Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tesla re-draws the map for EV travel

Tesla Motors' Supercharger network as of March 2014.
This winter, through holes in the polar vortices, a few brave souls trekked cross-country along a new electric highway which winds from California to the Northeast. A route put together by Tesla Motors allowed a team of company employees to cut the coast-to-coast driving time for an electric vehicle to just over three days—more than three-and-a-half times faster than what was achievable in 2012. As the network expands, the coast-to-coast drive time will continue to shrink. As long as you have bought into their technology, that is.

Tesla Motors has been building up a national network of Supercharger stations for their Model S electric vehicle over the past year and a half. They first built stations in California, then stretched networks north and south along the East and West Coasts, and have just recently finished a transcontinental string of stations from southern California to New York. Rather than taking a straight shot, the string of stations wends northward through scenic western locales such as Moab, Utah, climbs through the Rocky Mountains, and then goes north to I-90 in around the Wyoming–South Dakota border, within distance of Mount Rushmore.

It's about 800 miles longer than a straight shot between Los Angeles and New York. But lucky for any Minnesotans who own the Model S, our state received two Supercharger stops along I-90, in Worthington and Albert Lea, and there are a few others just across the border in South Dakota and Wisconsin.

One of the goals of Tesla's founders has been to create a practical electric car to help us get off of carbon-laden fossil fuels. Tesla has taken a unique approach to making the electric car practical, something that's still a work in progress despite some huge achievements already.

Most entrepreneurial efforts into the electric-car market have been built around low-end vehicles that weren't even classified as regular cars because they were limited to low speeds or only had three wheels, but still ended up costing as much as a decent small car. Bigger automakers have struggled with finding the right vehicles to convert to electric operation, or to design entirely as electric vehicles. Entry-level cars fitted with electric drivetrains end up reaching mid-market or even upmarket prices, though the absolute costs have started to come down as sales of the most popular models have reached into the tens of thousands.

Tesla's approach has been to start out at a higher price point, where the additional cost of specialized electronics and the bulky battery pack is a lower percentage of the overall cost. For their first car, the Roadster, they aimed at two killer features: A driving range of more than 200 miles, and a level of acceleration that competes with the fastest vehicles on the road. But it was a cramped two-seater with limited storage space—a fun, sporty vehicle, but not quite a daily driver.

The current Model S car is much more well-rounded. The all-electric drivetrain allowed designers to try new things because the big lump of an engine wasn't in front anymore. In addition to offering a range of more than 250 miles per charge and still having tremendous performance, it is a larger 5-door sedan, optionally seating up to 7 passengers if the two rear-facing seats for children are included. It has won numerous awards, including matching the best score Consumer Reports has ever given for a car. The battery pack is slung low under the car in a "skateboard" arrangement, making the vehicle have an extremely low center of gravity—it's very difficult to get the car to roll over.

So, for people who can afford it, Tesla has a compelling offering. Travel by car has by far the largest mode share in the country today, and it's in all of our best interests to make sure that cars and trucks become as energy-efficient as possible. The company is doing a good job of breaking down the barriers that have held people back from buying electric vehicles in the past. But a couple of things keep me up at night: First, will Tesla or other electric-vehicle manufacturers ever be able to reach a price point that makes them broadly popular? Second, how far can we really get by converting cars to run on electricity? (Hydrogen- and methane-powered vehicles will also probably have some role to play.)

The answer to the second question is pretty clear—even if our entire vehicle fleet suddenly became much more efficient, it wouldn't be enough to meet our carbon-reduction goals. We also need to change our land use patterns. I'm a big believer in using the tools of good urbanism to provide walkable and bikeable environments, and linking neighborhoods and cities with quality public transit networks using a mix of buses and trains. Even with that, we will probably need to find ways to effectively run our whole petroleum production process in reverse, pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering it underground in some form (in my mind, liquid is safer than the gaseous storage methods that have been proposed).

So, to circle around to the Supercharger stations again, I have to say that I'm almost wholly unimpressed with the places where these stations have been going in. While Superchargers offer the ability to recharge a Tesla vehicle very quickly (adding 200 miles of range to an empty battery in under 40 minutes), they're usually located in suburban-style strips or the fringes of shopping mall parking lots.

Here's the one in Albert Lea, four stalls in the parking lot of an AmericInn hotel just off I-90 (the first exit west of I-35). If you're going to be waiting for your car to charge for 20 to 40 minutes, it would seem ideal to use that time to shop or grab a bite to eat. But the nearest food here is at Burger King, and it's not a very walkable environment (no sidewalks):


Here's the one in Worthington, six stalls in the parking lot of a Ground Round restaurant. There was one couple there sitting in their car waiting for it to charge, also in a sidewalkless suburban-style sprawl zone:


Of course, the Supercharger stations are located close to the highway, much like many regular filling stations. Sometimes they're in the parking lots of restaurants, sometimes hotels. But in most cases, the stations are located only a couple of minutes away from nice, walkable central business districts.

One of the thing that frustrates me most about driving by car these days is the sameness that's found wherever you stop. Mostly the same fast-food joints, with only faint whiffs of what makes a place unique.

On my January trek out to visit the stations, I decided to stop in downtown Worthington (I skipped central Albert Lea, though there is a writeup on that Main Street already).

Worthington has a decent central business district, a variety of 1- to 3-story buildings:


There were a number of Mexican and Asian restaurants and shops. I never would have guessed. I couldn't quite figure out the language of this sign:


It isn't all traditional buildings. As in countless other cities, it was clear that a portion of the town center had been torn down, in this case to make way for a fortresslike government center:


Some of the restaurants:


And, for good measure, the former train station, still used as offices by Union Pacific. Perhaps someday in my lifetime, they'll use it again for passenger trains.


So if you were setting up stopping points for a cross-country adventure, which would you pick? I'm a fan of the walkable downtown—even in this small community, there was plenty to see in a short distance of the free downtown parking lot. Placing chargers in town centers would help reinforce those communities by bringing travelers to see something they wouldn't quite expect otherwise, alleviating the blandness of the highway.

While I'm not a fan of their charger locations, it won't impact me for a while. If and until I need to get a new car, and I turn out to be able to afford one of their next-generation vehicles, charging locations remain a question for Tesla and their existing customer base. Do their customers want to be stuck in their cars in unwalkable suburban landscapes while they wait to charge up, or will they demand something better?

Perhaps non-Tesla charging stations will take a hint and be placed in better locations, though that almost becomes a requirement for other vehicles. Most electric cars on the road in the U.S. today only take current from slower Level 1 or Level 2 chargers (basically 120- or 240-volt power), and take several hours to fully charge. Topping off doesn't take as long, but still, if you're going to be stuck in one place for a while, public chargers pretty much need to be in walkable locations.

I'm not sure if I'll ever get a pure electric car. I'm an apartment dweller, which will make charging at home difficult for the foreseeable future. I'll need some sort of fast public charging infrastructure, unless my building management decides to take the initiative and set something up themselves. Most existing electrics also only offer driving range of roughly 80-100 miles (sometimes only half that). I have a recurring need to drive 80-100 miles on relatively short notice, so I'll either need something with a bigger battery or a growth in the availability of fast-charging infrastructure.

Tesla's Supercharger network isn't quite going to work either, at least for now—they're currently Tesla-specific proprietary technology, not offered on any other vehicles. But even if another manufacturer licensed the necessary pieces, batteries would need to grow as well. Those chargers in Worthington and Albert Lea are 114 miles apart, farther than virtually any non-Tesla electric vehicle can go today. There is an emerging nationwide standard for fast-charging which should help cars with smaller batteries, but the chargers aren't yet widely deployed, and very few cars have been built with the appropriate on-board connector.

It's both amazing and disheartening to see how far electric vehicles have come in the last decade. Huge leaps forward have been made, but with many more still left to go.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Metro transit opportunities in plain sight

Minneapolis-Saint Paul rail map, May 2013 (MnDOT)

I verge on being a train nut, and if I'm honest, I wish passenger service could be reactivated on most of the remaining rail lines in the U.S.  The rail network faces extreme competition from a dense mesh of seemingly free roads, so it's always easy to bash the expense of trains, but there are many cases where it provides a good alternative to highway expansion, and can provide city-to-city and town-to-town transportation better than buses on freeways. Freeways are designed for non-stop travel—the antithesis of most forms of transit—and often represent the second or third bypass of a community, often unwalkable distances from historic town centers. On the other hand, rails were often built very early and usually still reach core areas.

In Minnesota, most towns and cities that existed before World War II grew up on rail lines.  About half of the state and country's rail network has now been ripped up—in many cases, that was probably the right outcome, but the national rail network had been dragged down by decades of over-regulation. The federal government began relaxing rules in the second half of the 20th century, and the abandonment of lines accelerated around the time of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, which reformed 90-year-old legislation designed for a time when the railroads really did need to be reined in. After more than three decades of retrenchment and consolidation, the nation's rail system is actually carrying record levels of traffic, but rail companies still lean toward abandonment of little-used lines rather than rehabilitation or expansion.

So while we're probably near the bottoming out of total rail miles, it's important to look at what remains and ensure that we don't lose additional pieces. It's worrying to hear talk of buying out the Twin Cities and Western in order to make way for Southwest LRT.  Despite being classified as a "short line" railroad, The Twin Cities and Western system has about 250 miles of track, including about 95 miles owned by the Minnesota Valley Railroad Authority (who subsidize operations to provide cheaper transportation for farmers and businesses along th eline), but it only interconnects with other railroads in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park (at a very constrained junction), and far to the west in Appleton. Chopping off the line would be a bad decision, and some reroutes could do more harm than good, especially since the line leads directly to the Northstar station at Target Field as things stand today (at least one reroute option would send trains south of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers).

Keeping Minnesotans mobile in the 21st century is a big challenge as the population ages, we deal with climate change, and we try to minimize the death tolls on our roadways while also transitioning to an always-on society with pervasive electronic communication. It's important to take a broad look to try and find ways to provide quality transportation that connects people and places in ways that reinforces walkable, bikeable, and transitable infrastructure.

Most of Minnesota's population is in the Twin Cities region, about 3.4 million people out of the state's total 5.4 million (the U.S. Census Bureau includes some Wisconsin counties for the metro population, though including the St. Cloud area more than balances out that loss). With that balance, it's vitally important to improve transit service within the Twin Cities, even though it's a target of lazy criticism by outstate representatives.  If we were to set a goal of setting up transportation service to reach 80 or 90 percent of the state's population, the Twin Cities can't be ignored (most towns and cities of significant size are also clustered in the metro). But by the same token, focusing exclusively on the Twin Cities would only reach a maximum of 63% of the state's population.

Getting back to the rail network, it's worth pointing out that much of the state's system only has a limited amount of traffic as things stand today. Amtrak and Northstar run on some of the busiest routes, making access charges very expensive. Some of the segment used by Northstar sees about 63 trains per day, but the Twin Cities and Western line that's causing headaches for Southwest LRT planners only has three.

While I'm not in favor of buying out the TC&W in order to shut it down, I do think there would be value buying up a segment of it in order to making it a passenger-primary corridor, while maintaining freight access.  It could be upgraded to allow many commuter trains per day without adversely affecting freight operations. A possible outcome might be to initially build Southwest LRT through Uptown to Hopkins, which would likely have decent all-day ridership, and use the TC&W tracks to reach more commuter-oriented Eden Prairie and Shakopee.

But given the late stage of Southwest LRT planning, I'll focus my attention farther north, in the Bottineau corridor. Like Southwest, it has appealed to area planners since it's a historic rail corridor, currently known as the Monticello Subdivision. BNSF Railway currently operates just two trains per day on the line, which immediately parallels Interstate 94 and Hennepin County Road 81.  At the northern extreme by the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant, only a few trains per year use the track, putting that portion at risk of abandonment.

View BNSF Monticello Subdivision in a larger map

Interstate 94 is very busy on that stretch, and a widening project was recently pushed through for a three-mile stretch between Rogers and Saint Michael, and there will likely be continuing political pressure to keep widening the Interstate farther northwest. "Nobody will deny that Interstate 94 will eventually be three lanes in each direction all the way from the Twin Cities to Saint Cloud," began a report from KARE 11 this past summer, which cited the support of Michele Bachmann and other politicians. Is that common wisdom really appropriate, when a potential relief valve sits a less than a quarter-mile away from the highway? It's frustrating that train service had not been brought up as an alternative, at least at any time within the last decade.

Yes, it would overlap with Bottineau, and it's only three to six miles from Northstar, though questions like that rarely arise when discussing highways (I-94, I-694, I-494, US-10, US-169, MN-100, MN-101, and MN-610 are in the corridor).  The line formerly went to St. Cloud and beyond, but had been truncated, probably due to competition from I-94 which it parallels so closely.  There would be potential to rebuild portions of that line, or to connect across the river to the Northstar corridor to keep operations relatively consolidated.

I'm sure there would be significant costs for rehabilitating tracks, as much of the line is only rated for 10 to 25 mph as things stand today.  The Northstar service was mostly built on tracks that already carried Amtrak's Empire Builder, so in theory the costs to upgrade track would have been negligible, but it turned out that much of the route still saw significant rehabilitation anyway (only a short distance of new track was built for Northstar, primarily at the Big Lake maintenance facility, and for the spur that leads to the Target Field station in Minneapolis).

A grade separation project in Crystal where the line crosses the Canadian Pacific railway's 20-train-per-day main line would also be needed if service frequency was ramped up to the maximum, but probably wouldn't be necessary to begin operations. But an improvement project there could also lead to a proper junction at that spot, potentially allowing commuter service along the CP line, which parallels Minnesota State Highay 55.  Rockford or Buffalo could be good endpoints for commuter service, and intercity rail could continue as far as Winnipeg, opening up a mid-continent connection between the Amtrak and the Canadian VIA Rail network (today the gap is more than 2,000 miles, between the Toronto area in the east and Vancouver in the west).

Ideally, future rail services will be implemented with smaller, more nimble train vehicles than the bulky equipment we see on Northstar. The Federal Railroad Administration appears to be moving toward allowing lightweight diesel multiple unit (DMU) vehicles on legacy freight lines, which bear much closer resemblance to our Blue and Green Line light-rail cars. The combination of lighter/cheaper vehicles, better stop spacing, more frequent service, and opportunity for new branches makes the Monticello line a winner in my book. The idea had probably been examined and tossed aside in some long-forgotten Alternatives Analysis, but it really shouldn't be ignored, and the whole Twin Cities system should get more attention.

Statewide, there was some attention paid to restoring intercity rail service in the 2010 State Rail Plan, though it was a wholly Twin Cities-centric network, possibly ignoring some good opportunities for outstate connectivity, such as along the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern line which stretches across the state's southern tier.  Aside from (perhaps) corridors to Rochester, St. Cloud, and Duluth, it's unlikely that these routes can operate at a profit, but their value should be measured in other ways.

Having grown up in a small town, I see a great benefit from building up and reinforce a good rail (and bus) network to in order to provide greater flexibility for growing families. Children and parents are both constrained when one has to take on the duty of chauffeuring others to remote commercial airports or other destinations because of insufficient existing services. Proper stations for rail or bus service also provide focal points which can reinforce traditional town centers, ideally counteracting today's trend of building up along highways, and frontage roads.  They won't work miracles, but are important tools for reinforcing good urbanism.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Improper signal maintenance actions led to October 2012 Amtrak derailment

In October/November, the National Transportation Safety Board finalized and released their report on the derailment of an Amtrak ''Wolverine'' train in Niles, Michigan back in October 2012. I felt that this was an extremely important investigation because the incident occurred on a segment of Amtrak-owned "high-speed" track, the first segment of modern 110-mph running in the United States outside of the Northeast. I've covered the event previously (here and here). My initial article was a bit too speculative about what happened—it quickly became clear that the train engineer responded appropriately to the signal indications, and that the positive train control (PTC) overlay (specifically Incremental Train Control System, or ITCS, in this case) behaved as designed.

As seen in the left-hand photo above, the train engineer had a "clear" signal (green over red), permitting the train to operate at the line's maximum speed of 110 mph. However, the switch was "reversed", aligned to take the train into a yard where speed is limited to just 15 mph (right). The in-cab signals had also presented a "clear" indication to the locomotive engineer, but he waited until the physical signals were visible before beginning to accelerate. The train hit the misaligned switch at 61 miles per hour. Fortunately there weren't any fatalities in the incident, though 13 people were injured (8 were taken to the hospital, but none of the injuries were life-threatening).

There had been maintenance work on the track shortly before the Amtrak train went through. A maintenance-of-way crew had been using a tamping machine, which uses vibrating paddles to pack ballast rocks around the rail ties/sleepers. Somehow this action had made it so the switch to the Niles yard could not move between positions properly. At the request of the maintenance crew (who were finishing up their work), the remote train director (dispatcher) tried aligning the switch to allow them to move equipment into the yard, but at 9:17 AM, the switch reported that it could not properly detect the position of the switch points.

The dispatcher called an Amtrak signal supervisor at 9:18, who attempted to forward the request to one of the regular maintainers. After being unable to get a response, he headed out to the site himself and arrived at 9:55 AM. The Wolverine was due to stop at the station in Niles at 10:07 and then go through the switch a few moments later, so the supervisor had less than fifteen minutes to find and fix the problem for the train to continue on time.

From the NTSB report:
He said that he first attempted to correct the problem at the power-operated switch machine but was unsuccessful. He said that he entered the signal bungalow and removed two cartridge fuses, opened two terminal nuts on the terminal board, and applied local battery power using two jumper wires. The signal supervisor stated that when the battery power was applied, the local control panel indication lights showed that the #2 switch was aligned and locked normal. The signal supervisor stated that he did not verify the physical position of the #2 switch before applying the jumper wire.

The train director contacted the signal supervisor on the radio and informed him that the #2 switch was now indicating normal on the display and asked if everything was safe for train 350 to proceed eastward. The signal supervisor told the train director that the switch was good for the normal movement. The conversation concluded at 10:10 a.m. as Amtrak train 350 approached CP 190. The signal supervisor said that he observed train 350 approaching CP 190. He said that as the train entered the yard tracks, he realized what had occurred, and he then removed the jumper wires and reinstalled the cartridge fuses. The signal supervisor did not notify anyone at this time that he had used jumper wires just before the derailment, and he did not leave the signal bungalow to aid the passengers and crew on the derailed train.

This wasn't the correct way to do maintenance on the signals. According to the rest of the report, jumper wires are known to cause false indications, and should only be used after other methods of diagnosing the problem have been exhausted. In addition, jumpers are only to be used after getting appropriate approval in the management chain, notifying the dispatcher, and "implement alternative means of protection".  Presumably some flags or signs placed along the right-of-way near the signals to indicate they're undergoing maintenance.  The PTC system along the tracks should also have a method for transmitting information about work zones to locomotive engineers.

However, because those precautions weren't taken, the PTC system relayed what it was told by the legacy signal equipment. The crash likely would have been worse if not for the train engineer's distrust of the in-cab signals, as the train would have accelerated sooner and hit the switch at a higher speed.  Needless to say, I'm really curious how best-of-breed fully-integrated high-speed signaling handles this type of situation, as opposed to the overlay systems we're expecting to see deployed across the country as PTC is implemented.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time-lapse trip down the Green Line

A local photographer has created a time-lapse video from a series of 3000 photos taken by walking down the Green Line (Central Corridor) tracks from Saint Paul to the junction with the Blue Line (Hiawatha Line) in Minneapolis near the Metrodome—a distance of about 9.5 miles. (Yes, the Central Corridor project is often said to be 11 miles long, but that includes the already-existing track from the Metrodome to Target Field.)

A Time-lapse Tour of St. Paul's Green Line from cynick on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Density and the transit puzzle


How would you choose a route for a transit line? It's a difficult task, particularly in a region as big as the Twin Cities. Developed land stretches out for miles and miles before finally tapering off into farmland or patches of wilderness. Some parts of the region have natural geographic constraints due to rivers and lakes, while other places get blocked off due to human activity: buildings, highways, and railroad lines to name a few. Opportunities for perfectly straight routes often aren't as common as we wish. Even though the core cities and some older suburbs have substantial chunks of street grids, there are inevitably points where the block size shifts or entire pieces get rotated. In particular, areas near the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul were set up to follow the riverbanks rather than east-west/north-south lines. Those areas still tend to have small blocks and many opportunities for routing buses or rail vehicles—perhaps too many in some cases.

The street grid itself can be an impediment sometimes, increasing travel distance by nearly 30 percent in the worst case (if a straight line between your origin and destination is angled at 45 degrees against the grid). But still, a dense grid offers lots opportunities for getting between places, and allows for good walkability—it's often not a big deal if a bus or rail line misses pockets of density by a couple of blocks, because they can still be easily accessed on foot. Depending on their shape and size, it's not hard to walk 4-8 blocks on either end of a transit trip—or even double that. But when you go into an area where the grid fades away, it becomes much more critical to precisely locate transit stops and stations at cross streets or other locations (such as near bike/ped pathways) that maximize the number of different ways for people to access stations.


Of course, maps merely showing population density don't tell the whole story. Large chunks of downtown Minneapolis don't have any residents, for instance, but there are skyscrapers rising nearly 60 stories high. Clearly there's something there: office buildings. Some are dedicated to major companies, but the buildings are generally renting out space to many different tenants. Residential buildings are mostly excluded from the core of downtown, which is why some areas can feel dead on weekends and evenings. There are high-rises not too far away, but the daytime population of downtown remains dominated by employees who live somewhere else.

It can also be important to show where the boundaries of each region of population are. In sprawling suburbs, the data you try to use in order to make decisions becomes much more sparse. Individual blocks are larger, sometimes huge. Public streets are few and far between, with individual properties connected and yet separated by private drives and parking lots, and bounded by landscaping features such as ditches, creeks, ponds, bushes, and trees.


So, overlaying employment data can help. Unfortunately, it usually isn't available at very good resolution. For my first and third map in this post, I used Transportation Analysis Zone employment information from the MetroGIS DataFinder service overlaid on top of block-level population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The second and fourth map only show population data (population count per block as a number, density for the color). All of the maps were created using the open-source tool, QGIS.  The first and third map also include bus lines and proposed transit corridors (LRT for Blue and Green Lines, and BRT for the Red and Orange Lines).

Frustratingly, a number of corridors were not included because of a lack of easily-accessible data. The Gateway Corridor is still being nailed down, and was not represented in the DataFinder shapefiles. Even the Bottineau corridor wasn't included, so I added that. "Arterial BRT" and potential streetcar corridors weren't included either, though I did add station objects along Route 54 which is the highest-frequency limited-stop bus route in the Metro Transit system. Other "HiFrequency" lines are shown solid, because they have stops every 1-2 blocks in most cases. The precise routing and stop locations for planned routes are also in flux, so these maps will need to be revisited.

Each TAZ is usually composed of multiple census blocks, so overlaying the two can have some strange effects (I believe the appearance of heavy density northeast of University and Snelling is largely due to employment at the Griggs-Midway building by Fairview melding into an area that's mostly residential, for instance). There also seems to be missing data in a few cases, particularly on the employment side (the University of Minnesota has a lot of employees, though the East Bank campus is seemingly empty). The maps are not the One True Way to see the world.


Still, it's pretty remarkable that we're currently planning to build LRT out to an area with population dispersed like we see above, and with such a sparse street network, when projects to connect denser areas get discarded or downgraded. The number of people per census block is actually relatively high in Eden Prairie, often measured in the hundreds, but it's difficult to move around in the area because of such a stingy layout of roadways, often lacking sidewalks (this map is at the same scale as the second one in this post which focused on south Minneapolis). Looking at aerial photos, the region seems to be bustling with activity, but a lot of that is due to low-slung office and retail buildings with massive parking lots. All the asphalt makes it look more built-up than it is.

The city also has a big employment base—more people work in Eden Prairie than live there. But despite that large number of workers, the employment density isn't all that high. There may be some missing data from employers who declined to submit per-site numbers, but it appears we'd have a much better return if we looked at improving the situation along the I-494 strip and the France Ave/York Ave corridor in Bloomington, Edina, and Richfield, for instance.

But looking at our existing Hiawatha Line seems to show that rules that you think are important can be broken and still result in something that gets broad appeal: There's very little residential density along the east side of Hiawatha Avenue, because it has been and continues to be used as a freight rail corridor for industry (mostly grain traffic). The airport and Mall of America are also critical to the line's success, but they're in areas which are otherwise pretty empty. The Central Corridor also neighbors large areas without any residential use—though that line tends to skip over the "empty" space while other routes seem to skip the populated areas.

The region is certainly running an interesting set of experiments with these routes, as well as some of the others that I couldn't get to. Which ones will turn out the best?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Japanese Shinkansen documentary

Richard Hammond hosts an episode of Engineering Connections which looks at some of the engineering challenges faced by developers of the Japanese Shinkansen high-speed rail system.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Amtrak versus the shutdown

A rail crew replaces a switch on October 4th in preparation for reconnecting the Saint Paul Union Depot to allow Amtrak service.

Amtrak, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation, could cease to be a "national" network if the federal government shutdown drags on. The company has said that it can ride out a short-term shutdown, on the order of "several weeks", but it's unclear what might happen beyond that point. The good news is that the company is in better financial health than they have been in a decade or more, somewhat extending the window of time they can operate without federal assistance. The bad news is that it would still be a extremely difficult task to find the $100 million or so per month they would need to keep running the company as it is today.

The federal shutdown has also come at an impeccably bad time for boosters of the Saint Paul Union Depot project. As you read this, work is progressing on finally connecting the station to mainline tracks in order to allow the Empire Builder to return to a downtown stop it hasn't visited since Amtrak was formed in 1971—the return may only be shortlived.

Of course, political figures have proposed zeroing out Amtrak funding numerous times over the years, or slicing it up into regional businesses, so some thought has been put into how the company might try to cling to life. Until now, at least, the railroad has always received enough support to keep limping along. There have been occasional bursts of greater investment, but never the sustained influx of cash that the company has needed to get a truly stable footing.

Probably the most popular idea has been for Amtrak to condense service down to the Northeast Corridor, the 453-mile D.C.–Philadelphia–New York–Boston line which accounts for more than a third of passenger traffic on the system, and about half of the revenue. That's because there are dozens of trains per day on the NEC, a frequency of service far higher than anywhere else (most of Amtrak's overall route mileage only has one or two trains per direction per day). The NEC is where Amtrak most consistently turns a profit against operating expenses, though that doesn't necessarily cover the costs needed to maintain and upgrade the rails and power systems (for instance, much of the line uses an antiquated 25Hz power supply, unlike the 60Hz power used throughout the rest of the country, and it will cost billions to fix).

Shrinking down to just the NEC, or the NEC plus a few branch routes, probably wouldn't be necessary. Under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, states must take over as primary funders of routes under 750 miles in length. States had until October 1st of this year to negotiate contracts, with October 16th (next Wednesday) set as the service cutoff date. Three states were still in talks at last count. So those routes (roughly 30 across the country) would probably still be able to operate going forward—but those are regional routes which would still become isolated from each other in many cases.

Most at risk are the long-distance trains, such as the Empire Builder which runs through Minnesota. These trains are still mandated under federal law, but don't see any significant financial support from the states that they run through. Would the mandate to keep them running still be valid if the flow of federal money dries up? The long-distance routes are big, meaty targets simply because they are so long. The Empire Builder runs 2,200 miles, not counting the extra split it does near the west coast to serve both Portland and Seattle. In order to maintain daily service, four or five trains need to be in motion on that route at all times, as opposed to a short corridor route of the same frequency which would only need one or two sets of equipment. On the whole, the ticket revenue covers a similar percentage of operating costs on long-distance trains as it does on shorter routes, but shorter corridor trains have a history of needing some amount of state-level funding (which Amtrak counts as "revenue"—something to be wary of if you ever look at their monthly reports).

One possible solution, though it has its limits, is simply raising ticket prices on these routes. Passengers on the Empire Builder paid an average of 18 cents per mile in fiscal 2011, yet the train costs about 35 cents per passenger-mile to operate. Fare increases would be steep, but might barely be able to cover the gap. On the busy Saint Paul to Chicago segment, it's hard to find a regular adult fare any lower than about 32 cents per mile—the fares get much cheaper in the less-populated areas west of the Twin Cities.

Going by that, Amtrak may already run at break-even along the Saint Paul to Chicago corridor, so one alternative could be to truncate the line here. The ridership picture would change drastically, since many people who get on or off within the MSP–CHI corridor are traveling to or from points farther west, but shortening the route would massively improve the on-time reliability of the train, particularly eastbound. The train usually picks up some delay on the way as it plies its way 1,800 miles from the Pacific Northwest to Saint Paul (earning the nickname "Late #8"), and these past couple of years have been particularly bad.

But the Empire Builder is not the most expensive of Amtrak's routes. It has one of the best ratios of ticket revenue to operating cost of the long-distance services, so it may not be the first one cut if things came to that—the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr are both worse in terms of absolute-dollar subsidy. But the Builder isn't far behind on that measure—despite a good operating ratio, the nature of the train and it's long route both contribute to making it one of the most expensive routes to keep running, to the tune of about $57 million per year (the $975 million to be spent on the new Vikings stadium could keep it running for 17 years, or far longer if costs were divided up among states along the route).

Collectively, the long-distance trains need about $600 million per year to keep up with operating expenses. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Amtrak would just start taking out loans to run the services for a while. The company now has its lowest debt load in more than a decade, so that could work for a short- to medium-term period. Of course, that's dependent on credit markets still working properly. With the threat of federal default looming nearby, they could seize up again like in 2008.

What will actually happen? It's hard to say. It probably shouldn't be a top priority as compared to other effects of the shutdown, but it's another thing to keep an eye on as the days turn into weeks. While hoping for the best, transportation officials in states, cities, and counties along long-distance routes should prepare by identifying funds that could be shifted to Amtrak if the need arises.