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.



Towards a Shore Line Metro

My home state (I lived in New Haven for 9 years as a kid) of Connecticut has been making some halting, slow positive moves towards better transit, and they’re starting to add up to something. All four tracks of the New Haven Line are close to being back in service after extensive work (except in the remaining three-track gap between Devon and Woodmont, see below); the Waterbury Branch may be getting signals and more trains; New Haven will soon have all-day half-hourly service to Grand Central Terminal; the CTFastrak busway between Hartford and New Britain should open in March; and the revamped, albeit imperfect, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter/intercity service should roll out at the end of 2016. And now, Governor Dannel Malloy has come up with state funding for two more stations, the long-discussed Bridgeport Barnum and Orange, on the New Haven Line.

The utility or lack thereof of those two stations is up for debate, but I want to highlight another aspect of their addition to the New Haven Line. With the other two recent infill stations, Fairfield Metro Center and West Haven, there are now 21 stations (including the endpoints) in the 46 route-miles between Port Chester and New Haven, or on average one station every 2.19 miles. With the additions of Barnum and Orange, there will be 23, or exactly one station for every two miles. Though few trains make all local stops, that stop spacing is rapidly dropping toward that of a spaced-out urban rapid transit line, rather than a “commuter rail” system. And that, I think, offers a great opportunity to transform the New Haven Line into something unique in the US, an interurban regional rail system with a focus on moving people not just to and from New York City, but within Connecticut as well.

Here’s the thing about the Connecticut Shoreline region: while its economy and culture are intricately and inextricably linked to New York City, it is not a pure bedroom region. The region’s older cities–New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stamford–all have an economic identity and gravity of their own (though Bridgeport’s can be kinda hard to figure out), and Stamford has evolved into something of an Edge City, attracting corporations fleeing the costs of Manhattan and pulling in commuters from its own hinterlands. In fact, only a relatively small proportion of people living in the Shoreline region commute to New York City. 61.60% of employees in New Haven County work in the same county; Fairfield County takes second place with 16.10%, and only 1.10% of New Haven County employees, or 4,150, work in Manhattan; the other NYC boroughs and Westchester add about 3,000 people. Fairfield County follows the same pattern; 67.7% of employed residents work within the county, and another 9.2% work in New Haven County, with only 6.2%, or 24,086, work in Manhattan. 4.5% (17,514) work just across the border in Westchester County, and the other NYC boroughs have 0.4% each, or around 4,500 workers total. Full numbers (from Census LEHD data) are included here:

So, the Shoreline towns share closer economic links to each other than they do to New York City, but Metro-North’s rail operations are, somewhat inevitably, still quite NYC-centric. This is to some extent justifiable; people commuting to Manhattan from Connecticut are obviously way more likely to travel by transit than people commuting within the highly suburbanized Shoreline region. Yet, the Shoreline does have a core of transit-friendly, somewhat dense cities and towns linked along the New Haven Line, and it’s not just Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven; Greenwich, Norwalk, Darien, Fairfield, Stratford, and Milford all have downtowns that are close to the train station and walkable or potentially walkable. The region also suffers from an insufficient transit system, aside from Metro-North (or including it, depending on who you ask!). Jobs, especially those in the service sector, are heavily suburbanized, making job access by transit for disadvantaged populations especially difficult. Given the close intra-regional economic links, and the close station spacing along the New Haven Line, using the trackage for frequent transit-like service makes a hell of a lot of sense.

Of course, I’m far from the first person to advocate this approach. Just to highlight one take, Alon Levy included the New Haven Line in his series on a regional rail system for New York on The Transport Politic. Rather than preserving an NYC-centric approach, though, I want to focus on the New Haven Line’s potential for intra-Connecticut journeys. The true difficulties of such a transition lie in operating practices and labor costs; the only capital investment I truly see as necessary is the replacement of the previous fourth track between Devon (the junction where the Waterbury Branch joins the main) and Woodmont interlocking, the only stretch that doesn’t currently have all four tracks active and electrified. That would also require the replacement of the NYC-bound platform at Milford, which sits on the former fourth trackway, but that platform is short anyhow and should probably be replaced. I’d also argue that, long-term, the New Haven maintenance facilities should be shifted to the old Cedar Hill freight yard north of New Haven, allowing all trains to run through both New Haven Union Station and the downtown State Street Station rather than turning, and opening the current land up for development.

RPA/Getting Back on Track Report

RPA/Getting Back on Track Report

In any case, running trains every 15 or 20 minutes shouldn’t be a problem even given current infrastructure; trains already run that frequently during rush hour. Though the half-hourly trains between New Haven and NYC are a start, I’d like to see those trains become what Metro-North calls “super expresses,” stopping only at Bridgeport, South Norwalk, and Stamford, with another 2 trains every hour running local between New Haven and Stamford and between Stamford and Grand Central. That would give the major stations service every 15 minutes all day, and considerably shorten running times between the major cities. Obviously, that’s just a start; I see no reason that once the four-track gap is closed and the signaling improved (and perhaps the power system improved some) the line shouldn’t be able to handle four locals and two expresses per hour.

There is one more element to my plan for improving transit along the Shoreline. Here in Albany, the local transit agency operates a successful limited-stop bus service, BusPlus, linking Albany and Schenectady along Route 5, the region’s major commercial axis. The buses, soon to be running every 12 minutes during weekday hours, have improved ridership in the corridor, cover the 15.5 or so miles in around an hour, carrying about 4,000 riders per day.

CDTA BusPlus (Route 905)

CDTA BusPlus (Route 905)

The concept of a limited-stop bus service linking close-together major cities along a major suburban arterial would, I think, be a perfect approach for transit supplementary to the New Haven Line along the Shoreline. The Shoreline even has its own counterpart to Route 5, the famous Boston Post Road (US 1). A tertiary through-route (since it parallels both I-95 and the Merritt Parkway) along the Shoreline, the Post Road has instead taken on an identity as the region’s main commercial drag. It’s a (fairly depressing) 50-mile-long cluster of mini-malls, full-scale malls, big-box stores, and the other stuff that accumulates along a suburban commercial arterial, but it does hit all of the region’s major towns, and intersects with the New Haven Line at multiple points.

CDTA's plan for an extended BusPlus network (Red Line currently in operation)

CDTA’s plan for an extended BusPlus network (Red Line currently in operation)

Obviously the Shoreline is too long to be served by one bus service along the Post Road (and such a service would be redundant with the rail service anyhow), but I’d argue that splitting the stretch between Port Chester and New Haven into three segments makes sense. These links exist, to some extent, already, though they’re quite fractured; CTTransit operates (different) infrequent buses in both directions out of Stamford, Norwalk Transit operates a relatively frequent service (somewhat randomly) through Bridgeport to Milford, and CTTransit picks up again there. I’d like to see these services upgraded to an Arterial Rapid Transit standard, with signal preemption, turn and intersection pockets, nice stations, and fare integration with Metro-North. Split into three sections, each service wouldn’t be much longer than the BusPlus service, and though Post Road traffic is heavier than anything in the Capital District, the buses should be able to stay on time with decent scheduling and some signal help. The point of the buses wouldn’t be to carry people between the cities, but to distribute riders to local destinations from train stations, and to improve access to jobs along the Post Road from the urban cores. In essence, an ART system along the Post Road would be the local to the New Haven Line’s express service. Here’s a map:

The exact routings and boundaries of the bus services are only approximate. You could make the case that stopping a (long) block away from the train station in Stamford, rather than going right into it is good enough. Norwalk is also an awkward situation; should buses terminating there serve both the South Norwalk train station and downtown Norwalk? Nor have I accounted for the presence of trains coming off of the branches to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury; and I’ve included a speculative re-routing of trains through downtown New Haven to turn at Cedar Hill. There are other infrastructure aspects of the line that need significant attention, especially the numerous movable bridges. But the overall structure, I think, is solid. The Shore Line Metro would be a relatively low-investment, non-capital-intensive way to create regionwide non-automotive mobility. It would involve service and fare integration between agencies, regional planning cooperation, and various other things American planning tends not to be too good at, but the payoff could be tremendous.

The Windsor Gardens Experiment

In the Boston suburb of Norwood, MA, there is a commuter rail stop called Windsor Gardens. It’s a pretty unassuming place, a single low platform on a single-track segment of the Franklin Line that sees 13 inbound trains per day.

There is one thing that’s unusual about the Windsor Gardens station amidst the MBTA’s constellation of park-and-ride oriented suburban stations: it has no parking. Instead, Windsor Gardens is intended to serve the residents of its namesake apartment community, The Berkshires at Windsor Gardens, a relatively upscale 1960s-era development with prices in the $1,000-$2,000 range.  Though I haven’t been able to get an answer from the administrative office about how many people live in Windsor Gardens, the Norwood town history site notes that when opened it had “approximately one thousand units,” and the relevant census block, which includes a few additional houses, listed a population of 2,004 people in 2010.

Windsor Gardens at center.

Windsor Gardens at center.

The MBTA commuter rail system has some stunningly low-ridership stops, and one might expect that a station serving a single development, with no parking available for people who don’t live in that development, would be among them. Instead, according to the 2014 MBTA Blue Book (2013 data) Windsor Gardens ridership–inbound only, the way MBTA measures it–was 624 riders per day.

624 isn’t a huge number–the top-performing stations in the MBTA commuter rail system see around 2,000-2,500 inbound boardings per day–but it IS a big number in the context of a station that essentially serves one development and provides no parking for commuters. For the record, there appears to be no (legal, at least) pedestrian access to Windsor Gardens station from the east side of the tracks, and while it’s possible some commuters walk into the station from the subdivisions across Route 1A, that number seems unlikely to be large, and a private apartment community seems unlikely to welcome strangers tromping through it every day.

Windsor Gardens’ ridership numbers haven’t always been quite this robust; the Blue Book’s chart of ridership censuses over the last five years demonstrates:

April 13 Nov. ‘12 Nov. ‘11 Nov. ‘10 Feb. ‘09 Feb. ‘08 Jun. ‘07
 624   464  423  414   313  454   309

Ridership does appear to be recovering with the economy, and in 2013 it was twice what it was in June of 2007. Even then, a ridership figure of 300 inbound riders per day would have represented approximately 15% of the total number of people who can be assumed to live in Windsor Gardens. If ridership now stands at 624 per day, that would be around 30% of the residents of Windsor Gardens who ride the commuter rail every day–a truly astonishing percentage. And remember, those are numbers of residents, not numbers of workers; the percentage of workers riding transit would be even higher.

The typical “rate of return”–how many residents actually ride transit to commute–on transit-oriented development is hard to calculate, but best guesses are that they average around 25%, with TOD around rapid transit skewing much higher, and around commuter rail much lower. With between 15-30% of residents riding transit every day, Windsor Gardens would appear to be an exceptional success by the standards of commuter-rail oriented TOD. It would also appear to be a demonstration of the power of proper land use near transit stations to generate transit ridership–and of the idea that TOD can be built, and still generate significant ridership, without massive amounts of parking.

Windsor Gardens as an apartment community isn’t what we’d think of as “true” TOD today; it’s a single-use residential community set in an area that’s not walkable and highly auto-oriented. I assume that virtually everyone who lives there owns at least one car per household, just to get to the grocery store and school. But even a development approaching 50 years old can demonstrate that if you make it convenient enough, you can house suburbanites in a transit-oriented way.

Small Cities, Big Roads, Part II

A few weeks ago I did a post on the phenomenon of small American cities with huge, expensive bypass roads built around them. Last night, I was indulging one of my other hobbies and checking out Civil War battlefields in Kentucky on Google Maps, and I discovered that Kentucky apparently has a thing for these absurdities.

Even tiny Springfield, KY, population around 2,500, gets a bypass! Now, as I wrote in the last post, it’s entirely possible that small towns like these bypasses, since they take traffic off of local roads, but that doesn’t mean the investment is justified (and taking cars off of local streets also means taking them away from local businesses). I also decided on a hashtag to use for this project: #smallcitybigbypass–if you find another example, hashtag it on Twitter!

There was one other oddity to call out from the Bluegrass Region:

The traffic volumes (interactive map available here) on both of these highways barely reach the level of a two- or four-lane urban arterial (and the traffic volumes on many of the “urban” bypasses are even lower). But instead of delaying drivers by just a few seconds to stop at a light, we invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a fancy interchange. It’s the ultimate unfairness in the American transportation-funding scheme: we accommodate the every desire of drivers, trying to eliminate any possible inconvenience at massive expense, while transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists have to fight for tiny scraps. Alternative transportation advocates like to frame their requests for more funding in terms of reparations for 60 years of policy that has favored roads, but I’m not sure even that rhetoric captures the true inequity of the situation. We haven’t just favored roads; we’ve built a truly decadent infrastructure system for drivers, while everyone else gets shoved out of the picture.

Envisioning an Ambitious Future Metra

Chicago’s antiquated commuter rail system has been in the news a lot lately, from its long-running patronage scandal that included the suicide (by one of his own trains) of one CEO and the resignation of another under political pressure to a rough performance during one of the worst winters in memory. Now, though, Metra is attempting to turn a corner, with a process underway for creating the agency’s first strategic plan, and long-overdue fare hikes planned to pay for a new capital plan.

Metra is certainly attempting to shore up its public image. But the strategic planning process that is underway is sadly lacking in ambition and vision. As Daniel Kay Hertz writes in NextCity,

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

And Metra is, famously, paralyzed in its ability to act on any ambitious projects because of a governance structure that incentivizes suburb-on-city warfare:

There are also structural barriers: Metra doesn’t own all of its tracks, and some carry freight trains that would interfere with frequent service. But even on the lines it does own — including South Chicago — Metra’s governance structure makes regional, big-picture planning difficult. Unlike GO Transit, which is run by the province of Ontario, a controlling share of Metra’s board is appointed by suburban officials, who have historically shown more interest in competing with the city for dollars than collaborating on a regional transit strategy.

Paralyzed Metra may be. But it’s all the more sad, because the Chicago area actually has a rich set of assets that could make setting up the nation’s premier regional rail system a relative snap, certainly easier in degree of engineering difficulty than equivalent situations in Boston or New York.

In short, advocates of turning “commuter” rail systems into “regional” rail argue for turning infrastructure currently used mainly for peak-hour commuting into rapid transit, with more-frequent service across a greater span of time. Imagine trains coming on your local Metra line every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Chicago has long been recognized as having unequalled assets for such an approach; although many of Metra’s lines do, as Daniel pointed out, share tracks with long, slow freight trains, there are several that do not; the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of freight trains per day in the city area is a very useful asset for envisioning this.

The line currently known as the Metra Electric District has attracted the most attention in terms of rapid transitization, and for good reason. The passenger tracks are fully separate from freight tracks; there are at least four tracks for passenger trains all the way out to 111th Street; the line is already fully equipped with high-level platforms, a necessity for getting people on and off the train quickly; and within the city of Chicago MED runs through poor, mainly African-American neighborhoods with poor transit access.

Seriously, you're running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons:

Seriously, you’re running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons

Plans for turning the MED (usually the mainline as far as 67th and then the South Chicago branch) into a rapid-transit operation have come from various sources, including the amateur, the governmental, the academic, and the advocacy world. Most recently, a rapid-transitized MED has been incorporated into Transit Future and into the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s plan for a CrossRail Chicago. The latter plan brings in the element of using the St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge to connect the MED to Chicago Union Station. From there, trains would use renovated platforms on CUS’ two run-through tracks and proceed over newly-electrified tracks currently serving Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service trains to a connection with the O’Hare Airport People Mover.

Image via The Transport Politic

Image via The Transport Politic

These proposals are a useful starting point for envisioning the future of Metra, the last one in particular. Though excessively focused on the needs of white-collar Chicago (promotional literature touts it linking “O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago”), the CrossRail Chicago proposal shows a kind of vision—moving large numbers of people across a very large city, rather than forcing them to transfer or otherwise navigate the congestion of the Loop—that a full-scale Regional Rail system would need. Though the benefits of through-running trains through downtown Chicago itself may not be great, it is operationally easier than using the numerous dead-end terminals that currently plague Chicago, and does open many potential crosstown commutes.  And though I’d rather see a tunnel under the Loop to connect MED to the rest of the system in the long run, using the SCAL and CUS run-through tracks is significantly more realistic in the short term.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the CrossRail proposal is the best place to start. It would involve electrifying some tracks that are shared with freight trains; the MD-W right-of-way varies between 3 and 4 tracks wide, and reconstructing the line for electrification, fully separating freight and passenger traffic, and installing high-level platforms, while doable, would be fairly expensive. There are two other North Side Metra lines that are entirely or nearly entirely freight-free, UP-N and UP-NW; why not start with them?

CMAP Freights Per Day Map

CMAP Freights Per Day Map–North Side

The UP-N line carries zero freights per day south of Lake Bluff and runs through dense North Side neighborhoods desperate for more transit service, making it initially an attractive candidate for the first wave of rapid transitization. There are however, a few challenges. While the UP-N ROW has room for three tracks as far as Evanston, one of the three trackways is currently unused and built over by stations in several locations (including the brand-new Ravenswood station), making restoration of the third track somewhat challenging and pricy. Adding in rapid-transit locals with frequent stops would tax the capacity of the existing two tracks at rush hour. In addition, there is currently no direct track connection between the CUS run-through tracks and the UP lines, which terminate at the ex-Chicago & Northwestern Ogilvie Transportation Center. This isn’t as big a challenge as might be imagined, as there’s really only one building standing in the

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

way of linking the CUS approach to the tracks that once led to the C&NW Navy Pier Branch, which could be (with some work) re-purposed to carry trains up to the UP lines. Altogether, there are enough challenges with the UP-N line that it’s not the lowest-hanging fruit for North Side regional rail.

That title, in my opinion, falls to its sister operation, the UP-NW line. It checks off all the boxes. Zero freight traffic? Check. More than two tracks? There are three or more, meaning one could be reserved for peak-hour diesel expresses. Currently runs through an area in need of rapid transit? Once it leaves the path of the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, certainly. Transit-supportive land use? The neighborhoods and towns along UP-NW aren’t as dense as most of the North Side closer to the lake, but they were originally railroad suburbs, and retain a decent degree of walkability. There’s even an opportunity for supporting local bus service, with Northwest Highway running parallel to the tracks. I would argue that UP-NW is the natural Phase 1 North Side partner for a regional rail system incorporating MED and CUS run-through tracks.

There are, in fact, two options for connecting CUS to UP-NW; one is a direct connection via the aforementioned demolition of the Cassidy Tire building; the other involves sending trains first west and then north on tracks used by Milwaukee District-North trains to Mayfair (adjacent to Montrose Blue Line station) where they’re rejoin the UP tracks. I favor the second approach for two reasons: 1) with the provision of several infill stations, it holds the promise of bringing rapid transit service to an area of the city currently without it, whereas UP-NW runs mostly parallel to the Blue Line and 2) it would begin the infrastructure work for a Phase 2 buildout of the O’Hare branch. There are challenges; the line is only double-tracked in parts, and it does host occasional freight, so clearances for infill stations might be an issue. But I think these are much more manageable than the challenges on other lines.

Time for some maps? I think so. Here’s my proposal in Google Maps.  Toggle through the three layers (button at upper left) to see what I’m proposing for phases 1 and 2; I’ve also included an expanded version of the Mid-City Transitway concept, a more elaborate project that I think would be crucial to any future re-orientation of the Chicago transit system away from its Loop-Centrism, but which I’m not discussing here.

In summary:

Phase 1

  • Institution of rapid-transit style service on Metra Electric at least as far as 111th Street.
  • Blue Island and South Chicago branches to be run as shuttles, with South Chicago probably having direct service to Randolph Street at peak hours.
  • MED-CUS connection via St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge over the Chicago River, including a new infill station in the South Loop, possibly with L connections (this is the most expensive part of the whole project).
  • New Northwest Rapid Transit Line, including electrification and high-level platforms via MD-N tracks to Mayfair and UP-NW to Des Plaines or beyond (Arlington Heights is a possible terminus).
  • Service pattern would be through trains from Des Plaines to 111th Street. Expresses from suburbs would continue to downtown stub-end terminals.

Here’s what Chicago’s rapid-transit system could look like after Phase 1 (I’m bringing back the old Chicago tradition of west-facing transit maps!). Click on this and the following images to embiggen:

Phase 1_Final

Phase 2

  • Reconstruction of UP-N with three tracks and high-level platforms as far as Evanston; demolition of Cassidy Tire building to provide direct access to CUS.
  • Reconstruction of MD-W  and NCS tracks, including isolation of passenger service from freight as far as Franklin Park, electrification, and high-level platforms.
  • Service patterns could take any number of forms, with three northern and three southern termini.

Here’s what the system could look like after Phase 2:

Phase 2_Final

And with the Mid-City Transitway (which, if it is ever built, will probably be an L line) providing a belt line:

With mid-city

At this point, with three lines feeding in from the north, and a large amount of traffic from the south, the poor two run-through tracks at CUS would probably be verging on a capacity breakdown, so this seems like a logical place to stop. How much would this plan transform Chicago? Well, it could provide easier commutes for thousands on North Siders to the South Loop, Hyde Park, and the like; and it would likely make service jobs on the North Side more accessible to disadvantaged South Side communities. It would also mean expensive L expansions like the Red Line extension to Roseland aren’t necessary; indeed, I think it’s likely that both initial phases could be completed within the anticipated budget of the Red Line extension. That being said, dollar-for-dollar Chicago’s best transit investments probably lie in improving bus service, whether that’s re-prioritizing local buses or a transformative bus rapid transit system.

A rapid-transit conversion of these lines, though, is low-hanging fruit; it’s cheap, easy, and could be very quick. The essential problems, as always, are political. Metra’s skewed, paralyzed governance structure would need to be convinced to go along with a project that primarily benefits city-based riders. Transit unions would need to accept one-person operation of trains on the new service for it to be affordable–a common practice in Europe, but one an insurmountable barrier in the US thus far. In many ways, though, I think that building political momentum for this kind of a system could be easier than improving Chicago’s buses; it’s a cost-effective fix that doesn’t involve taking road space away from drivers or investing in (much) fancy, expensive new infrastructure. Let’s get Metra moving.

A Few Notes

  1. Other than the SCAL-CUS connection, the most expensive part of this plan would likely be buying rolling stock. Metra’s new MED gallery cars, identical in most respects to the ones in operation on the diesel lines, have only one set of central doors–not ideal for rapid-transit operations.
  2. The “other” low-hanging fruit on the Metra system for rapid-transitization is the Rock Island district; I think it’s a lower priority because it runs parallel to the Red and Green Lines for much of its length. It’s possible future target for this kind of conversion, though.

Boston to Albany–How Fast Can A Slow Trip Be?

Personal note: it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted here. Beginning of the semester sucks. But hopefully 2600+ words makes up for it 😉

Expansion of east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts has been a topic of discussion for quite a long time. Politicians from decaying industrial cities like Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield want a reliable connection to Boston’s vibrant economy; travelers want an alternative to the fast-if-there’s-no-traffic-but-there’s-always-traffic Mass Pike, and the state’s liberal voters tend to be more supportive than average of infrastructure projects. There’s also a good bit of nostalgia for Massachusetts’ days as the technological and political haven of American railroading.

Today, there seems to be a good bit of momentum for extension of passenger service west of its current terminus at Worcester. All of the Democratic candidates for governor agree on the necessity of such service, and it given the state’s recent spree of line acquisitions for passenger service, seems likely to happen one of these decades. That seeming momentum got me thinking about the possibilities for a more thorough east-west service along CSX’ Boston Line, the former Boston & Albany division of the New York Central. Service to Springfield is one thing; getting up and over the sparsely inhabited, hilly, and curvy line across the Berkshires to reach Pittsfield and Albany is another entirely.

Of course, I have a personal stake in exploring this possibility; I live in Albany, many of my friends are in Boston, and I would love to have convenient rail service. But is it feasible? The situation I face as a consumer is thus:

  • Google Maps estimates a driving time of 2:39 from my apartment in Albany to South Station. Realistically, you have to leave 3-3.5 hours, because while the Mass Pike is fast and free-flowing from Albany well past Springfield, once you hit the interchange with 84 in Sturbridge, all bets are off.
  • Greyhound offers direct schedules in the 3:30 range, with a stop in Worcester, but there are only a few buses per day in each direction. There are also local Greyhound buses that stop in the Berkshires towns, but they require a transfer in Springfield to get to Boston, and the trip is over 4 hours. All Greyhound buses are subject to Mass Pike delays.
  •  The less said about Amtrak’s lone train on the route, the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited, the better; this post is about the future. But: it’s currently scheduled for 5:45 eastbound and 5:40 westbound. So there’s that.

My hypothesis is that if a train could get between Boston and Albany in 3:30, it would attract high enough levels of ridership to keep it going; I’d probably ride at that time point. And of course anything faster would be a bonus. But can we get the trains going that fast? Albany to South Station is exactly 200 track miles (compared to 170 on the freeway, a major reason trains have had trouble competing in the corridor), so a 3:30 trip time corresponds to an average speed of 57 mph. On the one hand, 57 mph isn’t a particularly ambitious speed goal. On the other hand, Amtrak’s Lincoln Service, which uses predominantly flat, straight lines with stretches of 110 mph running, is scheduled for a 53 mph average speed between Chicago and St. Louis (over 284 miles), and Empire Service trains between New York and Albany are around 60 mph on average. So to achieve competitive travel times, Boston-Albany passenger trains must achieve average speeds comparable to, or even higher than, those on many of Amtrak’s higher-speed corridor services, many of which face fewer geographic obstacles. Is that doable? Let’s delve in.

As mentioned above, the Boston & Albany corridor is notoriously difficult for high (ish)-speed trains. The route opened in 1841 as one of America’s first long-distance railroads; its climb over the Berkshires also claimed the title of the world’s highest railroad at the time. The routing is tortuous and twisting, following river valleys to find an acceptable grade. That being said, unlike most American railroads (at that time and for about 50 years thereafter) the line was designed to an extremely high standard. Supervising engineer George Washington Whistler (the less-famous parent of the painter) insisted on curves as gentle as possible under the circumstances and clearance of the right-of-way for double-tracking from the very beginning.  In essence, Whistler and the owners of the B&A traded more severe grades for gentler curves–the rival Fitchburg Railroad/Hoosac Tunnel route 40 miles to the north made essentially the opposite choice,  with sharper curves but less severe grades. Those choices have made the B&A an operating nightmare for freight over the years, but they make it not totally hostile to passenger service, unlike the Hoosac Tunnel route.

For our purposes, though, the Hoosac Tunnel isn’t the competitor; the Mass Pike is. And as I already noted, the freeway’s route, built with the advantage of mid 2oth-century technology, is 30 miles shorter than the B&A. Here, too, though, the B&A has at least one advantage. Unlike the Mass Pike, the railroad serves the downtowns of the three major Massachusetts cities along the route–Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield–directly. In Worcester and Springfield, freeway spurs lead to downtown, so the distance of the Pike isn’t a big deal, but Pittsfield has no direct freeway access and is a good 20-minute drive off the Pike. The lack of  immediate freeway access also means that buses cannot serve the Boston-Albany corridor in a linear manner. That’s why Greyhound doesn’t run buses between Boston and Albany with stops in Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield: the repeated backtracking to the Pike would make it an unacceptably long trip. Additionally, these cities are essentially the only feasible stops on a Boston-Albany service, and they fall nicely into an every-50-miles pattern: Pittsfield is 49 track-miles from Albany, Pittsfield-Springfield is 53 miles, Springfield-Worcester 54, and Worcester-South Station 44. The Lake Shore Limited makes an additional stop at Framingham, halfway between Worcester and Boston; that stop could probably eliminated with a timed transfer to/from a local commuter rail train at Worcester.  The only other possible stops that I can imagine are Palmer, MA and Chatham, NY, but neither really warrants a stop on an intercity train. This is abnormally few intermediate stops for an Amtrak corridor service, which typically stop every 20-30 miles. The less-frequent stops might–might–help trains maintain a higher average speed, even if top speeds aren’t all that great.

But just how fast can we get the trains going? I know I promised not to speak much of the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited, but its current schedule is the place to start.

LSL Boston Schedule

One thing is immediately clear: this schedule is massively padded in both directions. If, following my division of the line into four segments (Albany-Pittsfield, Pittsfield-Springfield, Springfield-Worcester, and Worcester-South Station), we look at the two terminal segments, we can see the insertion of the padding. Boston–Worcester is scheduled for 1:03 outbound (westbound)–and 2:13 inbound (eastbound). Likewise, Albany-Pittsfield is scheduled for 1:04 eastbound, but 1:59 westbound. If we eliminate the massive padding, we can immediately cut a little over an hour off of the Lake Shore‘s scheduled time, cutting it to a still-uninspiring (and non-competitive) 4:45 or so in each direction. Of course, the padding in the current schedule exists for a reason; the Lake Shore‘s on-time performance is notoriously horrific, earning it the nickname Late Shore Limited. Any scenario that envisions increased passenger traffic will certainly involve re-installing double track along the entire B&A corridor (not a problem in terms of ROW), with the state paying in return for absolute passenger dispatching priority. Planned track improvements now that the state owns the Worcester Line between South Station and Worcester should cut another 15 minutes or so off of travel time, leaving us with a nice, round time of 4:30–still an hour slower than might be considered competitive.

One way to improve travel times is by increasing track maintenance to levels that will allow higher speeds. Currently, MBTA is struggling to boost its portion of the Worcester Line from FRA Class III (6o mph for passenger) to Class IV (80 mph for passenger) standards; but more can certainly be done. Most of the rest of the line seems to be maintained to Class III standards, but the ingredients exist for converting it to allow for higher passenger speeds: the entire line west of Framingham is signalled with (antiquated, but upgradeable) cab signals, and there are relatively few grade crossings due to the age of the line. That being said, upgrading absolute train speeds will have relatively little effect because of the line’s severe curvature; with the exception of the more-or-less tangent 20-mile Palmer-Springfield segment, the limiting factor on train speeds is generally curvature, not track or ballast structure. Certainly, building the theorized second track to Class IV or V (V requires cab signals, but luckily the Boston Line has them) would help, but is there a better way to boost average, rather than absolute, top train speeds?

For the answer to that question, we can turn to the opposite coast, where for the last decade and a half Amtrak has been happily operating tilting Talgo trainsets on behalf of the states of Washington and Oregon on the Cascades. These Spanish-designed trainsets are lightweight (though not as lightweight as they could be, thanks to FRA regulations) and their tilt mechanism allows them to navigate curves faster than conventional trains. Various factors–expense, Talgo’s insistence on doing maintenance itself, mechanical discontinuity with other fleets, lower capacity–have kept the Talgos from being adopted more widely in this country, but they’re a very, very strong fit for a curvy, hilly route like the Boston & Albany. The criteria for their ability to save time are complex, but as this Trains Magazine explainer puts it: “Tilting reduces trip time only when the route has a reasonable concentration of curves with curve speeds between 50 and 80 mph. In this speed range, a Talgo-type train will be able to negotiate a curve at speeds 5-10 mph faster than conventional cars. Generally, tilting does not generate significant time savings unless the curve density on a route is 30 percent or higher.” This description could be written for the B&A. There are virtually no tangents of any significant length, but relatively few of the curves are so sharp that they necessarily drop the speed of the train below 50 mph. Equipping corridor trains on a Boston-Albany route with Talgo trainsets could do a lot to boost average speeds–but how much?

The current Cascades schedule shows Talgo-equipped trains saving only about 10 minutes over the Superliner-equipped Pacific Starlight, but that’s a product of ongoing summer trackwork. Historically, Talgo schedules have saved 35 to 45 minutes, or about 15%, on the 187-mile Seattle–Portland segment, which is actually less curvy than the B&A (Talgos save little to no time on the very straight segments between Portland and Eugene, and only some north of Seattle). Knocking 15% off of the theorized 4:30 unpadded  Lake Shore Limited time would give us a time of 3:50 or so, getting closer to our goal but not quite there yet, and still over an hour longer than a direct Boston-Albany bus. However, as mentioned the Portland-Seattle segment isn’t actually that comparable to the B&A, being less curvy and with lower potential maximum speeds because of the lack of cab signals. And sure, there is no other modern experience with Talgo operations in the US. A theoretical application of Talgo equipment, though, is perhaps the next-best thing, and that’s what we find in Pennsylvania. Found via this Sic Transit Philadelphia post, Samuel Walker of Test Plant managed to get a Talgo engineer’s estimate of time savings from using their equipment on the old Pennsylvania Railroad mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, a route that in age and alignment is very comparable to the B&A. By the engineer’s calculation, Talgo equipment could cut the 254-mile Harrisburg-Pittsburgh run from 5:30 to 4:10, or from 4:56 to 3:36 if the 34-minute schedule pad is eliminated. That’s a savings of 25% before padding and 28% after. If we cut 25% off of the paddingless 4:30 Boston-Albany running time…we get a time of 202.5 minutes, or 3:22.5–just below the magical (to me!) 3:30 time cutoff. Again, that’s with nothing assumed as to track quality other than the already planned upgrades inside Worcester and the installation of a second track built to Class IV speeds west of Worcester.

Of course, those upgrades are far from nothing–probably on the order of hundreds of millions, if not multiple billions, of dollars. But if Massachusetts can find the money for a second track and signal upgrades along the B&A and if state politicians are willing to negotiate hard with CSX over dispatching priority and if  Amtrak or the state are willing to take a risk on Talgo equipment and if the Talgos prove able to do for the B&A what they could do for Pennsylvania…I see no particular reason that a functional Boston-Albany service couldn’t be established in relatively short order. A time of 3:22 end-to-end isn’t magical, but given that a train would be able to hit Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester within that time frame. And while a full 3:22 might be at the high end of the time savings that Talgo can offer, even if the time savings are more in the Cascades range of 15% a combination of new equipment and more extensive track upgrades should be able to get travel times down into the 3:30 range. That’s certainly better than any bus can do while stop at all three intermediate cities.

So I do think a renewed, relatively fast Boston-Albany service is possible. It would require significant investment, but it seems to be doable. The main advantage of a train over buses is that one service will be able to stop at all of the major cities in the corridor. Potentially, such a service could become the backbone of a frequent intercity rail network serving the entire state, with the Boston-Albany trains making connections at Springfield and Pittsfield to DMU services in the Pioneer Valley and Berkshires. That’s far, far in the future, but it would be an enormous mobility “win” for the entire state.

A couple of notes: 

1. One particular challenge for the introduction of Talgo equipment to the line might be the presence of high-level platforms. There’s no question that the next-generation trains on the line will be built for high-levels; South Station, Back Bay, Worcester, and Albany have full high-level platforms and Springfield is getting them as part of the NHHS project, not to mention that Amtrak is going to an all-high-levels policy in the Northeast. Of current intermediate stops, that leaves only Framingham and Pittsfield. In Pittsfield, building a side track for a high-level platform so as to maintain freight clearances shouldn’t be too hard. Framingham is a little more of a challenge; it currently has mini-highs and will still be on a freight clearance route, which perhaps further militates for not stopping there. That being said, Talgos are low-slung and there are no examples of high-level-platform-equipped ones operating in the US, so that might increase costs some.

2. One of the problems with the current setup on the Worcester Line is that, while there are three tracks in segments, much of the ROW was cut down to two tracks from Newton in to accommodate the Mass Pike. There are, further, very few sets of crossovers. One of these things can be remedied; the other realistically cannot. More crossovers it is (this will help MBTA trains more than intercity service!).

3. CSX may not love the idea of ceding half of their ROW for a second track to be committed mostly to passenger trains, but it’s not like Massachusetts doesn’t have leverage. The state has already paid for full double-stack clearance, and along with that carrot can hold out the stick of capital investment in helping the Pan Am Southern Alliance clear the Hoosac Tunnel route for higher speeds and double-stacks. CSX doesn’t want to lose its huge advantage in the Boston market; the state shouldn’t be afraid to play hardball, perhaps even asking CSX to pick up some of the tab for the second track.



There’s a Good Reason to Evacuate Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes. It’s Just Not What You Think It Is.

A good deal of media attention in Albany in recent months has focused on the situation of the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing project in the city’s South End (or really, just outside of it). Various local politicians, most prominently Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, have seized on the paranoia surrounding transportation of crude oil by rail after the Lac-Megantic disaster by trying to make Albany a national leader in protecting its citizens from the #BombTrains threat. Indeed, the very first post on this blog was about the conceptual issues with the campaign, arguing that there are in fact much greater threats to the public health than the exceptionally low-probability event of being blown up by an exploding oil train. Today, it’s time to revisit that question a little bit.

The single biggest focus for Albany politicians who want to make a point regarding oil-by-rail has been the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing development that opened in 1967, in the wake of the urban-renewal clearance of thousands of homes for the Empire State Plaza project. Always something of an anomaly in Albany–the McConnell-Corning machine that ran the city from 1921 to 1983 was famously reluctant to take federal housing money, wishing to avoid any kind of oversight–the Prentice Homes were built with state assistance and federalized  in the mid-1980s, after Erastus Corning’s death in 1983.  As if to symbolize just how out-of-site, out-of-mind the residents of the Prentice Homes (many of them refugees from neighborhoods leveled for Nelson Rockefeller’s singular monument to his own ego) were, the new project was sited next to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad’s Kenwood Yard, and immediately adjacent to the new I-787, which opened around the same time as the Prentice Homes, and probably before (I’ve been unable to nail down an exact opening date). Least-valued people on the least-valued land: it’s a time-honored American public-housing tradition! In any case, the area looks like this today:

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Last week, County Executive McCoy doubled down on his public concern about the Prentice Homes’ adjacency to Kenwood Yard, which has become a terminal for oil trains transported from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota by current yard owner Canadian Pacific. As McCoy pointed out in his press conference,, the backyards of some of the Prentice Homes literally do back up to the yard. Indeed, McCoy went so far as to for the first time suggest evacuating the Prentice Homes entirely, as reported by the Times Union‘s ace city/politics reporter Jordan Carleo-Evangelist:  ‘”Just because we put it here doesn’t make it right,” McCoy said, citing potential health risks from fumes and the threat of a catastrophic explosion. “We can make it right by moving it.”‘ Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, however, was none too happy with McCoy’s surprise, drastic plan, suggesting that the city needs “solutions that do not require people to uproot their lives.”

Is the threat from an oil train blowing up severe enough to justify evacuating the Prentice Homes? I argued in my previous blog post on the subject that the chances of such an explosion are miniscule given the kind of oil involved and the slow train speeds. Oil-by-rail may be the excitement of the day, but it’s long-term air pollution that’s the true threat to public health at the Prentice Homes.

The health impacts of living adjacent to a freeway like I-787 are well-known, even in the popular imagination. The easternmost of the Prentice Homes are actually probably outside the real danger zone, but some of the buildings are as close as 200 feet to the roadway, well within the 500-foot buffer recommended by best practice. Most of the buildings are within 1,000 feet of the freeway, and all within 1,500–distances that represent outer, lesser rings of threat from air pollution.

The challenge of diesel locomotive pollution from Kenwood Yard is less well-known, and more complicated.  Pollutants from locomotives are known to cause an elevated cancer risk in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to yards, as well as for railroad workers. A recent EPA study found that “levels of black carbon, an indicator of diesel exhaust, spiked up to 104 percent higher than the norm for urban areas during early mornings and evenings when winds blew across the freight yard toward a residential area” in Chicago. Kenwood is a small yard relative to the massive facilities often studied in California and Chicago, but it does host idling locomotives, and as we have already seen the Prentice Homes have no buffer from the tracks. Freight rail, though, is an environmental good on the regional level; trains are a good deal more energy- and pollution- efficient than trucks for moving freight, and encouraging freight to move by rail to the maximum extent possible is good public policy. Even if it were possible for local officials to do so (since railroads carry interstate commerce, they are federally regulated, and policy options for local officials are limited), shutting down Kenwood entirely would probably result in an overall growth in emissions and congestion across the Capital Region. That the yard poses a polluting threat to the health of those who live right next to it, though, is pretty inarguable.

McCoy’s right that the Ezra Prentice Homes were built in the wrong place. Sheehan is also right that moving residents–some of whom have no interest in moving–is a drastic and potentially overly hasty measure. Aside from the brewing political struggle, there is, to me, something quite disconcerting about the spectacle of (white) politicians suddenly trying to make a reputation  for themselves in the name of protecting residents of a public housing project who have been breathing freeway and locomotive fumes for almost 50 years. The Prentice Homes were the result of a mayoral administration that didn’t care about African-American constituents (who, then and now, were the majority of Prentice residents) and a gubernatorial administration that heartlessly seized the land of tens of thousands of residents in the name of one man’s ego. They were sited in just about the worst place imaginable from a public health perspective–cut off from the rest of the city by six lanes of roaring traffic, and wedged in between two polluting transportation facilities. And it’s only now–after 47 years of neglect relieved only by periodic renovations, rather than serious consideration for the health of residents–Albany’s politicians are freaking out about a threat to the Prentice Homes that by any objective standard is incredibly remote? I, too, would rather not see oil trains sitting on Albany’s waterfront, and sitting in Kenwood Yard. They’re an unwelcome reminder of our wasteful past, and yes, a potential danger. But forgive me for thinking that our elected officials should be dealing with the existent ongoing threats to public health, rather than trying to build their reputations on the backs of citizens whose needs have been neglected for the longest time.



Searching for a Good Albany-Area Amtrak Station Site

Albany has a train station problem.

Surprising, maybe, considering the beautiful and (by train station standards) more or less brand new (opened 2002) Albany-Rensselaer station, which typically ranks 9th or 10th out of all Amtrak stations in annual ridership. But true nonetheless.

A few days ago I got into a brief Twitter discussion with the illustrious Cap’n Transit about the state of the Albany train station:

This is, of course, an entirely theoretical discussion. Amtrak and CDTA, which owns the station, are heavily invested in the current Albany-Rensselaer station, and moving it at this point would be a waste of relatively recently spent infrastructure dollars.  In Albany, of course, politics plays into everything; the Rensselaer station is, to a large extent, one of the many fruits of that notorious porkmaster, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to get to by any mode other than driving, despite being only a mile and a half from downtown Albany (if you don’t believe me, just read the comments on this Times-Union blog post). CDTA buses arrive only four times an hour at most, and rather than coming into the station as originally planned they stop on the street outside, in a completely non-intuitive location. Walking what should be a decent distance to downtown Albany or the Empire State Plaza requires crossing the Hudson on the concrete hellscape of the Dunn Memorial Bridge, itself a monument to highway plans that would have done irreparable damage to Albany had they gone through fully.

So the location of Albany’s train station, not to put too fine of a point on it, sucks. The question of moving it may be entirely theoretical at this point, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. If I were given significant power to physically reshape the Capital Region (like, say, Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s), where would I put the crown jewel of the region’s non-automobile transportation system?

Albany, of course, once had the downtown station that the Cap’n and I both wish could still exist. The building, in fact, still exists, and it is quite stately:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Abandoned as a railroad building in 1968, Union Station has seen use as a bank headquarters, and after sitting empty for a while is now being converted into something called “the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI.” Once upon a time, New York Central trains (Delaware & Hudson was the other major tenant) reached Union Station from Rensselaer via the Maiden Lane Bridge, like so:

Today (well, as of 1968), the Maiden Lane Bridge is gone, and the area behind the Union Station building, which once held coach yards and two levels of platforms, looks like this:

The approach to the old Union Station, like the rest of the Albany waterfront, has been entirely amputated by I-787, with the only remaining rails, the old D&H Colonie Main, relocated to the middle of the freeway, completely inaccessible from the street. The old platform canopy now shades (a little) a parking garage.

The issue with a downtown station, then, is that not only is the old site unavailable, but so are any other potential sites along the waterfront–that is, any site close to downtown Albany.  So, where CAN one put a station in Albany proper?

One possibility is near the  much dreamed-upon Central Warehouse (proposals for reuse have included an aquarium. Yes, an aquarium), just west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson, on the northern fringes of Albany. The station could occupy the site currently used by the burnt-out hulk, or the short straightaway a little to the west between Broadway and Pearl. The site looks like this:

This wouldn’t move the station very far, of course, but it would get it across the Hudson and into an area with better transit service. The area around the Central Warehouse is seeing a limited revival as part of a brewery neighborhood, but is clearly in need of significant revitalization that a train station could bring. That being said, it’s still pretty far from downtown (about 7/1oths of a mile), and there are a few engineering challenges: platforms couldn’t be very long because of the curves, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary four tracks could be squeezed into the existing right-of-way.

The truth is, though, if we’re looking for a station location that will attract the most ridership, downtown Albany may not offer the most potential in any case. The 2012 ACS numbers show only around 1,100 people living in the census tract that covers Downtown, and while the city has been doing a good job of trying to attract high-end residential conversions to the area, that process had been going very slowly. When I get off my bus coming home from school in the evenings (in Center Square, a little up the hill), I’m always surprised to see that I’m one of the last 2 or 3 people on the bus; non-commute demand to downtown is just exceptionally weak. The truth is that most Albany transportation demand resides uptown, in the dense neighborhoods along Central Avenue, and the more suburbanized areas near the uptown SUNY campus.

Is there, then, a fringe station location that might have something to offer? The idea of a station in suburban Albany is not new; one existed in the large suburb of Colonie for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s (I can’t seem to find a source for an exact opening date), closing in 1979.  Technically called Schenectady-Colonie, since due to cost-cutting measures it replaced the downtown Schenectady station, this little stop sat about halfway down the passenger main between Albany and Schenectady, very much in the middle of suburban nothingness:

Needless to say, the Schenectady-Colonie station was a ridership disaster from the beginning. (click on the linked article–come for the vintage-1979 Turboliner picture, stay for the speed and trip-time promises that are remarkably similar to today’s!) After hemorrhaging riders for years, the Schenectady-Colonie station closed for good when enough government money became available to build the existent Schenectady station, which sits on the remains of the one that was torn down under Penn Central, and is now slated for replacement itself. In any case, the Schenectady-Colonie station building still exists; the building in this picture is clearly the same one visible at center if you zoom in the map above far enough.  Of course, no station will ever be built there again; it has zero access to public transit, is in the middle of nowhere, and sits smack dab in the center of a long tangent that allows trains to exercise their full 110-mph speed.

So is there a single location for an Albany-area station that I think might be better than the current one? Given the paucity of options, I’m not sure that anything short of a total rebuilding of the Albany waterfront that brings trains back and eliminates I-787 (something I’m for, by the way) can really do the job to full satisfaction. There is one site, though, that might, to some extent, bring benefits greater than the current setup. If it were up to me, I would put Albany’s intercity train station in the empty triangle of land described by Central Avenue, the tracks, and the borders of the Railroad Avenue industrial district, just across the city boundary in Colonie:

This site has room for four tracks, is adjacent to Central Avenue, the area’s main drag, with its BRT-lite BusPlus service (as well as local service), and offers potential for development. It’s also not far from the UAlbany campus, which is a major ridership generator. It’s also just past the top of the slow, curvy climb out of the Hudson Valley, and thus stopping there won’t cost trains as much time as slowing in the middle of the sprint from or to Schenectady. The site is also a brownfield, formerly home to a National Lead plant that was shut down by the state courts in 1984 for polluting; amazingly enough given its proximity to homes, the plant was found to have been using depleted uranium and other radioactive materials in its work, and so the site has for the last 30 years been under the stewardship of first the federal Department of Energy and then the Army Corps of Engineers. With its rather notorious history, the prospect of redeveloping the National Lead site as housing is probably unappealing. But the site is transit-accessible, central, and offers the prospect of being the lever that can bring the Central Ave. corridor in Colonie into a more urban future. If magically the prospect of moving the Albany train station becomes realistic, this location has my vote.


Freight Railroad Intransigence and Empire Corridor Options

The Albany Times-Union reported on Sunday that CSX, freight railroad owner of the old New York Central Water Level Route, had officially filed with the state Department of Transportation its opposition to the state’s proposed improvements to the Empire Corridor West passenger service.  This isn’t particularly surprising; CSX has long opposed the project and has for quite a while developed a corporate reputation for not being a fan of passenger rail sharing any of its infrastructure. That being said, the claims that CSX seems to have made in its letter of comment on the Empire Corridor EIS say a good bit about its corporate strategy, and potentially about the future of passenger rail in New York.

The Times-Union acquired a copy of CSX’ letter, but did not provide direct quotes in its article. Instead, it summarized the railroad’s objections thusly (caveat: not a full list):

CSX said additional passenger trains would only add to the congestion, causing delays and hindering access to freight customers on sidings along the main rail line.

Without adequate separation between the freight tracks and a newly constructed passenger track, high-speed trains also would pose increased danger to CSX track crews, it said.

CSX criticizes the methods used to compile the draft statement, pointing out that projected costs don’t include payments for use of CSX property, which it says is worth “billions.”

CSX also said the statement doesn’t consider other, more cost-effective, ways to improve passenger mobility from upstate cities such as Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo that are along the route, including improved bus service and air service.

And it says the study should have considered the Albany-New York City and Albany-Niagara Falls segments as two different corridors, allowing policy makers to proceed with improvements on the first and choosing the “no-build” alternative for the second.

These objections are, not to use too fine a word, bullshit. And I think CSX knows that, and the state DOT knows that, and anyone following the situation carefully should know it too. I’ll provide a brief fisking here:

–The recently (ok, a few months ago) released DEIS explicitly only covers the portion of the line west of Albany; that’s the whole point of calling it the Empire Corridor West study.

–The entire project is predicated on the separation of passenger trains from freight on an entirely new track, thus getting them out of each others’ hair.

–Railfan forums (yes, they can be a good source of information; career railroaders know a lot), in particular this one, have long studied CSX’ claim that only three tracks will fit where four used to be and two exist today. CSX’ logic is that the distance between track centers now needs to be 30 feet, where 15 sufficed historically. The consensus is that CSX’ insistence on 30′ track centers is completely unnecessary.

–The DEIS makes very clear (page 1-6, for those who are interested) that the cost numbers it calculates do not include buying the right-of-way from CSX and otherwise compensating the railroad for inconvenience; that will occur at Tier 2 of the EIS process.

–The EIS itself makes very clear, and to its credit the Times Union includes in its article, that NYC-Upstate, much less intra-Upstate bus and especially air services are in no way competitive with better train service. Buses don’t get people out of cars, and air service is unprofitable in those corridors and prohibitively expensive for most travelers in any case.

–CSX’ claim about the fragility of capacity of the Mohawk Subdivision, its designation for the line across Upstate New York, is very, very suspect. A 2012 CSX network planning document makes clear that the Mohawk Sub is currently under-capacity (in contrast to, among other routes, the freight-only, single-track West Shore Line):

capacity capture

Meanwhile, the 2009 NYS rail plan also shows the Mohawk Sub below capacity, and envisions it only beginning to approach capacity in 2035, despite predicted increases in traffic. CSX claims that increased traffic from the Panama Canal widening is likely to move across the Mohawk; most observers think that container traffic to the Midwest will continue to move via West Coast ports, with increased traffic to East Coast ports being confined to the coastal area. Certainly, Amtrak trains are disruptive to CSX’ 50-60 freights a day on the Mohawk; but they are clearly not having any significant impact on the line’s reliability. Indeed, despite federal rules mandating that Amtrak trains be given priority, the 47% (!!!!) on-time performance of Empire Corridor trains west of Albany indicates that they’re not exactly the top priority of Mohawk Sub dispatchers.

So if CSX’ objections to New York’s plan are mostly bull, and can be dealt with easily if they’re not, what’s going on? Why bother to object to a project that is potentially lucrative (if the state pays the billions that CSX claims half the ROW is worth) and would significantly improve the railroad’s image at a time when well-publicized gas train explosions are proving to be a massive PR problem for the industry?

There are, in my opinion, at least two separate dynamics in the CSX-NYS impasse, both of them essentially political in nature. First is CSX’ strategy for dealing with its busy, but expensive and competitive (between freight and passenger traffic) legacy lines in the Northeast. For years, CSX has gotten cash from the Massachusetts state government for improvements to its ex-Boston & Albany line over the Berkshires, while at the same time intentionally not agreeing to capacity improvements that would have allowed the MBTA to run more commuter trains between Boston and Worcester; when business east of Worcester proved less profitable than trucking most goods into Boston from an intermodal terminal in Worcester,  CSX sold the Boston-Worcester segment of the line to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile in New York, CSX and the state long maintained a cost-sharing arrangement for the upper portion of the Hudson Line, the Empire Service’s southern leg; as soon as the (always limited) freight demand on that line dipped, and the state proved willing to pony up, CSX leased the line to Amtrak. The strategy is clear, and quite smart: CSX milk public funds made available to its infrastructure for all they are worth, while intentionally not making capacity improvements that would allow more robust passenger service; as soon as the states tire of the situation and prove willing to pay up, the railroad is suddenly willing to sell.

The second dynamic has to do with the Andrew Cuomo administration’s lukewarm relationship with transit. As Alon Levy has written, it’s pretty clear that the Cuomo administration sandbagged proposals for a “true” Empire Corridor high-speed rail system by arguing that government can’t build infrastructure projects during a recession and publicizing inflated cost numbers.  The numbers the DEIS includes for the Empire West improvements are likely inflated too ($6 billion for a few hundred miles of third track on an existing ROW?), and the administration’s indifferent attitude towards the project–and any other kind of transit, really–has come across pretty clearly.

Cuomo values his image as a business-friendly, tax-cutting centrist governor, clearly believing that it separates him from other Democrats in the national field (we can, of course, argue about whether this is true, or whether it’s working for him in his own state). As Alon wrote in the first post linked to above, “Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.” This isn’t, I think, a particularly ideological stand (though it might have something to do with Cuomo’s well-know affection for vintage cars); rather, it’s a product of Cuomo’s desire to appeal electorally to white, wealthy suburban voters (=drivers) in a state where Democrats have long, and for good reason, been identified with New York and other cities. Nowhere has that come across more clearly than in his administration’s transportation and infrastructure priorities. Though the transit-advocate furor over the administration’s raid of the MTA budget for Verrazano Narrows Bridge toll relief was probably overstated given the relatively small amount of money involved, the raid was a clear indicator of an administration that cares more about attracting swing Staten Island votes than rewarding its loyal soldiers in the other boroughs, who are going to vote for the Democrat anyhow (especially after the combustion of the potential Working Families Party challenge to Cuomo). Similarly, Cuomo’s hugely expensive, unnecessary, and controversial (seriously? Clean water money for a car bridge?) new Tappan Zee bridge is clearly a sop to suburban populations in Rockland and Westchester counties.

So…I’ve been rambling. What do CSX’ intelligent strategy for maximizing profit from its legacy Northeastern holdings and Andrew Cuomo’s antipathy to transit have to do with each other, and with Empire Corridor West? I believe that CSX corporate management is watching the Cuomo administration very carefully, and is very much aware of its reluctance to invest serious money in transit. So CSX is going to, quite logically, play a waiting game. Their interest is in getting a massive payoff from New York State for the right to reclaim half of the Water Level Route ROW for passenger rail. With the Cuomo administration unlikely to want to invest the kind of money such a deal would take, their will almost certainly be no political ramifications in the short term for CSX’ intransigence. CSX is gambling that, in the medium run, if the next gubernatorial administration finds the Empire Corridor West situation unacceptable (and I certainly don’t see passenger OTP improving under current conditions), it will be willing to pay the company a massive amount of money.

If there’s one good for passenger rail that could come out of CSX’ reluctance to cooperate with the Empire Corridor West project, it’s that it might allow–or even force–future administrations to revisit the idea of true HSR in the Empire Corridor. Improved regional service in the corridor is better than nothing, but Upstate New York desperately needs an economic game changer, and nothing can match HSR for that potential. If CSX is truly unwilling to deal–or if, as I suspect, the price of a deal is just going to be incredibly high–studying HSR (at realistic prices, not the Cuomo administration’s inflated ones) may again become an attractive option.

In the meantime, it’s not like New York State has no leverage in the situation. CSX has long essentially held a monopoly on rail freight traffic into New England, a status enabled in recent years by Massachusetts’ investment in allowing modern freight car clearances and weights on the Berkshire Line. In recent years, though, the other titan of Eastern railroading, Norfolk Southern, has begun to challenge CSX’ chokehold on the region. Using traffic rights over the Delaware & Hudson’s longtime bridge route from Binghamton to the Capital Region, and an alliance with New England regional Pan Am east of there, NS has gradually built up a modern infrastructure for its traffic in the market. NS/Pan Am Southern is not yet capable of challenging CSX; in particular, the eastern part of the allied route, east of Mechanicville, would require significant investment to bring up to modern double-stack clearance/315,000 lb freight car weight standards. Norfolk Southern is beginning to pour in some of the necessary on its own, but if the state threatened to ally with Massachusetts to fully prepare the NS/Pan Am route for competition with the Berkshire Line, one imagines that CSX might find it shares more interests with the state than it thought. Just don’t count on any of those things happening.




This is Why Regional and High-Speed Rail is Going to be a Thing

A sampling of complaints from people I follow on Twitter, not in the planning/urbanist biz, about air travel, from today alone:

As air travel becomes more and more of a horribly unpleasant, unreliable hassle, and highway congestion inexorably increases, people are going to start looking for alternatives. The only question is whether we make our intercity transportation system grind to a halt before recognizing that, or whether we can catch ourselves before the crash.