It’s been a helluva summer for air travel. Federal Aviation Administration staff shortages, flight cancellations, delays and crowding — combined with air fares soaring higher than the planes themselves. Is this any way to travel? Steve Fainer thinks not. He’s a “train guy” whose passion makes me look like a wannabe.
Every train journey, whether a cross-country adventure on Amtrak or a mundane daily commute on Metro-North, starts with the same thing: a train station. Consider Grand Central (Terminal, not Station). The architecture is so rich, the spaces so varied, that any time spent in this cathedral to transportation is time well spent. You can have a sit-down meal or grab a beer and a sandwich, pick up a newspaper, or a new iPhone — it’s all there. GCT is clean (mostly), well patrolled and filled with people, each giving the others a shared sense of safety and community.
If you’re looking for family fun this summer, consider visiting one of this state’s many living museums celebrating our state’s rail heritage. And remember — kids get in free at Connecticut museums this summer! The Shore Line Trolley Museum
This museum in East Haven was founded in 1945 and now boasts more than 100 trolley cars in its collection. It’s on the National Registry and is the oldest continuously operating suburban trolley line in the U.S.
The museum is still running excursion trolleys for a three-mile run on tracks once used by The Connecticut Company for its “F Line” from New Haven to Branford. You can also walk through the car barns and watch volunteers painstakingly restoring the old cars.
The MTA, parent of Metro-North, did something rare last week: They told us the unvarnished truth. Not that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has outright lied to us before. Well, at least not very often. But they are the masters of obfuscation and garbled communication. Consider these gems:
A faithful reader of this column sent me some disturbing pictures last week. Joe C was driving on the Merritt Parkway in Norwalk when he saw a FedEx tractor-trailer moving southbound. His passenger snapped these pictures:
This is so wrong — a serious accident waiting to happen. Trucks are, with few exceptions, not allowed on the Parkway — and with good reason. All of the bridges on the Merritt Parkway, originally built to a minimum standard of eleven feet at the abutments, are too low for big trucks.
It should have been done by now. 2018 was the expected completion date of the new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River, first proposed in 2009. At that time the $9 billion project was the biggest infrastructure project in the country. Now it may finally happen. Why do rail tunnels from New York’s Penn Station to New Jersey matter to us here in Connecticut?
Yes, there are new trains on the Waterbury branch — and three new express trains from New Haven, but overall our rail service in Connecticut is still too slow. Why? Governor Lamont and CDOT Commissioner Guilietti ballyhooed their new train PR last week as if they’d solved the commuting problem. They have not. Still, kudos to Commuter Council Chair and Waterbury branch rider Jim Gildea for his tireless efforts to build up service on that branch line.
When we get on an airplane we buckle up, read the safety card and are given a demonstration on the oxygen masks and emergency exits. Those things can save lives should something go wrong. But when we get on a train, either Metro-North or Amtrak, we settle into our seat and zone out. We assume we’re safe. That’s what passengers on an Amtrak train in Missouri thought this past week… until their train’s locomotive hit a dump truck on an unguarded private grade crossing and derailed.
I love getting feedback from you, my faithful readers. So I thought I’d share some recent comments. Last week I wrote about the railroads’ history of naming their best trains and stations. One reader, CL, reminded me that Metro-North names its express train to Yankee stadium “The Yankee Clipper”, a nice homage to baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Another reader, BW, wrote “In Ireland, all the inter-city trains have names; they are named after Ireland’s rivers.” That’s classy.
Connecticut is investing $3 million in a new ad campaign to promote tourism in our state. But here’s a theme you won’t hear mentioned — yet. “Whether you simply wander or plunge into the surf, cannabis can add pleasure to your beach visit.”
Such was the promise on a Mystic-based private tourism website, VisitNewEngland.com talking about Massachusetts beaches. But the site’s flowery pot prose also goes on to describe some of our tourism haunts that can be enhanced by marijuana. “If you’re the type of weed smoker who loves to think deep, pondering thoughts about space and time, you’re in luck: Connecticut is home to some of the nation’s oldest historic houses, buildings, and towns.” According to state figures there are over 52,000 registered medical marijuana users in Connecticut.
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.
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 U.S., more than half of that spewed by cars and trucks. The EPA says Connecticut is in “severe noncompliance” 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.
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 $3,500 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.
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 September 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 busy, crowded trains. “Just now, I asked the conductor if the mask mandate is still in effect (there is a couple sitting on the train, maskless) and he said yes, but that he ‘couldn’t enforce it.’
It was a huge mistake, one that commuters and planners have regretted for over 60 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?