Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Sound of Speed

The California High Speed Rail Blog has an interesting post with several videos on the noise impact that trains traveling at 220 mph will have when they pass through downtown areas in cities like Fresno and Bakersfield 50 times a day.
"A train running at 220mph will radiate roughly 1.65 times as much sound power as one traveling at 186mph. At a distance of 50m (~150ft), a TGV train will register a peak of around 92dB in open terrain. The new AGV may be expected to come in at around 94-95dB at that distance and its top speed, though improvements in train aerodynamics may have mitigated the increase."

Car Builder's Closing Leaves Commuter Lines in Lurch

Colorado Railcar Manufacturing has closed its doors due to a liquidity crisis, but the biggest loser may by Tri-Met, the Portland, OR, transit agency, and its planned Westside Express commuter rail line, which is scheduled to open in February.

The Portland Oregonian reports that over the past year Tri-Met had supported Colorado Railcar to the tune of $5 million in public money. Tri-Met planned to use DMU (diesel multiple unit) vehicles to operate the new service, which will run from Beaverton to Wilsonville.

"They've got everything they need to operate," said Larry Salci, the former president of Colorado Railcar. His company and Tri-Met were engaged in messy litigation over the contract to build the railcars.
"The agency in October tried to cash in a letter of credit put up by investors to guarantee delivery of the railcars. The investors obtained a federal court injunction blocking the payoff, contending the cars had been delivered and that TriMet had defrauded them.

TriMet denies the claims, and Tuesday pressed again to have the investors' case dismissed.

The commuter railcars were finished only after TrIMet seized control of the private company earlier this year. Agency officials said they took the unprecedented action after discovering that contract payments meant for TriMet's cars had been diverted. Suppliers had stopped delivering parts, and the company had run out of cash.

TriMet officials said they had no choice but to fund the company's operations long enough to finish the four railcars."
Colorado Railcar had had a spotty history marked by the failure to complete a $70 million luxury train intended to be used for promotional purposes by the Philip Morris tobacco company. When Tri-Met entered into its contract with Colorado Railcar, agency officials were aware of the company's financial difficulties. However, Tri-Met board members say they were kept in the dark.

So why did Tri-Met continue with the contract knowing of Colorado Railcar's problems? A Tri-Met spokesman said it had no choice: no other vehicle on the market could meet federal regulatory requirements.

Colorado Railcar began operations in as Rader Railcar, named for founder Tom Rader. Initially it concentrated on building luxury dome cars, converted from bilevel commuter coaches, for rail tour operators. Its cars were deployed by American Orient Express, Holland America, Princess Tours, Alaska Railroad, Royal Caribbean and Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.

It's DMU vehicles, offered in single-level and bilevel versions, were intended as niche offering for start-up commuter rail lines that could not justify the investment in longer trains hauled by locomotives. Tri-Rail has been operating the bilevel version in regular service between Miami and West Palm Beach since 2006. Tri-Met has four of the single-level cars.

In June, the state of Vermont canceled plans to purchase five of the single-level DMUs. Vermont planned to put the cars into on its state-funded Vermonter train. The Vermonter currently runs from St. Albans, VT, to Washington, but with the new equipment it would have run only to New Haven, where passengers would change for service to New York, Washington and Boston.

I am not in a position to comment on the legal woes of Tri-Met and Colorado Railcar nor do I know enough about their DMU product. Nevertheless the timing of their closing seems in opportune, in light of the prospects for increased support for rail under an Obama administration. Other start-ups that were looking at using DMUs may have to look elsewhere for rolling stock. However, DMUs are in use on other lines, notably the Sprinter, which runs from Oceanside to Escondido, CA, and NJ Transit's River Line, which operates between Trenton and Camden.

Brian Bundridge has more on the impact Colorado Railcar's departure from the market will have on transit agencies on the Seattle Transit Blog.

Train Saved, W.Va. Passengers Pay the Freight

West Virginia patrons on MARC's Brunswick Line received good news before Christmas when the rail agency canceled plans to annul the last train of the day to Martinsburg. Now they are getting the bad news.

The Martinsburg Journal reports that as of February 1 fares will rise by $2 for a one-way trip to Washington and by $80 for a monthly pass. The Maryland Transit Authority, which operates the MARC service, says it loses approximately $350,000 a year on its three trains to West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. It receives no financial aid from the Mountaineer State.

This is not surprising given that the Eastern Panhandle is a small part of a state whose capital is over 300 miles away and whose political orientation has tacked right while much of the rest of the country has moved left. The Eastern Panhandle has become part of the Washington metropolis. Its population is growing because workers from the nation's capital are buying homes there and commuting by train and other modes.

Even though the train has been spared for now, I don't expect legislators in Charleston, the state capital, to come to the rescue of train riders in a part of the state that is increasingly suburban rather than rural in character. Even with the Eastern Panhandle's population gains ridership is low west of Brunswick.

Hence, I believe the three trains to Martinsburg have been given a reprieve for now and could wind up on the chopping block in the future. If that happens, hopefully MARC will create a few extra parking spots at its Brunswick, MD, station.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

California High-Speed Rail

I just finished viewing the California High-Speed Rail Authority's promotional video describing the project and its long-range benefits not only for long-distance intercity travel but also for short-distance travel, improving the state's overall rail network, promoting sustainable development and reducing California's carbon footprint. It is worth viewing because it sheds new perspective on the project.

Admittedly it was created to help build support for the bond initiative passed by the state's voters in November to fund the project. While some of us may take issue with projections used in the presentation, the vision it offers is realistic. California's population will continue to grow and its transportation infrastructure needs to keep pace with that growth. High-speed rail is a more cost effective and sustainable solution than adding more highways and runways

When the video is juxtaposed against the writings of right-wing columnist/blogger/talking head Michelle Malkin it becomes clear what the shortcomings of the conservative intelligentsia are. They are buoyed down by an ideology that forces them to make the case based on conditions as they are rather than look forward at what the future may look like and set a path for getting there.

I won't bother to go through Ms. Malkin's post point-by-point, but it starts out by falsely describing the project as a "high-speed rail line from Oakland to Los Angeles" and goes downhill from there.

Friday, December 26, 2008

'All That’s Wrong With Rail Travel in America'

Jim Timmerman's column in yesterday's Holland (Michigan) Sentinel about the Pere Marquette fiasco earlier this week is a must read for anyone who cares about the state of intercity passenger rail in the United States.
"The simple four-hour ride that turned into a 16-hour nightmare for passengers between Chicago and Grand Rapids Sunday and Monday encapsulated all that’s wrong with rail travel in America — poor customer service, restrictive labor rules and Amtrak’s lack of control of the tracks it uses."
Timmerman excoriates Amtrak for the bone-headed decision by its crew members to pull a train bound for Grand Rapids that was about to go out of service into a freight yard one mile from the Holland station where it sat for three hours instead of letting passengers get off in Holland. He points out that despite all the problems with the Pere Marquette passengers continue to flock to the train, as ridership continues to grow "because riding the rails is — on most days — such a pleasant alternative to driving to and from Chicago.

America desperately needs an alternative to driving and flying for short- and mid-range inter-city travel. Rail service is the obvious option. Unfortunately in America, that means Amtrak. Amtrak constantly has to fight in Congress to keep its federal subsidy, which is simply a more direct version of the subsidies that air and car travel receive. Winning support is always a challenge in part because Amtrak keeps shooting itself in the foot with episodes like the Pere Marquette nightmare."

That is the fear; that bone-headed incidents like this and the nearly 24 hour delays in getting the Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited out of Chicago Union Station a few days ago will shake the confidence of Amtrak supporters at a time when Amtrak's - and intercity passenger rail's - fortunes are poised to soar. Amtrak is in a position to tap into a number of funding sources to that could bring its system closer to a state of good repair and fund much-needed expansion: the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the Kerry-Specter high-speed rail bill and the economic stimulus package now being debated in Congress.

But, American taxpayers wants to be reassured that their money will be invested soundly. Amtrak critics and passenger rail opponents will likely jump on these incidents to sew seeds of doubt about investing in rail. They will argue that money directed toward modes that have been proven and widely accepted - highways and air travel - are more likely to produce benefits, including jobs. It's an argument that must be rejected.

As Amtrak's CEO, Joe Boardman must quickly identify and implement concrete steps his company can take to improve reliability and make rail once-again an all-weather travel alternative. He must communicate them to the traveling public and gain support for them from railroad employees. For those items that are not in his company's control, he must begin efforts to secure necessary changes through negotiations with unions and freight railroads or legislation.

Amtrak must be viewed as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Otherwise, we are unlikley to realize the transportation reforms this country needs not only to reenergize its economy but to have a sustainable system of mobility that will allow us to travel freely with minimal impact upon the environment.

Light Rail Comes to Phoenix

Saturday, December 27, Valley Metro Rail will inaugurate service over its new 20-mile light rail running from Phoenix' north side to Tempe and Mesa via downtown Phoenix, bringing the nation's fifth largest city and 13th largest metropolitan area into the ranks of major U.S. cities with rail transit systems. The $1.4 billion project was funded with 41 percent, or $587 million, coming from federal grants and the rest from local sales taxes in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

The service, to be known simply as Metro, was constructed in five sections. The route has 31 stops, eight of which are park-and-ride station with capacity for 3,324 vehicles. Service to Sky Harbor International Airport will be provided via shuttle buses from the light rail station at 44th and Washington streets until the airport builds an automated people mover, scheduled to be in operation by 2012.

Valley Metro has acquired 50 light rail vehicles (LRV) manufactured by Kinkisharyo International of Japan. More than 50 percent of the LRV parts are American made and final assembly took place in Arizona. Each rail car can handle about 200 passengers, with seating for 66, while the rest stand. The cars also have racks for eight bicycles. Station platforms can accomodate trains up to three cars long.

While the trains are capable of speeds up to 55 mph, they will only do that when traveling along future freeway corridors. Instead, they will travel at the posted speed limit for the roads that tracks run along. And end-to-end trip is expected to take arouns one hour.

During peak times, a train will run on ten-minute headways. At night and on weekends, trains will run every 20 - 30 minutes. The system will operate between 18 and 20 hours per day. The rail fare will be $1.25 per trip, the same fare as the local bus fare. Single and multi-day passes can also be used.

For the remainer of 2008, passenger will be able to ride free. Metro has planned a number of inaugural activities for the first weekend.

Six line extensions with a total of 37 additional miles are in planning. They will bring trains to other parts of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa as well as downtown Glendale, and are included in a regional transportation plan.

Light rail skeptics say Phoenix' car culture is too strong to draw riders, the first route is too short, and Arizona summers are too hot for people in business suits to wait up to 10 minutes for a train. However, Metro CEO Rick Simonetta points out that at 20 miles in length the new line is the longest stretch light-rail ever built, and it serves dense employment centers, most major cultural venues in the region the sports facilities used by the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.

He also notes the new light-rail systems in Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston and Dallas - all cities with intense car cultures - attracted hordes of passengers when their commuter lines opened. For example, Houston, which started with a 7 1/2-mile single route, is currently handling 40,000 daily riders and is building five more rail lines to open by 2012. Arizona officials expect their line to handle 26,000 riders on average during weekdays.

To cope with high temeratures, Valley Metro train stations have shade features that will provide protection from the sun at all times of the day, windows on the trains are heavily tinted and the system has the largest air conditioning units of any other light-rail system in the world, Simonetta said.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

$3 NYC Subway Fare Possible

A "worst case scenario" budget released by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority would see the full fare for a subway ride climb to $3, a 50% increase over the current fare. Previous reports had pegged proposed MTA fare hikes, which the agency says it needs to close a $1.2 billion budget gap, around 23 percent. Thus the pain to metropolitan area commuters could be worse than originally feared.

Under the plan, a monthly pass for unlimited subway and bus rides would jump from $81 to $104 a month and full-fare one-way tolls for automobiles on MTA bridges and tunnels would go from $5 to $7. Long Island Rail Road customers face a 29 percent fare hike, and the Long Island Bus fare could rise from $2 to $3.50.

MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the notice presents "a range of possible changes to allow for flexibility in reaching the 23-percent increase in revenue." He added that the MTA supports a plan to keep fare hikes around eight percent by instituting a payroll tax and adding tolls on bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers that are now free. However, that would require action by the state legislature when it reconvenes in January. The final rates won't be determined until Spring.

Amtrak, You Got Some 'Splaining To Do

When I read the headline of today's story in the Grand Rapids Press about the aftermath of a 16-hour train trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids, images flashed through my mind of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's "Ricky" to Joe Boardman's "Lucy."

Amtrak messed up big-time this weekend when the eastbound Pere Marquette required 12 hours more than the schedule allots to cover the 176 miles between the two cities. Michigan officials are demanding answers about the causes for the delay, the welfare of passengers on board the train and why it left the Holland station with knowledge that the crew was about to be taken out of service.

One question they should also be asking themselves is why did they entered into a $6.4 million contract with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service that does not include penalties for poor performance. Overall, Amtrak trains in Michigan ran late 75 percent of the time this year, with a 10-minute allowance; on the Grand Rapids line westbound trains ran late 88 percent of the time.

The main culprits are track and signal problems and train interference on the two freight lines the trains operate over, CSX and Norfolk Southern.


Meanwhile, things back at Chicago Union Station got even grimmer as the Christmas holiday approached. Associated Press reports approximately 600 passengers waited up to 22 hours to board the Seattle-bound Empire Builder and New York-bound Lake Shore Limited.

"Many passengers weren't happy with how Amtrak dealt with the delays.

Sydney Cochran was heading to Rochester, N.Y., to visit family and complained that Amtrak didn't offer blankets, pillows or food overnight. She added that no one provided clear answers about when the train might leave, if at all.

"I'm furious," the 68-year-old said.

Barbara Gruenbacher of Manhattan, Kan., said she, her husband and four kids shivered through the night despite wrapping themselves in blankets as they slept in the station.

"The lack of heat is what put people over the edge," said Gruenbacher, who was also heading to New York to visit family."

While the delays can be blamed on snow, ice and sub-freezing temperatures, these conditions are nothing new. Chicago winter weather has been a fact of life for far longer than there have been railroads in the Windy City. One would think that after 37 years in business Amtrak would have a handle on how to cope with them.

On Amtrak's website, CEO Joseph Boardman issued a statement of apology.

Planners Endorse Route for Maryland's Purple Line

They call it the missing link. It's the proposed Purple Line, a 16-mile, 22 station light rail line that would run inside the Capital Beltway's north side and provide inter-suburb mass transit. Instead of running into downtown Washington, the route will serve bustling suburbs and employment centers like Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park and New Carrollton. It would make two stops on the University of Maryland campus and connect with four subway lines and all three MARC commuter rail lines.

If it gets built, commuters could bypass the Beltway's most congested sections while being whisked to suburban Maryland's largest employment centers - Bethesda, Silver Spring, and the University of Maryland - aboard modern light-rail vehicles cruising along at up to 55 miles per hour. Proponents say it will also reduce air pollution, promote job creation, encourage mixed-use and transit-oriented development and increase property values. Finally, the transit corridor would also support a recreational trail that would enable runners, bikers and skaters to enjoy an uninterrupted route from Bethesda to Silver Spring.

Yet its construction has become a highly contentious issue that has been debated for 20 years, according to Washington Post columnist Mark Fisher.
"What was once a simple matter of where to lay the tracks to connect the two arms of Metro's Red Line has morphed into an epic confrontation featuring standoffs between -- deep breath now -- tree-huggers and bicyclists, transit-dependent Hispanic workers and car-addicted Anglo professionals, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, anti-density NIMBYs and pro-urban smart-growth advocates, and bus proponents and rail fans."
One of the biggest sticking points has been the fate of a popular recreation trail, the Capital Crescent Trail, which was built along an abandoned Baltimore & Ohio Railroad branch line from Silver Spring to Bethesda. Planners in Montgomery County want to reclaim that route for the light rail line, but they would maintain the trail and add plantings as a buffer.

The project has a current price tag of $1.2 billion. The final decision about whether it will be built as light rail or as bus rapid transit rests with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is expected to decided early next year. No doubt one of the factors influencing his decision will be what is likely to pass muster with the Obama administration, which will decide where to spend infrastructure funds incorporated into economic stimulus now being discussed in Congress.

Even if the line offers little relief to Beltway congestion, it might provide relief to secondary roads that can not handle all the commuters heading from Prince George's County to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring. More important, it will be a bellwether for suburban transit lines that could be built in the future in the suburbs of New York and Chicago.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Fair Weather Friends?

Mother nature has not been kind to Amtrak over the past two weeks. First ice storms knocked out signals and forced suspension of rail service for several days on the Empire Corridor and Downeaster route. Then major snowstorms in the Pacific Northwest disrupted operations of the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight and Cascade Corridor.

But these pale in comparison to what happened to passengers aboard Sunday's Pere Marquette train from Chicago to Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Press reports the train reached its destination 12 hours late on account of the weather and railroad work rules. Keep in mind the 176-mile run normally takes four hours.

The ill-fated run encountered several delays outside Chicago and slogged into Holland, MI, at 5:30 a.m., down 7:10. The train departed for Grand Rapids, 25 miles away, but came to a stop one mile away because the crew had reached its hours of service limit. It would take three hours to get a relief crew and the train finally reached Grand Rapids at 10 a.m.

The pitiful performance begs a lot of questions, among them why did the train leave Holland when the crew knew it could reach Grand Rapids before clocking off?

So far the traveling public isn't abandoning Amtrak for the highways on account of cheaper gas, however, it remains to be seen whether it will tolerate this kind of performance. Lengthy service disruptions during winter storms have become commonplace. What happened aboard the Pere Marquette brings to mind what happened a few years ago when JetBlue's operations at New York's JFK Airport were fouled during a February storm. Founder and CEO David Neeleman knows all too well: He got canned.

At one time rail was considered the all-weather alternative. Trains managed to get through in the face of all kinds of weather conditions. I recall a westbound trip to Chicago aboard the erstwhile Three Rivers through a blizzard in Ohio six years ago. We arrived in Chicago 40 minutes early! Unfortunately, my return trip aboard the Capitol Limited ran four hours late.

Amtrak needs to work with its host railroads to improve reliability. Hopefully it will earmark some of its increased funding toward that goal and can pick up additional funds through the economic stimulus plan being considered in Congress. The aim should be doing what's necessary to get trains out of terminals on time and maintained well enough to make it over the road without mechanical breakdowns.

And, when crews run the risk of outlawing (reach their hours of service limit), it needs procedures to assure passenger safety and comfort and to expedite getting crews to stranded trains.

Las Vegas Maglev Gains Governors' Support

A $13 billion project to construct an ultra-fast maglev train that could whisk passengers from Anaheim, CA to Las Vegas, NV, in 86 minutes has gained the support of the governors of California and Nevada, reports the Las Vegas Sun.

“Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and I agreed to jointly work together on the project,” Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons told the newspaper. He argues the train should be a candidate for federal economic stimulus money.

The project has another important supporter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said the project “not only makes good economic sense for the state, it makes sense from an environmental and energy perspective as well.”

Last June, Reid put $45 million in a Senate bill to fund an environmental impact statement for the project. He also asked the Government Accountability Office to prepare a feasibility study for the project, which should be out in the next three months. However, project supporters need to come up with $11.25 million in matching funds to proceed with the environmental impact statement.

Maglev trains ride on a cushion of air because powerful magnets in the track levitate them. Only a handful of commercial maglevs are in operation in China and Japan. A competing proposal calls for a high-speed train from Victorville to Las Vegas operating over conventional track.

But is the project a good candidate for the economic stimulus package now being debated in Washington? President-elect Obama has called for funding of projects that are "shovel-ready." Steve Ellis, a vice president with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national nonpartisan budget watchdog group, pointed out that the maglev project would take a decade to build; the environmental impact study could take 18 months to two year. He argues that any economic stimulus should yield an immediate benefit.

Also, other technologies are in development that could support trains that run faster, are less expensive to build than maglev and can operate over conventional rail for the last mile to downtown terminals. I hope to be able to tell you about them in coming weeks.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tunnel Key to New Jersey Rail Expansion

When it opened its great Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan nearly a century ago, the Pennsylvania Railroad continued to send most of its New Jersey commuter traffic to a satellite facility on the Jersey City waterfront where passengers transferred to ferryboats or the Hudson & Manhattan (now PATH) tube trains.

As its intercity passenger traffic waned over time, the Pennsy shifted its commuter trains to Pennsylvania Station. When the last trains departed from the Exchange Place terminal in the early 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that Pennsylvania Station would be more than adequate to handle the traffic. In fact, the Pennsy's managers decided to tear it down and replace it will a cramped facility underneath a new Madison Square Garden.

They did not envision a future with:
  • a revitalized Northeast Corridor with conventional and premium, high-speed trains.
  • connections to bring trains off the former Lackawanna and New York Central mainlines into Penn Station.
  • a transfer station in Seacaucus where passengers off former Erie routes could catch trains to Penn Station.
In short, a Penn Station with maxed out capacity.

That's the problem confronting New Jersey Transit, the government agency that inherited the state's commuter rail lines, including the former Pennsylvania, Lackawanna and Erie trains, in 1983. The two tunnels under the Hudson River and associated infrastructure "can no longer accommodate the expansion in passenger rail services associated with continued growth and development in the region."

Much of New Jersey's population works in New York or is employed with companies tied to New York's economy, such as the back offices of financial services firms. Thus, mobility between the Garden State and Manhattan Island is vital to the state's economic future. With the three highway crossings at peak capacity, as well, the state needs a new entry to Manhattan, and rail is the most efficient option.

That is the rationale behind Access to the Region's Core, a mega-project with an estimated $8.7 billion price tag. It consists of two new tunnels under the Hudson, connecting trackwork and a new station to the north of Penn Station. Among the benefits it would provide are:
  • Doubling of capacity for the trans-Hudson commuter rail system.
  • One-seat rides from areas now requiring a change of trains.
  • A new station to relieve overcrowded and inadequate facilities at Penn Station.
  • Reduced overcrowding and delays due to lack of track capacity in the station.
  • A network that could keep up with population growth west of the Hudson and job growth in Manhattan.
The plan calls for two new tracks running alongside the Northeast Corridor from the Frank Lautenberg Transfer Station in Seacaucus to new a tunnel alignment under the Palisades and Hudson River leading to a new six-track station on two levels, which would be built under W. 34th Street. A loop track would enable trains off NJ Transit's Mainline, Bergen County line and Pascack Valley line, which serve New York's Orange and Rockland Counties as well as northern New Jersey, to reach the new line and continue into Manhattan.

NJ already has dual-power locomotives that can run on diesel fuel or draw electricity from overhead catenary on order. This will obviate the need to extend electrification.

The project's final environmental impact statement is complete and $5.7 million in financing has been lined up from the state and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Now the project's managers are looking to the Obama Administration to come up with the remaining $3 billion as part of an economic stimulus package.

According to NJ Transit Executive Director Richard Sarles, Access to the Region's Core is the linchpin in future expansion of the state's rail system. He told the Trenton Times recently:
"The building of the tunnel will make it possible to build proposed new rail line extensions to Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex Counties, as well as a western extension that could connect Scranton, Pa., to New York."
Down the road, it could make it feasible to restore service to West Trenton via Bound Brook and Hopewell.

Penn Station and its connecting tunnels have served New York and its suburbs well for nearly a century, but new facilities are needed to support the region's continued economic development. Both NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, with its East Side Access project to build a tunnel and new station adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, are stepping up to the plate. For commuters there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Downeaster Blues

Last week an ice storm in northern New England forced Amtrak to substitute buses on its popular Downeaster route between Boston and Portland, ME. According to Boston Globe transportation columnist Noah Bierman not having the train and its party atmosphere has been upsetting several of the regulars. One sent him an email that said:
"Please help us - we're suffering the ill effects of loneliness . . . and are collectively nearing nervous breakdown stage as they herd us on to smelly busses where alcohol and laughter are prohibited. We are ever so sad. Pleeze Hep Us!"
The storm hit December 12, and normal service wasn't restored until one week later. According to Patricia Quinn, executive director, of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the service, the storm knocked out the rail line's automatic signal system imposing a 20 m.p.h. speed limit on the route. That would have resulted in unacceptable delays for the trains, which normally run at up to 79 m.p.h.

Parking Problems Plague North Carolina Station

File this under good problems:

Amtrak patronage in Raleigh, NC, has grown to the point that customers have trouble finding parking spots in the station lot, the Raleigh News & Observer reports.

"The capital is blessed with one of the railroad's busiest stops in the Southeast and hobbled with one of its littlest stations.

Last year more than 140,000 riders stepped on or off the six trains that stop each day at the modest brick station on West Cabarrus Street. Amtrak offers free parking for travelers, and its tiny lot fills up fast. "

The lot has but 57 spaces. At peak travel periods like Thanksgiving, as many as 900 passengers use the Raleigh station. And, things are likely to get worse before they get better since next summer Amtrak plans to a second state-supported Charlotte-Raleigh round trip to complement the Piedmont. The other trains serving Raleigh are the New York - Miami Silver Star and the New York - Charlotte Carolinian.

To deal with the problem, Amtrak has resorted to adding extra station personnel during peak periods and encouraging customers to use other stations in the vicinity, such as Cary or Durham. Among the factors contributed to increased patronage have been track improvements that have cut 30 minutes off the Raleigh - Charlotte travel time and better on time performance.

Seems like now would be a good time for Raleigh to have "shovel-ready" plans for expanding station parking so it can compete for some of the infrastructure money Congress is likely to include in an economic stimulus package early next year. Of course, this would be less of an issue if we weren't such an auto-centric society. There'd just be a light-rail network linking downtown Raleigh, with a stop at the Amtrak station, with its suburbs.

On a personal note, a shout out to Bruce Siceloff, the reporter who covered the story for the News & Observer. We were colleagues at The Greenville News from 1976 - 1977.

Friday, December 19, 2008

West Virginia Commuter Train Gets Reprieve

West Virginia officials have found the money to keep a Washington - Martinsburg commuter train running into their state, the Charleston Daily Mail reports. MARC, the Maryland agency that provides the service, wanted to terminate the train in Brunswick, MD, in a cost-cutting move. The action would have left Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry with two daily trains.

Two Western Commuter Lines Get New Bus Links

Bus connections will link two of the West's newest commuter rail lines to popular, traffic-generating destinations. In Utah, express vans will connect in Ogden with two morning Utah Transit Authority FrontRunner commuter trains from Salt Lake City to ferry skiers and snowboarders to the Snowbasin ski resort. The service, which begins tomorrow and runs through April 11, will cost $10 round trip. Rail fare and lift tickets are extra.

In Albuquerque, NM, Ride ABQ, the city's bus system, Wednesday initiated an express bus service running from Alvarado Transportation Center, the terminus of New Mexico Rail Runner commuter trains from Santa Fe and Belen, to Albuquerque International Airport, giving the commuter line a "train to the plane" option. The ride from the train station to the airport is expected to take around 15 minutes.

Both services are positive developments since they enable these rail lines to provide intermodal service to important traffic-generating destinations not served directly by rail. Coming on the heels of news about a discounted package to bring Long Island Rail Road customers to Long Island MacArthur Airport as well as several bus connections with Rail Runner in Santa Fe, we may be witnessing a welcome trend.

Pennsylvania Agency to Buy Key Rail Line

The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority will purchase 10.6 miles of mainline railroad track owned by Norfolk Southern between East Stroudsburg and Slateford Junction through the Delaware Water Gap, the Pocono Record reports. The agency currently leases the line, originally a component of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western mainline, which is used in freight service and occasional excursions from Steamtown. It is slated to eventually be used by the planned passenger service linking Scranton and the Pocono Mountains to New York City.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Budget Cuts Threaten 'Adirondack'

Amtrak's New York - Montreal Adirondack is threatened with elimination or frequency reduction thanks to New York State's budgetary woes. The Albany Times-Union reports Gov. David Paterson wants to halve the train's annual $5 million state subsidy.

The move comes at a time when Amtrak is looking for New York State to step up its support for intercity passenger rail. New York does not subsidize the Empire Corridor, which offers up to 13 roundtrips per day between New York and Albany-Rensselaer. The situation finds Amtrak's new CEO, Joseph Boardman, taking the opposite position from when he was New York's transportation chief under former Gov. George Pataki.

Ending the Adirondack would leave no rail service between New York and Montreal. Amtrak's overnight train, the Montrealer, which originated in Washington, was discontinued in 1995. The Adirondack is considered one of the world's most scenic trains because of its long stretches of running alongside Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

The moves comes at a time when Vermont is threatening to end support for the Ethan Allen Express, a daily run between Rutland and New York. If both trains are discontinued, the beautiful new station in Saratoga Springs will be put out of business.

Paul Weyrich, R.I.P.

I was saddened to learn today of the passing of Paul Weyrich at the age of 66. As I noted a few weeks ago in a posting linking to a column he had written,
"Paul M. Weyrich is a rare individual; a conservative thought leader who is also an advocate for mass transit and rail transit."
Paul didn't view public transit as a public service but rather as a good, i.e. a product, consumers would be willing to pay for if it provided a good value proposition. He advocated for projects that made good economic sense. That point-of-view made managers and planners sharpen their pencils in order to demonstrate that their proposals warranted public support.

The growth of transit, particularly commuter rail and light rail, over the past two decades piggybacks on the success of new build operations. Every time a metropolitan area added a new service that met its objectives, it weakened opposition from the nay-sayers, skeptics and auto-adovcates in other areas.

Paul bucked an ideology that was invested in the automobile because it saw it as an extension of personal freedom. Instead, he made the case for public transit provided there was accountability. He made a valuable contribution to the conversation and, as a result, he will be missed.

If You Can't Beat Them...

Now that New Mexico Rail Runner has commenced service between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, AP reports that the New Mexico Park and Ride commuter bus line is ending service on that route, which links the state's two largest cities. Instead, Park and Ride will offer a connecting bus service from Santa Fe to Los Alamos and adjust other bus schedules from places like Las Vegas and Espanola to better connect with the train.

Sales Tax Drop Means 'Tough' Times for UTA

With sales tax revenue running 18 percent below 2008 projections, Utah Transit Authority (UTA) General Manager John Inglish anticipates the next 18 months "will be tough" for his agency, the Deseret News reports. That's why earlier this week the agency's board of trustees adopted a $280 million budget for 2009, only $1.7 million more than the previous year.

The budget does not anticipate reducing service on any of the agency's commuter rail, light rail or bus lines, nor does it call for fare hikes. But it leaves little wiggle room. It anticipates sales tax revenue to decline by 1.5 percent despite a one-quarter of one percent hike in the tax rate. If collections fall below projections service reductions may be necessary. The sales tax generates approximately 17 percent of UTA's revenue, according to UTA spokeswoman Carrie Bohnsack-Ware.

UTA ridership was up 12.2 percent, year-over-year, in 2008, with 36.6 million riders. However, start-up of the FrontRunner commuter rail line in April contributed some of those gains.

The agency isn't the only major transit operating hurting financially because of lower sales tax revenue. MARTA, the transit agency in metropolitan Atlanta, is facing a $60 million budget shortfall due to a fall-off in sales tax income. The tax accounts for approximately half of its revenue.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's Under La Hood?

California High Speed Rail Blog has been checking Rep. Ray La Hood's record on high-speed rail and doesn't like what it is finding about the Illinois Republican whom media reports says will be President-elect Obama's nominee for Secretary of Transportation.
"LaHood doesn't appear to have much of a record as a transportation expert - at least when Bush crossed the aisle for Norman Y. Mineta he got someone who knew the issues well. But the troubling thing is that what LaHood has said about HSR isn't encouraging."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

DOT Seeks Bidders for DC - NY High-Speed Line

Contained within the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the legislation reauthorization Amtrak, is a provision requiring the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue requests for proposals for "the financing, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a high-speed intercity passenger rail system operating within a high-speed rail corridor." Yesterday, DOT obeyed the law, issuing an RFP for a new high-speed line between New York and Washington.

Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who is the chief advocate of a privately financed line, estimated the cost at $18 billion and $40 billion. He said the trains could be functioning between 2012 and 2020, based on government planning projections. In a press conference at Washington Union Station, Mica said "This is the most exciting development in U.S. passenger rail in years."

Mica and federal officials want to get the New York - Washington trip time down to two hours or less. Amtrak's Acela Express takes close to three hours. It's a worthy goal, but is an entirely new railroad necessary to do that?

The same legislation calls for spending $13 billion over five years to bring the existing Northeast Corridor up to a "state of good repair." Besides the engineering challenges, a new line would have to acquire a 225-mile right-of-way running through some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

Seems to me this is nothing more than a tip of the hat to an outdated ideology.

Atlantic City Rail Service Comes Up ACES

The Atlantic City Express Service (ACES), a consortium of three Atlantic City hotel and casino operators, announced today that it would commence operating a weekend-only passenger rail service between New York and Atlantic City February 6. The privately sponsored trains would restore direct service to a market that Amtrak exited in 1995.

The line will offer nine departures a week, with trains making one stop en route, at Newark. Running time will be slightly more than 2:40, comparable with the old Amtrak service, which utilized the same track.

To operate the service, ACES has outfitted eight bi-level rail cars with leather seating, a private lounge and food and beverage kiosks. The cars are similar to the new bi-levels being put into service by NJ Transit. Both first class and coach seating will be offered. One-way tickets, which go on sale January 15, will be $50 in coach and $75 in first class.

A complimentary shuttle service will transfer passengers from the Atlantic City Rail Station to Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah's Resort Atlantic City or the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, which are partnering to sponsor the service. NJ Transit will operate the trains and Amtrak will provide ticketing and a reservations system under management contracts.

This train's success will depend upon its ability to deliver a superior level of service and convey a solid value proposition. Buses, both chartered and scheduled dominate the New York - Atlantic City market. They have the advantage of price and convenience; they depart from just about every neighborhood in the Big Apple. That gives them an advantage on trip time, as well, since their customers don't have to first take a subway to Penn Station.

Amtrak's Atlantic City Express proved to be a disaster. It utilized ordinary Amfleet equipment, did not offer a first-class options and its transfer operation from the rail station to the casinos was anything but seamless. It offered only one departure daily from New York, although it also originated trains in Springfield, MA, Harrisburg, PA, and Richmond, VA. Since it operated daily, it had to contend with low mid-week patronage.

ACES can differentiate itself by providing a smoother, quieter, more luxurious ride, with amenities like its lounge and on-board food and beverage service. It remains to be seen whether that's enough to win over enough riders willing to pay the premium fare. But it is a niche player in a large market, and it has to put only 2,700 fannies per week in its seats to sell out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Economy Takes Toll on Acela

Trains for America reports after reporting record gains for FY 2008, Amtrak ridership fell 5.5 percent in November. The biggest culprit was the Acela Express, down 15 percent. Clearly, the recession is taking its toll on business travel.

MARTA Revenue Falls Short

Despite a 12.4 percent increase in ridership for the third quarter of 2008, vs. 2007, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is facing a $60 million budget shortfall, the Atlanta Constitution reports. The weak economy and lower-than-forecast sales tax revenue are to blame. MARTA operates over 150 bus routes and four rail lines.
"A 1-percent sales tax paid in the city of Atlanta and in DeKalb and Fulton counties accounts for more than half of MARTA’s operating budget. Passenger fares account for about 30 percent, with remaining revenues from parking fees, leases, federal aid and other sources."
At a press conference today, MARTA officials said fare hikes, parking fees, service reductions and layoffs were all under consideration to help close the gap. General manager Beverly Scott is threatening "unbelievably draconian reductions in service," and is calling on the Georgia state legislature to ride to the rescue. MARTA is the largest public transit authority not receiving state operating aid. Already, the agency's board cancelled raises for MARTA managers and non-operating personnel and cut back discretionary spending. These moves could save $11 million.

The economy and budget shortfalls aren't MARTA's only problems. The agency hasn't invested adequately in its infrastructure over the past two decades.
"We have fallen seriously behind our peers, and it has caught up with us," [Board Chair Michael] Walls said. "We need to do everything that we can to favorably position MARTA ... for the national stimulus package being developed in Washington."

MTA Giftwrapping Its Lump of Coal

This week the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors is expected to approve the so-called "Doomsday" budget that would hike bus, subway and commuter rail fares in the New York City metropolitan areas by 23 percent or more. But the pain won't stop there.

The Daily News reports 150 subway stations would experience service reductions. Four on the N line - City Hall, Cortlandt St. and Rector St. in Manhattan, and Lawrence St. in downtown Brooklyn - would be shut between 11 p.m. and 6 p.m. During those hours, the N train, which normally operates through lower Manhattan, would be rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge.

The severity of the fare hikes and service reductions could be offset if the New York State legislature approves a bailout proposal crafted by a state commission headed by former MTA Executive Director Richard Ravitch that calls for tolls on East and Harlem River bridges and a payroll tax.

Inauguration Special to Bring Obamas and Bidens to Washington

Associated Press reports President-elect Barack Obama and his family will arrive in Washington on a special train originating in Philadelphia. The Obamas will arrive in the nation's capital January 17, three days ahead of his inauguration. The special will stop in Wilmington, DE, where it will pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his family, and in Baltimore.

No word yet on whether the train will use Amtrak equipment or private vehicles. Philadelphia is home to Bennett Levin's Pennsylvania Railroad E-8 locomotives and private cars in the Pennsy's tuscan red and gold paint scheme.

Regardless, the special will be a great public relations coup for passenger rail. Both Obama and Biden are strongly pro-rail, and the subject of high-speed rail comes up in discussions on proposals for infrastructure investment tied to an economic stimulus package that could be awaiting Obama's signature when he takes office.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


With its sharply curved platform along a single loop track, the South Ferry station on New York City Transit's Number One line was a novelty for train buffs looking for something unique. But the screeching wheels and the short platform, which required passengers to ride in the first five cars to get off, made it a nuisance. If you weren't paying attention to the conductor's announcements, you could get stuck and forced to ride back to the next stop, Rector Street. It happened to me once.

The nostalgia and noise is going away. A new station with a straight, center-island platform that can accommodate 10-car trains will open next month. The $530 million project was funded largely with federal funds earmarked for redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. With Congress expected to pass a huge economic stimulus package soon, I hope NYC Transit has many "shovel-ready" projects like this on the drawing board so it can get its fair share of the money.

Metrolink: The Problem is Cultural

A Peer Review Panel report produced by railroad industry experts in the aftermath of the deadly September 12 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and Union Pacific freight train was presented on Friday to the metropolitan Los Angeles rail line's board of directors . Its message:
"Top-to-bottom improvements in the safety culture of the Metrolink rail system are needed to reduce the odds of future accidents."
The report hits everyone from the front-line supervisors who oversee the contractors who operate the trains to board members, who need greater involvement to ensure safety policies are enforced. It called on Metrolink to step up its monitoring of "safety critical" workers, chiefly engineers and conductors, through more frequent testing and live video monitoring of train crews. It also said the agency needs to move from paper-based to computerized record-keeping systems.

Other recommendations include restructuring management, appointing an executive-level chief safety officer and better training for board members, including clarifying their responsibilities related to safety. The recommendations come as no surprise. In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that:
"Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the last decade. Since 1999, more than 90 people have died in accidents involving Metrolink trains, according to federal data."
Part of the problem may stem from its reliance on outside contractors to operate its trains.
"Since 2001, the report noted, Metrolink staff has remained flat while the number of contract employees and trains operating in the five-county jurisdiction has grown. Over the years, the agency has saved costs by contracting out train operations and keeping administrative oversight staff to a minimum."
Metrolink Executive Director David Solow vows to follow through on the panel's recommendations, but it won't be easy. The railroad's mission statement calls for it to operate as inexpensively as possible, and its operations are dependent upon the cooperation of the two giant freight railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, over whose track it operates.
But it has no choice. With 48,000 daily riders, it has become a major player among commuter lines and a transportation force in the nation's second most populous metropolitan area. It needs to restore the confidence of the traveling public not only to shore up its own business, but to encourage greater use of rail in the section of the country that made the automobile and freeways a way of life.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

LIRR Offers Airport Packages

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's AirTrain service to John F. Kennedy International Airport has been a boon to the Long Island Rail Road and its customers. The easy "up and over" transfer has proven to be an extremely convenient, affordable, reliable and time-competitive way for air travelers from Long Island and Manhattan to get to and from their flights. It has become my preferred ground transportation mode when I fly by myself out of JFK.

Now the LIRR is adding a second train-to-the-plane service. Correction: aggressively promoting a second service. Newsday reports that the LIRR will begin offering a discount package for travelers wanting to fly out of Long Island MacArthur Airport, just a short hop via a shuttle bus, from its Ronkonkoma station.
"The special ticket covers a one-way train trip to Ronkonkoma and a 1 1/2-mile shuttle ride to the Long Island MacArthur Airport. The fare is valid on both peak and nonpeak trains, and represents a savings of up to $4.50 each way."
Prices range from $7 ($6 for seniors) from nearby Central Islip, Brentwood, Deer Park and Wyandanch to $14 ($11 for seniors) from Penn Station, Woodside, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Flatbush Ave., Nostrand Ave. and East New York.

Although Ronkonkoma is approximately 50 miles from Penn Station by train, it is the only metropolitan New York Airport served by discounter Southwest Airlines. And, there are times when the 1:19 normal train schedule is actually faster than driving from Midtown Manhattan to JFK.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Terminal Trouble by the Bay

"Location, location, location" is the first rule of real estate. It's why young, upwardly mobile professionals from around the country move to Manhattan and are willing to fork over half of their salaries to live in spaces not much larger than their closets back home.

So, if you're the head of a planned high-speed rail line in California and someone is building a facility they say will become the "Grand Central Terminal of the West," would you jump at the chance to have you trains arrive and depart from there?

Well, Quentin Kopp, who heads the California High-Speed Rail Authority, is staying put, for now. Kopp has said that the line's San Francisco terminal will be at Fourth & Townsend Streets, a location now used by Caltrain, the commuter line to San Jose and Gilroy. He's shunning a rebuilt Transbay Terminal, for which a ground-breaking ceremony was held yesterday.

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority plans to spend $1.2 billion on the first phase of a one-million square foot new facility in downtown San Francisco. But no money has been found for the $300 million train "box," a piece of infrastructure necessary for the rail terminal, which would be built in phase two.
"Transportation planners say the train box, which is essentially the shell structure in which the train station would be built during the project's second phase, is very important both logistically and financially (doing it later could be very expensive and disruptive to the station's operation), particularly since the TJPA has secured little of the $3 billion needed for phase two."
Kopp says it would be too expensive to extend the high-speed line the additional 1.4 miles through a tunnel from Fourth & Townsend. But, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, there's no love lost between him and TJPA executive director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan.

The original Transbay Terminal opened in 1939 to accommodate buses and commuter trains using the neary San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In its heyday during World War II, 26 million passengers used the facility yearly. However, after railroad tracks were removed from the bridge in 1959, usage of the terminal dropped significantly and both it and the surrounding neighborhood went into decline.

Some experts believe its downtown location is critical to the high-speed train's success. Dave Snyder, transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told the Guardian:
"I don't think it works with the rail terminal at the current Caltrain station at Fourth and Townsend. The access to downtown just isn't good enough. The trains have to come downtown."
I concur, based on something I learned several years ago when an investment banking colleague who lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side was interviewed for a newspaper article about business travelers' preferences for Amtrak's Acela Express versus the air shuttle. He explained that if he was leaving from our office in Midtown, he'd opt for the train because the door-to-door trip was faster. But if he was traveling from his apartment, he'd fly because LaGuardia Airport was just a few minutes away via the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge and the Grand Central Parkway.

Business travelers not only represent the largest share of the Los Angeles - San Francisco travel market, but they are most willing to pay premium prices. They need to be catered to, and the station's proximity to their final destination will influence how they travel.

Quentin Kopp may have his issues with Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan, but terminating the high-speed line on the outskirts of downtown San Francisco is shortsighted. As the Guardian notes:
"Building an adequate terminal for high-speed rail at its present location would cost at least $750 million, money that would be better spent funding the downtown extension."
Two history lessons for Mr. Kopp:
  1. Fourth & Townsend is a desirable location for people wanting to take a train to see a San Francisco Giants game, but 21st Century Los Angeles has about as many Giant fans as Brooklyn did in the 1940s and 1950s.
  2. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was able to acquire the New York Central Railroad on the cheap when he stopped trains of his New York & Hudson River Railroad across the river from Albany, NY, and made passengers fend for themselves to continue their journey.

What Hard Times Look Like

Stories from Baltimore and St. Louis point to what's in store for transit riders in the era of tight budgets and limited government support. It isn't pretty, and it could force some commuters back on the highways.

In Maryland, eight members of the Baltimore City Council have written to Gov. Martin O'Malley asking that he intervene to prevent MARC from eliminating two late-night trains on the Penn Line from Washington to Baltimore, which runs over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, next month.

MARC cites low ridership, but the trains are a lifeline for commuters who occasionally have to work late or stay in Washington for other reasons.

Says Rolf Schmitt, a 58-year old federal employee who commutes by train:
"I'm grateful it's there," he said. "There are occasional nights you have to work late."

Without the 10:05 departure, the last train of the evening would leave Union Station at 8:40 p.m. - a time that could rule out, among other things, many after-work dinners in Washington.
Schmitt says without the late night trains he'd have to drive and pay for parking on those days he stays late.

In recent years, Baltimore has experienced an influx of people moving there and commuting to Washington because of its lower housing costs. This has helped revitalize historic neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Fells Point. Officials fear loss of the late-night trains could diminish the Charm City's appeal for people who work in Washington.

MARC also plans to discontinue next month the last of its three trains from Washington to Martinsburg, WV, west of Brunswick, even though ridership from West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle is up 7.5 percent year-over-year.

Meanwhile, transit officials in St. Louis anticipate losing 9.5 million riders next year - almost 20 percent of the Metro system's total ridership - when it implements service reductions next month. Yesterday, they unveiled a long-awaited service reduction proposal aimed at trimming $36.7 million a year from future Metro operating budgets.

The cuts would put Metro buses out of reach to 362,000 St. Louis County residents and 6,000 St. Louis residents whose neighborhoods are currently within a quarter-mile of a bus. Today, about 1.3 million city and county residents have such access to buses.

The system's MetroLink light rail line would not be spared. While both routes would continue to be served one line would be reduced to a shuttle service during off-peak hours.

The cuts came after St. Louis County voters rejected a proposal to shore up Metro's finances by seeking a half-cent sales tax increase in November. In addition to the service reductions, Metro's customers face a 25 cents fare hike January 1. A second wave of fare increases will take effect in July 2010.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Looking at the Kerry-Specter High-Speed Rail Bill

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic offers a thorough analysis of the “High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008″ (S. 3700), the legislation introduced by Sens. John Kerry, D-MA, and Arlen Specter, R-PA.
"Kerry’s bill is one of the first major American attempts to sponsor a large investment in rail improvement since the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project."

Second Thoughts in Vermont

The Albany Times Union reports the state of Vermont will continue to subsidize its two Amtrak passenger trains, the Vermonter and the Ethan Allan Express. Earlier reports said one of two trains would be eliminated or truncated in an effort to eliminate a shortfall in the state's budget.

Perhaps state officials are taking their cues from rail advocate Carl Fowler, who in an op-ed published in the Rutland Herald called the proposed cutbacks "penny-wise and pound-foolish." Fowler, vice president of the Rail Travel Center in Putney, Vermont, said the state should look for ways to increase revenue for the two trains, which posted ridership gains of 17.5 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively, for FY 2008.

Reinstating a St. Albans-to-Montreal bus connection to the Vermonter would "add a minimum of 30 passengers per day to the train, cover all incremental expenses, and add ridership of 15 percent to the Vermonter route, while increasing rail revenues by at least $500,000 per year, with no increase in train costs," he said.

Fowler suggested that state-supported bus services from Newport and St. Johnsbury to White River Junction and from Middlebury to Rutland should should stop at train depots, coordinate schedules with trains and offer joint ticketing. Re-equipping the trains with new diesel multiple-unit equipment would double fuel efficiency, provide a more comfortable ride and speed up running times. Congress has budgeted $2 million to pay for this equipment.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Holiday Wish List for Barack Obama

Dear President-Elect Obama:

Your election has for a number of reasons made me bullish on the prospects for revitalizing America's passenger rail network at all levels. First, I know you and Vice President-Elect are strong advocates. Second, you are emphasizing renewed investment in America's infrastructure as integral to your strategy for revitalizing our sluggish economy.

You have expressed a desire to fund projects that are "shovel ready" in order to put as many people back to work as quickly as possible. The highway lobby has no shortage of these. they have identified over 5,000 such projects and say they would create 1.8 million jobs.

But "shovel ready" should be only one criteria used to decide what gets funded. Sustainability, environmental impact and energy consumption should also be taken into account. That's why public transportation projects need to play an important role in the mix. As an editorial in today's Washington Post points out, the American people are clamoring for public transportation. They are using it in increasing number while they are driving less. In the fall election, voters passed an astounding 70 percent of ballot initiatives to raise taxes to pay for transit.

Creating a national transportation policy that supports and funds public transportation, including intercity and high-speed rail, on the same footing as highway projects would be an important milestone. It would truly represent "change we can believe in." With that in mind, I have prepared a list of public transportation goals I'd like to see accomplished during your first term:

High speed rail
  • A full funding agreement and construction underway on the first phase of the California High-Speed Rail Line.
  • 110 mph operations on significant portions of Amtrak's Chicago - St. Louis and Chicago - Detroit and Cascadia corridors.
  • A full funding agreement and construction underway on the Southeast High-Speed Rail line between Washington and Charlotte.
  • A full funding agreement and construction underway for several major projects along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor such as replacement of the Portal Bridge between New York and Newark and new, faster tunnels in Baltimore.
  • Completion of rehabilitation and remedial safety improvements in the Hudson and East River Tunnels.

In addition, to the aforementioned corridor projects:
  • Elimination of Amtrak's bad order equipment backlog so its passenger car fleet can be brought to maximum capacity.
  • A order for a new generation of passenger cars to replace aging Amfleet and Horizon equipment as well as the remaining Heritage dining cars.
  • More sleeping cars for long distance trains.
  • New services in partnership with states, such as Chicago - Quad Cities, Chicago - Dubuque, Kansas City - Fort Worth, Washington - Lynchburg, Cleveland - Cincinnati
  • Restored service between New Orleans and Jacksonville.
  • Restored service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas
  • Rerouting the Sunset Limited through Phoenix
  • Daily operation of the Sunset Limited and Cardinal
  • Restoration of through service on the Inland Route between New Haven and Boston via Springfield
Regional / Commuter
  • New services:
    • New York - Poconos
    • New York - Lehigh Valley
    • New York - Atlantic City
    • Boston - Fall River / New Bedford
    • Boston - Concord, NH
    • Philadelphia - Lehigh Valley
    • Philadelphia - Reading
    • Atlanta - Macon
    • Atlanta - Athens
    • Los Angeles - Palm Springs
    • Phoenix - Tucson
  • Full funding and construction underway on several major capital projects:
    • Long Island Rail Road's East Side Access
    • Long Island Rail Road third track between Floral Park and Hicksville
    • NJ Transit new Hudson River Tunnels provided they connect to Penn Station
    • New York's Second Avenue Subway

The Washington Post Gets It

Invest in Mass Transit

A farsighted way to jolt the economy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008; Page A18

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where Should Washington Spend Our Stimulus Money?

President-elect Obama's economic stimulus proposal announced over the weekend has received wide spread approval for its strategy of investing in rebuilding America's infrastructure. The big question to be answered is how that infrastructure spending pie would be divided among the various transportation modes.

New evidence reported today suggests a rationale for directing a larger share of those funding in public transportation. Public transit ridership rose by 6.5 percent during the third quarter of the year, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). That's across all modes - bus, light rail, subway, commuter rail - and came despite a drop in gasoline prices and increased unemployment.

Meanwhile, Americans drove 4.4 percent less, or almost 11 billion fewer miles, in September versus September 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That was the 11th straight month of declining driving. Also

In the November elections, voters passed 25 of 33 ballot initiatives to increase local and state taxes for public transportation

These are trends that policymakers in Washington need to heed as they make decisions on infrastructure spending. Clearly Americans are moving to public transit in growing numbers, so the money should follow where the market is heading, not where it has been.

Plus, well planned public transit investments can be more cost-effective, they reduce reliance on imported oil and they have a smaller carbon footprint, which means they can retard the consequences of climate change.

And, as transit expands mobility increases. If a city has a single linear route, a traveler can use it only to get from point A to point B. When a second route running in a perpendicular direction is added, the travel now has three destinations he or she can reach.

Policymakers need to project future travel needs according to current trends, which are accelerating. Then they need to invest so that as demand grows, the capacity will be there.
"Transit officials have identified 736 ready-to-go projects nationwide, valued at $12.2 billion, that would create more than 40,000 jobs if federal money is made available. An additional $20 billion in improvement work could be ready in two years."
There will always be need for highways, but as transit mobility increases, more people are opting for the latter.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"We Don't Need Roads"

I'm not talking about Doc Brown's closing line at the end of Back to the Future. I'm talking about Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. The President-elect is taking some heat among rail and transit advocates for a statement on his economic stimulus plan that:
"We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money."
What's missing, of course, is any mention of rail transit, be it HSR, Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail or subways. Robert Cruickshank at California High Speed Rail Blog believes Obama is taking a dual track approach of economic stimulus spending on immediate impact project, i.e. roads, and " a long-term infrastructure investment package that will give a bigger boost to sustainable transportation like HSR." He goes on to critique the strategy:
"A dual-track infrastructure approach strikes me as a fundamentally flawed way to handle the current crisis, especially if the first and more immediate track directs billions towards roads. That's exactly what we should NOT be doing with our stimulus money. Roads don't build long-term economic growth, unless we're planning to follow Robert Toll's insane advice and reinflate the housing bubble. The nation's bridges do need repair and that's fine, but we need new road capacity like we need a hole in the head.

Economic stimulus should meet two needs at once: produce immediate jobs and spending, and fuel long-term growth. FDR's New Deal projects did exactly that - the nation's nascent highway network needed a LOT of investment and improvement in 1933, from roads to bridges. The New Deal helped seed the economic boom of the 1950s in that way. They didn't sit around building canal towpaths."
The challenge facing Obama and the nation seems to be, at least to me, balancing pragmatism and idealism. Because of our current economic situation, "shovel-ready projects" are going to get funded first. Highways have an advantage in most jurisdictions because agencies have a backlog of projects to be completed while rail authorities are bogged down in the lengthy bureaucratic processes of gaining environmental approval, obtaining funding, etc. In short, the game is rigged.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi made this poignant observation in today's New York Times: “During the New Deal, Robert Moses got the most money because he always had projects ready to go.”

Long Island Congressman Tim Bishop, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also notes the two-tiered approach, but sheds more light on how it will go and why rail might not get the short shrift.

"The immediate focus will be smaller projects that can start quickly. Later will come grander efforts — Mr. Bishop calls them “game-changers” — like the Long Island Rail Road’s proposed third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.

“We’re going to get two bites at the apple,” he said. “What we want initially is projects that can be operational within 60 to 90 days, that are ready to go and the only thing that’s holding them back is money.”

Such fast-track projects will feature small-bore, mundane-sounding needs like highway improvements and sewer extensions."
Established rail operators have no shortage of such projects. Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams has a wish list that includes: better traffic controls in Jamaica, pedestrian railings at stations, new concrete ties and rehabilitation of the century-old Atlantic Avenue viaduct in Brooklyn.

Clearly there is far too little money to fund all the merit-worthy rail projects around the country, but America's economy has to be nursed backed to health before all of them can be built. And we may have to fix some roads and bridges to keep things from getting worse.

Fast Track the Lackawanna Cutoff

President-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan calls for funding of infrastructure projects that are "shovel-ready." Many proposals for new or expanded rail service are being promoted as possible funding candidates. One that strongly warrants consideration, even though currently it falls a bit short of "shovel ready," is the long-anticipated restoration of passenger rail service from New York to Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains region via the Lackawanna Cutoff.

The Lackawanna Cutoff was a grade-separated, high-speed route between Port Morris, NJ and the Delaware Water Gap built by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad to replace the more circuitous route on its original mainline. Its last passenger train ran in 1970 and its tracks were removed a decade later. Passenger rail supporters have advocated restoration of service ever since.

Over the past year, some progress has been made. In June, NJ Transit officials announced a plan to build an eight-mile first phase segment from Port Morris to Andover. This $37 million project has been fully funded, according to NJ Transit's website. When it is completed in 2012, 10 eastbound and 11 westbound trains would operate between Andover and Midtown Manhattan, presumably powered by locomotives with diesel engines and pantagraphs to draw current from overhead catenary.

That leaves 80 miles to go to reach the ultimate destination, Scranton, PA, 133 miles from NJ Transit's Hoboken Terminal. The good news is that the entire route is in hands of government authorities. New Jersey acquired the Lackawanna Cutoff in 2001. Pennsylvania owns the bridge over the Delaware River and the right of way as far as Slateford Junction. The newly formed Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority has leased the line from Slateford Junction to East Stroudsburg from the Nortfolk Southern Railway and it owns the remaining tracks into Scranton.

The holdup is getting a ruling of No Significant Impact from the Federal Transit Administration on the project's environmental assessment. Without that ruling, preliminary engineering work will not begin. NJ Transit, which is the presumed operator of the trains, said is was working to secure a ruling in 2008; it has 24 days to go, as of this writing.

The project's cost is close to $600 million, and counting. Elements include laying 28 miles of new track, upgrading 60 miles of existing track, rehabilitating two major bridges and a tunnel, new signaling, communications and control systems, eight new stations with parking, a storage yard, maintenance shed and crew facility in Scranton and a maintenance of way facility in Greendell, NJ. Also, locomotives and cars to equip nine daily roundtrips will need to be acquired.

If NJ Transit's ridership projections of 3,350 daily passengers from points west of Andover are accurate, this represents a significant benefit to a fast-growing region whose highways are ill-equipped to handle the increased demand. According to the project's environmental assessment, the population of the regions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania served by this route grew by nearly 13 percent during the 1990s and is forecast to grow by another 23 percent by 2030.

The biggest gains came in Pike County and Monroe County, Pennsylvania, which grew by 65 percent and 45 percent, respectively during this period, adding 43,000 residents. Projections indicate that by 2030 Monroe County will grow another 100 percent to more than 278,000 residents.

Not surprisingly, the main highway linking the region with metropolitan New York, Interstate 80, is straining to meet the demand. The four-lane I-80 bridge over the Delaware River experienced a 19 percent increase in traffic between 1997 and 2002, climbing from 45,000 to 53,000 vehicles per day. It is expected to experience a 15 percent jump for the 2004 - 2010 period and then an additional 46 percent increase between 2010 and 2030.

Widening I-80 is problematic. The highway passes through the Delaware Water Gap, a twisting segment of the eponymous River lined by cliffs on both sides. The environmental impacts would be huge and the cost would be exorbitant (think I-70 through Colorado's Glenwood Canyon). The existing rail line could be upgraded and restored for a fraction of the cost.

Will the Lackawanna cutoff make the cut to be included in the economic stimulus plan? It depends on what New Jersey and Pennsylvania transportation officials, the two states' Congressional delegations, federal bureaucrats and rail advocates do to make it happen.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Ravitch Report Calls for MTA Overhaul

Most of the media coverage of the Ravitch Report has focused on fare-saving measures, i.e. new revenue sources to reduce the impact of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed fare hikes on commuters in metropolitan New York. The Transport Politic has an excellent analysis of other recommendations in the report that would put MTA's finances on sounder footing for the long haul.

"The report puts the blame squarely on two problems: a structural reliance on bond funding (whose problems we’ve discussed before) and a problem in the leadership structure of the agency. Here’s the critical passage on debt-based funding:

“Fundamentally the MTA’s deficit is rooted in a structural budget imbalance driven by years of over-reliance on self-supported debt to fund its capital needs. This has led to large and growing debt service payments made through the operating budget that have placed extraordinary pressure on the farebox. This structural imbalance has been masked in recent years by an unprecedented collection of real estate transactional taxes.”

And, indeed, this is a major problem: passengers are simply paying more and more for less, as they’re having to pay back the loans that were taken years ago to finance capital improvements. The MTA’s budget has been fine in recent years, as the passage points out, but only because of the huge real estate market in New York City, that held the Authority afloat. Now that the building boom in the city has popped and the overall economy has slowed significantly, the MTA must find other ways to finance itself. Most importantly, it must stop being so reliant on bonds to fund capital improvements and even operating expenditures. Taking out loans simply costs more in the long-term than paying as you go, as direct taxes would ensure."

The Ravitch report also recommends putting more leadership authority in the hands of MTA's full-time executive director, rather than its Board of Directors.