-board shower.  In the morning, there’s coffee available to wean you off the melatonin water.
Each passenger can bring two pieces of luggage at no additional charge. And you can show up as little as 10 minutes before departure time.  Try doing that at an airport.

The Cabin isn’t the cheapest way between California’s twin cities.  Megabus makes an overnight run (regular coach seating) for $20 one way.  The average airline fare is about $220 while Amtrak’s celebrated “Coast Starlight” makes the daylight run for as little as $64 in coach ($178 in a Roomette).  Cabin’s fare is $115 each way and the bus often books up days in advance.

Clearly, the attraction is one of making best use of your time, not the speed or comfort of the trip.  To the mostly-millennial target audience, sleep is a necessary distraction from work, so if you can multi-task during your overnight hours (sleep and travel), all the better.

Cabin’s backers have secured $3.3 million in underwriting and have their sights on expanding service to other cities like Portland and Las Vegas.  Their real dream is to use self-driving technology and eventually have the Cabins cruise without drivers. (Now that could induce some sleeplessness!)

Alas, I couldn’t find anyone on the east coast copying the Cabin’s service.  New York and Boston are only four hours apart, by bus or Acela.  From the Big Apple to DC is just 3 hours by train and maybe 4 by bus.  Both are just too short for a good night’s sleep.
So, for now, to sample the concept of “sleeper” bus transport, you’ll just have to “Go west”, young man… “Go west!”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Daytrips Back Into Railroad History

If you’re looking for family fun as summer wraps up, 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 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.
The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor (www.ceraonline.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 seven days a week and 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.
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 5 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 Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays along the scenic Naugatuck River in addition to a large collection of restored engines and passenger cars including a last-of-its-kind 1929 New Haven RR first class “smoker”, complete with leather bucket seats.

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.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Summer in the Toll Booth

In a matter of days the first part of the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge will be opened to traffic.  But already demolished is the site of my favorite summer job.

For three of my college years (in the 1960’s) I worked as a summer-time toll collector for the NY State Thruway, both on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and later,  at the New Rochelle toll barrier.  It wasn’t the sexiest of gigs, but the pay was good and I sure learned a lot about people on the road.

Like the elderly couple who came to my booth in Tarrytown asking “which exit is Niagara Falls?”  Consulting my official NY Thruway Map (remember those?) I said, “That’s exit 50, sir.”  Reassured they were heading in the right direction, they then asked “Is that exit on the right or left?”  I responded, “Bear right for 389 miles. You can’t miss it.”

The Woodstock festival happened during one of my summers in the booth.  Of course, nobody expected a half-million kids would show up for the upstate event, especially the folks at the Thruway.  But after the festival was well underway, the Thruway “authorities” realized the mobs would eventually be heading home, clogging the bridge.  Because the music was expected to end late on Sunday, many of us temp-collectors worked overtime into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Of course, the music didn’t end until Monday, meaning that the usual morning rush hour carried as many burned-out hippies as it did business commuters.  I remember one station wagon that pulled in to my lane, caked in mud up to the windows and stuffed with a dozen zonked-out kids.  “Hey man,” said the driver with eyes that struggled to focus. “We don’t have any money” (to pay the then 50 cent toll).  “How about these instead?”  That day, the Tappan Zee toll was an orange and a warm Coke.

Most days, life as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee was a delight, as I was usually assigned the outside lane, also known as “the country club” because of its green vistas and views of the mighty Hudson River.  The job wasn’t very demanding and gave me plenty of time to listen to the radio, my eventual career path.  But then, as fate would have it, I was transferred to the night shift on the New Rochelle toll barrier.

Overnights on the New England Thruway (I-95) were dominated by trucks… hundreds of them.  Most feared by all toll collectors was one vehicle heading to the Hunts Point Market that usually came through about 4 am… “The Chicken Truck”!

This flatbed truck was piled high with open chicken coops stuffed full of terrified live birds on their way to their demise at markets in New York City.  Careening down the highway at top speed, the chicken truck left in its wake a plume of noxious effluent of chicken feathers and bird poop.  So when the truck slowed to a stop to pay its toll, this cloud of gas and seepage would continue into my lane.

As old-timer toll collectors would warn me, when “The Chicken Truck” chooses your lane, close your windows and door.  Wait until the driver is ready with the toll money and open your door only wide enough to accept the cash, then seal yourself in the booth and don’t breathe!

Today, with E-ZPass, “The Chicken Truck” doesn’t even slow down and toll collectors can all breathe easier.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Trump Nixes Sleep Apnea Testing

Your daily commute just became more dangerous, thanks to President Trump.
 In his zeal to kill off unnecessary Federal regulations, he has ordered cancelation of a plan to require mandatory sleep apnea testing for truck drivers and railroad engineers.

The Federal Railroad Administration, and its sister agency covering truckers, both said they still recommended such testing but would not require it.  Why?  Perhaps it is the Trump administration’s campaign promise to cut two regulations for each new one imposed.

I’m all for “draining the swamp”, but this exercise in cutting red tape is likely to cause deaths.

It wasn’t until December of 2013 that anyone in railroading had given serious thought to sleep apnea.  Because that’s when Metro-North engineer William Rockefeller ran his train into a 30 mph curve at 82 mph at Spuyten Duyvil, sending the cars off the tracks and leaving four passengers dead.

Initially Rockefeller said his brakes had failed.  Then he said he’d been “sort of dazed, mesmerized”, comparing it to highway hypnosis.  When he realized what was happening it was too late.  His emergency brake application, coupled with the momentum of the huge locomotive pushing, not pulling, the train, made derailment inevitable.

Rockefeller was a 15-year veteran of Metro-North, ten years as an engineer.  But he’d also been changing his work shift. On the morning of the accident Rockefeller had left his home at 3:30 am to get to work, having gone to bed at 8:30 pm the night before, after a nine hour work shift.

But not only was he tired, he was also overweight and, as subsequent testing showed, suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea.  Federal investigators said his medical condition meant he was an accident waiting to happen, and criticized Metro-North for not testing its employees.  Shortly after, the FRA proposed mandatory testing and Metro-North complied.

By the way… Rockefeller is now on a $3200 a month lifetime disability pension because of his sleep apnea but is suing Metro-North for $10 million claiming it was responsible for allowing him to speed.

In 2016 there was another railroad crash, this time in Hoboken NJ, when an engineer “spaced out” coming into the station causing a collision that took one life and left 14 injured.  Investigators think the engineer may also have had sleep apnea.

By the way… neither train had Positive Train Control which might have prevented speeding that caused the accident.  That technology is still many months away thanks to foot dragging by the railroads.

Sleep apnea may affect 5-20% of the population, with obesity being a contributing factor.  And in sedentary jobs like truck driving and railroad engineering, obesity is a big problem. 

So why not test for it?  We test airline pilots’ vision and health, including potential sleep apnea.  So should we also test railroad engineers and truck drivers.  Our lives are in their hands and we have a right to know they’re not drunk, blind or falling asleep at the wheel.

An average Metro-North train at rush hour can carry 1000 passengers, the equivalent of two fully-loaded 747’s.  Don’t we have a right to know that the engineer is in good health?  Not according to the Trump administration, which sees such mandatory medical testing an unnecessary burden on business.


Metro-North says its testing has found that 18% of its 320 engineers they tested suffer from sleep apnea.  And, to its credit, the railroad says it will continue testing all crew members, even without the FRA requiring it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media