Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1

 

Part 2

via Greater City Providence, http://www.gcpvd.org/2015/01/23/abc-6-video-pawtucket-central-falls-commuter-rail-station/

Rhode Island and an Incipient Critique of Commuter Rail

My post from last year about the woes of Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction park’n’ride investment enjoyed a brief renaissance last week when Streetsblog linked back to it. How convenient, then, that Wickford Junction was in the news again this week when Rhode Island state legislators used it as a reason not to provide state funding for the (probably much more useful) long-awaited infill station in Pawtucket/Central Falls.

Let’s get one thing straight: Wickford Junction and Pawtucket/Central Falls are completely different scenarios. Pawtucket has regular service throughout the day (albeit at crappy frequency), while Wickford Junction…doesn’t. And then there’s this:

Wickford Junction

The physical setting of Wickford Junction station

pawtucket setting.PNG

The physical setting of future Pawtucket/Central Falls station

Wickford Junction is completely cut off from development of any kind, while Pawtucket station would be located in one of the densest areas in all of New England. Comparing them, in other words, is pointless at best. No wonder Providence blogger Jef Nickerson, in his own words, “went ballistic” when the legislature approved funding for a garage in downtown Providence after ignoring the train station.

I want to dig a little deeper into this, though. Let’s consider quotes such as this, from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article linked above:

The free-market Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put the station plan in its cross-hairs, adding the funding bill to its “five worst” list for the year and saying it aligns with a “submissive philosophy” that Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston.

Although the Center for Freedom and Prosperity critique of the station is unnecessarily couched in parochial provincialism (and, likely, in deep denial of the benefits that closer links to the booming Boston economy can bring to Rhode Island), it almost unintentionally touches on a serious critique of the “commuter rail” mode: it serves one kind of trip, and one kind of trip only. The libertarians substitute a critique of the station for what should be a critique of the mode of transit, perhaps because the answer to the question “how does commuter rail become useful to all users?” is “more service, not less.”

When framed this way, the critique not only becomes more sympathetic, but reminds me of another anecdote I turned up in the process of researching my master’s paper. When the Providence Foundation studied intrastate commuter rail from Woonsocket to Providence in 2009, the project team met with planners along the route to gauge interest in the potential new service. All showed interest, except for the town planner in Lincoln, where a station was proposed in the hamlet of Manville. The reasons given were fascinating, and a little bit sad:

The proposed Manville site is located near a low-income neighborhood, where residents could typically be expected to benefit from additional transit services. However, commuter rail – with its peak-oriented services – may not be a good fit for these residents who tend to work at jobs with nontraditional schedules. Moreover, the town planner in Lincoln indicated the most town residents were not interested in a new commuter rail station. (p. 71)

Justifiably or not, Lincoln’s town planner believed that commuter rail, as a mode, is not for “us” (us being anyone working in a job that is not white collar or 9-to-5). That’s not too far off from the idea that investing state money in a commuter rail station would only increase Rhode Island’s dependency on Boston, if we assume that “Boston” here stands in for white-collar jobs with little access for middle- or working-class Rhode Islanders. It may not be entirely apparent to the people I’m quoting here, but I believe the pattern indicates the very tiny glimmer of a kernel of a coherent, trenchant critique of the commuter rail paradigm.

Rhode Island has ambitious plans for commuter rail, both expansion of Boston-oriented MBTA service and intrastate, not to mention random private ideas for Providence-Worcester service. That’s admirable for a state of Rhode Island’s size, and the Providence Foundation study projected very positive results for Providence-Woonsocket service.

projected results providence cr

Projected costs and operational figures from the Providence Foundation study

That being said, I think the difficulty of gaining political traction for commuter rail in places like Pawtucket (which has been waiting for a station for decades, since its legacy one closed in 1981) and Lincoln reflect both the normal anti-transit animus of certain groups AND something deeper and more profound.

I devoted much of my master’s paper to developing the idea that American commuter rail has been socially and politically constructed as a luxury mode of travel for the middle and upper classes, one that serves only a niche subset of trips. In many other countries, mainline rail systems–often branded “regional”–operate frequently all day and on weekends, allowing use for numerous kinds of trips to numerous destinations. Perhaps, to build political momentum and promote a system that can be truly useful to a broad swath of Rhode Islanders, state leaders should consider something not less, but more ambitious–a regional rail system along the lines proposed by Peter Brassard over at Pedestrian Observations several years ago. Maybe  even that wouldn’t quite redeem Wickford Junction–but it might be the only plan that has a chance to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie made headlines (in a small segment of the population at least) by poo-pooing entreaties to extend the Camden-Trenton River Line to the Statehouse, telling riders to “Use Uber” instead.  Now, the River Line is seemingly mediocre transit; despite forming a strategic link between two depressed cities, and connecting to strong transit options on both ends, its farebox recovery is atrocious (although it has shown some returns for the region).

That being said, it’s clear that the River Line’s Trenton terminus is in a less-than-ideal location. Although it connects well with SEPTA, NJT, and Amtrak trains, I think it’s fair to assume that most River Line riders are local, rather than making connections to destinations along the Northeast Corridor. And to reach many of the government jobs in downtown Trenton, those riders will have to walk a decent distance or transfer to a collection of buses branded as “Capital Connection.”

The Trenton Transit Center is on the far eastern end of the heaviest job concentration in Trenton.

trenton jobs

From Census LEHD

So: even if the River Line is mediocre transit, extending it a few more blocks into downtown Trenton isn’t a waste–it’s a key network connection that holds potential to be highly useful to lots of riders. And that’s where my take on the potential extension differs from Gov. Christie’s. Where the governor sees a question of expanding an underperforming transit system–that is, in a sense, rewarding underperformance–I see an attempt to redeem that same system with a relatively minor expenditure based on the principle of network connections. Indeed, is it possible that the statehouse connection could be the key to unlocking the River Line’s overall potential?

Much the same logic has been at work in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has posed a dichotomy between “core operation” and “expansion,” as told to Politico:

“It just so happens our capital investment is in its core operation and not in expansion. But we see what happens when you spend all your money on the shiny new thing and forget about the fact that you have a core system that you need to invest in, to maintain, to enhance, and to modernize”

Baker’s commitment to this dichotomy has played out mostly in his administration’s skepticism toward the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford, and to a lesser extent on the North-South Rail Link. Baker has a point, of course, that MBTA and the state of Massachusetts have shown little capacity for effective project management, and there is a crying need to fix the maintenance and State of Good Repair backlogs facing the existing system.

But, like Christie, Baker fails to understand that the Green Line Extension and NSRL represent not “expansion” for its own sake but targeted infrastructural investments on the principle of building a transit network. Indeed, NSRL would enable the transformation of the MBTA commuter rail system from a collection of disconnected dead-end lines into a real network. In the dichotomous lingo that has taken effect in Boston, NSRL represents neither reform nor revenue, but reform through revenue (or really, investment), which, when needed, is the core logic of network-based thinking. It would take the system from this:

pre NSRL

Existing MBTA commuter rail network, from the North-South Rail Link website

to this:

post NSRL

One vision for a post-NSRL network, from the NSRL website.

To illuminate the conceptual challenge in convincing politicians to think in terms of networks, let’s turn to Jarrett Walker’s well-timed (for my purposes!) post from yesterday on core vs. edge debates. Of course, core/periphery fights are not precisely the same issue as opposing “expansion” that actually represents a key network link–but both represent a failure to think in terms of networks. In Jarrett’s words:

Once more with feeling: Transit is a network, which means that its parts are interdependent.  You cannot think about it the way you think about libraries or fire stations, where putting one in a certain place clearly benefits the people there, because the whole network affects everyone’s ability to get everywhere.

This is the key concept that, it seems, Christie and Baker have failed to grasp. Certainly, there are transit expansions that benefit only a discrete set of people within a region; many (politically popular) commuter rail and light rail extensions into low-density areas fall into this category. But many “expansions” have utility well beyond their own immediate area. The key is for decision makers to be able to differentiate between different kinds of “expansion”–and, in fairness to Christie and Baker, the political incentives are largely set up to make this differentiation hard.

Politicians face pressure to “give” everyone (that is, all geographic areas) benefits from government spending, which–and this is where we return to the parallels with the core/periphery problem–incentivizes spreading money around inefficiently rather than investing in geographically central yet regionally (networkily?) beneficial links. Would Christie or, especially, Baker, be more willing to risk some political capital on an “expansion” if it were seen as a key network link rather than a luxury whose benefits accrue to one particular area? Maybe, maybe not. But those of us with a stronger grasp of the concepts behind the transit can work on educating, those nonspecialists whose first instinct is to respond to the loudest voices.

 

 

drgw-5771-plainview_co-sep-1978-000

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.

DRGWMap

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.

devon alt 1 better

Towards a Connecticut S-Bahn: the Waterbury Line

I’ve been neglecting blogging recently because I’ve been hugely focused on my ongoing senior paper writing process, which is a lot of fun and very rewarding but also very time-consuming. One of the joys of that process, though, is that it occasionally prompts thoughts about other planning issues on which my research touches. Such was the case with the news that Connecticut has managed to find some funds to invest in its ugly-stepchild Waterbury Branch, and that Metro-North is re-opening the temporary Devon Transfer station to allow track work on the main New Haven Line.

Some of my senior paper work focuses on the S-Bahn paradigm of regional rail services common in the German-speaking world and beyond. Like other systems that rely on mainline rail, S-Bahns in major urban areas combine lines on major trunk lines in urban cores to provide rapid-transit-like levels of frequency. One of the distinguishing marks of the S-Bahn paradigm, however, is its emphasis on precisely timed transfers at outlying stops across a wide region–up to and including a whole country–an approach known as the Integraler Takftfahrplan, or, roughly, “Integrated Pulse Schedule.” Scheduled thus, transit services can avoid running at expensive overwhelming frequency, and rely on precisely timed transfers to maximize rider utility.

ITF schedule maps

Takt scheduling diagrams, from Maxwell 1999

One of the advantages of takt scheduling is that it can bring relatively frequent, useful transit to regions without a massive or dense population base. Indeed, some agencies have found the S-Bahn/takt system useful for serving polycentric, dispersed regions without one massive urban center. That got me thinking: where in the US, outside of core major urban areas, might such an approach be useful?

So, why not Connecticut? Connecticut has no dominant city; Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford are all roughly in the same size class, and there’s a coherent second tier of smaller cities such as Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain, Norwich, and New London.

new haven line getting back on track

Urbanized areas on the New Haven Line, from RPA’s Getting Back on Track report.

The New Haven Line–arguably the country’s best commuter rail line, and one that I have argued before should be turned into a rapid transit line–ties together three of those top-tier cities, with a new service to Hartford starting in 2018 and connections to several of the second-tier cities. And yet, the state’s rail service is still predominantly conceptualized as “commuter” rail intended to shuttle passengers to office jobs in Fairfield County and New York City. Rather than providing everywhere-to-everywhere connections, the system all feeds toward the state’s southwestern extremity.

Such is the case with the Waterbury Line. Currently, the branch operates only a skeleton schedule; completely unsignalized and nearly devoid of passing sidings, it can manage only one train every two hours in each direction. The diesel-powered trains offer transfers to other New Haven Line trains at Bridgeport, which eats up mainline capacity both because the short, slow Waterbury trains take up slots and because Bridgeport’s narrow, constrained station is a terrible place to turn trains. The new investment over the next few years will signalize the line and add a few sidings, bringing capacity to two trains per hour in each direction at peak.  That’s obviously a start, but what if we can make it better?

First, let’s think about where Waterbury Line passengers might actually be traveling. Here’s a look at the top 25 places where workers in the Naugatuck Valley are employed, courtesy of Census LEHD (the full spreadsheet is here for your perusal):

Place Count Share
Waterbury city, CT 17,215 12.7%
Milford city (balance), CT 9,421 7.0%
Shelton city, CT 7,752 5.7%
New Haven city, CT 7,093 5.2%
Stratford CDP, CT 6,497 4.8%
Bridgeport city, CT 6,343 4.7%
Naugatuck borough, CT 3,849 2.8%
New York city, NY 3,562 2.6%
Hartford city, CT 2,871 2.1%
Trumbull CDP, CT 2,569 1.9%
Stamford city, CT 2,494 1.8%
Derby city, CT 2,425 1.8%
Danbury city, CT 2,311 1.7%
Norwalk city, CT 2,226 1.6%
Orange CDP, CT 2,043 1.5%
West Haven city, CT 1,883 1.4%
North Haven CDP, CT 1,556 1.2%
Meriden city, CT 1,547 1.1%
Ansonia city, CT 1,369 1.0%
Bristol city, CT 1,140 0.8%
Torrington city, CT 1,094 0.8%
Westport CDP, CT 877 0.6%
New Britain city, CT 834 0.6%
Middletown city, CT 789 0.6%
Oakville CDP, CT 748 0.6%

Around 39,000, or 28.9% of the total, commute to Fairfield County, as the Waterbury Line is set up to serve. Another 2,500, or 1.8%, commute into Manhattan, and 700, or 0.5%, commute to Westchester. That’s a total of about 31.2%, as opposed to 65,255, or 48.3%, who stay within New Haven County–in the Valley itself, in the Shoreline towns, or in New Haven proper–and a further 1,600 who commute to Middlesex County and 1,163 New London County, further to the east. Which is to say: the Waterbury’s line’s emphasis on direct service to the southeast isn’t useless, but it’s not serving a majority of work-based trips particularly well. Can the area’s rail infrastructure help with that?

Perhaps the place to start is an emphasis on the power of connections. Offering a connection to mainline trains at Devon, rather than wasting crew and equipment time and mainline slots with a trip to Bridgeport, could free up the Waterbury Line to function more freely. Instead of rebuilding platforms all along the branch to fit level boarding for mainline rolling stock, the branch could use a dedicated fleet of European-style low-floor DMUs, making platform rebuilding much cheaper. (there is very little freight on the line, and a past study has found that electrification would only shave one minute off schedules because of the line’s extreme curviness) With trip times from Waterbury to Devon well under an hour, the line could run a train every half hour in each direction with four vehicles, plus one in reserve.

This is not, of course, a new idea. “Fixing” the branch by severing it at Devon is a common topic of discussion among railfans. A past study envisioned a reconfigured station at Devon looking something like this:

devon alt 1 better

Alternatively, the “new” Devon could be moved a little east, and lose the “T” structure:

devon 2.jpg

Of these two alternatives, I prefer the first–a two-track terminal offers more flexibility for frequent service, and the T-shaped platforms allow branch trains to operate different equipment than mainline trains. It wouldn’t be cheap–a substation located in the middle of the diamond would have to be relocated–but it also wouldn’t be as expensive as the study’s estimated $134 million price tag (the second alternative is projected at $73 million), mainly because there is absolutely no reason to build a parking garage under I-95. Instead of building a new pedestrian passage under or over the tracks, a future Devon station could retain the T format but rebuild the narrow Naugatuck Avenue bridge for use as an overpass.

With mainline trains now running every half-hour-albeit on a weird schedule with one 20-minute and one 40-minute gap–at off-peak times, the timing works out perfectly for branch trains to meet a mainline train at Devon every half hour throughout the day. The branch trains would, as in a takt system, be scheduled around their meeting time with a mainline train. With enough scheduling work, and as mainline frequencies increase as promised, the connection could become a three-way meet, with branch trains offering connections to mainline trains in both directions, thus increasing rider utility again.

One of the beauties of takt scheduling is that it can also offer connections to local transit. In this case, the trains meeting at Devon could also be met by a local bus feeding riders to the station from high-density  (by local standards) apartment developments near Walnut Beach in one direction, and from parts of Milford in the other:

circulator bus

Thus, a person arriving at Devon Station at the half-hourly takt mark would be able to choose to travel on transit in any one of four different directions aside from the one they came from.  Such a system requires hard scheduling work and good reliability of transit–but it is doable.

Turning the Waterbury Line entirely into a timed-transfer branch at Devon may or may not be the right concept. On the positive side, it would:

  • increase branch and mainline reliability by ending mixing of branch and mainline trains
  • allow timed transfers towards New Haven, where a not-inconsiderable number of Naugatuck Valley passengers are bound, without the extra travel to and from Bridgeport, as well as toward New York,
  • allow operation of low-floor DMUs on the branch
  • provide a rationale for a new connecting bus route

On the possible negative side, it would:

  • eliminate one-seat rides for branch passengers to Bridgeport
  • means that getting to an NYC-bound express train, which would stop at Bridgeport but presumably not at Devon, would require a second transfer
  • struggle to attract walk-up traffic, since the station itself is isolated, bordered by the Housatonic river on one side and I-95 on the other

So there’s a need for further study, hopefully with more realistic cost estimates than including a massive, stupid garage when there’s a nice commuter lot available to build on at Stratford less than two miles away. But as a thought experiment, and a way to illustrate the feasibility and desirability of takt scheduling and the S-Bahn rail concept, I think it works nicely. Just don’t build the damn garage.

image007

When the Sprawl Lobby is For Rail

Just a quick post since I’ve been doing lots of senior paper writing and haven’t put anything up here for a while…

As part of my senior paper research I’ve been looking quite a bit into the sociopolitical context of commuter/regional rail, and I’ve come across a number of interesting tidbits. Here’s an anecdote that’s worth sharing. It comes from the 1980 PhD dissertation of Sy Adler, today a respected professor at Portland State University, which is about the political economy of transit in the Bay Area in the immediate postwar era, especially the leadup to the building of BART.

In 1950 Southern Pacific found itself before the California Public Utilities Commission for the third time since the end of World War II to ask for a fare increase on its Penninsula Commute service–today’s Caltrain. As Adler tells it (pages 97-99):

SP had been facilitating the growth of “stockbroker suburbs” down the peninsula since the nineteenth century. Revenue patronage was slowly but steadily increasing on its trains between downtown San Francisco and San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. However, despite the patronage gains and the previous fare increases the railroad claimed to be losing more than one million dollars per year in out-of-pocket operating costs alone. The fare increase SP was now proposing would only cut losses in half; the company believed it had already reached the point of diminishing returns in regard to increased fares.

The concentration of traffic on rush hour SP commuter trains was virtually complete. Seventy-five percent of the total movement to San Francisco traveled during the morning peak hour. Eighty-three percent of all passengers paid commutation fares to go downtown and back home. The railroad found that two-thirds of its locomotives and coaches utilized in peninsula passenger service were used for only three hours per day. All costs were increasing, as they were for every transit operator, with the exception of fuel oil (!)…[in short, the railroad was losing lots of money]…

A coalition of real estate interests, home builders and commuters opposed the SP fare increase proposal before CPUC. The opposition hired its own expert; he agreed that SP was losing money, but $340,000 less than the railroad claimed. The coalition was led by the David Bohannon organization, one of the largest real estate developers in the Bay Area. All protestants charged that increased fares would be a deterrent to home building and buying on the peninsula; property values would be threatened. The coalition argued that it was entirely appropriate for the SP to subsidize passenger train losses from profitable freight operations. This was the progressive thing to do.

One of the key elements to the argument that’s unfolding in my paper is that commuter rail, as an American mode, is heavily tilted toward the interested of the wealthy. This anecdote provides a fascinating example of that; rarely these days do we hear the Sprawl Machine arguing for better rail service. Rarer still is to hear them co-opt the language of Progressivism, still potent in California at the time, to make their point. But the coalition opposing the SP fare increase was more Growth Machine than Social Justice; it consisted of the landed wealthy and those who stood to profit from greater suburban development. And their agenda was not necessarily to improve SP service, but to continue its stasis as a mode that served the commute well, but could not provide comprehensive transit in the growing suburbs. In some ways, a lot has changed since then. But is this not still the underlying logic that supports the paradigm of “commuter” rail?

(feature image via trainweb.org)