Saturday, July 26, 2014

In case you had plans…..

……that involved the Downeaster this coming week, NNEPRA has been kind enough to post the latest planned train cancellations.  Early enough, we might add, to give you a few days to rework your plans.  You know how these ‘unexpected’ situations can pop-up out of nowhere, so you’ll just have to cope. 

We doubt anyone at the Portland office of NNEPRA is available now to take your calls, so you’re on your own when it comes to knowing what to expect in the coming weeks.

          

Here are the railroad ‘improvement’ plans for the coming week.

PRIORITY ALERT: Service Interruptions for July 30-31 -due to track maintenance work

Due to necessary track maintenance work the following will occur:

Wednesday (7/30/14) trains 681, 683, 684 and 686 will not operate.  All other trains will operate according to schedule.

Thursday (7/31/14) trains 683, 684 and 686 will not operate.  All other trains will operate according to schedule.

No alternate transportation will be available for these cancelled trains.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we work to improve the railroad.

At the rate things are going, it looks like they’ll be lucky to get the ‘improving’ done before the freezing temperatures return.  We’re guessing that announcing work plans week by week is part of a ‘marketing plan’ to make it appear that these are simply minor inconveniences.

Competent project management teams would have a plan and a schedule to complete ALL necessary repairs and announce the schedule impacts to finish ALL the work.

But if you complete replacement of one tie before looking one tie ahead, you never do get the big picture, do you?  Maybe the zealots at TrainRiders Northeast could get out on the job and have their volunteers inspect the track and it’s foundation a couple of hundred feet ahead of the repair crews, and report what they find to NNEPRA offices.

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Oddly enough, the choo-choo kool-aid chuggers over at TRN have gone dark on their communications activity.  Could it be that they’re having trouble coming up with a suitable commentary on the state of their beloved railroad operation?  Is wishing not enough to make things work?

On a related note, a friend tells us this glowing endorsement of the Downeaster appeared on the Nova Star’s Facebook page.  Don’t you just love ‘social media?’

I had a trip from Portland to Yarmouth booked for July 23. Due to circumstances out of my control (Amtrak's fault), the train arrived in Portland 2 1/2 hours after the ferry left port! THANK YOU Nova Star for being so understanding/courteous and allowing us to reschedule the trip for a later date. GREAT customer service on your part! Being forced to now find a hotel to stay at for the night, Holiday Inn stepped up and offered us a 50% discount on a room. AMTRAK however did not make things right for us. We were offered a voucher for another ride, but needless to say we will not ride Amtrak ever again. Again, THANK YOU NOVA STAR-awesome customer service on your end!!!

You just can’t beat government operated transportation services, can you.  Especially when they’re run by highly awarded, widely acclaimed business and railroad professionals.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Troubles in Toonerville?? (Revised)

(ed note:  we just made a change to the third bullet point in the ‘wrap-up’ below the house of cards regarding expected life of hardwood ties.)         

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, your humble correspondent earned his living as an engineer.  As such, we were sentenced to a life of mockery, and to this day, we still apparently have ‘engineer’ stamped on our forehead. 

We thought of it as teasing back then; now it’s probably considered ‘verbal abuse,’ or ‘mental abuse,’ or even worse, ‘bullying.’  At least if we were moved towards legal action and ‘damages.’  One of these days, we expect to see a TV commercial touting lawyers who will help us collect.

One of the classic pieces of bulletin board humor back then was a poorly drawn cartoon with the caption shown in this more contemporary graphic.

                           

All of which serves as our trademark rambling introduction to the subject of the moment.  For which we have a more ‘timely’ citation:


"I knew nothing about the rail business, or how trains worked or the engineering side of it," Quinn says about the day, 11 years ago, she applied for a job with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Portland-based organization bringing back passenger rail to Maine. "When I started this job I had never ridden a train before."

Now Quinn is a passenger-rail authority herself. As executive director of NNEPRA, Quinn is a widely recognized expert on developing passenger trains in rural markets. Despite coming into this business with zero industry experience, Quinn has made a profound, lasting impact on Maine's transportation infrastructure and economy.

http://www.mainebiz.biz/article/20110808/CURRENTEDITION/308089992/track-star-|-patricia-quinn-northern-new-england-passenger-rail-authority


                 

Note that the passage above is from 3 years ago.  Since then, Ms. Quinn has won at least 3 awards we know of for being a superior “business leader” or equivalent.  We’re sure she’d be quick to point out that the award was not for her, but for NNEPRA, the organization she heads.

                     

Which, of course, is devoted to providing badly needed passenger rail service in Maine, and especially, in the constipated infrastructure link that connects Brunswick and Portland.  How many friends do you have who tell stories of being dead stopped in traffic on 295, radiator boiling over, dreaming of a train that could save them from it all?  Shirley and Chance, for example.

The challenge, of course, is that Maine has four seasons, including winter, which can be cold, snowy, and even icy at times.  Official records show that it’s been this way for some time, at least as far back as before NNEPRA came into existence.  But apparently, NNEPRA staff did not get the memo on maintaining track beds all year round, especially in wintry conditions, until spring arrived a few months ago.  Funny how a “a widely recognized expert on developing passenger trains in rural markets” could be taken by surprise by such conditions.

                 

So sure enough, ‘unexpected’ problems visited themselves upon the Downeaster route, leading to all sorts of problems and need for remediation.  For the record, we reported on such matters in May, in this post and others that followed.  Including these words in a post on May 6:

Which makes us ever so grateful for this reminder published today in the BDN.  It looks for all the world like trains have their own equivalent of ‘potholes.’

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the Federal Railroad Administration has placed “slow orders” on around 27 miles of Pan Am Railways track — running from the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border to Maine — in about 25 different spots.

“The fact that some are in areas of track where the train [normally] goes 70 mph, it’s really impacting the time,” Quinn said. “It’s hard to tell how long [repairs] are going to take.”

We note that she didn’t mention the ‘alternative routes’ train passengers should take.  Oh wait….because there aren’t any.

So we thought readers might enjoy this update on Ms. Quinn’s profound, lasting, and recognized expertise in matters of passenger rail system management since that time, all taken from the NNEPRA web site:


PRIORITY ALERT: Track maintenance causing train delays

Due to continuing track maintenance being performed on the railroad, most Downeaster trains are experiencing delays of approximately 10-35 minutes. 

PRIORITY ALERT: Service Interruptions for week of July 7 - 11 due to track maintenance work

Due to necessary track maintenance work the following will occur this week:

Thursday and Friday trains 681, 683, 684, and 686 will not operate. All other trains will operate according to schedule.

No alternate transportation will be available for these cancelled trains.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we work to improve the railroad.


PRIORITY ALERT: Track maintenance causing train delays

Due to continuing track maintenance being performed on the railroad, most Downeaster trains are experiencing delays of approximately 10-35 minutes.

To check train status of your train please call 1-800-872-7245 and say "Train Status" or visit www.AmtrakDowneaster.com and look-up your train on the righthand column under the train status tab.

PRIORITY ALERT: Service Interruptions for July 14 - 16 due to track maintenance work

Due to necessary track maintenance work the following will ocur (sic) this week:

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday trains 681, 683, 684, and 686 will not operate. All other trains will operate according to schedule.

No alternate transportation will be available for these cancelled trains.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we work to improve the railroad.


PRIORITY ALERT: Service Interruptions for July 21-24 -due to track maintenance work

Due to necessary track maintenance work the following will ocur this week:

Tuesday trains 683 and 684 will not operate.  All other trains will operate according to schedule.

Wednesday trains 681, 683, 684, and 686 will not operate. All other trains will operate according to schedule.

Thursday trains 683, 684 and 686 will not operate.  All other trains will operate according to schedule.

No alternate transportation will be available for these cancelled trains.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience as we work to improve the railroad.


            

Long story short, we remember early on hearing that it would be ‘weeks’ with ‘some delays’ blamed on weather damage.  This has morphed into 12 weeks (or more) of delays plus numerous cancellations; and with each week’s new “PRIORITY ALERT,” no estimate is given of when the repairs will be complete.

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We’ll wrap up our report with some key facts that bear on this story.

  • While the ‘PRIORITY ALERTs’ repeatedly use the words ‘as we work to improve the railroad,’ it’s obvious that the work is being done to REPAIR the railroad.  A need to ‘improve’ the railroad would mean track upgrade was not done correctly before Downeaster service began.  Which would lead to a ‘for shame’ declaration.
  • Federal Railroad Administration regulations require that tracks used for passenger rail service be inspected a minimum of twice a week.  We take that to mean all year round, winter included.  Passenger use requires a higher standard for track condition than does freight train use.
  • Railroad ties normally have a 15 year expected service life.  We’ve just been corrected by a railroad professional, who says: “depending on climate and traffic volume, hardwood ties should last 25-40 years.” Ties that were in perfectly fine condition at winter’s onset would not reasonably be expected to require replacement just months later when things thawed out.
  • Twice weekly inspections should allow for minor corrective maintenance on a regular basis; months of major repairs seem symptomatic of lax inspection routines and reporting.
  • NNEPRA has reportedly been paying Pan Am Railways on the order of $1 million per year since Downeaster service began to inspect and maintain track to the required Class 3 (60 mph max) and Class 4 (80 mph max) FRA standards.

In our view of things, this means NNEPRA, directed by its highly awarded and ‘widely recognized’ passenger rail authority, has the obligation to oversee and manage track conditions through it’s subcontract to Pan Am, and to be accountable for meeting all applicable federal standards.

Failure to do so, as exemplified by the ongoing repairs and cancellations, is a clear indication of flawed maintenance practices, poor management of subcontracts, and lack of related expertise.

Regardless of the multiple awards and gushing praise in various media reports, not to mention lavish acclamation from TrainRiders Northeast.  But then, some people will do anything for a free cake.

Given the circumstances just described and illuminated, we believe expecting NNEPRA, under Ms. Quinn’s leadership, to do an effective and professional job of managing a $20 million major industrial construction project may be a bridge too far.

        

As a final thought, should Ms. Quinn some day tire of the ‘same old, same old’ at NNEPRA, perhaps she’d like to apply her widely acclaimed and awarded management skills to other needy areas of public transportation infrastructure.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Side issues FIASCO on FONSI: Not so fast, NNEPRA!!

 

Not too long ago, there was magic in the air as the mythical ship of MLF construction in the Brunswick West neighborhood (Bouchard Drive area) received a seeming ‘full-speed ahead’ decision.  This from the Federal Railroad Administration in the form of a “Finding of  No Significant Impact” (FONSI), as reported in this post.

The heroes behind this victory, Wayne and Patsy, shown stylistically above in earlier days, saw nothing but open waters and clear sailing ahead. And so, as you’ll see in a moment, the effort to select color schemes for their dreamed about building got underway.  (A later image can be found here: http://www.trainridersne.org/images/stories/Patricia-Wayne.jpg)

                                        https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQ-EoVoIlQD3V8BYe73U2MZVPBq-GIZCrIttx6NPJLyZbAHISGF9A

Our leads in the story are intent on assuring that the palette of their titanic industrial facility, if nothing else, is in perfect harmony with the natural tones of the surrounding area.  We’re touched by their sensitivity.

We post relevant citations of the FONSI event here for your convenience.  Emphasis, in all cases, is ours.


First, from NNEPRA itself:

In compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), NNEPRA provided Environmental Assessment documentation in support of the project.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on June 17, 2014. 

NNEPRA is accepting input through July 22, 2014 regarding the exterior color of the building.  The building has been specified to be two-tone, with a top and bottom color.  The manufacturer has provided 11 color options to choose from.  Click here to view those options, and a few potential renderings.  You may provide your input regarding color preferences by completing this survey.  The input received from the public will be provided to members of the Brunswick Layover Advisory Group for discussion at their meeting on July 24, 2014. 

http://www.nnepra.com/projects/brunswick-layover-facility


Then from their affiliate, TrainRiders Northeast:

The Federal Railroad Agency, which has jurisdiction over U.S. railroad activities, issued its long-awaited review of the Brunswick Layover Facility's Environmental Assessment provided to the agency by NNEPRA. The FRA issued a FONSI (A Finding of No Significant Impact) which clears the way for construction to begin on the BLF. It will house three train sets just 0.6 miles from the Brunswick Station.

http://www.trainridersne.org/


This passage is from the FRA release of the FONSI decision itself:

An Environmental Assessment (EA) identifying the potential effects on physical, biological and human resources that could occur as a result of the proposed action was prepared in September 2013 and circulated for comments. A public hearing was held on September 26, 2013.  A total of 53 comment letters or emails were submitted to NNEPRA from 44 individuals throughout the comment period expressing opposition and support of the layover facility.  On June 13, 2014, the FRA Administrator signed a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The FONSI addresses the public comments and includes measures to minimize impacts that NNEPRA will implement with the Project. The September 2013 EA and the June 2014 FONSI are available for review using the links below as well as on the NNEPRA website

https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0669


Clearly, the choo-choo community at large, including their supporters, took the position that the Brunswick West MLF is a ‘done deal,’ and that the trucks could start rolling.  To which we say,

Not so fast, NNEPRA; back up those trucks!

Why?  Well, we’re embarrassed to say, we didn’t do our usual due diligence on the materials associated with the FRA decision.  Fortunately, an acquaintance, who we suspect could be a founding member of Bus Riders Northeast, gave us a tip.  After a bit of follow up,  Other Side is issuing a Finding of AWOL Stewardship re: Contingent Obligations against the FONSI for NNEPRA’s proposed MLF project.

Or, in abbreviated form, a FIASCO.  Our reading of the FONSI says it contains news for NNEPRA: you are not released to start building the MLF; you are instead constrained, by edict of a Federal Administrator (FRA), to address crucial contingencies before proceeding in any physical way.  To make our point, we offer these two passages from pages 16 and 17 of the finding itself.  You can read the document here: https://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/Details/L05263.  Emphasis again is ours.


This first item, in it’s opening and unambiguous words, obligates NNEPRA to comply with ALL requirements imposed by federal, state, and local governments.

VII. Commitments and Minimization Measures:

NNEPRA will be required to comply with all applicable federal, state, and local permitting requirements during the implementation of the Project, which will include:

  • Public Law 95‐217, Clean Water Act of 1977, 33 USC § 1251‐1376
  • Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, 16 USC § 470
  • Section 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (CWA), 33 USC § 1344
  • Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, as amended, 42 USC § 4601 et seq.
  • Executive Order 11990, Protection of Wetlands, 42 FR 26961, signed May 24, 1977


This second item, in the highlighted passage, makes it clear to us that the FONSI is CONDITIONED upon meeting the commitments just above.

VIII. Conclusion:

FRA finds that the Brunswick Layover Facility Project, as presented and assessed in the attached EA, satisfies the requirements of NEPA (42 USC § 4321 et seq.), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations (40 CFR parts 1500‐1508), FRA’s Procedures for Considering Environmental Impacts (64 FR 28545, May 26, 1999), and FRA’s Update to NEPA Implementing Procedures (78 FR 2713, January 14, 2013), and the Project will have no foreseeable significant impact on the quality of the human or natural environment provided it is implemented in accordance with the commitments identified in this FONSI.

As the Project sponsor, NNEPRA is responsible for ensuring all environmental commitments identified in this FONSI are fully implemented. The EA provides sufficient evidence and analysis for FRA to determine that an environmental impact statement is not required for the Project as presented.


      

Your correspondent is not a counselor at law, as you know all too well.  Even so, we don’t see much wiggle room in this finding and related commitment issuing from the FRA Administrator.

As the recent Cumberland County Superior Court decision made all too clear, NNEPRA did not comply with State permitting requirements regarding Stormwater Management.  And we have reason to believe there are a significant number of other permitting requirements at the state level that must be addressed before construction at the proposed site can begin.  (Though we suppose there is no need to delay color selection.)

And we know for a fact that the building plan is not in compliance with Brunswick Zoning Ordinances.  

So it seems we should rest our case.  This FIASCO is cleared for publication.

  

We trust the principles in this story will take due note, cease any plans to get the trucks rolling, and get all hands on deck to follow up on that commitment to fully comply with state and local permitting requirements.


End Notes:

1) Warped mind that we are, we had hoped to issue a SNAFU proclamation against the FONSI, but we couldn’t come up with acceptable words for the acronym.  The best we could do was this:

SNAFU: Situation Normal; Absent Fiduciary Understanding

2) It also goes without saying that we have entered our summer posting slowdown, whether we realized it or not.  We’ve been busy on other ‘pursuits,’ and now the usual family visits, etc, are coming.  So we ask your indulgence as we put our priorities in other areas, except when something crosses our desk that simply must be addressed on a timely basis.

We think the subject of this post meets that standard.

Happy Summer.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Breaking story being tracked….

Over the five years we’ve been in the ‘media outlet’ business, we’ve developed a finely honed nose for emerging news, and in some cases, we’ve been the first to report on them.  Some stories have led to Florida University roots, some have led elsewhere.

As part of growing our ‘corporate’ ability to bring the “Other Side” of the news to you, we’ve been fortunate to employ a number of ‘field correspondents’ who give us leads for the sheer enjoyment of doing so.  They find satisfaction knowing they contribute to a more informed public, a common good in the broadest sense.

In that vein, word comes to us today, from a source we are not at liberty to disclose, that a new player is about to join the ‘public transit’ discourse.  We’re told that an organization calling itself Bus Riders Northeast, at least for now, is forming, and that it will advocate for buses as a reliable, flexible, sustainable, environmentally sensitive, cost effective means of public transit.  And an extremely attractive alternative to rail transit.

We have few details at the moment, but we’re determined to ‘check the traps’ to further develop this story.  Our source for this report tells us that the group formed because they’re tired of the propaganda promulgated by TrainRiders Northeast, which advocates for the Amtrak Downeaster, and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority responsible for funding and managing that service.

We’ll keep you posted as this story unfolds.  We expect heightened interest in the subject of subsidized public transit modalities as a result, and that seems to us a good thing.

                                 Greg Edited-184 

                        New MCI zoom Bus

Who knows, though, where the tracks of this story will take us?

All aboard!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Oysters, immigration, political language abuse, and broken things.

We don’t know about you, but some things really fry our oysters.  And certain things fry them more than others

We refer here to the discussion of our national immigration system that has been going on for some years now.  Not so much for which side of the argument you might come down on, but because of what it reveals in the way of unashamed, unabashed, blatant abuse of plain English for political and demagogic purposes.

Let us give you an example or two of the bumper sticker level of discourse on this subject:

“Our immigration system is broken!”

What they really mean when they say this is ‘we aren’t enforcing the laws that have been on the books for years, because we don’t really want to, and we’re suffering the consequences of not enforcing them.  They’re just too hard to enforce, so cut us some slack.’

Our ‘immigration system,’ simply speaking, consists of federal agencies and personnel overwhelmingly, with state agencies in a secondary role here and there, and who knows how many thousands of pages of federal law and regulations.  So when one says ‘the system is broken,’ think of that as a euphemism for ‘government is broken.’

We don’t enforce the border, we don’t enforce all sorts of immigration law, including that applying to thousands of employers who flout the law, often with a wink and a nod.

           

And then there’s the seeming stupidity of monitoring our borders, which in two cases we have personal experience with, operate by checking vehicles transiting major interstate highways 50-100 miles North of the US-Mexican border.

Temecula, CA I-15 - Border Patrol Checkpoint; Mile Marker 54 - Checks traffic going north on I-15. It is also right at the end of San Diego county going into Riverside county.

San Clemente, CA I-5 - Border Patrol Checkpoint; Mile Marker 67 -  I-5 San Clemente, California 92674 (760) 430-7029 The San Clemente Border Patrol Station maintains a full-time traffic checkpoint on the northbound lanes of I-5.

Both of these locations are so distant from the border that it seems bizarre when you approach them.  We imagine there are all sorts of bureaucratic justifications for the cost and effectiveness of such check points, but in the internet/social media age, anyone who gets nailed at these check points clearly qualifies for ‘stupid is as stupid does’ status, as Forrest Gump liked to say.

“We need comprehensive immigration reform!”

Translation: ‘since we’re doing a despicable and irresponsible job of enforcing the laws that have been on the books for years, let’s throw them aside and create a whole new set to brag about, campaign on, and hold press conferences to announce.’

                                

‘And we’ll call it comprehensive immigration reform!!!!’

‘Just think how we can come before the public and tell them we found common ground, and how proud we are to stand before them today to announce a new 3,000 page bill that fixes our broken immigration system!’

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

There’s only one problem as we see it.  Passing a whole new set of laws that won’t be enforced to fix the problems stemming from non-enforcement of the previously enacted set of laws is not ‘reform.’

It’s cheap, lazy, and opportunistic politicking and pandering.

Which leads us to offer this ‘bumper sticker’ level commentary of our own:

Our government system is broken.

We need comprehensive government reform.

You can take this however you wish, and on whatever terms you prefer.  Our ideas range from the colorful – ‘turn the government inside out and scrub it down with a wire brush’ – to the more practical – immediately reduce federal employee head count by 20%, and eliminate at least 3 cabinet level departments.

              

On a different note, as we were pondering this post, we had a related thought.  The federal government has been operating at a deficit level in the range of $1 trillion per year for some time.  Yet you never hear of any agency or department ‘overrunning’ their budget, and being held accountable for turning their enterprise around and living within their means.  No news about how the State Department, or the Department of Education, or Homeland Security is running a deficit of 10 or 15% a year against their proposed budgets.

Instead, the federal deficit is reported at the top line level: the difference between federal revenues and federal expenditures, with no allocation of deficit responsibility to specific departments or government operations.  No wonder no-one worries about managing the deficit; it’s not ascribed to any leader or any agency, so no-one is responsible or accountable.  The deficit just ‘is.’

Maybe we should demand (good luck with that!) a more definitive and accountable system of budgetary responsibility.  The executive branch of the federal government has 15 major departments.  On a pro-rated basis, when we have an annual $1 trillion deficit, that means each department has about a $67 Billion operating deficit.

Shouldn’t each fiscal year begin by asking each Department, or more specifically, the Cabinet Secretary who heads it, what they will do to eliminate their contribution to the national deficit?  Shouldn’t each be responsible for managing to get their operations back on a break-even basis?

We don’t know why this suddenly occurred to us today, and why it took so long to realize just how fundamentally broken the reporting on the nation’s fiscal management system is.

But once agaiin we conclude what we said just above:

Our government system is broken.

We need comprehensive government reform.

And we mean this in the real, common sense understanding of the English language.  Not the double-speak that passes for ‘we hear you loud and clear’ bluster and bloviation from the ruling class of our era.

That’s about it for today.

                              

So pass the horse-radish, will you Gladys?  And hand us another Guinness.  Tell the chef to stop frying our oysters.  We much prefer them fresh, naked, and tasting of the sea.

Covering them in batter and crumbs ruins the whole idea of doing what comes naturally.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A movie tip…..Jersey Boys!

  

Side and Mrs. Side just came from a 12:30 screening of Clint Eastwood’s film version of “Jersey Boys” at the Regal Cinema at Cooks Corner.

We both loved it.  Your correspondent thinks it’s one of the best movies he’s seen in some time.

It doesn’t hurt that we were born and raised about 15 miles from where the story is based.  Or that we’re ‘of an age’ where the music brings back a lot of great memories, as do the cars and other props that mark the era perfectly.  Sometimes these ‘set pieces’ from another age look too phony…they push the costumes, décor, and other signs of the times too hard, and it all looks contrived.

Not this time.  We’ll give Clint Eastwood, the Director and Producer, the major credit for this; he’s even older than we are, and he knows how to do this with appropriate finesse.

We saw the stage musical in Toronto, probably 4 years or so ago, and it was electric!  An infectious show, that even our daughter got swept up into after a song or two.

  

If your tastes run in this direction, and you have a chance to see it in New York or elsewhere, don’t miss it.  But if you can’t, or even if you have, see the movie too.

You don’t get the feeling it’s a ‘forced’ adaptation like you sometimes do with classic musicals in the past such as Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.  Instead, the movie stands perfectly fine on its own, and adds much detail to the background of the group’s story.

So, we say, give it a shot!  The music is great, there wasn’t a dull moment, the finale was a real surprise, and no one left until the credits were completely finished….because the music continued to play until the very end.

    

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Friday, June 27, 2014

TRN: The unexpected, the erroneous, the self-absorbed; not to mention unseemly

 

                                    

It’s no secret by now that Side finds many of the details associated with the operations of NNEPRA and The Downeaster, and the activities of their devoted ‘creator’ - the non-profit’ affiliate TrainRiders Northeast (TRN) - to be of concern on many different levels.  From the specifics, to the connections, to the optics, to the finances, to the publicity, and oh so much more. 

We remind you that in spite of awards for being a stellar “business,” NNEPRA is an activity of Maine State Government, and the staffers are state employees.  Amtrak is operated by the Federal Government.  So make no mistake about it; whatever you think of them both, they are money sinks for both state and federal taxpayers, and we are compelled to keep them running, no matter the cost, until something changes.

                               

Events of this week provided us with a new stick or two with which to beat the same old horses, and who can resist such an opportunity?  Certainly not this loveable pup.  You’ve got to take your exercise where you can get it; so we’re going to think of this as ‘occupational therapy.’

                                         waynespirocucr

On Monday of this week, NNEPRA held a regular Board Meeting in Portland, which we’ve already reported on in part.  Saint Wayne the Visionary, Vicar of TRN, was on hand to make sure the proceedings were conducted in accordance with accepted ritual.  He filed a report shortly thereafter.

Saint Wayne manifests his vanity in any number of ways, including his obvious love for his image, and his role in coming up with the idea of a Downeaster, creating it’s infrastructure and administrative authority, and of course, requiring that Governors of Maine obtain his approval before nominating anyone for NNEPRA’s Board. 

Other than that, he’s just like you and I, except he likes to play with very, very expensive trains.  From time to time, he invites his followers to help him in maintaining and operating his layout, and to preach from the book of Wayne.

You’ll get a glimpse of the ‘chemistry’ between NNEPRA and TRN in his report, which is posted below, along with our comments.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Today's NNEPRA Board Meeting

Parent Category: NNEPRA
Published on Monday, 23 June 2014 19:37
Written by TRN Webmaster

The Downeaster has had more than a decade of uninterrupted, successful growth. However, these past few months have reminded NNEPRA that setbacks come with heavy-handed results. Let's get the 'ugly' out of the way first.

The Ugly

The recent spate of slow orders, the PanAm right-of-way rehabilitation of a road-bed that was pummeled by the harsh winter AND the ongoing construction of the Haverhill bridge finally showed up in the numbers this month. April's On Time Performance registered 35.6% with no train making it into the 80% category. May's OTP was 8%! There were additional factors that all combined to see 4,500 fewer regular passengers on the train ( group numbers-3,400 were withdrawn for this calculation): May saw some 24 trains annulled (cancelled), two trespassers struck, two fire department 'holds' due to grass fires (one of them was a false alarm) and no Bruins/Celtics playoff games in North Station's TDBank Garden.

Currently, PanAm is in an urgent tie-replacement triage that will eliminate some of the slow orders, but requiring the annulment of train #686 Wednesday, Thursday & Friday of this week. Some 2,400 inconvenience vouchers were issued to customers during the April-May period.( Must have been the right move because Amtrak has asked NNEPRA for details of this program with an eye to implementing it in their national system.)

The above is what we alluded to with the use of “unexpected’' in our post title.  Lots of bad luck, a winter no one told them about, and as you can tell, lots of ties that need replacing.  We’re not sure who is responsible for allowing the ties to get to the stage where they needed to be replaced, and caused slow orders to be enacted.

We’re pretty sure of this, however: ties that were in good, serviceable shape last fall likely did not become replacement items because of cold weather.  More likely, ties that need to be replaced now were already ‘deferred maintenance’ items last year.  If you’ve ever owned or shopped for rental property, you should know what ‘deferred maintenance’ is – a euphemism for the consequences of poor stewardship. 

As we understand it, standard railroad practice calls for weekly inspections of trackage (including ties.)  You’ve seen railroad ties; it’s hard to believe they could go from fine condition to needing replacement in a matter of months.  At 3000 plus ties per mile, that’s a lot of timber to neglect to inspect regularly.  Not to mention the bedding and rail itself.

Ugly?  You betcha.  But in our view, not in the sense the Saint implies.

The Bad

The Town Manager of Brunswick spoke on behalf of a unanimous Brunswick Town Council decision that NNEPRA address the diesel soot and fumes emanating from idling Amtrak engines at the Brunswick Station. In addition, a local resident testified to the impact she experienced living just a block and a half away from the station. Both the town manager and the resident expressed support for the Downeaster and encouraged NNEPRA to quickly address the problem. The NNEPRA board thanked both and Chairman Marty Eisenstein requested that the staff expeditiously present the board with recommendations - from head-end 480v power to reducing the amount of power used by the idling train set (power is needed to keep the Cafe Car refrigeration 'on' and for light cleaning of the coaches). In the winter, the engine has to idle outdoors in order to keep critical systems from freezing. It was pointed out that the Brunswick Layover Facility will resolve this issue but construction has yet to begin and is expected to take at least 18 months.

“The Bad?”  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, TRN?  Oh, wait, we get it: heretics who don’t worship at the altar of Amtrak challenging the sanctity of Chief Loco. 

This item is what led to ‘erroneous’ in our title.  The town council decision, and the letter that sparked it, did not refer to engines idling at the Brunswick Station.  They referred to the diesel soot and fumes emanating from the engines idling in the Cedar Street lot directly across the street from a residential neighborhood, and immediately adjacent to the Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention Program food bank building.  This wasn’t about a 10 minute layover at the station; it was about 5 hours of idling while parked there.

Apparently, responding to serious and credible health and environmental concerns is ‘bad’ when you’re a Choo-Choo lover.  Which is why they call any objector a ‘train hater.’

The Good

The Federal Railroad Administration gave the go-ahead for NNEPRA to begin construction of the Brunswick Layover Facility. The FRA accepted the environmental assessment - prepared by NNEPRA and its outside consultant to FRA standards - by issuing A Finding of No Significant Impact. The West Brunswick Neighborhood Coalition had led a fight against using the 130 year old freight yard for the Brunswick Layover Facility.  Executive Director Patricia Quinn commented that funding would now be committed and a construction schedule developed. Once this is done, the Community Advisory Group will be reconvened and briefed.

Patricia Quinn reported on the 3rd quarter of FY2014. Year-to-date some 411,498 passengers have been carried from July of 2013 through March of this year. FY2013's comparison was 386,910 passengers. Revenue numbers were similarly impressive: $6,557,559 for FY2014 and $6,123,664 for FY2013. One more quarter to go in FY2014.

                                 Patricia-Wayne

As the meeting ended. A cake was brought out to celebrate Wayne Davis' birthday.

Wayne thanked everyone for singing "Happy Birthday" to him, but reminded everyone that this week marked a far more important anniversary - the creation of NNEPRA by the Maine legislature in June of 1995. This was the result of Wayne's steady hand on the throttle of this grass-roots organization.

Best to acknowledge both!

(emphasis above is ours; we rest our case, you might say)

It’s not hard to understand why the Saint labeled this “The Good.”  The photo pretty much says it all.  The Saint and his disciple glowing for the camera, while our own Interim Mr. Manager, referred to in “The Bad” just above, is bathed in the flattering light of a PowerPoint presentation.

                                  

This section is why we included the words ‘the self-absorbed’ in our title.  Frankly, we find the very thought of a government agency providing a cake to celebrate the birthday of their devoted and pompous lobbyist, at a public Board Meeting no less, unseemly beyond the pale.

If you think unseemly is a poor choice of words, you can pick a better choice from these: improper, unprofessional, unprincipled, fishy. 

We considered each and every one, because they all apply.

You know the old saying; sometimes words fail you.  Why don’t you go to your Thesaurus and see if you can find one that fits better.

                                

And if that doesn’t work, you can always look in your Tyrannosaurus.  It’s from the age when passenger trains actually made sense.

           

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sierra Club, the ladies, and the Choo-Choos

  

You know what they say; life is one big learning experience, and then you’re dead.

Here it is 15 years that Other Side has rolled in a GMC Sierra, and we’ve never once heard of a Sierra Club, or were invited to join it.  And just this week we discovered they have a chapter right here in Maine!  But you know how Mainers are; we like to keep to ourselves most of the time.

    

We made this discovery when we came upon a letter in the Sunday newspaper.  At the same time, we learned that our stereotypical view of males being the ones who are afflicted with the ‘romance of the rails’ is somewhat outdated.  Turns out there are also females afflicted with the syndrome.  “We are women, here us wooo-oooo-wooo!”

                       

We remember the old bromide “the only difference between the men and the boys is in the price of their toys.”  We’ll have to send that off to our P. C. department for gender neutralization.

OK; so where were we?  Oh yeah…a letter in the Sunday paper.  Here it is for your edification:

Letter to the editor: Commuter rail service would be big energy saver

Kudos to Tux Turkel for his article “Power use tumbles as efficiency kicks in” (June 8), pointing out in detail to Mainers that efficiency is the answer to curbing energy use and lowering our carbon footprint.

In the wake of the Obama administration’s bold move to curb carbon emissions, now is the time to look at one of the biggest factors in climate change: tailpipe emissions. Road-based transportation is responsible for more than 28 percent of our global warming-causing pollution.

The regional transportation planning organization, PACTS, is now deciding how transit projects will be funded in the near future and beyond. As they contemplate the future of our region, PACTS members need to consider all modes of transportation, including passenger rail. With the success of the Downeaster, the Portland area needs to look at passenger and commuter rail.

With good planning, rail transit service can empower, focus and enable a successful urban area with human-scale mobility. We are not just an asphalt village. It is time to consider alternatives. It is train time.

Joan Saxe, executive committee, Sierra Club Maine

                           

So where do we begin?  How about with a few simple and obvious truths.

The writer refers to ‘the success of the Downeaster.’  Success?  Well, it depends on what the meaning of is is.  If by success you mean operating at a loss of nearly 50%; a variety of accidents and fires along the route; massive rework of trackage that was just rebuilt at huge cost, due to, of all things, winter in Maine; passenger loads of barely 10% of capacity from Portland North; then perhaps your definition is being met.

She also suggests that ‘all modes of transportation’ need to be considered.  We agree.  We assert that anything the Downeaster can do, modern day bus service such as Concord Coach can do far better, more efficiently, more flexibly, more helpfully (baggage help, anyone?), with virtually no special infrastructure investment or maintenance operations.  And without burdening State Government with major fiscal liability.

Not only that, but buses currently in use can carry about 50 passengers, while they run far, far cleaner than Downeaster engines, as explained in this statement before the Brunswick Town Council last year:

Research of Clean Air standards for train locomotives, heavy trucks and buses such as the Concord Coach Buses has revealed the following; the “Downeaster” diesel locomotives are 60 times dirtier than heavy trucks and buses manufactured after 2007 when compared using the Fine Particulate Exhaust Emission standards, unless the “Downeaster” diesel locomotives have been remanufactured after 2010.

We doubt that Downeaster engines have been remanufactured.  And we’re real sure Concord Coach buses don’t sit around idling for hours on end between runs.  The engines may not have ‘tailpipes,’ but they spew the combustion residue of a 4,250 hp engine, while the buses are in the range of 300 hp.  So if the writer is serious about ‘carbon footprint,’ she might want to look elsewhere.  (We’re sparing you a repeat of the ‘go sell crazy somewhere else’ graphic this time around.)

                         

Unless, of course, her sole motivation is love for the Choo-Choo, in which case there are other ways to indulge her affections.

      

Lastly, the writer asserts “rail transit service can empower, focus and enable a successful urban area with human-scale mobility.”  We suspect she may have been to New York or Washington, DC once too often, and has developed a case of urban area envy, which is not often seen here in Maine. 

If she thinks Portland qualifies as an ‘urban area’ in the mass transit sense, she better get a grip on things.  As transportation professional George Betke, our recent guest columnist, recently remarked:

Maine is an inherently highway-dependent state for which passenger rail has very limited applicability due to lack of concentrated population centers or corridors.

There is related news to report vis-à-vis her suggestion.  Today’s Portland newspaper has an article discussing a new commuter bus service proposal that would connect Portland to Cumberland, Yarmouth, and Freeport. You can read the article here:

http://www.pressherald.com/2014/06/26/new-commuter-bus-service-depends-on-towns/

A passage or three to pique your interest:

The proposed service is similar to the Zoom-Shuttle Bus inter-city bus service that currently connects Biddeford/Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Scarborough and Portland, according to the report.

It would cost $825,000 to purchase a fleet of four buses required for the service. It would cost $300,000 a year to operate the service, with fares providing $62,000 in revenue.

In Yarmouth, one of the stops would be the $1 million park-and-ride lot, which has 300 spaces. The lot has been mostly empty since it was opened last fall by the Maine Department of Transportation.

Take a look at the numbers for the bus, and the park and ride data, and you have no choice but to conclude that the average commuter has no taste for transport alternatives, even if they save $ and lower carbon footprint.  Surely those devoted to the latter should be filling the Yarmouth lot by now.

Along with a generally dismal outlook for Amtrak’s deteriorating financial circumstances, and the Downeaster’s marginal performance vis-à-vis qualifying for continuing subsidies, we’d say something else is going to have to be devised to grab the interest and devotion of ‘the asphalt village.’

                   

Or maybe some signs and guitars could help change the laws of economics and human nature.

                       

If you can’t change those, there’s always the laws driven by coercive utopians.  All you need to change them are pliable ‘public servants.’

Now, if we could just find the details on that club for Sierra drivers……

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tuesday Tidbits

     

Yeah, yeah, yeah; we know…it’s WEDNESDAY, for goodness sake!

We had intended to get this post done and published yesterday, but life intervened, as they say, and we didn’t make our deadline.  And we couldn’t come up with any cutesy alliterations to go with Wednesday. 

So just think of what follows as ‘day old’ product, at a reduced price.

Breakfast Joints:

We’ve been going out for breakfast on Saturday’s for decades.  We see Breakfast joints as a matter of habit as much as anything else.  Oh, you want good food…no question.  But you also want comfortable and familiar surroundings, staff who know you and you know, and very importantly, the ability to get a refill on your coffee without having to chase somebody down.

In recent years, Boot and Buckle, on 196 in Topsham, just beyond the Topsham Fairgrounds Mall and 295, had been our chosen joint.  So we were a bit verklempt when we learned a few weeks ago that it had been sold, and would be converted to Sylvester’s Sea Food Restaurant, to be operated by folks who previously operated in the Cooks Corner area.

We were told they might be offering breakfast when they reopened, and that many of the servers expected to stay on. They shut down for ten days or so to ‘redo the place.’  We expected a thorough changeover and a place we wouldn’t recognize.

None-the-less, we decided to check out the new operation this past Saturday.  At first blush, other than the sign out front, hardly anything had changed.  The same booths and tables, the same counter and stools, and the same cheerful wait staff.

Turns out the menu is fundamentally the same, at least for Breakfast.  And the same red dishware, with down-home chips here and there.  And wouldn’t you just know it, the prior owner Nickie (sp?) was cooking breakfast in the kitchen, just like she often had at “B & B.’'

After looking the place over, we concluded that other than a good scrubbing, the only serious changes were to the prior equine themed chotchkies, which had been replaced with nautical themed items.

We had a fine, familiar breakfast, and plenty of coffee refills from friendly faces.  Color us happy campers, at least on this account.

Amtrak Presence:

        DSCN0543

As we made our way across town yesterday, we spied this vehicle, which was new to us, and entirely unexpected.  You probably can’t make out the markings, but they read “AMTRAK POLICE.”  We first saw the vehicle in the parking area just to the west of the Mid-Coast Walk-In Clinic, across from the McLellan – our Town Hall.

When we did, it was stopped next to some cars, as if it was checking plates or some such official act.  We turned ourselves around and decided to see if we could make contact with the vehicle and speak to the occupant.

That was not to be; he appeared headed out of town, rather than to the proposed MLF site or any other accessible Amtrak area of interest.  We have no idea what brought the patrol to our perfect downtown location.  Perhaps reports of suspicious behavior from arriving or departing passengers; who knows.

Mary Heath/John Eldridge/NNEPRA:

We reported on the letter from Cedar Street resident Mary Heath to the town council and the Interim Mr. Manager, John Eldridge, in this post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2014/06/cough-cough-and-cedar-streetthe-day.html.

Surprisingly, the town council backed Ms. Heath up on her request, and John and Mary both appeared at the NNEPRA board meeting on Monday the 23rd to make her case.  By all accounts, both acquitted themselves very well in their remarks to the Board, and an action item was assigned to follow-up on Mary’s request.

We’ll have more to say about this meeting in an upcoming post, but for now, kudos to Mary for coming forward and following up, and to IMM (you’ll figure it out) for placing the town’s imprimatur upon her request.

Forecaster Updates on Incoming:

Regular readers know what we mean when we use the term ‘incoming.’  Recently we warned you about school construction cost increases in this post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2014/06/standby-for-more-incoming.html

Separately, we noted the appearance of an item named “Graham Road Landfill Update” on a town council agenda, which sounded ominous to our practiced ears.

Well, you better make sure you have a bucket or two handy, because the water drop treatment on these items has begun, and we have no doubt we’ll all going to be getting much wetter.

Witness this article in The Forecaster on the landfill issue.  You know what a landfill is; that’s a ‘dumps” that costs a lot more than you ever realized.  Focus on this very big water drop:

Eldridge estimated the cost of closing the facility could be as high as $5 million.

Such estimates virtually always go up, up, and then up some more.  So think of closure as the equivalent of another new Police Station in a dollar sense.  The real question, though, as yet unmentioned, is what it will take to replace it, or otherwise come up with a new arrangement for dealing with our pay per bag habits.

We see alarms going off everywhere on this one, and a pressing need to raise the cost of bags by a factor of 2 or 5 to start a fund for the inevitable ‘unexpected expenses.’

Which will have to fall upon the shoulders of the same taxpayers that will pay to replace the ‘dumps’ we currently use as schools for our children.  This article in the latest Forecaster talks of the dilemma the school department faces.  Well, it’s not so much a dilemma as it is a challenge to figure out the easiest way to place the burden on the taxpayers who’ve seen a continuous stream of sizable annual increases in the property tax rate.

Well beyond that of any other towns in the area.  None of them, of course, are as perfect as we are.  But there’s always more perfection to seek out and finance, isn’t there?

===============================================================

Well, there you have it; ‘day old’ product.  But who doesn’t love day old critters like us.

 

Even if our eyes aren’t open yet.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cough, cough and Cedar Street–the day after….

Pursuant to the letter from Mary Heath to Brunswick’s Town Manager and Town Council, we stopped by the Cedar Street area yesterday about 1:30 or so in the afternoon.  We took this video of the Downeaster engine idling away; we were standing in the parking area in front of the Mid-Coast Hunger Prevention Program food bank.  The Brooks Feed & Farm warehouse is just on the other side of the rails, to the left of the engine.

Be sure to have the volume control full up on the YouTube embed above, and on your computer, so you can get the full effect of the engine sound.  You should be able to see diesel fumes exiting the rear area of the engine.  We were there for no more than 5 minutes or so, and we can tell you that we were still smelling and tasting the fumes at least 5 hours later.

We reported on Ms. Heath’s letter here: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2014/06/june-16-council-meeting-cough-cough.html 

We’d very much like the Interim Mr. Manager and the entire town council to fix brown bag lunches for themselves, and eat them picnic style next to the tracks while old #152 (or its brethren) is there idling away.  And we’d love to interview them on camera while they are doing so.

Our experience puts the lie to repeated NNEPRA assurances that the engines only need to idle when temperatures are in the 40’s and below.  This is supposedly to make sure the diesel fuel doesn’t gel.  Which makes us curious why our son-in-law, who drives a diesel powered auto, and lives in NJ, doesn’t have to idle his engine in his employer’s parking lot during winter sub-freezing days.