What We Know About Amtrak 501

Earlier today, we saw the latest in a series of crashes that have plagued Amtrak and other US passenger rail providers over the last few years. This is, first and foremost, a human tragedy; but it is also an urgent concern of public policy. While trains–and all public transit–are on a population level much safer than driving, there is no need to accept any casualties at all, ever. While others–primarily the NTSB–will provide a full analysis in the weeks and years ahead, this is my attempt to reckon with what we know about this incident as of the same evening. I had intended this to be a series of bullet points but WordPress doesn’t like the formatting, so I’ve bolded every topic heading. 

Let’s keep in mind that the victims of this tragedy should be in our minds; I haven’t seen a casualty count since the morning, but we know there are fatalities and serious injuries. That shouldn’t have happened, and in addition to wishing their families comfort, this post is inspired by a sense that we–myself as a transportation professional and those who read this blog–should do all we can to prevent such things from happening.

Amtrak 501 was operating over–was, in fact, and somewhat remarkably, the very first revenue train over– the Point Defiance Bypass, a state/federal-funded project that moves passenger trains from a mudslide-prone, curvy waterfront route around Tacoma to a more direct, faster route.

 

wsdot project map

Source: WSDOT

While the tracks for the bypass have been in service, they have not carried passenger trains along their whole length until now. Trains have been running to test the line for months, but this was the first one to carry passengers.

As befits its purpose, the Point Defiance Bypass is mostly straight, easy 79-mph running, but the area where the train derailed is much trickier. Toward the southern end of the bypass, not far from rejoining the freight main at Nisqually Junction, the tracks flow into an S-curve with a bridge over I-5 in the middle.

 

derailment 3d

Looking south, in the direction of train travel.

Going into the curve southbound, the speed limit drops from the standard track speed of 79 mph to 30 mph, as confirmed by an Amtrak employee timetable I’ve been sent. 

amtrak timetableAccording to one report, there should have been an indicator sign two miles before the speed restriction indicating the drop in speed; certainly, there was a sign indicating the 30 mph restriction immediately before the curve.

The train was probably going too fast. Amtrak’s train tracking system doesn’t report train speed or location completely continuously (at least not publicly) but in this case it appears to have pinged the train immediately before the crash, reporting a speed of 81.1 mph at a position just 1400 feet east of the crash site. The system isn’t 100% reliable, so don’t worry about the report that the train was going two mph above the speed limit (which wouldn’t have made a difference in any case). transitdocs detail The same Seattle Times report quoted a motorist who said he was driving in the 60 mph range and the train was going faster. And the positioning of the crashed train–the lead locomotive taking a nearly straight route out of the curve, as if it didn’t follow the tracks at all–indicates a speeding train whose inertia carried it (or rather, part of it) forward. Remember, the train should have been going 30 mph going into that curve. There is no way for a passenger train to shed 50 mph in the space of 1400 feet.

If the reporting system data and eyewitness reports are at all accurate, this is pretty clearly a case of a train exceeding the speed it should have been operating at. Overspeed (as it is technically known) is, however, more a descriptor than an explanation; beyond that I strongly discourage speculation. There are too many causes to count: operator error; signal failure; equipment problems (the lead locomotive was a brand-new Siemens Charger); track problems (remember, this is new, or at least recently refreshed, infrastructure); or any number of other possibilities.

Though I discourage speculation about root causes, it’s impossible not to note the scary parallels between this crash and two other recent overspeed crashes, Amtrak 188 at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia in 2015 and Metro-North at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013.

 

amtrak-188

Diagram of the Amtrak 188 crash at Frankford Junction. Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/here-everything-we-know-about-amtrak-188-train-wreck-in-philadelphia-2015-5

 

NTSBSpuytenDuyvilDerailment2013

Metro-North crash at Spuyten Duyvil. Source: https://twitter.com/NTSB/status/407329136735027200/photo/1

Amtrak 188 entered a 50 mph curve at 106 mph; in a situation eerily similar to today’s the Metro-North train entered a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. We still don’t really know the root cause of the Frankford Junction crash, though most theories have centered around the engineer (who is suffering from amnesia from the accident) losing attention somehow, without his recollections it’s impossible to know for sure. At Spuyten Duyvil the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was apparently asleep as the train went around the curve (the same issue has come up in several other, more minor commuter rail incidents recently, including at Hoboken and Atlantic Terminal). Whatever the cause, overspeed incidents are all too common on American railroads.

Discussions about these kinds of things always come back to Positive Train Control. Originally mandated by Congress after the 2008 Chatsworth crashnot an overspeed incident, for what it’s worth–PTC implementation was an unfunded mandate, has suffered extreme resistance from the railroad industry, and has been painfully slow. As at Frankford Junction and Spuyten Duyvil, PTC was not in operation on the Point Defiance Bypass today; as far as I can tell, it is intended for operational status later this year (as indeed it was at Frankford Junction…ouch). Yes, barring some kind of drastic equipment failure, PTC likely would have stopped this crash. But it’s worth noting that it’s not the only technology available to stop a speeding train headed into a slow zone; various forms of Automatic Train Stop have been able to do so for almost 100 years. So while the increasing series of crashes is absolutely making a cumulative case for cracking down on the rail industry’s PTC slowness, we should keep in mind that failures like this implicate not only the PTC mandate, but the entire safety culture of American railroading.

Let’s talk about safety culture. Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer just published a piece yesterday (literally not kidding) building off of the NTSB’s scathing assessment of Amtrak’s “safety culture,” stemming from yet another fatal crash, this one at Chester, PA in 2016. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the two maintenance-of-way workers killed in the crash and the train engineer involved all tested positive for drugs, and yet that was not found to be a necessary contributing factor to the crash. Similar assessments of commuter railroads have been, while perhaps not as bad, not encouraging either. American railroading has a lot of pathologies–a reactionary culture; toxic labor-management relations; an inability to accept innovation or new ideas–but few have the potential to affect riders as directly as the dysfunctional attitude that it sometimes seems everyone from the top down takes toward safety. It’s a problem that pervades both management and labor, and no one should escape the recriminations, when they come, unscathed. Alex Forrest has a good thread about the cultural contrasts between American and Japanese attitudes toward rail safety; but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.

The train’s equipment–a new Siemens Charger locomotive and articulated, lightweight Talgo coaches–is fairly unusual by US standards, but there’s no indication it played any role in the crash. Here, you can see the Charger sitting on the freeway south of the bridge, the 12 Talgo coaches in various geometric arrangements across the crash site, and the trailing P42 (presumably included as insurance for the new locomotive) still sitting on the tracks. 

Don’t freak out. Train crashes get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, visually spectacular, good media content, and a grand American tradition going back to the 19th century. That doesn’t mean they’re actually common. You’re still a lot safer on the train than in a car. I’m obviously mad at American railroad safety culture–and you should be too–but that shouldn’t get in the way of data-oriented reality, even in moments where it’s tempting. Because ultimately, this is all about getting our casualties from mobility down to precisely zero–and we have a lot more work to do on the car side than the transit side.  

Featured Image source: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/photos-from-amtrak-train-derailment-near-olympia/

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Why Are Train Museums Not Transit-Oriented?

By popular demand…

(79 likes!)

Here is Sandy’s look at how a genre of institution one would expect to be transit-oriented–train museums–in fact often fails that test. This piece is in part inspired by Cap’n Transit’s look at how many American rail factories are located in sprawly areas, in part by Trains Magazine writer Malcolm Kenton’s attempt to get to a rural museum without a car, and in part by my own musings and travels.

For the most part, the difficulty of reaching railroad museums by transit is reasonably understandable. Most American museums date to the postwar period, when a) railfanning became a serious hobby b) people had extra time on their hands and c) the rapid transition from steam to diesel locomotion and from dominance of rail travel to autocentrism set off alarms about the need for historical preservation. Often, museums–established in a mad scramble to preserve right-of-way and rolling stock, happened wherever they could. As a result, many are very rural. There are some, though, that are located in or on the fringe of major urban areas, and these could generally be trying harder to be transit-accessible. And there are others that could offer a basic connection to intercity or commuter trains, but haven’t even tried that.

The truth is, though, that if you read railfan boards (as I admittedly do sometimes), there’s also a serious suburban bias that goes with the generational territory of the folks who established these museums. Most of the founders became accustomed to transit and trains as a hobby or a profession, not an ethical or planning calling. For the most part, they think of accessibility in terms of cars. And surely NIMBYism and Euclidean zoning–as my friend and planner colleague Matt says, trains are “pretty much the definition of a nuisance”–have played their role. But enough speculation, let’s look at some museums! I’ve divided some thoughts I have into a few somewhat arbitrary categories.

Museums of My Childhood

Say what you will about Connecticut, it’s actually fairly rich in train museums!

  • Despite living across town in Westville, I virtually grew up at the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (one of the nation’s earliest and most influential museums), including having a birthday party there. Located along a short stretch of preserved interurban right-of-way, the museum is a few blocks from (very limited) bus service at the East Haven Green. It’s a doable trip if you’re willing to be patient with CTTransit’s extraordinarily crappy service.
  • The Naugatuck Railroad/Railroad Museum of New England operates out of Thomaston, 10 miles north of the end of a Metro-North branch in Waterbury. The bus that would cover the gap runs an extremely limited schedule and not at all on weekends, when museums do most of their business. There are some ownership and liability issues with making a connection, and service on the Waterbury branch is hit-or-miss, but the intervening line is operable and I’m frankly surprised no one has put forth the effort to make it work. It seems like a natural use of state economic development dollars in a downtrodden post-industrial area; it’s not too hard to imagine New Yorkers schlepping up to Waterbury to ride vintage trains.
  • The Danbury Railway Museum is located in the historic Danbury station, around the corner from the end of another Metro-North branch, and right next to downtown Danbury. Bravo!
  • The Essex Steam Train is the really infuriating one. Well-run as a partnership between a Friends group and a for-profit entity, it’s a high-profile regional tourist attraction with pretty deep pockets by train museum standards. And yet! The trains run from a station five miles north of the modern Old Saybrook station, served by Shore Line East and the occasional Amtrak train. Transit connections between them consist of “nope.” But there is still track connecting the stations–and it’s leased by the museum! Though not used in revenue service, it’s used for storing trains and moving occasional new acquisitions. There’s plenty of room around the wye at Old Saybrook for the museum to build a rudimentary station. Instead, the volunteer crews have been clearing brush to extend the museum’s operating segment north toward Middletown–a valiant effort, but perhaps making the museum transit-accessible would be a better one? How cool (and potentially lucrative) would the ability to market a cross-platform connection from a modern train to one hauled by (a Chinese-built imitation masquerading as) the last remaining New Haven Railroad steam locomotive?Old Saybrook (1)
  • I’ve never been to the Connecticut Trolley Museum at Warehouse Point, but they do have a bus collection, so here’s to hoping that when the planned Hartford Line station at Thompsonville in Enfield, a short drive away, opens, the museum will offer a shuttle service.  
  • I’ve only been to the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic once. Points for being near downtown and next to the Air Line trail I guess?

Now for some others…Many of these I’ve been to, some I haven’t, and I won’t claim it’s a representative selection. But this is my blog, so my selection and division of it can be arbitrary.

The Bad

  • The Illinois Railway Museum might be the best railroad museum in the country. Too bad it’s 90 minutes outside of Chicago with zero transit access.
  • National Capital Trolley Museum: more like National Spend All Your Capital to Get Here Trolley Museum.
  • The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum is an interesting, and potentially illustrative case. Currently located right on the waterfront in a touristy part of Portland, it’s in the process of moving almost 20 miles north to exurban Gray, where they’ll be able to expand operations–but at the expense of having to put the question “Will I be able to take the train all the way from Gray to Portland? No.” on their website.

Has Potential

  • Of personal interest, since my grandmother lives not far away, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris is currently essentially inaccessible by transit, but they’re in the middle of construction on the kind of cross-platform transfer to real transit that I’d love to see more of, with Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line in downtown Perris. They can’t do much about the terrible schedule, but hey, this is what I think more museums should be doing!

    Paul_at_the_track_pocket_sm

    The pocket track for OERM operations at Metrolink’s Perris station. Source: http://www.oerm.org/capital-campaigns/

  • The Niles Canyon Railway has some tenuous bus connections to BART’s Union City station, but a 2.5 mile extension along existing ROW would make a walking connection possible. Should ACE ever deign to run weekend service, there’s also the possibility of a connection at the other end of the line in Sunol.
  • The Trolley Museum of NY in Kingston gets points for being right next to the touristy Rondout area, but it would be helpful for transit-based tourists if they ran a shuttle over to the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff! Indeed, that trip is pretty roundabout by car, so perhaps the museum could strike a deal with one of the ferry companies that runs tourist trips out of the Rondout to make ferry runs.
  • The West Chester Railroad occupies the outer leg of what was once a commuter line whose inner sectors are still served by SEPTA. As I understand it, the entire line is still intact, although not necessarily authorized for passenger use. With SEPTA re-extending the Media/Elwyn line to Wawa (sidebar–are there any other train stations named after convenience stores?) perhaps the time is ripe to extend the museum trips and make the connection. SEPTA’s 104 bus–a former trolley line that, should the agency choose to use it, could still have a dedicated reservation in the middle of the West Chester Pike–runs to the end of the line in West Chester from 69th Street Terminal hourly on Sundays, which is not too terrible, but not great.

Pretty to Very Good

  • The Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers decent bus and LRT connections and is walkable from Penn Station.The walking path from the LRT connection could benefit from attention. Perhaps on weekends the dinky little LRT shuttle that serves the 1-stop Penn Station branch could turn around and run to North Ave. (which has a third track!) for a connection to the museum.
  • The California State Railroad Museum has to be one of the best, if not the best, train museums in the country for actual transit connections. Very close to the Sacramento LRT, buses, and even the Amtrak station.
  • The New York Transit Museum. Ok, too easy.

Connections to Intercity Rail

There are some museum operations–and in this case, I’m talking about more or less exclusively operating railroads–that have the potential to make connections not to urban transit but to intercity rail, but still don’t. You’d have to be making a special trip to make it out there, but at least it would be possible.

So what are the good examples?

Generally speaking, it seems like train museums–or “heritage railways,” as they’re often known–in other countries do a better job connecting to actual transit than in this country. Some examples:

And a few suggestions from the peanut gallery:

Oh, and there’s one more example to think about:

The Mattapan Line

Ashmont_Mattapan_streetcar_in_woods

By Derek Yu – DJY_2075, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25519303

Just kidding.

Conclusions

Most railroad museums operate on a pretty shoestring budget, and I’ve suggested a few capital investments that are most likely out of the range of realistic budgets. Is it the role of government to help out here? Maybe. There are certainly worse ways to spend economic development dollars. Train museums can play an important role in transit education, and making them transit-accessible is an important part of their future (there’s a crying need to bring in new, diverse blood while the postwar generation ages out), while keeping them inaccessible via transit sends the message that the history and technology featured there is just that, history, and nothing more. For transit agencies, working with museums could be both a way to connect to heritage and potentially a way to grow ridership on weekends. Is there a future here? It’s hard to tell, but many of the disconnects I’ve identified in my illustrative examples here are low-hanging fruit. Let’s think about how to pluck them.

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.

Social Stratification in American Transit

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten anything up here. Sorry!

The idea that public transit comes with class and racial connotations in the American imagination is hardly new or surprising. That the desire to avoid “those people” has long driven aspects of US transportation policy is hardly a new suggestion; many people who drive to work cite the desire to be alone or to avoid “crowded” or “smelly” transit vehicles as driving (pun intended) their decision-making. Fights over supporting transit with class and racial overtones are common. As Cap’n Transit points out, the driver/transit rider divide is the fundamental stratification of American transportation policy–and it’s clear who’s on top.

But there’s also stratification within our transit system. And we don’t talk about it enough.

It’s been that way for a long time. I recently found this 1975 article by Paul Barrett in the Business History Review, titled “Public Policy and Private Choice: Mass Transit and the Automobile in Chicago between the Wars.” It contains a particularly striking passage about the social stratification of transit in Chicago:

But here is another reason why the status connotations of mass transit per se should not be overemphasized. Chicago’s mass transit system had long provided ample opportunity for skittish riders to choose the character of their fellow travelers. As early as the 1880s one South Side woman, complaining of the lack of “heating” straw on the floors of streetcars, observed to the Tribune that “the rich have their [Illinois Central commuter] trains to ride.” And early streetcar routings took class into account, as Northwest Side community leader Tomaz Deuther discovered when he asked Chicago Railways president John Roach to send cars directly down State Street from Deuther’s working class neighborhood. “You can’t mix silk stockings with picks and shovels,” Roach replied. Deuther was satisfied and marked Roach down as an honest man. As late as 1947 patrons in many districts could choose among streetcar, elevated, interurban, boulevard bus, and commuter railroad service for a trip to the CBD. Each line had its own fare structure and routing and, we may assume, its distinctive clientele. In short, the argument that aversion to class mixing helped to kill mass transportation must be considered in the context of the unique transit system each city developed for itself by means of local policy decisions.

Barrett’s point is that analysts should not assume mass transit declined in the postwar years mainly because of social mixing, since it was frequently already stratified. I think he is, to some extent, wrong–the explosion of suburbanization and sprawl in the postwar era created (indeed, was premised on) new forms of exclusion–but the point that we shouldn’t idealize the egalitarian nature of some prewar transit systems stands.

And here’s the thing: it’s still like that in a lot of places. The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union has long been vocal that LA Metro’s expansion of the rail network prioritizes a small cadre of white riders over the system’s much more numerous bus ridership, which is heavily composed of people of color. The point that capital spending on rail expansion ignores or even hurts the majority of a transit system’s riders has a lot of validity (arguably more in non-LA contexts, actually), but also lacks significant nuance–Metro’s last biannual onboard survey found that while twice as many white people ride trains as buses, the respective percentages are only 9% and 18%.

But there are other examples. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend, and took the opportunity to ride one of the nation’s most interesting transit operations, the Norristown High Speed Line. The High Speed Line is interesting not just for its unique combination of technology, but because it parallels and complements other SEPTA routes, in particular the Regional Rail Paoli/Thorndale Line (the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, which has lent its name to the corridor of wealthy suburbs along it) and the ex-Reading Norristown/Manayunk Line. Norristown, a struggling collar city, is served both by the High Speed Line and the Regional Rail route–and the social stratification of the services is clear.  As I rode the NHSL, Stephen Smith educated me about the line’s social aspects:

Because of a suspicious object under the NHSL viaduct, we ended up taking Regional Rail rather than the NHSL back to Center City. Midday, Regional Rail runs at hourly headways, while the High Speed Line runs every twenty minutes. NHSL is a premium service relative to other SEPTA rapid transit services, with a base fare of $2.75–but a Regional Rail fare from Norristown, which is in Zone 3, is $5.75, and $7.00 if purchased on the train. And the Regional Rail ticket office is only open until 12:45 weekdays, and not at all on weekends, meaning you have to pay the higher fare at those times, period.

20160115_115557.jpg

NHSL trains and a SEPTA bus at Norristown Transit Center. Regional Rail station to the left. 

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A Regional Rail train approaches Norristown Transit Center

Indeed, though diverse, the (small) crowd that ended up on our Regional Rail train was clearly better-dressed and more professional-looking than the NHSL clientele.

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

For example, there’s been a ton of talk in the Boston area about cuts to the MBTA–but, while expansion may be slowed some, there’s been little talk of cuts to commuter rail, even though it’s by far the most highly subsidized of the agency’s modes on a per-ride basis:

In a nutshell, this is why my senior paper research focuses on making commuter rail more egalitarian. The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upstate Must Earn “Parity”

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have finally come to agreement on the scope (though not every detail of funding for) the 2015-2019 MTA capital program. So, naturally, Upstate politicians are again beating the drum of “parity,” demanding an equal amount of capital spending on transportation infrastructure (mainly, of course, roads) Upstate. There’s only one problem.

Upstate doesn’t deserve the funding. Yet.

“Parity” is a problematic concept when it comes to New York State infrastructure spending in any case, implying as it does that the needs of the New York City region and Upstate are somehow equivalent. They’re not. The MTA estimates that its service area contains 15.2 million people; even if we subtract 1.8 million people to account for the inclusion of Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, that’s still approximately 69% of the entire state’s population. New York City alone accounts for between 8 and 9 million of those people. Logically given that population density, NYC’s rapid growth, and the region’s economic success, Downstate taxes heavily underpin state activities Upstate. A world of real parity would reduce that spending, something that few Upstate politicians (or voters) seem to understand. As such, as Cap’n Transit pointed out a few years ago, requests for “parity” are really a demand for various politicians to be able to steer state funds to pet areas, modes, projects, and (this being New York, after all) people.

But the reality of the financial landscape of New York State isn’t the only reason leadership should resist Upstate demands for help with infrastructure funding. Upstate’s been hit hard by economic restructuring in the last couple of decades, and I’m certainly OK with some level of subsidy being extracted from Downstate to pay for ongoing revitalization efforts here. But as an Upstate resident (albeit a recent arrival), I’ve come to appreciate another reason Upstate doesn’t deserve transportation infrastructure spending parity: its inability to control sprawl and create an efficient framework for provision of public services, even as the region’s population shrinks.

It’s not news that by and large Upstate continues to shrink even as NYC and its region grows. That shrinkage is, of course, in and of itself a reason that Upstate shouldn’t receive large amounts of capital funding; it should be focusing on maintaining existing infrastructure, not building new things. What people from Downstate and elsewhere don’t appreciate as much sometimes, I think, is the extent to which Upstate continues to sprawl even as its population declines.

That’s the subject of one of Aaron Renn’s most striking posts (from 2011, well before I knew I was moving Upstate), as well as a 2003 Brookings report titled “Sprawl Without Growth: the Upstate Paradox.”  Though a few Upstate areas, including the Capital District, are growing (even if typically at anemic rates), even in those regions sprawl has outpaced the rate of growth. The Capital District’s pattern is typical. As the local MPO, CDTC, laid out in their new regional transportation plan draft, despite slow growth the region has basically merged into one “urbanized” (really, suburbanized) area stretching from Albany’s southern suburbs all the way to Glens Falls and Lake George.

CDTC New Visions 2040

CDTC New Visions 2040

No one has done better work showing the costs of this kind of development than Charles Marohn and the team at Strong Towns. Their series on the “Growth Ponzi Scheme”  lays out the ways in which sprawl–especially in declining or economically weak areas–becomes a millstone around the necks of local government, demanding ever-greater maintenance spending, as well as facilitating a mindset that thinks the solution is yet more capital spending regardless of economic realities. That describes the broken cycle in Upstate pretty damn well.

“But Sandy,” you say! “We can’t just leave Upstate to suffer a slow economic death, strangled by the decline of American manufacturing and the forces of globalization.” And I agree! There’s absolutely a place for capital spending on infrastructure Upstate; I even wish the state were a little more aggressive about it. But the money must be spent in the right places and in the right ways. That means fundamentally changing the realities of planning and development Upstate to conserve sparse governmental resources and allow efficient ongoing spending into the future. It means curbing sprawl, which sucks dollars out to the perimeter and demands an ever-growing amount of spending, and reinvesting in cities , whose infrastructure already exists. It means an end to resource-agnostic demands for spending billions on objectively wasteful projects like the “Rooftop Highway” in the North Country or tunneling I-81 in Syracuse (a consideration that DOT officials had rejected as absurd, but added back into the alternatives process at the insistence of local stakeholders).

And more than anything, Upstate needs to earn infrastructure investment by articulating a positive vision for fiscally responsible growth (or decline, as it may be) that upends the currently dominant “way we’ve always done it” mentality and begins a movement toward adapting to the new shape of the American economy. That means dropping the territorialism and learning to work with major global concentrations of intellectual and financial capital like New York City and Toronto, to which Upstate just so happens to be adjacent. If (as) housing prices in those markets continue to skyrocket, Upstate stands a good chance of skimming off some overflow–but only if attitudes and development patterns change.

Of course, part of the problem Upstate faces is its geographic isolation. And that’s where I’ll live up to the obligation I’m placing on Upstate to articulate a positive vision for a new framework for transportation and development. What’s the “parity” I envision for Upstate, given the state’s investment in the MTA? How about building out true high-speed rail (HSR) along what’s now called the Empire Corridor, from Albany to Buffalo? Alon took a close look at NYC-Toronto HSR a while back, and has taken the Cuomo administration to task for its lack of interest in the project. For the record, I concur in the judgment that the current administration has probably chosen to sandbag proposals for real HSR in the corridor, and that the “alternatives” analyzed are somewhat absurd.

Current politics aside, the demand for parity and an HSR project actually fit together fairly well. The overall investment in the current MTA capital program is about $29 billion, all but $3.2 billion of which will come from the state and the MTA’s own funds (which are, as much as Cuomo’s people like to deny it, state funds). Even at the inflated prices sometimes quoted for the California HSR project, that’s either just about enough or almost enough to build a full-scale HSR line from Albany to Buffalo, plus upgrading the existing Hudson line for faster, electrified trains. (though it will never be a true HSR line because all those curves that make it so pretty) A few billion more–most of which would be paid by Ontario–would bring the line to Toronto.

Imagine Buffalo, and Syracuse, and Rochester being 2-3 hours from NYC by train. Right now, there are a few unreliable trains per day, plus buses. Air service is massively expensive and spotty. HSR would give people and firms in those cities quick access to the red-hot markets in NYC and Toronto, and likely even bring some transplants looking for a slower pace of life and more affordability back. That would be a positive vision, one worth spending “parity” money on. Let’s change how things work up here. Then we’ll deserve that parity.

 

Don’t Talk About the North-South Rail Link without Context

Boston’s North-South Rail Link is in the news again. And while blog readers know I think the project should have been finished a century ago, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m a big fan of the idea, I’m a little frustrated with the way dialogue about it seems to be going.

The current round of NSRL discussion was set off by former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, who penned an op/ed in the Boston Globe arguing against the Baker administration’s plans for expanding North and South Stations and for building NSRL instead. Perhaps Dukakis and Weld are working through some of their own culpability for not getting the project built as part of the Big Dig, as originally planned; regardless, I certainly agree with them that expanding the dead-end terminal stations is utterly foolish and wasteful.

I also, however, agree with some of Gabrielle Gurley’s rejoinder in Commonwealth Magazine, which argues that Dukakis and Weld’s piece failed to factor in the realistic politics of taxation and spending in Massachusetts, or present a realistic plan for building the very expensive tunnel. Gurley’s piece is far from perfect–she lumps NSRL, a project that would massively increase system efficiency, with South Coast Rail, a boondoggle that continues in the T’s long tradition of overengineered, efficiency-sucking outward expansions–but she does have a point that the politics of spending on large infrastructure projects are tricky at best. Boston has had some traumatic experiences with massive infrastructure projects, and the T’s problems with project management are both well-known and ongoing.

Dukakis is nothing if not determined, though, and he wrote back to Commonwealth, arguing the Gurley’s math had failed to take operational savings and new ridership into account:

And third – a point your piece totally misses – because the thousands of new passengers will produce approximately $120 million dollars a year in new passenger revenue and $80 million in maintenance savings. And that doesn’t even factor in the “value added” that will come from private leasing and development along the route, some portion of which can be captured as additional revenue.

Those combined funds will support a 20-year bond issue that can pay for the project. That is why it will be far easier to win public support for the project and why your column today totally misses this key point.

Dukakis’ numbers (he seems to assume a project cost of $4.4 billion) may or may not be accurate; it seems to me that he states them with far too much certainty for a project that hasn’t been extensively studied in at least 10 years. What bothers me is that both he and Gurley treat NSRL as if it’s a a standalone project. It’s not, and it can’t be.

Currently, the entire MBTA commuter network–even the Providence line that runs under Amtrak-owned catenary–runs traditional (for America) commuter rail trains consisting of a diesel locomotive and towed coaches. Diesels won’t work in a long tunnel, for obvious ventilation reasons, so any NSRL will of course be electrified. Some past studies have assumed that the MBTA and Amtrak would switch to using dual-mode locomotives on some or all lines once a tunnel is built, but that’s kind of nuts; while New Jersey Transit uses dual-modes in regular service, they’re heavy, slow to accelerate, and inefficient. Realistically (and desirably in terms of service efficiency, quality, and reliability), large-scale or complete electrification of the MBTA network must accompany NSRL.

And that’s a good thing! Electric trains are faster, quieter, and more reliable. Electrifying the whole network and treating it like a regional rapid transit system would be a huge boost to mobility for the Boston area. But it also adds considerable expense to the NSRL project. Alon ballparked a figure of $1.5 billion for complete electrification in his post on the topic. Amtrak’s New Haven-Boston electrification was contracted at $2.3 million per double-track route-mile, though Paul (and others) think the final number was higher. $3 million per route-mile seems reasonable; you might save some on single-track sections (although the underlying infrastructure is the expensive part), and save in other places. Using the $3m/mile number, and excluding the already-electrified Providence Line (though that line, as F-Line points out, would need upgrades to the electrical infrastructure because of Amtrak’s cheapness), I come up with a number lower than Alon’s, just under $1 billion: (information from here)

Line Route-Miles Cost @ $3 m/route-mile
Newburyport/Rockport 34.9 104.7
Gloucester Branch 16.8 50.4
Haverhill 32.1 96.3
Lowell 24.5 73.5
Wildcat Branch 3 9
Fitchburg 48.8 146.4
Worcester 44.3 132.9
Needham 9.3 27.9
Franklin 27.4 82.2
Stoughton 4.6 13.8
Fairmount 9.2 27.6
Middleboro 35 105
Greenbush 17.3 51.9
Kingston/Plymouth 24.2 72.6
Total 331.4 $994.2

At a minimum, we can say that complete electrification will add $1 billion to the cost of NSRL, and quite likely more. There are ways to reduce that number; most transit pundits think the Needham Branch should be converted to an extension of the Orange Line, and you might not bother electrifying Kingston and Greenbush because of low ridership. On the other hand, Amtrak might want to electrify the all the way to Portland and convert the Downeasters into Regional extensions.

Lest anyone accusing me of scaremongering, I will clarify that electrification of the MBTA system is something that should happen regardless. This is especially true of the South Side network, which persists in the bizarre situation of running aging, slow, unreliable diesels under catenary on the Providence line. It’s about bringing an aging system into the last century. But it needs to be part of the conversation on NSRL–both because of the additional costs and because making the case for NSRL should be only part of making a comprehensive case for modernizing the whole MBTA system. 

Electrification, of course, comes with additional costs. The biggest is rolling stock. By my count, based on Wikipedia, the current MBTA commuter rail fleet has almost 67,000 seats split among 457 or so coaches. Depending on configuration, Metro-North’s M8 EMUs seat about 110 people, meaning you’d need over 600 equivalent units to replicate existing MBTA fleet capacity. At $2.54 million per unit for the initial M8 order, that’s over $1.5 billion to buy EMUs. Things could get a little cheaper; Metro-North is clearance-limited by the Park Avenue Tunnel, whereas MBTA uses a large number of bilevel coaches and NSRL would presumably be built to clear them. The newest (only?) US bilevel EMUs, Metra’s Highliners, cost $3.6 million per unit, and seat 128 (not that great a capacity improvement over single-level coaches, because Metra’s gallery-car setup sucks–MBTA bilevels seat up to 185). MBTA could also choose to buy electric locomotives to haul the existing coach stock.

The final major expense that might accompany NSRL is the cost of building high-level platforms at all, or almost all, MBTA stations. Many already have them; it’s just good practice. Most of the MBTA network sees little or no freight traffic, so clearances really should not be considered an issue. Having level boarding is especially important at outlying stations when all trains are running through a constrained central segment such as a tunnel, and thus must keep to exacting slots. I count 132 stations on MBTA lines that might need high-level platforms; I’m too lazy to look up how many already have them like I did for the Morris & Essex Lines, and how many stations have 1 as opposed to 2 platforms. Cost estimates for high-levels vary; somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million per platform seems reasonable, while MBTA’s fairly simple new Fairmount Line stations cost $6.9-$9.4 million each. If each of the 132 stations costs $5 million for a high-level platform, the total cost would be $660 million; if it’s more like $9.4 as on Fairmount, it would be $1.2 billion. The actual number would likely be somewhere in the middle. 

For the record, Dukakis’ estimate of $4.4 billion in tunnel construction costs seems reasonable if (a HUGE if) the project is managed correctly. Though he and Weld failed to get the tunnel included in the Big Dig, despite it being included in the initial plans at various points, the construction did leave “slurry walls’ underneath the freeway tunnel that make future tunneling easy. The real complication is the need to construct portals for various lines, winding them between many layers of infrastructure. Including my estimates here, the costs of a modernized MBTA rail system would be:

$4.4 billion for the NSRL tunnel

+

$1 billion for electrification

+

$1.5 billion for new rolling stock

+

$900 million (roughly splitting the difference) for high-level platforms

=

a total of $7.8 billion for complete modernization. 

That might be optimistic; one cannot count on the T to manage projects well, and the projected electrification costs may well be low. But it should be fairly comprehensive.

I’ve just spent 1,300 words talking about how expensive it would be to build NSRL and the other improvements it requires. The final number is truly massive, almost twice what Dukakis seems to assume in his recent writing. And yet, I’m doing this as a fan of the NSRL project. Why? Because not acknowledging the true price of the project also risks obscuring its true benefits. Seeking to win over opponents by minimizing the projected cost of NSRL isn’t going to work; Americans are too paranoid about government spending for that.

It’s very easy for skeptics to point to a multibillion dollar price tag and compare the NSRL project to disasters like the Big Dig. But there’s a key difference: the Big Dig represented a choice for path dependence, for continuing Boston’s dependence on highways at massive cost. It was the natural next step for the highway network, representing a relatively minor improvement in functionality–and a major improvement in aesthetics. But it didn’t provide a new function the road network had never provided before. By contrast, NSRL would be revolutionary, not evolutionary. It’s not “just a tunnel,” and if you’re having the discussion on the grounds that it is, you’ve already lost. Proponents of NSRL need to talk about it in terms of its potential to truly transform the entire system, and that means detailing all of the additional functionality that NSRL can provide–and acknowledging its cost.

Notes on Boston-Springfield Service

Readers of this blog know I have a particular interest in intercity rail in New England stemming from growing up in New Haven. So when Eitan Kensky sent me a February presentation I hadn’t previously seen from the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI, not to be confused with the Northern New England Regional Rail Association, or NNEPRA, which runs the Downeaster), I was seriously intrigued. There have been numerous efforts over the years to revive the Inland Regional service that Amtrak and predecessors once ran between Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, and this document presents the general outline of the group’s current vision for the return of such service. Much of the research seems to have been done by contractors HDR, and the predominant vision is clearly that of MassDOT, with secondary input from Vermont and other stakeholders.

NNEIRI study area map

NNEIRI study area map

Massachusetts has, of late, been focused on two major goals for non-Northeast Corridor intercity rail: a link to Montreal and restoration of Inland Regional service. The current study (logically) links these two together. Tough previous service to Montreal has run along the Central Vermont line, turning off the Boston & Albany at Palmer to serve Amherst before heading north through Vermont, the current vision has Boston-Montreal service using the recently rehabbed Connecticut River Line from Springfield to Greenfield before continuing north. It’s a little bit longer, but serves Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield instead of just Amherst, and takes advantage of the state-owned Conn River trackage.

The predominant challenge to intercity rail in New England is that the trackage is in most places exceptionally curvy. The build alternatives envisioned for the NNEIRI service thus focused on regular-speed trains, with no ambitious plans for even moderate-speed (110 mph) options. It’s important to remember that “maximum speed” here means Maximum Authorized Speed, or MAS, rather than average speed. On curvy legacy tracks the trains are unlikely to obtain the maximum speeds for very long stretches, given FRA restrictions on tilt for conventional equipment (although the 90 mph MAS alternative does make brief mention of the possibility of acquiring tilt equipment).

Table of service alternatives

Table of service alternatives

A Boston-to-Springfield time of right around 2 hours would be extremely competitive with driving, which is about an hour and a half without traffic (yeah, right) and realistically usually at least a half-hour longer. It’s also about the same time as Peter Pan’s bus offerings, but a train would presumably offer a much higher level of comfort and reliability.

Costs would fall in the billion to billion and a half range for the bottom two alternatives, which seems on the high end for relatively simple double-tracking work within an existing right-of-way; I assume most of the capital expenses would be on the Vermont sections, since the B&A right of way is built to accommodate at least two tracks.

nneiri costs

Overall, the conclusion seems to have been that bumping MAS from 79 to 90 mph would result in considerable extra expense with little time saved or gain in ridership. The study team’s Draft Build Alternative is a modified Alt 2, with 79 mph MAS and slightly fewer trains:

draft build alternative

Eight trains per day would run through from New Haven to Boston, a kind of mini-Inland Regional service. These trains would function as extensions of the current New Haven-Springfield shuttle service. There would be one round-trip per day from Boston to Montreal, and another from New Haven to Montreal, while the Vermonter would continue as it currently operates, with an extension to Montreal. Springfield would get 9 round trips per day to Boston, and presumably the New Haven-Montreal train would have a timed connection with a westbound Boston-New Haven train at Springfield, giving Boston in effect two daily round trips to Montreal.

All trains are envisioned to make all local stops, which is interesting to me; I would have run the Inland Regional/shuttles as expresses in Connecticut, stopping only at Hartford. As it is, the additional 9 corridor trips will provided important added frequency to the NHHS/Hartford Line service that should be beginning in 2016. A 2011 NHHS document envisions full cross-ticketing between NHHS and shuttle/Regional trains, and the boost from NHHS’ 25-32 trains per day at launch to 34-41 including the corridor services is nothing to sniff at. However, that many trains would clearly require Connecticut to finish double-tracking the Hartford Line between Hartford and Springfield. That task isn’t itself all that complex but has been deferred to Phase II of the NHHS project (though it is included in Governor Malloy’s 5-year transportation ramp-up plan) because of the  considerable expense of rehabbing the Union Station viaduct in Hartford–which is, somewhat amazingly, believed to no longer be able to hold two trains at once–and the bridge over the Connecticut River.

Interestingly, study staff clearly believe that Springfield-Boston service alone would be a poor use of resources, labeling it “Low Ridership” and “Ineffective and Costly.” As Alex Marshall pointed out on Twitter, much of the envisioned ridership to New Haven is surely people from Worcester or the Metro West region who want a two-seat ride into New York City without doubling back into Boston to catch an NEC train.

Likewise, the study labeled plain Boston-Montreal service “Low Ridership,” while noting the potential for higher ridership in the New Haven-Montreal corridor. Despite decades of pleading for Montreal service, planners still seem to believe that Boston doesn’t quite deserve it. That’s not particularly surprising to me given how slow such service would be and how sparse population is along the corridors between the two cities. So for now, there will likely be just the one round trip per day, plus the possibility of a two-seat ride via transfer in Springfield, and that situation seems likely to stay the same for quite a while.

Other notes

Finish the Cross

As currently planned, the NNEIRI system looks like a sideways T, with the long axis pointing to Boston. I’m on record as a (self-interested) proponent of Albany-Boston service, and I think some of the improvements proposed here strengthen the case for finishing off a cross-shaped network with trains from Boston to Pittsfield and Albany. Double-tracking the Boston Line from Worcester to Springfield would leave less than 100 miles of single track from Springfield to Albany (it’s 102 track-miles, but there are existing sidings and stretches of multiple track). If trains can do Boston-Springfield in 2 hours, a time of 4 hours to Albany should be eminently achievable even without much in the way of speed improvements. With significant speed improvements (most of the line west of Springfield is limited to 40-50 mph, even though the trackage west of Pittsfield isn’t all that curvy or steep) a time in the 3:30 range–which my previous post identified as the time necessary to be competitive–should be achievable. That would open up the possibility of Boston-Toronto service via the Erie Canal corridor cities–a potential market for an overnight train?

Boston Line Capacity

One of the major ongoing dramas in New England intercity rail has been CSX’ reluctance to share the ex-B&A right-of-way with passenger service. Given current constraints, it is somewhat understandable; it’s a steep, curvy line that has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance (yes, part of that is CSX’ fault, but the neglect predates CSX ownership). CSX runs 25-30 trains per day on the line, which approaches the capacity of a mixed-use single-track line, even one equipped with advanced (by freight rail standards) CTC signaling:

From NCHRP Report 773

From NCHRP Report 773, “Capacity Modeling Guidebook for Shared-Use Passenger and Freight Rail Operations”

Double-tracking the line, however, offers enormous potential, jumping the capacity from an estimated 30 trains per day to 75. In other words, CSX could double current traffic–a situation no one sees as being around the corner in New England–and there would still be 15 slots per day for passenger traffic. More realistically, a fully double-tracked B&A could easily accommodate 40 freights, the 8 proposed Inland Regional trips, 6-8 trips to Albany, and the Lake Shore Limited–a total of under 60 trains per day west of Worcester.  Of course, fully double-tracking the line requires the states of Massachusetts and New York to cooperate, and the Cuomo administration has shown little interest in efficient passenger rail.

Pessimistic SPG-NHV times

The table of travel times above envisions a trip time of 1:40 from Springfield to New Haven given all local stops. This seems somewhat pessimistic to me, as the current shuttles and Vermonter are scheduled for 1:20 to 1:30 over the same route; perhaps the longer time takes into account that a few stops will be added under the NHHS scheme, but those should be counterbalanced by improved track speeds; it’s not a big deal, but I’m somewhat confused.

Who’s going to operate it?

Most commentary I’ve seen has assumed that any extension of rail service from Boston to Springfield would be operated by the MBTA. Running the trains through to New Haven would seem to preclude that possibility. Amtrak would seem the most logical choice, but the northeast state haven’t been thrilled with it of late; Connecticut, for example has opened the NHHS service to a bid competition. The NNEIRI network is an extremely complex system, involving at least three states, plus the province of Quebec and federal authorities regulating border crossings, the private railroads owning the tracks, and various other stakeholders. So perhaps now is the time to revive my call for a unified Northeastern passenger rail authority.