May 27, 2016

Talking Transportation: Why There’s No Wi-Fi On Metro-North

wifi-train-600x397

A few weeks ago a friend was showing me his new Chevy Volt. Not only does the hybrid-electric car get 42 mpg, it has its own Wi-Fi hotspot. That’s right. The car is a Wi-Fi device, so kids in the backseat can watch YouTube.

Days later we were on a road-trip from the Maryland shore when we caught the Lewes – Cape May ferry. Onboard the vessel they offered passengers free Wi-Fi.

Airlines have offered flyers Wi-Fi for years now. Discount bus lines like Megabus have free Wi-Fi. Even Connecticut’s new CTfastrak commuter bus system to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.

But there is no Wi-Fi on Metro-North. And the railroad says none is planned, even though the new M8 railcars are ready for the needed gear. And therein lies a story.

Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology. That’s how the first airline Wi-Fi was offered by companies like Go-Go, though JetBlue and Southwest now rely on proprietary satellite systems, which are much faster (up to 30 mb per second.)

When Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston, they immediately had bandwidth issues. So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North is reluctant to offer Wi-Fi: if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a 10-car train carrying a thousand commuters? The railroad has enough complaints as it is.

Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned. Remember years ago when the railroad installed pay-phones on the trains? Great idea, until a year later when costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone. Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming diagnostic reports. The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months. They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar.

But Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost it nothing, that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers. And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

Today the railroad sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience. Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology. But to their credit the railroad is trying to get cell providers to fill in the coverage gaps, for example, in the tunnels and at GCT.

So don’t look for Wi-Fi anytime soon on America’s biggest and busiest commuter railroad. It’s not seen as a necessity … except perhaps by its passengers who really have no other transportation option.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Is Uber Really a Bargain?

In the almost two years since Uber rolled into Connecticut, the state’s car/taxi service business has been rocked to its core. But is Uber competing on the same level as taxis and car service companies? Of course not, which is why it’s so successful.

I spoke with Uber’s Connecticut Manager Matt Powers and Drivers Unlimited (a Darien car & limo company) owner Randy Klein to try to get an objective comparison of the services. (Full disclosure: I have been a customer of both firms.)

While Uber does offer a “black car” (premium) service, my comparisons are with their more popular Uber X service … private cars driven by non-chauffeurs, 7,000 of whom have signed up as drivers in CT, according to Powers.

VEHICLES: Car services opt for Lincoln Town Cars and SUV’s. Uber X just requires drivers have a 4-door car, less than 10 years old with a trunk big enough to carry a wheelchair.

MAINTENANCE: Klein owns and maintains his own fleet, inspecting all cars weekly. Uber relies on its X drivers to do upkeep.

DRIVER SCREENING: Klein does his own background checks on top of the DMV screening required for a CDL (commercial drivers license). Uber says it does “rigorous” screening of drivers, including terrorist watch lists, but requires only a regular driver’s license. Klein’s firm also does random drug testing of his drivers.

INSURANCE: Klein has coverage of up to $1.5 million for every driver. Uber relies on the individual driver’s personal insurance but layers a $1 million policy on top when they are driving Uber customers.

RATINGS: Uber asks drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip. Klein asks passengers to rate drivers but says it’s unfair to allow drivers to rate customers. “We’re in a service business,” he says.

BOOKING: Klein says most of his reservations are made two to three weeks in advance. Uber doesn’t do advance bookings, though, in personal experience, I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a car.

FARES: Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, an average car service ride from Darien to LaGuardia Airport is anywhere from $130 – $180, one-way. Uber’s quote for an X car is about $75.

SURGE PRICING: When demand is highest, Uber adds a surcharge to fare quotes, sometimes doubling the fare. Klein says his rates are the same 24 x 7.

IF YOU HAVE PROBLEMS: Klein says his office can be reached anytime by phone, toll-free. Uber’s website offers a template to file complaints online.

So, is Uber really a bargain? Let me answer with a hotel analogy. Sometimes I love staying at the Ritz Carlton with its plush rooms and fabulous service. Other times, a Motel 6 or LaQuinta is fine, though there’s always the risk of a “surprise”.

I see car services the same way. With a plush Lincoln SUV and chauffeur you get what you pay for. But sometimes all you want is to get from home to the airport and an Uber X is just fine … and a lot cheaper!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Cross Country by Amtrak

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog.

An Amtrak dining car, from the Amtrak blog.

A recent business trip took me to Dallas on a crowded, turbulent 3 ½ hour flight from LaGuardia. But the return trip was a real treat: two days and nights on Amtrak, for free.

Riding a lot of Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor, I’ve built up a ton of Amtrak Guest Rewards points, augmented by their co-branded credit card. So when I checked my calendar and the Amtrak website, I saw an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely ride home in a full bedroom, meals included, gratis.

The long distance trains I rode from Dallas to Chicago (The Texas Eagle) and Chicago to Washington, D.C. (The Capitol Ltd) were all “Superliners”, i.e., double-deck cars with a variety of accommodations, including coaches and sleeping cars.

Each train also had a diner and an observation car, though the sightseeing through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois wasn’t exactly memorable. But the second leg of the trip through the hills and river valleys of Pennsylvania and Maryland was gorgeous. “Fly over” country sure looks different from an elevation of about 20 feet.

My bedroom was equipped with a big couch that folded down into an almost queen-sized bed, surprisingly comfortable for sleeping. The private commode doubled as a shower.

Firing up my radio scanner, pre-set to the railroads’ frequencies, I followed the action as the conductor and engineer received instructions from a dispatcher hundreds of miles away.

The food was good, all cooked to order, and included in my first class fare. Dining was communal, one of the fun parts of train travel: getting to meet real folks from across the U.S., chatting about their travels, their work – everything except politics.

In Chicago and Washington D.C., where I had time between train connections, I enjoyed Amtrak’s “Metropolitan Lounge” for first class passengers, complete with free Wifi, snacks and priority boarding. I also had time to explore those cities’ beautifully restored train stations jammed with commuters, Amtrak passengers, shops and restaurants.

To their credit, Amtrak does a great job with their money-losing long distance trains. The service is truly First Class, the ride smooth and, for the most part, on time (thanks to a heavily padded timetable). We had only two small delays… one caused by another Amtrak train colliding with a truck at a grade crossing (no injuries), the other by a boulder on the tracks that needed to be removed.

Because demand is high and the supply of sleepers is low, fares for long distance Amtrak trains are pricey and booked many weeks in advance. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Dallas is as low as $230. But one-way on Amtrak is $299 in coach and $700+ in a roomette. Of course with Amtrak it’s like getting two nights of hotel plus meals, but to me it’s well worth it.

So next time you’re planning a long distance trip, turn it into a journey. Take the train!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Secrets of Riding Metro-North

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.19.18 AMEach week, dozens of people ride Metro-North for the first time. This week’s column is to let both new and veteran commuters in on the secrets of a successful rail commute.

PARKING:
You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so invest in your commuting future by getting your name on your town’s (and neighboring towns’) waiting lists for annual parking permits. In four or five years, when your name rises to the top of the list, you’ll thank yourself. Meantime, opt for legal day-parking, find a friend to ride to the station with or try biking. There are free bike racks at most stations.

PLATFORM POSITIONING:
There’s a science to deciding where on the platform to wait for your train. Many commuters position themselves at the front or rear of the train for a quick get-away when they arrive in Grand Central. Contrarian that I am, I tend toward the center of the train because that’s where there’s a better chance of getting a seat.

FINDING A SEAT:
Believe me, your commute will be a lot better seated than standing. Seats are in short supply, so here’s the strategy. As your train pulls in, scan the cars that pass you and see how the passenger load looks. As the doors open, move quickly inside, eye-ball your target seat and get there fast. Put your carry-ons in the overhead rack and sit down. If you hesitate, you’re toast and will be a standee.
On trains leaving Grand Central, you may be able to get onboard up to 20 minutes before departure. Take a window or aisle seat on the three seat side. The middle seat next to you will be the last to be filled.

STANDEE STRATEGY:
If you didn’t get a seat on boarding, don’t give up. A few people on most trains get off in Stamford, so look for them and position yourself to get their seat before it gets cold. Here’s the secret: intermediate passengers have seat checks with a tear down the middle or a torn corner. Look for them and just before Stamford, position yourself near their row and, bingo, you’ve got a seat!

TICKETS:
Do not make the mistake of boarding a train without a ticket, or you’ll get hit with up to $6.50 penalty for buying a ticket on the train with cash. But if you’re thrifty, don’t buy a ticket from a ticket window or ticket machine. No, the cheapest tickets are only available online at www.mta.info. Go for the ten-trip tickets for an additional discount.

ON-BOARD ETIQUETTE:
Train time is not “your own time,” but shared time. So be considerate of your fellow commuters. Don’t hog empty seats, use the overhead racks. Keep your feet off the seats. If you must use your cellphone, go to the vestibule. Be like the Boy Scouts: anything you carry onto the train (including newspapers, coffee cups, etc.) carry off the train and dispose of properly.

If you’ve got your own “secrets” for a successful commute, send them along and I’ll include them in upcoming columns. Just e-mail me at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: ‘Don’t Blame The Trucks’

Driving to Hartford the other day (no, you cannot really get there by train) I saw a beautiful sight:  hundreds of trucks!  Yet, motorists hate trucks and mistakenly blame them for traffic congestion and accidents that cause hours of delays.

Readers of this column know I’m a “rail guy” and would love to see freight trains replace trucks, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  But as motorists we should not blame truckers for traffic woes of our own creation.

Check the facts and you’ll find most highway accidents are caused by motor cars, not the trucks.

Do trucks drive too fast?  Sure, but don’t we all?  Next time you’re on I-95, check who’s in the high-speed left lane and you’ll see cars, not trucks.

Should there be better safety inspections of trucks?  Absolutely!  But for every over-weight truck or over-worked truck driver, there are doubtless hundreds of unsafe cars and equally road-weary warriors behind the wheel whose reckless disregard endangers us all.

Truckers drive for a living.  They are tested and licensed to far more rigorous standards than anyone else.  And because they drive hundreds of miles each day, overall I think they are far better drivers.  When’s the last time you saw a trucker juggling a cellphone and a latte like some soccer moms?

And remember … they’re not out there driving their big-rigs up and down the highway just to annoy us.  We put those trucks on the road by our voracious consumption patterns.  Every product we buy at stores large and small, including the very newspaper or iPad you hold in your hand, was delivered by trucks.  Want fewer trucks on the road?  Just stop buying stuff.

By definition, trucks are high-occupancy vehicles.  Compare the energy efficiency of a loaded truck delivering its cargo to you in your “SOV” (single occupancy vehicle), even if it is a hybrid.  Only rail offers better fuel efficiency.

Why are trucks jamming our highways at rush hour?  Because merchants require them to drive at those times to meet the stores’ delivery timetable.  If big-box stores and supermarkets only took truck deliveries in the overnight hours, our highways would flow much better at rush hour. 

Truckers must use the interstates while passenger cars can chose among many alternate routes.  Why is the average distance driven on I-95 in Connecticut just 11 miles?  Because most of us drive the ‘pike for local, not interstate trips.

If we were smart enough to “value price” our highways (i.e., return tolling), we’d see fewer vehicles of all kinds on I-95, and those that were willing to pay for the privilege of motoring there would get real value in a faster ride.

I’m hardly an apologist for the trucking lobby.  But neither is it fair for us to blame anyone but ourselves for highway safety and congestion.  It’s the SOV crowd, not the truckers, who are to blame. 

Let’s be honest about this mess of our own making and stop trying to blame truckers as our scapegoat.  As the great philosopher Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Speed Limits, Safety and Fuel Efficiency

65-mph-speed-limit-sign

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 being enforced. Which got me thinking: who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?

Why is the speed limit on I-95 in Fairfield County only 55 mph but 65 mph east of New Haven? And why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the New York border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”? Why does the eastern half of the state get a break?

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 in most places.

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 to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes), leaving it to each state to decide what’s best.

In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph. Trust me … having recently driven 1000+ miles in remote stretches of Utah, things happen very fast when you’re doing 80 – 85 mph!

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. 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.

American cars are designed for maximum fuel efficiency in the 55 – 60 mph range. Speed up to 65 mph and your engine runs 8 percent less efficiently. At 70 mph, the loss is 17 percent. That adds up to more money spent on gasoline and more environmental pollution, all to save a few minutes of driving time.

But even bigger than the loss of fuel efficiency is aerodynamic drag, which can eat up to 40 percent of total fuel consumption. Lugging bulky roof-top cargo boxes worsens fuel economy by 25 percent at interstate speeds. So does carrying junk in your trunk (or passengers!): a 1 percent penalty for every 100 pounds.

Even with cheaper gasoline, it all adds up!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Predictions for 2016

Everybody writes “Year in Review” stories.  But rather than dwell on the past, I’ve got the guts to predict the future!  Here’s what will happen in 2016 in the transportation world.

METRO-NORTH: Slowly but surely, the railroad will drag itself out of the quagmire it’s been in since the Bridgeport, Spuyten Duyvil and Valhalla crashes.  On time performance will hold strong even through the winter, thanks to the dependable new M8 cars and mild weather.  Ridership will continue to climb, causing further crowding and standing room only conditions on some trains.

STAMFORD GARAGE: After waiting for its chosen developer (and Malloy campaign contributor) JHN Group to sign a contract two and a half years after being tapped for the massive transit oriented development project, Connecticut Department of  Transport will plug the plug on its deal and replace the old garage on its own (taxpayers’) dime.

TOLLS & TAXES: Governor Malloy’s quest for $100 billion to pay for his 20-year transportation plan will prove universally unpopular when his Transportation Funding Task Force finally issues its recommendations (originally due after Labor Day) in January. The panel will call for higher gasoline and sales taxes, tolls, motor vehicle fees and a slew of other unpopular ideas.  The legislature will react by slashing the Governor’s unrealistic plans, reluctant to have its fingerprints on anything the Task Force suggests.

EMINENT DOMAIN: Governor Malloy will try again to impose state control over transit oriented development, reintroducing his stealth bill to create a Transit Corridor Development Agency (all of whose members he would appoint) with the power to seize any land within a quarter mile of a rail station. 

FLYING: Returning to profitability, airlines will continue to squeeze more seats onto fewer flights, making flying an ordeal.  Frequent flyer rewards will be harder to get as desperate passengers will pay to ride in business or first class, leaving fewer seats for upgrades.

AMTRAK: Acela will become increasingly popular, allowing the railroad to raise business fares.  Last minute seats will be harder to get, but the railroad will still refuse to expand service by buying new railcars.  Traditional “Northeast Corridor” trains will still be jammed as the railroad tries to compete with discount bus carriers.

HIGHWAYS: With an improving economy and inadequate rail station parking, people will jam I-95 and the Merritt Parkway in even larger numbers, increasing commuting times further.  Gasoline prices will continue to decline thanks to cheap oil, sending even more people to the roads.

UBER WAFFLES:   State and city authorities will come down hard on car services like Uber and Lyft, imposing on them the same regulations and taxes now born by taxis and limos.  After “leveling the playing ground”, Uber-type services will raise fares, passing those costs on to passengers.

Will all of my predictions come true?  Check back in a year and we’ll see … meantime, happy traveling in 2016!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Saving Money on Metro North

MTA logoWith the holidays upon us, let’s review some money-saving tips for riding Metro-North into the city for commuters and day-trippers alike:

TRANSITCHEK: See if your employer subscribes to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $130 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45 percent of all New York City companies offer TransitChek, which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries. 

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 a.m. and can avoid the 4 to 8 p.m. peak return hours, you can save 25 percent.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: If you buy your ticket on the train you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 – $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once !  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty.) There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Peak or Off-Peak) to save an additional 15 percent.  They can be shared among passengers and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:   Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50 percent over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50 percent off the one-way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require weekday parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local town. 

METROCARDS: Forget about the old subway tokens.  These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some good deals:  put $5.50 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus, or vice versa.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($31) or a month ($116.50). 

BUT IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?: Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than to take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  Check out www.bestparking.com to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the # 7 subway from there.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Happy Holidays!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Traveling by Tube

Cutaway graphic of "The Loop."

Cutaway graphic of “The Loop.”

Will the train of the future be a high-speed tube, not a railroad?  That’s inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s and others’ vision.  And Musk, the man who brought us the Tesla (all-electric car) and SpaceX (for-profit space rocket company) is putting his own money behind a proof-of-concept project for what he calls Hyperloop.

The concept sound simple:  move passengers in a sealed tube through a series of giant pipes propelled by air pressure at speeds up to 700+ mph.  That would mean a trip from New York to DC would take 20 minutes.

Diagram of the "Beach" pneumatic transit system.

Alfred Beach’s “Pneumatic Transit” system.

But this is not a new concept.  In fact, the first experimental “subway” in New York City, Alfred Beach’s “Pneumatic Transit” proved back in 1870 that it would work.  Despite political opposition, Beach secretly built a 300-foot-long subway under Broadway near City Hall, offering daring passengers a round-trip ride in the system’s only railcar, pushed and pulled by air.  The system ran for almost three years and carried over 400,000 riders, 11,000 alone in the first two weeks.  The fare was 25 cents (equivalent to $18 today). Competing elevated railroad owners eventually won the City’s franchise and Beach’s system was abandoned.

Even Beach’s idea wasn’t new, as vast underground pneumatic tube systems in Paris and London were already delivering telegrams and mail by the 1850’s.  As recently as the 1960s, office buildings in major cities were designed with pneumatic tube systems for inter-office mail.  Some older department stores still use the tubes to record sales and make change from a centralized money room.

Hurtling through a tube may be fine for mail, but what about humans?  As a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, the psychological factor of being enclosed in a sealed tube, traveling 700+ mph, is not that much different than flying in a jet … maybe just a bit more claustrophobic.

Whether by train or plane, I always like to look out the window.  Seeing where we’re going is half the fun, even on a familiar route.  But wrapped in a metal tube inside a giant pipe affords no views at all.  Riding 31 miles in the Chunnel under the English Channel takes 20 minutes at today’s speeds, and that’s more than enough time for me, thank you very much.

Of greater concern are the propulsion methods and the sheer physics of accelerating and braking from near-supersonic speeds.  But the biggest challenge of all would be where to locate the “pipes” and how to acquire necessary land.

A station inside the"Pneumatic Transit" system.

A station inside the “Pneumatic Transit” system.

Like high-speed rail, it would make no sense to follow the median on Interstate 95 or the Metro-North / Amtrak rights of way with all their twists and turns.  And anyone crazy enough to invest in any project along the coastline with the inevitability of rising sea levels should probably think pontoons, not pipes.

It will be interesting to see if Musk’s and others’ Hyperloop concepts get off the ground (pun intended) … but I don’t expect to ride such a system any distance in my lifetime.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Good News — and Bad — for Metro-North

It’s been a rough few years for Metro-North what with derailments, crashes and commuter deaths.  But it finally seems like service and safety are coming back.

The best metric of that is the recent surge in ridership, up 1.7 percent compared to last year.  That works out to more than 3,000 additional riders every day.

Certainly this ridership gain is a sign of more people finding jobs. But with gasoline prices near a record low, there’s a reason these folks are training instead of driving:  they like what they see.

  • The trains are on time.  Yes, running slower than in years past, but what’s a few minutes if it means better safety?  What matters most is that the 7:37 shows up at 7:37, plus a minute or so, and arrives in NY pretty close to on-time.  It’s much more dependable now than last winter.
  • There have been no fare increases (at least in Connecticut), even though our fares are still the highest in the nation.
  • There’s more service too:  at least two trains per hour, even in off-peak.  That means more options.
  • And we have the spiffy new M8 railcars, at last.  Riders seem to like the clean, modern interiors and amenities, such a power plugs at each seat.

So for all of these reasons, a lot more people are taking the train.  Good news, right?  Yeah, but in the long run, not so good news because “supply” is not keeping up with “demand”.

More riders without additional capacity means crowding, and we’re already hearing more reports about that, especially at rush hour when some trains are SRO.  And that’s only going to get worse.

The problem is, we didn’t order enough new M8 cars back in 2005 when we placed our order:  just 300 cars for $762 million.  That worked out to $2.54 million per car.

By the time those cars finally went into service in 2011, CDOT and Metro-North realized they should order more. This time, just single un-powered cars, so trains could run with 7 or 9 cars, not just 6, 8 or 10 using the “married pairs” in the original order.

But by then, Kawasaki whacked us $3.3 million per car … and those newest single cars don’t even have motors.   Were we to try ordering more M8 cars today, who knows the price … or delivery time?

From the legislature’s approval of the M8s in 2005 through design, testing and construction, the first M8s took six years to get into service.  The latest single-car order took 4 years.  So even if we were to call Kawasaki today, we couldn’t get new cars until probably 2020 even if we could find the money.

Meanwhile, the Malloy administration is pushing an almost $10 billion, multi-year plan to widen I-95 and I-84.  By the time it’s done, crowding could be so bad on our trains that getting on a four-lane wide interstate might just be better alternative.  Ironic, no?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Happy 75th Birthday to The Merritt: Queen of the Parkways

A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Rte. 1, The Post Rd. If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey! So in 1936, 2,000 men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane- parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford. The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.

The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it was planted: 22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs. And then there are the bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.

Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic. No two bridges are exactly alike. In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.

The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s. Tolls were dropped in 1988.

The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles. One of the original booths is now preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.

At recent celebrations of the parkway’s 75th birthday, one old timer told of a friend from Yale who resented paying the dime toll in the 1940’s. So he went to the medical school and procured a cadaver arm, glued a dime on its finger and hid the arm up his sleeve. When the prankster slowed to pay his toll, the collector got the dime and the arm as the student sped off.

The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious now since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 where downed trees pretty much closed the highway.

Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks. But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road. Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.

The best watchdog of the Parkway is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to preserve the road’s unique character. Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Sound Barriers: A Waste of Money?

One and a half million dollars a mile.  The cost of building a new lane on I-95?  Hardly! That’s more like $20 million.  No, “$1.5 million dollars a mile” would be the cost of building new sound barriers on that crowded highway, according to testimony by the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Commissioner.

This won’t win me many friends among my neighbors in Darien, but I just don’t see that they should be asking the government to subsidize their peace and quiet.  After all, most of them bought houses near the highway benefiting from speedy access to the roadway and should have known full-well that being that close would subject them to noise.

Do you have sympathy for those who buy homes near airport runways, then complain about the jets?  Neither do I.

The first sections of what became I-95 were built in Darien in 1954, long before most current residents came to town.  Sure, traffic has increased on I-95 over the years.  We are well over the planned capacity of this interstate highway.  But thinking the solution to highway noise is to create a walled concrete canyon through our coastal communities paid for by others, is just selfish and short-sighted.

I live about 1500 feet from I-95.  On a quiet summer’s night I can hear the trucks as they whiz by at 70 mph, especially when they’re “Jake braking” (illegal in many states).  And yes, there is a wooden sound barrier between me and the road which helps a bit.  I try to think of the noise as like surf at the beach.  But when shopping for my current home, I knew that highway noise was the price I would pay for being so near an on-ramp.

Some neighbors in my, and many other towns, want the state or Uncle Sam to build miles and miles of new sound barriers to cushion their karmic calm.  But why should the few benefit at the expense of so many?

Can we really argue that someone in Tolland or Torrington should pay for sound barriers in Westport or Greenwich?

Sound-barriers seem to me to be wasted money.  They don’t reduce accidents, improve safety or solve congestion.  Two miles of sound-barriers would buy another new M8 rail car for Metro-North, taking 100 passengers off the road.  And sound-barriers are often just sound-reflectors, not absorbers, only bouncing the sound off to bother others.

Consider these alternatives:

  • Soundproof the homes. This has worked well for neighbors of big airports and is probably cheaper than sound-proofing entire neighborhoods.  And insulation against noise also insulates against heat loss, saving energy.
  • Explore rubberized asphalt. Reduce the road noise at its source, literally where the “rubber meets the road”.  Using this new road surface, some highways have seen a 12 decibel reduction in noise.  Rubberized asphalt also reuses 12 million junked tires each year.
  • Pay for it yourself. Let neighborhood associations affected by road noise create special taxing zones to collect funds to build sound barriers they’ll benefit from, both with reduced noise and resulting increased home valuations.

I can think of any number of better places to spend federal tax dollars to improve mass transit than erecting sound barriers.  Can’t you?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the Author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For the full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Fairest (and Least Popular) Way To Pay for Roads

Back in April, I wrote about the challenge we face to pay for Gov. Malloy’s $100 billion transportation plan.  And I expressed sympathy for his bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel tasked with coming up with funding alternatives, the Transportation Finance Panel.

To be honest, I think that panel may be on a fool’s errand.  They’re trying to pay for a wish list of projects not of their making and many of which may not be necessary let alone affordable.  Maybe we only need $50 billion.  But it’s not their mandate to question our “transportation Governor.”  Someone else will have to do the “vetting.”

But even as the Finance Panel does its work, exploring all manner of funding options, they are being second-guessed by politicians and public alike.

How about tolls?  Too expensive … they’ll slow traffic … and don’t forget those flaming truck crashes at toll barriers!  (Not true … no they won’t … and there won’t be toll barriers).

Gas tax?  Unfair … out-of-state motorists won’t pay … improved gas mileage means dwindling revenue.  (Totally fair … maybe so … and absolutely correct).

Which brings us to what would seem to be the fairest, most equitable fundraising mechanism for paying for our roads, but which brought a bipartisan crap-storm of response when suggested:  a mileage tax, or VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax.

The concept is simple:  have each motorist pay a tax for the number of miles he/she drives each year.  The data could be collected electronically by a GPS or with an odometer check when you get your annual emissions inspection.  You drive more, you pay more … whether you drive on I-95 or back-country roads.  Take mass transit, you’d drive less and pay less.

The VMT idea was discussed at the Finance Panel’s July 29 meeting, and the public and political reaction was immediate and universally negative.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) called it “unproven,” despite successful trials in the Netherlands and Oregon and VMT’s endorsement by the US Government Accountability Office.

Republican State Senator Toni Boucher calls VMT nonsensical and an invasion of privacy, though testimony proved both claims wrong.

Face it:  nobody likes a tax that they have to pay.  Tax the other guy … the trucker, the out-of-state driver, the real estate transferor … but don’t tax me!

Driving a car is not free.  Paying for gasoline is only part of the cost and even Connecticut’s relatively high gas tax comes nowhere near to paying for upkeep of our roads.  Our deteriorating roads are a hidden toll as we pay for car repairs.

The Transportation Finance Panel will find there is no easy or popular solution to paying for the Governor’s $100 billion untested and unattainable wish list of projects.  Whatever they recommend, citizens will scream bloody murder and their lawmakers will vote it down.

But shame on reactionaries in Hartford for calling the VMT, or any funding alternative, “dead on arrival.”  Let’s at least let the Finance Panel do its due diligence before saying they have wasted their time.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: PT Barnum and Metro-North

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum

What do Connecticut’s own PT Barnum and I have in common?  No, not just a love of circuses.  We are both “rail advocates” fighting for the interests of commuters.

This amazing piece of news about Barnum, a man better known for his showmanship and menageries, came to me while watching a speech at the Old State House in Hartford broadcast on CT-N (every policy wonk’s favorite channel).  The speaker was Executive Director and Curator of the Barnum Museum Kathleen Maher.

She explained that Barnum was more than a showman.  He was also a railroad advocate. (He also went on to be part-owner of a cross-Sound ferryboat service that’s still running today.)

In 1879 Barnum wrote an impassioned letter to the NY Times promoting a street railway be built in New York City along Broadway between Bleecker and 14th Street, enlisting the support of local merchants such as the Brooks Brothers and, “the carpet men, W & J Sloan”.

Earlier, in 1865, Barnum went to Hartford representing the town of Fairfield as a Republican — later he became Mayor of Bridgeport.  As he writes in his autobiography, he arrived at the capitol to find that powerful railroad interests had conspired to elect a Speaker of the House who had protected their monopoly interests in the state.

Further, he found that Connecticut’s “Railroad Commission” had been similarly ensnared by the industry it was supposed to regulate and that one member was even a clerk in the office of the NY & New Haven RR!  Barnum pushed through a bill prohibiting such obvious conflicts of interest.

Then he turned his sights on helping commuters.  Barnum noted that New York railroad magnate Commodore Vanderbilt’s new rail lines (now the Hudson and Harlem divisions of Metro-North) were popular with affluent commuters.  Once Vanderbilt had them hooked as passengers for their daily ride into and out of New York City, he jacked up fares by 200 to 400 percent.

Sensing that Vanderbilt might try to do the same to Connecticut riders on the new New Haven line (in which “The Commodore” had a financial stake), Barnum set to work in the legislature to make sure the state had some control over “its” railroad.  Barnum said his only ally in the fight was then-State Senator Ballard of Darien.

So spirited were they in their lobbying that the railroad’s “man” on the state Railroad Commission “took to his bed some ten days before the end of the session and actually remained there ‘sick’” until the legislature adjourned.” (Sound familiar?)

Fast forward to the present and we could again use Barnum’s help.

Though Connecticut hires Metro-North to run “our” trains on “our” tracks, our contract with that New York state agency gives us little say and no seat on it board.  As one lawmaker noted, the Connecticut Department of Transport defends Metro-North much as a kidnap victim fights for its captor (what he called the Stockholm syndrome).

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Transportation News Updates

It’s time to update you on some of the hot topics we’ve discussed in recent weeks:

MALLOY’S TRANSIT LAND GRAB:
Remember the Governor’s stealth proposal for a “Transit Corridor Development Authority,” described by some as “eminent domain on steroids”? Well, the initial idea to allow the state to acquire any land within a half-mile of train stations was modified, then killed in the legislature. I predict it will be back.

BRIDGE WOES:
Just as planning begins to replace Norwalk’s 118-year-old railroad bridge, which opens but doesn’t close, another ancient bridge is suffering the same engineering arthritis. On July 1st the Devon Bridge in Stratford was raised but wouldn’t close, delaying every train that ran across it for days. Estimated replacement cost, $750 million.

STAMFORD GARAGE:
It has been two years since the CDOT tapped Darien developer John McClutchy as their choice to demolish the old rail station garage. (That announcement came 10 days after, just coincidentally, McClutchy’s wife donated $10,000 to the state Democrats.) But a final deal has yet to be signed for reasons unknown, so any work is still many months away. Meanwhile in April of this year the old garage was crumbling so badly that the CDOT closed it for safety inspections. Those inspections were completed, but the garage is still closed, displacing 700+ daily commuters.

THIS IS “SAFETY FIRST”?
On June 29, Metro-North allowed two trains to run toward each other on a single track just south of New Canaan. Fortunately they stopped before a collision and one of the trains backed up and out of the way. When reporters first asked Metro-North what happened, they insisted nothing was wrong. Later, they described the incident as “undesirable train routing”, an amazing euphemism for a near collision.

TAKEN TO COURT IN HANDCUFFS:
Is it reassuring to passengers to see MTA conductors and engineers on a “perp walk” for the news media? Thirteen current and former employees of the MTA were taken to court last week, indicted on charges of cheating on safety exams that were testing their knowledge of signals, speed limits and safe operation of trains. The cheating ring ran for more than two years in a period just before Metro-North was hit with a series of derailments and collisions. Eight different exam cycles were compromised before the MTA’s internal investigators started their probe.

HOW LATE WAS YOUR TRAIN?
When the 11:39 p.m. left Grand Central on the night of July 1, passengers settled in for a nap en route to Stamford and a 12:48 a.m. arrival. But instead of taking one hour, their journey took three. Near Woodlawn, the train entered a section with inoperative third-rail and coasted to a halt. The train sat there for 90 minutes before a rescue train arrived, taking 40 minutes to pull them to a station where passengers got on another train. To their credit, the crew did pass out water to the stranded passengers … never a good sign when you’re on a stranded train.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The End Did Not Justify the Means

As someone who has battled two decades for more spending on transportation, you’d think I would be happy with the state’s new biennial budget.  But when you drill down into the details, there’s reason for concern.

Governor Malloy promised a down-payment on his $100 billion transportation dreams.  And he did get one-half of one percent of the state sales tax repurposed for that … but it only pays down the Connecticut Department Of Transportation’s  enormous debt service.

That must have come as a surprise to his recently appointed Transportation Funding Task Force which is just getting started.  Why have a taskforce when you’re playing a shell game with transportation funds?

Not kept was the Governor’s promise for a “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund.  Nor did he keep his promise to not raise taxes, having the chutzpah to blame the legislature for that when it was very clear that the budget’s new taxes were negotiated by his team with his blessing.  As the Governor signs the new budget into law, he owns those hikes and broken promises.

There will be tax hikes on the middle class, sin taxes (cigarettes and Keno – a tax on ignorance) and corporations.  You know it’s bad when GE, Aetna and Travelers all scream in pain, though they’ll doubtless be paid off to stay put just as UBS was paid $20 million years ago.

Any budget that narrowly passes the House 73-70 and the Senate 19-17 in an “emergency vote” without debate bears closer scrutiny, especially in a state with one party so clearly in control.

CT-N’s coverage of the marathon two-day final session showed lawmakers who were deliberately sleep deprived, kept at their desks all night debating measure after measure until they were exhausted.   Sleep deprivation is a great interrogation technique for terrorists but no way to pass new laws.

I am told that Democrats who did not toe the party line on this budget and threatened to vote “no,” were told to “go home,” rather than cast a negative ballot.  Indeed, in the final House tally eight lawmakers did not vote, some because they were said to be “sick,” others because they were “absent on other business.”  What legislator misses the final ballot on a two-year, $40 billion budget that passes by a single vote?

So divisive was the final debate, the Governor didn’t even have the guts to speak to lawmakers after the budget session ended, a long-standing tradition.

I have respect for the office of Governor, but also believe strongly in open, transparent government “of the people, by the people.”  Beware the tyranny of any one party when majority power is so brazenly wielded and the public ignored.  Governor Malloy did deliver on his promise to start funding long-neglected transportation projects.  I just disagree with the way he did it.

Keep your eyes on the prize but embrace the process.  Whatever good came out of this year’s budget process, those ends did not justify the means.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


About the author:
 Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Collecting Fares Using the Honor System

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start.  The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily.  Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative:  it’s on the honor system.

Unlike most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting onboard, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for two hour’s use) at the stations or online.  This reduces the “dwell time” at each stop as passengers can board through any door. A similar system is running in NYC on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.

But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket?  Ah, there’s the rub.  The “honor system” relies on “Fare Inspectors” making random checks.  Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine, though in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.

Only a handful of US transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego Trolley and the MUNI subway in San Francisco. In Minneapolis getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing”.

In Los Angeles, the Metro had so many problems with free-loaders they converted to turnstiles. Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9 million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.50.

On Metro-North, fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem.  If you don’t have a ticket, they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course).  Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine.

Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform.  That meant wasted time for conductors and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million in cash each week.  Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75 – $6.50 penalty… even on a $2 ticket.  Senior citizens get a break, as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.

The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets … but less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.

Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central leave Stamford.  Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on.  But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original NY passengers.

Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store.  You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

href=”https://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/get-my-free-credit-report”>credit report before quoting us a fare?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


About the author:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Personalized Airfares

Last time we were talking about mass transit systems collecting fares on the honor system.  This time, something completely different.  But to understand it, consider this analogy:

Let’s say you’re in a store shopping for a commodity.  You and another shopper each select one of the same items at the same time and head for the cashier.  But before you can pay, the cashier asks for your name and some identification.

You’re from Darien or New Canaan and a new customer.  The other shopper is from Hartford, but a regular at the store.  The cashier plugs in that info and you’re told that your purchase will cost 10 percent more than the other shopper’s.

What?  Well, welcome to the world of “personalized prices”.

You may not realize it, but this happens all the time when you’re buying gasoline, thanks to “zone pricing” where gas stations charge higher prices in more affluent communities, not just in Connecticut but nationwide.

And giving discounts to “best customers” is also quite common.  Monthly pass holders on Metro-North pay only half of what their peak fares would cost purchased separately.

But never before have these concepts been combined in some secret algorithm to apply to purchasing airline tickets … until now.

IATA, the International Air Transport Authority, has petitioned the US to allow its 250 members to capture and use new kinds of personal information about would-be flyers before quoting them a fare.

Most frightening of these could be some sort of “means test.”  In other words, as in a bazaar when the salesman sizes you up and asks, “How much do you want to pay?” the airline would figure out that answer itself based on your zip code and flying patterns.

So if you live in a rich town, they’ll assume you can pay more and quote you higher fares while folks in poorer communities are offered discounts.

To his credit, our US Senator Richard Blumenthal along with others in Washington are questioning the fairness, if not the legality, of all this.  They’ve written to the US Transportation Department asking if this plan isn’t hurting more consumers than its helping.

Airline flights have never been fuller.  Because they’ve shrunk their fleets and customer demand has come back, almost 80 percent of all seats are full on domestic and international flights.

Gone are the glory days of my mis-spent youth when students could fly “stand-by” hoping for an empty seat just before departure in return for a 50 percent discount. That only worked because planes were empty.

Today the incentive to get a cheap seat is to book early, weeks in advance, not to show up at the last minute hoping to find an empty seat.  There are none.

But to price the same seat bought at the same time at two different prices simply because of shoppers’ demographics seems unethical … if not illegal.

Airlines are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, national origin.  So why would we allow them to, in effect, look at our credit report before quoting us a fare?

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Rethinking First Class

Any regular reader of this column knows that I hate flying.  I love travel, but getting there by air is a pain … and getting worse.  Our local airports are vying for third-world status.  The security searches by the TSA make a colonoscopy look like fun.  And once on the plane, the airlines’ seats and service make The Fung Wah Bus seem like a viable alternative.

Why is it that airlines are all vying for the cheapest products instead of the best?  Why this race to the bottom where low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Southwest are the models instead of overseas service exemplars like Singapore and Emirates?

I, for one, am willing to pay more to get more.  I may not opt for first class, but I will only fly in business class on flights to California.  It’s worth it.

But the legacy carriers like American and United ask for $1600 one-way from NY to LAX, and they get it.  Their business class is full thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But now there’s a cheaper, better alternative:  JetBlue.

When JetBlue began as a low-cost carrier in 2000, it found a loyal following by offering high frequency, friendly and comfortable flights.  Today they are an international carrier serving 87 destinations with more than 200 aircraft.  And they have one of the hottest terminals at JFK, T5.

And 10 of their newest planes, A-321’s, now offer a new product, “Mint”, with truly first class seating at lower-than-business class fares.  I finally had a chance to sample the service on a recent flight to LAX.

First, there’s the seating. There are just 16 seats with full, six foot lie-flat beds. I lucked out and got one of the four “private cabins” with 22-inch wide seats and a sliding door to the corridor.  My TV was a 15-inch flat-screen with live satellite feed, movies and SiriusXM Radio.  I had two AC outlets and a pair of USB plugs keeping all my gear fully-charged.

When I boarded, I found a welcome note, written by hand, from the flight crew thanking me for my business.  Also awaiting was a full duvet and pillow, an amenities kit and free Wi-Fi, coast to coast.

After take-off came the usual beverages and a most unusual meal … the choice of three tapas-like entrees from a menu of five on offer, prepared by Saxon+Parole.  The lobster mac-and-cheese was to die for.  But they also had Kosher, vegan and gluten-free options.  And coming soon, an on-board cappuccino machine.

The service was amazing.  This was one of the best flights ever, and I’ve logged miles for decades on five continents.  And the ticket was only $599 one-way.  I’d gladly have paid more.

The bad news is this amazing product is only available on flights from JFK to LAX (seven a day) and San Francisco (five times daily).  Rumor has it they may also add transcon flights from Boston, but you won’t by flying “Mint” on your way to Orlando anytime soon.  To the Caribbean, maybe.

So kudos to “New York’s hometown airline” for continuing to be innovative in offering more for less and making flying fun again!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: Malloy’s Transit Land Grab

Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy is trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.

When the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently tried to shove a private development down the throats of Stamford under the guise of, “transit oriented development,” in replacing the garage at the train station, city fathers were justifiably upset.  They voted through a zoning change giving them some say on the project, as well they should.

As revenge Governor Malloy is now proposing a statewide “Transit Corridor Development Authority” (TCDA) that would bigfoot the towns and cities, giving the state control over land, buildings and development within a half-mile of all transit stations.

Your favorite coffee shop across from your Metro-North stop could be torn down and replaced with offices.  Parking lots could be enlarged with fees set by the CDOT, not the towns where the lots reside.  If the state wants to erect a building taller than local zoning laws allow, too bad … they can and will.  As one critic described it, this is, “eminent domain on steroids.”

The TCDA would be run by political appointees, a majority controlled by the Governor and not answerable to the local residents whose land would be affected.  The agency could issue its own bonds financed by rents and taxes on the very structures they want built.  And the agency would continue with this power forever, under, “perpetual succession”.

The TCDA would have the power to condemn property that it alone claims it needs to further its goals.  Town and regional planning and zoning boards can just go pound sand, powerless to stop them.

Because train and stations are usually in the downtown of cities and towns, those municipalities would lose control of the development destiny of their very core.  The Governor’s bill would have us believe that Hartford, or this new agency of political hacks, knows what’s best for us, not our elected mayors and first selectmen.

It has been proven that the private developer chosen for the Stamford garage project just happened to have donated $165,000 to the State Democrats  before and after his selection.  Yet, there’s nothing in the Governor’s TCDA bill (HB 6851) to prevent such “pay for play” activities.

Were Dannel Malloy still mayor of Stamford, he would scream bloody murder if a bill like this were introduced in Hartford.  But as Governor, he seems to have no qualms at telling 169 towns and cities in this state that he knows best … that Hartford will determine if skyscrapers built by private developers should be plopped down in your town and mine.

“Transit oriented development” makes sense and should be encouraged.  We all need to promote housing and commercial growth focusing on our train and bus stations.  But this is a local issue, not a state right.

If we are to preserve the local identity and feel of our communities, we must stop the Governor’s land grab and keep control of our destiny.  Tell your State Representative and State Senator you oppose HB 6851 and Malloy’s land-grab.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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