Thursday, May 24, 2018

America's First Subway - Powered By Air


A secret project, defying the government, helped build America’s first subway.  It only ran for three years but carried hundreds of thousands of  passengers, even though it ran only 312 feet. And it was powered by air.

In the 1860’s New York City was in a transportation crisis.  The streets were jammed with horse-pulled trolleys and wagons, as many as 1000 an hour passing a single point on lower Broadway.  Pedestrians dodged the vehicles and mounds of horse manure.

By 1863 London had solved a similar road chaos by opening the world’s first subway, The Underground.  But New York’s Tammany Hall wasn’t interested as Boss Tweed was making massive amounts of money from investments and kickbacks from New York’s street railroads.

But Tweed did show interest another London innovation:  mail transported underground in pneumatic tubes. Seizing the moment, American inventor and Scientific American editor Alfred Beach got a city permit to construct a postal tube system on lower Broadway.  Using $350,000 of his own money ($6.4 million in 2018 dollars), Beach’s plan was far grander and his “tube” would be far larger.

Working secretly at night in the sub-basement  of Devlin’s Clothing Store near City Hall, Beach started digging his tunnel.  In 58 days it was complete, running one city block.  All he need now was a “car” and a means of propulsion.

Given that his tube was only eight feet in diameter, Beach opted for a small, round passenger car that could carry 22 people.  The interior was posh and upholstered.  And to lure riders fearful of subterranean lairs, he built a $70,000 station complete with chandeliers, plush chairs, a goldfish pond and a piano player.

To power the train he acquired a 50 ton ventilation fan used in mining, nicknamed the Western Tornado.  Sucking air from the streets above, the huge fan would blow the car down the track at 6 mph.  When the car reached the end of the tunnel, the fan was reversed, sucking it back into the station.

On March 1, 1870 the subway was opened to the public.  For 25 cents a ride ($4.50 in today’s money) thousands came to see transportation’s future. (Beach donated all of the fare revenue to charity).

Boss Tweed was enraged, especially when Beach predicted he could transport up to 20,000 passengers a day five miles north to Central Park at speeds up to “a mile a minute”.  The Boss had other plans.

He wanted to solve the street congestion by building up, not under.  Of course, his plan for elevated railroads would make him a fortune.  Coupled with the financial collapse in the Panic of 1873, Beach’s Pneumatic Transit system was doomed, The fans were shut off and
the project was shuttered.

Beach’s tunnel was later used as a shooting gallery and wine vault before being sealed up for good in 1874.  In 1912, workers digging the BMT’s Broadway line dug into the old tunnel and found the car and the old piano.  Beach’s pneumatic mail system did survive serving customers until 1953. 

Beach died in 1896 and eight years later New York City’s first true subway opened for business, running from City Hall to Harlem.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Tale of Two Trains


As the clock ticks down on the legislature’s efforts to avert service cuts and fare hikes on our trains and buses, people are confused and angry.

That was certainly the tone at last Monday’s ‘listening session” in New Canaan held by US Senator Chris Murphy, who’d come to talk about transportation.  Most of those who turned out cared little for his vision of national infrastructure.  They were more worried about losing their mid-day and weekend branch line service on Metro-North under proposed CDOT budget cuts starting July 1st.

“We’re really fed up,” said one.  “This kind of crisis has now been socialized,” said another, predicting we’d be back dealing with such ideas again in another few years. “Was this a political ploy or a real crisis?” asked a skeptic.

Senator Murphy clearly understood he was walking into a hornet’s nest.  But the audience seemed surprised when he admitted he didn’t understand the extent of the proposed service cuts.  Really?

“We need to refill the Special Transportation Fund,” said Murphy.  “But I’ll stay out of the details of how to do it.  I’m not plugged in at the state level.”

While state Senator Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) tried to reassure attendees that the looming crisis has been averted… that there will be no service cuts or fare hikes July 1st… the details are fuzzy.

Both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ proposed budgets seem to find money to staunch the hemorrhaging of the STF. But my sources tell me it’s the same old shell game.  Take a little money from the rainy-day fund, divert the new car sales tax, maybe a booze bottle deposit tax and yes, a four to seven cent increase in the gasoline tax.  Even Boucher said a gas tax hike “would be fair”. 

But no tolls?  No, in an election year that can has been kicked down the road once again. 

By the time you read this column, the proposed solutions may be different.  But they all seem like band-aids, not systemic changes in funding.  Crisis postponed, not averted.

Meanwhile, Senator Murphy was talking big picture:  infrastructure investment on a national, bi-partisan level measuring billions of dollars.  He reminded attendees that while the US spends 2% of GDP on infrastructure, Europe spends 6% and China 12%.

He said that Amtrak’s high-speed Acela turns a profit of $300 million a year which is used to subsidize slower, traditional Northeast Corridor trains.  Acela could be privatized.

He praised the European model where the government owns and maintains the tracks while private companies pay to offer competitive service with their trains.  Imagine having a choice of carriers to whisk you by rail to Washington.

What about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?  We can’t wait that long, said Murphy.  “It’s far from being proven as a technology.”

Murphy admitted that US roads and rails are too expensive and take far too long to build under current regulations.  “The Republicans are going to have to accept new taxes and the Democrats some changes in labor and environmental rules,” he said.

It was the tale of two railroads.

Murphy was dreaming of 200+ mph high speed rail and most people in the room were just trying to save their one-track, “dink train” from New Canaan to NYC. 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Transportation Cuts Will Hurt Us All



For weeks I’ve been writing about the CDOT’s impending bus and rail service cuts and fare hikes and their profound impact on commuters, local businesses and real estate values.  But with just weeks to go, the folks who can prevent this pain… our legislature… seem to be doing nothing.

 The deadline is July 1st this year when proposed CDOT cuts will go into effect:   A 10% fare hike on Metro-North will be matched with elimination of off-peak trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as Shore Line East.

How are local officials responding?  By complaining that the proposed cuts on them aren’t fair.  “Don’t cut my mass transit, cut someone else’s!”, seems the plaintiff cry.  “Why is my bus service being cut but Hartford and Stamford’s isn’t?,” one official asked me.

I told him he was asking the wrong question.  Instead he should be asking why any bus or train service was being cut.

It’s as if a crowd was trapped in a burning building with one narrow fire escape and everyone’s screaming “I deserve to survive. Let the others get burned” while nobody is working to douse the flames.

The answer isn’t to push away the pain onto others but to turn off the pain at its source.
 Legislators can easily stop CDOT’s plans by just raising the gasoline tax four cents a gallon and diverting the car sales tax into the Special Transportation Fund.  Instead, they’re blaming everyone but themselves for the mess they got us into.

Remember:  it was the legislature that pandered to voters by lowering the gasoline tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997, a move that cost the STF $3.4 billion in lost transportation spending that could have repaired roads and fixed bridges.

Now the Republicans are so focused on the fall campaign they’re deceiving voters in a “big lie” PR move only Sean Spicer could enjoy: trying to argue that proposed highway tolls are “taxes”.  

They are not.  Tolls would be a user fee, paid only by those who drive on those roads.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  You only pay those fares if you take the train.

Do Republicans really think voters are that stupid?  Apparently so.

The pols are also piling on the CDOT for being late in opening the new Hartford Line, the commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.  Our legislature can’t even deliver a budget on time, let alone understand the complexity of a $769 million railroad construction project that’s taken over a decade.

It’s not by chance the Republicans are known as the “party of no”.  For all their complaining they have offered no new ideas or embraced the ones that thoughtful observers think are obvious:  asking motorists to pay their fair share with gasoline taxes and tolls.

Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, fares that have risen 53% since the year 2000…  while motorists haven’t seen a gas tax increase in 20 years. How is that fair?

If the July 1st service cuts and fare hikes go into effect, commuters should know it’s their legislature that’s to blame.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The New Train In Town - The Hartford Line


There’s finally some good news on transportation:  a new commuter rail line, The Hartford Line, is set to open this spring.

Decades in the dreaming and years in the planning, the state-owned commuter line will run 17 trains a weekday between New Haven and Hartford, stopping at State St (New Haven), Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin and Union Station in downtown Hartford.  Twelve trains on weekdays will continue north, stopping at Windsor and Windsor Locks before ending their run in Springfield.

Parking will be free at Berlin, Wallingford and Meriden, at least until the fall.  When service expands there will be a train every 30 minutes in peak hours and every 60 minutes off-peak.  In some parts of the 62-mile run the trains will hit speeds of 110 mph, compared to the 79 mph max currently on Amtrak.

Some of the runs will use Amtrak equipment, but all trains will honor new, lower CT Rail fares.  While Amtrak currently charges as much as $47 one way from New Haven to Springfield, all trains on The Hartford Line will sell tickets for just $12.75 for the same trip.  And New Haven to Hartford will be just $8.

There will be the usual discounts for seniors, 10 trip and monthly commuters.

Those fares, coupled with free parking and a massive marketing campaign, should lure road-weary commuters off of I-91 and onto the rails.  At least that’s the hope, and there’s a lot of money riding on this plan.

Connecticut got lucky in 2011 when Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down federal money for mass transit in his state and we quickly grabbed the funding.  Millions were spent double-tracking the line and building beautiful new stations, which are hoped to be the catalyst for TOD (transit oriented development) nearby.

Also new is the railroad’s operating agency.  CDOT by-passed Amtrak (which operates Shore Line East and still owns the tracks for The Hartford Line) and went with TransItAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts, a joint venture which won the 5 year, $45 million operations contract.

Insiders tell me they’ve got a waiting list of job applicants for conductors and engineers, most of them Amtrak and Metro-North veterans fed-up with their experiences there.  The new operators promise great customer service.  Compared to Amtrak and MNRR, there’s nowhere to go but up.

One big disappointment for all concerned is that the train service will start, not with shiny new rail cars, but hand-me-down rail cars from MBTA in Massachusetts.  The original plan was that MNRR’s electric-powered M8 cars would be running on Shore Line East by now, freeing up that line’s diesel push-pulled equipment to run on the Hartford Line.  But that hasn’t happened, so CDOT went scrambling looking for railcars, which are in short supply nationally.


What they got were 16 cars, each 30 years old, which have been rehabilitated and “deep cleaned” inside and out and given FRA’s stamp of approval to run.  They’ll be fine for now and eventually The Hartford Line will get its own new railcars.

Start date was supposed to be late May, but I’d prefer they wait ‘til everything is perfect rather than rush to open “on time” and disappoint riders in any way.  Right now it looks like opening-day will be in mid-June.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Second Guessing The CDOT


Years ago a US official touring China’s amazing new 225-mph high speed rail network commented: “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision”.  No public hearings, no environmental impact studies… no dissent.

In this country we have a different system.  Consider CDOT’s many multi-million dollar projects, their public process and, as a result, how slowly they progress.

The “billion dollar” Walk railroad bridge replacement in South Norwalk is a perfect example.
The CDOT deserves a lot of credit for their transparency on this project, including a  dozen or so open houses, information forums and public hearings they have held. They’ve even opened a walk-in information center nearby.  There are weekly updates and a robust website, in multiple languages, to keep Norwalkers updated on the nine-year project.  

Nobody can say the public isn’t involved.

The project has been brewing since 2015, but only now are the protests really ramping up in the form of a lawsuit.  At issue is whether replacement of the swing bridge is really necessary or whether a fixed (unmovable) bridge would suffice.

Plaintiffs say that a fixed-bridge wasn’t considered, but should have been, even if it meant getting the Norwalk River upstream officially closed by act of Congress after buying out the local marinas and oil terminals that might lose barge service as a result.

But the CDOT says that option was cost-analyzed and would only save 11% of the construction cost, while still disrupting the area and the demolition of the Aquarium’s IMAX theater.

I’m not a lawyer (or an engineer), so I can’t opine on either the legality or engineering decisions.  But that hasn’t stopped others from questioning the CDOT at this late point in the process.  Everyone seems to have an opinion, whatever their qualifications.

Some are even waxing nostalgic about the Victorian-era look of the bridge, hoping its iron superstructure could be preserved or replicated, because it is such a part of the city’s identity. Maybe the city’s motto should be “Norwalk:  We live in the past.”

But where were these people three years ago when the project was in its development phase?  How much work (time and money) might be lost if their litigious second-guessing further stalls this crucial project?

Remember:  this bridge is being replaced because it is used by 200 daily trains carrying 125,000 passengers on Amtrak and Metro-North.  There’s a lot at stake if it isn’t fixed.

Another case in point: the Cribari Bridge over the Saugatuck River in Westport built in 1884.  This swing bridge carries vehicular traffic on Rt 136 but is so old and crumbling that CDOT recently put a 20-ton weight restriction on the span.  That means fire trucks can’t get across.
But the town and CDOT have been battling for years over replacing the Cribari bridge. 

Preservationists want to keep its ornamental steel truss filigree even though it’s regularly struck by traffic.  It’s another battle of nostalgia over practicality.

I’m all for citizen engagement in transportation planning.  But at some point we have to trust the professionals, yes… the engineers, to do the right thing and build for the future.  The time for kibitzing should have a statute of limitations.

Our crumbling infrastructure cannot wait to be rebuilt.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


Monday, April 16, 2018

Grabbing The Best Seat


It was the folks at Cunard who said “Getting there is half the fun”.  And crossing the Atlantic in style on an ocean liner certainly was.  But whatever your mode of transportation, getting the right seat can make for an enjoyable or miserable trip.

On Metro-North, I usually go for a window seat.  However, on crowded trains, any seat is better than none.  But I can still get an “upgrade”, if I pay attention.

Heading into New York, I watch for people getting off the train in Stamford.  Their seat check usually has a torn corner, so I look for them when boarding.  And you’ll usually see those folks gathering their stuff just before arriving at the station.  That’s when I pounce.

Leaving GCT I try to arrive early to board my train so I get my first pick of seats.  I usually opt for the window on a three-seat side.  That way, if someone else arrives just before departure, they can take the aisle seat and the train will have to be SRO before anyone opts for the dreaded middle seat.

But it’s on airplanes that seat selection is crucial.

Never go for an emergency exit row.  There may be more legroom, but the seat dividers are rigid and the arm rests can’t be raised. 

Try to sit forward of the wing for minimal engine noise.  It’s not by chance that the cheapest seats are in the rear, next to the lavatories, where the jet noise is the loudest.

Some people prefer aisle seats so they can get up and walk around.  But a recent study showed occupants of those seats have the greatest chance of being sprayed with germs from other passengers and crew.  Consider wearing a face mask for your own protection.
Again, I prefer a window seat so I can see where we are going.  But even booking in advance these seats are hard to get, depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status.

Something like 20% of all airline revenue now comes from “add-ons” to ticket prices for things like seat assignments, checked bags, food and yes, seat assignments.

The travelers’ advocacy group Travelers United cites an example of a passenger flying from NY to Chicago on American Airlines who really wanted a window seat but was told it would cost an additional $42.  She refused, waiting until she got to the airport to check in to try again.  There the airline said her window seat would cost an extra $76… more than her one-way airfare!

That she could fly 700 miles for 10 cents a mile is ridiculous and speaks to how much airlines are “unbundling” their products. Their profit comes not from the transportation but the amenities.  You can take Greyhound on that route for $54 (if you don’t mind a 22 hour trip).  But “riding the dog” comes with two free checked bags, seat-side power plugs and free Wi-Fi.

Families flying together have it particular challenge trying to get adjacent seats. But last fall Congress tossed air travelers a bone, requiring airlines to seat families together at no additional cost.

Whatever your mode of transportation, being it cruise ship or jetliner, planning ahead is key to scoring “the best seat in the house”.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Monday, April 9, 2018

What Happens When We Run Out of Oil


Tired of paying $3+ a gallon for gasoline?  Well, your pain has just begun.

For decades we’ve lived (and driven) in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gasoline, and therefore, low-cost transportation.  Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when (not if) gas hits $10 a gallon, not because of taxes, but because we will use up the planet’s petroleum.
Here are some predictions:

AIR TRANSPORT:       Following the demise of a dozen airlines and the shrinking of the remaining carriers, air fares soar and service is cut.  Air travel becomes affordable to few.  Airport congestion fades as business trips are replaced with tele-conferencing.  Hotels are shuttered as business travel wanes and “leisure travel” becomes unaffordable. 

HIGHWAYS:     Rush-hour on I-95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive.  But the highways are a mess of potholes as the price of asphalt, made from petroleum, quintuples making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales.  With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

HOMES / OFFICES:   With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply.  Office buildings, by law, will be allowed to heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters become a fashion rage.

MASS TRANSIT:    Seats are pulled out of railcars to create standing room capacity and Metro-North offers cheaper fares to those who can’t get a seat.  As in Tokyo, “pushers” are assigned at Grand Central to squeeze passengers into trains.   Few can afford to drive and park at rail stations, so most spaces there are turned over to bike racks.  Despite fare increases, ridership soars.

AROUND TOWN:    Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips.  Because farmers are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar.  Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat.  Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages.  Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace SUVs.  Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by Mom.  Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit.  Small town taxes rise, encouraging further migration.  Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

THE ENVIRONMENT:         Oil drilling begins in the Alaskan wilderness, but no supply of oil will reach the lower-48 for three years.  Air pollution worsens (thanks in part to the wood burning stoves) and acid rain decimates much of the Northeast.  Increased CO2 emissions hasten global warming.  The sea level rises and coastal communities risk greater flooding as more numerous and powerful hurricanes ravage the US.

Will any of these predictions come true?  Time will tell.  What can we do to prevent this Doomsday scenario?  Not much.  So enjoy what’s left of the era of cheap oil.  We’ll all have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media