April 29, 2013
Time for a quick update on the good and not-so good news about high-speed rail around the world:
CHINA: The high-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai just passed the 100 million passenger ridership mark after less than 2 years of operations. The sleek trains depart every 15 minutes carrying 1,000+ passengers at 200+ mph, covering the 819 mile distance (comparable to NYC – Atlanta) in 4 hours.
China also recently opened a new 1,400 mile long high speed line from Beijing to Guangzhou (comparable to NYC to Key West FL). Travel time, 8 hours. That puts high speed rail just 100 miles from Hong Kong.
U.S.A.: America’s fastest train, Acela, while a tinker toy compared to true high-speed rail in China and Europe, is becoming a victim of its own success. Acela has captured over 50% of the NY to DC and NY to Boston market with hourly departures but an average speed of only 75 mph. Trains are sold out (with 3.4 million passengers a year) and, at least on paper, highly profitable. But when Amtrak looked at adding an extra car to each train to capitalize on this popularity, they concluded it would be too expensive.
But Amtrak has been experimenting with increasing Acela’s speed from 125 to 160 mph on a few stretches of track in NJ and RI. Some $450 million in work will be needed but the hope is the faster speeds could be achieved by 2017. Today Acela accounts for a quarter of all Amtrak revenues nationwide.
FRANCE: If it worked for the airlines, why not high speed rail? France’s government run railroad is about to launch a no-frills, discounted subsidiary branded “OuiGo”. Using rebuilt double-decker TGV equipment, the trains will be super cheap but with few amenities (think Southwest Airlines on rails). All ticketing will be online. Extra bags will cost you $8 in advance, $65 if you wait til the last minute. There are no café or bar cars on the trains.
A seat near an electric outlet is extra. You have to arrive 30 min before departure, and OuiGo only uses suburban, not downtown, stations (appealing to the car-centric suburbanites near Paris). But for a little hassle, you can get to Marseille (on the Mediterranean) in three hours for as little as $13.
NETHERLANDS – BELGIUM: Not all high-speed rail in Europe is a smashing success. Witness “Frya”, the private rail service between Brussels and The Netherlands (in planning since 2004) that was to cut travel time by one-third using sleek new V250 trains (ironically named “The Albatross”) built in Italy. While lowest bidder Ansaldo Breda had a great track record building trams and commuter trains, when their V250 finally ran this Winter, ice build-up began ripping plates from beneath the trains. (See… Metro-North isn’t the only railroad with equipment problems in the Winter!). The V250 cars were declared unsafe and taken out of service while the lawyers go at it.
April 12, 2013
In the eight years I’ve been writing this column I’ve never found a reason to write about cruise ships, one of my favorite ways to travel.
Since my Dad took me as a passenger on freighters through the Caribbean when I was a kid right up to our now-annual cruises to the same area, I’ve always loved the high seas. There’s nothing easier than driving to the pier in NYC, hopping on board and kicking back for a week.
A few years ago my fascination with cruising brought me to a great book, “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea” by Kristoffer Garin which detailed the formative years of the cruise industry, especially the start-up of Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972. It was a rough start, but today Carnival owns ten cruise lines (almost half the cruise ships in the world) including Cunard, Holland America, Costa, P&O, Princess and Seabourn. At one point they even had their own airline ferrying passengers to Miami and San Juan, their biggest embarkation ports.
By segmenting the cruise market, just as hotels do, they offer everything from singles-filled party cruises to upscale trans-Atlantic “crossings” on the Queen Mary 2 (which is where I was while reading Garin’s book in 2006).
But more recently Carnival’s had some very bad PR.
Last year it was crash of the Costa Concordia in Italy (whose
abandoned ship). Then, the February
stranding of the 4,000-person “Triumph” for days in the Gulf of Mexico (without
power, food or sanitation) was just the latest in a series of engineering
problems. Last week another ship,
Fascination, failed a CDC health inspection, the fourth of their ships to do so
this year alone.
Last week demand for cabins was so low that Carnival was offering cruises for $38 a night per person… less than the cost at Motel 6. And that price includes all meals (assuming those CDC inspections don’t hurt your appetite).
Admittedly, this is a weak time of year for cruising, but Carnival knows it’s always best to sail with a full ship and make money on the booze and ship excursions.
In my view, the real problem isn’t Carnival or its ships’ safety, but the fact that they pay no taxes… and yet, depend on the US Coast Guard for their numerous rescues.
Micky Arison, son of the founder of Carnival (and owner of the Miami Heat), is the richest man in Florida. Last year Carnival brought in $15.3 billion in revenues. But they paid just 0.6% in US, state, local and international taxes last year while socking taxpayers for millions in US Coast Guard expenses for 90 different rescue missions in the last five years.
Senator Jay Rockefeller says Arison is a “cheater… treacherous and wrong” and wrote him asking to do the right thing and pay-up. Carnival declined the invitation, prompting Rockefeller (the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee) to call their response “shameful”.
Shameful, perhaps. But perfectly legal and the result, even Rockefeller admits, of sloppiness by Congress. So, expect some grandstanding, a few hearings and maybe some face-saving philanthropy by Arison. But don’t expect many changes in the cruise industry, especially in higher fares that reflect the true cost of being a “devil on the deep blue seas”.
April 04, 2013
Who do you think has the toughest job in transportation? Airline pilots? Long-haul truck drivers? Metro-North conductors? To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.
Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage. The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat. By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.
A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives. Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.
But I think the biggest threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job. After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent. That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t get into even a verbal fight. Could you be so thick-skinned?
It’s been 12 years since 9/11. Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane? The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day. If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.
Remember the holy triad of service: fast, good and cheap. You can achieve any two of those, but not all three. Clearly, the top priority is “good” security. So in this age of sequestration we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed.
If you want to fly, put up and shut up: put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.
Passenger protests have brought some TSA screening changes which seem arbitrary. Like the recent rule allowing passengers over age 75 to keep their shoes on. Terrorists can’t be that old?
And what passes for the rare TSA inspection of Amtrak passengers is more for show than real security. Unless every bag is opened, the rare and random briefcase examination or quick dog-walk through a moving train seems to be just “showing the colors”.
What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers? They turn up an amazing amount of weapons. The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.
In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and ten stun guns. There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity: a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane. After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb. But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.
And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.
March 18, 2013
Shortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy. Nothing new there. I’d certainly questioned Republican governors in years past, usually to little response. But this time the reaction was different.
A Malloy confidant, a senior State Senator from Fairfield County, took me aside and threatened me. Not physically, but legislatively. “You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up,” he said in Machiavellian tones. “Bring it on,” I said, half-shocked at this political threat.
Well, it took a couple of years (and more criticism), but the threat has come true. The Governor has submitted a bill (HB 6363) that would wipe out the existing Metro-North Commuter Rail Council and its 15 members. In its place, a new Council would be appointed and the Governor, not the members of the Council, would choose its Chairman.
Further, the new Commuter Council’s mandate would turn from investigation and advocacy on behalf of fellow commuters to a PR advisor to the CDOT. While the current Council has the power to request information and is required to receive cooperation from any state or local agency, that power would be eliminated under Malloy’s bill.
The Commuter Council isn’t the only pro-transportation group affected by the bill. The CT Public Transportation Commission would also be eliminated just as last year Malloy erased the Transportation Strategy Board.
This obvious power-grab by the Governor has so far gone unchallenged in the legislature, buried in a 66-page Christmas tree of a bill. If it becomes law, my 15+ years as a member of the Commuter Council (the last four as its Chairman) will be history.
But why is the Metro-North Commuter Council singled out for such harsh treatment?
It’s not that the Commuter Council has been wasting state money. We operate on a budget of zero dollars, even dipping into our own pockets to pay for design of a logo and pay for postage. And I don’t think it can be argued that we haven’t been doing our jobs… meeting monthly with Metro-North and the CDOT to address commuter complaints and push for ever better service.
No, I think the real problem is that we’ve done our job too well, calling out CDOT, the legislature and yes, even the Governor, when they did things that we felt screwed commuters. That’s our mandate.
I guess Governor Malloy didn’t like it when we pointed out that as a gubernatorial candidate he promised to never raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state’s budget, but then did just that when he took office. And I guess he wasn’t happy when I noted that his budget took new fare increases from Metro-North riders but didn’t spend the money on trains, in effect making the fare hike a “commuter tax”.
And I’d imagine the Commissioner of the CDOT… the fifth Commissioner in my 15+ years on the Council… would be happy to see the current Council gone, critical as we have been about their Stamford Garage project which we see as selling out the interests of commuters to private developers.
It’s sad that the Governor feels the way to answer legitimate criticism is to eviscerate those who question him. But I can promise you that his proposed elimination of the Metro-North Commuter Council won’t silence me. Bring it on, Governor.
March 03, 2013
Earlier in my career I was a journalist. I worked for INC Magazine, was a news anchor at NBC and received a Peabody Award. All of which is to preface some discouraging remarks about the media these days. I know quality journalism, and we’re often not getting it when it comes to local reporting on transportation.
Case in point: The Norwalk Hour’s coverage of recent legislative hearings in Hartford on possibly reinstating tolls on I-95. While those proposals center on use of electronic tolls, The Hour’s sister publication, “The Wilton Villager” ran a headline proclaiming “Toll Booths Have Little Support”. Who’s talking about toll booths?
And in every story those papers have written on this issue in recent years, there is always a reminder that tolls were eliminated in 1985 following a “fiery truck crash” that killed seven people at the Stratford toll barrier.
While that accident was unfortunate, it was as rare as Haley’s Comet. Trucks do not crash into toll booths and those barriers have been replaced with non-stop electronic tolling (like EZPass).
Newspapers are certainly entitled to their editorial opinions on tolling, but they should also get their news coverage straight as to what is being proposed instead of always beating the drums of fear over trucks crashing into non-existent tolls booths.
Even when papers do editorialize, they don’t get the facts straight. Consider The Waterbury Republican-American’s most recent screed against rail commuters on Metro-North in an editorial entitled “Subsidized Chutzpah”. When rail service on the Waterbury branch was suspended for four days (with no substitute bus service) after the blizzard, commuters thought they should have their weekly and monthly tickets refunded.
But the newspaper called that “chutzpah”, saying the riders of the heavily subsidized rail service should be grateful for any service, adding “One way to demonstrate their gratitude would be to decline to take advantage of the occasional opportunity to trash their benefactor.”
Wow. If the Republican-American couldn’t deliver papers after the storm, would they consider subscriber requests for a refund to be “chutzpah”? I’d hope not. So why the contemptuous attitude toward hard-working local citizens who ride the train?
Ironically, the Republican American’s offices are in the beautiful old Waterbury rail station whose iconic tower is a city landmark. It’s a shame to waste such a great building on such a snarky rag.
Mind you, not all journalists are so sloppy or hate their readers. The Hartford Courant, Stamford Advocate and Cablevision’s News 12 usually get it right and have gone out of their way to report on the work of the CT Rail Commuter Council, for which we are grateful. And, of course, I owe personal thanks to this newspaper for running my column for lo these many years
So, caveat emptor! When it comes to reporting on crucial transportation issues in our state, consider the source. And always search out a second opinion.
February 19, 2013
If you had a contract with someone and paid them in advance to do a job, only to find they never provided that service, you should get your money back, right? Otherwise, by keeping the money and not delivering on the bargain, that person would be committing fraud.
Well, that’s exactly what Metro-North does to weekly and monthly ticket holders when it sells those tickets but cancels train service. The railroad refuses to give those riders a refund. That’s wrong.
For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has asked Metro-North (and its boss, CDOT) to rethink that policy, but they have refused. We even approached Attorney General Jepsen, making a consumerist’s argument, but he wasn’t interested in helping.
Clearly, it’s not Metro-North’s fault when tropical storm Sandy or winter storm Nemo leave the tracks buried. In some cases they can attempt substitute bus service, in which case refunds shouldn’t be required.
When the Commuter Council last year pushed for a “Passenger Bill of Rights” we asked for refunds when service was out, but the railroad said “impossible”, though they did allow refunds on one-way tickets, which is not the problem at all.
One-way tickets are good for sixty days. If the train’s not running, you can use them next week. But weekly tickets are only good for seven specific days, Saturday through Friday. If the train doesn’t run, you’re out of luck.
Look at the Waterbury line during storm Nemo. Train service was halted Friday night and wasn’t resumed until the following Wednesday… four days. A commuter who’d bought a weekly ticket from Waterbury to GCT paid $125 but lost 4/7ths of the ticket’s value and was denied a refund.
This year we’re pleading our case for fairness to the state legislature with the help of State Representative Gail Lavielle of Wilton. At our behest she introduced HB 5127 which would require Metro-North and CDOT to offer credit for unusable tickets when service is cancelled for more than 48 hours. That credit could be made by extending the validity of a ticket, offering replacement tickets or maybe even a refund.
Fifteen commuters submitted testimony in support of the bill, making a very simple argument: if the railroad can’t provide train service (or buses), ticket holders should be made whole.
When the airlines cancelled thousands of flights due to the blizzard, they honored passengers’ tickets on later flights. When Metro-North cancelled trains, they just kept the money.
In his testimony on the bill, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Dept of Transportation said the refund plan wasn’t feasible. And weekly / monthly commuters already get a discount, so why are they complaining?
And Metro-North, in one of its more arrogant moves of late, thumbed its nose at the Connecticut Legislature saying that as a NY State agency it was immune from Connecticut law. That, in New York, is what they call chutzpah.
It’snot too late for commuters to support this bill by calling their elected officials. Because while Metro-North deserves credit for much improved, usually on-time service, it should not be allowed to pick our pockets by selling us tickets when it cannot run trains, for whatever reason, but then keeps our money. That’s just unfair.
February 01, 2013
Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway. I wish!
Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely enforced. Which got me thinking: who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?
In suburban Maryland they opened a $2.5 billion toll-road last year, connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The ICC, or Inter-County Connector, is carrying so little traffic that motorists complain it’s hard to stick to the double-nickels (55 mph). So to incentivize more traffic, Maryland lawmakers are talking of raising the speed limit to 70 mph, faster even than the 65 mph speed limit on other interstates.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of those same lawmakers would benefit from a speedier trip from their home districts to the state capital in Annapolis.
Why is the speed limit on I-95 only 55 mph in Connecticut but 65 mph in Rhode Island? And even in-state, why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the NY border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?
Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT. This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with Local Traffic Authorities (usually local Police Departments, Mayors or Boards of Selectmen).
OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits) including the ban on their use of the left hand lane on I-95.
It was the Federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995, (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes) leaving it each state to decide what’s best.
In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph. And mind you, those are just the legal limits, so you can imagine how fast some folks drive.
About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary, though a minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule. But top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).
Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways. And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.
Interestingly enough, there are two bills (HB 5451 & 5553) up for consideration this month by the Transportation Committee of the Connecticut legislature that would raise the maximum speed limit on our Connecticut highways while also increasing the fines for speeding and reckless driving. So expect some interesting debate on this topic in the coming weeks.