Friday, January 23, 2009

Union Station Fiasco Was Stupidity

Huffington Post has more on the Inauguration Day fiasco at Washington's Union Station. While their report accurately conveys what took place, I disagree with the conclusion that this was a manifestation of "classism." It was stupidity.

Is Amtrak OT Improvement Due to the Recession?

Good news in the Tampa Tribune about the on-time performance of Amtrak's Silver Star, one of the two daily trains running between New York and Miami. The northbound Star was on time 87.1 percent of the time last month, compared with the 12-month norm of 51.7 percent. The southbound was on time two-thirds of the time versus the 51.6 percent norm.

The Star's performance was no outlier. The other Amtrak trains along the Atlantic Coast route had comparable rates or better. Auto Train was on time 93.5 percent of the time, versus the 12-month average of 82.4 percent. Other services running over CSX showed improvement, as well, notably the Washington - Chicago Capitol Limited (59.1 percent vs. 35.2 percent) and New York - Charlotte Carolinian (54.8 percent vs. 36 percent).

On the other hand, trains running primarily in CSX's northern territory had worse on-time rates during December, possibly because of winter weather woes. For example, the Chicago - New York Lake Shore Limited was on time 58 percent vs. 63 percent. Empire Service was on time 70.6 percent vs. 76.1 percent and the Chicago - New York Cardinal, which runs through Cincinnati and West Virginia met its schedule 31.7 percent vs. 33.8 percent.

The improvements on the north-south runs is indeed welcome news since it comes as travel to Florida hits the prime season. However, it might not be good news for host railroad CSX since it could be an indicator of reduced freight traffic, in turn, causing less interference for Amtrak.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

MTA Would Cut Port Jervis Express Service

Among the many draconian provisions included in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's doomsday fare hike scenario is a plan to reduce express service on Metro North's Port Jervis line. Currently several trains on the 90-mile route skip intermediate stops in New Jersey. This has resulted in speeded up trip times that has made commuting to Manhattan from Orange County more viable. In turn, the express service has helped build passenger demand on the line.

At least one round trip, and possibly two, would go from express to local, according to the Middletown Times Herald Record. The move could increase travel times by 20 minutes and result in more crowding.

The MTA plan also calls for eliminating weekend service on the Pascack Valley line, which was introduced only two years ago. However, the Journal-News, a Rockland County newspaper, quotes a spokesman for NJ Transit, which operates the service on both lines, says his agency wants to keep weekend service going on the route, which terminates in Spring Valley, NY.
"We're not prepared to announce any reduction in service on the Pascack Valley line on the weekend," (NJ Transit Spokesman Dan) Stessel said yesterday.

While Stessel said he understood Metro-North was in a difficult financial position, getting rid of weekend service "is not under consideration" because building ridership on a new rail service requires there to be consistency."

Shovel Ready

The Midwest High Speed Rail Blog offers a report on $4.7 billion in rail transit projects in 17 regions that could be "shovel ready" in four months.

Connecticut Puts Visionary in Transport Role

Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green reports that Connecticut's new transportation commissioner, Joseph Marie, is a visionary "who realizes that to survive economically we must have roads and trains." As Marie sees it, right now there is no better place for a transit guy than the Nutmeg State, which, historically, has let rail play second fiddle to its highway network.

"We sip our coffee and Marie is off like a locomotive, telling me about regional train lines one day linking Hartford and Springfield and up to Vermont and down to New Jersey, about commuter rail through New London and into Rhode Island. He tells me that he built light-rail lines in Minneapolis and Phoenix and how he sought out the Connecticut job because of the opportunity here."

In a related development, Commissioner Marie told the Courant that a proposal by two Connecticut legislators to establish commuter rail service between Waterbury and Hartford is "worth exploring," although he envisions it as a "long-term project."

Notes from an Inauguration

Yesterday I chose to be part of history and join the approximately two million Americans who gathered on The Mall in Washington to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Having chose my favorite mode to get there, I can offer these observations on the state of travel on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor on this most important day.
  1. Amtrak got me there and back is relative comfort and speed. My train arrived approximately five minutes late in each direction. On the southbound trip, the train made up 10 minutes after it got stuck behind a SEPTA local that broke down north of Philadelphia and had to make a backup move.
  2. Both trains were sold out, but I was able to get a window seat in both directions and saw no standees.
  3. Amfleet equipment is comfortable and still rides well, but it is getting dated. It's time to order new rolling stock.
  4. The corridor's biggest problems are bottlenecks like Zoo Junction in Philadelphia and the Baltimore tunnels. Replacing or rebuilding these locations should be given high priority as Amtrak gets the capital to upgrade the line. Improving speeds from 20 mph to 60 mph could yield great time savings.
  5. While Amtrak did a good job of getting passengers from its trains and onto the streets of Washington, the same cannot be said about getting people from the street and back onto trains. I waited outside Union Station 45 minutes to enter the building, and I was one of the lucky ones. Many passengers missed their trains.

    Once inside, it was quickly, a mob scene, with passengers forced to move single file between the crowds to reach the gates and get to their trains. The waiting areas, which Union Station's architects fenced off in the restoration project in the 1980s, filled up quickly with many passengers milling about outside and blocking the concourse.

    The cause of this chaos wasn't necessarily inauguration traffic, but, rather, the bone-headed decision to lease to Union Station's Great Hall for one of the inaugual balls. Instead of allowing this space to be used as a waiting area and letting passengers enjoy Union Stations dozens of restaurants and shops while they waited to board their trains, Amtrak and city police were left to herding passengers like cattle on what may have been the busiest day in the station's 100-plus-year history.

    What Union Station's managers did was the equivalent of renting out New Yor's Grand Central Terminal's Upper Level for an event during rush hour and cramming everyone else into the Lower Level. There is no excuse for this poor planning.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Has Hell Frozen Over?

Here's a real man bite dog story. A transit agency is planning to lower fares.

According to Progressive Railroading, the Utah Transit Authority plans to eliminate two fuel surcharges that were implemented last year. UTA will go ahead with a fare hike that originally was scheduled to take effect January 1, but fares will still be lower because the fuel surcharges were greater than the planned increase. The bottom line: base ticket prices will drop from $2.25 to $2.

However, not all the fare news is good. Altamont Commuter Express fares go up 3 percent in February.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Feds Give Seattle Light Rail Line $813 Million

Add Sound Transit's University Link, a three-mile underground light rail line running from downtown Seattle to the University of Washington campus, to the list of federally funded transit projects. Federal officials today signed a funding agreement that commits $813 million to the project, about 40 pecent of the project's total cost of $1.9 billion. Plans call for construction to be completed by 2017, with the line handling 40,000 daily riders by 2030. Another Sound Transit light line, running to Tukwila, is to open this summer, and an extension to the Sea-Tac International Airport is scheduled for completion by year's end.

FTA Signs Off on Hudson River Tunnel Project

Although rail advocacy groups fault the plan for its lack of a direct connection to Pennsylvania Station, the Federal Transit Administration has given its blessing to an $8.7 billion project to construct two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal in Midtown Manhattan for NJ Transit. The FTA record of decision, which officially completes the project’s environmental review process, clears the way for federal funding and allowing construction to begin this year.

Port Authority of New Jersey and New York Chairman Anthony Coscia and other officials believe a funding agreement with the federal government will be reached soon, enabling work to begin as soon as this fall. He called the undertaking a "once-in-a-generation kind of project" comparable to the George Washington Bridge.

To date $5.7 billion has been raised toward the project in local funding, including $3 billion from the Port Authority. The project, which is slated for completion in 2017, is expected to double rail capacity between the two states. It will also create a one-seat ride for thousands of commuters from New Jersey and New York who must now change trains at Newark, Hoboken or Secaucus. Undoubedtly, that will increase ridership and shift travel from the buses that now find themselves backed up to enter the Lincoln Tunnel to reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Bus Replacement for Vermont Train Meets Local Opposition

In a move to cut $1.4 million from the state transportation budget next year, Vermont officials want to replace the Albany - Rutland segment of Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express with a bus between Albany and Burlington, the Green Mountain State's largest city. The move is one step in a plan to close a $10 million gap in the state transportation budget.

The idea doesn't sit well with Rutland officials, who see the train as one of the few bright spots in a dour local economic picture, the Rutland Herald reports. Under Vermont's plan, the bus would travel along U.S. 7 which runs the length of the state's western side, with additional stops in Middlebury, Manchester and Bennington. However, stations in New York State served by the train, including Saratoga Springs and Fort Edward, would not be served.

Vermont officials say they would like to eventually run a train, rather than a bus, to Burlington, and hope to use federal economic stimulus money to begin a $30 million project to upgrade the Vermont Railway mainline, whose tracks the train would operate over. However, rail advocate Chris Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network, fears that reinstating the train service could prove impossible if it's eliminated now.

"I'm skeptical the train will return because once the train goes, the equipment will be sucked into the Amtrak system and it will be very hard to get it back," he said. He added that ridership generally falls by as much as 60 percent when a bus replaces a train on a route.

Vermont's dilemma is due to the weak economy rather than problems with the train, which experienced significant ridership gains in 2008. The situation reflects the need for more stability in funding formulas with participation by New York as well as Vermont.

It's best bet is extending the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington, where it could tap into a much larger market, including the University of Vermont. If it can access economic stimulus money, completing the line upgrade should be relatively straight forward.

But don't expect the Obama administration to cut a check if there's no train to use the improved line. Vermont has already been down that road when it upgraded part of the line to operate a commuter train, the Champlain Valley Flyer. That service was eliminated a few years ago when a new governor was elected.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Chicago Suburbs STAR Line Still Alive

The Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, a lightly used freight line that circles the city of Chicago has for years been eyed for a new inter-suburban Metra service known as the STAR line. However, Canadian National's acquisition of the "J" had put that plan in jeapoardy because CN wants to increase traffic over the line, which connects its former Grand Trunk Western, Illinois Central and Wisconsin Central mainlines.

Now it appear prospects for the STAR line are brighter, according to the Daily Herald newspaper. After the Surface Transportation Board approved the acquisition, CN and Metra have begun talking again. To make its acquisition work, CN is going to have to increase capacity and make other improvements to the property. The costs could exceed $100 million.

Metra hopes to piggyback on this added capacity, according to its Executive Director Phil Pagano. Being able to utilize improvements paid for by CN would help offset some of the costs it would have to incur if the STAR line was the principal player on the EJ&E line rather than a supporting actor.

"We've had conversations with CN - we intend to work with them to get this project accomplished," Pagano said last week.

The ideal solution would be to coordinate joint use of the tracks instead of separate tracks, which would be prohibitively expensive.

"Separate tracks could cause complications for us both," Pagano said, adding CN has agreed to talk about track sharing first before other options.

Seattle Tunnel - Unintended Consequences

Now that city and state officials have officially endorsed a tunnel as a replacement for downtowan Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle Transit blogger Andrew Smith says "the more I think about the tunnel to replace the viaduct, the less I like it."

He cites as reasons:
  1. The high cost of the project.
  2. It's impact on future transit tunnel projects.
  3. Since it will not have exits to the downtown area it will encourage sprawl.
  4. It will soak up funds that could be spent on other transportation projects.
  5. "We voted against a tunnel already."

New Thinking on Transportation and Infrastructure

Two articles published today make strong cases for the need to rethink our national transportation and infrastructure policy in order to alleviate congestion and safety hazards. Writing in Washington Monthly, Philip Longman of the New America Foundation makes the case that America cannot address its transportation woes by expanding highways. "We need to conceive of a transportation future in which each mode of transport is put to its most sensible use, deployed collaboratively instead of competitively."

Longman offers as a case study I-81 through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which has become congested with truck traffic seeking an alternative to the major cities and tolls along I-95. Widening I-81 would be cost prohibitive, so Virginia is helping Norfolk Southern upgrade its Crescent Corridor route which parallels I-81.

Upgrading rail lines like the Crescent Corridor should be prime candidates for President-elect Obama's plan for infrastructure investment to help resusciate the U.S. economy, Longman says.
"All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia's, or are sitting on planners' shelves and could be up and running quickly."
He goes on to site a study for the National Academy of Engineering by the Millennium Institute that shows how spending between $250 billion and $500 billion to improve the rail infrastructure could get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the highways, provide ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption and control the growth of logistics costs.
"Yet despite this astounding potential, virtually no one in Washington is talking about investing any of that $1 trillion in freight rail capacity. Instead, almost all the talk out of the Obama camp and Congress has been about spending for roads and highway bridges, projects made necessary in large measure by America's overreliance on pavement-smashing, traffic-snarling, fossil-fuel-guzzling trucks for the bulk of its domestic freight transport."
The U.S. rail industry, which hauls 137 percent more freight traffic than it done in 1970 on half the track it had back then is constrained for growth but cannot attract the private capital needed for expansion, Longman points out.
"The alternative is for the public to help pay for rail infrastructure. Actually, it's not much of a choice. Unlike private investors, the government must either invest in shoring up the railroads' overwhelmed infrastructure or pay in other ways. Failing to rebuild rail infrastructure will simply further move the burden of ever-increasing shipping demands onto the highways, the expansion and maintenance of which does not come free. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (hardly a shill for the rail industry) estimates that without public investment in rail capacity 450 million tons of freight will shift to highways, costing shippers $162 billion and highway users $238 billion (in travel time, operating, and accident costs), and adding $10 billion to highway costs over the next twenty years."
Public-private parternships to expand rail capacity would be a win-win, he maintains.

"It doesn't involve pricing or guilt-tripping people out of their automobiles. Electrifying and otherwise improving rail infrastructure would indeed facilitate the coming of true high-speed rail passenger service to the United States, a goal Obama committed to as a candidate. But its success wouldn't depend on persuading a single American to take the train instead flying or driving. Indeed, with its promise of making driving more enjoyable and less dangerous, the proposal bridges the divide between auto-hating, Euroland-loving enviros and those who see access to the open road as an American birthright."

USA Today business travel columnist David Grossman supports investment in rail to help address the nation's gridlocked air travel network.
"A major overhaul of our nation's air and rail transportation systems is essential to support business travel and tourism over the long term and contribute to a robust economy. A significant investment in our transportation infrastructure now could help generate many of the millions of new jobs we need to reduce unemployment and stave off the effects of the current economic crisis, while building a foundation for future economic growth."
Among his five recommendation are high-speed rail lines linking major airports and city centers and running between major cities up to 500 miles apart.

The Obama administration is torn between the pressure to jumpstart the economy by offering programs that put people back to work as quickly as possible and the need for investments that are sustainable and address our long term problems resulting from congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported oil. In the long haul, the latter will pay greater dividends for America.

Tie Replacement to Disrupt Northeast Corridor in Connecticut

A project to replace 74,000 defective concrete ties along the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut later this year is likely to play havoc with Amtrak's on-time performance on the route. The Day, a New London newspaper, reports than one of the two tracks on the line, which hugs Long Island Sound in some locations, will be out of service between July and November. Peter Richter, the Director of Shore Line East, said the tie replacement was one of the reasons his agency has delayed a planned extension of regional rail service from Old Saybrook to New London until 2010.

NARP: Rethink Hudson River Tunnel Plan

NJ Transit's $8.7 billion "Access to the Region's Core" (ARC) project to build two new railroad tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal adjacent to Pennsylvania Station will greatly expand regional rail capacity between New Jersey and New York City. However, the National Association of Railroad Passengers thinks the agency can do more with less.

In a news release issued today, it urged that the tunnels serve the existing Penn Station "as much of the public assumes common sense would dictate" and called for greater through running of trains between New Jersey and Long Island.
"These tunnels and this connection will provide much needed additional capacity between New Jersey and New York’s Penn Station. They are essential for future expansion of both regional rail service within the metropolitan area and intercity passenger trains along the entire Northeast Corridor."
The proposed new NJ Transit station, to be built 175 feet below W. 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan is a non-starter for NARP.
"It does not permit connecting the new tunnels with Penn Station, adds a serious security risk, and would cost up to $3 billion more than the direct track connection...It would add four to five minutes per trip in each direction for many Jersey-Manhattan commuters and would be especially inconvenient for passengers transferring to or from Penn Station."
NARP called on New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to join with New York Gov. David Paterson "and request that NJ Transit and MTA work together to develop quickly a full service plan for through running," which it maintains will increase capacity at Penn Station. It also urged the Obama Administration to "exercise its constitutional obligation to advance interstate commerce" by pushing for the direct connection, which it maintains could be completed faster than the current plan.
"NJ Transit, the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York (PANYNJ) and the MTA can revise quickly the environmental documents based on the work completed in the DEIS and make key parts of this project “shovel-ready” within 90 to 180 days."
The controversy over the new tunnel stems, in part, from the difficulty in getting states to cooperate. NARP notes that NJ Transit opted for the separate terminal after New York declined to support the project when George Pataki was Governor. Now, Gov. Paterson is singing a somwhat different tune.

No Nukes?, No Rail Safety, No PRIIA

The Don Phillips column appearing in February TRAINS, certainly gives insight into 'the ways of Washington'. Mr. Phillips suggests that President Bush could have cared less one way or the other about enhancing railroad safety, let alone any additional authorizations (as distinct from appropriations) for Amtrak. But Mr. Bush wanted a treaty entered into with India regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons - and in order for that treaty to be ratified by the President, it needed "advice and consent' by the US Senate.

According to Mr. Phillips, Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) addressed through intermediaries the President that a major passenger train incident with fatalities had occurred at Chatsworth CA and that he wanted enacted legislation to enhance rail safety (RSIIA'08) principally and immediately modifying existing Hours of Service provisions (this guest author, who often is confronted with insomnia, is 100% in favor of any such modifications). The President wanted his treaty, and what happened next, treaty consented, RSIIA (into which PRIIA had been conveniently 'attached' as Division II) enacted, is as old as Washington itself.

Now since Ellis' blog mainly addresses passenger train affairs, I must wonder to what extent President Bush was even aware that he was enhancing Amtrak's and its advocates's interests when signing RSIIA. While Mr, Bush, save a little "bluster' manifested by an '05 initiative (often called in railfan circles "the Mineta Dog and Pony Show"), never really did anything TO Amtrak, he certainly never did anything FOR Amtrak. It was simply a non-issue during his Presidency.

So there it is, Bush got his treaty, Amtrak got some of the most positive legislative backing it has ever enjoyed, and maybe just maybe some railroad workers will report for duty feeling a bit more 'fit for duty'.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tunnel Vision

Seattle and Washington State officials have agreed to build a tunnel rather than a surface road to replace the Emerald City's Alaskan Way Viaduct. But, as Seattle Transit blogger Andrew Smith notes, the $2.5 billion difference in the price tags for the two options "could buy a lot of light rail, possibly elevated rail from West Seattle to at least Uptown if not Ballard."

Another example of highway projects going first class while rail rides in steerage.

One Way to Yankee Stadium? $1 Extra Please

With its overpriced baseball players, overpriced luxury boxes and overpriced beer, Yankee Stadium is a place where paying a premium seems to come naturally. Now Metro North will get into the act.

According to the Connecticut Post, tickets from stations on the Harlem and New Haven lines for rail travel to the new station that will serve the new Yankee Stadium, located in the South Bronx, will be $1 higher than a ticket for travel to Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. Tickets from Hudson Line stations will be the same as for travel to the end of the line. Fares are likely to go higher later this year as Metro North puts fare hikes into effect to help close the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's massive budget gap.

Even so, Metro North expects the new service to be a hit with Yankee fans. It anticipates hauling as many as 10,000 additional passengers on game day, which could take a bite out of traffic of the Major Deegan, Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways, as well as other roads that lead to the son of the House That Ruth Built.

Metro North's operating plan for weekday and night games calls for Harlem and New Haven line patrons to change trains at 125th Street for shuttle service back across the Harlem River to the Stadium. A spokeswoman said the railroad is trying to schedule express service to whisk fans from Connecticut back home after night games and to bring them directly to the Stadium for weekend games.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

DOT Chief Blesses DC Metrorail Dulles Extension

A 23-mile extension of WMATA Metrorail's Orange Line from Falls Church, VA, to Dulles Airport, has received final approval from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, The Washington Post reports. This means the project has cleared all regulatory hurdles and construction may proceed. The project website notes that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which will build the line, previously announced construction has been approved to start on March 2 .

The Dulles Corridor runs through several of metropolitan Washington's fastest-growing activity centers, including Tysons Corner, the Reston-Herndon area, the Airport and emerging activity centers in eastern Loudoun County.

The project will be built in two phases. The first phase will extend Metro from the Orange Line between East and West Falls Church stations to Wiehle Avenue and includes four stations in Tysons Corner. The expected completion date for Phase 1 is July 31, 2013. Its cost is estimated at $2.6 billion, with $900 million coming from the federal government and the rest paid for through tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.

Phase 2 would extend Metro through Reston and Herndon to Dulles Airport and Route 772 in Loudoun County. A funding plan has not been established yet.

Most of the extension will run the median of the Dulles International Airport Access Highway and Dulles Connector Road. The line will include 11 new Metrorail stations, a new rail yard on Dulles Airport property and improvements to an existing rail yard at the West Falls Church Station.

Expand Along Rail Line, Not Highways, NJ Agency Tells PATCO

The Camden Courier-Post reports that a New Jersey state agency has made an advisory endorsement of an expansion route for the Delaware River Port Authority's (DRPA) PATCO high-speed rail line that would follow an existing Conrail freight line rather than two nearby highways. The Southern New Jersey to Philadelphia Transit Study, which was completed in 2005, identified three potential corridors for expanding PATCO, which now operates the 14-mile, high-speed Lindenwold line between that community and Center City Philadelphia, in the Garden State.

The New Jersey Office of Smart Growth is recommending use of the Conrail freight line because it would ease highway congestion and serve the Gloucester County communities of Woodbury and Glassboro.
The state rejected the high-speed alternatives along routes 42 and 55, Interstate 676 and the Atlantic City Expressway because they promote growth rather than improve the quality of life of existing residential and commercial hubs.
It did not state whether it prefers a heavy rail alternative similar to the existing PATCO line or a light-rail line similar to NJ Transit's River Line, which runs over a Conrail line between Camden and Trenton.

The ultimate decision on which route to follow will in all likelihood be made by DRPA's commissioners, half of whom are from Pennsylvania with the rest from New Jersey. How much influence the Office of Smart Growth has may be influenced by which agency, DRPA or the New Jersey Department of Transportation, actually controls the project.

That will be probably determined by whether the Federal Transit Administration agrees to support the project, which has a $3 billion pricetag. DRPA Chief Executive Officer John J. Matheussen said he expects an answer this spring. If Uncle Sam takes a pass, New Jersey would have to pay the entire cost. If that happens, I suspect the project, which would be extended to Millville along the same rail line in Phase II, would be built as light rail and tie in with the River Line.

About Conrail
Although Conrail ceased to exist as a Class I Railroad in 1998, when its principal routes were acquired by CSX and Norfolk Southern, it provides terminal and switching service for both of those railroads on a network of rail lines radiating out from Pavonia Yard in Camden.

Additional Sources:
PATCO Expansion Study Map
PATCO Southern New Jersey Transit Expansion website

Friday, January 9, 2009

HSR Seen Reviving Industry, Improving Trade Balance

In a critique of President-elect Barack Obama's economic plans published today in The New Republic, John B. Judis makes the case for investment in high-speed rail.

One area that is ripe for such investment--and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration--is high-speed rail. Amtrak's Acela trains--the closest thing we have to one--average less than 100 mph between Washington D.C. and Boston, whereas trains in Western Europe and Japan go more than twice as fast. Many of them also run on electricity. They would be the most energy-efficient and quickest means of getting between places like Boston and New York, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they would require a massive investment. For instance, installing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor could cost about $32 billion, while California's high-speed rail system would require up to $40 billion. A system that would address the other areas of the country could easily raise the cost to the hundreds of billions. The House transportation and infrastructure committee has currently proposed $5 billion in stimulus funds for intercity rail--not even a down payment on what it would cost to convert the U.S. to high-speed rail.

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts--the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods--the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies--if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.

Though a massive investment in high-speed rail brings its own set of complications, it's worth keeping these kind of examples in mind when one hears from the Obama people that they can't find sufficient infrastructure projects to fund. The question I would pose is this: Are we not at some point going to have to go beyond repairing roads and bridges in our conception of public spending and public works, and contemplate the kind of ambitious industrial expenditures that the country made on war production in 1941?

While Mr. Judis take a broader look at the Obama economic plan, his points about where to spend infrastructure funds are right on target. One of the reasons there has been a huge shortfall in infrastructure investment, particularly with respect to highways, is because we, as a nation, have overbuilt our highway infrastructure to the point where we cannot support it.

The same thing happened to our rail infrastructure, as anyone who remember the Penn Central and Rock Island railroads in the 1970s can attest. The railroads rationalized their problem through mergers and abandonments, but who ever heard of a state abandoning a highway.

So, if we try to bring the entire highway infrastructure back to a state of good repair, we will be throwing a lot of good money after bad. On the other hand, creating rail lines that could take some pressure off the highways, would yield better returns, reduce our carbon footprint and encourage sustainable development instead of sprawl.

California High-Speel Rail Agency Running Out of Money

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is facing a cash crunch, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The agency's budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, anticipated receiving $29 million from the proceeds of the $9.9 billion bond sale authorized by voters in November. But the bonds have yet to be sold because of California's fiscal woes and the state of the municipal bond market.

Consequently, the Authority is withholding payment on engineering and design contracts in progress and are not awarding new contracts. Next week, the agency will request a loan from the state controller and keep it work plan moving forward for the rest of the fiscal year. If the loan isn't received some projects will have to be postponed until the next fiscal year, at least.

Upstate NY Congressional Delegation Pushes for High-Speed Rail

The Upstate (New York) Congressional caucus has identified high-speed rail system across New York State as a top priority for federal funding, the Buffalo Business First newspaper reports. The caucus, which has 11 members, pushed funding for high-speed rail in a meeting yesterday with Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Caucus Chair Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, maintains high-speed rail development has the potential to produce the strongest return on any federally-funded investment.

“I know there are some mayors out there who want to use these federal dollars for new sidewalks and, while those are important, those projects are not really going to help or stimulate the economy. High-speed trains will. It’s time New York gets into this century when it comes to trains.”

Next week, caucus members plan to meet with New York State transportation officials and Amtrak to push the high-speed plan. New York and Amtrak have had a rocky road when it comes to high-speed rail. A partnership to allow trains to run at 125 m.p.h. between New York City and Schenectady came apart after Amtrak couldn't meet its financial commitments and the railroad stopped operating turbo trains that were rebuilt with state funds by Super Steel. Ironically, the state transportation commissioner at the time, Joseph Boardman, is now Amtrak's chief executive officer.

Rep. Slaughter said building a high-speed line would be easier than many people realize because additional tracks could be laid along the existing right-of-way. Amtrak trains in Upstate New York travel over the Water Level Route of the former New York Central System, which at one time had four tracks between New York City and Cleveland, but cut back to two tracks north of Croton-Harmon in the 1960s.

Southeast High-Speed Line Declared Feasible

A study sponsored by transportation departments of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia has concluded that extending the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor (SEHSR) south from Charlotte, NC, to Macon, GA via Atlanta would be feasible. The SEHSR's Washington - Charlotte section was one of the five original corridors designated by the U.S. Department of Transportion in 1992. In 1998, the USDOT extended the corridor into South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The study's "best case" scenario sees the line operating with diesel-powered trains capable of top speeds of 125 or 150 mph, with 14 stops in the corridor and good connections to improved service north of Charlotte. Here are some of the key statistics for the proposal.

Technology 125 mph 150 mph (Diesel)
Travel time 4:05 3:36
Capital costs $2,060 M $2,520 M
Passengers (2025) 1,077,000 1,142,000
Revenues (2025) $27.0 M $29.1 M
O&M costs (2025) $32.0 M $33.1 M
Profit/loss (2025) ($5.0 M) ($4.0 M)
Break even year 2032 2031

But, don't expect this document to lead to new service anytime soon. All it does is reiterate a similar study completed in 2004 and lay the groundwork for further studies. The next step is to conduct surveys to develop detailed ridership/revenue projections. An important aspect will be incorporating travel to points north of the SEHSR such as New York and Boston.

When that is done, the agencies would produce a Tier I
Environmental Impact Study. That study establishes the project's purpose, approach and corridor location and size. It also is the first step in the Federally-mandated EIS process mandated for potential transportation infrastructure investments under the National Environmental Protection Act. No wonder "shovel-ready" high-speed rail projects are few and far between.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

LA Mayor Wants Subway Construction Schedule Speeded Up

It's the biggest project eligible for funding under Measure R, a sales tax to raise up to $40 billion for transportation projects in metropolitan Los Angeles. When it is finished, it would extend the subway system's Purple Line out to Santa Monica and provide much-needed congestion relief on LA's West Side.

Right now, however, the biggest question facing it is "when," as is when will it be finished. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans a slow build, with engineering studies not completed until 2013 and the line not reaching Westwood, the neighborhood near the UCLA campus, until 2032. When tracks would reach Santa Monica is up in the air. The Purple Line subway now ends near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, about 10 miles from Westwood.

The snail-like construction pace doesn't sit well with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would be 78 in 2032. Earlier this week a spokesman for the mayor called the schedule "unacceptable" and urged that it be speeded up.
"We have for the first time an administration in Washington that intends to invest in public transportation," said Villaraigosa press secretary Matt Szabo. "When the mayor was running for office, the Subway to the Sea was mocked as a pipe dream. Now the question is not if it's going to be built, but when it's completed."
Mayor Villaraigosa serves as chair of LAMTA's Board of Directors, which will vote on the plan later this month. They have the power to change it, but, according to the Los Angeles Times, the board rarely makes major changes to what agency officials propose.

The long-range plan pushes back extension of the Green Line light rail to LAX airport to 2022 from 2018, and politicians in the South Bay area are upset about that delay.
"We were totally taken aback by that," said Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Redondo Beach, who has lobbied to bring the Green Line to LAX. "The start date is moved back three years. That's troubling. We're going to fix that."

Check out LA Visions for a complete list of rail and transit projects covered in the long-range plan, plus a route map.

Connecticut, Amtrak Discuss Additional Service

Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green reports that Connecticut officials are in discussions with Amtrak to operate additional trains between New Haven and Hartford as an interim step to the state offering its own commuter service. While state officials have been studying since 2005 establishment of a regional passenger service between New Haven and Springfield, MA, that would supplement Amtrak's intercity service, they say such an operation is not likely before 2015.

Rail advocates are none too happy about that. Last month, "a coalition of transportation, environment, civic and business groups" held a press conference in Hartford urging Gov. Jodi Rell and the state legislature to fast track the project. They want to accelerate the project so it will be able to compete for funding under the economic stimulus package now working its way through Congress.

Connecticut officials are awaiting completion of an environmental assessment due in 2010 before beginning construction . However, according to the Journal-Inquirer newspaper, Amtrak could add service on a temporary basis without an environmental review since it already uses the tracks.

Meanwhile, Connecticut officials are studying service expansion over Metro North's Waterbury branch, a line that was a candidate for abandonment 11 years ago. A 34 percent year-over-year jump in ridership for the first eight months of 2008 has prompted some legislators to call for increased investment with an eye toward eventual service between Waterbury and Hartford.

Georgia Transportation Agencies Unite to Seek More Money

If you think MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and operator of that city's subway system, is the only Georgia transportation agency with budget woes, think again. MARTA has joined with the Atlanta Regional Commission, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and Georgia Department of Transportation to request more state funding in order to maintain operations and keep capital projects on schedule, the Atlanta Constitution reports.

While MARTA faced a $57 million budget gap due largely to lower-than forecast sales tax revenue, the transportation department says it may have to cut $888 million of highway projects in the Atlanta region this year. That's party because falling gasoline prices mean motorists are paying less in fuel taxes.

The chairs of the four agencies intend to write a joint letter to the governor and state legislature warning that Georgia "is in danger of losing hundreds of thousands of potential jobs in the coming decades if transportation is left underfunded."

A study commissioned by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority found this since the 1980s the state has had the second lowest level of per capita transportation of any state; only Tennessee spent less.

Another reason to act: the state could lose "millions of badly needed federal economic stimulus dollars for transportation, if it does not act with one voice." At a transportation summit Wednesday hosted by the Atlanta Regional Commission, agency executives stressed the need for the state to have projects that will be "shovel-ready" within 120 of President-elect Obama signing an economic stimulus package and to be prepared to come up with 100 percent in matching funds. They also warned against inter-agency turf wars.

“If we go up with everyone talking their own way we will get cannibalized while other states go to the bank,” said MARTA General Manger Beverly Scott.

It remains to be seen how the Georgia legislature will respond to the situation. While 74 percent of voters polled by a business group called Get Georgia Moving said they wanted a referendum on increasing the state sales tax to fund transportation, nothing might get done this year because Republican legislative leaders say a vote on sales tax matters cannot take place until 2010.

Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson said he:
"is committed to presenting a workable solution to the voters in 2010. But first, we must develop a comprehensive statewide transportation improvement plan that meets our present and future needs."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rail Runner To Add Weekend Trains to Santa Fe

Its extension to Santa Fe has been in operation less than a month and already New Mexico Rail Runner is planning to add service. The regional operator says it will continue running to Santa Fe on Saturdays, nixing earlier plans to cut back to weekday-only operation after the New Years holiday.

According to KOAT-TV, the Saturday service will operate over the entire system from Belen to Santa Fe.
"With our extension to Santa Fe, there has always been Saturday service built into the schedule between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but now we have worked it out so that we can offer a regular Saturday service during the other eight months of the year," said Lawrence Rael, Executive Director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.

Since the Rail Runner opened its Santa Fe extension on Dec. 17, more than 60,000 people have boarded trains between Belen and Santa Fe, many of them taking advantage of special introductory free weekend service which was made available through the holidays.
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The initial weekend service has proven a boon for Santa Fe businesses. That should come as a surprise to no one. In fact, the train's success is spurring calls to extend the line north to Espanola and Taos, although the mountainous terrain makes getting to the latter problematic.

The Santa Fe depot is in a developing area fittingly known as the Railyard District that has many restaurants, galleries and other attractions and it is within walking distance of the 400-year old city's central plaza, where there is even more to see and do. Thus, it is an ideal destination for day-trippers. Given the fact that Santa Fe is a walkable, but congested, city with limited downtown parking, train is the ideal way to get there.

This illustrates why planners, agencies and rail advocates need to refer to services like Rail Runner as regional rail rather than commuter rail. Even though commuters comprise the bulk of passengers for these operations, those lines that operate service throughout the day, seven days a week have many more markets to serve.

In the New York area, the Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit have thriving summer weekend businesses hauling New Yorkers the many beaches along their routes. Metro North promotes travel to leisure destinations like the DIA Museum in Beacon and Rye Playland. Soon it will stop at Yankee Stadium; the LIRR will serve Citibank Field, the successor to Shea Stadium.

Of course, Manhattan is a huge draw with its shopping, theatres, museums and restaurants. Large cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco also offer numerous attractions that are reachable by rail.

Seven-day service should be part of any regional rail plan serving an area with a thriving center city and strong communities with their own attractions along the route. Tapping leisure travel markets builds the constituency for the service and the leisure traveler will pay full off-peak fares, which typically are higher what commuters with deeply discounted monthly passes pay.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

More 'Splaining to Do

Amtrak finally gave Michigan officials a report on the causes of last month's 12-hour delay to the Chicago - Grand Rapids Pere Marquette. However, state officials and the mayor of Holland, MI, say they need more information.
"There are many more questions," Michigan Department of Transportation Spokeswoman Janet Foran said. "We need to understand what went wrong in terms of train service and customer service, including poor communication with passengers."
Amtrak attributed the service breakdown to "multiple failures." In a four-page letter, Amtrak Central Division General Superintendent Daryl K. Pesce wrote:

"A series of events, some foreseen, some not, resulted in an extremely unfortunate situation for our customers. Unforeseen events do not excuse Amtrak from having appropriate procedures in place to mitigate such occurrences.

The actions taken in this case were clearly inadequate and further review is underway to take corrective steps."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Will Fare Hikes Burst Transit's Bubble?

Buoyed by rising gasoline prices, traffic congestion and heightened environmental consciousness, perhaps as a response to global warming, transit ridership has been enjoying robust growth in recent years. However, rising expenses coupled with a weakened economy and cash-strapped state and local governments, are forcing transit agencies around the country to hike fares at a critical time.

As these increases take effect, we will be watching to see what happens to ridership and how price elastic is demand for transit services. Here is a round-up on where things stand with major systems around the country.

Thanks to the weakened economy and reduced sales tax revenue, MARTA is facing a $57 million deficit in 2009. It has proposed a 25 cent fare hike to $2, increased parking fees and service cuts to cover the gap.

Patrons of the Caltrain commuter rail line between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy are paying 25 cents more for a one-way ticket. The increase is "needed to offset volatile fuel prices and increasing costs."

New York

The state legislature reconvenes this week and one of the top issues on its agenda will be finding a way to reduce fare hikes on buses, subways and commuter train proposed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. If the legislature fails to act by March 25, the base subway fare could rise a whopping 50 percent to $3 from $2, according to commuter advocate Gene Russianoff. Fares for Access-a-Ride van service for persons with disabilities could reach $5.

St. Louis
MetroLink fares rose by 25 cents January 1 to $2 on buses and $2.25 on light rail trains. Deep cuts in service are to take effect March 31, and about 600 of the agency's 2,365 employees will lose their jobs.

Track Upgrades Could Reduce Missouri Delays

The state of Missouri will spend $8.3 million to lengthen two sidings on the Union Pacific Railroad's St. Louis - Kansas City mainline. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the move is aimed at reducing delays for the two daily Amtrak round trips covering the route.

Currently, Amtrak trains must take the siding track because freight trains cannot fit. The improvements will allow freight trains to go "into the hole" and let the passenger trains pass through, as intended.

Rich Eichhorst, a Missouri rail advocate, says as many as 60 freight trains a day, most carrying coal, use the line. Because of the freight volume, delays to Amtrak trains are common and can be lengthy. The route has one of the worst on-time performance records in the Amtrak system, with more than one-third of all runs arriving more than 30 minutes late.
"I have sat in some places for two hours while they have run as many as four trains by me," Eichhorst said. "There have been times when Union Pacific has told Amtrak not to run their trains on certain days because they were so busy."
The two sidings to be lengthened are near California, MO, and Knob Noster, MO. In a related move, Amtrak is conducting a contest to rename its St. Louis - Kansas City trains. The five finalists are: Missouri Rail Blazer, Missouri River Runner, River City Corridor, ShowMeMo and Truman Service.

Alaska Railroad Promotion Celebrates 50 Years of Statehood

As part of Alaska's celebration of 50 years of statehood, the Alaska Railroad will offer a free ride to anyone born in 1959. The only catch is that the free travel be done in one day, but given the railroad's fares, which can run several hundred dollars for a trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, that's still quite a deal to enjoy some of North America's most spectacular scenery.

Unfortunately, I missed this deal by five years, but I have at least one family member who is in a position to cash in.

Back at the Throttle

After five days off over the New Year's to complete a big project in the house, Riding My Train resumes its journey bringing important news, commentary and analysis on passenger rail in the United States. Hope you didn't miss us.

Feds OK Plan to Replace NJ Bottleneck Bridge

The Federal Railroad Administration last week gave Amtrak permission to proceed with a $1.3 billion project to eliminate "one of the thorniest railroad bottlenecks in the Northeast." The 99 year-old Portal Bridge, a double-track swing bridge spanning the Hackensack River on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, has long disrupted travel for NJ Transit commuters and Amtrak long distance passengers alike.

"Even the slightest slowdown can interfere with the daily routines of the approximately 150,000 New Jersey Transit passengers who cross the bridge each weekday. Nearly 400 New Jersey Transit trains and 103 Amtrak trains use the bridge daily. Because of its structure, trains can travel only 60 miles per hour on the bridge, compared with 90 miles per hour on tracks nearby.

The 961-foot Portal Bridge, which sits on a turntable, has only two tracks. And because its lowest beams are only 23 feet above the river, the bridge must swing open almost daily to allow commercial boats to pass. That delays trains traveling between Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan and all points west during non-peak hours on average about 20 minutes."

Replacement plans call for two bridges to be built with room for five tracks. One bridge, with three tracks to the north of the existing bridge, will be high enough that it will not have to open for boats. The second, with two tracks, to the south of Portal, will still have to open, but only "a few times a year."

The project, which is scheduled for completion in 2014, will be carries out at the same time that new tunnels for the $8.7 billion "Access to the Region's Core" project are being built, Tracks using the bridges will feed into the new tunnels which will run to an auxiliary NJ Transit terminal just north of Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station., as well as the existing Hudson River tunnels currently used by Amtrak and NJ Transit.

When the projects are completed, NJ Transit will be able to add service on its North Jersey Coast and Morris & Essex routes and run Raritan Valley line trains into Manhattan. The projects will also benefit riders on Metro North's Port Jervis line, who are subjected to bridge-related delays when they transfer at Seacaucus Junction for trains to Penn Station. As part of Access to the Region's Core, Port Jervis, Bergen County Line and Pascack Valley Line trains will gain access to the Hudson River tunnels, as well.