Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Frequently Asked Question...

"Why don't we have trains like they do in Europe and Japan?"

One of the newer ICE trains arrives Mainz, Germany

Here are the short answers.  All are true, even if they seem mutually exclusive:

  1. We already do.
  2. We do freight and they don't.
  3. We should.
  4. We are not Europe or Japan
  5. We're not ready, yet.
  6. They are too expensive.
  7. Amtrak is "not helpful".

Here are the long answers.  Enter at your own risk.

1. We already do.

We have Acela.  It is basically a French high speed TGV train modified for use in the US.  It runs at a top speed of 150 mph, although that is only part of the route in between Boston and New Haven.  Much of the rest of the route it travels at speeds between 90 and 135 mph.

We've been at this for a while.

Round 1. We started with Metroliners between New York and Washington and TurboTrains between New York and Boston in 1969.

TurboTrain at Mystic Connecticut
The TurboTrain failed.  The route just wasn't good enough to allow fast service.  There were too many curves along the Connecticut shore and trainsets had reliability issues.  Top speed was only 100 mph in a few places.

The Metroliners succeed, though. They ran at 125 mph, just like the trains the Japanese showed off at the 1963/64 New York World's Fair.  We tried to do it on the cheap.  No new right of way, we just upgraded an existing route, but that route was already fairly straight and fast, thanks to modernization done by the Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1920s and 1930s.  The powerful Metroliner trainsets and other trains on the route soon captured captured a majority share of the air/rail market between NYC and Washington DC.

Original Metroliner train zips through Hamilton Twp. NJ

Round 2.  Early 1980s.  New, better riding equipment, smoother, faster tracks, improved signals. Same route. 125 mph top speed in more places.

Metroliner Service train at Perryville, MD.
Modified Swedish locomotive design with new coaches based on original Metroliner design.

Round 3.  Late 1990s. Extend electrification and raise speeds from New Haven to Boston.  Buy 20 Acela trainsets .  The 20 Acela trainsets account for 1/4 of all of Amtrak's revenue.  Amtrak has majority air/rail market share between Boston and New York and 75% of the market south of New York.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the United States....not much, with one notable exception.

New York State tried to get into the game, too.  In the mid 1970s, they paid Conrail to upgrade the route from New York City to Albany to allow speeds up to 110 mph.  They also purchased some high speed Turboliner trains of a French design.  Although the Turboliners are now retired, the increased speeds and train frequency remain.
Brand new Turboliner.  Old track structure.

So, we have high speed trains?  Not really.  Our "high speed" trains have fairly low average speeds by world standards.  Even our Acela's top speed of 150 is lower than the typical high speed train in Europe.


2. We do freight and they don't.

In the US, if it moves more than 500 mile from shipper to consignee, it probably goes by rail.  If it is a bulk commodity, like coal or gravel or grain, it probably moves by rail regardless of the distance. Freight railroading in the US has been a very successful enterprise in the past decade or so.  Profits have been high enough to keep the track in excellent condition and the locomotives and freight cars up to date as well as allow expansion into new markets.  In Europe and Japan, most everything goes by truck or waterway.  Rail carries very little freight by comparison.

This means our routes and tracks are owned, built and maintained for moving freight trains, not passenger trains.  Their routes are government owned and have been optimized for passenger trains.

In Europe, there is a desire to move more freight by rail and less by highway, in part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge is how to move freight over a network that has been built out and maintained for passenger trains.  Part of their solution is to replace some of the high capacity links with dedicated high speed routes for passenger trains only, leaving the older, slower routes to regional passenger trains and freight.  The trains that travel these new routes are the ones you always hear about.  The French TGV and Thallys trains.  The German ICE, the Spanish AVE, etc.

These trains and routes have come at great expense.  In most cases, these routes don't return enough direct revenue to pay for their construction (although benefits that accrue elsewhere may make it worth the expense).  In fact, a good chunk of Spain's economic problems come from the huge chunk of change they borrowed to build out their AVE lines.

But what about here?  Can't we shoehorn some passenger trains onto the existing freight routes?  In places, yes.  But, there are a few problems.  Freight trains generally have top speed of 40 to 70 mph and run considerably slower up even shallow grades.  The track needed for freight trains allows high loads but typically won't allow passenger trains to exceed 80 mph.  Indeed, most passenger train routes across the US allow 79 mph passenger train operation.  However, even with that modest differential in speed, it is difficult to operated the passenger train at sustained speeds as it has to make it's way among all the slower freight trains.

If you improve the track for higher speeds, it gets very expensive as the track needs constant "tweaking" to keep in alignment and the speed differential problem gets even worse.  Then, there is the problem of curves.  Many routes have curves that are too sharp for high speed trains to travel around at full speed.  Slowing down and then speeding back up takes quite a bit of time.  Further, the freight railroads get very nervous about passenger trains operating faster than 90 mph on their routes. It's more risk than they are willing to take on.

Typical freight railroad route. Built for tonnage, not speed!

How about building new routes for passenger trains here?  That's a hugely expensive proposition and there are few markets in the US that could show benefits that outweigh the costs.

So, trying to develop a useful network of passenger trains is a costly idea.

Except that....

3. We should.

And, we are, to some extent.  There are places where highway and airport congestion are to the point where we need to add capacity to the network.  In some of those places, it is more cost effective to add rail service than it is to expand an airport or highway.

There are three routes out of Chicago that are seeing improvements in speed and/or frequency.  They are the routes to Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis.  These efforts relieve pressure on the highways leading to Chicago as well as congestion at O'hare and Midway airports.  The Detroit and St. Louis routes have recently started increasing speed up to 110 mph.

Departing Chicago

California has been adding service along their southern coast and between the Bay Area, Sacramento and the Central Valley for the past couple decades.  They currently have a partially funded project to build new high speed railroad between LA and SF with construction starting in the next year.

North Carolina has been expanding service between Charlotte and Raleigh to alleviate congestion on I-85.

Virginia has been adding service out of Washington DC to Charlottesville/Lynchburg, Richmond and Norfolk with plans to improve speed and/or frequency on these routes.  They also have plans to rebuild a direct line from Richmond to Raleigh to 110 mph standards.  All of these projects are aimed at congestion on I-95.

New York State has had 90-110 mph service between New York City and Albany/Schenectady for a few decades with plans to improve speed and frequency of service west to Buffalo.

125 mph train on a 79 mph route in upstate NY.  The way forward on improving service on this route is not clear, at present.

Pennsylvania is just finishing up a project that is raising speeds from 80 to 110 mph and increasing the number of trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

And, the most "out of the blue" plan came from a freight railroad, the Florida East Coast, this year.  They are planning new passenger train service on their railroad from Miami to Orlando via Cocoa Beach, with some brand new track from Cocoa Beach to Orlando.  It will operate at 90 mph along the coast and then 125 mph from Cocoa Beach to Orlando.  It will cost them a $1B or two, but they claim it will be profitable!  More here.

The common thread in all these projects is that they have been sponsored by individual states.  With the exception of California's high speed project, the goal of all of these state projects is improvement on existing routes.  None of them are true "High Speed Rail" because....

4. We are not Europe or Japan

In many ways we are different.

The geography is different.  Most people and goods in the US want to move between the interior and the seacoasts - east/west.  Our rivers go north/south as we have mountain ranges in the east and the west.  Europe has great rivers that connect the populations centers.  The result is the rivers do a good job with freight there.

Rhine River traffic in Germany

Population density is different.  Europe has more people per square mile than in the US.  Many more of those people have urban lifestyles than here because.....

Fuel costs more.  A deliberate decision made during reconstruction after WWII.  When you need to rebuild EVERYTHING, you have to choose wisely.  For most of Europe, it was more advantageous to rebuild the cities and railroads than to invest in highways and new suburban construction.  A high fuel tax kept urban areas from sprawl and helped pay for and sustain railway reconstruction.  Highways were built between cities, but generally not through them - high cost!  This further reduced the temptation for people to live in the suburbs.

Railroads move people and freight in big chunks from A to B.  Roads move people one at a time from anywhere to everywhere.

Post war Europe and Japan grew up around expensive fuel, transit and rail networks.  The US grew up around cheap fuel, automobiles and freeways.  You can't build transit and rail networks to effectively move people who have arranged their life around an automobile and freeways any more than you can build roads to carry people whose lives are arranged around transit.  Could you replace the NYC subways with roads and carry the same traffic?  Obviously, not.  Neither can you build an effective rail network to serve a city with low density suburban sprawl.

Outside of the Northeast Corridor (and perhaps, Chicago) - where Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington all have thriving cores with great transit, the US just doesn't have a "train culture".  Ask a person in Philadelphia about making a business trip to Washington DC and most will think "should I drive or should I take the train?"  Ask a person in KC about a trip to St. Louis and they will think, "I'll drive.  By the time I drive 20 miles to the airport and get a rental car at the other end, I'll almost be there....and I can leave my shoes on."  The possibility of taking a train won't even enter the equation.  (FYI, there are two trains a day in each direction between KC and StL and one from KC to Chicago.)

There is some amount of "if you build it, they will come", though.  It's how we got to where we are now.  We build roads from the cities into the farmland and suburbs sprouted.  US cities that have added transit to accommodate growth have found that people will arrange their lives around it and higher population density results.  Washington DC is a great example of this.

Parts of the US are becoming more "European like" with their reliance on transit to accommodate growth and trend toward urban living.  Even the most sprawled-out metro areas in the US like Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and Denver have shown a trend toward transit and more urban living.

So, why not start building High Speed Rail?  It's because....

5. We're not ready, yet.  You have to crawl before you can walk.

Europe and Japan started their HSR programs as the next logical step in improving conventional passenger rail travel.  They already had great networks of local, regional and inter-city trains.  Most US cities do not have urban core supported by transit and commuter rail necessary to support intercity trains.  The US needs to build out transit and commuter rail networks as the first step toward improved intercity rail service.

Even as this is going on, some places are starting on the path of intercity rail travel.  (see #3 above).  Most of the work involves extensions from Amtrak's successful Northeast Corridor line.   All are "conventional" rail service with to speeds from 80 to 110 mph.  This is how the rail network grew in Europe.  Build out the conventional network, gain ridership, then upgrade the high density routes with High Speed Rail links.

We should follow Europe's example because building true, High Speed Rail lines are....

6.  (They are) too expensive.

Trains are expensive vehicles.  High Speed trains are very expensive vehicles.  110 mph rail routes are expensive to build and maintain.   Dedicated High Speed Rail routes are very expensive.  In Europe and Japan, they have the advantage of being able to mix types of traffic on the congested urban portion of the routes.  The high speed trains can share the track with the suburban trains and freight trains and use the same train stations.    This is a good thing for them.  It saves having to build much new track in urban areas where land and construction costs are high.

German ICE train in Hamburg trainshed.  Train shares the station and track with regional and suburban trains.

In the US, we are prevented from mixing traffic by safety rules designed around maintaining crash-worthiness of passenger trains that might collide with our very heavy and long freight trains.  Part of the reason that the Acela trains have had some teething problems, need two locomotives per train and can only go 150 mph instead of 190 mph is that they are built big, strong and heavy to allow mixing with freight and commuter trains.

Amtrak train stops in Altoona PA while 135 car coal train passes.

So, if we want a High Speed Rail route in the US, we have to shoulder the cost and complete the whole route - end to end - including lots of expensive urban right of way and track - before we can even turn a wheel.  We can't just add a rural leg here and there and tie it into the rest of the rail network as we go, like they are doing in Germany and France.

Then, there are the trains themselves.  A passenger car costs between $2M and $3M each.  A locomotive between $4M and $7M each.  The 20 Acela trainsets, each with six coaches and two locomotives cost a total of $800M in the late 1990s.  (For comparison, a new Boeing 737 is about $100M.  A new Megabus is about $500,000.)

But, even without true High Speed Rail, why has there been such little progress outside the Northeast Corridor in the US?  It's because...

7. Amtrak is in the way.

Amtrak runs all the passenger trains in the US.  Passenger train operation as a whole, had been losing money in the US since 1929.  It only go worse as the airlines siphoned off the business traveler and the interstates got the leisure traveler in the 1950s.  Amtrak took over from the freight railroads in 1971 as a way to help the railroad industry back on it's feet.  (what really did the trick, however, was partial deregulation in 1980).  More about Amtrak here.

The very outfit that should be "leading the charge" for improved passenger rail service may be the biggest impediment!  To be clear, Amtrak has done some things right.  The NEC is a functioning, essential piece of the northeast's transportation network.  Acela has a positive cash flow from it's operation.  But, overall Amtrak is hot mess.

They are hugely inefficient   While the freight railroads have made huge productivity gains in all areas, cutting payroll and increasing traffic, Amtrak's hardly budged.  In recent years, costs have gone up as fast as ridership.  Even in times when ridership drops, costs remain flat.  While the freight railroads have flattened their organizational structure, Amtrak keeps fluffing theirs up.  They just added a new executive position to oversee the long distance trains they have been running for 40 years.

Amtrak's goal is sustaining their subsidy.  There is no incentive to trim costs.  It will just mean a lower subsidy which benefits no one at Amtrak a whit.  In fact, trimmed costs and payroll only means that Amtrak managers lose out in the "HR compensation comparison" game.  Smaller kingdom = less salary.

They have the wrong focus.  They concentrate on running the same trains, not providing service. (example here)   They are inwardly focused, rarely comparing themselves with peers and competitors - and rarely looking for "best practices."

They concentrate on political survival.  Senators are more likely to be "pro-Amtrak" if there a train running through their state.  That is why there is a train running across Kansas in the middle of the night....and one in North Dakota...and one in Oklahoma....and Arkansas and Nebraska.  But,  the fourth largest state in the country, Florida,  has fewer trains than it did when Amtrak started in 1971!

Advocacy groups that support Amtrak are also focusing on wrong goal - preserving "lines on the map" and 1950's style service.  Too often, they think of the "good old days" when trains went everywhere.  When going some place meant a roomette and dinner in the dining car.

They forgot that people abandoned these trains in droves when the WWII trained pilots could pilot their war surplus DC3s into those converted Army Air Corp bases...or when they could drive their shiny, new small-block Chevy from their Levitt house in the 'burbs to Aunt Minnie's for Thanksgiving on Ike's brand new roads.

Those days are gone.

But, so are the days of cheap fuel, free flowing freeways and "friendly skies".

So, if we want better passenger rail service, what do we do?

  1. Fix Amtrak
  2. Focus on what works
  3. Fit into the highway/air network
  4. Dream big, start small.

Stay tuned for Part II!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fifty - Part 2

Day three of the trip.  Second day on the train. After stopping at Reno, the train has to get over the Cascade Range.  This route was part of the original transcontinental railroad.  Four guys from San Francisco chartered the Central Pacific Railroad and construction started from the American River in Sacramento up and over Donner Pass.  The original right of way is still in use in large part 140 years later.  The Central Pacific became part of the Southern Pacific and the Southern Pacific was eventually swallowed up by the Union Pacific.

Heading up the west slope

Donner Lake.  Where the Donner party wintered on their ill-fated journey.  Cost them an arm and a leg...and a foot.....and a.....(sorry)

The railroad snakes it's way to the summit.

One of many snow sheds on the route.  Lots up snow on Donner. Quite a bit left in May
Roseville.  A major location on the Union Pacific RR at the base of the Cascades.

Still some SP heritage around

We finally arrive at Emeryville and take an Amtrak bus to SF.
Funny story.  Okay, maybe "funny" is the wrong word.  We hop off the train at Emeryville and find our connecting "Amtrak Thruway" bus to downtown San Francisco.  The bus makes several stops downtown.  The one we want is Union Square.  Our hotel is three blocks north and one block west from there.  Simple.  Except the driver opines that it might be a "dangerous" walk - lots of panhandlers and homeless in SF, you know -  and we should hop off at the first stop and take a cab a mile to the hotel.  "Nonsense", I say.  "We will walk." I hate cabs and certainly don't want to pay $30 in place of a short walk.  Homeless and panhandlers?  That's just life in the big city.  Or, maybe it's just me being stubborn and cheap.  Probably the latter... But, now Patti has her radar up and running.  "Where, exactly, is this hotel of ours?"  and  "Why don't you listen to the bus driver?"  and then silence.  Uh, oh.

As it turns out, it was just a short walk, albeit uphill, from Union Square to our hotel.  That is was after business hours made the trip a bit more interesting than during mid-day, but the area was largely residential and really wasn't scary at all.  The worst part was schlepping the suitcases uphill!  The hotel ,Petite Auberge, was terrific and very reasonably priced.

A fireplace, even!
The next day, we headed back to Union Square and purchased some Muni transit passes.  The passes were good on all the trolleys and buses, and even on the cable cars.

The best transit line in SF was the  F line.  It ran rebuild historical trolley cars, painted for the transit companies around the world that ran them.  The F line ran down Market St and then down the Embarcadero to Fisherman's wharf.  A most convenient line for tourists.

Philadelphia Transit Company

Looking down the track on the Emabarcadero



Louisville car by the Ferry Terminal
Ferry Terminal
A quick check of the Amtrak ticket office adjacent to the Ferry Terminal revealed that Amtrak had one day excursions to Yosemite.  Yosemite!  I always wanted to go there!  We asked about tickets.  No good.  A land slide had closed the road they use from Merced to the park.  We were "stuck" in San Francisco!  (We did get to Yosemite a year later on a family vacation...)

"Crabby Patti?"

Soup in a sourdough bowl! 

no caption necessary

"get a grip"

Riding on the inside

Near Union Square
Spinning the car by hand

What makes the cable cars go.
End of the line

We did a walking tour of the city.  It was pretty good except the tour guide kept pronouncing Beaux-Arts like "Boze Art" which just bugged me.  (Of course, the only reason I knew it was Beaux-Arts was that Grand Central Terminal in NYC is in that style...)  Lots of info on the city before and after the 1908 earthquake and fire.

City Hall

We also took a ferry to Alcatraz.  While we were waiting, an arriving ferry crashed into the pier, splintering the adjacent walkway and toppling many of the passengers to the deck.  Lots of paramedics on the scene, but it turned out that no one was seriously hurt. 

The blue and white boat on the right was the ferry that crashed.

Noisy sea lions

Our hotel room....er...a cell room that was rehabbed for a movie somewhere along the line.

I always knew she was trouble....

"Michigan Avenue"

Being that San Francisco was build on great, natural harbor, it wasn't surprising that it has a National Historic site that is a maritime museum.  Lots of cool, old ships and boats.

Steam powered ferry that took people from the railroad terminal in Oakland to San Francisco

Vintage cars on the ferry

This is where you control the big, triple expansion steam engines.

Hey!  Shouldn't you be watching where you're going?

An old tug

The National Historic site is on Hyde Pier.

The city is still a major port.  

Containers from Asia pass under the Bay Bridge

We also trekked around the city ourselves a bit.  We went up to the top of Coit Tower.

View from the top.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip, just too short.  

Fifty is just a number.  For me, it was a very good number.  If you can do a trip like this to commemorate it, then I highly recommend turning 50.

Hmmm.   Where to go when I turn 60?