The Bridgeport Hovercraft

A little known part of Connecticut’s transportation history is that, almost 40 years ago, there was hovercraft service from Bridgeport to New York City. If you’ve never “flown” on a hovercraft, it’s quite an experience.  The interior of the craft is filled with airline style seats and there’s often even an attendant serving beverages.  When it’s ready to depart, giant fans blowing downward lift the craft onto a bubble of air, captured by a huge rubber skirt. Then other fans push the hovering craft forward, guided by air rudders.   Think of an Everglades airboat on steroids, except this one floated above

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One Million Deaths

I had COVID last week.  After more than two years of hand washing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds, I guess it was my turn.  Fortunately, being double vaxed and double boosted, it was a relatively mild case and my recovery was hastened by antiviral pills from Pfizer. But this week marks a stark milestone (or headstone) in this pandemic:  one million Americans have died from COVID.  Worldwide the death toll is more like six million though some experts say the number of fatalities is much higher. So how are we all recovering from this pandemic? Joining transportation experts last week

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Why is There Still no Free Wi-Fi on Metro-North?

Airplanes have Wi-Fi.  Even Connecticut’s  CTfastrak commuter bus system from New Britain to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.   Commuter railroads across the US offer Wi-Fi, including Boston’s MBTA. Wi-Fi is everywhere… but not on Metro-North.  So the Connecticut legislature has just budgeted $23 million to install 5G technology on the railroad’s M8 cars.  Are they too late?  Is it even needed? Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology, not satellites (like in planes).  In 2010 Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston and they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using

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A Legislative Scorecard

As our Connecticut legislators wrap up their “short session” this week, it’s time to assess their work: things accomplished, mixed messages sent and issues left unresolved. Transportation is responsible for almost 30% of all air pollution in the US, more than half of that spewed by cars and trucks.  The EPA cays Connecticut is in “severe non-compliance” with Federal clean air rules, especially Fairfield, New Haven and Middlesex counties.  Our air literally stinks. So while I’m happy the state has finally committed to a Clean Air Act, it will take until 2040 for many of its provisions to take effect. 

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Are Connecticut state workers overpaid?  I don’t think so

Are Connecticut state workers overpaid?  I don’t think so. Connecticut state employees are about to get a retroactive, four-year contract that gives them a $3500 bonus, annual 2.5% pay increases and their “step increases” tied to seniority and their jobs.  By one estimate, this all works out to an additional $10,000 per worker over four years. Total cost to taxpayers:  $1.86 billion. Watching the legislature debate this package I had to chuckle.  Despite all the fuss and bluster, this now looks like a sweetheart deal compared to what would be negotiated in today’s era of hyper-inflation. Just 2.5%?  A bargain!

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Metro-North’s Hypocrisy Unmasked

I love getting email, especially from frustrated Metro-North commuters.  Consider this thoughtful email I received a week ago from a six-day a week rider, Scott Mikita who works on Broadway: “I am actually on a train into work right now and Googled “Metro North conductor claims he can’t enforce mask mandate” and your article from Sept 2021 popped up. I take 12 train rides per week and have seen ridership increase since coming back to work in September 2021. I have also noticed that trains are often shorter than before and some conductors reluctant to open empty cars, even on

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Why They De-Electrified the Danbury Branch

It was a huge mistake, one that commuters and planners have regretted for over sixty years.  For it was in 1959 that the last electric locomotive pulled a train on the Danbury branch. Yes, that meandering 24 miles of single track railroad connecting South Norwalk and Danbury was once electrified. For 34 years, long before the invention of diesel locomotives, it saw electric trains running “under the wire”. Why did that change? Most rail historians, like former New Haven and Metro-North veteran Jack Swanberg blame one man:  Patrick B McGinnis, President of the New Haven.  “He was not a good

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Why You Can’t Pump Your Own Gas in New Jersey

You can pump your own soft-serve ice cream at trendy yogurt shoppes.  But you still can’t pump your own gasoline in New Jersey. Why? Once again, lawmakers in Trenton have killed an effort to save motorists money at the pump, allegedly in the name of safety. Self-serve gasoline has been the rule nationwide for 73 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

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The Gas Tax Hustle

Attention all chiropractors and physical therapists!  Please report immediately to the state Capitol to treat the sore muscles of lawmakers who’ve twisted themselves into a pretzel, patting themselves on their backs for cutting the gasoline tax! What a surprise (in an election year) that lawmakers voted unanimously to cut the gasoline tax 25 cents a gallon from April 1 – June 30th.  What a massive sense of relief for money-short taxpayers to save, what, $25 per car this spring.  Wow!  Let’s all drive to Disneyworld. And what do you think will happen in June when summertime driving season really kicks

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Ride Sharing is Back!

How’d you like to save thousands of dollars in commuting costs by car?  And at the same time cut the number of vehicles on our highways? The answer:  ride sharing. With the sudden surge in gasoline prices there’s renewed interest in car / van pooling, as the folks at CTrides can attest.  They’re the state agency tasked with selling the idea of “green rides”, though I think it’s the green in your wallet that most captures commuters’ attention these days, not just saving the environment. But it is true that 38% of all greenhouse gases come from transportation and with

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Problems at Metro-North? A Man from Ukraine Can Fix That

In the waning days of WW II, the Americans sent a special unit into Germany to find one man, not to bring him to justice but to eventually put him in charge of the U.S. space program. His name was Werner von Braun. Now I think, whatever the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, a similar effort should be made to rescue Oleksandr Pertsovskyi. Not familiar with his work? Well two million Ukrainians are benefiting from his skills. He may have saved their lives. You see, Pertsovskyi is head of passenger rail operations at Ukrzaliznytsia, the Ukrainian national railroad which is

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Saving Money on Gasoline

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has thrown the world energy markets into turmoil, raising the price of gasoline in Connecticut to more than $4 per gallon. And given that 26% of all energy in this country is spent on transporting people, sticker shock at the gas pump will affect all of us. I’ve written before about our state’s crazy “Zone Pricing” for gasoline, which is why you’ll pay 42 cents more per gallon for fuel in Greenwich than in Bridgeport. But wherever you drive, there are some simple ways of saving on gas. DRIVE LESS: Duh! If you plan your trips

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Fares Go Up, But Not Enough: Why Commuter Rail is Unsustainable

As Metro-North returns to charging peak fares at rush hour this week, it’s time to get honest about the unsustainable nature of commuter rail in Connecticut. Sure, our state’s rail riders already pay some of the highest fares of any commuter line in the US (because the railroad’s subsidy, though high, is the lowest in the country), but those fares don’t come close to covering the actual cost of operations, let alone the cost of capital equipment (new trains, locomotives, stations).  Metro-North is losing taxpayers’ money with every trip… lots of it! Back in the good old’ pre-COVID era, almost

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Racial Justice and the Railroads — From Pullman Porter to Supreme Court Justice

As we celebrate Black History month, let’s remember that the path to civil rights began long before the march to Selma.  It happened on city buses in 1955 in Montgomery Alabama and for decades before that on railroads across America. In the history of American transportation, there is one crucial intersection between railroads and civil rights:  the formation in 1925 of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters by A. Phillip Randolph.  This was the first predominantly African-American labor union in the US. PULLMAN CARS It was in 1859 that George Pullman launched the first deluxe railroad sleeping cars bearing his name.  They were an

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Transportation Tidbits

This week, updates on a few interesting developments in transportation: PEAK FARES: On March 1st Metro-North will again start charging peak fares during rush hours.  But the railroad will also offer new discounts:  10% off a monthly pass and discounted 20-trip tickets.  On the subways and buses they’ll give passengers free rides for the week after they pay 12 one-way fares via the new  OMNY scanners.  They’re calling it “fare capping”, giving frequent riders free rides after paying $33. ADDED SERVICE?: The railroad says it’s evaluating adding more service, speeding up express trains etc.  But no plans have been announced.  Bottom line: 

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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

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Commuting in a Wheelchair

You think you have a bad commute?  Try doing Maclean Sarr’s hour and a half trip each way… in a wheelchair. Unable to walk since contracting cerebral palsy as an infant, the 22-year-old Sarr is now a student at Gateway Community College in New Haven but lives in Westbrook.  That means a 28-mile trip each way, in his motorized wheelchair, in a bus, a train and another bus. Sarr lives within “walking distance” of the Westbrook station serving Shore Line East trains, but there are no sidewalks and too much traffic, so the Nine Towns Transit bus is his best

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A Tale of Two Railroads

When I read two very different news stories about our trains last week, Charles Dickens came to mind:   “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities Oh, it’s our winter of our despair, alright, especially for Metro-North when the NY Times last Friday so cogently summarized the commuter line’s near-term future as being “Devastated by Remote Work”, almost verbatim repeating my predictions of one year ago:  commuters are not coming back. Late in 2021 the weekday ridership on

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Is There a Future for Overnight Trains?

In an age of ever-faster trains connecting major cities globally, is there any future for anachronistic night trains with sleeping cars?  Why, yes! In the old days you used to be able to travel long and relatively short distances on overnight trains, either in coach or a comfy sleeping compartment.  On the New Haven Railroad you could board your train at Grand Central before midnight and awake the next morning in Boston, Cape Cod or Montreal.  It was like combining the cost of travel and a hotel in one package. Accommodations in the sleeper cars ranged from upper or lower

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Free Parking Isn’t Really Free

Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing:  free parking.  After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for what’s really a privilege.  It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking. But free parking is actually expensive and paid for in more than just dollars. The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require.  So when your local Planning & Zoning Commission is looking at proposals for, say, a new

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Traffic Reporter Tom Kaminski

Tom Kaminski is like an omniscient guardian angel, floating in the heavens and keeping motorists in the tri-state area safe from motoring mayhem. For 34 years Kaminski has been a traffic reporter for WCBS 880 radio, heading a team of producers, spotters and tipsters covering traffic and transit from his vantage point 1500 feet above the city in the station’s Bell 206 helicopter. Most of the time he’s in the chopper, but always with a pilot and, more recently, a camera operator for his twice hourly updates for PIX-11 TV.  Six times each hour (“on the 8’s”) from 5:30 am

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Highway Sound Barriers

Building and maintaining our highways is expensive.  But here’s a quiz question:  on interstates 95 and 84, what costs a half-million dollars a mile to construct?  The answer:  sound barriers. Why are we spending that kind of money to surround our interstate highways simply to protect the peace and quiet of their immediate neighbors?  Living that close to a highway built in the 1950s comes with the twin costs of increased noise and air pollution along with the benefits of proximity to the highways. Do you have sympathy for people who move near airports and then complain about the jets? 

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Zooming Through Winter

Ah, winter in New England!  One day it’s foggy and mild, the next day it’s a blizzard.  How can we get through the next few months and still get where we’re going?  Here are a few tips crowd-sourced from your fellow commuters: IF YOU TAKE THE TRAIN: First, never assume your train will be operating on time.  Though Metro-North’s new M8 cars do much better in snow than the older cars, the railroad is quick to amend its schedules and reduce service as conditions warrant.  Check their app before you head to the station.  Leave early and expect to arrive

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A Chat With Transportation Commissioner Joe Guilietti

Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Guilietti has a holiday gift for rail commuters… and maybe a lump of coal for the stockings for highway speeders. Once a year I get a sit-down with the Commissioner.  We’ve known each other for many years since his days as President of Metro-North.  He knows I always ask him the tough questions but once told me “You’re always fair, Jim”, a comment that brought a tear to my eye. So when I asked him when train service was going to get faster, he didn’t blink… or over-promise. “My boss (the Governor) keeps asking

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Holiday Gifts for Commuters

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for a friend who misses their daily commute amid the pandemic?  Consider an item from the exclusive Cameron Commuter Collection: SCENTED CANDLES: Nothing says the holidays like a fragrant candle to remind you of the old days of commuting.  How about the “M2 Lavatory” scent to revisit the pungent smell of the railroad’s old bathrooms.  Or the “Bar Car Memories” fragrance that smells faintly of stale beer and cigars. For sports fans, there’s the “Yankee Express-ions”, which smells like sweaty baseball fans tailgating on their way to the game.  Or the “Burning Brakes” scent

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Metamorphosis

Don’t look now, but we’re making history.  The changing forces now at work in our society, including our transportation network, will have a profound effect on our lives for decades to come.  THE BIG QUIT: According to federal statistics, 4 million people quit their jobs in July of this year, with almost 11 million jobs nationwide now unfilled.  As a result, our ports are jammed, the supply chain broken and holiday purchases seem in peril.  Don’t expect any bargains for Christmas. Why the huge turnover in jobs?  I think a lot of it has been soul-searching amid the pandemic as

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Leaves vs Locomotives

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?” A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track? If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North. This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. On a single day one recent fall, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks. You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel

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Good News for Transportation

Last week was a good one for our transportation future, on several fronts. First, of course, was Congress finally passing the massive infrastructure bill.  This once-in-a-generation, trillion-dollar package will bring a massive rebuilding of our crumbling bridges and highways as well as expansion of the nation’s power grid and internet infrastructure.  It will also invest in the ways we must prepare for the impact of global warming. The bill will also mean thousands of construction jobs over the next decade, what the White House called a “blue collar blueprint” for  decades-delayed repair and enhancement of the nation’s infrastructure. For rail

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Saving Money on Metro-North

Are you paying too much to ride Metro-North?  Maybe. As we slowly return to semi-regular commuting by commuter rail in Connecticut, ridership on Metro-North is about half of pre-COVID levels, below the railroad’s hopes and its consultants’ predictions… but not mine. But however often you’re taking the train these days, here are some money saving tips.   First tip:  always buy your ticket before boarding the train.  Conductors can charge you a hefty on-board surcharge up to $6.50 (but not for seniors) if you don’t have a ticket.  That’s a rookie mistake you’ll only make once. If you buy your ticket

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Train Service Door to Door

Imagine this:  using an app to book a car, a train ride and another car to your destination in one step.  Such a service has just been announced by the innovative Brightline rail service in south Florida. It’s the “last mile” that’s always been a challenge for would-be rail riders.  Assuming you can get to your “home” train station (maybe if you’ve waited 5+ years for a parking permit), when you get off the train in an unknown town, how do you get to your final destination? Visit the smallest town in Europe and on arrival at the train station

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