My Bio and This Blog's Purpose

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 26

Federal regulations stifle would-be private operator
A luxury rail operator has been derailed by the FRA--no pun intended--due to onerous regulations. The Greenbrier Express was supposed to have begun operations next July from Washington, D.C. to the Greenbrier Resort in WV.

Take: The FRA’s slogan should be "We are the #1 Barrier to Innovation" since it continues to require passenger operators to use bulky cars that don't stand up to snuff in crashes. Not only do liability guidelines need to be overhauled but the entire Federal Railroad Administration has to be as well.

Minnesota news
The existing Empire Builder route via La Crosse, WI has been selected as the choice for the Twin Cities-Chicago Regional HSR route. Also, the MNDOT will begin developing the Zip Line Corridor between the Twin Cities and Rochester.

Take: For the Regional route, it sounds like it was a case of playing it safe after neighboring Wisconsin pulled the plug on the Milwaukee to Madison Hiawatha extension. The move upset northern Wisconsin residents who had hoped that the route would stop via Eau Claire. These fine folks should enter into a PPP with SNCF or anyone else interested in running trains to their part of the state. The fact that the route will skip WI's capital city is nonsensical, but again that's due to Governor No Train.

As for southeastern Minnesota, the Express route should serve as the beginning rather than a be all-end all. MN officials would be wise to extend Zip Rail eastward to Winona--or even to Madison--as part of a route matrix connecting Zip Rail with the Amtrak and MWHSR systems.

No HSR funding for FY 2012
It's official: The heralded HSIPR Program will get no money from now until next fall.

Take #1: High speed rail is now 0-for-3 this year in regards to funding. As a result, it is time to pull the plug on any region that is planning to operate trains below 110 mph being a part of a national HSR network. In other words, only the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, California and the Northwest can support anything that remotely meets the Obama Administration's definition of Regional HSR. Other states should leave the fast train planning to the professionals and focus on building a good conventional network that will gradually lead to 110 mph service.

Also, I am disappointed that neither the Administration nor the Senate had enough courage to tell the oil-aligned Tea Party where to go. If a high speed rail network was supposed to be a part of 44's legacy, then, he should have put up much more of a fight at some point earlier. In addition to this week's final outcome, HSR funding was sacrificed during the government shutdown showdown in March and the debt ceiling deal in the summer.

Take #2: The headline is quite misleading because when it comes to funding, we are really talking about not funding HSR until FY 2014--two years from now...if that early. Given the electorate's dysfunctional mood, absolutely nothing is a slam dunk regarding next year's elections. Also, no one in his or her right mind should expect Congress to do anything next fall because they will all be focused on the elections.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Integrating California's Rail Network

Cooperation Is Key
When it comes to the possible use of San Joaquin trains on the HSR route: There’s right way to integrate Amtrak service with high speed service—and a wrong way. The new passenger-only right of way should not be used as a replacement for existing San Joaquin service since several stops would be missed. Instead, the HSR ROW should serve as an extension of the San Joaquins southward to Los Angeles and San Diego since Caltrans has been blocked from using the Tehachapi Pass by Union Pacific for at least a decade.

The engine switching in Bakersfield and Los Angeles would be worth it since Californians would have another travel option between the Central Valley and Southern California. The Central Valley route would also serve as America’s first rail highway as long-distance trains would also use the passenger-only path for a new Los Angeles-Seattle route as well as revivals of Midwestern bound routes like the San Francisco Chief.

During the summer, I read this story from Public Transit that brought up the concept. Most people missed this article as it has not been brought up since. The author’s (Michael Setty) primary argument is that the state’s current HSR plan is way too thin and limited to justify its costs and that the design philosophy doesn’t permit interoperability to or from existing rail lines. The French built brand new 220 mph TGV lines in undeveloped rural areas, which bypassed intermediate towns.  Existing routes were upgraded to obtain HSR entry in most urban areas. Setty criticized the CAHSR route for disrupting existing communities and farms and for being extremely disruptive since it’s mostly along new ROW.

Networked Transit is a customer needs-driven approach rather than something that’s centered on technology. Each and every transit mode is considered for its place in an overall network/system. Switzerland—the mastermind behind Networked Transit--was used as an example with three different types of train service (Regional, Interregional, Intercity), buses, and walking. Under Setty’s scenario, for example, just one online ticket would cover a 14 hour trip from Crescent City to Twentynine Palms with local and regional buses, extended Amtrak California services, and an HSR train.

Networked Transit has resulted in Switzerland having Europe’s highest per capita rail and transit ridership. Most of France’s TGV routes operate along preexisting routes. Setty then concludes that the Golden State resembles the Swiss more than the French because its population is widely spread out and that extensive, coordinated connecting services are required if HSR is to be successful statewide.

Where the Concept Was On Point
Innovation is the key to any prospering system and Setty has completely overhauled CA’s planned system. It would be of great significance to point out that this concept is really dealing with three types of intercity rail—HSR, conventional rail handled by the Amtrak California system, and intercity rail that travels to other states regardless of operator—as well as various local rail in the metropolitan areas upon the implementation of Networked Transit.

There has been a recent uproar over CAHSR reviving the Grapevine Alignment because it would bypass Palmdale. The Networked Transit Plan would remedy that problem by allowing the DesertXpress to serve the Antelope Valley, providing passengers from Las Vegas a one seat ride to L.A. without having to rely on a CAHSR train.

Two brand new alignments that impressed me the most were the Los Angeles-San Bernardino-Victorville and Sacramento-South Lake Tahoe-Reno routes. In the case of the former, all other HSR companies could hypothetically use the route as an alternative to the Antelope Valley segment. As for the latter, the medium speed option would be parallel to U.S. 50 and would serve as an alternative to stretching the Capitols (which would be extended to Grass Valley instead) to Nevada and having to put up with UP’s resistance. Long-distance alternatives to the California Zephyr could utilize this route to serve tourist areas of western NV.

Overhauling parts of its system based on the Networked Transit concept would help the Authority to cut astronomical costs that could prevent the system from being built and doom future aspects of HSR in the U.S. This is very important because the Authority and the route have both come under immense criticism throughout the year.

Where the Concept Missed the Mark
The Tehachapi Pass would permanently be off limits to passenger trains if Grapevine Route is implemented. This is a very scenic part of CA.

Also, north of Bakersfield, the HSR route would continue to utilize I-5, bypassing stops between Fresno and Sacramento. Under the Networked Transit plan, the planned HSR stretch would be downgraded to electrified 110 mph Regional HSR service along some stretches. The problem is that the feds were strict about the Merced-Fresno segment being the first one built. I’d like to see PT trying to explain bypassing both cities in favor of a 220 mph segment to the west to the Authority.

Another problem with the NT plan is that San Jose would also lose out on fast train service—a forced transfer at Fremont being the only contact with high speed service.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 25

Rail improvements north of the border

Via Rail Canada is focusing on improving speed and travel times. Providing High speed rail service? Not so much.

Take: Canada’s passenger rail system was gutted in 1990 and routes and frequencies have not returned to that year’s levels so Via Rail has to add more frequencies and get back to that year's levels before serious HSR can be considered. Also, a PPP should be used for HSR if it’s to be implemented.

Using some logic on the Left Coast
A new plan would electrify Caltrain.

Take:  It makes sense because you can only build up to a point in metropolitan areas like the Bay Area. The plan will fall in line with how most countries built their HSR systems—build new ROWs in rural areas but share tracks with existing passenger services in urban locales. Caltrain should be electrified by now, so this project should help with that endeavor.

Transaction complete
61-mile stretch of track is now in the hands of the state of Florida in anticipation for SunRail service.

Take: This is what a public-private partnership should look like.

Lone Star State wants $15 mil from feds for route
Texas officials want money but they don’t even know if they’ll even get anything from the HSIPR Program.

Take:  The article stated that the state’s funding request has nothing to do with JR Central’s efforts to privately build a 200+ mph route between Dallas and Houston. How coincidental given that Texas wants public money for HSR service when it should be focusing on restoring passenger service to the existing Dallas-Houston segment that hosted part of the Texas Eagle from 1989 to 1995. How can that be done, you ask? It’s simple; state officials should consult a private operator to run the route, thereby cutting out the middleman that is Amtrak. Perhaps, Union Pacific would be more receptive to the new entity than to Amtrak. Also, more passenger service along the Texas Triangle would also be more productive than chasing that $15 million when a private entity could save taxpayers money by building fast train service with its own money.

New Delaware service?
A study is looking to provide new service in downstate Delaware and east Maryland.

Take:  After the smoke clears with many private operators winning routes, this new service would actually be a smart move by Amtrak.

Atlanta is going to get a new station
On Halloween, Georgia’s DOT signed a deal with a private firm to build a brand new train station in downtown Atlanta that will also provide service for mass transit (MARTA, streetcars, buses) and intercity buses.

Take: I agree with Creative Loafing that Terminal Station like the original Penn Station in NYC should have never been demolished. This new facility will also allow for high speed service. The intercity entities can use the new station to turn around certain cars and to also put on double decker cars for transcontinental routes.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tackling the Headlines 24

Mica gives up on spinning off NEC
So the uproar worked. Just today, the House Transportation Committee chairman waved the white flag on spinning off the 457-mile line to the USDOT.

Take: Too bad since Amtrak will continue to be saddled with the infrastructure costs along the Boston-to-Washington route. It also shows how difficult it is to wrest away the rights of the line from Amtrak to USDOT. Thanks, Ford Administration. I also think that with Mica's about face, we can forget about any competitors along the route, so, shortline and regional railroads are likely to be the only alternatives to Amtrak in the northeastern United States.

CAHSR's costs almost triple vs 2008 estimates
Ninety-eight and a half billion dollars?!? Yep, that's the latest cost estimate for the planned San Francisco-Los Angeles route, with full completion pushed back to 2033!

Take: While I still support the project, there are a lot of things that the Authority is doing wrong. First, is the lack of blending with Caltrain in the Bay Area. There is no reason for separate rights of way in San Jose when the HSR route should be sharing the tracks with an electrified Caltrain. 

Second, as Drunk Engineer and Mulad have pointed out, these viaducts invite urban blight. I mean, there's no reason why there should be a viaduct that is FOUR TIMES AS TALL as the Caltrain bridge near the San Jose train station. 

Finally, as people openly question whether this project should be built, the Authority has to take costs into account. Building 60 foot viaducts burns--rather than saves--money. Why no one with any pull listens to more rational people like Clem is baffling to this East Coaster. With most people in a cost-cutting mood, this project is in jeopardy of being a missed opportunity. The Authority should fire the firm that is responsible for advocating the South Bay blight.

A screwup in Maine
Because of a delay in the maintenance facility in Brunswick, Amtrak will only extend two of its Downeasters from Portland to the new northern terminus next fall.

Take: Oh, boy. With NIMBYs and cost issues, the southbound runs are in a tighter time span than the northbound. The lack of evening southbound and morning northbound trips will initially make the extension a bit unmarketable. The problem needs to be fixed ASAP.