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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Why You Can't Pump Your Own Gas in NJ

Have you ever wondered why you can’t pump your own gasoline in New Jersey?  I have, and did a little digging for the explanation.

Self-serve has been the rule nationwide for 70 years, ever since the first pump-your-own gas station opened in California in 1947.  Prior to that, all gas stations were full-service.  Not only did the “pump jockeys” fill your tank but they’d check your oil, water levels in your radiator and wash your windows… and maybe even give you a set of free steak knives for your 35-cent-a-gallon purchase.  Remember those good ol’ days?

When the self-serve idea came to New Jersey, a local gas station owner named Irving Reingold in Hackensack started offering a discount for the do-it-yourselfers.  Rather than charging the going rate of 21.9 cents a gallon, his self-service stations charged only 18.9 cents.  His operation became wildly popular, prompting competitors to retaliate by shooting up his station and forcing Reingold to install bullet-proof glass.  Competitors then persuaded the state legislature to ban the practice of self-serve and Reingold eventually went out of business.

In 1949 Trenton lawmakers passed the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, which read:
“Because of the fire hazards directly associated with dispensing fuel, it is in the public interest that gasoline station operators have the control needed over that activity to ensure compliance with appropriate safety procedures, including turning off vehicle engines and refraining from smoking while fuel is dispensed.”

That law is still on the books in New Jersey, one of two such state laws in the nation. The other is Oregon, which passed its law in 1951.  Consumer pressure in that western state recently brought a slight relaxation of the rules.  Now drivers in rural counties can pump their own gas, but only in the overnights.

The fine for violating the law is $500 in both states, though it’s seldom enforced.  Try pumping your own gas in New Jersey, assuming you can activate the pump, and you’re more likely to get a scolding than a ticket.  One study in 2015 showed that state had issued zero infractions in the previous two years for the “crime”.

The town of Huntington on Long Island has a similar ban on self-serve, despite appeals from gas station owners to stay competitive.

Garden State residents have been trying for years to rescind their self-serve ban. But Governor Christie has refused, saying his residents actually like full-service gas stations.

In 2015, State Assemblyman Dean O’Scanlon introduced a bill to allow self-serve saying he was “offended by people that argue that New Jerseyians are mentally incapable of pumping their own gas without setting themselves on fire”.  

Cynics say that New Jersey’s self-service ban is to protect thousands of pump-jockey jobs and higher profit margins for station owners.

Here in Connecticut, lawmakers seem to trust Nutmeggers with pumping their own fuel.  The new technology at pumps helps prevent accidents and cases of motorist self-immolation are exceedingly rare.

However ,one quirk in Connecticut gas-dispensing laws that is still being debated is the controversial “zone pricing” where what you pay at the pump depends on where you buy, not good ol’ American competition.  But that’s a whole other story for another time.

Happy motoring!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Monday, August 7, 2017

"Hyperloop: More Hype than Hope"

Imagine traveling from Washington DC to New York City in 29 minutes, not by airplane but in a large underground tube, sucked along at up to 700 mph.  That’s Elon Musk’s vision for Hyperloop.  But to me, it’s more hype than loop.

Elon Musk is, as one commentator put it, “the PT Barnum of technology”.  He’s all PR and publicity, hyperbole and exaggeration.   Case in point, Musk’s recent tweet that he’d been given “verbal approval” to build his super-train in the Northeast.

First off, there is no such thing as “verbal approval” in a project this massive requiring hundreds of permits from dozens of state, federal and local agencies, none of which have been filed.

Musk’s green-lighting of his own project probably came from some Trump administration official who said “Cool idea, Elon”, and Musk was off to the races… and Twitter.

What exactly is a Hyperloop?  Good question, as not even a prototype has been built, let alone tested.  But think of it as a big tube with a vacuum inside, hurtling pods along using linear induction motors at up to 760 mph.  Sounds interesting, at least in concept.

But the devil’s in the details, ie the engineering and testing, which is just getting underway in the Nevada desert.  In one trial a test sled was accelerated from 0 to 110 mph in one second, exerting an astronaut-level 2.5 G force. Buckle up, folks.

I can’t wait for the human testing.  Can you imagine a 29 minute, 700 mph ride through an underground tube.  Even if you’re not claustrophobic, what if something goes wrong?  How do you get out? 

We’ve already had horrendous fires in the 31 mile long Chunnel under the English Channel, let alone a 225 mile underground tube between NYC and DC.  And wouldn’t Hyperloop be a tempting target for terrorists?

Clearly, the Hyperloop is decades away from being feasible, not to mention being put into construction mode.  Yet, Musk insists boring can get underway this year and he asks, in his tweets, for his true believers to lobby lawmakers and regulators for the necessary approvals. (PS:  Musk also owns the company that will build the tunnels).

Some estimate an above-ground Hyperloop would cost $200 million a mile to build (not counting the cost of the land).  But using a tunnel boring machine and going underground, who knows the cost or construction time.  Just for the Feds to rebuild the two Civil War-era rail tunnels (3.6 miles) in Baltimore will cost $4.5 billion.

So where’s the money going to come from?  The Trump administration can’t commit to rebuilding the Hudson River Amtrak tunnels, let alone take a flyer on this pipe-dream.

Elon Musk is estimated to be worth over $17 billion, money he earned by starting PayPal.  But he’s been plowing most of his fortune into projects like Tesla and Space X which, admittedly, have been hugely successful, if expensive.

So don’t write Musk off as some faker or phony.  Just be skeptical of his Trump-like over promising and sketchy details.  I’ll believe Hyperloop when I see it.  But I don’t think I’ll be riding it.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media


High Speed Rail Runs Over CT

In China you can travel by high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai (819 miles) in about four hours, averaging over 200 mph.  Take Amtrak from New York to Boston and the 230 mile journey will take at least 3.5 hours (about 65 mph).

Why the difference?  Because the US is a third-world nation when it comes to railroading.  Our railroads’ tracks (rights-of-way) are old and full of curves compared to China’s modern, straight rail roadbeds.

When then US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood toured China’s best-in-class high speed rail (HSR) system a few years ago he marveled at the accomplishment, but noted (paraphrasing here) “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision.”

In China, when the government decided to build HSR, they drew a straight line to determine its path.  Anything and anyone in the way was out of luck.

Not so in the United States, witness the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build HSR between Washington and Boston.  The initial plan was to straighten track in Connecticut, plowing through historic towns like Old Lyme.  Local opposition and the engagement of the state’s elected officials all but killed the plan.

But the FRA’s recent Record of Decision revising its plans delivered only a partial victory for preservationists in our state.  Sure, Old Lyme was saved, but in southwest Connecticut, the FRA still has plans to re-do our cities’ and towns’ landscapes.

Still buried in the 61-page document is a plan to reroute tracks from New Rochelle to Greens Farms on a new path alongside (on top of?) I-95.  This would mean major disruption for everyone from Greenwich to Norwalk, with massive construction right in the heart of those communities.

The details are few:  just a fuzzy map showing the proposed HSR tracks somewhere near the interstate, avoiding our century-old rail bridges and replacing them with highway style elevated structures.

With Governor Malloy still calling for a widening of I-95, where would these new tracks be placed?  The FRA says it doesn’t know.  But drive that sound-barriered highway corridor and you’ll see there isn’t much room for new tracks or highway lanes, let alone both.

Local officials, residents and commuters should all be concerned.  While the balance of the FRA’s plans in the state call for an upgrade of existing tracks, why the need for this invasive new structure in the already crowded highway corridor?  Why not just rebuild the existing tracks?

Better yet, why not re-visit the idea of the “inland route”, sending trains to Boston north through Westchester before heading east along I-84 through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford?  There’s more open space and a better chance to build straight, truly HSR tracks.

That idea was rejected by the state, fearing loss of rail connectivity for coastal business centers such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven, despite Amtrak’s promise to still run Acela service along the coast.

We are not living in China, nor should we allow the FRA to tell us how to live.  Our last hope in opposing this land-grab is the necessary environmental review of the FRA’s plans.
Now would be the time to tell Washington “No”!

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media