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Do Supertrains Help Small Town and Rural America?

10:39 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

{Reprinted from the Hillbilly, April 21, 2009.}
{ Except for updating images to correct for link rot, edits in braces and italics.}

This last weekend I wrote up a small diary, cross-posted to various places … which even stumbled into being wrecklisted at Agent Orange … about the High Speed Rail plan [ released by the Obama administration].

That diary focused on laying out the three “tiers” of HSR in the announced plan. “Express HSR” is one of the bullet train systems, like they are planning for California. But between that tier and conventional rail, are two more tiers:

  • “Regional HSR”, with a top speed of around 125mph, able to provide trips at average speeds in the range of 100mph, operating in existing rail rights of way, but mostly on its own track, with upgraded signaling and substantial investment in grade separation and/or the top level of “hardened” level crossings, normally with electrified lines; and
  • “Emerging HSR”, with a top speed of 110mph, able provide trips at average speed in excess of 80mph, operating on existing rail right of way with improved capacity, but sometimes sharing track with freight rail, the 110mph standard of quad gate, speed sensitive level crossings, and provided by either electric or diesel 110mph tilt-trains

The bullet trains are the show ponies … but for small town and rural America, the genuine seat at the table for Emerging and Regional HSR is the real good news from the announcement.

Now, I do not want to give the impression that Express HSR is somehow “anti-rural development.” Far from it … all forms of HSR share a key feature that is very good news for small town and rural America.

Trains lose much less time on a stop than airplanes do. And while an Express HSR route might be built in order to serve transport markets between two big metro areas … you need two way track pretty much all the way to run them properly, and once you have it, adding services to serve smaller cities in between is very cost efficient.

That doesn’t mean a station in every little village and hamlet, but it does mean that there can be a station every thirty to fifty miles, which means the areas that the HSR passes through are likely to see far more frequent services at the closest HSR station than at the closest airfield.

So, compared to the current state of affairs, there are going to be more rural areas with more effective transport options in reasonable driving distance with “Express HSR” than with the two level system of short-hop flights and interstate buses.

Cost Matters

No, what makes the seat at the table for Emerging HSR and Regional HSR so exciting is that they cost so much less per mile to get built.

Consider that basically one Express HSR corridor from San Francisco to San Jose through the Central Valley then LA and ending in Anaheim California … {was} projected to cost $46b, {and is now projected to cost $68.4b due to project design inflation, reaction to NIMBY opposition driving further design inflation, and an increase in underlying cost estimates due to difficulty geography descending into the San Fernando Valley.}

However, to build the Ohio Hub for 110mph service (blue and orange lines) would cost under $10b … maybe under $5b. That’s Buffalo to Cleveland to Columbus to Dayton to Cincinnati … connecting to Indianapolis and Chicago, Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Toledo to Fort Wayne …. connecting to Chicago, Pittsburgh to Columbus to Toledo to Detroit, and Pittsburgh to Columbus to Fort Wayne.

The thing is, when existing rail sees light freight traffic, it can be upgraded, 10miles of passing tracks added in each 50 miles of track, when existing rail sees heavy freight traffic, a new passenger track can be laid … and all in existing rail rights of way. Most of the worst headaches of establishing a new rail line in terms of environmental clearances, property fights, etc, … just are not there when building inside an existing rail right of way.

The track is built for 60mph freight traffic, and then the extra tilt that has to be added to allow trains to go through turns at 110mph without tossing the passengers around is added by the train itself.

And consider the stations …

… while it is patronage involving the three largest cities in that provides the financial foundation for the Ohio Hub system, once the rail line is passing through, it makes sense to add a station every so often, to get an additional increment of passengers.

And so there are stations laid out in Coshocton, Springfield, Kenton, New Castle PA, Findlay, Defiance … a lot more stations a lot more accessible to the rural counties of the state than a single Express HSR system could be, and for less money.

And its not just the Regional HSR Systems

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The Ends of Amtrak

9:02 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

At the beginning of last month, Paul Druce of “Reason & Rail” discussed the possible impact of the pending upgrade of the Amtrak Acela route in Acela II is the path towards Amtrak operational self-sustainability:

The forthcoming Acela II isn’t just supposed to be significantly faster than the current Acela service, cutting 24 minutes from the scheduled time between Washington and New York and 38 minutes between Washington and Boston, but it will also represent a significant boost in capacity. …

With an increase in seating capacity, Amtrak will be able to garner significantly more revenue, even if it lowers the price of Acela seating somewhat. This added revenue comes with no significant increase in operational cost and quite possibly a lowered cost, as there should be a higher rate of availability and lowered mechanical costs for what is essentially an off the shelf train, along with significantly lower energy consumption. With current averages for occupancy and passenger revenue unchanged, an Acela II train service could see $742 million in revenue, with $447 million in operational profit.

This will have an even larger effect upon Amtrak’s financial deficit than initially appears because starting in FY2014, the states bear a greater responsibility for the short distance train corridors. This had the affect of reducing Amtrak’s FY2014 budget request to only $373 million for the operating grant; 2013’s appropriation, by contrast, was $442 million.

Note that what Paul Druce refers to as “operational profit” is what I have been calling “operating surplus” in the Sunday Train, the surplus of revenues from operations over operating costs. This is nothing like an operational profit, at present, since a profit is a financial benefit from a difference between revenue and costs, and there is nothing in the current organization of the Acela services that make a surplus on their operations into a distinctive financial asset for any purpose … whether public or private.

Whether or not all or part of this operating surplus should be made into an operational profit is a question that goes to the heart of what is the purpose of Amtrak. The way that this surplus is spent can be the means to service a range of ends … but what are the ends that are a legitimate use of these means?

Since Amtrak was established, and exists, as a political compromise, this is not a question about what is the proper “End” for Amtrak activities, but what are the proper “Ends” for Amtrak activities.

The Amtrak Tripod

Amtrak originated, and survives, as a political compromise, with both operational and political complementarity between the three legs of the Amtrak tripod:

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Carolina High Speed Rail & The Piedmont Service

8:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

The Southeast HSR corridor can be divided between the “real” SEHSR corridor, where there is actual, ongoing work on improving the speed and, even more critically, the capacity of the corridor in support of services that will begin operating within the current decade, and the “notional” SEHSR corridor, the land of feasibility studies and preliminary planning, where even if a pedal to the metal intercity rail investment program were to commence in 2017, any new services entering into operation before the latter half of next decade would be subsidized conventional rail service.

And given the importance of state governments in the current bottom-up process of intercity rail development, it should be unsurprising that the boundary between the two part of the SEHSR runs quite close to a state boundary. As discussed two weeks ago, Georgia lies in the middle of “notional” SEHSR country, with Rapid Rail connections to Birmingham; Columbus, GA; Savanna; Charlotte, NC; and Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville at various stages of being studied, but without active ongoing investment. By contrast, there is current active investment and planned roll-out of new service throughout Virginia and North Carolina, all the way through to Charlotte, NC.

One reason that Virginia and North Carolina are engaged in ongoing investment is that they are well positioned for incremental development of Rapid Rail passenger service, with a legacy of through Amtrak corridors providing a platform to build upon, urban development taking place along urban arcs in both states, and close enough to the growing major metropolitan center of Washington, DC to use Washington as an anchor for longer distance intercity transport.

The greatest current focus of investment in the “real SEHSR” is the Piedmont Corridor in North Carolina, which is the focus of this week’s Sunday Train.

North Carolina Intercity Rail Transport in the Amtrak Era

With the establishment of Amtrak, and the compact between the majority of freight railroads and Amtrak to take over the freight railroad’s passenger rail responsibilities in return for priority access to the rail corridors of those railroads, North Carolina retained two long distance passenger trains between New York and Florida, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. The Silver Meteor is the direct train to Miami, traveling on a more Eastern route through North and South Carolina, while the Silver Star runs through a more central route in the Carolinas, including Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Florida runs between Orlando and Tampa, doubling back to connect Tampa and Miami.

Leading into the 1970′s, there were two intercity routes between Atlanta and New Orleans, via Mobile Alabama and Birmingham, Alabama. In 1970, the Southern Railway consolidated service into the Crescent route, which ran via Birmingham. When they entered into the Amtrak compact in 1979, the Crescent was the last privately operated long-distance passenger route east of the Mississippi. The Crescent included service through western North Carolina between Charlotte and Greensboro as a night train with a morning arrival in Atlanta southwest-bound and an evening departure from Atlanta northeast-bound.

In the mid-70′s, Amtrak established the Palmetto, which presently runs between New York City and Savanna, Georgia, paralleling the route of the Silver Meteor but making additional stops. At various times in its history it has been extended south into Florida. While it runs to the east of Raleigh, it includes a station in Selma, North Carolina, listed by Google Maps as a thirty three minute drive from Raleigh.

In the mid-80s, with financial support from the State of North Carolina, Amtrak introduced the Carolinian, which ran on the Crescent route from Charlotte to Greensboro, than ran across to Raleigh, then continued through Richmond, Virginia and Washington DC to New York City. While the service met ridership targets, it did not meet revenue / passenger-mile targets as most passengers traveled in-state, and North Carolina discontinued their support. In 1990, they tried again, and this time met their target, providing the fourth intercity train from North Caorlina to Virginia and the Northeast Corridor through to NYC, and the first connecting the major population centers of North Carolina’s urban arc. In conjunction with the Palmetto, the Carolinian provides a connection for an Amtrak throughway bus service connecting to Greenville, home of ECU, and through to the coast at Morehead City.

After the successful re-introduction of the Carolinian, the state of North Carolina sought to establish a second Charlotte / Raleigh train, and after some additional work to provide turn-around capacity at Charlotte and a service center in Raleigh, the Piedmont entered into operation in 1995. This was upgraded to two Piedmont Services in 2010.

So this was the intercity passenger rail landscape in North Carolina at the start of the current decade:

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Taking That High Speed Train in Georgia

8:30 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

I saw this news back in early January (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer 8 Jan 2014):

A high speed rail line between Columbus and Atlanta would cost between $1.3-$3.9 billion over the next 20 years to build, but once up and running would more than pay for its operations and maintenance, a consultant said today.

It could also have a huge economic impact, according to Kirsten Berry, project manager consulting firm HNTB Corp., which performed the $350,000 study of the economic feasibility study of high speed rail between Columbus and Atlanta. The study was funded with a $300,000 Georgia Department of Transportation grant and the rest in private donations, according to city Director of Planning Rick Jones.

Now, the actual feasibility study itself has not been released, although the overview presentation to the Columbus GA stakeholders has been released, and I was going to wait until that feasibility study was available to talk about this on the Sunday Train. But then this happened:

Atlanta (CNN) — Empty streets, shuttered storefronts and abandoned vehicles littering the side of the road. That was the scene across much of metropolitan Atlanta on Wednesday as people hunkered down to wait out the aftermath of a snow and ice storm that brought the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area to a screeching halt.

… and given the severe state of auto-dependency in the greater Atlanta area, I concluded that the state of plans for HSR in Georgia merits a closer look.

A Tale of Two Columbus HSR corridors and Two Locally-driven Efforts

This feasibility study of a High Speed Rail corridor from Columbus, Georgia to Atlanta is similar to the Columbus, Ohio to Chicago via Northeast Indiana HSR study, in that it has been driven from the ground up rather than the top down:

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson established a Passenger Rail Commission in late 2011 made up of community leaders from the public and private sectors. Attorney Edward Hudson and State Rep. Calvin Smyre are co-chairs of the commission. Money was secured for the consultant’s fee and the first steps were taken to determine the feasibility of the idea. One of the most encouraging things about the consultant’s findings is the projected economic impact on the areas involved in the rail system. The report said that, based on what has happened with similar rail lines in other cities, stakeholders can expect to see 11,000 to 28,000 new jobs per $1 billion invested. Tomlinson said the impact locally would be akin to four Kia plants.

There is also a similarity in that this is an additional spoke being proposed to a set of plans for a hub anchored on a major national metropolitan center. In the Columbus, OH case, all of the Ohio Hub and much of the Midwest Regional Rail System exist as plans on the shelf, but there is active investment in the Rapid Rail Chicago to St. Louis and the Rapid Rail Chicago to Detroit rail corridors. In the Columbus, GA case, all of the Georgia corridors connecting to Atlanta are plans on the shelf, though with ongoing federally-funded ongoing planning activity for the Atlanta to Charlotte HSR corridor, while it is the Washington DC to Charlotte via Richmond HSR corridor that is receiving a variety of active investments.

Now, for both corridors, there are network benefits to connecting to other, already operating, Rapid Rail and/or bullet train corridors. However, for both corridors, it is clear that the main focus is connecting to a major metropolitan center from smaller centers. Columbus may be the third largest municipality in Georgia, but while the Atlanta urbanized area stands 9th in the list of US urbanized areas, with about 4.5m people, Columbus stands 147th, with about 250,000 in its urbanized area. In that regard, the corridor is more similar to northern Indiana to Chicago leg of the Columbus – Fort Wayne – Chicago proposal than the full Columbus, OH to Chicago, anchored by an urbanized area population of 8.6m on one side and 1.3m on the other.

This makes this feasibility study particularly interesting, since connecting a a city of 250,000 to a major national metropolitan center makes for a more challenging cost-benefit case than connecting a city of 1.3m to a major national metropolitan center. That does not mean, of course, that this analysis applies across the board to any corridor connecting a 4m+ city with a quarter million population city, since terrain and existence of available transport corridors will have a substantial impact on cost, and of course Fort Benning will boost ridership for Columbus Georgia compared to many other similar sized cities, but it remains an interesting indicator for this type of corridor.

And there are, of course, more prospective 250,000+ population anchors for corridors to major national metropolitan centers than there are 1m+ anchors, so this pushes the envelope regarding the scope of High Speed Rail for picking up a substantial part of our intercity transport task.

Rapid Rail versus Bullet Trains between Columbus, GA and Atlanta

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Will We Be Ready for the Great 2017 High Speed Rail Policy Unlock?

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

I’ve posed a question in the title of this week’s Sunday Train that I have no intention of answering myself.

The first thing you may have noted is that the title presumes a “Great 2017 Policy Unlock” that is by no means certain. And assuming an event in a title as a lead-in to talking about the likelihood of that event is a long-standing internet link-bait practice.

The second thing, however, is that even that would be focusing on political fortune telling, and the Sunday Train is not normally about making guesses about what will happen. It is more often focused on policy in the sense of thinking about what should happen and, sometimes, what we can do to make it more likely to happen.

The foundation of the Sunday Train is the premise that on our current track, with our current transport and energy systems, we are driving the possibility of retaining a national, modern, industrial economy over a cliff. We are doing that in three ways:

  • Our Energy Production and our Transport Systems combined are responsible for a majority of our CO2 emissions, and even if we converted everything else in our economy to be 50% carbon negative ~ sequestering 50% as much CO2 as it present emits ~ our current Energy and Transport systems would be sufficient to drive the globe far enough into Climate Crisis to bring down our national industrial economy;
  • And the world has hit Peak Petroleum Production, as is clear from the variety of “scraping the bottom of the barrel” oil and oil-replacement exploitation efforts taking place today, and has started to slide down the other side of the peak, so that an economy as exposed as our own to oil price shocks is going to lose massive ground compared to competing economies that are already positioned to shelter themselves from the impact of oil price shocks
  • And we are heading toward the Energy Return on Investment cliff for the fossil fuels we produce ourselves that our current Energy and Transport systems relies upon, and as we slide down that cliff, the economic benefit of that domestic fossil fuel production will progressively decline, leaving us behind any national economies or continental economic systems that seriously pursue sustainable, renewable energy sources that are seeing growing Energy Return on Investment, due to technological progress.

Pick your poison, since any one of them is serious enough to either drive the US economy from the ranks of the core economies into the ranks of the semi-peripheral economies, or even to eliminate our ability to retain a national economy at all.

Given that premise, the “odds of success” in a political forecasting sense is not the focus of the Sunday Train. The focus is rather the prospect for improving those odds. Whether that is improving the odds from a 50% chance of success, or a 1% chance of success to a 2% chance of success, in either event it is worth the investment in effort to try … whether the mere 1/5 improvement in the odds, or the more impressive doubling in the odds, what is won in the event of a win is such a jackpot that its worth the effort to simply improve the odds a little bit.

High Speed Rail Is Not Dead Yet

Atlantic Cities have an article, “How Republicans Killed America’s High-Speed Rail Plan”, which notes:

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