Thursday, April 28, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

(Amtrak 345, an EMD F40PH pulls a passenger tr...Image via Wikipedia
Volume 8, Number 7

From the Editors…

Recently, Amtrak released its updated fleet strategy plan. What a difference a year makes.

A Tale of Two Strategies

At first blush, it would appear the primary difference between Amtrak’s Fleet Strategies of February 2010 and February 2011 is a thorough going over by our very own proofreader here at This Week. (For the record, she vehemently denies this, but the investigation is on-going.) Upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious certain realities are now being accepted. Before going any further it should be known that the original document and its update are of a high quality and represent the obvious expenditure of many hours of effort.

The updated report acknowledges the orders of 130 single-level cars for Eastern long distance service and 70 electrics for the Northeast Corridor. Priorities held over from 2010 are the replacement of 250 Superliner I's and the development of “a new fuel-efficient high speed diesel locomotive.” New to the priority list are: Replacement of 145 Amfleet II's, developing a “bi-level corridor car to replace single-level cars where clearances permit, adding two cars each to the existing Acela fleet (40 new cars total), and planning the next generation of high-speed trains. Total estimated cost of this 30 year plan is $25.2 billion.

Replacement of the single-level long distance coaches, Amfleet II, has now been moved ahead of the Amfleet I replacement. Why? Despite being a few years newer, the average mileage for an Amfleet II car is 1.4 million miles over an Amfleet I. Truth be told, the Amfleet design was never meant for long-distance service, yet they have performed adequately for over 30 years; a true testament to the construction of the Budd Company. CAF USA has a very tough act to follow, constructing the 130-piece Viewliner 2 order. There are 145 Amfleet II’s in service but the Fleet Strategy does not specify how many new cars will be ordered. If CAF USA gets a chance to build a coach variant of the Viewliner 2 platform, then we could possibly see uniform trainsets in the east, something which has not happened since the introduction of the Amfleet II’s in 1980. Do you believe in miracles?

In 2010, “long distance” services were defined as “more than 600 miles,” whereas in 2011 it is “more than 750 miles.” No doubt this is a sign of inflation. Also curious is the statement that the long-distance trains “have grown around 2 percent annually,” although “Table 8: Amtrak Ridership Growth FY06-10” demonstrates that long-distance trains were the only service during those five years not to have a negative ridership growth; even during the doldrums of 2009. Average growth on the long-distance trains according to Amtrak’s data was 3.7 percent for the last five years, a fact all the more fascinating when one takes into account there has been no addition to the equipment of these trains in over a decade.

A significant difference between the two reports is the acknowledgment of Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG is evaluating the original report, and will issue its own report this year. “We look forward to receiving the final OIG report and we will continue to work with the OIG to ensure that its insights are incorporated in the next fleet plan update as appropriate.” Where was the OIG during the original report? Oh, right.

In both reports the Horizon fleet of regional-distance cars is panned: “These cars suffer from a variety of operational problems in cold temperatures and winter conditions.” Interestingly these cars are a variant of an original Pullman-Standard commuter car design which has gained acceptance in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, none of which are known for their balmy winters. The solution for 2011 is a new fleet of 125 bi-level cars ostensibly patterned after the cars used in regional service in California. As these cars do not have any operating history in the extremes of the Midwest, this will be an interesting experiment. Although the “California cars” appear to be similar to Superliners, the difference is in the details. Superliners have their Head End Power (HEP) and Multiple Unit (MU) cables well above the ground and away from snow and ice buildups. California cars have their cables astride their couplers, as is standard with most other equipment. Superliners have successfully pinch hit for Horizon cars in Midwest services during wintertime. If one expects California cars to perform to the same level as the Superliners, one may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

One other curious statement as regards the potential routes for the new bi-level cars: “The only other exception would be Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal Service between Chicago and Indianapolis, which would continue to use single level equipment because of clearance constraints on the Cardinal route.” Trains between Chicago and Indianapolis have always ferried equipment to and from Beech Grove, Amtrak’s maintenance facility just outside Indianapolis. The deadheading equipment does include cars from Amtrak’s current bi-level fleet: Superliners, Superliner II’s and California cars.

The plans for Acela were wide and varied in 2010. By 2011, the choices have been narrowed: “There is a compelling case for an additional two cars for each set… [the extra cars] will deliver a positive return even if the trains were replaced in 2023.” Moreover, the desire is expressed for an additional 20 trainsets “of a new rather than the existing design and delivery would begin in 2017.” Apparently they have learned one lesson.

Unfortunately, both reports address the potential utility of self-propelled diesel cars or Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs). Not that there is anything wrong with DMUs in and of themselves; however, they are best suited to commuter operations. Amtrak is NOT a commuter railroad, and provides operating crews under contract to a handful of commuter operations around the country. If one of these commuter lines provides DMUs for its operation, so be it; but Amtrak should not be taking the lead on this.

It is recognized in the reports that: “Suppliers need a constant stream of work to ensure that there is sufficient business to support a competitive supplier base and avoid the boom and bust cycles in the past.” This work-fare program of equipment sustainability is the sort of thing a state-owned/operated polity should have pursued since its inception. Well, better late than never. The plan calls for an average of 65 single-level and 35 bi-level cars per year starting in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Both reports speak of the need for the development of future equipment. The 2011 edition refers to the Next Generation Equipment Committee (NGEC), whose stated goal is “to promote the creation of a pool of standardized, interoperable equipment that could be used by Amtrak and the states in various state-sponsored corridors with flexibility and efficiency.” In light of Amtrak’s past history of equipment, standardization would be a vast improvement. This is, however, a double-edged sword. Such a mandate would mean ostracizing non-standard equipment such as the state-owned Talgo trainsets in Cascade and Hiawatha services. Standardization to the exclusion of innovation has a history of long-term negative consequences. Fifteen years ago, ABB Traction withdrew its product, the X2000, from contention for use in the NEC. The X2000 achieved higher speeds on conventional track through the use of radial steering trucks and active tilting. Since no other bidder could offer radial trucks, it was not included in the Federal bid request, and ABB realized it could not succeed in the face of cheaper, inferior products.

Perhaps the largest sign of change is what was not held over from the original report, the “Calculation of required added cars per set” toward the back of the report. Originally hypothesized were the train consists as they might appear for FY18 and FY23. When first released in 2010, it was these charts which caused many a confused look even from the most ardent Amtrak apologists. For 2018, 10 of the 14 long distance trains would receive one extra sleeping car. By 2023, four more trains would have added one more sleeper; yet this very same chart reports the 2008 load factors for the sleepers, and none are below 80%. Two trains are tied at 94 percent. None of Amtrak’s regional or corridor offerings even come close to matching this load factor. It is also no secret that fares for traveling by sleeping car are especially dear. Even so, sleeping cars are what the traveling public craves. Why? There could be many postulated reasons: An aging population, TSA fatigue, etc. We at This Week do not know the true reason for this trend, but it really is academic. The public has voted with its wallet, demanding sleeping car space.

Through Amtrak’s typical “framing mischief by decree,” it has made it abundantly clear that it is loathe to reinstate trains such as the Pioneer, North Coast Hiawatha, or Eastern leg of the Sunset Limited. Even so, it does acknowledge the growth in long-distance demand. “This gradual increase in demand can be satisfied through the progressive replacement of equipment and lengthening of existing train consists.” Limiting the increase, however, of already paltry long-distance trains by a mere one or two cars just does not correspond with reality. Long-term success of any business requires change, to support changing demand. In the past, the speed at which Amtrak responded to such change was glacial, at best. Amtrak has not received any new equipment since 2002. It may already be too late. After 40 years, it should be getting it right. If not, then perhaps it is really time to let someone or something else have a turn.
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Friday, April 08, 2011

The 176 is saved but...

Photo of the new "poppy orange" Metr...Image via Wikipedia
I few weeks ago I went over some of the trials and tribulations of  the Los Angeles Metro Route 176 that travels from Highland Park to El Monte. For now the 176 has been saved from extinction, but will the changes going to help the 176 survive in the long run?

Originally Metro planned to replace the eastern portion of route 176 from the area of the San Gabriel Mission to El Monte with an extension of route 287 that currently travels from the Montebello Mall to El Monte creating a "U" shaped route.

Instead Metro will interline the 176 and 287 so when a 287 bus arrives at El Monte station it will change its headsign to 176 and visa versa.Service on the 287 will be reduced from every 30 minutes to every 45 minutes but the frequency of the 176 will go from a horrible every 70 minutes to a more reasonable every 45 minutes.

The question is, will this do anything to help the 176 or are we putting lipstick on a pig?

1. Will the Frequency Increase help the 176?

It might help slightly but it still is not a memory friendly timetable and in the Metro report there is not a mention of what will happen to rush hour frequency on the eastern portion of the line that is already every 35-minutes.

2. Does this address any of the destination issues with the 176?

No, there is no change in the actual route although there will now be a one seat ride for riders on the 176 to the Montebello Mall although Metro may not even put this in the timetables and for 95% of the riders of the 176 going to Montebello Mall via El Monte is substantially out of the way.

In addition this does nothing to address the issues that exist on the western portion of the route. Mainly that it serves no destinations that riders along the route want to travel to except with multiple transfers.

In other words, the changes to the 176 do not address the fundamental problems with the route. In an ideal world it would be wonderful if all the points that needed to be served by a bus (or for that matter rail) route but we do not live in an idea world. We have to look at service beyond straight corridors and look at getting bus service to the most rider generators and reworking weak lines to hit more of those generators.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

Train #306 heading into Springfield from St. L...Image via Wikipedia
This Week at Amtrak Vol. 8 No. 6
Volume 8, Number 6

From the Editors…

There is a lot of talk these days of “passenger rail.” This week we attempt to separate reality from hyperbole.

The Definition of Success; The Price of the Definition

“What is the value added?” or similar questions are asked whenever any enterprise considers expansion, upgrade or reorganization. In principle it is a simple exercise; will future generations see this investment of time and resources as valuable or worthless? In the mania that has defined passenger railroading for the second decade of the 21st Century, one fact has become crystal clear, and that is that very few can accurately define what the value added is for passenger trains.

This is not to say that those promoting new trains are doing so out of shear ignorance or malfeasance. Many of these efforts are well meant. This past February, the Administration called upon Congress for a $53 billion down payment on high-speed rail for the country to enhance mobility and create work-fare. The goal was to provide access to fast trains for 80 percent of the country in 20 years. The general response was “Would you like fries with that?” More recently, two actors from a period-piece cable television drama performed, in character, a skit promoting the virtues of high-speed trains. The idea, if not the allure, of sleek, fast, sexy transportation seems positive and for good reason, because it is; however, the path from the trains of today and the trains of tomorrow is not as straight, short, or simple as one would be led to believe.

All around this great land of ours there are mixed signals as to the future of new passenger trains, let alone improvement of those extant. Passenger rail went from a Washington missive to center stage in many regional elections. As a result, planned projects in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida came to naught. In California, plans are moving forward to build a high-speed railroad as far out in the country as possible so as not to attract any attention. As a result of the many rejections, once-ostracized states of the Northeast are now allowed to bid for the now unwanted Federal dollars to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Despite these false starts, there has been meaningful progress on many fronts for the augmentation of passenger trains. In just the last month, Washington State received its grant of $590 million for improvements between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. In North Carolina, $461 million was received for upgrades to its Raleigh-to-Charlotte route. And in Illinois, $685 million was realized to continue improvements from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri. Some $1.736 billion of taxpayer monies have been doled out for worthwhile projects around the country.

It is still early in the decade, but a definite trend has started to take shape regarding the future of domestic passenger trains. At one end of the spectrum, the assumed silver bullet [train] which was to herald the new era of national HSR transportation was nixed in Florida. It would have run on an independent right-of-way with no direct connection to the rest of the National system. The “3C” service cancelled in Ohio was not HSR but rather an upgrade of existing freight-only trackage, most of which has not seen passenger trains for four decades. Even with the blessing of the current owners, the enhanced track was not going to be of too much benefit to freight, as Cincinnati to Cleveland via Columbus is not a natural through-freight corridor. The stalled extension of Hiawatha service from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin, also not true HSR, did plan to make use of an existing passenger route as far as Watertown. From there, a nearly-abandoned freight line would have been completely rebuilt for passenger speeds. West of Watertown, the line sees minimal traffic currently handled by a short line.

The successes seen in Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina are another matter, altogether. What do they have in common?

All are pre-existing state-supported services. Washington started daily service in 1994 using trainsets made by Talgo. The Chicago-to-St. Louis service has existed in many guises since the beginning of Amtrak, and was once home to the French-made Turbo trains. (With Talgo reportedly relocating to Illinois, perhaps the Lincoln service will see yet another iteration of exotic equipment.) North Carolina’s intrastate train service started in 1995 and utilizes its own fleet of equipment.

All are on track owned (or operated) by freight railroads. The track in Washington State is a major corridor for BNSF, linking the Pacific Northwest with Canada. Even so, they have proven time and again to be willing partners with the local authority for operating the Cascade services. In Illinois, the line between St. Louis and Chicago is Union Pacific’s shortest route between the two cities. North Carolina’s Piedmont trains utilize Norfolk Southern’s main line from Greensboro to Charlotte. This track is currently undergoing capacity expansion as part of the Crescent Corridor initiative.

All currently host long-distance Amtrak trains. In Washington State the route of the Cascades is also part of the route for the Coast Starlight. The Illinois Lincoln service also hosts the daily Texas Eagle, while North Carolina’s Piedmont shares the same track with the Crescent between Greensboro and Charlotte.

In Washington, overall track capacity will increase with completion of the Point Defiance bypass. This bypass will obviate a single track tunnel and will be used by the Cascades, local commuter, as well as long-distance trains. Union Pacific plans for increased freight traffic on the Illinois line once upgrades are complete. North Carolina will add 28 miles of double track between Charlotte and Greensboro, part of the aforementioned Crescent Corridor. The planned enhancements for all three of these routes not only aid the regional and freight trains, but also increase the viability of long-distance trains; it is like getting three for the price of one. Now that is value added!

There is virtually no end to the possible public/private synergies around the country. In Virginia, passenger service will be returned to Norfolk (using State funds). The line from Norfolk to Petersburg is the Eastern end of Norfolk Southern’s recently upgraded Heartland Corridor connecting tidewater to the Midwest. Recently, the state of Missouri applied for Federal high-speed money to increase speeds between St. Louis and Kansas City. This is the route of the State-supported Missouri River Runner, and operates over the tracks of Union Pacific. Another plan under consideration is a daily train connecting Dallas to Eastern Texas. Currently, the daily Texas Eagle runs between Marshall and Dallas; westbound in the morning, eastbound in the evening. A counterpart train would run on opposite schedules with a possible extension to Shreveport, Louisiana. This would necessitate capacity expansion on the 150-mile route also owned by Union Pacific. Enhanced service between Oakland, California and Reno, Nevada is also a possibility. Currently, the route between Oakland and Auburn sees daily service as part of California’s Capitol Corridor, including the daily California Zephyr. Pushing the corridor past Auburn to Reno, 118 miles, may require capacity expansion over famed Donner Pass; predominantly re-laying much of the second track removed prior to Union Pacific’s accession of the route in 1996.

As the nation continues to adjust from the economic correction of the last few years it is evident we are a people defined as “risk averse.” Houses are not selling even though there are those who should be able to afford such. The numerous vacant automobile dealerships that now dot the landscape are further evidence of our new-found fiscal conservatism. The progress being seen in Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina demonstrate the public will to invest in the “tried and true,” where return on investment may be easily calculated and expedited.

Of all the trains run by Amtrak, it is the long-distance fleet which has garnered consistently increasing passenger loadings despite the downturn of the economy. To those inured by the high-speed-rail mentality sweeping the nation, these “slow trains” do not fit the prepackaged ideal; however, it must be understood that no high-speed train anywhere on earth was built without something predicating it. It must also be recognized that the United States has been limping along on a skeletal passenger rail network for four decades. If there is to be a true high-speed rail network, it must be preceded by a true conventional rail network.

The simple if painful truth is that a legitimate high-speed train is not a few years or even a decade away. A genuine network of meaningful passenger trains will have to be reestablished before going any further. This is a process that could conceivably take at least a generation, and no decree of imperious immediacy can change this. The latter half of the 20th Century was defined by America’s embrace of the automobile. This did not happen overnight. The return to rail-based transportation will also be a long-term transition; perhaps too long to satisfy those overly concerned about their legacy in the annals of history.
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Monday, April 04, 2011

Guest Post

Interior of the upper level of a Bombardier bi...Image via Wikipedia
This is a guest post by All Resort Transportation a privately run transportation company based in Utah. 

Will The Utah Transit System Stand Up To a Disaster?

I began this post planning to write about the current situation with public transit in Utah, and then the earthquake struck in Japan and suddenly any of our problems in this state seemed absurdly miniscule by comparison. When the 8.9 (or 9.0, depending on your source) earthquake struck and caused the tsunami, it killed thousands and uprooted hundreds of thousands, destroying homes, roads, and anything else that was in its way.

The earthquake was felt as far away as Tokyo, which is some 150 miles or south of the epicenter. Despite the distance, the shaking was bad enough that the city shut down the transit system until they could be sure that it was structurally safe to use. Cities like Tokyo rely on their public transit systems, and when it was shut down for safety reasons, literally millions of people were stranded in the city with no way to get home or communicate with loved ones.

The Ramifications of the Shut Down
The commuter lifestyle is a little different in Japan than it is in Utah (not a big surprise there). Sometimes people will commute for hours in one direction to get to work, and some estimates say that more than 10 million people use the public transit system every day. Shutting any of these services down for even a short time would have serious ramifications, and after the earthquake millions of residents were stuck without an option.

Officials shut down the trains and subways because they needed to ensure that everything was still safe. Some lines were down for around six hours and others for much longer. Hotels were immediately flooded with people looking for a place to stay, and the government began opening schools and official buildings where people could seek shelter and sleep when it got too cold outside. We saw a lot of pictures of people curled up on the floor in the train stations and others standing in line to use a pay phone since the cell networks were immediately overloaded.

After a day, most of the transit infrastructure in Tokyo was up and running again, but it was still a little sporadic. Because of the power issues caused by the loss of the nuclear plants up north, Tokyo is planning on rolling blackouts to help conserve energy. This is leading to a slightly more erratic train schedule, but commuters seem to be dealing with it as well as could be expected.
How Would Utah Do?

Obviously, in Utah we don’t have near that many people relying on the public transit system. According to UTA, TRAX is averaging about 58,000 riders a day, though the number is increasing. Public transportation is growing all over the country, and we’ve had a big push to expand our system here. Utah transportation will probably never be as complex as it is in huge places like Tokyo, but the rising population and rising gas prices are building more and more reliance on new transit options.
Right now, Utah is developing its public transit system on a number of fronts. Currently, the FrontLines 2015 Project includes:
• Mid Jordan TRAX Line – Covering Murray, Midvale, West and South Jordan
• West Valley City TRAX Line – Running between South Salt lake and West Valley City
• Draper TRAX Line – A light rail service that runs through Draper and Sandy
• Airport TRAX Line – Get from downtown SLC to the airport
• FrontRunner Provo to Salt Lake City Line – A high speed commuter rail between these cities
On top of these projects, transit studies are currently going on in Surgarhouse, South Davis, Taylorsville, Murray, and Ogden. While it’s hard to imagine public transportation becoming as ingrained in our culture as it is in Japan, all these new developments will certainly increase the number of people who rely on everything from train lines to a Salt Lake airport shuttle. Then we have to ask: how well would we do in a disaster? Are we prepared to deal with that kind of challenge?

The tragedy in Japan is on a scale that most of us can’t really comprehend, and the impact of it was felt all over the country in many unexpected ways. The transit system may seem like a comparatively small thing, but Tokyo’s infrastructure was able to bounce back because they constructed their system to deal with natural disasters. If Utah is going to succeed with its transit initiatives, there are some definite lessons it could learn.

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