Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Track approaching Medway Viaducts. {{location ...Image via Wikipedia

This Week at Amtrak; March 8, 2010

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida
32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •

Volume 7, Number 8

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at .

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.


Jack Benny, one of America's most beloved comedians and reputed tightwad extraordinaire, was perpetually 39 years old; Amtrak, this first of May, will join Mr. Benny at milepost 39. Benny's radio and television persona never sold his ancient Maxwell automobile, but Amtrak does seem to have traded in some sputtering old ideas for new ones.

First off, the news items:

* The State of Oregon reports it has purchased two new TALGO
trainsets for
service between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia.
* Jolene Molitoris, currently Director of Ohio Department of
Transportation, and former Federal Railroad Administration chief,
this Wednesday "gave a passionate speech about ODOT" and the
nascent 3-C (Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati) corridor.
According to "Linking Ohio ," Ms.
Molitoris emphasized "that no corridor has ever gone from zero
passenger rail options to high-speed rail in one step. She
described projects like in Maine and North Carolina that all
started with standard speed rail before upgrading to
higher-speed." Linking Ohio, which is a project of the 501(c)3
non-profit All Aboard Ohio, noted that improving current speeds --
39 mph average, 79 mph top speed -- needs to be the first phase
"of a larger passenger rail strategy."
* And then from North Carolina comes the news, according "The
not-so-fast track for high speed rail
(, 25 February 2010), that a "$520 million chunk [of
the Federal high speed funds]... will go toward 30 specific
improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte, and another $25
million will be used to reduce [rail] congestion between Raleigh
and Richmond, Virginia... Eugene Conti, North Carolina’s secretary
of transportation, says work on the upgrades will start within a
few months. The projects include adding more double-tracking that
would allow freight and passenger trains to pass each other and
separating rails from roads. The changes are designed to cut down
on delays for both trains and auto traffic."
* On the flip side, Buena Park, California may have to demolish a
brand-new passenger station if the planned high-speed trains whiz
past there without stopping (AP story, 8 March
and Florida's newly-awarded high-speed train is not planned to
connect with SunRail commuter trains (cable-only local news
"channel 13" story, 5 March
and commentary on The Infrastructurist
Doesn't anyone talk to anyone else anymore?
* Saturday's Amtrak Town Hall, sponsored by TRAINS magazine
(Kalmbach Publishing Co.) was the first of its kind.
Presentations, plans, and candid discussions indicate Amtrak has
some good people who are making real progress. More on this
shortly, but one remark overheard afterward was, "For the first
time I heard discussion of 'per revenue passenger mile' rather
than just 'per passenger.'"
* And a personal note: "Gentle Readers" is how Isaac Asimov -- a
modern-day Renaissance man, author of nearly 500 books, and my
chief inspiration to learn about science, arts, literature,
history and everything -- addressed his audience, and I will
occasionally use his phrase in remembrance.

Next, some feedback --

On the PIRG report, C.B. Hall writes:

I saw the document as an expression of advocacy, not an analysis of
high-speed rail's actual prospects. Chief among the obstacles - and
an obstacle I don't recall US PIRG even mentioning - is the
likelihood of political winds shifting in Washington, DC. We now
have a national administration that is exceptionally well disposed
towards passenger rail, but that administration has less than three
years to go. We're not going to get HSR, or even a major part of it,
done by the next presidential election. What we can get done is a
foretaste of HSR can ultimately do.

The investment should go to a very limited number of corridors where
visible results can be achieved on the shortest timeline. Three
years from now, we may have a national administration that returns
non-NEC HSR funding to the $25 million or whatever it was all
through the 1990s. That likelihood will decrease, however, if in the
meantime HSR in a few model corridors is far enough advanced to act
as good advertising to the rest of the country. Otherwise, the risk
of stagnation and skepticism only grows.

Yes, Mr. Hall, the report addressed "here's what we need and how we can get there" more than it asked, "what stands in our way." Being guardedly optimistic, it exemplifies elimination of once-widespread socialist dogma which stunted rail passenger advocacy for decades. Look, if you want to start an argument, propose a project that will "reduce Global Warming." If you want to get something done, propose a project that will "reduce Pollution." Same project, but which one will get built?
Eliminate the rhetoric from passenger train advocacy and let's get people moving.

To Mr. Hall's other point, a perfect example of a results-oriented approach is the San Diego Trolley, which built its first, highly successful, line at low cost, and proved its value to the community.
North Carolina is doing the right thing already: read on.

Regarding continued expansion of passenger rail, reader Stan Probstein asks:

[W]hy does Amtrak continue to be the best kept secret for rail
travel? Why isn't Amtrak advertising on cable networks like Fox News
channel, MSNBC and CNN as well as on the broadcast networks? How can
rail travel make a comeback if new rail ridership isn't informed?

True, the only market-specific advertising ever run in Phoenix by sputtering old Maxwell-style Amtrak was in 1996 to announce the closure of Union Station and the re-routing of the Sunset Limited. However, if updated thinking as was heard at this week's Chicago's Town Hall meeting is any indication, -- Stay tuned.

Now, let's look at a hypothetical 81-mile passenger train route. By the way, that happens to be the distance from Tampa to Orlando.

Key to investing our dollars wisely, is understanding the difference between Average speed and Top speed. Trains do not accelerate like sports cars; subway trains with their powerful electric motors accelerate at about 2.5 miles per hour per second, or in the parlance of race cars, "zero to 60 in half a minute or so." A conventional diesel-electric passenger train takes perhaps two minutes from a standing stop to 60 mph. Similar figures apply to slowing down. Thus, it is far more important to eliminate slow sections of track than it is to have short stretches of theoretical high speeds.

Amtrak today operates the 81-mile Orlando-Tampa route with six intermediate stops in almost exactly 2 hours - about 40 mph average speed. Eliminating most of the stops would save perhaps fifteen minutes, but at a severe impact to ridership and to the detriment of Kissimmee, Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood, Dade City, and Lakeland.

I have here a spreadsheet with rough estimations of times for a route with one station stop and a 1/4 mile section of 10mph (like a bridge or slow curve). Plugging in some sample numbers, let's look at what happens as we increase top speed.

top speed, *59* mph: *1 hour, 27 minutes*
top speed *79* mph with curve upgrade to 30mph: *1:08* (saves *19*
*90* mph, *1:02* (saves an additional *6* minutes)
*110* mph, *53* minutes (saves an additional *9* minutes)
*168* mph, *44* minutes (saves an additional *10* minutes)

The biggest time savings comes from increasing the top speed to 79mph versus 59mph. Beyond 90mph, we save only twenty more minutes by nearly doubling that speed. Going three times as fast (180mph vs. 60) doesn't get you there three times as fast, either: only about twice as fast, because of acceleration and deceleration.

And the cost of a 168mph railroad is far beyond a 90mph railroad. Beyond 110, trains cannot share tracks with heavy freight trains, nor can there be grade crossings, so an entirely new guideway is needed.

Removing bottlenecks is the single best thing: upgrading that one curve to 30mph saves about 1 minute; to 59mph, about 2 min. Compare two minutes savings for the cost of a single curve or bridge against 20 minutes saved upgrading 80 miles of track, and you're looking at a pretty favorable cost-benefit ratio.

The practical impact is that incremental investments up to 79mph have direct, positive impact on freight and passenger trains alike; much above 90mph starts to diminish the utility of corridors for freight; and above 110mph removes passenger trains from most existing corridors, at stratospheric costs for new rights-of-way and without the benefit to industry and jobs that accrue from better freight service.

Looking again at North Carolina, Secretary Conti says that the high-speed funds there will result in noticeable "improvements in stations, on the track and with equipment in the next couple years...
Our focus is to show progress in the immediate sense..." (

Amtrak of late seems to be involved with sensible projects that will get built, like North Carolina's upgrades, while also talking refreshingly favorably about intercity routes at the Chicago Town Hall. Will America's modern passenger trains finally catch their stride at Amtrak's 39th birthday? Stay tuned, Gentle Readers.

William Lindley,
Scottsdale, Ariz.


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