Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"All Tickets Please!"

Imagine you’re in a store and you see somebody shoplifting.  You’re embarrassed to say anything or to make a scene, but inside you’re pissed-off.  You pay for your merchandise, so why should that guy get it for free?  And if he’s ripping off the store, doesn’t the merchant actually make you pay more to make up for that loss?

It’s morally wrong and it’s just not fair.

Yet this is what happens every single day on Metro-North when conductors don’t collect all riders’ tickets.

Here’s a typical scene:  your train leaves Grand Central and the conductor makes his way through the train collecting tickets.  Sometimes he leaves a colored seat check, punched to show your destination, but not always. Why?

Your train makes some intermediate stop (New Rochelle, Greenwich or Stamford) to discharge some passengers and take on new ones.  You know who the new riders are, but does the conductor?

So when the conductor comes through again saying “All Stamford tickets, please” and you see that new rider not responding, you know the railroad got ripped off and that cheater just got a free ride.

Now, if the conductor had issued a seat check he’d know who got off, who got on and who owes him a new ticket.  Simple enough, but not for Metro-North which for years has not enforced their use.  Conductors who are too busy or too lazy, don’t use seat checks and we all end up paying more.

Metro-North acknowledges this problem and admits it loses millions of dollars a year to uncollected tickets.  But they’ve crunched the numbers and say that staffing trains with more conductors to be sure all tickets are collected would cost even more.

Hey!  Here’s a concept:  make the existing conductors do their jobs instead of hiding out in their little compartments.  From Grand Central to Stamford you’ve got 45 minutes without stops to collect everyone’s ticket, give ‘em a seat check, say “thank you” and still have time for a cat-nap.  And there’s still time to ask people to keep their feet off the seats and to stop yapping in the designated Quiet Cars.

Back in the good ol’ days before the TVM’s (Ticket Vending Machines) came along, conductors collected cash fares to the tune of $50 million a year.  They had a money room at Grand Central that looked like a casino.  Now most fares are bought from the machines or on your smart-phone.  That means conductors should have a lot more time to make sure all tickets are collected.

Conductors on Metro-North make good money.  And they do a very important job keeping passengers safe, operating the doors, answering questions.  They’re the face of the railroad and most passengers give them high marks.

So what can you do if you see someone getting a free ride due to uncollected tickets?  Try this, which always work for me:

When I see a conductor miss a passenger’s ticket, I’ll wait until the conductor comes back and say something like “Excuse me conductor.  I think you missed collecting that gentleman’s ticket”, and then smile innocently at the conductor and the chagrined would-be thief.

If I see the same conductor always missing ticket collections, day after day, I report it on the Metro-North website complaints page, detailing the incident by name, date, train number, etc.  That allows the railroad to “re-train” the offending staffer.

So if you’re tired of all these fare increases, let’s stop the shoplifters.  Make sure everybody pays for their ride by having conductors collect all tickets. Please!

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Should we widen I-95 ?

Governor Malloy wants to widen I-95 to alleviate traffic congestion and has commissioned a $1.2 million study to support the idea.   But I found a similar study from 2004 that looked at the idea and rejected it for a number of reasons.

Trust me, it wasn’t easy to get hold of the earlier study.  I knew it existed but somehow it had disappeared from the CDOT website.  And despite numerous requests, nobody at CDOT could ever tell me what they paid for this study!

Why are the Governor and CDOT re-studying the same issue and spending valuable tax dollars to do so?  Because the first study rejected their widening idea completely and they don’t like that answer.

Here’s the background:

When I-95 was built in the 1950’s it was designed to handle up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Today, CDOT says it handles 150,000 and congestion is almost constant from 6 am – 7 pm, especially in southwest Connecticut.  In most sections the road is three lanes wide with a “breakdown lane” on both sides.

So, rather than widen the entire highway with a decade of massive and messy construction, why not use one of the lanes… probably the right shoulder… as a travel lane?  Wouldn’t that help reduce congestion?

No.  And here’s why…

NARROW LANES:     The right shoulder is only 10 feet wide so it could only be used by cars.  But the other three lanes are now 12 feet wide and would have to be permanently narrowed to 11 feet width, even outside of commuting-congested hours.

I feel nervous enough driving next to big-rigs and tandem trailers.  Do I want them a foot closer to me hurtling along at 70 mph?  Narrower lanes are not safe.

ACCIDENTS:          The 2004 study looked at other states that had tried using shoulders as travel lanes and found a 60% increase in traffic accidents, most of them rear-end collisions.

EMERGENCY RESCUES:    First responders hated this widening idea and said so at numerous public hearings (I was there and heard them).  They didn’t see the right shoulder as a “breakdown lane” but as an “emergency rescue lane” necessary to reach accident sites.  If that lane is filled with bumper-to-bumper commuters, people will die.

MORE TRAFFIC, NOT LESS:     The study said that allowing driving on the shoulder would actually attract 1050 additional vehicles per hour.  If you build it, they will come.

ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS:        More traffic means more noise and more air pollution.

SPEED IMPROVEMENTS:          The biggest argument for driving on the shoulder is that it would speed up traffic, right?  Wrong.  This 2004 study said that with an additional lane the average speed on I-95 would go from 27 mph to 31 mph, just a 15% improvement. Is that tiny speed increase worth all the safety and environmental costs?

So clearly, the idea of widening I-95 doesn’t make sense.  And we’ve already paid the expert consultants to study the idea and tell us so.

So why is the Malloy administration and CDOT paying for yet another study on a topic already examined and rejected?  Because they didn’t remember the other study had been done?  Or they couldn’t find it?  Or is it because this consultant will give them the answer they want to hear?

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Fall, leaves and locomotives

What is more beautiful than fall in New England?  The autumn leaves make even the most mundane daily commute seem idyllic… unless you’re taking the train.

Yes, it’s time for our annual battle against “slip slide”, that dangerous rail condition caused by wet leaves on our tracks.  Mind you, this is no small problem.  In past years as many as 50 or 60 trains a week were delayed by the issue when sloppy, wet leaves turn steel rails into the railroad equivalent of a skating rink: i.e., the trains can’t stop, or in some cases, even start.

OK.  We’ve sent a man to the moon, mapped the human genome and built super computers.  Why can’t we solve this leaf-goo problem?  If only it was that easy.

It’s really a matter of physics.  The flanged steel wheel of a locomotive only makes contact with the rail at a spot about the size of a dime.  That’s why a train can usually ride so smoothly, gliding on a very small but stable area of friction.

But when fall arrives, the leaves fall, get wet and get mulched into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, creating a compound called pectin.  When the train hits a slippery patch its computer freaks out like a skier going downhill encountering ice, and it tries to stop.  This is called “dumping the air”, as the train automatically drops its air pressure, engaging the brakes.  When it happens you can actually hear it… and feel it as the train lurches to a stop.

Don’t worry.  The train is not going to fly off the tracks.  But it also may not stop on a dime, sliding along the slippery track.  Sometimes the air brakes are engaged so hard that the steel wheel is dragged along the track and ground into a flat spot.  In some years these flat wheel issues have seen 25% of the railcar fleet out of action for regrinding.

This leaf-caused slip-slide is at its worst on the Danbury branch, an almost continual uphill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City” which is almost 400 feet above sea level.  At its worst, the leafy goo means the diesel-pulled trains can’t make their usual stop at Cannondale because they have to keep up momentum to climb the grade.

On mainline MU (multiple unit) electric trains every car is a locomotive, spreading out the traction power to all the wheels.  But on a branch line train, a single locomotive weighing 137 tons has only eight wheels touching the track and needs enough traction there to pull an eight car train.  That’s just eight, dime-sized friction points, each compromised by slippery leaf-goo.

Now, if the Danbury branch was electrified, as it once was, this problem would go away, or at least be minimized.

What can be done to battle the slippery scourge?  Well, all trains carry sand which they can throw under their traction wheels, improving friction.  But Metro-North has gone further, creating a car called “Water World” which blasts the tracks clean with high pressure hoses.  And then the leaves keep falling.

This problem is not unique to Metro-North.  Other railroads fight the leaf-wars too, but few travel through such steep, wooded glens as the bucolic Danbury branch. 

In the UK there’s a scientist who proposes zapping the tracks clear with lasers.  Others are trying chemicals.  Clearly, people are working on this problem and have been for decades.

So take heart, dear commuter.  Enjoy the ride and the foliage, slippery as it may be.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Toughest Job in Transportation: TSA Agent

Who do you think has the toughest job in the transportation business?  Long haul truckers?  Highway crews?  Metro-North engineers?

While all of those folks certainly pay their dues, to me the toughest job in transportation is being a TSA agent.

It’s been 15 years since 9/11 and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, creating a standardized, Federal version of the previously private security screening agents.  And the rules of what’s allowed on planes has certainly changed with time.

A couple of years ago the TSA said that small scissors and nail clippers would be allowed in carry-ons. People freaked, though the plastic knives distributed with snack-packs are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  But by not having to worry about such tiny tools, TSA agents should be able to spend more time looking for the really dangerous weapons.

How about ceramic knives, not found by metal detectors?  That’s why the TSA spent over $2 billion for full-body scanners.  Controversial as they may be, they seem efficient.

Liquid explosives are also frighteningly effective, which is why you should always drain your carry-on water bottle before joining the TSA line.  Free refills are available at the water fountains after clearing security.

This spring there were numerous complaints about the long lines at TSA check-points, a situation since resolved with better staffing and a new director of the agency.  A combination of increased passenger counts and TSA staffing seemed responsible for the delays.

But therein lies the reason that I think TSA agents have such a tough job:  the public wants 100% security but with no time-consuming, privacy-invading pat-downs or delays.  Sorry folks.  As the old adage says “You can have it fast, good or cheap… pick two”.

There are 47,000 TSA agents screening almost 2 million passengers a day.  It’s not a glamorous job (starting salary is just $26,000 a year), just a crucial one.  And yes, those agents do fail regular testing of their skills, allowing dummy knives and liquids to get by in the haste of doing their high pressure job.

But the stuff that they do find is astounding.  In a recent edition of its weekly blog the TSA recounts, for example, confiscating 58 firearms, 48 of them loaded with 17 having rounds in the chamber.  That’s not to mention the dozens of knives, swords and hidden weapons. And you wonder why the screening line gets slowed down?

On a recent trip I saw a passenger literally curse at a TSA agent for doing her job.  The agent kept her cool and didn’t yank the passenger out of line for a retaliatory body cavity search, but maybe she should have.  Could you be so patient as to not respond to such insults when you are only trying to keep passengers, even that idiot, safe?

When my carry-on bags get a secondary screening, I’m happy.  My bags carry so many weird electronics they’d better screen me!  After the agent finishes, I say “Thanks for your diligence.”

If you want to fly, my advice is to shut up.  Let the agents do their job.  And help them by following directions:  shoes off, laptops out, pockets empty.   Or registerfor TSA Pre-Check, a great screening time saver (you can leave you shoes on).

But please let the TSA agents do their job.  Asking them to hustle because you’re late for your flight is inviting them to make a mistake that might cost thousands of lives.

Republished with permission of Hearst CT Media.