A New Sleeper Train in the Rockies?

Featured image source

Prompted in part by experiences like this, I’ve thought a lot about whether Amtrak’s long-distance operations are at all viable. They’re unprofitable, slow, and infrequent, and seemingly constantly under threat–but also generally the most politically popular part of the Amtrak system, since rural elected officials love seeing trains in their districts.

In thinking about the long-distance trains, I often come back to this excellent Sic Transit Philadelphia post. The core of Michael’s theory is this:

I have a developing theory of sleeper trains, which is that they are essentially a point-to-point service. A sleeper passenger who is willing to pay a fare that is going to pay for most, or all, of her costs, wants a train that is leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Perhaps a short ride in daylight can cover more another market or two with the same departure, but the basic form is evening-morning. It requires two trainsets to operate the entire service.

The luxury of such a service is that timing can be somewhat loose; trains just need to arrive by the beginning of the business day. From a cost-savings perspective, a one-overnight trip could mean that passengers can eat before and after their time on the train, eliminating the need for an expensive dining car. Michael discusses several potential routes for such a service in his post, and it’s been an occasional topic of discussion on Twitter as well.

This topic came back to me earlier this week when I read Jim Wrinn’s pessimistic take on the future of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western main line through the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, this line, once dominated by coal traffic, is down to a couple of trains per day in each direction, plus Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the successor to D&RGW’s grand, long-lived (D&RGW kept operating it privately until 1983) flagship train. That’s not a lot of traffic to keep up a 570-mile line (including a 6.2 mile tunnel) in some of the most spectacular–and most brutal, for weather and maintenance purposes–scenery in the country.


System map of the D&RGW in 1965, featuring the Moffat Tunnel line. Source.

The coal traffic that once sustained the Moffat line is probably mostly dead for good. But, as Wrinn suggests in his piece, what if the former D&RGW could become one of the US’ rare passenger-primary routes? An unlikely proposition given the expense of maintaining it, surely, but the line does have a strong passenger heritage, and links two growing cities with extensive, recently built out transit networks that connect well to their intercity train terminals. And it’s just about the right length to trial the one-overnight model that Michael proposes above.

Today’s California Zephyr is essentially a day train, with a mildly useful but slow schedule westbound across the Rockies, and an equally slow but less useful one (3:30 AM departure from SLC!) eastbound.

CZ timetable

A 15-hour trip wouldn’t work to run a one-overnight trip with two trainsets, but it wasn’t always that slow. The 1952 Official Guide (indicate Denver & Rio Grande Western on the menu at left) has westbound train 17 at 13:40 from Denver to Salt Lake, leaving at 8:40 AM and arriving at 10:20. Eastbound #18 left SLC at a somewhat more civilized 5:40 AM and arrived in Denver at 7:00 PM sharp, for a time of 13:20. The Zephyr was a true day train in both directions, complemented by sleeper service at night.

And I think it might be time to bring that kind of service pattern back. With much less freight interference than in the line’s glory days and modern equipment (this line might work very nicely for tilting trains), it might be possible to get run times down into the 12-hour range. Even if that’s not possible and some train sets have to lay over, one day trip and one night trip in each direction–plus the Zephyr, whenever Amtrak feels like running it–between Denver and SLC might work nicely. The day trip would appeal to tourists wanting to see the spectacular scenery, while a barebones, no-meals sleeper operation could appeal to budget travelers who don’t want to make the stressful drive over the Rockies or don’t want to travel with a car. There’s also the possibility of restoring Ski Train service to resorts along the route, which current owner Union Pacific has been open to but Amtrak has been its usual obstreperous self about.

I don’t know if three passenger trains per day plus scattered freight service would be enough to justify the massive maintenance expense of keeping the Moffat Line open. I do know that the metro areas at both ends of the route are among the country’s biggest transit success stories, and have been highly creative in getting there. And I suspect that a day/night schedule on trains dedicated to SLC-Denver service could work. Hopefully someone will give it a try.

Small Cities, Big Roads: the Story of American Infrastructure

I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging recently (though I did post my final papers), but the semester’s over now (thank God), so here’s a fun little celebration post.

Chuck Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns, among others, have been doing a good job documenting the absurd overbuilding of American infrastructure. I spend too much of my time daydreaming by zooming around the country on Google Maps, and in doing so I’ve noticed a trend that I think typifies the kind of obscene overbuilding that has so thoroughly screwed up the American transportation system.  As it turns out, many, many small American cities have ridiculous bypass roads that must have been built at great expense to taxpayers. I’m not talking about freeways, mind you; I approve of not destroying towns with those things. I’m talking about much smaller highways, the kind where driving through a small city isn’t going to cost you too much time or make you slow down from 70 mph. And the impact of diverting those highways to save a couple of minutes can be devastating to smaller towns or cities; the highways are often the economic lifeblood of a smaller town, and pulling cars away from Main Street and to a bypass can kill a town for good. (That being said, I should acknowledge that sometimes communities do ask for bypasses, to get traffic off their roads or because they think it will preserve a small-town way of life.)

Without further ado…multiple examples of the genre of “Small American Cities with Big Bypass Roads!”

Westerly, RI (Population 22,787): RI-78

Burlington, WI (pop. 10, 464): WI-36 (bypass opened in 2010 at the cost of $118 million. Remember, this is Paul “fiscal conservative” Ryan’s congressional district)

Bennington, VT (pop. 15,764): VT (actually extends a little into New York too) 279. This one’s special because it bypasses a good bit of countryside too:

Upper Sandusky, OH (pop. 6,596): US-30

Xenia, OH (pop. 25,719): US-35

Those are just a few examples; I’m sure there are dozens more. I’m also sure that some of the citizens of these towns prize these bypass roads, thinking they divert fast cars and loud, heavy trucks from local streets. And maybe they do. But as the Burlington example demonstrates–and I remember seeing the road under construction on a family roadtrip to Wisconsin when I was in high school, and marveling at the vastness of the earth-moving in a totally rural area–the costs, both fiscal and ecological, are enormous. Aren’t there better ways to calm traffic, keep people moving, and keep the economy pumping than these enormously wasteful exercises?



New Life for an Old Bridge Line: Norfolk Southern, D&H, and the New England Market

On Monday the long-rumored acquisition of the southern end of the historic Delaware & Hudson Railroad by one of the two titans of railroading in the eastern US, Norfolk Southern, finally came to pass. On the one hand, this is a relatively minor transaction that simply brings ownership of a long-suffering rail line into line with the railroad that is its majority user. On the other, it’s a deal that has the potential for wide-ranging effects in the small world of Northeastern railroading—most prominently, to bring real competition to the rail freight market in New England for the first time since probably the 1960s.

History of the D&H

The D&H, whose main line (for now) extends from Sunbury (traditionally Wilkes-Barre), PA to Montreal, has a checkered and often-unprofitable history. A corporate descendant of an early canal corporation, it was in its early years a coal-hauling route, but has essentially struggled to survive on bridge traffic since the decline of the Pennsylvania coal fields. The story of

the D&H in the second half of the 20th century is a story of a railroad struggling to keep its head above water, but never useless enough to be abandoned. At various points, it has been owned or operated by Norfolk Southern predecessor Norfolk & Western, Guilford Industries (owner of what is now known as Pan Am Railways, a key player in this week’s acquisition), the independent regional New York, Susquehanna, and Western, and, for the last 20 years, Canadian Pacific. Very little traffic originates on-line, and as Canadian Pacific has struggled to develop the through traffic to Northeastern US markets it anticipated when it bought D&H, the line’s importance to the Canadian railroad has declined, especially south of Schenectady. Above the Capital District, CP uses the line heavily for oil traffic bound for the Port of Albany—CP has the only single-line haul from the Bakken Shale to an East Coast oil port—but those trains don’t use the line down to Binghamton and Pennsylvania.

The New England Gateways

In more recent years, much of the D&H’s traffic has been shaped by a business alliance external to the railroad itself—one that has more to do with the New England market than with the D&H’s historic Pennsylvania-Canada axis. There have, historically, been essentially three routes carrying large amounts of rail freight into New England. The southernmost was the New Haven Railroad’s Maybrook Line, which used the majestic Poughkeepsie Bridge until its suspicious damaging fire in 1974. The second was the New York Central controlled Boston & Albany, an early example of masterful American engineering that connected its two namesake cities across the Berkshires and is still the dominant rail freight corridor into New England. The northernmost of the major New England access routes was the Hoosac Tunnel route, controlled for most of its history by the Boston & Maine and its successor, Guilford/Pan Am. Finished later than the B&A, and cursed with eternal tight curves, single track (though it does have the advantage of less severe grades), and different-line connections to the west, the Hoosac line was always the weaker competitor in the Albany-Boston corridor. Since the reorganization of the railroad industry in the 1960s and 1970s, the Hoosac line has become increasingly marginal, since it fell under the control of a weak regional railroad, while the B&A was controlled by much larger railroads: NYC, Penn Central, Conrail, and now CSX.

Pan Am Southern Enters the Scene

In 2009, the fortunes of the Hoosac route began to look up. Norfolk Southern, seeking to break into the lucrative New England market over which CSX held a virtual monopoly, entered into a business partnership with Pan Am for joint control of the Hoosac Line from the connection with D&H at Mechanicville, NY to the intermodal terminal at Ayer, MA, and associated branch lines.  Known as Pan Am Southern, the partnership brought NS capital investment to the ever-strapped

Hoosac line, with the promise of additional traffic to come. The Hoosac line still stands at a clear disadvantage to the B&A—it is still single-tracked, is not cleared for double-stack container traffic, and needs a lot of capital investment before it will be ready for fast-moving intermodal traffic. And let there be no confusion—the intermodal market is what NS is after. In days of yore, the railroads moved finished manufactured goods out of New England; now, they’re looking for a slice of the market for moving consumer goods to the region, especially since Boston’s port is not cleared for post-Panamax container ships and has never developed as a major container port.

The closest NS-owned tracks come to the Hoosac Line, though, is Binghamton. And that’s where the D&H comes in, neatly connecting NS’ Southern Tier line at Binghamton to the Hoosac line at Mechanicville. NS has had trackage rights over that segment since the Conrail breakup in the late ‘90s, and the frequency with which it took advantage of them increased markedly after the Pan Am Southern kickoff. In recent years, D&H has reduced local service to 3 days/week, and 80% of traffic on the line has been NS traffic-rights trains (a lot of my information on this comes from the STB filing for the proposed acquisition). It makes sense, then, for NS to try to gain control of the line from a railroad that uses it little and has little incentive to invest in the infrastructure. And that’s how we landed where we are today.

Policy Implications

From the STB filing

From the STB filing

NS’ purchase of the D&H’s southern end may remove one major carrier from a small slice of the US, but it carries with it the potential to bring true rail freight competitiveness back to New England for the first time since at least the Penn Central merger. Though the Hoosac Line is not cleared for double-stack intermodal carriage, Pan Am Southern has initiated an efficient “fillet/toupee” operation in Mechanicville, and NS has stressed the D&H purchase’s potential to bring longer, more efficient trains to and from Mechanicville Yard (apparently D&H currently limits train lengths to 8,000 feet, relatively short by today’s standards). NS does not project train volumes to rise much from current levels, but with longer trains running at faster speeds, the volume of freight flowing to New England will surely rise. With NS in full or partial control of Pan Am Southern and, for the first time, a friendly western connection as well, the Hoosac Line stands to be in a position to compete with the B&A in short order.

And the entrance of a strong second competitor into the New England market could have a major impact on the picture for both freight and passenger rail. Currently, CSX essentially has both the New York and Massachusetts state governments over a barrel when it comes to expansion of passenger service. The railroad has refused to allow the use of an unused half of the historic Water Level Route right-of-way for passenger service in New York, and bled Massachusetts for improvements to the B&A that would be necessary for increased passenger service. As I have written in the past, the strong entrance of NS into the New England market, which has now become manifest, allows both state governments (and especially Massachusetts), should they so desire, to put the screws to CSX somewhat. The Hoosac Tunnel route will never be suitable for modern passenger service, and the B&A is barely so, but Massachusetts should be using the threat of employing the public treasury to help NS lower the floor of the Hoosac Tunnel to cow CSX into allowing restoration of a second track for passenger service on the B&A, among other things.

What to Expect

I see little chance the STB will have any problem with this transaction, given its essentially pro-competitive nature. Over the next couple of years, the (former) D&H south end should see a surge of investment in track, signals, and the like, and I’d expect NS to pour more cash into Pan Am Southern as well. Many New England-area railfans would love to see NS take over Pan Am as a whole as well; since the Guilford era, the railroad has had a reputation for neglecting infrastructure and driving away customers that seems to be fairly well-deserved. I doubt that that is going to happen on any quick timetable; NS seems perfectly happy to proceed slowly with its Upstate and New England investments, and it already has significant sway over the most lucrative part of the Pan Am system. But it could happen down the line, especially if NS decides the Portland, ME market (and its port) are a worthy target.

Also predicted: I will finally get my ass over to Mechanicville to watch some trains. I’ve lived half an hour away for over a year and haven’t been yet.  If it’s time for real freight rail competition in New England, it’s time for me to get there.