Sunday, January 24, 2016

Preparing for the zero-carbon highway...and parking lot

Graph of available electric car models by year from 1991 to 2015
A decade ago, the electric car was declared dead. Now there are more models available than ever. (Source: AFDC)

In order to fight climate change, we're heading into a zero-carbon future. This is a problem that needs to be tackled in part by making cities and neighborhoods that are more walkable and bikeable with good access to mass transportation, but it's clear that many people and many places won't make the shift to those ways of getting around. Even in well-balanced urban areas, lots of families will only be able to go car-lite rather than car-free.

Automobiles will remain necessary, though they'll have to start being powered by electric motors fed by carbon-free energy. The state and local governments in Minnesota haven't been particularly active in encouraging the change toward electric vehicles so far, but continuing improvements mean that we will need to pay more attention.

The search for the practical zero-emission car has gone on a roller-coaster ride over the past couple of decades. This began with a burst of interest in EVs in the late 1990s due to mandates that were about to go into effect. California led the way since they have one of the world's most influential car markets, and several other states adopted similarly strict air pollution rules. There was heavy resistance to these requirements, however, and the electric car was declared dead less than a decade after that era began.

The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? showed there was plenty of blame to go around. The film cited the usual suspects like the oil and automotive industries, but also pointed to government officials and a generally uninterested (albeit often uninformed) consumer base. Batteries were specifically absolved in the film's postmortem analysis, but it has to be acknowledged that they've had major feasibility problems in the past. Battery packs have been too heavy, too big, too expensive, had too little capacity, and taken too long to recharge. Still, there were some substantial improvements at the time, including a few cars that used new high-capacity lithium-ion batteries. These technological embers persisted in the ashes of that first pulse of EV development, and sparked a new generation of substantially better electric cars just a few years later.

Those initial EVs from the late '90s through the early noughties were only made available in limited regions, explicitly to comply with government mandates, and were they often only leased rather than sold. As far as I know, none of the models were made publicly available in Minnesota. Zero-emission vehicle mandates were pushed back by about a decade, but are beginning to exert force once again. Things are going a bit differently this time around, and sales of electric cars are picking up steam. By 2025, California will require more than 15% of new cars to be zero-emission vehicles.

While many manufacturers still only offer "compliance cars" in a few states, some models such as the Tesla Model S, BMW i3, and Nissan Leaf can be purchased locally. Recent years have also seen the emergence of plug-in hybrid vehicles which are able to run at least several miles on battery power alone before switching over to a gasoline engine, and many of those are being sold in all 50 states. The most well-known plug-in hybrid is probably the Chevrolet Volt, which has been billed as General Motors' response to Tesla, but many others have also appeared. The BMW i3 notably inhabits both camps, since a range-extending engine is available as an option.

These cars still command relatively high costs, but mass production is bringing prices down for batteries and the raft of other components unique to electric vehicles. Tesla, known for having the only cars with over 200 miles of range per charge, has set the price of their Model S upward of $70,000 (sans government tax credits). However, they struck a balance by including a host of compelling features in the car. This disguises the cost of the drivetrain, but allows it to be highly competitive with gas-powered cars in the same price tier.

Other electric cars have been sold at lower prices, but they've resorted to much smaller battery packs. Both the BMW i3 (upwards of $42,000) and the base edition of the Leaf (starting at $29,000) are prime examples, with just over 80 miles of range in their base configurations. This puts cities like St. Cloud, Rochester, and Duluth at or beyond the driving range of most electrics on the market today. Manufacturers are now racing to match the driving distance of Tesla's offerings while still aiming for distinctly mid-market prices—somewhere near the average cost of a new car ($33,560 last year).

Nissan has a bigger battery option available for the Leaf which brings range to 107 miles per charge and has hinted at even larger packs, and BMW recently indicated their i3 will get a range boost to about 120 miles for the 2017 model year, but those seem to just be incremental improvements. Tesla plans to offer a 200-mile-range vehicle for about $35,000 in 2017, but they may be beaten to the punch by General Motors. Earlier this month, GM showed off their Chevy Bolt (yes, with the most confusing name ever), which is also supposed to reach the 200-mile mark. Their goal is to enter production by the end of 2016. It's hard to say which one of these cars will reach consumers first, but they're both right around the corner.


Level 2 chargers with SAE J1772 connectors dominate the national electric car charging infrastructure, but most aren't very speedy.
This increased travel range presents a problem with charging infrastructure, however. There are three or four different charging systems in use on modern electric cars. Most manufacturers, except Tesla, have settled on the SAE J1772 standard for low-speed charging using alternating current at 120 (Level 1) or 240 volts (Level 2). Most Level 2 chargers I've found are rated for 6.6 kilowatts of output, although some can reach 19.2 kW. Under good conditions, a 6.6 kW charger can restore 20 to 25 miles of range to a battery pack per hour, although the rate drops off as the battery gets closer to full. Not bad if you can charge up at home and mostly stick to short-distance just driving within a single city or metro area.

It becomes very challenging to use these AC chargers on longer journeys, though it's certainly not impossible to use them. On the 408-mile trip from Minneapolis to Chicago, using an electric car with Level 2 AC chargers could require more than double the normal drive time of a gas car, even with a head start on a battery filled with 200 miles of range. To make long-distance travel a reality, automakers are moving away from AC toward high-voltage direct current (more than 400 volts). However, this technology has been in greater flux, and there are three competing DC systems.


A dual-standard 50-kilowatt high-voltage DC charging station at the University of Minnesota sporting both CHAdeMO (blue) and CCS (black) connectors.

BMW and GM, along with other American and European companies, use the Combined Charging System (CCS). This is also known as "SAE Combo" in North America because it expands upon the previously-mentioned SAE J1772 standard by adding two extra DC pins on the bottom. A CCS port can accept either a low-power charge plug or a high-power one, though a high-power plug can't fit into a low-power socket. Despite that problem, it seems like it should be one of the more popular systems, but it's the youngest standard and the others have had a head start.

Nissan and other Japanese automakers use a system called CHAdeMO. This uses a large, round plug which isn't physically compatible with the SAE standard at all, so a high-speed charging socket needs to be placed adjacent to the normal low-speed SAE port on any vehicle that uses this system. CCS and CHAdeMO installations may vary in power between 20 kW up to about 60 kW, making them capable of restoring 60 to 180 miles of range to a 100 mpge car in an hour, although development is continuing on versions that will push that significantly higher.


A Tesla Supercharger filling the battery of a Model S at a California outlet mall.

And that brings us to Tesla, who bring the smallest and sleekest design, able to do both low-speed and high-speed charging through a single unified connector. However, the downside is that this requires adapters whenever non-Tesla charging stations are encountered. Tesla offers adapters for both low-speed SAE and high-speed CHAdeMO plugs, but nothing (yet) for the CCS standard. Their high-speed charging system is called the Supercharger, and can pump 120 kilowatts of power or more, allowing peak charging rates of 360 miles per hour. Again, this ends up being slower in practice due to the slowdown as batteries fill up, but Tesla says that cars equipped with their 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack, good for 257 to 270 miles of range depending on model, can be fully recharged in 70 minutes.

There are already more than 3,500 fast DC chargers deployed through the country across the three different standards. Mapping them out, they reveal some surprising patterns.

Composite of maps showing coverage for CHAdeMO, SAE Combo/CCS, and Tesla fast DC chargers, plus a fourth showing all stations using the previous 3 standards plus Level 2 charging stations
Deployment patterns for the various charging station types. Maps from AFDC.

The two standardized systems are mostly clustered in metropolitan areas, but include some corridors that were probably sponsored by state governments or other regional entities. CHAdeMO has the most stations, but CCS is catching up. One issue is that CHAdeMO and CCS installations usually only have one or two chargers per station, which can be troublesome if you need to charge and come across one that's already in use, blocked, or broken. The small sites greatly increase the chance that you'll have to go somewhere else or sit and wait for a long time to get an available charger.

Tesla appears to be the only entity that's thinking nationally about fast-charging infrastructure, and has stretched them along multiple corridors across the country, facilitating coast-to-coast travel. Notably, the first cross-country leg of the Supercharger network was built through southern Minnesota, and company employees used it to smash the record time for cross-country EV travel in February 2014. Tesla averages more than 4 chargers per station, and some installations have two or three times that number. Despite having the smallest number of stations, Tesla has the largest number of DC fast charger outlets and the broadest coverage area.

The company intended their Supercharger network to primarily be used for intercity travel, so they sometimes aren't available in metropolitan areas. Still, when combined with the extended coverage area available through the (somewhat expensive) CHAdeMO adapter, Tesla maintains a strategic advantage over other automakers.

Most new CHAdeMO and CCS stations are being built with dual-standard chargers, like the one from the University of Minnesota that I pictured above. Dual-standard chargers are apparently only about 5% more expensive than ones only operating on one of the two, so it makes sense to just include both types of connectors. It's conceivable that future stations may be triple- or quad-standard, including J1772 and/or Tesla adapters, allowing all types of vehicles to use them, but I hope one of the three fast-charging types will eventually become dominant and we won't have to worry about the mess of different plugs a decade from now.

For anyone who worries about being able to find a charge point, plug-in hybrid cars also offer an interim solution. Since they include a normal gasoline engine, they can be filled up like regular cars on long trips, but still benefit from using electricity when doing daily driving tasks. This segment of the car market is broadening pretty rapidly, though that's partly because states with zero-emission vehicle mandates are now allowing them to be partly fulfilled with these models (known as "transitional zero-emission vehicles" under California's regulations).

As an example of where this is headed, Chrysler recently announced they'll offer a plug-in hybrid version of their new Pacifica minivan, which the company claims can run 30 miles on electricity before shifting to power from the engine (it also has a built-in vacuum cleaner). Chevrolet also recently updated their Volt with better electric driving range (increased from 35 miles to 53) and improved gas engine fuel economy. However, in the long run, it looks like it will be cheaper and more practical for cars to be all-electric rather than dealing with the complexity of both an internal-combustion engine and a battery-powered drivetrain.

Electric charging will create a big shift in the way we get around, and will have an impact on the built environment. Homeowners are able to install chargers at home, so many drivers will only need to use public chargers on rare occasions. It's hazier what will happen for apartment-dwellers. Certainly some apartment complexes will get chargers, but it's a bit hard to imagine that everyone will be able to plug in overnight. There will always be some drivers who will need to fill up on the go.


Fast-chargers seem to be getting faster by the day, but it's not quite clear how fast they'll be able to become. The standard gas station/convenience store combination we're all familiar with will probably become morph into something different, but what? I expect increased demand for meaningful retail, entertainment, and restaurant options—at least something more substantial than the typical gas station hot dogs and junk food.

The electrification of the car is one of three major shifts that I expect to see in the automotive world over the next few decades, with the other two being self-driving cars and the transition toward car sharing services. Despite all the buzz it gets, I don't expect self-driving vehicles in themselves to significantly change the way we build cities. In contrast, car sharing has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of cars we need on the road—but only if people buy into the concept.

I expect the shift to electric driving to be somewhere in between. Notably, charging stations can fit into tight spaces and can meld with existing parking. They can be in lots or on the street, and sometimes show up in parking structures, such as the Superchargers in Duluth. The valuable city corners occupied by gas stations could still fill up just as many cars even after they're replaced with mixed-use buildings and have the adjacent streets lined with charging outlets.

For places that have seen traditional town centers depleted of commercial and retail activity in favor of areas around off-ramps and frontage roads, thoughtful placement of charging stations is also potentially useful tool for restoring more walkable alternatives.

Of course, while electric cars are quieter and far more efficient than their gasoline-powered rivals, but we still shouldn't give up our more walkable environments in order to accommodate them. We'll always have to remember that electric charging this is a form of parking, so charging spaces bring all of those associated benefits and costs. Choose your locations wisely.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Gold Line needs a literal change of direction

stpaul-woodbury-gateway-2014-02-13
The preferred alignment of the Gold Line/Gateway Corridor running eastward along I-94 from downtown Saint Paul overlaid on a map showing population and employment density as well as other transit routes.

Last Tuesday, the Lake Elmo city council voted 3–2 to reject further involvement in the Gold Line project, also known as the Gateway Corridor. The service has been planned to run through 2.5 to 3 miles of Lake Elmo, but that would take it through some undeveloped areas with very low population density and limited amounts of commercial development. I've been disheartened to see planners push this strange routing, so I see this rejection by Lake Elmo as an opportunity to restore some sanity to a project that has literally gone off in the wrong direction.

The Gateway Corridor only came onto my radar around 2010, but it has moved through the local planning processes relatively quickly. Of course, with some of our regional transit planning efforts taking decades, it's not that hard to stand out.

When it was first talked about, the Gateway Corridor included a study area extending all the way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin (more than 80 miles from downtown Saint Paul). It has been trimmed back and is now shortened to about 12 miles—Still a mile longer than the Central Corridor! The currently preferred alignment runs from Saint Paul through Maplewood, Oakdale, and Lake Elmo, likely with a turn at the very eastern end south into Woodbury (not included in my map).

Rail and bus options have both been considered for this line, but the rail options have been discarded at this point. It's currently expected to be built as a bus rapid transit service with a dedicated busway (similar to the route used by the University of Minnesota's Campus Connector buses).

(MnDOT still has a separate plan to run regional rail service to Eau Claire on the drawing board, though it's not clear when planning for that route will pick up steam again.)

An eastward transit service along the Interstate 94 corridor has been on the minds of planners for decades, particularly due to 3M's global headquarters in a mile-wide section of Maplewood just outside of Saint Paul. It's home to around 12,000 employees, but only two bus routes, the 219 (suburban local) and 294 (express), reach the corporate campus today.

It makes sense to improve service to such a major destination, but I've been continually baffled as Gateway Corridor planners have stuck so close to I-94, seemingly a vestige of the original plan to reach cities in Wisconsin. I was even more surprised when they pushed for building large segments in Lake Elmo on the north side of the highway, a suburb that has fought against denser development.

Lake Elmo has a sizable population of over 8,000, but because it is a community that annexed most of its surrounding township, those households are spread across more than 22 square miles of land. Small towns out in rural parts of Minnesota often have densities of 1,000 to 2,000 people per square mile, but Lake Elmo only tips the scales at 360 per square mile.

There has been a lot of development in the city but it's very spread out because homes are typically placed on large parcels that are two acres or larger in size. Amusingly, the densest blob of population in Lake Elmo is the Cimarron trailer park near Lake Elmo Avenue and 10th Street North.

Woodbury, just to the south across I-94, stands in stark contrast to Lake Elmo. While Woodbury isn't nearly as dense as the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it has an estimated population of nearly 67,000. It has no traditional downtown that I'm aware of, and was only incorporated in 1967, but has seen explosive growth over the last few decades. It is an almost perfect example of 36-square-mile township becoming an incorporated city, though not quite 2/3rds of its area has been actively developed so far.

Neither of these cities is a poster child for dense development, but Woodbury has at least experimented with more urban patterns, such as at City Walk near Woodbury Drive and Hudson Road.

Personally, I don't understand the desire to route such an expensive service (currently estimated at $485 million) into almost completely undeveloped area where the local government is hostile to any reasonable density. It could easily go south of the highway through an existing retail corridor—still very under-developed, but hopefully a region that would be more easily fixable with the right incentives in place.

But even with the Gold Line running south of I-94, is that enough to fix the current transit situation out in the eastern suburbs? Metro Transit barely gets into Woodbury today, only serving a small area in the northeast corner of the city, and only operating express bus routes with limited schedules. While the Gold Line would add more stops and an all-day schedule, the stations would all need to be built around the park-and-ride model. While that would probably work alright for workers in downtown Minneapolis or Saint Paul, I have a hard time imagining anyone would use a park-and-ride stuck next to I-94 in order to get to 3M, a destination that's only a few minutes away on the highway.

The Gateway Corridor really needs to morph into something different—a network that gets a lot more people within walking or biking distance of their nearest stop. If Woodbury was a standalone city, it would be big enough to justify its own transit system. Woodbury has a population comparable to St. Cloud, and is around the size that Rochester was when I was growing up, and both have modest bus systems. While the city doesn't have a traditional layout with a downtown to act as an obvious hub, it is roughly laid out along mile-by-mile grid with fast arterial streets that would automatically encourage a limited-stop style of service.

Here's an example of a simple network that could be built out of a half-dozen routes or so to allow local connectivity while also bringing traffic north and west to connect to the existing Metro Transit network. It gets most of the city within half a mile of a bus stop. In a few places, I routed lines along bikeway corridors or created other new routes (such as a bridge crossing just west of the I-94/I-694/I-494 interchange), but it's likely that such a system could be put together for much less than the current estimated Gold Line price.



Obviously, Woodbury's low density would be a challenge for successfully implementing a network like this. I just slapped this network together quickly by following major roads, but I think it has a few features that would be critical for success. First, I had four routes converge on the 3M campus northwest of the city, fanning out through the city in different patterns. Second, multiple routes converge at two other hubs: Woodbury Village by I-494 and Valley Creek Road, and Tamarack Village on Radio Drive just south of I-94.

Purely as an example, the purple line extends down Radio Drive all the way to Cottage Grove, since I think there's a slim possibility of decent suburb-to-suburb service (in this case, perhaps a link between the Gold Line corridor and the Red Rock service proposed along US-61). There's also some potential here to link to routes along I-494 to cross the Mississippi River into South St. Paul and other southern suburbs.


Before I end, I'll point out another huge challenge that Woodbury must overcome to rebalance its transportation network. The city has a dearth of decent pedestrian infrastructure, with sidewalks and sidepaths largely restricted to major roadways—and sometimes only running along one side of those roads. Here is a sidewalk map from the folks at ITO—green roadways are the only ones that have sidewalks, while red roadways don't have any pedestrian infrastructure (pink indicates actual sidewalks, which is a little confusing, and light green indicates dedicated paths that aren't located next to a roadway—the awkward color scheme is a downside of using this otherwise wonderful free tool).

woodbury-sidewalks-2016-01-10 by Mulad, on Flickr

New bus services through Woodbury would need to have their routes checked for adequate pedestrian infrastructure, and new sidewalks or paths would need to be added where necessary. Woodbury does have a pretty extensive network of off-street paths, however, and it would be important to leverage those routes as much as possible to get people to and from their nearest stops.

The Gold Line really only skims the surface of what's needed for proper transit service in the East Metro, and current plans undervalue the need for infill development in existing built-up areas. We're heading toward a zero-carbon future, and preparing for that requires us to make the most use of what we already have.

It will be far better to get existing suburbs to build up their missing downtowns and connect into regional public transportation networks than it would be to abandon them in favor of magic new greenfield plans. Our transit plans need to reach the hearts of these communities rather than bypassing them for green pastures.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Getting rolling on rail to Eau Claire

This week, a citizen group is holding a couple of public meetings to advocate for a passenger rail link between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a corridor that MnDOT suggested in its 2010 State Rail Plan should be built before the year 2030.
The meeting announcement has led me to dig into the route and do some analysis of my own, though this doesn't necessarily reflect what will be presented by the St. Croix Valley Rail Group on Wednesday.


MnDOT's plan suggested a regional rail service operating approximately four round-trips through the day, though presumably they would be spread out, making it unlike peak-only commuter rail service. (Commuter rail had been studied and discarded on this route as part of the Gateway Corridor study, which is instead looking at bus rapid transit for the much shorter Gold Line route).


Wisconsin's Department of Transportation had also been working on a 20-year rail plan around the same time as Minnesota, though it was put on pause following the Tea Party-infused political surge later that year which put Governor Scott Walker in office alongside a much more conservative legislature in the winter of 2010–2011.

Wisconsin then ended up with a near-total abandonment of passenger rail planning. The official state rail plan document was finally approved last year, and includes possible links to Eau Claire, Madison (where federal funding was famously turned down by the state), and Green Bay.

That's good, but a bit underwhelming, considering how Wisconsin's population is less heavily concentrated than Minnesota's (see this map of cities with populations greater than 5,000 and contrast it to the one for Minnesota), so I expected a couple of other interesting links. These seem to be cribbed from older Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plans, a multi-state effort for high(er)-speed rail that was once led by Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's rail plan for the year 2030 includes possible connections to Eau Claire, Madison, and Green Bay.
One significant link that seems like it's missing is some sort of connection from Eau Claire to Green Bay. Frustratingly, the most direct link via Wausau has been mostly abandoned at this point, though it would still be possible to have a fairly good path through Stevens Point and Appleton (which might make it a better idea anyway).

But for this post, I want to focus on Eau Claire, which lies about 100 miles east of Minneapolis. The city itself only has a population of about 65,000, though there are a number of nearby towns including Chippewa Falls which creates a small metro area of about 165,000 people. Menomonie is also close by, and the Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls-Menomonie Combined Metropolitan Statistical Area now reaches a population of almost 210,000.

Eau Claire and Menomonie (at nearby Menomonie Junction) had rail service on the Chicago & North Western Railway's Twin Cities "400" until July 23, 1963, about 8 years before the introduction of Amtrak. A timetable from 1962 listed travel time at 114 to 120 minutes from Minneapolis to Eau Claire and 85 to 90 minutes from St. Paul to Eau Claire (the eastbound train was slightly faster, at least on paper).

This was one of the three fastest trains to run between the Twin Cities and Chicago, although it had the major flaw that it only ran once per day per direction. That made it very hard to compete with automobile and air travel. Even today, Eau Claire has two daily round-trip flights to Chicago, subsidized through the Essential Air Service program (though they will still cost you more than $350 round-trip).

Restoring passenger rail service on the corridor has the potential to provide a more frequent transportation option for the area's population while also reducing costs, especially compared to flying: The existing Eau Claire air service costs close to 70 cents per mile when EAS funding is included, while the average cost for Amtrak to carry a passenger one mile is about 40 cents (also including their subsidy).

It's certainly a bit tough to imagine reestablishing service that was abandoned by the railroads more than 50 years ago now, though it's important to note that Wisconsin's population has grown by 40% since 1963, and Minnesota's has grown by 55%. Even if the potential market for rail service remains relatively small, it continues to grow year over year.

So, what are the challenges facing restoration of service on this line? Here's a map I put together of single-tracking and sidings along the corridor, to give an idea of the route's capacity:



Between Saint Paul and Eau Claire, there are only four places with long sidings or segments of double-tracking, plus another short siding at Menomonie Junction, which limits how often trains can pass each other. It's 38 miles between the double-tracked segment in Hudson eastward to Menomonie, according to Google Maps' "Satellite" view, and about 46 miles from Hudson to the longer siding near Elk Mound. [Update: It turns out that I missed a siding between Woodville and Hersey, which reduces the longest stretch of single-tracking to 21 miles.]

MnDOT's rail plan only suggested running four round-trips per day (eight total trains), and the Federal Railroad Administration's Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory suggests that there are only about four freight trains per day, so with appropriate scheduling, it's conceivable that 12 daily trains (less than one per hour) could operate over that gap without needing any new infrastructure. Still, it would be better to add a few new sidings to shorten the gap. Even with upgraded track speeds, passenger trains could take half an hour to 45 minutes to cover the gap, and freights could take more than an hour, potentially leading to serious delays on trips that should only take two hours end-to-end.

A few additional sidings would be a good idea, likely including one near Baldwin to be about halfway along the line. There are also clusters of freight customers near Menomonie and Truax which should have their spurs connected to shared sidings. That would allow the main track to be kept clear for through traffic while freight crews deal with the relatively slow process of attaching and detaching rail cars at the customer sites.

Much more of the line used to have double-track and sidings, but it was pulled out over the decades as freight traffic consolidated onto fewer routes and the need to keep extra track for passenger service disappeared. This means that there are few physical obstacles to restoring it, but it will cost a considerable amount of money. Each siding would likely cost several million dollars.

The tracks have also been allowed to degrade over the years, so the allowed train speeds are not as high as they once were. Freight trains can reach a maximum of 50 mph on the route, but only for a few short segments, according to a 2007 Union Pacific timetable I scraped off the Internet a few years ago. 85% of the route was limited to 30 mph or less at that time, though things may have changed since then.

The timetable notes that passenger trains are allowed to go 10 mph faster than freights on the line, but that doesn't help much when comparing it to the nearby Interstate 94 which has recently been updated with 70 mph speed limits (increasing from a rural freeway limit of 65 mph that Wisconsin had for many years).

Restoring tracks to 79 mph service, the typical standard for passenger service in the U.S., or beyond into "high-speed" territory will require an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars per mile. This type of work involves removing worn-out ties/sleepers, refreshing track ballast, and smoothing and straightening the rails themselves. Depending on the age and quality of the rails, they may only need to be run through a grinding machine to restore a good running surface, but bad segments would obviously need to be replaced.

The line is in relatively good shape as far as signaling goes, but would still need to be significantly improved for passenger trains to run on the route. The line has automatic block signaling (ABS) in place for all but about six miles of track, but future passenger lines are required to have positive train control (PTC). It's unclear how much that would need to cost, since it is still a new technology and price estimates have fluctuated wildly over the past few years.

That's a major hurdle, though the freight company may be required to implement it anyway if it carries hazardous materials on the route. If that's the case, then adding passenger service back on the route would be beneficial to the railroad, since the costs could be shared between the freight and passenger operations (with passenger trains most likely being funded by state and local governments, though the possibility of a privately-funded operation probably shouldn't be discarded entirely).

If the line is extended beyond Eau Claire as shown in the Wisconsin Rail Plan map above, the challenges would be similar for the next 120 miles of track. However, the last nine miles between Wyeville and Camp Douglas (where the line could merge with today's route of the Empire Builder) deserves special note: That section of track appears to be disused and in danger of abandonment. Google's aerial images show the right-of-way in a condition of poor repair, and miles of underused rail cars were parked there for long-term storage when pictures were taken.

That's yet another reason why planning of passenger service to or through Eau Claire needs to get going right away, before those tracks disappear.

The St. Croix Valley Rail Group is planning two presentations for Wednesday, September 23rd. I haven't had any direct contact with the group, but thought the timing presented a good opportunity to do some of my own digging. The meetings are scheduled at 5:30 and 7:00 pm, respectively:
River Falls Public Library
140 Union St
River Falls, WI
5:30 pm

Hudson House Grand Hotel
1616 Crest View Drive
Hudson, WI
7:00 pm

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sunset Unlimited: Restoring passenger rail on the Gulf Coast

Up here in Saint Paul, the Mississippi River passes within blocks of where I live and work. As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, I started looking toward the other end of this waterway that links the Midwest to the South because I wanted to better understand the lasting impact of the storm on one of my interests, the nation's passenger rail system. Ever since the hurricane happened, service on Amtrak's Sunset Limited route has been suspended east of New Orleans, and the reasons why haven't been well-defined.

What could have damaged tracks so badly that it would still be out of service ten years later? Even though Katrina was the deadliest storm to hit the U.S. since 1928, was its impact so great that we couldn't restore the modest service that was running before the storm? In reality, the hurricane is probably just a convenient excuse for the halt of passenger operations and not an outcome that should be tolerated.

Surprisingly, when Amtrak formed in 1971, the system didn't include any service between New Orleans and northern Florida. It took over two decades of campaigning by the region before a direct link was reestablished in 1993. Even when the train did run on the line, it was only three times a week each direction—the same frequency that it's always had on the route's western section from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

I decided to take a look at the layout of tracks along the route to try and understand why it has continued to take so long, using a map format like what I used on the Empire Builder route several months ago. I focused on the 770-mile stretch that is still suspended between New Orleans and Orlando.



When I started, I expected to find something obviously out of place along the route, but as I traced the line through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, everything seemed to be in good order.

However, it was obvious from the aerial imagery that there were a few different sections to the corridor which carry different amounts of traffic and are maintained to different standards. I compared my map to railroad crossing data from the Federal Railroad Administration (which I used to make the map in my previous post) and made note of these five main segments:
  • Starting from the west, the Sunset Limited used mainline tracks that run from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, and then toward Montgomery, though the train turns off the mainline in the small town of Flomaton, Alabama, right next to the border with Florida. For this distance of about 210 miles, the track see about 15 to 18 freight trains per day. The FRA railroad crossing database still lists top speeds up to 79 mph, which is the maximum for most passenger rail lines across the U.S. The longest distance I found between sidings was 13.8 miles.
  • From Flomaton, the line heads south to Pensacola, Florida and then east to Tallahassee, covering a distance of about 240 miles. This section of the line is much quieter, only seeing two or three trains per day. Speeds appear to range from 30 mph up to 59 mph, a number that signifies that the line lacks any illuminated signals to help control train movements. The longest distance between sidings here is 31.1 miles
  • For the next 105 miles from Tallahassee to Lake City, there are about 7 trains per day, and top speeds now appear to be about 40 mph in most places (which appears to be a reduction in speed from before the storm in 2005). The longest stretch between sidings is 18.4 miles.
  • The 62 miles from Lake City to Jacksonville host 8 to 12 trains per day and have speeds up to 79 mph, with the longest single-track segment being 12.5 miles.
  • The 151 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando still has three Amtrak passenger trains in operation, the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and the Auto Train (an oddball route that only stops in the Orlando suburb of Sanford). The FRA data indicates there are 8-14 trains per day in total, though it doesn't seem to include traffic from the new SunRail commuter service near Orlando. the spacing between sidings is fairly short, only reaching up to 11 miles apart. Most of the commuter rail section near Orlando is double-tracked.
CSX Transportation is the railroad that owns the tracks all the way from New Orleans to Orlando (the western segment of the train that is still in operation is run on Union Pacific tracks from Los Angeles to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where it switches to BNSF tracks for the rest of the route to N.O.). Their heaviest damage in the storm was between New Orleans and Mobile.

Just east of New Orleans, the tracks cross the Intracoastal Waterway, which connects Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. The line then passes into Mississippi and through communities such as Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Biloxi, which were among the places hit hardest by the wind and storm surge during the hurricane. In Pass Christian, the surge measured 27.8 feet and was combined with a relatively high tide.

That level of surge is enough to completely obliterate homes and other modest-sized buildings. The rail line suffered too as tracks were washed out and bridges destroyed and electrical signaling huts that were flooded with saltwater as the water crashed ashore. In some places, ships and barges floated up onto the ground and eventually settled onto tracks as the waters receded.

Map of train traffic volumes at grade crossings in the southeastern U.S.

About 100 miles of track was severely damaged or destroyed, but with 15 to 18 trains per day, it was important for the railroad to be repaired and brought back into service. The railroad and several contracting companies worked for four months to restore service between New Orleans and Mobile.

It's less clear how bad the situation was in Florida, along the second notable section of track in my list. Pensacola did experience a modest storm surge of about five feet, but that didn't cause as much damage, so the line was back in operation pretty quickly. Only the track nearest Pensacola would have been affected by storm surge—most of the distance from Flomaton to Tallahassee is inland and would have only been damaged by wind and creeks and rivers swollen by rain.

And yet, this relatively protected stretch of track is probably the real culprit preventing the resumption of service. With only two or three trains per day, there isn't enough revenue from freight traffic to warrant maintaining tracks at the level that passenger trains really need.

I was surprised to see that train frequencies were so low along that stretch of track, since the Gulf Coast seems like an important economic region to me. But rail freight tends to move in a more hub-and-spoke pattern like airlines rather than a point-to-point service like highway vehicles do.

Map of train speeds at grade crossings in the southeastern U.S.

A line with just two or three freights per day often only justifies enough maintenance to operate at speeds of 10 to 30 miles per hour, which is far too low for passenger services. Extra outside funding is often needed to cover the cost gap when passenger operations exist on otherwise quiet lines. That's likely one of the reasons why Sunset Limited service hasn't resumed: Either previous funding sources dried up, or the railroad increased the amount of money they were asking for after the hurricane and subsequent repair work.

Running more trains, whether freight or passenger, would allow the cost to be spread more widely, but that idea hasn't gotten much traction so far. Amtrak studied the route back in 2009, but only looked at either restoring the previous tri-weekly train or two options for running a daily service (one was an extension of the City of New Orleans from Chicago, while the other was a standalone New Orleans to Orlando train).

Amtrak's underwhelming conclusion? Restore the train as it had been before, despite it's infrequent service and all the delays and complication involved in running a train all the way from coast to coast.

Studies like that are asking the wrong question and getting the wrong answer. What the country really needs is for Amtrak to add frequent, speedy service so that their trains can be used as day-to-day transportation for many more people. That would broaden the benefits that the company provides, and hopefully reduce their operating losses as well.

Here are populations for some of the metropolitan areas from New Orleans on east to Orlando:
  • New Orleans region - 1.2 million
  • Gulfport region - 383,000 
  • Mobile region - 414,000
  • Pensacola region - 461,000
  • Tallahassee region - 376,000
  • Jacksonville region - 1.4-1.5 million
  • Orlando region - 2.3-3.0 million
It's about 620 miles from New Orleans to Jacksonville, the longest gap between 1-million-plus metros on the corridor. That's considerably longer than the 400-mile rule of thumb used in rail planning, though there are a lot of people questioning whether that's a valid rule.

Still, there are a few shorter segments that look good on paper. Here in Minnesota, we've been looking at adding eight daily round-trips on the 150-mile Northern Lights Express corridor from Minneapolis to Duluth. The Twin Cities has a population up to 3.5 or 3.8 million, and the Duluth area has a population around 280,000.

Orlando and Jacksonville two 1-million-plus metros about 150 miles apart, which makes that corridor an ideal candidate for increased rail service. New Orleans-Gulfport-Mobile and Jacksonville-Tallahassee are also pretty similar distances (144 and 167 miles, respectively).

Having multiple daily trips on the eastern and western segments would probably improve the viability of the middle section of the line, the most likely source of trouble today. The service improvements might even justify a new, more direct rail alignment between Mobile and Pensacola.

Similarly, if we look to cities west of New Orleans, there are some interesting combinations possible if the line started in Texas:
  • Baton Rouge region - 820,000
  • Lafayette region - 479,000 to 616,000
  • Houston region - 6.3 million
  • San Antonio region - 2.3 million
Houston to New Orleans is about 363 miles, which makes puts it in that ideal distance zone for frequent, high-speed service. Houston is also a notable destination because the Texas Central high-speed rail service is being planned to connect that city to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Frustratingly, a segment of track between Lafayette and Baton Rouge has been abandoned, so it would take some significant investment to link that city, but it would be worthwhile in the long run.

Amtrak's trouble with restoring the Sunset Limited or pursuing even better options shares the same symptoms that the company has all across the country. They've lacked the funding and motivation to pursue service improvements in areas that would bring the biggest bang for the buck while also adding to the system's overall connectivity. Amtrak needs better funding to pursue these opportunities, otherwise we'll look back in a couple decades and still find a skeletal national network that hardly looks different than what we have today.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The single-tracked world of American railroading



Here's a map I put together using the Federal Railroad Administration's Highway-Rail Crossing Inventory database, focusing on the number of main tracks at public grade crossings across the country. The main thing to see is that the vast majority of our rail infrastructure is single-tracked, only allowing trains to travel in one direction at a time on segments of track that don't have passing sidings. (For this version of the map, I didn't attempt to show sidings.)

There are only a dozen or so major double-tracked corridors that show up on this map. Some routes, like the double/quadruple-tracked Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston, Massachusetts, are mostly or wholly invisible, since they are grade-separated and don't have any level crossings. Many metropolitan areas and rail hubs have splotches where there are three or more tracks, but they're usually for very limited distances.

Some rail routes are double-tracked due to running heavy, slow trains. This includes routes in northern Minnesota that were built to haul iron ore/taconite to seaports on Lake Superior. In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the triple-tracked Joint Line shows just a few public crossings. It's used to haul coal out from the region's mines to connecting routes, some of which are themselves double-tracked.

BNSF's Southern Transcon connecting Southern California to Chicago shows up particularly well—it's a route that carries a lot of intermodal traffic from West Coast ports. Union Pacific's corridor between Northern California and Chicago doesn't show up quite as much—for some reason, there aren't many crossings shown out west, though it also has more single-tracking.

Routes that have a significant amount of double-tracking correspond pretty well with maps of Amtrak service. Out west, the Amtrak Cascades corridor is easily visible between Oregon and Washington, and the Capitol Corridor stands out in California. Other long-distance routes in the Eastern U.S. and Midwest also show up pretty well: The route of the City of New Orleans, the Crescent, and the Silver Star (which shares parts of its route with a couple other long-distance Amtrak services).

Double-tracking isn't a requirement for passenger routes, but double-tracked lines make scheduling much more flexible and can dramatically increase capacity over lines that only have a single main track. Single-tracked lines are constrained in the number of trains they can carry by the number of sidings, spacing between them, and siding length, not to mention the general condition of the line and other design features that limit train speeds.

Most rail maps of the United States don't differentiate between busy and lightly-used rail lines, in contrast to maps of the highway system which are able to classify roads based on design. Each can be misleading, though—just as a busy rail line doesn't look much different than a quiet one, it also isn't obvious from the design that that Interstate 94 is far busier in Wisconsin than it is in North Dakota or Montana.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Second train to Chicago: Still running late

Last Thursday, after a delay of almost 2½ years, the Amtrak study for adding a second daily train between the Chicago and the Twin Cities was finally released. The agreement to begin the supposed nine-month study was signed back on May 3, 2012, and it finally arrived on July 2, 2015, thirty-eight months later. Cue your Amtrak jokes now.

The delay is bad. Even worse is the fact that this is just a feasibility study without any actionable output—just more data to put into another phase of study later on. The level of detail is pretty bare-bones, and fails to put this improvement in the context of any other projects in Minnesota's state rail plan (Wisconsin doesn't even have a rail plan, because Scott Walker). And of course, there's no funding in place to do anything more at this point, so we'll continue along the course of twiddling thumbs and wasting time.

I grew even more confused on Thursday and Friday as I saw news reports pop up that were literally pulling a little data from column "A", a little from column "B", and yet more from column "C". The reports were based on the press release, which was based on the executive summary, which was based on the study itself, but apparently only a version that had been tossed in a blender first.

None of these documents alone are enough to understand what's going on. The press release got Bob Collins confused. The study itself got me confused. You probably need to look at all three, and this is for a study that is relatively basic—something that should be routine and unremarkable.

The study conclusions—or rather, the conclusions put into the executive summary because the study itself drew no real conclusions—are themselves unremarkable and obvious, perhaps looking a bit preordained: Yes, adding a second train is a good idea. Yes, it would increase ridership along the corridor—more than double it, actually. Yes, ending it in St. Paul is the cheapest, simplest option.

Is that the best option? Yes. Well, maybe. Um, er—just wait for the next phase of study when we actually bother to do benefit-cost analysis.

Kitty faceplant
Current mood: Faceplant

There is some helpful information coming out of the study from computer modeling of train ridership, operating costs, and getting an idea of the upgrades needed along the route to support the extra. It's embarrassing that it took so long for the information to be generated, though.

The study looks at four main scenarios, all based on the Empire Builder's current travel corridor, but with the western endpoint somewhere in the Twin Cities or St. Cloud area rather than all the way out in Seattle and Portland. The options are:
  • Scenario 1: Run from Chicago to St. Cloud, with stops at St. Paul Union Depot and Target Field station in Minneapolis.
  • Scenario 2: Run from Chicago to St. Cloud, with stops at St. Paul Union Depot and Fridley's Northstar station (bypassing Minneapolis).
  • Scenario 3: Run from Chicago to Minneapolis, still including a stop at St. Paul Union Depot.
  • Scenario 4: Run from Chicago and terminate at St. Paul Union Depot.
Pay no attention to the orange line. Or the black line. Or Sturtevant.
Obviously, "Scenario 4" is the cheapest to implement, since it's the shortest route. It's the one recommended in the executive summary, although that's a short-sighted conclusion, if you ask me.

Each scenario was evaluated with three different alternatives based on different departure times from St. Paul, given the letters A, B, and C. These have a decreasing order of implementation cost—schedule "A" encounters the most rail traffic congestion and needs the largest number of improvements, while schedule "C" is least congested and therefore the cheapest.

Ridership is apparently the reverse, although only schedules "A" and "B" were evaluated in detail. Schedule "C" is assumed to have the same ridership and operating costs as "B", which may or may not be a valid idea. You'll only find schedules "A" and "B" in the study report itself. "C" is mentioned in passing, but you need to look at the executive summary to see it listed.

The executive summary (and the press release that was derived from it) quoted the capital cost ($95 million) from Scenario 4C, annual ridership (155,000) from Scenario 4B, and an annual operating subsidy ($6.6 million) that matches Scenario 4A.

Okay, I kind of get the first two, but what's the deal with that subsidy number? For an era where we are obsessed with cost subsidies, why didn't the study partners tout Scenario 3B/3C, which would extend to Minneapolis, pull in 22,000 additional passengers, and therefore only need $4.5 million in extra support annually?

The price tag is higher for building service to Minneapolis or beyond, of course. Here are the estimated capital costs and ridership estimates for each scenario's "C" alternative (using "B" ridership figures, of course):
  • Scenario 1C: $210 million, 185,100 annual passengers
  • Scenario 2C: $194 million, 180,300 annual passengers
  • Scenario 3C: $114 million, 177,600 annual passengers
  • Scenario 4C: $95 million, 155,500 annual passengers

Scenarios 1 through 3 all have lower operating subsidies than scenario 4 because of those extra riders, but the higher construction cost is a big barrier. The cost per passenger is lowest for scenario 3, however—only modestly lower for the numbers above ($904 vs. $910).

_mg_0177
Planned and in-progress projects like this addition of a $63 million second main track from Big Lake to Becker make the study's cost estimates out-of-date already.

However, the cost savings grows if you include the added cost of new rolling stock (add $46 million to all scenarios), and remove the cost for improvements already planned for the route to Minneapolis (subtract $8 million from scenarios 1 and 3). It's possible to subtract a large chunk of cost from scenarios 1 and 2 to St. Cloud too, since BNSF Railway already has a $63 million project underway to add a second track in a gap that exists on their line between Big Lake and Becker.

The cost of extending the train to Minneapolis, at least in terms of the basic rail infrastructure, could be paid back in less than 10 years due to reduced operating losses. Admittedly, the feasibility study only considered the tracks and platforms, and ignored things like a new waiting area, but that could/should be carved off into a separate project, especially considering how it would be shared with the Northern Lights Express to Duluth, an eventual extension of Northstar to St. Cloud, a second daily train to Fargo, and other projects that have been on the drawing board for years already.
Southeast of the Twin Cities, Canadian Pacific Railway also has improvements planned, including a third main track near the Amtrak station in La Crosse. It's not clear whether that's included in the current figures or not, as the study only gave a singular high-level cost estimate for the whole distance between St. Paul and Milwaukee—a big amorphous blob of millions of dollars with zero detail given.

Great. Thanks.

The fact remains that adding a second train between the Twin Cities and Chicago is a good idea and has been for a long time. Over the long term, the per-passenger cost (including capital and annual subsidy) is comparable to or less than the price to fly the route—and the train connects eleven cities rather than just two.

This is the type of improvement that should take less than a month to decide on and less than a year to implement. It doesn't take an airline three years to choose whether or not to add one more flight on a route that's already in service. It doesn't take a freight rail company three years to decide whether to run another oil train from a productive area. But somehow, adding one daily round-trip between the Midwest's two most prosperous metro areas has already taken at least that long and is probably on track to take at least that long again.

Perhaps what this report needs is to be fed through an anger translator: A second train should be started tomorrow. Other places should be connected too, but they might take a little while—How about we give it nine more months?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Quick note: Commuter rail agencies have a huge role to play in the NEC

Here's something to think about in the wake of the crash of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia last week: Only about 4% of the rail passengers in the Northeast Corridor ride on Amtrak trains. This oddly-titled NPR article mentions that there are about 750,000 daily passengers on the NEC across 2,200 trains, but doing the math on Amtrak's annual ridership gives them only about 32,000 passengers out of that total. Everyone else is riding commuter trains.

Amtrak riders take longer trips, so the ratio of passenger-miles is probably significantly different, but won't put Amtrak in the majority.

So, while Amtrak deserves plenty of scrutiny for what they have and have not been able to achieve in the corridor, the commuter agencies also need to be considered. Have they done everything necessary to support and fund needed upgrades? Have the owners of non-Amtrak sections of track (MTA Metro-North, ConnDOT, and the state of Massachusetts) been putting in the needed effort? Have the freight operators that use segments of the line been helping at all either?

Of course, Amtrak owns most of the corridor, so they should be responsibly pricing track access and the contract operating services they provide to regional commuter services in order to fund appropriate repairs and upgrades along the route. Have they been doing that? I don't really know.

I haven't had a chance to count up all of Amtrak's trains along the NEC, but I think they only have about 80 daily on the route out of the total 2,200 (again, most trains only travel short distances). [Edit: This report from 2013 says there are 154 Amtrak trains that use the NEC daily. I think I'll have to do my own count eventually.] There's no way that they could pay for all of that upkeep solely on the profits of the Acela, Northeast Regional, and the smattering of other Amtrak-branded trains that run in the corridor.

If Amtrak was the only service in the NEC, they'd only need two tracks, but much of the corridor is four tracks wide.

All of the trains that operate on the NEC need to be dispatched in a unified way, and they need to have suitable signaling systems that all interoperate (for a discussion about this, take a look at this Let's Go LA blog post). Since the federal government remains intransigent about giving Amtrak appropriate funding, the railroad should lean more heavily on the commuter services in the corridor and the states that they serve.