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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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Transport Cycling and Austin’s Awesome Bike Plan

10:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

Last week, I came across a post at People for Bike, called Four Simple Lessons from Austin’s Brilliant Bike Plan Update … and after reading the post, I clicked on through to the overview of the Bike Plan Update that they were referring to, and it was even better than they said. Once I saw that, I know that Sunday Train was going to talk about both Austin’s Awesome Bike Plan and the Four Key Lessons that People for Bikes draw from it:

  • 1) The point of bike plans isn’t to appease bikers, it’s to make bikes useful to everyone.
  • 2) Good biking makes good transit better.
  • 3) You’re not going to turn every long car trip into a bike trip – all you have to do is turn short trips into bike trips.
  • 4) A good bike network increases the capacity of your entire road system.

So follow me below the fold to consider both these four important points and also the general Awesomeness of Austin’s Bike Plan Update.

The Point of Bike Plans is to Make Bikes Useful for Everyone

The point of a Bike Plan is to make Bikes useful for everyone. When taken seriously, that is tremendously useful in avoiding both a narrow plan that only caters to one type of cyclists, and in avoiding thinking of the Bike Plan as a kind of minority-interest pandering component of transport planning.

“Useful to” does not mean “potentially useful to”, or “conceivably useful to”, it means actually useful to, and directs us to think about the full range of ways that a cycle path can be useful. And “everyone” means just that. It means that all classes of cyclists are considered. And it means that benefits to having a cycle network to all other transit users are also considered.

The slide above and to the right is taken from the slideshow developed by Austin Engineer Nathan Wilkes focuses in on the first point. It identifies four types of transport cyclists, with estimated shares among the total population (not just the current cycling population):

  • The strong and fearless cyclist, accounting for about 2% of the Austin population. These are the cyclists that will take their legally entitlement to ride in the public right of way, and will, for example, “take the lane” when required for safe riding (indeed, a minority of these cyclists will even take more than their legal entitlement to ride in the public rights). While these cyclists do not require a dedicated bike infrastructure, they do indeed benefit from it;
  • The enthused and confident cyclist, accounting for about 15% of the Austin population. These are people who may not be comfortable riding in a general traffic lane with heavy automobile traffic, but are comfortable riding on unprotected cycle lanes and on side streets with lighter traffic.
  • The interested but concerned cyclist, accounting for about 39% of the Austin population. These are people who are reluctant or unwilling to ride without protection from higher speed or high volume automobile traffic, but willing to cycle in protected lanes or on streets with light automobile traffic traveling at low speed;
  • The No Way No How cyclists, accounting for about 44% of the population. These are people who will not bike, but will rely exclusively on some other means of transport.
  • While a system of painted, unprotected cycle lanes accessed by the regular system of side roads caters to only one fifth of the Austin population as prospective cyclists, a system of protected and buffered cycle lanes and cycleways accessed by a system of side roads including appropriate traffic calming features directly caters to a majority of the Austin population as prospective cyclists.

An important part of the Austin cycle network is the “8-80 test”: “An 8 year old traveling with an 80 year old should be able to traverse the city comfortable and safely.” The system has a design speed of 10-15mph, to accommodate commuter cyclists. The design bicycle includes tandems, trail-a-bikes, trailers, and cargo bikes.

To target not just every type of rider and their bike, but also riders across the Austin area, the target spacing between designed bike routes for the completed network is 1/2 to 3/4 mile in the central city and near transit stations, where short trips are most common, with increase spacing further away, with routes designed to connect residences to major employment, retail and educational centers.

And what about the 44%? After all, they may not be a majority, but addressing the needs of everyone means everyone, not “50% plus one”. We’ve already seen that in lessons (2) and (4). An effective bike network makes good transit better, and that benefits all transit users, whether or not they bike. And an effective bike network increases the capacity of the road system, which benefits all drivers, whether or not they bike.
A Well Designed Bike Plan Makes Good Transit Better

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Koch Brothers Aim to Screw Tennessee Transit Riders & Motorists

11:46 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

In a move to squash the freedom and local political autonomy of Nashville residents, the Koch Brothers-finded Americans For Prosperity turn out to be supporting a proposed State of Tennessee law outlawing Bus Rapid Transit systems that have dedicated lanes. From ThinkProgress:

On Thursday, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 2243, which includes an amendment that ‘prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway.’ The amendment is aimed at Nashville’s proposed $174 million rapid bus system called the Amp, but would apply to any mass transit system proposed in Nashville.

The Amp, a proposed 7.1-mile bus rapid transit system that would cut commute times along one of Nashville’s major corridors, has been staunchly opposed by the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying organization founded in part by the Koch brothers. AFP’s Tennessee director told the Tennessean that SB 2243 was the result of a conversation he’d had with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Tracy. In addition, AFP pushed the Senate to vote on the bill — efforts that led to, one of the lead groups opposing the Amp, thanking AFP in a press release after SB 2243 passed the Senate. The transit system’s opponents say it would create traffic problems and safety issues due to its middle-lane location, a claim that a spokesman for the Amp Coalition disputes.

One thing we know is that the claim of traffic problems and safety issues from a middle lane location is a red herring ~ not because its patent nonsense, though it is, but because that’s not what the bill restricts. The bill does not ban center lane Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or side lane BRT, it bans effective BRT. If passed by the House and signed into law, it requires that any BRT system run exclusively in mixed traffic … which means that its not likely to be a BRT at all, but would be, instead, a new coat of paint on city buses and some improved facilities at some city bus stops.

So more on why the Koch Brothers are against Tennesseans having effective BRT and so also against improved traffic conditions in Tennessee cities, below the fold.

Basics of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)

The first major experiments with Bus Rapid Transit took place in Curitiba, Brazil. The fundamental Curitiba model takes three city streets and makes the central one into a two way bus-only street, so there is no delays from interference by cars along the road. To that is added bus-priority at intersections between car-streets and bus-streets and measures to improve the speed of bus loading and unloading, such as bus “stations” with controlled access for ticket holders, so the bus can unload and then load from both front and rear doors without the bus driver having to either sell or check the tickets of boarding passengers.

US BRT systems do not involve this kind of wholesale shift of street lanes from car use to exclusive bus use. Rather, the high end US BRT systems, like Cleveland “Healthline” or LA’s Orange Line (video), involve one or a few dedicated bus corridors, stations with off-bus ticket sales, and bus priority at signals. As noted in the LA Orange Line video, bus priority can also upgraded for buses that are running behind schedule time, to help them catch up on their schedule.

Both the Cleveland Healthline BRT and LA Orange Line BRT were on corridors that were originally considered for dedicated light rail corridors.

The choice of mode often generate quite ferocious debate among advocates of different modes of local transit. Light rail has similar transit speed to BRT but a higher peak capacity than BRT, electrification of light rail is less expensive than trolleybus electrification of a BRT corridor, and light rail is often considered to have a more comfortable ride. On the other hand, a larger share of the capital cost of a light rail system is up front, so there are cases where it is possible to obtain sufficient funding for a BRT corridor where it is not possible to fund light rail on that same corridor. In some cases, though this can vary from state to state, more of the costs of the BRT system can be passed off onto the existing hidden subsidies for road transport, disguising some of the full economic cost of the system, and in those cases the financing is tilted even more heavily to BRT.

And as discussed a few weeks ago in the Sunday Train, “four key ingredients” to successful Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD), based on examining five US leaders in TOD, are:

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Our Trebly Broken Highway Funding System

9:24 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

Over the balance of this year, you are likely to hear more and more about our broken Highway Funding system. For instance, William Moore, of the consultancy group Vianovo and member of the Transportation Transformation Group, wrote at Infra Insight this last 13 March that:

Absent swift action by Congress, state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.

However, this is just the most visible layer of pending crisis in our highway funding system. Even if we were to fix the threat to engage in spending at status quo levels,status quo spending has been falling behind the damage done by cars and trucks to our roads for decades, and even if we were to fund our transportation to address the massive shortfall in maintaining our current highway system, we have not seriously begun in addressing the fact that our current transport system is one of our principle contributor’s to our economy’s present climate change suicide course.

We have a trebly broken highway funding system, and there is no guarantee that we will actually address the simplest of the problems.

The good news is that we do not need massive technological breakthroughs to fix this triple layer cake of crisis. The bad news is that what we do need is a political movement with both the focus and the clout to push the existing available solutions onto the table, in the face of determined status quo resistance … and those who have at least glanced at our political system over the past decade would be aware that building such a movement is a “to be solved by reader” kind of problem.

The Road Funding Crisis You Will Hear About: The Highway Trust Fund

The nature of the road funding crisis that you will hear about is straightforward. We have federal fuel taxes that pay into the Highway and Transit trust funds, and then projects and other funding are approved that draws upon those trust funds. Back in the 90′s, when we last set the rates of Federal gas and diesel taxes, they were set in nominal terms without an inflation index.

So every year, the federal gasoline tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon and the federal diesel tax rate of 24.4 cents per gallon sees a reduction in the real tax burden on motorists and truck freight … slower, when inflation is slow, and faster when inflation is fast, but, from the CAP fact sheet on the issue:

  • In inflation-adjusted terms, the gas tax is worth only 11.5 cents today.
  • In 1993, the gas tax represented 18 percent of the cost of an average gallon of gasoline. Today, it represents only 5 percent.
  • If gas and diesel taxes had been indexed to keep pace with inflation, today they would be 29 cents and 38 cents per gallon, respectively.

But the ongoing, slow and hidden cuts in fuel taxes, year after year and decade after decade, is only half of the story. After all, if the indexing was the only problem, then the funds could be restored by simply enacting an “index plus”, such as adding 0.1 cents plus an index correction each quarter, until the gas tax caught up to its original value of 29 cents a gallon in 2014 dollar.

The gas tax never actually covered any part of the costs of burning gasoline, which as we now know includes not just the pollution of dumping poisons into our atmosphere, but also includes the more insidious but, it turns out, more dangerous dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere … which is essential to life on our planet, but which in ever increasing concentrations in the atmosphere as we dump millions of years worth of naturally sequestered carbon is highly likely to cause sufficiently severe climate change that it will wreck our ability to have a national economy and national society.

Instead, what the gas tax covered was a fraction of the costs imposed by cars and trucks on public and semi-public right of ways. That damage is done by the vehicle relative to the weight of the vehicle ~ the vehicle axle load and the number of axles ~ and so if vehicles were to become more efficient, then there would be a reduction in the gas tax per passenger mile (for cars) and per ton-mile (for trucks) even if we were to restore fuel tax levels in real terms. And that is, indeed, the fourth point in the Center for American Progress dot points:

  • The corporate average fuel-economy standards will rise to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. This will approximately double the efficiency of vehicles compared to current levels and dramatically reduce the amount of tax revenue flowing to the HTF, crippling federal surface transportation programs.

To make things still worse, a large part of the electorate harbors the fantasy that gas taxes “pay” for the costs of roads, when the reality is, as Washington Cycle points out:

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Car Subsidies & Ebbing Vehicle Miles Traveled

8:43 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

Earlier this month, the website of the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story, “Drop in traffic on area highways forces review of plans.” It cites several “area” road funding decisions based on assumptions of growing traffic, which turned out to be false:

  • A $2.5b New Jersey Turnpike widening justifiedm in 2005, by projections of a 68% increase in traffic volumes over the coming 25 years … where turnpike traffic in 2013 is only 90% of 2005 levels
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission undertook to provide up to $900m in annual funding for other roads around the state, based on projections of Turnpike traffic growth of 3% to 5% … while to date, there hasn’t been any appreciable traffic growth
  • The Scudder Falls bridge taking I-95 over the Delaware River was a four lane bridge that the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace with a nine-line $328m bridge based on projected traffic increases of 35% by 2035 … and to date, that growth in traffic has not yet materialized

The article poses the question of “whether” the traffic growth that went away following the Panic of 2008 and which hasn’t shown up in the ensuing Depression of 2008 to, optimistically, 2015, might not ever turn up.

Well, it probably won’t. And that raises the follow-up question, what are we going to do about it?

On Being Puzzled that After Things Change, They Are Different

It is instructive to follow the reactions to people within the Road Building Establishment to questions from Inquirer Staff whether the motor vehicle traffic growth might not be coming back:

‘If these trends continue, it would definitely change the way we need to plan for our transportation future,’ said Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. ‘But I think the jury is still out on that . . . we need two or three more years of data.’

Traffic predictions for the planned new Scudder Falls Bridge over the Delaware River between Bucks and Mercer Counties were revised downward in 2010, said Joseph Donnelly, spokesman for the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. And yet another traffic study, costing $452,128, was ordered in October, to get a better handle on future traffic and revenue. But Donnelly said a new bridge was needed, regardless of how projections may change, because ‘the bridge has trouble handling the traffic it has now.’

Likewise on the $2.5 billion widening of the New Jersey Turnpike between Exits 6 and 9, according to Turnpike Authority spokesman Thomas Feeney. ‘Even if traffic volumes on the turnpike remained flat forever, the widening would have been necessary,’ Feeney said. ‘That widening area is one of the worst bottlenecks on any highway in New Jersey. . . . The additional capacity is needed today, and the benefits are going to be immediately apparent to drivers as soon as the project is completed this November.’

Its unclear whether this is going to continue, and we needed those projects anyway. The challenge, of course, is that when funding is based on asking cars to pay some share (though, of course, less than half) of the costs that they impose upon the transport system, the ability to pay is different if we project ahead from the present day, as opposed to projecting ahead based on 20th century experience.

This is a particular challenge for the State of Pennsylvania because, as the article notes, in 2007 Pennsylvania adopted a plan to fund road and transit projects at levels of up to $990m/year, based on expected rising Turnpike traffic levels and the planned conversion of I-80 into a toll road. You know the saying that “two out of three aint bad”? Well, on the two assumptions Pennsylvania’s policy was based on, they are zero for two … and yes, that’s bad.

Inquirer staff interviewed the Dean of the Rutgers School of Planning and Public Policy, who laid the difficulty in forecasting traffic growth on two factors:

  • the preferences and behavior of Millenials, who are on average less enamored with driving than generations that came of age in the 20th century; and
  • weak economic growth since the start of the 2007-9 Recession.

The Millennial Generation and Social Technology

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Four Rules for Transit-Oriented Development from Five leaders

8:11 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

This week’s Sunday Train features a piece from John Karras’, How Your City Can Succeed In Transit Oriented Development. John looks at DC, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Cleveland to argue that your city can also succeed in pursuing Transit Oriented Development:

Here are the 4 key ingredients needed to create successful transit oriented development:

  • TOD Ingredient #1: Connect dense employment centers
  • TOD Ingredient #2: Regional collaboration
  • TOD Ingredient #3: Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • TOD Ingredient #4: Public-private partnerships for joint development

This is an important argument, and ties in with many themes address in previous Sunday Trains, including Sustainable Real Estate Development is Good for the Economy and Other Growing Things (30 June 2013), Trains & Buses Should Be Friends (24 Nov 2013) and ‘the successful communities are going to be the ones who get rail.’ (1 Dec 2013), so join me below the fold for the most recent consideration of these issues and Transit-Oriented Development, commonly abbreviated as “TOD”.

Connect Dense Employment Centers

It is, of course, due to many decades of most American cities gutting our existing local transport alternatives that this is an issue. If we hadn’t discarded what we already had, we would be looking at how to leverage access into our densest employment centers into more effective regional transport alternatives.

But where the trunk backbone does not exist, then it must be provided. John quotes Transit Oriented Development and Employment from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (pdf) saying:

Real estate development is more likely to occur in station areas that are within close proximity to major employment centers. Therefore, if transit is planned in a way that makes strong connections to significant employment centers, it can also promote residential TOD in places on the transit corridor where commercial uses are less likely to locate. Understanding this relationship between employment centers and residential TOD is an important part of the TOD equation. (p. 27)

It is easy to read this as “connecting to downtown”, but that is just one version of what makes a major employment center. Whether downtown area or not, what is key is the clustering of employment. To quote further from the study:

Employment dispersal away from traditional central business districts can work well with transit operations, even in suburban locations, but only if employment remains clustered in relatively dense concentrations with appropriate transit service, parking controls, and placemaking provisions. It might be necessary to change the way we think about employment, from urban versus suburban, to more of a model of dispersed versus concentrated nodes. Places with high employment densities can be served with transit networks and made into places that can provide people with amenities during the lunch hour that foster more non-auto trips.

So the distinction here is not “downtown” vs “suburban” but “concentrated employment centers” versus “dispersed employment”.

It is an open question as to what the next step should be after those corridors are provided for. I have argued that the same kind of government intervention that has generated sprawl development of both residential and employment centers can be reversed in strategic locations to re-orient suburbs into a more ecologically sustainable clustered development system … and this argument suggests that doing so will also open up greater opportunities for TOD throughout urbanized areas and into their hinterlands in a metropolitan area.

Regional Collaboration
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Cap & Trade Funds should help finance the California High Speed Rail

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

An encore of a Sunday Train from 22 April, 2012, on a topic that has come back in the news

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

One element of the recent California HSR “revised” draft 2012 Business Plan (which we shall call the Other, Other Plan) involves looking to one particular means of finance in addition to general fund bond finance and Federal transport grant funding:

Cap-and-Trade Program Funds
Assembly Bill 32 (Statutes, 2006, Chapter 488) mandates a reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In accordance with that law, California will implement a market-based cap-and-trade program. Funds from the program can be used to further the purposes of AB 32, including for development and construction of the high-speed rail system.

This has led to the current controversy in which the California Legislative Analysts Office, the LAO, has argued that the Cap and Trade funds might not be usable for HSR (pdf: p. 8).

One of their points, “Other GHG Reduction Strategies Likely to Be More Cost Effective,” involves a serious and common misframing of the question of the use of funds dedicated to reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: when reducing GHG emissions in a project that serves multiple purposes, the cost effectiveness of the GHG emissions spending depends on what share of the project funding is represented by that GHG emissions spending.

So more on transport, Green House Gas emissions, and the peculiar analytical weaknesses that crop up whenever the California LAO turns its attention to HSR, over the fold.

Funding Shares Matter

Lets consider three projects. A reduces CO2 at a cost of $20/ton. B reduces CO2 at a cost of $50/ton. And C reduces CO2 at a cost of $250/ton. Which one is the more cost efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions ?

Of course, you have no way of knowing, since you are missing a key piece of information: what share of funding is coming from the funds dedicated to reducing CO2 emissions:

  • If A is 100% funding, B is 80% funding, and C is 10% funding, then the order is A=$20, C=$25, B=$40;
  • If A is 100% funding, B is 20% funding, and C is 2.5% funding, then the order is C=$10, A=$20, B=$63

So, for projects that are onlyfunded to reduce CO2 emissions, the evaluation is simple. But for projects that are “win-win-win” type projects, advanced and supported as helping with multiple goals, the question is:

  • what share of funding ought to come in support of its CO2 emissions reduction

Possible answers include:

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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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