Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Train: Rescuing the Cardinal from Demise

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

When looking at the famously mis-titled "Vision for High Speed Rail in America" map trotted out last year, showing those of state-planned High Speed Rail corridors that have already applied for and received official designation as High Speed Rail corridors ... there are ghosts on that map.

The Ghosts of Trains Past, also known as the Amtrak long distance routes.

As discussed on November 8th of last year in Rescuing the Innocent Amtrak Numbers from SubsidyScope, some of these ghosts are healthier than others. One of the ones in the most dire shape is the Cardinal, responsible for the only line on that map that enters either West Virgnia or eastern Kentucky.

Why it does so badly, and how it might be fixed up a bit, after the fold.

---[ Discussion at Agent Orange and elsewhere around the web ]---

Conventional Long Distance Rail Aint Easy

When tossing aside the fatally flawed SubsidyScope treatment of capital depreciation ... and I am still eagerly awaiting their consideration of the subsidies to road and air transport that uses the same approach to capital depreciation ... most long haul Amtrak routes have similar financial performance. If one says, "long haul Amtrak routes recover between 40% and 50% of their operating costs from fare revenue", that would cover ten of fifteen services:
  • from the Southwest Chief (IL/CA) and City of New Orleans (IL/LA) at 49%,
  • through the Silver Meteor (NY/FL), Capital Ltd (DC/IL), Coast Starlight (WA/CA), Crescent (NY/LA), Texas Eagle (IL/TX), California Zephyr (IL/CA),
  • to the Silver Star (NY/FL) and Lakeshore Ltd (MA|NY/IL) at 41%.

There are three that did better in the year that SubsidyScope considered: the specialty Auto Train between Virginia and Florida, at 85%, the Empire Builder from Illinois to Washington and Oregon at 61%, and the Palmetto from New York to Georgia at 55%.

And two that did worse: the Cardinal at 34%, and the Sunset Ltd from Louisiana to California at 23%.

This is not a diary about "fixing long distance rail". Whether 40% to 50% is a reasonable return given the other benefits that long distance rail may provide is not something I am fixing to consider tonight.

Instead, considering the norm of 41% to 49% ... the Cardinal falls short. That means that if the long knives come out, its neck is not far from the chopping block. And that is true even if in fact the average long haul route does provide twice as many external benefits as passenger benefits, and so it is true even if the Cardinal breaks even in an economic sense.

And its worse than that. The Cardinal is a route that runs three times a week in each direction. The final leg of its route to Chicago and first leg of its route from Chicago is "the Hoosier State", which runs as an independent short corridor routes the rest of the week.

And the Hoosier State is in even more dire straits ... where 9 of 26 regional corridor routes have operating cost recovery between 64% and 79%; 20 of 26 have operating cost recovery above 50%; and 25 out of 26 have operating cost recover above 30% ...

... the Hoosier State has operating cost recovery of 15%.

I have seen a comment to the effect that when Senator Byrd is no longer there to defend it, the Cardinal is going to be shut down. While I have no idea how accurate that comment is - it is certainly plausible.

Oh. My. God. How does it hit 34%?

And then you look at the schedule of the Cardinal, and wonder how it gets enough fares to cover 34% of its operating costs.

Consider it as a train to get to Chicago. Westbound, it is scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 10:35 in the morning, after leaving Indianapolis at 6:30am - that is the daily Hoosier State schedule. It is scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis at 4:44am, after leaving Cincinnati at 1:10am. It traveled through Kentucky between 10pm and midnight, and through West Virginia between 6:30pm and 9:35pm, leaving the capital of Charleston WV at 8:10pm.

Scanning up the timetable, the train got into southern West Virginia from western Virginia, and to there from Washington, DC. And that is the real surprise: this route which spends so much of its time heading up toward Chicago from the east by southeast ... originates in New York. Of course, nobody would take it from New York to Chicago, even if they were determined to rider the train, since its the slowest of the New York to Chicago trains.

The problem is, if you stop the train and turn it around at Washington DC, there does not seem to be a lot that is gained ... because the total route end to end is 23:25 from DC to Chicago, and 24:10 from Chicago to DC. So when taking turn-over operations and the schedule slack to cope with the inevitable delays, its hard to tailor the timetable to provide appropriate return trip schedules without losing quite a lot of time sitting idle.

As to how it hits 34%, that could well be on that part between New York and western Virginia ... which is part of the reason why the schedule timing is so poor for the majority of the route.

Except, with a little imagination ... it might be possible to fix the schedule up.

Fixing the Cardinal

The balance of this diary is done on a simple rule. I transport the current scheduled times between cities from existing Amtrak scheduled routes to the route that I am building here. Sure, in the Sunday Train, I've spent more than a little time writing about High Speed Rail ... but here, I am sticking to the conventional rail Amtrak.

That does not guarantee that these timetables are either feasible or, if feasible, exact. I have no inside information on rail system bottlenecks, and so this should be seen as nothing but a rough sketch. However, its a rough sketch draw with the brush of existing scheduled services.

Start out by breaking the Hoosier State free of the Cardinal. It might run, for instance, down from Chicago at 7:30am, and return to Chicago at 7:00pm, if that is what transport studies indicates is the most appealing schedule. It might make one round trip and one single trip, providing different MWF and TRS schedules. It might run from Chicago through Indianapolis to Cincinnati and back each day. If running past Miami of Ohio in the middle of the day makes it look promising, it could add a Miami University station. Whatever looks to be the most attractive to the most passengers riding the train for the longest trips.

Now, don't think about the Cardinal route as a New York route, think about it as a Chicago route. Chicago to Indianapolis is covered. Chicago to Cincinnati through to DC is a much longer ride. And the best way to cut time out of the ride is to make it a sleeper service.

So leave Chicago at 10pm. The train runs through Indianapolis between 4am and 5am, then reached Cincinnati at 7:45am. It gets to Charleston, WV about 12:30pm, starts passing through western Virgnia around 4:30pm, and hits Washington around 10:10pm.

OK, now, we have a train arriving in DC at about 10:10pm ... why not make it a night train as well. I'll have it continue around 11pm heading up toward Pittsburgh, along the Capital Corridor route. It gets to Pittsburgh about 7am, Cleveland about 10am, Toledo 12:30pm, and gets to Chicago about 4pm. That gives it six hours to get ready to start the loop all over again.

The key to the night train scheduling is to make sure that the reverse trip is a similar night train. So a second train runs the reverse route, leaving Chicago at about noon, getting to Cleveland about 7:15pm and Pittsburgh 10:40pm, then DC at 6:30 the next morning. Leave DC at 8:30 to arrive at Charleston WV 5:30pm, Cincinnati at 10:30pm, and Chicago at about 7:55 the next morning.

Now, this is still a three-times-a-week train, but now the overnight service into Chicago arrives before the Start of Business, getting maximum value from the sleeper train. The same thing happens heading southwest into DC on the Cleveland/Pittsburgh leg.

This route also allows more fine tuning of service to transport demand than is normally possible on such a long route ... because alternate days without a Cardinal service can be provided a complementary service. For example, the original Cardinal could run from New York through DC to Charleston in a day, and return the following day. An alternate daytime Cleveland/Pittsburgh service would connect to the Northeast Corridor further north, running from Chicago to Pittsburgh and then to Philadelphia, with late evening connections still available both north and south.

Its not perfect - but perfection is a fantasy

Of course, this is not a perfect schedule. For one thing, just like the Cardinal, there will be delays, because the route is not designed to allow trains to run without delays.

And of course, its too damn slow.

However, it provides Ohio's two largest cities with intercity train service that is not between midnight and 6am. Each obtains daytime connections with part of its economic hinterland - up the Ohio River Valley for Cincinnati and along Lake Eries for Cleveland. And existing service to West Virginia and Kentucky is provided at a more appealing time of day.

If the Cardinal is going to get its operating cost recovery ratio up into the 40%~50% range, and get its neck off the chopping block ... turning its philosophy from the "one of the most out of the way conceivable trips from New York to Chicago" to a long Appalachian Loop out of Chicago with transfers at Washington DC may well be the way to go about it.

Midnight Oil: Truganini

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday Train: Attacks on HSR in Flyover Country

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Today's Sunday Train is focusing on attacks that have been launched against Ohio's 3C plan (larger map of full Ohio Hub plan here (pdf))., which was granted $400m in the HSR round of Stimulus II grants. There are attacks from Republicans, engaged in their usual games of negotiating in bad faith and basing critiques on focus group testing of talking points rather than substance. There are attacks from "transport experts", calling for all of our HSR spending to be focused on the coasts with no systems developed to serve the needs of flyover country.

There is even an attack launched against the award of funds to Ohio by President Obama's Department of Transportation paradoxically by a kossack who goes by the name of "Ohiobama".

So today is focused on examining the attacks and seeing what there is to them. And lest it seem that this is a single-state issue, many of these same arguments may be used against all of the plans already in place between the Rockies and the Appalachias, as well as the Pacific Northwest and the South Atlantic Coast.

Since its the 3C corridor I am focusing on, there are three attacks considered: one from the so-called "Conservatives"; one from a "rail-expert" making a "Claim to Fame" attack (since attacks on administration programs get into the press much easier than defenses would do); and one "Clown-Train" attack.

The Star of the Show: The 3C Project

I have written now and again about the Ohio Hub project, sometimes in more length and sometimes less. Above the fold is the original six-stage plan, though if you squint you will see that the first stage could have started running later this year ... as with many of these plans, there was been a lot more planning than ground breaking in the previous decades, given the aggressively anti-rail Bush administration (and certainly expected under an administration that would have sold its soul to the oil companies if it had had a soul to sell).

To the right is my sketch that puts the Ohio Hub in the context of the other state-level HSR plans east of the Mississippi, where the Ohio Hub network is in Scarlet (gray being too inclined to get lost in the background).

Not sketched in that map are any plans for an Express HSR system. These are all "Emerging" (110mph) and "Regional" (125mph) systems. Now that work is underway for building the first 110mph segment, as part of the Chicago to St. Louis route, preliminary planning is just getting underway to identify the potential for "Express" (220mph) routes.

And when we consider the model that France used to build and now uses to operate its Express HSR corridors, its not hard to see why the original focus has been on 110mph corridors, many of which could later be upgraded to 125mph corridors.

France started operating its HSR service between Paris and Lyon before the corridor was finished. The original impetus for building the line was the projection that the Paris/Lyon line would reach capacity by 1970. Once it was decided to build a passenger-only corridor to relieve capacity constraints, it was natural to design that new corridor to achieve the most competitive possible passenger service.

Of course, since France already had an Express Interurban network running substantially faster than Amtrak speeds, once the first segment of the HSR corridor was completed, the France completed the journey to Lyon on the existing express interurban corridor. Then completing an additional segment allowed more of the route to be operated at high speed, and so on until it was finished.

And today, a large number of High Speed Rail routes operate on the French Express HSR network, and then run out onto the Express Interurban network to complete their journey. This means that the capital cost of the HSR corridors are shared by multiple services extending to cities beyond the direct reach of the network.

Which is an excellent model for areas like the Great Lake states, that actually have higher population population density than most of France ... except for one thing. We don't have that Express Interurban network.

And that observation is the foundation of the "run before you fly" approach. Given a large number of corridors that can support quite effective intercity passenger train, and indeed in many cases passenger trains that can generate an operating surplus if only the trains can get there as fast or faster than cars, and given that Emerging HSR corridors are often about 1/5 the cost of Express HSR corridors per mile ... first build out an effective Emerging HSR system, and then determine where to, one the one hand, put the Express HSR corridors and, on the other hand, upgrade the Emerging HSR corridors to Regional HSR corridors, to make the most effective total system to serve passengers.

Remember the end of that long-winded sentence: "to serve passengers". When the technophiles get into the act, that is something that can sometime be lost.

But the 3C starter system is not an Emerging HSR corridor

Now, zoom into Ohio. A Democratic governor, a Democratic State House of Representatives, but only just (and the first time the State House of Representatives have ever changed hands without that party controlling House redistricting), and a Republican State Senate.

And being the Party of No, the Republicans say "No" to the Emerging HSR plan for a wide range of reasons. Its untried, for one, even though the United States once had regional corridor passenger trains running faster than 80mph. The company that did the ridership study did not run rail services, so it is suggested (without any real evidence) that they were just giving a high number to make their client happy. Buckeyes are culturally attached to their cars, and (unlike Pennsylvanians, Michiganivites, or Illini) unwilling to ride trains. $1b+ is too much to risk on such a gamble.


Well, OK, one might wish to rush ahead, but if the Senate Majority is not prepared to do so, then its necessary to compromise. The compromise that was arrived at was the starter 3C line. It would be an Amtrak speed service, primarily sharing track with freight services, though with some track upgrades. It would omit a number of the stations proposed for the all-stations service of the Emerging HSR system.

Amtrak did the ridership and feasibility study, and, since a conventional speed rail service requires subsidy, worked out the subsidy that the state would have to pay to get the train up and running.

So, basically 1/3 to 2/5 of the work for an Emerging HSR service would be done, a route would be started, and then we'd see what happened.

Damn! They Gave Us The Money!

It seems that what the Republicans did not expect is that Ohio would in fact get a majority of its application actually funded by the Department of Transport when it came time to hand out the HSR. Because now that it is time to approve receipt of the $400m from the Federal Government, the Republicans are complaining (The Transport Politic).

What are their complaints? Well, a mix of old complaints and new ones. Old complaints: Buckeyes love our cars and we won't ride these trains. Why Buckeyes will behave completely differently to people who live in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, or North Carolina when they got access to a broader range of transport choices, they do not need to explain, since nobody in the press ever "presses" for actual explanations to back up talking points any more.

I mentioned a "Conservative" columnist last week who just plain lied about the $400m being paid by Ohio, when in fact Ohio's share of the deficit financed $8b for HSR is about $267m, and we've got the same share whether or not our own rail project receives the funds.

However, the newest wrinkle in the Republican attack is to attack the running times. The main reason that the system requires subsidy, after all, is that it is put into operation without all the work required for 110mph trains. So the top speed is 79mph. There is 17% leeway added to a passenger train schedule when it is sharing track with freight, which means that 79mph maximum is 68mph maximum trip speed. Add in slow zones, and the fact that some of the track between Dayton and Cincinnati is not mainline 79mph track in the first place, and the starter system would average about 37mph by a common reckoning.

And then, even though this is the exact service that Amtrak based their ridership study on, they use the slow average speed to question the ridership figures. One trick is to act as if 500,000 projected riders are 500,000 people taking the almost seven hour trip from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Of course the biggest number of riders will come from Columbus/Cleveland and Columbus/Cincinnati trips, supplemented by Dayton/Cincinnati and Dayton/Columbus trips, but opponents of any public investment in any intercity transport or local transit system always "question the ridership" numbers.

And why do the Republicans express this surprise? Because they want Governor Strickland to experience a political defeat, to make it harder for Governor Strickland to win re-election. They are not all of a sudden finding some surprising and hidden flaw with the plan. This was the plan for the starter line. The low average speed is the consequence of the original compromise with the Republicans that allowed the application to be made.

But they made the deal, that allowed the application to be made, when Strickland's opinion ratings were higher. So now they are all of a sudden getting amnesia.

Damn Flyover Country, You Don't Deserve High Speed Rail

A different line of attack comes from the Progressive Policy Institute. Mark Reutter argues that:
The president certainly got it right when he said that we must break our dependence on the automobile and imported oil. Safe, reliable, and incredibly fast rail promises a breakthrough that people will be willing to pay for and private investors willing to operate. Passenger trains cruising at 150 miles per hour provide a decisive margin of superiority over highway travel and can compete effectively with commercial air in short- and medium-distance markets while cutting overall fuel consumption and greenhouse gases.

But for all the hype surrounding the president’s announcement, this exciting new mode of transportation won’t be arriving in America anytime soon unless the Obama administration and Congress make some "course corrections." The crux of the problem is that the administration has begun a major civic work without laying down engineering and design protocols that match the standards of fast train lines built elsewhere in the world. Even worse, the distribution of funds from the stimulus package ensures that the most promising projects will remain underfunded.

Now, politically, the second part of the critique is incredibly naive. Suppose that 80% of HSR Stimulus funds are allocated to California and Florida, and 80% of the $2.5b passed for this year by the Senate. How many Senators does California and Florida have? On my understanding (I admittedly am an economist of fairly small political brain), that's 4, which is roughly 4% of the Senate, when 51% is required for a Simple Majority and 60% is required to avoid The Tarantino (which kills bills).

Under the allocation that Reutter is complaining about, over 30 states received some funding, ranging from simple problem-area fixes in the range of $100,000's to $1m's in Iowa and Texas, to California, Florida, North Carolina, Washington and Oregon, Illinois and Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin, Illinois / Indiana / Michigan, and Ohio, all getting over $200m for corridors in their states (that's 11), and Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England sharing in over $400m in improvements for Amtrak and over $100m in dedicated HSR spending (that lot is 9 states, for those keeping count). 20 states received a share in major distributions, and another 13 received spending on smaller projects or planning funding that lay the groundwork for larger projects in the future.

As far as the first point, its just technophile bias. The point of investing in HSR is to provide a new transport option to passengers, one that is less exposed to being cut off or held to ransom by overseas oil producers, and one that we can afford to provide without first having to prove that there is no risk of significant and costly climate change from our relentlessly increasing emissions of CO2.

If a 110mph maximum speed service can generate an operating surplus - and the 110mph version of the 3C corridor certainly can do so - then we should definitely establish that 110mph speed service.

If a 160mph maximum speed service can generate an operating surplus - and there seems little reason to doubt that the Tampa/Orlando corridor can do so, despite the flaw of the Orlando alignment - and the state has reserved the alignment for the train so that it can be built for about $3b, we should definitely establish that service.

If a 220mph maximum speed service can provide needed intercity transport capacity in a rapidly growing state facing perennial budget crises, and can do so for substantially less money than will be required to provide the capacity with road and air infrastructure - then with lower cost infrastructure and the insurance against oil price shocks and oil supply disruptions for free, we should definitely establish that service.

Now, for the best efficiency in 110mph operations, we need to make modernize rail transportation regulations from the "add more steel" days of the 1950's. For 125mph operations, we actually need to finalize some standard to make the services possible. And for over 125mph, we have a substantial amount of regulatory work that must be done to lay the foundation.

However, going back to Reutter's political naivete, the way to light the fire under the Federal Rail Administration to make that happen is to ensure that a large number of Senators and a large number of Representatives have a stake in those changes being accomplished.

And his plan of, "put all our eggs in two baskets", while a bit better than putting all our eggs in one basket, simply does not promise to make sure that there are enough Congresscritters with enough incentive to light a fire under the FRA.

And then there is the gullible

And as I mentioned, then there are those who fall so thoroughly for Republican talking points, hook line and sinker, that one must wonder whether they really are that gullible or whether they are Republican operatives in disguise. "Ohiobama", for example. "Scamtrak: Amish Buggies Would Outpace Ohio Governor's Half-Billion-$ Snail Rail Trains"

Take $400 million in federal "strimulus" funds, add a dollop of non-existent state revenue, and throw that money toward a notoriously corrupt group of industrialists to build a new transit system that is so slow, expensive, and inconvenient that it's guaranteed to attract few riders, displace no automotive traffic, save no energy, and yield no technological innovations. And it will be run by Democrats, up and down the line.

What is up with "strimulus"? What does that even mean?

The promised subsidy is under 2% of the State Transport Budget in a state that actually used some of our Stimulus road money on building new roads ... although of course we could have spent every single cent on repairing roads and bridges.

And then there is the complete and total ignorance of the fact that the rail corridor that is going to receive the investment can with another $600m~$800m be brought up to 110mph ... just as the Republicans wish to obscure in their attack on the line.

I have no idea whether Ohiobama is sincere but uninformed or a Republican plant, but somebody needs to ask Ohiobama why he is joining the Republican misinformation assault on Obama's intercity transportation policy. I fear I might not be the right person to do so, since reading over-excited, distraught, hyperventilating argument is not really my cup of tea.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Train: Open Thread

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I've been like a hare chased by a hound this weekend, darting this way and that, so while I've got a lot of topics I could be writing on, I've got nothing coherent for a full fledged diary. So this week will be bits and pieces and this and that.

The Columbus Dispatch continues its attack on the Triple-C in Ohio

Like so many attack inspired by the reactionary propaganda mills gussied up as "think tanks", the attacks on the Triple-C are more focus-group tested than serious critiques.

In Thomas Suddes commentary: In the big picture, taking the train money seems like a bad idea, following up the original negative Dispatch editorial, Suddes argues:
Maybe; but maybe common-sense people can wonder why Ohio should spend $400 million on trains when I-71 isn't six lanes wide all the way from Columbus to Cleveland. There's a four-lane stretch north of Columbus that redefines eternity -- as an eight-letter word for "crossing Morrow County."

First, Ohio isn't "spending $400m on a train to...". That's Federal funding. The Stimulus II spending on HSR was spread between Express HSR, Emerging HSR upgrades to existing conventional rail systems, and spending on conventional rail systems that would then be in a position for upgrade to Emerging HSR.

Ohio's Triple-C is the latter - providing the most densely populated corridor without a conventional rail service with one, while paving the way for an upgrade to 110mph.

So that is one blatant lie. The blatant lie is perhaps to distract people from the dishonest frame: the reason that Ohio should invest in conventional rail rather than expanding lanes is that its the cheapest way to add capacity. When you constantly do one thing, you sooner or later run out of "cheap and easy" jobs and what's left in the "to do" basket tends to be hard or expensive or both.

And he does go on, but don't read that as encouraging you to link through, unless you need practice disentangling truth from fiction from outright lie in the hands of a "conservative" who claims that "ideas matter" (but not, it seems, telling the truth).

Magnifico had a Train Diary on Friday

Spending to Create Jobs: China and High-speed Rail:
Congress is once again trying to address unemployment in America with another tax cut laden, so-called "jobs" bill. Increasing the federal deficit by handing out more tax cuts is not a good economic stimulus and, most importantly, will not actually create a lot of new jobs.

Since Congress is going to borrow money, they should be using that money to improve the country. For example, the New York Times reports China sees their economic growth engine in a network of fast trains.
Faced with mass layoffs at export factories, China ordered that the new rail system be completed by 2012 instead of 2020, throwing more than $100 billion in stimulus at the projects.

Administrators mobilized armies of laborers — 110,000 just for the 820-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai, which will cut travel time there to five hours, from 12, when it opens next year.

That one I do advise clicking through to read.

"With new upgrades, future of rail transportation looks good"

David Zweiful at "Cap Times, Your Progressive Voice" in Wisconsin says, "With new upgrades, future of rail transportation looks good":
Because of our interest in the Talgo cars, this year we flew to Portland, Ore., boarded Portland’s light-rail “Max” system at the airport and were downtown at our hotel within a half an hour. The system is considered the country’s best commuter rail service, running at frequent intervals and making numerous convenient stops for passengers. It’s said there’s no need to own a car if you live in Portland.

After spending the night there, we boarded a train called the “Cascades,” which starts in Eugene, Ore., and runs north to Vancouver, British Columbia. It is also operated by Amtrak.

The ride is all it’s cracked up to be, smooth, quiet and roomy, complete with an airy lounge where folks can buy everything from breakfast sandwiches to a bloody mary. There are numerous outlets for computer hookups, large overhead bins for carry-on luggage and brief cases and easy access between cars. It will be an incredible upgrade to the old equipment that’s used on the seven daily Hiawatha runs between Milwaukee and Chicago today.

I found it odd that he actually rode some trains of the same basic type that will be used in Wisconsin: I understood from those taking dictation from reactionary propaganda mills that finding out about the actual reality on the ground is nowhere near as important as "ideas".

The Christian Science Monitor looks at HSR

In High-speed rail: Stimulus dollars wisely spent?, the venerable CSM gives mostly not unreasonable reporting on the HSR funding.

There is one clunker, however:
But others are leery of what they see as a plan that won't lure Americans from their cars and therefore may not pay off.

"To believe this makes economic sense, you'd have to be foolish," says James Moore, director of the transportation and engineering program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "In the US, autos cover shorter trips better and airlines capture longer trips. That doesn't leave room for high-speed rail to compete."

What precisely is James Moore's area of expertise that allows him to categorically dismiss actual experience of actual system improvements providing actual increases in frequency and reliability resulting in actual increase in ridership ... which to an economist demonstrates that there is a potential market for improvements of this sort?

Well, looking at his curriculum vita (pdf), stuff like: ""The Economic Impacts of a Terrorist Attack on the U.S. Commercial Aviation System,". The only peer reviewed research I found that was related to rail ridership modeling, and that was not related to intercity rail, was "Ten Myths About US Rail Transit Systems." (1999), a hit piece against local rail transport funded by the Reason Foundation.

I swear I had no idea when I started hunting that down that began at "director of the transportation and engineering program at USC" would end up at The Reason Foundation (Sourcewatch). On the other hand, I was not actually surprised.

OK, its already time to post, so better wrap this up, and bring on the headliners.

The Headliners: Midnight Oil

No end to the hostility
Now they wanna be somehwere else
No stranger to brutality
Now they'd like to be someone else

Older than kosciusko
Driven back to alice springs
Endless storms and struggle
Now the fires begin to rage

High up in the homelands
Celebration 'cross the land
Builds up like a cyclone
Now the fires begin to rage

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Train: Taking the Train to the Airport

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Disclaimer: Nothing said here should be taken to imply that airport/train connections are the primary transport task for either light rail, mass transit, conventional intercity rail, or high speed intercity rail. In other words, the focus of an essay in a regular weekly series on one particular topic does not imply anything along the lines of "most important thing".

However, recently, I keep running into the issue of taking the train to the airport. I read an recent article in an air travel industry publication that focused on the airport connections associated with the projects funded in the $8b HSR funding. I read an older piece about the proposed intermodal station in Chicago that would allow our Ohio trains to get to O'Hare. And the proposal to terminate the California HSR at the redesigned Lindbergh Field came up as part of the discussion at the California HSR blog.

So with the Super Bowl coming up to distract things, I succumbed to what was clearly fate, and am going to discuss taking the train to the airport.

The Green Dimension

It is, I hope, widely understood that the carbon footprint of flying is very high. What might not be as widely understood is that the shorter routes tend to be the least efficient routes. On a short flight, the extra fuel-consumption of take-off and landing is shared out among fewer route miles.

And further, aircraft are less efficient flying through the denser air closer to the surface, and more efficient when they reach "cruising altitude". And of course, when flying from, say, Atlanta to Charlotte NC, or Columbus OH to Chicago, you spend the bulk of the flight either climbing to cruising altitude or descending from it.

And under present conditions, HSR demand focuses on trips of one to three hours, which are all short-haul flights in terms of flying. So not only can HSR be powered by sustainably generated electricity (either from the outset for 220mph Express HSR, or as part of ongoing upgrades, for 110mph Emerging HSR) ... but the flights they will replace are those that have a higher carbon footprint per route mile than the average for flying.

Now, whether we will still be flying in 2050, to what extent, and for what types of journeys ... we have to take whatever steps we can to cut our carbon footprint as soon as we can in order to get to 2050 more or less intact. And the above suggests that one early strategy is to make it possible to take a longer flight to an airport and then complete the journey by HSR.

Airports Aint Just Airports

Of course, for this strategy, it makes a difference what kind of airport it is. This is critical to the discussion of the Lindbergh Field Intermodal Transit Center (pdf) option in San Diego, which arises in some of the commentary on the California HSR blog post, How Will HSR Get to Downtown San Diego?.

While the ITC is a very interesting proposal in terms of providing direct Trolley, Coaster and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner stops at the airport - Lindbergh Field is between one and two miles from downtown, and the existing Amtrak Pacific Surfliner terminus at Santa Fe is a much stronger location for the downtown San Diego HSR station. It is located on one Trolley line that runs to the border, adjcent to the trolley line to Petco field as well as one of the main downtown bus transfer centers. It is much more convenient to the Convention center and two blocks from the Coronado ferry.

And with respect to the plane/train transfer scenario, San Diego airport is not a main hub airport, nor is its location promising for development into a main hub airport. So for plane/train transfers involving both San Diego and California HSR, the majority of transfers will be somewhere else in the state, with the trip either starting or ending at the San Diego HSR station.

So, while the Intermodal Transit Center is interesting as one transitional design for reducing vehicle miles traveled to the San Diego Airport - its the local rail connections that are critical for that impact. For the High Speed Rail, where San Diego is likely to have one suburban and one downtown station, Lindbergh Field seems to be too close to downtown to be the suburban station and seems to be too far from the key intra-state and interstate transport destinations in San Diego to be the downtown station.

OK, so what about O'Hare

O'Hare airport in Chicago is a clear contrasting example. This is a major western Great Lakes / eastern Midest transport hub. Any HSR network in this region would receive a benefit from connecting to O'Hare.

For existing Michigan and Indiana trains, and proposed Ohio Hub trains, the obstacle to getting to the airport is not the existence of an airport station - but rather that fact that O'Hare is on the western side of the Great Chicago Divide.

Most people are aware of the importance of Chicago status as a central rail hub in Chicago's emergence as a major American city. Perhaps fewer are aware of the way that Chicago developed as a rail hub. This was in the late 1800's, when large numbers of ofttimes shady characters were trying to make their fortune by building a railroad. The end result of the chaotic process was a system of lines running from Chicago to the east, and a system of lines running from Chicago to the west, with very little interconnection between the two systems.

And of course, the reason that the Midwest Hub and Ohio Hub systems can be built out so much more quickly with so many more miles per dollar than the California HSR system is because they are starting out as 110mph Emerging HSR systems, built in existing rail corridors. So they stand to inherit the east/west divide.

However, it is no secret that this is a problem, and so there are efforts underway to address these problems. One of these efforts is the West Loop Transportation Center

An appealing aspect of this proposal is that it means the downtown Chicago HSR station will be connected directly to Chicago Union Station and the Olgivie Transportation Center.

The Chicago / Michigan corridor would be a primary beneficiary among those receiving funding from the $8b appropriated in Stimulus II, but later stages of the Midwest Hub to both Indianapolis and northern Indiana would also benefit from this through access ... and of course the Ohio Hub, which was funded for its core seed corridor at conventional Amtrak speed, plans to connect to Chicago, first via the Michigan corridor, and then via the Indiana corridors.

And a whole collection of potential airport connections ...

Some airport HSR connections are stations directly integrated into an airport terminal complex ... others are HSR connections with local rail that has an airport station ... others are connected to airports by less direct means.

For those choosing between an air/air transfer and an air/train transfer, the HSR station integrated into the airport terminal is obviously the ideal. However, for many people living in rural and outer suburban areas that the HSR passes through, the greater ease of access and quality of service at the regional HSR station will offset an additional transfer to connect to a hub airport.

On the other hand, we are talking about fewer than half of the passengers on a High Speed Rail service - so while an airport station is always an option to consider, going too far out of the way in order to stop at the airport is not automatically the correct choice.

And of course, while in some cases the die has been cast, either by the legacy of airport location choices and availability of transport corridors, in other cases, the decision has not been finalized yet.

Defending Aviation's Market Share

How do we fund airport stations? You might think that since there is an Aviation Trust Fund that we regularly dip into for capital improvements, and since an airport HSR station is an obvious improvement in terms of offering transport alternatives to air passengers, that one way to fund the airport station itself, and in particular the extra capital cost of integrating into the passenger terminal rather than having a station "in the vicinity of" the airport, could apply for funding as a capital improvement to the airport.

Except the ideal is an intermodal through station, the HSR accesses the airport terminal, and where local transport accesses both the airport terminal and the HSR station. Which runs smack dab into the FAA regulations (pdf):
To be AIP and PFC eligible, the airport ground access transportation project must meet the following conditions: (1) The road or facility may only extend to the nearest public highway or facility of sufficient capacity to accommodate airport traffic; (2) the access road or facility must be located on the airport or within a right-of-way acquired by the public agency; and (3) the access road or facility must exclusively serve airport traffic.

There's nothing in the first two that interferes with applying for these funds to cover the incremental capital cost of integrating the HSR station with an airport terminal: the problem is, of course, the third section. This is why so many light rail and other rail projects that go to airports terminate at the airport, since that is the easiest way to guarantee that the infrastructure on the airport property never, ever commits the unpardonable efficiency of serving multiple transport needs at the same time.

Indeed, if you press the point - and as far as I understand it, the FAA does indeed press the point - any through rail corridor must be automatically ineligible, since the passengers that are taking the train through and not using the airport station are automatically receiving service from the road that is not "exclusively for the airport".

This is a national policy that could well be changed. Whether it could be changed by executive order, or requires new Congressional language, I do not know - I am not, after all, a lawyer, not even in the sense of playing on on the Internet - but whichever it is, that is a change that ought to be pursued.

The thing about this regulation is that it doesn't matter how much of the use of the facility is to serve the airport, nor what the cost efficiency of the system is in terms of serving passengers to and from the airport ... the simple fact that another use may be made of the facility is used to rule the project ineligible, so the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of the service to air passengers is never assessed.

A preferable limit for through rail services would be to the incremental capital cost of providing service to a passenger station directly integrated with an airport passenger terminal, restricted to infrastructure located on the airport property itself.

As argued above regarding Lindbergh Field in San Diego, an airport station is not automatically the preferred location for an HSR station. However, with the opportunities to engage in air/train transfers, and the existing ground transport connections to the airport, it is often an option worth considering.

However, because of the space hunger of airport runways, there is often an incremental capital cost in connecting an HSR corridor directly with an airport via an airport terminal station. Where the airport station turns out to be a cost effective way of providing improved transport connections to the airport, the decision should be made in terms of how effectively it serves to provide transport to and from the airports, and the efficiency of also providing additional service to others should not automatically rule it out.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sunday Train: Going to Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Other Adventures

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Huh, seems me that whatever the state of my various concerns, the agenda of the Sunday Train has been taken over by the White House ... funny how announcing the recipients of a total of $8b will do that.

The Transport Politic (aka Yonah Freeman and the TTP commentariat) has a very complete rundown. The allotments over $200m are:
  • California, $2,344m
  • Florida: $1,250m
  • Illinois: $1,236m
  • Wisconsin: $822m
  • Washington: $590m
  • North Carolina: $545m
  • Ohio: $400m

So, what's the money for?

So, what's the money for?

I'll start with the big ticket items.

California, $2,344m. This includes $1,850m for the California HSR Stage 1 from San Francisco to Anaheim via San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, and the LA Basin. This is, in essence, enough to prime the pump for the California project.

California has the advantage of $9b in bonding authority already passed in November 2008, but that bonding authority has strings attached. One of those string is that for any given segment, all funding has to be in place before bonds can be sold, bonds cannot fund more than half the cost of a given segment, and to avoid monkey business in the definition of "segment", it has to have a vetted plan for running services without state operating subsidies.

This ARRA funding will allow the California HSR authority to work through 2010 and its projected start of the segment design and build process in 2011 without having to sell bonds up front. Then if an application for additional Federal funds requires matching funds, it will be possible to bring one or more of the defined segments in line for receiving state bond support, which will provide the matching funds.

Obviously, how fast those funds flow will determine how close the CAHSRA can stay to its project timeline ... but with the ARRA funding to prime the pump, California is well placed to proceed with the project at whatever pace that funding flows permit.

And the flip side of the ARRA announcement is a substantial group of states with a stake in having enough HSR funding so that they are not forced to go toe-to-toe with California's substantial application advantages. Any "transparent process", which are codewords for cost-benefit analysis based decisions, will give heavy weight to California for Express HSR. Just as the Northeast Corridor has a close to ideal population distribution for conventional rail, and the Great Lakes / Eastern Midwest a close to an ideal population distribution for 110mph/125mph Emerging/Regional HSR, California has close to an ideal population distribution for Express HSR.

In addition to the Stage 1 corridor funding, the ARRA funding includes $400m for building the shell of a bus terminal into the foundations of the Transbay Terminal bus station in San Francisco. This is a project that is reputedly "ready to go", although of course the actual design of the TBT train box leaves quite a bit to be desired. Never one to quit working before the whistle, I am hoping that the availability of $400m can be used to persuade the Transbay Joint Power Authority to build a less heavily bottlenecked design for trains entering and leaving this undergound train station.

Finally, while Stage 1 does not go to Vegas (despite what the Replicants were saying this time last year) ... it does go to Disneyland. Which sets the stage for the next allocation.

Florida: $1,250m. This is entirely for Express HSR track from Tampa to Orlando. This is a line that has been criticized for not connecting the two downtowns of the two cities. On the other hand, it does go to Disneyworld, and as an on-again, off-again project that kept getting squashed by lack of local funding, the Florida State Legislature was led to believe that their hopes of HSR funding required a commitment to support complementary local rail service. Support for SunRail passed, and so Florida got their Disneyworld train.

If there is ongoing federal funding available, I expect that sooner or later Florida will bite the bullet and sort out an extension of the service - even if not an extension of the corridor - to allow downtown to downtown service. After all, in France, one of the early pioneers in High Speed Rail, its common for the Express HSR services to only run on Express HSR corridors between major metropolitan areas, and to run into and through major metro areas on express electric urban lines.

Illinois: $1,236m. The main project here is $1,102m to upgrade parts of the Chicago / St. Louis corridor to 110mph service, cutting end-to-end travel time to four hours, and bringing substantial new populations along the corridor within three hours or less of either Chicago or St. Louis or both. Further improvement of this corridor on the same basis can bring the end-to-end time down to three hours.

The second main project is $133m for line and station improvements between Chicago and Michigan, including two suburban and one downtown station for Detroit. This is a line that, like the Chicago / St. Louis, has already has a series of smaller incremental improvements.

Wisconsin: $822m. The bulk of this is $810m to establish a Milwaukee-Madison corridor service. This will extend the already well patronized successful Chicago / Milwaukee corridor, and indeed further build patronage on that corridor, since Madison / Chicago is a substantial transport market in its own right along this corridor.

Washington: $590m. This is mostly for bypass tracks for the Cascade Corridor between Oregon and Washington, with some services continuing to Vancouver. I believe there is also some provision for new rolling stock to support additional Vancouver services.

North Carolina: $545m. The bulk of this is $520m to bring the Raleigh/Charlotte corridor up to 90mph, as a first step to eventually bringing it up to 110mph as part of the Southeast HSR Corridor.

Ohio: $400m. This is all dedicated to establishing the conventional rail starter service for the Triple C route from Cleveland to Columbus and Cincinnati to Columbus. This was a route abandoned in 1971 when Penn Central went bust, and when Columbus was well under half a million in population. However, with the growth of Columbus in the decades since, Columbus is now the second most populous metro area and the corridor the most densely populated corridor in the country without regular rail service.

In terms of HSR, establishing this service is a starter on establishing the 110mph version of the Triple C, which with two hour services to Columbus from either end is when the corridor is projected to be capable of generating a substantial operating surplus. It may take a series of upgrades, to get there, but each upgrade will cut trip speeds and improve patronage on the corridor, trimming the required subsidy until it finally goes away.

Oh, and clever politics too

I've already noted the political intelligence of giving California enough to prime their pump. California Senators and Congressmen will, of course, be pushing for enough further HSR funding to assure that California's HSR system can be constructed more or less on scheduled. And of course, rivals can either try to fight that big House caucus ... or work out a way to ensure there is enough to go around. The politics leans toward the "enough to go around" outcome.

For Florida, people from all over the country go to Disneyworld. In not too long a time from now, many of them will be catching the train from an airport station to Disneyworld, and some of them using the HSR train again for one or another daytrip. This addresses the "if only you had ever been to Europe/Japan and experienced this thing ..." problem.

And of course, Florida is a famous Presidential swing state. Work on the corridor will be progressing before election day in 2012.

Illinois is not a famous Presidential swing state, but after California is one of the prime examples of states that have invested both capital and operating subsidies into improving Amtrak corridor services in its state, and even if the President and Secretary of Transport were not a Democrat and Republican, respectively, from Illinois, it would be wise politics to reward that behavior with the flagship Emerging HSR corridor. Of course, on the SubsidyScope numbers, even at conventional rail speed, its also the leading Great Lakes / Midwestern regional corridor in operating cost ratio, so its also the safest bet in terms of generating a comfortable operating surplus once raised to 110mph.

Washington (and Oregon, but the bulk of the corridor is in Washington, and that's where the highest priority bottlenecks lie) may not lean as strongly Democratic in Presidential politics as Illinois, but is also an example of rewarding those states that have invested into corridor improvements, as in inducement to additional states to follow the same course.

North Carolina is an example of a state that we didn't expect to be a swing state in Presidential politics, but then in 2008, it swung. And North Carolina is right on the boundary line between states that have been making genuine investments in improved rail service, and the states to its immediate south and west that have been paying lip service at most.

And of course, Ohio is a Presidential swing state in the Florida league. Further, the Ohio Triple-C will be in operation before election day, 2012.

In terms of the politics of rewarding states for supporting rail, Ohio is like Florida in the first half of "new friends are silver, old friends are gold" ... after a very tight fight in the Ohio state legislature, the operating subsidies required by the conventional speed Triple-C service were passed by the Republican State Senate. That was when before Strickland's approval rating was battered by the recession, and unless that subsidy offer was taken up by the DoT, there was every chance that it would not be repeated.

On the other hand, once the service is up and running, the call to apply for federal funds to speed segments of the corridor up to 110mph will be much harder to resist than it was to fight against the idea of starting the service up in the first place. So there is every reason to hope for 110mph service to be in place in Ohio sometime before election day, 2016.

And now, the headliners ...
Midnight Oil: The Power and the Passion