Friday, April 29, 2011

Projections from various Twin Cities to Chicago studies

My previous post was a swing and a partial miss because my memory failed me regarding how much surplus could be generated per year. Well, it's easy to get confused—just check out the level of variation in these previous studies on the Twin Cities to Chicago corridor (ridership, revenue, and surplus are in millions):

StudyProjection yearRouteSpeedTimeRidershipRevenueSurplusOp. ratio
Tri-State I (1991)2024via Rochester
125 mph4:208.1$341$250
185 mph3:1510.6$511$410
300 mph (maglev)2:1512.2$624$501
via Green Bay185 mph3:2010.1$477$370
300 mph (maglev)2:2011.7$584$453
Tri-State II (2000)2020MWRRI River110 mph5:272.9$135.2$51.41.61
via Rochester (DM&E)110 mph5:34
150 mph4:594.2$294.4$172.02.40
via Rochester (new alignment)150 mph4:144.9$361.7$213.02.43
via Rochester (elevated)185 mph3:115.9$480.2$310.02.82
Wisconsin State Rail Plan (2002)2020MWRRI River110 mph5:443.4$121.1
via Eau Claire (alt. 1)79 mph3.7$135.3$55.31.69
110 mph3.7$135.7$55.61.70
via Eau Claire (alt. 2)79 mph3.4$128.8$43.41.51
110 mph3.4$128.9$43.51.51
via Eau Claire (alt. 3)
79 mph6:043.5
110 mph5:423.7$124.2$51.51.71
w/Janesville79 mph3.6$124.0$42.41.52
Rochester Rail Link (2003)2020MSP to Rochester (only?)
150+ mph1.7$50$16
185+ mph1.9$61$22
250+ mph (maglev)2.9$101$34
MWRRI (2004)2025MWRRI River110 mph5:31$172$681.65
SNCF Midwest (2009)2023+via Eau Claire220 mph2:42
SEMNRail/ Tri-State III (2009)2020MWRRI River110 mph6:05
via Rochester110 mph5:52
220 mph
Minnesota State Rail Plan (2010)20??MWRRI River (base case)110 mph1.7
MWRRI River (best case)2.5
via Rochester (base case)1.9
via Rochester (best case)2.9
MWHSR/ Siemens (2011)
2025MWRRI River110 mph6:294.4$158.0
2030via Rochester150 mph3:3012.5$634.2
220 mph2:3015.9$842.1

Amazing—The surpluses may be less than $20 million per year, or they may be over half a billion.

It seems that the original Tri-State study in 1990/1991 was probably the most optimistic about grabbing mode share, actually rising past 10% for the corridor. Most other studies seem to keep the mode share well below 5%, about on par with existing air service. The Tri-State studies have become more conservative over time, though they still seem to be among the most optimistic.

It's not entirely clear to me why there are so many different timings listed for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative route, which would follow the Chicago–Milwaukee–Madison–La Crosse–Twin Cities route along the Mississippi River. Part of it may be due to people modeling local trains instead of express trains or vice-versa (I have generally preferred express timings when building this table). There are also a few instances where studies only modeled timings from Chicago to Minneapolis rather than Chicago to St. Paul. Going the extra distance can add anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes.

The Wisconsin State Rail Plan document from 2002 is also somewhat interesting because it shows very little difference in performance between 79 mph service and 110 mph service, which isn't terribly surprising to me. However, I've only recently had a chance to scan through that document, so I may be misinterpreting the speeds they listed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

100% operational subsidy as a path to growth and financial independence

The gas tax pays for highways—not cars—so why does the bulk of fare revenue for bus and train operations get fed into running the buses and trains themselves rather than the roads and guideways they run on and the stations they serve?

I think it would make a lot of sense to increase the direct subsidy for mass transportation so that all of the above-the-road and above-the-rail costs are covered by the government—at least for a period of time. This would allow the fare revenue to be devoted to maintenance and expansion of the system.

If this sort of arrangement had been made with Amtrak, they would have been able to spend tens of billions of dollars on making their system better over the past 40 years. Of course, the creation of Amtrak was a weird super-merger of 26 passenger systems, so perhaps only 30 of those last 40 years could have had a cohesive vision. (Unfortunately, political bickering has made it hard to understand what Amtrak should be even today, though I think the railroad's recent leadership has really helped turn things around.)

Anyway, since the freight railroads have a fairly antagonistic relationship with passenger services, the fare revenues could have been put into incrementally building a dedicated system of high-speed passenger corridors. Amtrak as it currently exists requires about $2 billion in annual subsidies. Most studies I've seen of true high-speed corridors just for the Twin Cities to Chicago route expect that the service would generate more than $1 billion in excess revenue each year [Edit: I'm going to research that a bit more—I was going by a faded memory when I wrote it, and I may have been thinking of revenue rather than surplus], so Amtrak would only need one, two, or maybe three major high-speed trunk lines to generate enough revenue to cover both the above-the-rail and below-the-wheel costs for their entire system. I'm pretty confident that Amtrak could have become financially independent sometime between 1990 and 2000 if this model had been used.

Regional sales taxes for local transit systems have kind of used this idea. In the Twin Cities, the 0.25% sales tax that funds the Counties Transit Improvement Board generates roughly the same amount of revenue each year as fares do on the area bus and rail lines. I'm not sure if it will ever be possible to make our local transit system profitable—at least not without massive transit-oriented development efforts—but I still think that having improvements tied closely to ridership would lead to good things.

Hmm. Perhaps CTIB should actually get into the housing game... Thomas Lowry was a housing developer, after all...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Minnesota's intercity buses and air competition

Greyhound traces its roots to Hibbing, so naturally some folks decided to build the Greyhound Bus Museum (also known as the Greyhound Bus Origin Center) to celebrate the hometown business done good. Because of the subject matter, you might be tempted to hop a bus to get there. Unfortunately, that's a lot more complicated than it ought to be.

View Jefferson Lines - Minnesota in a larger map

[Icon meanings: Green is a city served by both Amtrak and Jefferson Lines. Blue are bus-served cities with freight rail lines. Yellow are bus-served cities either at the far end of rail lines or on lines that go the "wrong" direction. Red are bus-served cities without any rails. The map covers Minnesota along with border regions in Wisconsin and the Dakotas.]

Despite the company's history, it appears that Greyhound abandoned Hibbing at least a decade ago. Lorenz Bus Service, a charter bus company in the Twin Cities, used to operate a daily trip up U.S. 169 through Hibbing to Virginia, Minnesota, but that service ended in 2007. And, as you can see from the map, Hibbing is in a significant gap of the Jefferson Lines bus system.

The Iron Range itself is fairly well-served by Arrowhead Transit, which shuttles passengers on buses from Grand Rapids through Hibbing and onto Virginia and back again on a daily basis. However, there is only one weekly bus on Fridays which makes a round-trip to Duluth and back.

For all practical purposes, you can't get to Hibbing by bus. (If you could get there, you couldn't get back.)

Hibbing is far from the only place that has been abandoned by the intercity carriers. Minnesota's intercity bus network has seen significant changes just since 1995. There were major reorganizations of Greyhound in the 1980s and early 1990s, and in 2004, the company dropped 59 stops around the state.

Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines took over much of that service and now has 70 stops within Minnesota's borders. Greyhound has a fairly marginal presence, mostly only serving the Chicago to Twin Cities route and on up I-35 to Duluth (though they could still capture significant ridership with that combination).

There have been more upheavals in the bus industry in recent years, particularly with the newer companies and divisions like Megabus where passengers can get fares as low as $1. They focus on express service in major corridors, and there have been concerns that they may be cannibalizing riders from other bus carriers and causing financial distress, though the American Bus Association says that there has been a positive spillover effect.

I have to say that I remain fairly concerned. According to Mn/DOT's Intercity Bus Network Study from last year, most of Jefferson Lines' routes in the state are subsidized, except for the services to Chicago and up the I-35 corridor. Jefferson provides all of the local match funding themselves, without any assistance from the state or local communities (according to what I could interpret in the report, anyway). If their profits slide too much on their major corridors, they won't be able to carry the costs of these other routes either.

In years past, bus corridors were managed by our old frienemy, the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC also regulated passenger rail service up into the Amtrak era, and was the source of a lot of poor decision-making. They also had the ability to say who could operate buses over certain routes, in an attempt to make sure that overly-aggressive competition didn't drive all service into the ground.

It sounds like bus routes are less strictly regulated and mandated than they used to be. Despite the overall industry growth in recent years, there have been some significant losses. Jefferson Lines service across the Canadian border to Winnipeg ended in October 2010, for instance. They only go as far north as Grand Forks these days. There had also been concerns about service along the Minneapolis – Rochester – La Crosse – Madison – Chicago route in recent years, and that service almost went away in early 2009.

So, what do you do when intercity buses go away? In some cases, local transit seems to pick up the slack if other services are close enough, but that is sporadic at best. Mn/DOT's Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan page is an interesting companion to the intercity bus plan and the state rail plan, and it has a number of slides showing where local transit buses jump from city to city on anywhere between a weekly and daily basis (though they didn't include the Rochester City Lines commuter network, which baffles me a bit).

There is still air service to Hibbing, though I tend to feel that it's exorbitantly priced at about $265 for a one-way trip with one checked bag. However, don't bother trying to take the bus to Duluth and then fly the rest of the way—at least unless you're knowledgeable about chartering your own flights. I looked into it, and you'll have to first fly to O'Hare or MSP and then turn around, which adds hours to travel time and hundreds to the overall cost.

That cost, and what I had already looked up for Rochester in my earlier post, made me start wondering what the costs are for other cities around the region that have been pondered for rail service.

One-way travel costs from Minneapolis–Saint Paul

AirAmtrakBus110-mph train
1x daily
6+ daily
8+ daily
6x daily
3x daily
8x daily
Eau Claire$280 (via ORD)
2x daily
4x daily
6+ daily
7x daily
1x daily
4x daily
2+ daily
3x daily
La Crosse$369
4x daily
1x daily
7x daily
8+ daily
5x daily
$75+ (Columbus)
1x daily
3x daily
8+ daily
14x daily
1x daily
3x daily
8+ daily
5x daily
20+ daily
6+ daily
Sioux Falls$486
8x daily
1.5x daily

I looked up ticket prices for these cities for Thursday, May 19th, 2011. In cases where there was more than one available price, I tried to average them out. I used Orbitz's total cost (including taxes and fees) for the flights, and added $25 for a typical 1-item baggage fee (which would be free for Amtrak and the buses). The Amtrak and bus costs are mostly taken directly from the websites, though I had to average them out in some cases. I tried to average out the travel times as well.

Amtrak is always cheaper than flying, and buses are almost always cheaper than Amtrak (the only oddball in my table comes from the shuttle services to La Crosse). I also included an extra column with estimated fares for 110-mph train service, which Mn/DOT has said should cost about $0.30 per mile. I generally estimated those travel times based on an average speed of 68 mph, about what the Northern Lights Express is expected to do these days.

Who in their right mind will pay $972 for a round-trip between Sioux Falls and the Twin Cities? I don't know, but obviously someone is—why else would there be 8 flights per day? Anyway, clearly there are a lot of people paying exorbitant amounts of money to fly around the Upper Midwest. I think these are insane fare levels for the smaller communities. I should note that I left out some places don't have any scheduled air service, such as St. Cloud and Willmar.

What is the effect of this? A lot of wasted money, fuel, and time. It is often cheaper to fly from one of these cities to O'Hare or Denver and back to MSP than it is to fly direct to the Twin Cities. Attempting to travel between outlying cities creates even more stunning scenarios. For those who don't want to bounce around the country, there must be vast numbers of people driving huge distances to drop off friends or relatives at the MSP airport because the airfares are so high. At these prices, you could go buy a beater off of a used car lot, make the trip, discard the car, and still come out ahead.

I would think that passenger rail must be able to compete directly against $1000 round-trip costs, even on relatively lightly-traveled corridors. An integrated web of bus and train service across the state could dramatically reduce the amount of wasted jet fuel and the number of people taking day-long journeys just to drop people off and return home. Even if the government has to significantly subsidize the service to attract riders, it would seem that rail would come out well ahead of air travel in terms of total costs to the state and communities along the lines.

Looking at these prices, I'm baffled why the Sabre company which operates the ticketing backend for travel agencies doesn't also integrate with the nation's bus and rail system. They claim to be connected to Amtrak's system, but I haven't found a site that uses it (except perhaps Amtrak's site itself). If you could go to Travelocity, Orbitz, or Expedia and get bus service included as a possible link, they'd probably attract a lot more customers considering the costs are so much lower for people traveling to and from smaller cities.

These prices have got to raise the eyebrows of a few railroad accountants as well. It seems to me that the fastest way for passenger rail service to come back would be if the railroads themselves started it up again. With rising fuel costs driving airfares upward, rail will become a lot more attractive. Fuel prices would affect rail viability a bit, but energy costs are a much smaller percentage of overall operating expenses for trains than for planes.

Well, I haven't been quite as coherent as I wanted to be with this, but I hope your eyeballs are bugging out as much as mine are with that table of fares I put together.

Friday, April 22, 2011

TGV announcements

I'm not sure if they still use the same system, but here's a snapshot of how the automated announcements sounded at the Lorraine TGV station in Louvigny back in 2008. Well, I mostly wanted to post this because of the nice chime that they use at the beginning of each announcement—much more pleasant than the buzzes and beeps that most train systems use.

The chimes are also used as part of a jingle for SNCF. Here's a long version of the song that has been used in bits for other corporate videos.

A very top-tier jingle, if you ask me.

I'm slowly poking along on a post about intercity buses in Minnesota. I hope it will turn out to be a good one.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


City Pages has named my closest bus line, Metro Transit's route 3A, as the best bus route in their annual Best of the Twin Cities awards.
"The 3A takes you through some of the most character-filled landmarks and areas in the Metro: the U of M campus, the State Fairgrounds, Como Park, Frogtown main drag Rice Street, and the State Capitol. If you've got an hour to kill and a couple bucks in your pocket, hop on and take in a route that links the best ballpark and library in the Midwest to the street where Larry Gopnik gets in a car accident in A Serious Man."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rochester and its transit landscape

View Rochester City Lines commuter routes in a larger map. (Note: The routings are just guesses.)

Rochester has edged out Duluth to become Minnesota's third-largest city. They clocked in at 106,769 residents last year, a massive 24.4% increase over 2000 when there were 85,806 people living there. With such growth, it's easy to see why the idea of a rail link to Rochester has gained traction in the past few years. Of course it's been discussed about for two decades now, so maybe I shouldn't expect much—but, the route was endorsed by Mn/DOT again in last year's state rail plan, which gives me some hope. A new Zip Rail organization formed to promote the idea of a line, and Governor Dayton even broached the topic when he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood earlier this year.

So how important would a link to Rochester be? The Mayo Clinic is a big draw, bringing in patients from all over the world. The local airport became "Rochester International Airport" in the 1990s when it was outfitted with a customs facility, though it's hard to say how often it gets used these days. I was a teenager around that time, and there were always stories about rich Middle Easterners renting out entire floors at local hotels and giving out $100 tips to pizza delivery drivers. I've lived up in the Twin Cities since 2000, so I don't know how the post-September 11 environment affected things, but I'm sure there are plenty of other foreign millionaires who avail themselves of Mayo's services.

It's hard to overstate how massive Mayo is. The 2006 transit plan for "Med City" said the clinic has 28,000 employees in town. They're mostly clustered in downtown, but Mayo vacuums up office space wherever they can find it.

The next-biggest employer, IBM, was variously listed in the transit plan as having either 4,500 or 6,000 employees. IBM is up in the northwestern part of town in a large building (actually a cluster of interconnected buildings) that is a mile across and has half the square footage of the Pentagon. I think most of it is 3 stories tall, so that also gives you an idea of how much space Mayo would take up if it was all crammed into a unified building or campus.

Rochester City Lines, a private company, operates the city bus network, along with an expansive commuter network (shown above) which serves 37 different locales—mostly small cities, though a few places are unincorporated (the suburban/exurban population served still tops 125,000, partly due to tentacles reaching some larger cities like Austin and Winona). The city buses operate 6 days a week Monday through Saturday, while commuter buses only run Monday through Friday. Most places on the commuter network see two or three round-trips daily, though a few see less while Kasson and Byron get one extra. One daily bus, operated by RCL's parent, Richfield Bus Company, typically runs from the Hiawatha LRT's 28th Avenue station in Bloomington and then hits Inver Grove Heights before heading south. Fares for single trips on their buses seem pretty high at first glance, ranging from $9 for "Zone C" cities like Byron, Stewartville, and Pine Island up to $23 per trip for the "Zone H" Twin Cities bus. However, the 10-trip and monthly passes offer pretty steep discounts of 40–60%.

There are a lot of shuttle buses operating between downtown Rochester and the Minneapolis/Saint Paul International Airport. GO Rochester Direct operates 17 round-trips daily (16 on weekends), while Rochester Shuttle Service has 12 daily round-trips. Their fares are in the range of $22 to $29, with cheaper fares for people making a single-day round-trip.

The GO Rochester Direct folks also coordinate with GO Carefree Shuttle which operates from La Crosse to Rochester via Winona on 6 RTs daily. They also appear to be the main shuttle service to Rochester from the Winona Amtrak station.

I poked at the regular intercity bus carriers, and it looks like only Jefferson Lines runs to Rochester, and it may only be a single trip daily. I'm not sure what route it takes, but the shortest southbound time seems to be from the Hawthorne Transportation Center in the Minneapolis's Warehouse District, while the shortest northbound trip appears to be to the MSP Airport. Annoyingly, Jefferson drops people off in Rochester at the Homestead Hotel at 1600 Marion Rd, three miles from downtown. Maybe there's a point to that, but I have no clue. Perhaps the shuttle operators managed to kick Jefferson out of downtown somehow.

For air travel, there appear to be 5 flights daily from MSP to RST on Delta, though they came out at a whopping $279 per ticket when I just checked—over ten times what it costs to take a shuttle bus. Delta also flies from Detroit to Rochester once a day for $576, apparently. American Airlines goes from Chicago O'Hare to Rochester five times a day for somewhere north of $130.

So, what did Rochester have historically? The Chicago Great Western operated several passenger trains through Rochester daily in the 1920s, perhaps most notably with the not-quite-a-streamliner Blue Bird. However, cars became more popular and the Great Depression took its toll, so it appears the last CGW service ran in 1931, and it may have taken all Twin Cities service with it. Passenger service continued on the Chicago & North Western line through the city until 1963 when Chicago & North Western's Rochester 400 was shut down, but it only ran from Chicago in the east to Mankato in the west. I suppose people could have taken the train west to Owatonna or Mankato, or east to Winona to transfer to other services to the Twin Cities, but that would have been pretty tedious.

The old north/south tracks of the Great Western are mostly gone now, save for a spur line to the AMPI dairy-processing facility just south of downtown, but the east/west ex-C&NW tracks remain and are now owned by Canadian Pacific through their Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern subsidiary.

Will a new rail service ever come to Rochester? It seems unlikely in this political climate, but if you've got a price range of between $22 per trip and $280+ per trip to play around with, then there's a hell of a lot of wiggle room. Current airline flights to Rochester must generate $10 million or so in revenue each year, and the flying demand from the Twin Cities is tremendously limited by the high price.

Mn/DOT figures that a 110-mph service between Rochester and the Twin Cities would generate north of 500,000 trips per year. Over 30 years, that would generate, say, $750 million if the average fare was $50. That's probably a much higher fare than what they were thinking about, but it's definitely a hell of a bargain for someone who would otherwise try to fly. And would people pay $50 to go 220 mph and get to Rochester in about 35 minutes compared to a 1.5-hour shuttle bus? I'd guess so, and that would probably blow well past 500,000 annual trips.

Even Rochester has a donut
Well, of course, I like trains, and I'd like to see one built, so I'm sure I'm avoiding a lot of major issues. However, Rochester seems to be avoiding major issues too: One thing I noticed about the city when I opened up the New York Times' 2010 Census tool was that the city shows the classic donut pattern of population increase on the edge and decline in the center. If the city's borders were constrained by inner-lying suburbs, it might have seen a decline in population rather than the massive increase seen in the last decade. Census tract 2 in the city, east of downtown, declined by 17.2%.

To help its residents survive the coming decades, Rochester will need to begin to rein in development on its outer edges and refocus development in the center of town just like central cities in big metropolitan areas are having to do. Right now, Rochester has a pretty mediocre Walk Score rating of 45 and most of the city has a fairly low density. The Slatterly Park area is apparently the densest part of town and actually grew in population over the last 10 years, but it's almost entirely composed of single-family homes. Clearly there are parts of the city that need to start building upward and becoming more mixed-use. The second-densest part of the city is in the Cimarron Park area, way up north of 41st Street, and the population there is mostly stuck in residential pods without much to do. The current low density through much of the city means there is plenty of opportunity to build quality mixed-use low-rise and mid-rise apartments and condos closer to Mayo's central presence. Allowing the city to continue growing outward without bound would be a major mistake.

It will also be important for them to plan for the eventuality that Mayo stops expanding, and even begins declining. It's impossible to know when that might happen, but I imagine it will come about at some point. I doubt the growth can go on forever, so Rochester leaders really need to diversify their economy as much as possible.

Well, enough rambling...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Get a sense of the TGV

I highly recommend subscribing to the YouTube channel from the user dashloc. He works as a TGV operator for SNCF in France, but is also talented behind the camera and has made some great videos.

His films are good ways to get a sense of where and how fast the trains can run, and can also give a bit of an idea of what sort of noise they give off. High-speed trains sound a bit like jet airliners flying through the sky until they get close and you can hear the whooshing noises as each individual rail car goes by. It's hard to tell how loud they are, though I wouldn't want to live really close to a high-speed line where trains run at full speed.

TGVs generally operate with a top speed of 186 miles per hour (300 km/h), though I think there's at least one line where they can go a bit faster.

Oh, and a little note about terminology: TGV stands for Train à Grande Vitesse ("high-speed train"), while LGV stands for Lignes à Grande Vitesse ("high-speed line"). TGV trains can operate on both LGV tracks and at limited speeds on lignes classiques, the historical rail network (and yes, TGV trains do go through some grade crossings on those older lines). Conversely, non-TGV trains can also run on the LGV network as long as they meet appropriate requirements such as having the right signaling equipment and, presumably, run fast enough to not get in the way too much.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mass transit and bridges

New York bridge capacities

Streetsblog ran the above image in an article yesterday, mostly focused on the Brooklyn Bridge. It shows that bridges in New York City carried the most people back in the days when subways and streetcars used them more heavily. There are a few caveats for the image—for instance, the Manhattan Bridge was partially closed in 1989, so that affects its numbers. The diagram also leaves out the fact that some of the rails were moved into tunnels under New York-area waterways. However, there was an overall loss in the number of rail links into Manhattan.

To me, this underscores the value of making a "whole count" of traffic on a street or bridge. As a former University of Minnesota student, it also makes me think of the double-decked Washington Avenue Bridge, the most multi-modal bridge in the Twin Cities. Mn/DOT and other traffic agencies focus on automotive traffic, and have neglected to count pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. What is the overall traffic on Washington Avenue? I wish I knew. That bridge carried 28,000 vehicles per day on the lower deck, but the only number I've found giving an indication for the upper deck is 5,000 people at the peak hour—a rather useless measure for me, and I'm not sure if that's exclusively the upper deck or if it's meant to be for the entire bridge.

Right now, the Washington Avenue Bridge is being partially disassembled to make way for light-rail construction—half of the lower bridge deck is currently removed. The Central Corridor line will take away two traffic lanes, and will even eliminate private car traffic entirely along a stretch of Washington Avenue (the road) on campus, but it could very well have the effect of increasing the total number of people crossing the bridge each day.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Northern Lights Express survives Republican challenges

The proposed Northern Lights Express to Duluth has run up against some conservative political challenges recently. Three city council members in Duluth had put forward a proposal to dissolve the Minneapolis–Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, but the proposal was rejected on March 28th. The council also continued support for $190,000 in local funding for the line. Apparently this has been part of a pattern recently—the third time these councilors have tried it in the last 4 months.

On the statewide funding front, one of the more egregious proposals put forth in the Minnesota House was one by Larry Howes of Walker, Minnesota, which was intended to pull back state funding from a number of projects—some of which had originally gotten money back in 1994. The proposal appears to have died out because there wasn't a companion senate bill.

The total amount of reclaimed cash from the bill would have been $51 million, of which $26 million was allocated in 2009 for rail projects across the state including the NLX, the Twin Cities to Chicago route, and Twin Cities to Rochester. It looks like Mn/DOT is planning to spend the $26 million this year. $9 million will go to the NLX project, and is expected to be used as part of a 20% state & local match for a pot of federal funding—The state, local, and federal funds will cover most or all of the $65 million needed to do preliminary engineering work along the line.

Rail projects in Minnesota have potentially taken a hit under the senate's budget bill: Funding for Mn/DOT's Passenger Rail Office, which has only been in existence for a few years, was cut from $1 million to $600,000.

Oh, and just as a side note—there has been a bug in the RSS feed system on the Northern Lights Express website which posts articles on the correct day and month, but doesn't pay any attention to the year. An article popped up last month showing that in 2009, Tim Pawlenty supported Barack Obama's plan for high-speed rail in the United States.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

CCLRT construction exposes old streetcar right-of-way


I knew that the Central Corridor light-rail line was going to be built on the old streetcar right-of-way, but I didn't really know that the old right-of-way could basically be defined as a single (almost-)continuous object. After my boss told me he'd seen some rusty streetcar rails piling up along University Avenue, I decided to check it out, and took these pictures before and after work.

Brick, wooden railroad ties, and the steel rails themselves are being ripped out of the ground, and will be for quite some time. Amazing to think that these have been sitting in the ground for 57 years since the last streetcars ran. Service ended in Saint Paul in 1953, though they continued running in Minneapolis until mid-1954.


Monday, April 4, 2011

BRT on the cheap using freeways

View Freeway BRT options in the Twin Cities in a larger map

[Edit 4/7/2011: Symbols with dots in them are supposed to indicate existing stops/stations. The colors are meant to be an indication of how easy it is to maneuver through an interchange to load/unload passengers. Green is supposed to mean minimal maneuvering, mostly going in a straight line or with an immediately-accessible turn-around area that is actively being used. Generally, green also overlaps with existing infrastructure. Yellow generally refers to diamond interchanges that are not currently in use (but probably could be), or other similar infrastructure (such as two half-diamonds a short distance apart with frontage roads in between). If an active, existing station has a yellow marker, it probably means that I think the buses using it need to make too many turns and go too far out of their way to load and drop off passengers—existing locations prime for an upgrade. Red refers to interchanges that would need infrastructure upgrades to support fast service, such as turnarounds or special bus-only lanes, but only for short distances. They are typically 3/4-diamond with a single cloverleaf or folded ramp, but I also included some SPUI interchanges and other things. I designated the Huron Boulevard bus stop used by Route 94 as red with a dot because it does exist, but only in the westbound direction, and it would be fairly difficult to upgrade that one.

I only spent a few hours poking at the map, so there are probably a number of interchanges that lack sidewalks and have other issues. Similarly, I may have missed a few existing stops, or misclassified a few things. Apologies—it's a bit of a work-in-progress.]

I've always wondered why metro-area bus agencies haven't made more extensive use of freeways to move passengers at higher speeds. There are numerous express routes which use them, of course, but they mostly make several stops in the suburbs to collect passengers, then run non-stop until reaching one of the downtowns. This makes the bus network pretty incomprehensible, since you can't immediately tell whether a service is only commuter-oriented or if it runs all day. I'd much rather see a system of trunk routes implemented with high service frequency, and collector buses running generally perpendicular routes.

But how much opportunity is there? By my count, there are probably 130 simple diamond interchanges in the Twin Cities which could have service implemented in no time flat, and another set of about 40 interchanges (mostly ¾-diamond which would need a turn-around zone for one direction) which could be fixed without too much effort—certainly each one would be a fraction of the cost of the 46th Street station on I-35W. That would make a pretty impressive network all by itself, and additional interchanges requiring more complicated infrastructure could be implemented later.

There are inherent drawbacks to putting service in a freeway corridor, such as noise and pollution, and the fact that accessing bus stops along freeway on- and off-ramps may require walking in front of a driver who isn't expecting to see any pedestrians. Annoyingly, it's also difficult to make connections between freeway-based services because most expressways in the Twin Cities use cloverleaf interchanges or other specialized designs that don't have convenient stopping points. It could work to re-route one of the services along surface streets for a mile or three, but doing that could dramatically slow down the service.

I dunno—I suppose people will say that the density just isn't there, and that's probably true. On the other hand, the average Hiawatha LRT passenger is drawn from more than 3 miles away from the route, so if you could build something that is just half as attractive as the LRT, it could draw quite a following.

Well, my biggest concern about all this is that it could draw riders away from using surface routes which actually go past walkable business corridors. It might not be so bad, though—how many people would become more interested in using public transit in general if a stronger core network could be created?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mini-travelogue (and a graph!)

Traffic simulation of buses in downtown Brooklyn, courtesy of Top Gear.

I had the day off on Friday, so I took the opportunity to check out some parts of the transit system in the Twin Cities that I usually don't see in action. Both my apartment and workplace are in between the two downtowns, and I do actually see (and hear) a huge number of buses each day, mostly coming from the bus barn just southeast of the State Fairgrounds. At work, we can look out the windows and see University of Minnesota shuttle buses ferrying passengers along the intercampus transitway.

Too bad I can't get on any of those buses (well, I could take a campus bus, but that's a 2-mile hike from my apartment).

Anyway, I had taken the 84 up to Rosedale for a late lunch, then rode the 260 from there and got my first taste of the Marq2 project from inside a bus. Marq2 is a pretty remarkable sight when it's running at full tilt. It reminded me of the scene when my brother and I first popped our heads out of the subway station in Brooklyn late last summer—Massive amounts of traffic including bus drivers jockeying for position as though they were driving sportscars. At least in Minneapolis there seemed to be less honking, and the buses were mostly going in the same direction.

I took a little detour to take a look at the godawful "kitschy" The Normandy and wander around the Elliot Park neighborhood of Minneapolis a bit, then set about trying to find a way to reach the still fairly new 46th Street BRT station along I-35W.

That turned out to be a more complicated than I expected. There wasn't any obvious big thick rapid transit line on the maps I found in downtown. I looked up the first stop for route 535 via a NexTrip app on my phone, but when I walked to the 3rd Ave & 2nd Street intersection, the stop was just a sign attached to a pole. In the schedule information, I think it simply said "MVTA" and "SouthWest" or something like that. No positive reinforcement at all—I wasn't sure whether I should be looking for an MVTA bus, a Metro Transit one, or something else entirely.

I gave up, wandered over to Nicollet, and got on the slow route 11 bus instead. 40 minutes later, I got off at the 46th Street station.

I was a little miffed that the first thing I saw was a schedule showing how the place is closed on weekends. The bus system in the Twin Cities is heavily geared toward the rush-hour crowd, even though that only represents a fraction of overall travel. I won't be able to consider any bus service in the Twin Cities "bus rapid transit" until it operates on the weekends, (and still frequently).

Anyway, I wandered down to the freeway level, and expected to find a map of where the services go, but got shafted on that front. There was a listing of the different buses that serve the station, mostly route 535, but the only map seemed to just be a zoomed-in view of Metro Transit's normal system map, which is fairly unintelligible for route 535 service. The next southbound 535 bus was due to arrive shortly, and the next one wasn't going to show up for 20 or 30 minutes after that, so I took the opportunity to head south. One thing I did notice as the bus pulled up was that the pedestrian pavement seemed to be lower than normal—rather than raising the height to create an LRT-like platform to facilitate level boarding, it seems that designers went the opposite way, making me have to step up quite high to board a low-floor bus! That was pretty idiotic, in my opinion.

I must have picked the last 535A bus of the day or something. Lacking any sort of intelligible map, I wasn't sure where the Knox Park & Ride was, so I figured the bus would go down to the Southtown shopping center and continue onward. However, it turns out that the park-and-ride is basically on the campus of the Best Buy headquarters, before the bus would reach Southtown! I'm surprised that Best Buy decided to allow space for a park & ride, though it is annoyingly located way down next to I-494. It seems that route 535 buses all go and turn around at this lot, a quarter-mile south of 76th Street, before continuing on to other sites (for every route except the 535A), but the exact method of operation is somewhat of a mystery—when I headed back north, the 535 bus (all northbound buses are simply 535, no matter where they start from) skipped the turn down to the park-and-ride, so maybe I'm misreading things.

I'd hate to be a person who parked at the official park-and-ride and was waiting for a bus that only went 1/4 mile away. I figure it would be better for Best Buy to designate a segment of their big parking garage for transit riders instead of having buses go down and make a half-mile detour to jab at a lot farther to the south. Yes, I'm an advocate of increasing stop spacing, but I don't think it's a good idea to force absolutely everyone to walk their maximum tolerable distance all the time.

Quarter-mile stop spacing with 1/8-, 1/4-, and 1/2-mile stop spacing
A graph showing pedestrian sheds for bus stop spacing of 1/8-, 1/4-, and 1/2-mile, respectively. While increased spacing decreases the population within 1/4 mile of a stop, the resulting speed improvement more than makes up for increased walking time/distance.

Anyway, a lot of fairly free-flowing traffic has made me re-evaluate my previous thoughts about stop spacing a little bit. While my own regular route 3 tends to get slowed a lot by passengers showing up at random locations, I did notice it went pretty fast in the evening as I came home. The biggest gains in speed from increasing stop spacing would occur during rush hours—there's generally less gain to be had in the off-hours. A lot of the game has to do with perception, though—it's important to provide the best rider experience possible whether they use the service during rush hours, midday, evenings, or weekends. With the ubiquity of cars, it doesn't take much to turn people off. Being inside a bus while it makes unnecessary turns or does other things that waste time tends to drive people away.

In my previous post about how much time could be saved, I didn't really think about the fact that service often runs with little delay in off hours or other (fairly random) periods, so my perception of how much time could be saved was probably a bit off. It would still be a noticeable improvement, though.

I'd really like to see frequent limited-stop bus service running along the highways in the Twin Cities (oh, did I mention that the 535 is officially a limited-stop service with the same fare as a local route?  That's one good thing, I guess.) Anywhere that a major highway meets another road with a diamond interchange should probably have a bus stop with service running every half hour.  No need to go and spend millions on a BRT station (at least not right away).  Making use of existing high-speed infrastructure is a good way to improve user perception of service.  That's my opinion, anyway...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Back to some rail news

I got an e-mail from Alex saying that the commenting system wasn't working recently.  I was able to post some comments this morning, so hopefully it's working again.  I used Firefox, so if anyone continues to have issues, try using that.

It seems that Blogger is rolling out some changes, so there may have simply been a bug.  I'm glad that they're actually doing something—Blogger seems to be fairly behind in the technological curve, which seems strange for a Google-owned property.

Anyway, while I'd like to keep talking about the Metro Transit funding situation a bit more, there have been some rail developments that I should probably make note of:

Locally, the Red Rock Corridor is reaching another milestone as station-area planning wraps up for the stops in Hastings, Cottage Grove, Newport, and at Lower Afton Road in St. Paul. They're going to have a final meeting about those stops next week:
Wednesday, April 6th, 5–7 pm
Washington County South Service Center
Room 147/148
13000 Ravine Parkway
Cottage Grove, MN, 55016

Wisconsinites are dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance because Governor Scott Walker, he of, does actually kinda sorta support trains. His administration is submitting a $150 million request for funds which could go into upgrading Amtrak's Hiawatha Service between Milwaukee and Chicago. This is confusing in the context of Governor Scott Walker's resistance to the extension of service to Madison, though it is fairly consistent with what he had said during his campaign. He wanted to see upgrades to existing Hiawatha and Empire Builder service rather than expansion to new areas.

It did immediately strike me as strange when I learned that the original planned $810 million extension from Milwaukee to Madison was planned to go up to 110 mph, yet that project was supposed to keep the speed between Milwaukee and Chicago at 79 mph (at least initially). Why not upgrade the existing route too?

Of course, most of the $810 million got pulled back by the federal government back in late 2010 when Gov. Walker was just Governor-elect.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says that the new $150 million would be "a step toward increasing the speed of the trains to nearly 110 mph", so it isn't clear to me whether there would be any significant track upgrades or grade separations. It looks like the money is primarily meant to pay for trains and a maintenance facility that would have been built for Madison extension if that project had gone forward.

The Spanish company Talgo put together a factory in Milwaukee to build two trains for the Hiawatha, plus options for more. Two additional trainsets would have been built for the Madison service, and that's how many trains would be funded with this request. Walker's predecessor Jim Doyle had also committed Wisconsin to spending $30 million on a Talgo maintenance facility. For the $150 million grant, the state might only need to match 10%, so it's clearly in the state's best interest to try and get $150 million, since it could effectively save them $15 million.

I support upgrades to the existing service, though these details do make me uneasy. There should be some modest speed improvements just by using the new Talgo trains since they use a passive tilting technology, though the track is fairly straight in the first place and supported trains running well over 100 mph in the past. The biggest obstacles to increasing speed on the line are the numerous grade-level crossings, plus the existing Canadian Pacific freight traffic and Metra commuter traffic closer to Chicago.

Well, there would be two big tests for Walker in regard to trains: First, if the state receives the money, we'll have to see if it actually gets spent on trains and doesn't get redirected to highway projects. Second, Walker said he supported improved Empire Builder service. I know that Mn/DOT and the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority are pushing for a second daily train along that route, so we'll have to see if that project makes progress in the coming months.

Another thing I should note—Here's a new animation of the Central Corridor LRT in the University of Minnesota area:

Central Corridor - Washington Avenue