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).

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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Transit versus the overly-accessible freeway

In the run-up to construction of the Green Line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, neighborhood activists spent a huge amount of effort to get three extra stations included on the route at Hamline Avenue, Victoria Street, and Western Avenue. These extra stations cut the distance between stations in half on that section, from one mile down to half a mile. This put nearly all of the buildings that face the Green Line on University Avenue within a 5-minute walk of the stations.

Getting that change to happen required advocacy work all the way up the chain of command for transit projects in the United States. In early 2010, the Federal Transit Administration changed the rules to de-emphasize a calculation called the Cost-Effectiveness Index (CEI) while adding an option to include livability as a factor. The change didn't just affect the Green Line, but meant that any other projects around the country could also benefit.

Considering that tremendous battle, it's amazing to see that on-/off-ramps to surface streets on Twin Cities freeways—the car equivalent to stations on a transit line—are often spaced less than a mile apart. In the map I made above, around 40% of the area's ramps are spaced one mile apart or less, and the great majority—about 85%—are less than two miles apart.

The shortest distance I found between two full interchanges is in Golden Valley by the headquarters for General Mills. It's about 0.3 miles along Highway 100 between Olson Memorial Highway (MN-55) and Shelard Parkway/Betty Crocker Drive.

The ramps at Shelard/Betty Crocker are also very close to the interchange between MN-100 and Interstate 394, though in making the map, I ignored exclusive freeway-to-freeway interchanges, since they don't provide any access to surface streets.

The longest stretch of closely-spaced ramps appears to be along MN-36 between Cleveland Avenue and Lexington Avenue—five interchanges on a two-mile stretch of highway, each a half-mile apart.

Now take a look at this presentation board from the Robert Street Transitway study and the station spacing suggested for each mode. It's head-scratching to see these ranges and compare them to what we expect when building infrastructure for cars.

For highway bus rapid transit services in particular, the suggestion is to space stations about two miles apart. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, particularly when highway BRT is laid on top of a system that already has closer stop spacing, but it is striking to compare it with a freeway system where most interchanges are much more tightly spaced.

I'm of the opinion that most of the Twin Cities bus network has stops that are packed too close together—usually around 1/8th of a mile apart on local routes, and sometimes even less. This isn't a huge problem on less-used and less-frequent routes, but busy lines are made interminably slow when they need to stop every block (and sometimes even more often than that!), but buses that run every 10 minutes or less are typically busy enough to need their stops spaced out a bit.

Two main problems arise when transit lines have closely-spaced stops: First, passengers get on and off at stops that are as close as possible to their destinations (good for them, but not always so good for the system). Second, passengers can end up making nonsensically short trips, such as waiting 5 or 10 minutes for a bus that will take them a quarter-mile down the road—a distance that can be walked in 5 minutes.

Limiting the points of access reduces those issues and makes for smoother trips. Yes, it is an inconvenience for some, but it tends to provide benefits to far more riders than it hurts.

Would similar effects be possible by spacing out some of our freeway access points? Can traffic congestion on highways be alleviated by encouraging some of the extremely short trips to happen on surface streets instead?

In urbanized areas with valuable land, this might be a simpler and better alternative to highway tolling, which have historically required toll plazas (difficult to fit into urbanized areas, although they are less necessary today due to RFID and other technologies that don't require physical payment).

Interstate 94 between downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul has a fraught history, but it probably has one of the region's better designs. Ramps are mostly spaced about a mile apart, with additional roadway crossings every half mile and pedestrian bridges in between those. There's a crossing of some type almost every quarter mile.

Freeways can provide a great improvement in travel speeds, but designers have often been too focused on providing more car access to the freeway than improving the ability for people in all types of traffic to get across freeways or around and between nearby neighborhoods.

Some ramps should be removed, though in most cases the bridges crossing the freeway should be maintained. The bridges could also be reworked to add new freeway BRT stops, like the 46th Street station along Interstate 35W in Minneapolis—rather than removing access, it would change the type of freeway access from automotive to transit. In the long term, that would improve the overall throughput of the freeway system by getting more people into high-capacity vehicles.

Looking the other direction, our region's current pattern of freeway ramp spacing should provide some lessons to transit planners. Even though the primary mode of transportation on the highway is by car, the spacing varies significantly in response to geography and the surrounding development pattern.

In my mind, it doesn't make sense to say that commuter rail should only stop once every 7 miles, as shown in that display board—many parts of the world have "commuter" trains that stop about as often as our Blue Line light-rail service. Transit planners should be more adaptive and do what's right for a particular corridor rather than sticking too close to an often-arbitrary modal definition.

Besides, how can we expect people to switch to using buses and trains more often when it's harder to reach them than it is to get to the nearest highway? These are some of the questions we need to consider as we work to ensure a stable footing for the future of the region.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Following the tracks to Duluth

Here is a map showing the route for trains that are expected to run from Minneapolis to Duluth once the Northern Lights Express project is completed. Like my previous map for Amtrak's Empire Builder, this shows segments of single- and double-tracking (usually sidings) along the corridor. This highlights the places where trains may be able to pass each other, and gives an idea of how much capacity there is on the line.

There aren't any regularly-scheduled passenger trains on this route today. Amtrak stopped service in the 1980s, though there are usually one or two excursion trips per year operated by the Friends of the 261.

Ever since Amtrak stopped running on the line, there have been efforts to restore passenger service to Duluth. The Northern Lights Express (NLX) is the current project, which is in the midst of Tier 2 environmental review and preliminary engineering.

The Northern Lights Express is planned to have several daily round-trips and end-to-end travel times somewhere between 2 and 2½ hours. On existing tracks, the route is about 153 miles, though abandoned track in and near Duluth has caused the route to become a bit more circuitous than it used to be. Today, the trip would be about 4 miles longer than what it was for earlier passenger trains on the route.

Bridges at the mouth of St. Louis Bay in Duluth
as seen in 1961.
Timetable of Great Northern trains to Duluth from 1966.
A notable change in Duluth was the abandonment of bridges across the St. Louis Bay which ran near the Blatnik Bridge (Interstate 535/U.S. 53). Both of these were taken out in the 1980s. Farther south, there was also a realignment the main line leading to a junction at Boylston, Wisconsin. Today's Target Field station in Minneapolis is also about half a mile farther south than the old Great Northern depot, which was demolished in 1978.

There used to be a few competing services running between the Twin Cities and Duluth—the Great Northern from Minneapolis (today's route), the Northern Pacific from Saint Paul (closely followed by Interstate 35 today), and another route from the Soo Line which ran further east. Both of these latter two routes have seen big segments of track be abandoned, so they aren't practical for reuse without huge investments.

In the 1950s and 1960s, each railroad operated one or two trains per day on their line to Duluth, so their were about 5 daily round-trips in total. To the right is a Great Northern timetable, which shows the express Gopher train and the local Badger. Both trains ran through Minneapolis and terminated at Saint Paul Union Depot, but for comparison's sake, I'm going to ignore that last leg.

The express Gopher train took 2 hours 50 minutes northbound from Minneapolis to Duluth and 2h45 southbound, while the local Badger took 3h10 northbound and 3h05 southbound including all of its extra stops. Over the distance of 149 miles, the average speed ranged from 47 to 54 mph across these different trips.

When Amtrak took over the nation's passenger trains in 1971, Duluth was initially cut out of the passenger system, but service returned after several months. Frequency ranged from one round-trip per day to only a few round-trips per week, down to about one-tenth as much service as there had been a couple decades earlier if all three railroads were counted. The service finally ended in 1985.

What will it take to get passenger service restored to Duluth?

Great Northern successor BNSF Railway owns the tracks today, and there are about 17 daily freight trains on the route according to MnDOT. The same map shows a current speed limit of 50 mph, though it's unclear if passenger trains would be restricted to that same number (passenger trains are typically allowed to run 10 to 20 mph faster than freight trains on the same tracks).

Between Coon Rapids and Boylston, the average single-track section is about 10 miles long. There is one 16.3-mile section of single-track between Cambridge and Grasston which limits capacity. Another 20-mile section between Andover and Cambridge only has short sidings and might be considered as one segment of single-track.

Excepting a couple of short outliers, the average passing siding on the route is about 1.6 miles long, or around 8,450 feet. Freight trains can be up to around 7,000 feet in length, so there are some sidings where they are a tight fit.

The 20-mile section from Andover to Cambridge probably limits rail traffic to about two trains per hour at current speeds. There's an upper limit of about 48 trains/day on this line, though that would require a completely even distribution of traffic at all hours with each train operating at a consistent and relatively slow speed.

The most likely plan I've seen for NLX has had 8 daily round-trips. Adding 16 passenger trains to the existing 17 freights would result in 33 trains/day, and that's with a mix of trains operating under different speed limits. The line definitely needs some improvements to handle that much traffic and leave enough headroom for schedule slips and other disruptions.

It may make sense to double-track the entire corridor someday, though some early estimates for doing that ended up with $1 billion-plus cost figures.

Lengthening the short siding in Bethel and adding another near Stanchfield would chop the longest non-passing segments in half. Combining that with lengthening some existing sidings and adding three or four others would probably double the line's capacity, making it far easier to add passenger trains to the route while maintaining the ability to move freight and keep everything running on schedule.

Based on this cost estimating methodology from MnDOT, adding these sidings would be relatively inexpensive, probably around $40 million. However, since higher speeds are needed on this line to attract as many passengers as possible, it would only be one modest component of the total cost.

It's possible to dial the expenditures up or down on the route in order to target a "sweet spot" of benefits versus costs. As I mentioned in a post last month, if a passenger service is able to control its operating budget properly, it should be possible to pay off infrastructure cost through fares.

Previous studies have suggested that the Minneapolis to Duluth corridor could attract 900,000 or more annual rail passengers if the speed and frequency of service were high enough. This puts the Duluth line at or near the zone where it could make sense to for a private operator to put in around $2 million per mile, or around $300 million total, particularly if they received a low- or no-interest loan for the buildout.

It would be a challenge to construct a fast, frequent service for that amount, but might just be doable. But even if federal, state, and local governments had to cover the remaining amount in a public-private partnership, it could accelerate development of one of the most important transportation links in Minnesota.