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High Speed Rail to New York

24 Mar

Google Maps says it’s 408 miles from Niagara Falls to New York City. It should take about 6.5 hours to drive. Unfortunately, taking the train takes 9 hours – if you’re lucky. Amtrak shares almost all of the railway west of Albany with freight operators, and freight has the right-of-way, so it’s not uncommon for passengers to spend an interminable wait outside of Rome, for instance. 

Paris to Marseilles is 480 miles, and is about a 7 hr drive. The TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) takes 3 hrs 15 minutes. 

The Acela corridor connecting Washington, New York, and Boston is the only nominally high speed rail line in North America, and only parts of the track are capable of accommodating real high speeds. 

The New York State Department of Transportation is planning a high-speed rail corridor between New York and Niagara Falls, called the “Empire Corridor”. There had been a public comment period that no one knew about, so it’s been extended until April 30th. There are several alternatives being considered: 

Base Alternative – Improvements to the existing right-of-way, new and redeveloped train stations, high-level boarding platforms, and 20 miles of new track, signals, and track improvements, such as grade crossings to enhance safety, security, and convenience.

Alternative 90A – New train sets, locomotives and coaches, and 20 more capacity and station improvement projects in the existing right-of-way.

Alternative 90B – All Alternative 90A features plus station improvements and construction of more than 300 miles of track dedicated to passenger rail.

Alternative 110 – All Alternative 90A features and 325 miles of new dedicated passenger rail track.

Alternative 125 – Entirely new 247-mile corridor connecting Albany and Buffalo, requiring construction of a separate right-of-way for passenger rail service and sections of elevated track to bring passengers to stations or freight to customers and freight yards. New service would stop in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, where travelers could change to local trains.

By my way of thinking, if you’re going to do something, do it right. I would prefer 125 or 110 and ensure that passenger rail is efficient and reliable. Alternative 125 would allow for about 15 – 20 trains per day reaching average speeds of 77 MPH and a top speed of 125 MPH. The current top speed is 79 MPH, and that’s what the base alternative would maintain.  Under alternative 110, the travel time would be about 7 hours and would cost about $6.25 billion. Under alternative 125, the time would be 6:02 and would cost $14 billion. 

There had been an earlier alternative that would have allowed average speeds of 120 MPH and top speeds of 220 MPH – TGV speeds – but implementation would have been $40 billion. 

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Volkswagen Tennessee and the Works Councils

20 Feb

VW Bluecross Concept

Be careful what you agitate for. 

Last week, workers at the new-ish Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to reject UAW unionization by a very narrow margin. 

Let’s not forget, shall we, that Volkswagen, AG has a global reach.  Here are its stated corporate “Basic Principles”: 

Top performance

To survive in the face of competition and to achieve top performance, the Volkswagen Group needs employees who enthusiastically give their best. A good balance between demands and ability (the so-called “flow channel”) is the basic precondition for optimum performance and results. For this reason, we do not want our employees to be overstretched, but also not understretched, so that they are able to deliver top performance and advance the success of our company. 

Leading by example

The management assumes a decisive role in this entire process. Our principle has to be “Lead, Demand and Promote”. The Group will only be able to achieve its goals with exemplary leadership and constructive cooperation between management and workforce. This includes both targeted and continual personnel development and work organisation, which we continue to develop with the so-called “Volkswagen Way”. 

Active involvement

A standard survey of employees across the Group was introduced in the form of the so-called “mood barometer”. The “mood barometer” gives employees the opportunity to anonymously voice their opinion and so to become actively involved in the organisation of the company. The results form the basis for continually developing our strengths and for exploiting potential that is brought to light. The high rate of participation shows that employees have positively accepted this instrument as an expression of their esteem. In this way, they make a contribution to the continued development of the company. 

Social responsibility

Not only does Volkswagen’s corporate culture focus on people, it also represents the sustainability of economic and social goals, “corporate social responsibility”. The “Declaration on Social Rights and Industrial Relations” expresses Volkswagen’s global understanding of social responsibility on the basis of minimum standards.

This includes Volkswagen’s active cooperative conflict resolution between the Works Council and the company management. We created European and Global Works Councils early and without any statutory obligation. We do not cling to traditional questions of co-determination. Rather, we discuss the development of the company with our Works Council representatives. This is the way from co-determination to shared responsibility.

In other words, Volkswagen has made a global commitment to maintain a positive and cooperative relationship with its employees.  It wants them to be happy and productive. Unfortunately, that sort of mentality is completely anathema to our post-Reagan “greed is good” labor-bashing stock price culture. 

But Volkswagen is thriving, building everything from the VW Polo to the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron, with some Audis and Bentleys in between. The Volkswagen Works Councils are an integral part of the company’s success. The push to unionize in Tennessee was not so much pushed by the UAW as it was by Volkswagen itself, because under American law the council can’t be set up without union representation. In fact, the Chattanooga plant is the only Volkswagen facility anywhere in the world where workers are not represented by a Works Council or labor union. 

This would also be something new for the United Auto Workers. They wouldn’t have the same relationship with VW as they do with Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford. Rather, the idea is to create something called a “works council,” which are widespread across Europe and enjoy tremendous influence over how plants are run. In America, that kind of body can’t be established without a union vote — but crucially, the works council would be independent of the union, meaning the UAW would give up some control as soon as it gained it.

Why does the company favor works councils

There are three major advantages of councils. You’re forced to consider in your decision making process the effect on the employees in advance…this avoids costly mistakes. Second, works councils will in the final run support the company. They will take into account the pressing needs of the company more than a trade union can, on the outside. And third, works councils explain and defend certain decisions of the company towards the employees. Once decisions are made, they are easier to implement.

Works councils don’t call strikes because they don’t need to. Their inherent authority helps to avoid crises before they arise. The UAW would not be running labor relations from the outside, and the vote in Tennessee was done via secret ballot

Currently, the Chattanooga plant manufactures Volkswagen’s Passat sedan, which is nearing the end of its life-cycle. It is a unique factory that can build more than one model side-by-side on the line, and it’s slated to get Volkswagen’s upcoming mid-sized 3-row SUV, to replace the Routan minivan and slot between the expensive Touareg and the smaller Tiguan. 

As VW negotiated with the UAW in advance of the works council vote, politicians in the notoriously anti-union, anti-worker South remained relatively quiet. That is, until it seemed as if the plant would, in fact, become the first auto plant in the South to vote to unionize. Republican politicians tripped over themselves to predict armageddon if the vote was successful, and panacea if it wasn’t. For instance

That doesn’t mean, however, that the vote is unopposed. National anti-union groupsand the state’s Republican leaders are campaigning against the UAW, saying unionization will spread like a contagion through Tennessee’s other auto plants. “Then it’s BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan, hurting the entire Southeast if they get the momentum,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.).

BMW also uses works councils in other countries, to great success. It has operated a non-union plant in South Carolina since the mid-90s. But this wasn’t at all a fair vote. Big-money corporate anti-labor (Republican) interests from Washington interfered and campaigned against the works councils

Two of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, insist they know how to run an auto company better than VW. Despite this successful international auto company’s actual business experience with work councils, these GOP politicians say that they know what’s best, that they just know unionization won’t be good for VW.

A union-hating group, the National Right to Work (For Less) Committee, travelled to Chattanooga from its headquarters near Washington, D.C. with a carpetbag full ofcash for legal challenges to the unionization effort. And GOP crank Grover Norquistsent his Washington, D.C.-based organized labor-hating group, Center for Worker Freedom (To Work For Less), to Tennessee to thwart the Chattanooga workers’ right to unionize.

VW objected to the interference. CEO of VW Chattanooga Frank Fischer asked the outside agitators to stop, saying, “Volkswagen is committed to neutrality and calls upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality.”

They ignored him — disregarding a CEO, a figure before whom Republicans typically grovel! That is how much Republicans hate unions.

They refuse to believe what VW is saying, that works councils are valuable management tools, despite evidence that the model already succeeds in the United States.

Corker went so far as to say that he had spoken with VW corporate, and that they had told him that VW would announce that it would be building the mid-sized SUV in Chattanooga (instead of in, e.g., Puebla Mexico) only if the vote to establish works councils failed.

… it was the conduct of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that most damaged the prospects for a free election. After stating that he would stay out of the vote, Corker returned to Tennessee to claim that he had been assured that VW would manufacture a mid-sized SUV in Chattanooga if the workers rejected the union. Head of the Chattanooga plant, Frank Fischer, immediately disowned his remarks and stated that the decision on where to expand production was separate from the union vote. Unperturbed by this denial, Corker accused Fischer of speaking from “old talking points” and stood by his comments. Corker’s remarks made a fair election impossible and did much to turn the vote against the union. He had used the authority of his office to say that a vote against the UAW was vote for more work in Tennessee, even though, according to VW management, his comments were unfounded.

Now that the election is over, Corker should have no problem disclosing who assured him that the rejection of the union would result in VW locating the SUV production in Chattanooga. If VW executives said this – which seems unlikely given the company’s respect for labor rights throughout the globe – that comment could form the basis of an unfair labor practice complaint. If not, it appears that Corker suggested this in order to pressure VW workers to vote against the union. While third parties are held to lesser standards in NLRB elections than the parties directly involved – allowing Corker to make comments that might be ruled illegal if made by VW or the union – the NLRB can set aside elections because of third party interference in exceptional circumstances such as these.

What are they so afraid of? Employees having rights, apparently

…a UAW victory would show that even billionaire anti-union zealots can be beaten. Right-wing groups are furious that Volkswagen is not fighting the UAW, so they have chosen to do so on their own. National organizations funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers and other right-wing activists have taken to the airwaves to demonize the UAW. State politicians have attempted to blackmail autoworkers to vote no by stating that Volkswagen may lose state financial support if it becomes unionized. Unionization, one elected official explained, “was not part of the deal.”

Promising auto lines out of turn? Threatening to withhold or withdraw negotiated, promised incentives? Blackmail? The anti-union Southern GOP and big-money interests may have won this round, but it’s also beginning to backfire

DPA, the German news agency, quoted [head of VW’s global works council Bernd] Osterloh as saying that, without a mechanism for “co-determination,” as Germans refer to the works council system, VW’s works council could “barely” agree to further investments in the US. The works council approves all decisions on investments in plants or their closure.

“I can absolutely imagine that a future VW facility in the USA, should another one be built there, would not definitely go to the south again,” Mr Osterloh said.

Ugly stuff, that. It would be a rich irony if the malicious intervention from Republican union-busters and Washington corporate interests in Tennessee resulted in the expansion halt that they threatened would happen if the works council was allowed to pass. Works councils cannot be formulated in the United States without union involvement – the company cannot create one unilaterally

Indeed, Mr. Osterloh’s comments have been interpreted to mean that VW head office in Wolfsburg will not permit the Bluecross-based SUV to be built in Chattanooga specifically because of the defeat of the works council and the malicious, false intervention by the likes of Senator Corker. 

Volkswagen wanted this union vote to pass, because it wanted the works council set up now – not in a few years when people get around to changing the rules. Republican lawmakers and special interests thwarted this, and it’s mind-boggling that these CEO-worshippers would deliberately thwart the wishes of a big manufacturer,  and threaten a big employer in the process. 

Since 1999, I have owned a Golf, a Jetta Wagon, two GTIs, a Passat Wagon, a Chattanoogan TDI Passat, two Beetles, and a TDI Beetle Convertible. I love the design, driving experience, features, engine choices, and build quality of Volkswagens. 

The Republican party and its lobbyist paymasters have long ago jettisoned good policy and good government for ideological purity. This has been – simply put – bad for America. It’s high time these nihilists were hoist by their own petards. 

Wear the Right Shoes

11 Dec

Get yourself some snow tires. 

Your pickup or SUV? Its 4 or all wheel drive will help you get un-stuck, and it’ll help you get going on some slippery stuff. Its ground clearance may occasionally help you ford a river or drive over a big snowball. But its mass is such that it makes it especially difficult to stop. 

Your anti-lock brakes? They’ll help you avoid a skid by automatically applying and releasing the brakes in quick succession, but they won’t help you avoid an accident if you’re going too fast. 

Or if your tires suck. 

Last night’s commute in Buffalo was your typical afternoon first-snow crawl. Just about every route was packed in or going at a reasonably safe, slow speed. This is good. But if you have crap tires, or even decent all-weather tires, you might as well put skates on the bottom of your car, because they won’t cut it in this weather.

The best of all possible worlds? AWD or 4WD with snow tires. If you have a Subaru or AWD Audi with a good set of snows, your car will be bulletproof in the ice and snow. But the big secret is that you don’t need the extra cost, heft, and maintenance that comes with powering all four wheels, not in WNY, where the roads generally get cleared pretty well (unless you’re unlucky enough to try to drive on a secondary road in the city of Buffalo up to a week after a major storm. For some reason, the city itself is unwilling or unable to plow all of its streets within a reasonable time).

Get yourself some snow tires, instead.

For instance, some local tire stores will store your summer tires in the winter, and vice-versa. For free. Go in, pay about $100, and they’ll do the switchover, usually installing snows in November and summers in April. You extend the lives of both sets of tires, and you’ll have the appropriate shoes on your car.

You don’t wear flip-flops in 6″ of snow. You don’t wear snowboots when it’s 80 degrees out. Why do that to your car?

In some countries, snow tires are mandated. This is a smart idea and something that snowy climates should seriously consider. Driving is no joke, and if you’re hurtling a 2-ton piece of rubber and metal down the street in a snowstorm, other drivers should have some semblance of assurance that you’re appropriately equipped. Snow tires are different from summer or all-weather tires in that they use a softer rubber compound, and feature deep sipes that literally help the car dig into the snow and ice. The best set I ever owned were Finnish-made Hakkapeliitta 2s, which rendered a car that had no traction control into a snow tank.  I always had to get them online, which is a hassle, but I haven’t not put snow tires on a car since my second winter here. You can get a set of Blizzaks, which are very good, or whatever your local tire shop offers, which will be fine, too. 

You can’t leave them on all year, because the rubber compound only works well in the cold weather. But if you, for instance, go from no snow tires on a slippery day to snow tires, you’ll be astonished by the difference in traction you have. Not just start and stop traction, but especially lateral traction, when you’re turning. Traction / stability control will help, too. 

We’re known for snow. We get snow. You drive in it. If you enjoy having control over your car in the snow, ice, and slush – the ability to start, stop, turn, and drive with some modicum of safety – pay your local tire guy, car dealer, or mechanic a visit. Maybe go to Tirerack.com or some other online retailer.

But whatever you do, get yourself some snow tires. 

“Car Coach” Lauren Fix Attacks Tesla, Ignores Escape

27 Nov

A thought for the day before Thanksgiving. 

Although I would never buy a Tesla electric car because (a) it costs a fortune; and (b) a fill-up is measured in hours or minutes, rather than seconds, I think it’s ingenious and brilliant. The fact that three of them (3) have caught fire after an accident does not bother me. Cars that get into accidents can catch fire. 

But the Ford Escape is on its seventh overall recall – five of them for engine fires – after thirteen (13) of them have spontaneously caught fire after overheating and cracking of the engine block. A further twelve (12) have caught fire due to coolant leaks that were the subject of a prior recall. About 140,000 Escapes in the US are affected. An October report shows over 25,000 VINs assigned to Tesla for the US.

There’s a local car expert who makes the media circuit, and she especially appears on right-wing media outlets. Lauren Fix is the “Car Coach“, and if you Google “Lauren Fix” + Tesla, you get pages worth of her concern-trolling the Tesla fires on right wing organs Fox News and Newsmax.  

If you Google “Lauren Fix” + Escape, you get pages worth of her 2013 Escape ‘Expert Car Review”. You’d never know the car was on its seventh recall, and second fire recall. 

Because on right-wing media, electric car is bad and to be viewed with suspicion because Thanks, Obama. The Ford Escape, on the other hand, is an example of the superiority of the internal combustion engine. 

Here’s a tip – engines catch fire. The Teslas only catch fire when they’ve been in an accident – not spontaneously. Also, as Tesla founder Elon Musk points out

For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid.

Buffalo Played a Great Role on Top Gear USA

31 Oct

If you missed the Top Gear USA episode they shot in Buffalo and Youngstown – one of the best episodes the American iteration has ever done, WNY notwithstanding – you can still watch it on the History Channel on the following dates and times:

  • – November 05, 2013 – 11:02-12:01AM ET
  • – November 06, 2013 – 03:03-04:02AM ET
  • – November 12, 2013 – 12:00-01:00PM ET

Or you can watch it in full at this link in a week or so. 

Fans of the British version sometimes haughtily dismiss the American version as being inferior. It is. But in the same way that Paris is better than the French version of Epcot, it doesn’t mean it’s not fun in its own way. While the British show features a contemporary review, and the Stig taking it for a power lap, the News, a funny challenge or feature, and a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, the US version jettisoned the parts that were awkward for its hosts (almost everything) and now just stick to the challenge feature. Frankly, it’s the best part of the British show, too – you don’t remember how fast an Ariel Atom went around the track, but you remember when Jezza raced James and Hammond from the South of France to London, pitting a Bugatti Veyron against a Cessna. 

Top Gear in WNY is funny and compelling, and above all, it makes Buffalo and western New York look absolutely gorgeous. It’s nice to be able to see Buffalo used as a backdrop without a septuagenarian lecturing you about how significant the buildings and street grid are, and instead being used by three guys having a good time. 

No Lights, No Roundabouts, No Change

21 Oct

At the corner of Greiner and Shimerville in the town of Clarence there was until recently a stupid 4-way stop. The DOT wanted to improve traffic flow there and proposed a roundabout. The title of this post is the text from a bunch of signs that popped up in the immediate vicinity, which nicely reflects WNY’s attitude about everything, everywhere. (They eventually installed lights). 

On Millersport Highway, between Sheridan Drive and Eggert, there are five lanes of traffic and not a single pedestrian crosswalk. How is this allowed to be? 

View Larger Map

On Maple at Culpepper, a middle-schooler died trying to traverse five lanes of traffic in order to reach a playground. Amherst is going to “study” whether a crosswalk somewhere nearby might be a good idea. The girl’s family is raising money for “Erin’s Crossings” to advocate for a law requiring crosswalks near every playground. Transit Road is a killing field, involving death after death after death after death. With crosswalks a mile apart from each other, it’s routine for people to just cross wherever, and it’s even more dangerous in the wintertime when no one plows the sidewalks and pedestrians are forced into the street. To die. 

Hamburg was able to get the DOT to install roundabouts and make the village more pedestrian-friendly and picturesque. Why can’t the DOT do that everywhere? 

View Larger Map

Finally, here is a map that the New Millenium Group released in 2003, showing that downtown Buffalo is made up mostly of parking. Parking downtown is still a 50s era clusterfuck, and nothing’s been done in 10 years to address it, manage it, or to provide some sort of comprehensive plan and modernization effort. 

Just make sure not to kill any hapless pedestrians trying to cross a road on your way downtown. 

Roundabouts: Are they Better?

8 Oct

Have you driven through this, the intersection of Harlem Road at Wehrle and Kensington Ave? It’s a glorious set of two roundabouts, which allow traffic to negotiate what had previously been a set of intersections with lights. I think it works phenomenally well, and I think it’s great that we’re seeing more and more intersections in the area switching to roundabouts – Hamburg especially.

So, the big question – are roundabouts better for traffic? They calm traffic by requiring a yield/slow-down, but are they more or less efficient in terms of getting traffic through an intersection, as compared with a four-way stop? 

Geneva 2013: Cars for Emirs and Oligarchs

6 Mar

Right now there’s an international auto salon taking place in staid, antiseptic, but beautiful Geneva. The Swiss are not known for being car enthusiasts. While the small, neutral confederation sits smack in the center of Europe, acting as a crossroads between Gauls and Goths, between orderly northern Europe and chaotic southern Europe, it maintains some of the strictest emissions and speed regulations on the Continent. 

But this year, the buzz from Geneva is loud indeed. Of course, there are gimmickry things like animated headlights from Kia, and a Subaru that poaches the idea that Ford had with the new Fusion to copy an Aston Martin’s grill. But the Swiss have money, and it also happens to be the place where people with money go to squirrel theirs away. So, naturally, the planet’s nouveaux riches might enhance their trips from Monaco by using the supercar to visit their money. 

The biggest news out of Geneva is the horribly named, but dead sexy Enzo replacement, the “LaFerrari” V12 hybrid. Making 963 HP and 0-60 in 3 seconds, Ferrari are only making one less than 500 of these. It’s incredibly light, being hand-made from carbon fiber, and the electric part of the hybrid engine doesn’t exist to help MPG, but to fill out weak spots in the power. Shame about the name, though. 

Not to be outdone by Fiat, Volkswagen Group revealed the Lamborghini Veneno, which also makes 0 – 60 in 3 seconds with a 750 HP V12 and looks like the Batmobile – and I don’t mean the dark and brooding post-1989 Batmobile, but the 60s era George Barris (loud music at link) campy one: 

Britain’s McLaren revealed the P1, which has similar numbers all around, including 903 HP: 

Also, compare how clean and uncluttered the McLaren’s interior looks, as compared with the “I’m pretending I’m a Formula 1 driver” buttons and switches on the Ferrari’s wheel: 

If you’re into coupes that cost like a house, looks like a Bentley Continental, has suicide doors, and fake stars in the ceiling, BMW have made the Rolls-Royce Wraith for you. It goes in the rain!

In addition, Honda/Acura brought along a brand-new NSX. Designers are also bringing designs to the show, and they might just make you a custom version, if you have enough cash. Giugiaro has the Parcour, and Pininfarina brought the Sergio

With the Dow at historic highs, a decade’s worth of extremely expensive oil, and a stagnant middle class here at home, these are the cars that your oppressors are shopping for. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. 

 

WRC: Not in the US

8 Feb

This weekend is the annual FIA WRC Rally Sweden, a competition that involves small turbocharged cars going very fast on all sorts of road conditions – gravel, dirt, asphalt, and snow/ice. Unlike NASCAR and Indycar, they turn more than just left. Spectators stand right next to the track. It’s insane and death-defying. Of course, it’s not being aired in the US at all. Or in Canada, for that matter. 

This is something that should be remedied. Witness: 

Highlights from the 2012 Rally Sweden: 

Highlights from Monte Carlo 2013: 

The $100,000+ Bentley Continental W12 GT takes to the Welsh WRC rallye track with Top Gear’s James May calling the turns – often poorly. 

Ken Block with Top Gear’s James May at a California airfield. 

Catalunya Spain 2011 WRC: 

Climbing up Pike’s Peak: 

How is this not popular in the US? 

 

Rear Fog Laser

5 Jun

In the EU, it’s standard for all cars to equip what’s called a “rear fog light“. They’re available on a small number of cars in the US, and what it is is a single rear light, brighter than a brake light – on the left on the Continent, and on the right in the UK – which alerts cars driving behind you that you’re there when visibility is poor. 

Audi has taken the idea one step further, designing a laser rear fog light that illuminates an area on the ground behind the vehicle, indicating for motorists behind it a safe following distance. With the slow introduction of LED headlights and DRL, this is a pretty neat innovation.