Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29, 2011 weekly rail news

  • The big news of the last week was the July 22nd high-speed collision near Wenzhou, China. Initial reports were that the first train was disabled by a lightning strike, and a second train crashed into it. It's unclear whether there was a technical failure, human error, or a combination of the two. My first guess was that someone tried to override a fail-safe situation, and that's one of the rumors floating around. We'll have to see if the Chinese can be transparent enough to put together a trustworthy investigation.

  • On Wednesday, the Missouri River Runner returned to its normal twice-daily schedule, after suspending one round-trip per day since July 2nd due to freight congestion. The route has been seeing more traffic than normal due to flooding along other lines.

  • Amtrak's #7 Empire Builder originating in Chicago on July 21st experienced a disruption the next day near Williston, North Dakota. I don't know what the problem was, and never saw anything on Amtrak's website, but the train apparently never made it to the west coast. There wasn't a return #8 on the 23rd.

  • Twin Cities & Western Railroad is celebrating 20 years of operation this week. The company began operation on July 21, 1991 from Minneapolis to Milbank, South Dakota on a segment of the Milwaukee Road's former Pacific Extension to the west coast. Passenger excursions are planned for this weekend.

  • BNSF is requesting permission to build a new bridge across the Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Nebraska. The existing line is used by Amtrak's California Zephyr, as well as BNSF coal trains from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and intermodal trains.

  • BNSF got hit by another washout-related derailment late in the night on Wednesday, July 27th—this time in Blanding, Illinois following a massive downpour of 13 inches of rain. The derailment halted traffic on both tracks. Canadian National also experienced washouts on their main line in Iowa.

    View Larger Map

  • The federal tax on on-road motor vehicle fuels will reduce to 4.3 cents per gallon unless extended by September 30th. That's down from the present 18.4 cpg on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel.

  • Streetfilms recently visited the Twin Cities to see how the Nice Ride bike sharing system is expanding.

    Nice Ride MN: Minnesota's Bike Share Expands from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

  • A 2.1-mile streetcar line in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has been approved. The project is expected to cost $64.6 million.

Twin City Rapid Transit map

View Twin City Rapid Transit in a larger map

I went to a meeting on the Gateway Corridor today, and there were a few people wondering where the streetcars used to run on the east side of Saint Paul. Here, I've gone through the maps in Twin Cities by Trolley by (2007) John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs to try and portray the system at its peak around 1932 (though some lines may may not quite be from the same time period). Much of their info is in turn based on maps and information from Russell L. Olson's 1976 book, The Electric Railways of Minnesota. Both books have much more detail than this simple Google Map can hope to include, such as dates of track activation and decommissioning and other details like where single-tracking was present and where there were small loops and wyes for turning around.

I'm sure it's not entirely accurate, but 95% or so. The big questions are exactly what the routings of some of the long extensions were, such as the lines out to Lake Minnetonka.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Delta Airlines trimming service to small cities

Pinnacle Airlines, which operates regional flights as Delta Connect, is retiring a fleet of Saab 340 turboprops inherited from their recent acquisition of Mesaba Airlines. In the process, they've determined that service to 24 smaller airports—including Pierre, the capital of South Dakota—would be unsustainable for them, and have given the U.S. Department of Transportation a 90-day notice that they plan to discontinue or alter service. 16 of the destinations have flights subsidized under the Essential Air Service program, while 8 currently operate without subsidy.

View Delta rural air service cuts, 2011 in a larger map

The table below combines the load factors from Delta's website with subsidy values from Wikipedia's article on the EAS program (some of the subsidy values are out-of-date). The annual passenger estimates are my own, so they could be off by quite a bit (10% or so). I assumed 13 weekly round-trips for EAS airports (6 days with two round trips each and one day with just a single round trip).  Here's what I used for the non-subsidized airports:
Pierre: 2x Sun-Fri, 1x Sat
Sioux City: 3x Mon-Sat, 2x Sun
Brainerd: 3x Sun-Fri, 2x Sat
Aberdeen: 2x Sun-Fri, 1x Sat
Pellston: 3x all days
Bemidji: 3x Sun-Fri, 2x Sat
Waterloo: 3x Mon-Sat, 2x Sun
Butte: 2x all days
AirportCodeEAS subsidyLoad factorEst. pass.BusRail
Thief River Falls, MNTVF$1,230,32212.0% 5,532Nofreight
Greenville, MSGLH$1,606,66227.6%12,725Yesfreight
Devils Lake, NDDVL$1,459,49330.3%13,970NoAmtrak
Watertown, SDATY$1,338,32135.0%16,136Yesfreight
Muscle Shoals, ALMSL$2,553,28335.7%16,459Nofreight
Fort Dodge, IAFOD$1,112,60739.1%18,027Yesfreight
Hibbing, MNHIB$2,938,87839.2%18,073Nofreight
Alpena, MIAPN$1,532,66039.5%18,211Yesfreight
Tupelo, MSTUP$921,87841.0%18,903Yesfreight
Jamestown, NDJMS$1,639,25442.1%19,410Yesfreight
Mason City, IAMCW  $1,112,60745.9%21,162Yesfreight
Pierre, SDPIRNot subsidized  47.4%21,853Yesfreight
Iron Mountain, MIIMT$2,090,53448.7%22,453Yesfreight
Sioux City, IASUXNot subsidized51.4%34,540Yesfreight
International Falls, MN  INL  $1,309,88652.5%24,205Nofreight
Brainerd, MNBRDNot subsidized52.6%37,306Yesfreight
Hattiesburg, MSPIB$1,398,79853.7%24,758YesAmtrak
Escanaba, MIESC$2,090,53455.2%25,449Yesfreight
Aberdeen, SDABRNot subsidized55.6%25,634Yesfreight
Pellston MIPLNNot subsidized58.5%43,559Nonone
Bemidji, MNBJINot subsidized59.3%42,058Yesfreight
Sault Ste. Marie, MICIU$237,82560.0%27,662Yesfreight
Waterloo, IAALONot subsidized61.4%43,547Yesfreight
Butte, MTBTMNot subsidized65.3%32,415Yesfreight
EAS subtotal$24,573,542303,135
Unsubsidized subtotal280,912
Actual passenger counts should be available from the federal government somewhere. The last time I looked into it, getting any useful information appeared to require setting up a huge database.

All of Mesaba/Pinnacle's current EAS-subsidized flights are on the chopping block, and Minnesota is seeing some of the biggest cuts—right across the territory where Mesaba first started flying back in the 1940s. Of eight current commercial airports in the state, five will likely see service reduced or eliminated: Thief River Falls, Hibbing, International Falls, Brainerd, and Bemidji. The first three are currently EAS-subsidized, while the last two don't require subsidy at the moment.

I calculate that the government is contributing about $81 per passenger for the subsidized routes, ranging from less than $9 for Sault Ste. Marie to $222 for travelers to and from Thief River Falls, which has become a bit of a whipping-boy over the last week for being at the top of the list and having the lowest load factor.  Despite Thief River Falls' small size, the city is home to some notable businesses, including snowmobile, ATV, and watercraft manufacturer Artic Cat, and DigiKey, a major distributor of electronic components. It's still debatable whether they deserve airline service, especially since flight time to MSP is slowed by a bounce though Hibbing.  That extra hop makes travel time almost exactly the same as driving to Grand Forks and taking a flight from there.

The other three commercial airports in Minnesota are Duluth, Rochester, and MSP, and they are backed up by airports just across the border in Grand Forks, Fargo, Sioux Falls, and La Crosse. Some passengers already choose to use these airports because of the lower fares that can be found there. In my browsing around, the Pinnacle/Mesaba flights to their central hubs run between $250 and $500, but going to a larger airport can reduce the cost by $70 or more. Annoyingly, these routes tend to exhibit the "hidden city" fare problem quite badly. As an example, I looked at Orbitz for flights late next month from Thief River Falls: Flying one-way to MSP runs $317 (including taxes, fees, and a $25 baggage fee), while a trip ticketed from Thief River Falls through to Chicago would only cost $168.

Delta may continue service to nine of the 24 cities if they receive higher subsidies and/or the money shifts to currently unsubsidized routes. The turboprop fleet is being replaced by 50-seat regional jets, which apparently use more fuel and cost more to operate, so they would need to carry more passengers per plane. Cities that currently see three round-trips per day would most likely see that reduced to two (apparently the prescribed number under the EAS program). That would appear to affect Bemidji, Brainerd, Pellston, Sioux City, and Waterloo.

The EAS program has been a political target for several years now, and could be phased out over the next few years. Representatives in the U.S. House had voted back in May to end the program entirely by 2013 except for Alaska, where the subsidy per town is quite low. The EAS program isn't all that big overall. The subsidy to the lower 48 states is only $170 million per year, which hardly amounts to a rounding error of a rounding error in the federal budget. Alaska runs about $12 million across 45 communities, while the lower 48 states have about 107 EAS-supported routes.

Nonetheless, Delta's actions to cut service to their 24 communities could be seen as a hedge that EAS funding will eventually go away. Why go through the bother of buying replacement turboprops or extra regional jets if they can't be used on their intended routes?

Delta has been in talks with Great Lakes Airlines to see if they'd like to take over some routes.  They've expressed interest in Brainerd, International Falls, Fort Dodge, Mason City, and Iron Mountain, and they already have service between Pierre and Denver.  GLA operates 19-seat Beechcraft 1900 planes, so they could theoretically operate at better margins. 

However, Great Lakes Airlines is also currently in the news because they operate the EAS program's most heavily-subsidized route—a single daily round-trip to Ely, Nevada with a subsidy of $3,720 per head. That's enough to buy every passenger a half-decent used car and probably some fuel and insurance along with that. A political fight over that route and two others that exceed a proposed $1,000 cap is partly why the Federal Aviation Administration went into partial shutdown on Friday night.

AirportCodeEAS subsidySubsidy/passEst. passSeats/Est.
load factor
Ely, NVELY$1,752,067$3,72047119 / 3.4%Nomuseum
Alamogordo, NM ALM$1,169,337$1,5637489 / 17.6%Yesfreight
Glendive, MTGDV$1,056,152$1,35877819 / 2.8%Yesfreight

Ely, NVGreat Lakes Airlines$911x dailyBeechcraft 1900
Alamogordo, NM New Mexico Airlines$752x dailyCessna 209B
Glendive, MTIsland Air$752x dailyBeechcraft 1900

Ely is in the middle of nowhere, so I don't know what the best travel option is for their population.  Clearly a 19-seat plane is overkill for a service averaging one or two passengers per day, so it would obviously be a good candidate to shrink to a small Cessna or something.  They do have a heritage railway—a legacy of the copper mines that helped grow the population in the first place—which appears to have continuous track up to northern Nevada where it meets the California Zephyr route, but any attempt to run trains would certainly be unsustainable (the distance appears to be more than 100 miles). I haven't been able to find any evidence of regular bus service, though that might just mean it's not on the Internet.  Similarly, there might be charter flights available at the airport, which was seeing more than 10,000 yearly operations back in 2007 according to Wikipedia.

The other cities are in much better shape even if they lose the airline traffic. Alamogordo has bus service and is about 90 miles from El Paso, Texas, though that's along U.S. 54, which Google Maps says has restricted access due to military presence along the way. The other way to El Paso is via Las Cruces, which reminds me of an old Wings episode. (Las Cruces lacks commercial service, however.) Glendive has bus service through Rimrock Stages, and  was included as a potential stop along the North Coast Hiawatha route studied by Amtrak in 2009.

I was amazed by the fares when I looked them up on Orbitz. These ones include the taxes and fees, but I doubt they charge extra for checked bags on flights with one or two people.  In contrast to the huge prices I was accustomed to seeing from Delta/Mesaba/Pinnacle flights, these are very low fares.  While the Delta Connect flights would seem to average a farebox recovery ratio well above 50%, these flights are extremely poor, only in the range of 2 to 6%.

Like Alamogordo and Glendive, most of the 24 cities being targeted for cuts by Delta have bus service through Greyhound or another company. Many have daily service, though some routes often only operate three or four days per week. Minnesota again gets hit the worst on that front, since Thief River Falls, Hibbing, and International Falls all lack regular bus service (Hibbing does have a once-weekly jaunt to Duluth and back via Arrowhead Transit, but I think that's too minimal to really be useful). Devils Lake has Amtrak (at least until the lake grows again) and doesn't have regular bus service either, although there is an organization that operates one past town to Churchs Ferry 20 miles away.

Outside of Minnesota, perhaps the most interesting cut is to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota. The current unsubsidized fare to MSP racks up to $506 if a baggage charge is included. The city does have bus service, but it's still pretty far from any other significant airport.  Google Maps estimates the nearest other commercial airport is in Aberdeen, which is also facing cuts, followed closely by Rapid City. In both cases, drive times would be up to about 3 hours.  I'd hate to make the trip by bus or attempt it in the middle of winter when wind-whipped snow drifts across highways and makes them impassable (the snow also becomes a challenge for trains and planes, of course). I guess they'd better hope that Great Lakes Airlines retains their service from the city (which is significantly cheaper anyway).

Only one town out of the whole two dozen, Pellston, Michigan, lacks both bus service and any rails to run some sort of train service, but it appears to have enough passenger traffic that another airline may be interested in the route.

The U.S. House plan for the $1,000 limit per passenger was actually a compromise position—pushed forth instead of cutting EAS entirely—and it generally seems reasonable to me.  I am amazed that the Tea Party contingent was willing to compromise at all, however.  While they hate trains, they're ambivalent about planes, and clearly love cars.  A 90-mile restriction was proposed along with the dollar value, preventing subsidies from being given to cities within a 90-mile radius of a major hub.  It would apparently affect 10 airports, though I haven't been able to find a list.  Depending on the definition, the rule could affect Thief River Falls (near Grand Forks) and Hibbing (near Duluth) up here in Minnesota, and definitely Greenville and Tupelo in Mississippi (where flights go to nearby Memphis).

The $170 million saved by eliminating EAS is still dwarfed by a much larger chunk of money is dedicated through the Airport Improvement Program, which has an annual budget over $1 billion. AIP funding for the next two years apparently amounts to $2.4 billion, while the previous two years split $3.5 billion. I could sure see a lot of trains being built for that kind of money, since it's the equivalent of one to two Northern Lights Express trains per year, 100 to 200 miles of double-tracking at 90 to 110 mph (and that's with our overpriced American signaling, construction, and rolling stock—$1 billion could also cover the upgrades needed for the 2,000-mile North Coast Hiawatha to return to service).

Overall, the Federal Aviation Administration had a budget of $16 billion in 2010, though I'm not quite sure where they get all of it.  They collect $200 million a week in airfare taxes (though apparently not right now due to the shutdown), but that would only add up to $10 or $11 billion per year.

Two cities out of the 24 facing Delta cuts are also served by Amtrak and give us an opportunity to see how ridership compares. The Devils Lake Amtrak station, served by the Chicago–Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, recorded 6,148 passengers (boardings and alightings) in FY2010, while the Hattiesburg station, served by the New York–New Orleans Crescent, had 11,868. Roughly 45% and 48% of the number of airline passengers through the cities' respective airports, and that's with often-delayed service and virtually zero advertising on Amtrak's part.

Both stations see one long-distance train each direction each day, which I generally consider to be half the level of service that EAS airports see.  You can make two round-trips in one day from an EAS airport (albeit sometimes in two opposite directions), but it's only possible to make one round-trip per day on most Amtrak routes.

Here's some more data on those two routes plus a smattering of others that show the range of Amtrak's financial picture.  This is mostly a mix of the best and the worst, though I've also put together a spreadsheet with more calculations here.

TrainRevenueSubsidyPass.Pass.-miAvg. trip
Crescent $30,600,000 $44,100,000298,688164,552,238551 mi
Empire Builder $62,400,000$61,600,000533,493385,000,000722 mi
Northeast Regional$469,600,000$48,800,0007,148,9981,084,444,444152 mi
 Washington–Lynchburg$7,800,000($2,100,000)126,07229,166,667231 mi
Acela Express$449,900,000($100,600,000)3,218,718609,696,970189 mi
Hoosier State$800,000$5,000,00033,6005,208,333155 mi
Hiawatha Service$20,600,000$13,800,000783,06062,727,27380 mi
Texas Eagle$24,400,000$29,400,000287,164166,101,695578 mi
Sunset Limited$11,100,000$39,300,00091,68478,131,213852 mi
California Zephyr$48,300,000$56,200,000377,876302,150,538800 mi
Auto Train$61,700,000$21,600,000244,252211,764,706867 mi

TrainPer passenger tripPer passenger mileOp. ratio
Crescent $102 $148$250$0.186$0.268$0.45440.9%
Empire Builder $117$115$232$0.162$0.160$0.32250.3%
Northeast Regional$66$7$73$0.433$0.045$0.47890.6%
Acela Express$140($31)$109$0.738($0.165)$0.573128.8%
Hoosier State$23$149$173$0.154$0.960$1.11413.8%
Hiawatha Service$26$18$44$0.328$0.220$0.54859.9%
Texas Eagle$85$102$187$0.147$0.177$0.32445.4%
Sunset Limited$121$429$550$0.142$0.503$0.64522.0%
California Zephyr$127$149$277$0.160$0.186$0.34646.2%
Auto Train$253$88$341$0.291$0.102$0.39374.1%

Again, these tables are full of numbers from my own math, so they may be a bit off.  Because of the way I calculated things, error increases as the absolute value of subsidy per passenger mile shrinks toward zero.  "Subsidy" in these tables comes from the "Fully-allocated loss" from Amtrak's October 2010 monthly report

Pretty amazing that our friendly neighborhood Empire Builder generates the third-highest level of passenger-miles in the entire Amtrak system.  Not bad for a once-daily train (though there are usually four trains out plying the rails at any given time due to the distance of the route).

Amtrak's total cost to carry a rider is typically a lot lower than what it costs the airlines, both on subsidized and non-subsidized flights. While airlines were charging $337 per passenger in 2010, the total cost per Amtrak passenger was about $133. Amtrak is at a partial disadvantage due to slower speeds, but a person valuing at their time at $25 per hour would still break even by taking Amtrak at full price even if the train took 8 hours longer (which works out to a minimum travel distance of 400 miles at 50 mph).

The problem is that Amtrak is only charging an average of $64 per passenger right now.  Analysts such as those at the United Rail Passenger Alliance believe that Amtrak could easily charge more, particularly on long-distance routes where fares are currently a lot lower than in the Northeast Corridor. The company definitely should start cranking up prices and find out what the market can bear, though they'd better also be sure to advertise their presence as well.

Some of the fare increases could be entirely invisible, if only the company had the equipment to allow it.  Long-distance trains typically have their sleeping compartments filled months in advance, and those seats are actually charged at or above true market value. I doubt the Tea Party will last much longer, but if it does, Amtrak's annual GAAP loss of $1.3 billion will certainly become a target, no matter what their subsidy per passenger is.

Amtrak's ticketing system already does a modest level of yield management, occasionally increasing fares if trains get filled up.  It's relatively unusual to see fares shifting around, however.  The principle of fare elasticity means that some passengers will likely choose not to travel as the standard fare goes up.  However, I bet the company could get around that problem by using Megabus-style fares, perhaps having the first passenger get a ticket at $0.01 per mile, and subsequent passengers paying more as more seats get filled.

The benefits of  having Amtrak run at or above break-even are too significant to ignore, so the company really ought to bring their ticket prices more in line with actual costs.  EAS subsidies have helped bring about the shutdown of the FAA, and historic rail subsidies have continued to erode the prospects of high-speed rail prospects.  I strongly feel Amtrak could raise prices and winnow down most of their deficit, allowing for better prospects of system expansion and perhaps even reaching some of these EAS cities that will likely see their airlines depart for the last time in short order.

Thanks to Alex for mentioning the airline cuts to me in the first place.

Friday, July 22, 2011

July 22, 2011 weekly rail news

Let's see what I've gathered this week...
  • A segment of Interstate 405 shut down in the Los Angeles area last weekend, and showed that normal days are the true "Carmageddon" there. Relatively empty streets led some to call it "Carmaheaven". Many people stayed home or took to alternative methods of getting around. Their Northstar-like Metrolink commuter system posted record weekend ridership of close to 20,000. JetBlue ran promotional $4 flights across the metro area, to fly above the anticipated chaos that never came about. A race between the Wolfpack Hustle cycling group and a JetBlue passenger resulted in the bikes winning by a wide margin. The (fairly elite) cyclists had a total travel time of 1h34 compared to 2h54 for the passenger who drove to the Burbank airport, flew to Long Beach, and took a taxi to a nearby lighthouse which was the finish point—they could have made it almost the whole way back by the time the jet passenger arrived! A team walking and taking public transportation finished in 1h44.

  • A BNSF freight train derailed in Fridley shortly after 7 AM on Saturday, July 16th, knocking out bridges for both tracks over Rice Creek. The first main line returned to service at about 10 PM on Monday, allowing freights and Amtrak's Empire Builder to pass through both Monday night and Tuesday morning—the first two Amtrak trains to run anywhere between St. Paul and Havre, Montana since flooding in North Dakota closed the line in June. Northstar service remained suspended until Tuesday afternoon.

  • In Wisconsin, the legislature's Joint Finance Committee has voted to pay $31.6 million for projects related to the Milwaukee–Chicago Hiawatha Service. $21.4 million of that would go toward setting up a Talgo maintenance facility (which the state was obligated to pay for by an agreement between ex-Gov. Jim Doyle's administration and the company) for two trainsets currently being built for the line, while the remaining $10.2 million would go toward a project to upgrade the Milwaukee train station. WisDOT had previously attempted to get funding for these projects through a TIGER grant.

  • Delta Airlines announced planned service cuts to 24 communities, a mixture of subsidized and non-subsidized routes. Many of them are fairly close to other significant airports, though some are not. At least a few routes have drawn interest from other small airlines such as Great Lakes Aviation. I'm working on my own post about it.

    View Delta rural air service cuts, 2011 in a larger map

  • Political brinksmanship is threatening a temporary extension of the out-of-date reauthorization for Federal Aviation Administration funding (extended 20 times already), which could result in a shutdown. Rural airport subsidies are a major sticking point.

  • Train Festival 2011 started yesterday in Rock Island, Illinois, and will run through the weekend. Some related gimmicks have been reported, such as Iowa Interstate setting a 21st-century steam-hauled tonnage record with their two Chinese-built locomotives.

  • Michigan's DOT is attempting to purchase a rail line to Detroit in order to improve Amtrak Wolverine service on the route. Norfolk Southern currently owns it, but has been reducing train speeds from 79 mph down to 60 mph. In some places, speed has gone down to 25 mph. Amtrak already owns the line west of there and added Positive Train Control technology to it in 2005, allowing it to be one of the few segments of track in the country to support passenger train speeds above 79 mph: Trains have been allowed to go 95, and upgrades have been occurring to allow speeds up to 110 mph.

  • Partially following up on last week's note, Bus Driver Dude gives a rundown of Gateway Corridor alternatives, including options for buses, light rail, commuter rail, and MnPASS lanes.

    There are still two meetings scheduled for this week:

    • Woodbury City Hall
      July 26, 5-7 p.m.
      8301 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury, MN
      Ash/Birch Room, Main Floor
    • Metro State/Dayton's Bluff Library
      July 28, 5-7 p.m.
      645 East 7th Street, St. Paul, MN
      Ecolab Community Room, 3rd Floor

  • A pedestrian was struck and killed by a BNSF freight train just east of Waverly, Minnesota at about 1 AM today.

    View Larger Map

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Transit funding cut now only as bad as it used to be

The Metropolitan Council is now only expected to have a $51 million cut in funding instead of $109 million over the current biennium. But honestly, I'm not sure where the local news media ever got the $109 million number in the first place. I haven't found the numbers to make that math work.

To me, it looked like the original cut was $124 million, going from an appropriation of $72 million per year in 2010–2011 to just $10 million per year for 2012–2013. Now the reduction is only to $39 million per year (chopping $33 million per year or $66 million for the biennium), which still appears to be a drop of 46%.

In terms of the total annual budget for Metropolitan-area transit, this amounts to roughly a 10 or 11% annual trimming. Not great, but definitely more manageable. I'll keep suggesting bus stop consolidation, since I think the resulting speedups would allow cost savings while also driving more ridership. The $30-ish million annual cut is still conveniently sized to send the message that the GOP hates the Northstar and Hiawatha trains.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Derailment update, and some Central Corridor news

BNSF is still working hard to restore service at the site of the derailment on Saturday in Fridley. It's not yet clear to me if the line is open, though I expect it will be soon if it isn't already. Yesterday, the Star Tribune reported one track would be open by noon, but they seem to have missed that deadline by a few hours at least. Updates today indicated the first track wouldn't be open until this evening, with the second track not opening until sometime Tuesday morning or perhaps a bit later. [Update (1 AM): Buses will be used Tuesday morning.]

The Northstar will likely skip any stops at the Fridley station in the morning, but may be able to serve the station in the afternoon. Barring that, trains should start stopping at the station on Wednesday.

Amtrak's eastbound Empire Builder (#8/#28) originating yesterday in Seattle/Portland, has continued past Havre, Montana for the first time in weeks. Amtrak is also originated a #7 westbound train from Chicago today, which should be able to continue west through the Twin Cities tonight. You can follow their progress online here.  [Update (10 PM): the westbound #7 may detour via Willmar.]

BNSF crews in North Dakota also restored the Devils Lake Subdivision to service, so it appears the Empire Builder may take its normal route and won't have to detour onto the Surrey Cutoff. The train won't stop at the station in Minot due to flood damage there, but Rugby, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks could see their first service in a long while.

Back in the Twin Cities, the weekend storms slowed progress on Central Corridor construction. Traffic was expected to shift from the north side of University Avenue to the south side between Emerald and Hampden on the west side of St. Paul today, but that's been delayed until Wednesday.

In downtown Saint Paul, track has started going in on 4th Street next to the Farmer's Market.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

BNSF derailment in Fridley

View Larger Map

I'll credit Bus Driver Dude for giving me first notice of a BNSF derailment in Fridley. Heavy rains this morning caused a washout near the rail line's crossing of Rice Creek, which feeds into Locke Lake and the Mississippi River. It looks like the water and derailment caused the bridge over Rice Creek to partially collapse, knocking out both tracks, and that will take considerable effort to repair.

This is the busy segment of BNSF's Staples Subdivision, where trains coming in along BNSF's Northern Transcon are mixed with traffic coming down the Hinckley Subdivision line from Duluth. The segment can see more than 60 trains per day, and that includes Metro Transit's Northstar and Amtrak's Empire Builder. Northstar service is cancelled indefinitely at this point, while Amtrak hadn't been running the Builder west of St. Paul due to flooding in Minot, North Dakota over the last few weeks. Amtrak had been planning to resume service this weekend, but it looks like they'll have to postpone.

I don't see any suitable detours available for passenger or freight trains nearby. Minnesota Commercial Railway has a spur that gets frustratingly close to the derailment site, only a few blocks away on the other side of University Avenue, but the only other options are far, far to the north. The Empire Builder used to run south from Fargo to Willmar before heading into the Twin Cities, but I think that route has loading gauge restrictions that probably wouldn't allow Amtrak Superliners to fit. Canadian Pacific has a line running through Detroit Lakes that might be an option, but that's about it. Both lines have 40 mph speed limits for freight. Passenger trains might be able to go 59 or 60, but the lines are primarily single-tracked and would force extra stops.

I suppose the Northstar could operate from Big Lake to Coon Rapids and transfer riders to buses there. It seems kind of silly, but running buses to all of the train stations involves a lot of driving around in circles, which takes a lot of time. Transferring riders could be faster than driving buses the whole way. Sure would have been nice to have the Foley Boulevard station, though, since buses from there to downtown Minneapolis along I-94 supposedly go faster than the Northstar does (because of the speed restrictions around Northtown rail yard).

[Update (7 PM): Metro Transit tentatively plans to resume Northstar service on Tuesday.]

Friday, July 15, 2011

July 15, 2011 weekly rail news

I'm going to try starting a periodic end-of-week news round-up. We'll see if I can remember to do this on a regular basis. Some of the items here are a bit old.

  • The front steps have been torn out at the Saint Paul Union Depot, in order to widen the carriageway underneath. Since the Central Corridor LRT line is going to block car access to the front of the depot, the carriageway is being converted to have two lanes. Historically, I understand it was primarily used for baggage-handling.

    Christo's Greek restaurant in the lobby of the depot temporarily closed in the last week of June, but is expected to reopen in November.

    The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority's note also mentioned that tar has been partially removed from one of the skylights on the depot concourse. The windows were blacked out back in World War II. Looking back 70 years now, it seems silly that they were ever blacked out in the first place. It made sense for coastal cities, but not for us in the middle of the continent...

  • The Souris River in Minot has finally receded enough so that rail service could be restored on BNSF's busy KO Subdivision (aka the Surrey Cutoff) in North Dakota. The first of the two main tracks was open by July 5th, and the second was open two days later. Amtrak's Empire Builder remains disrupted. Following recent disruptions, Amtrak has waited to resume passenger service until enough freights can get through to allow passenger trains to travel without being excessively delayed. This time, the route is expected to resume service on Sunday (July 17th). However, the station and platforms in Minot have been damaged by flooding, so the train probably won't stop there until sometime next month.

  • A BNSF coal train derailed on Sunday (July 10) near Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. About 20 cars derailed, and 4 of them actually toppled on their sides. This occurred on the Brainerd subdivision, which runs from Staples to Carlton Junction near Cloquet, Minnesota. The train was on its way to Superior, Wisconsin.

  • The Northern Lights Express project stands to lose a $5 million grant that it won back in May. The $5 million is part of a $1.5 billion chunk of rail funding that Republicans in the U.S. House is attempting to redirect. The proposal would send $1 billion toward Midwest flood relief. It's not clear to me whether this could make it through the Democratically-controlled Senate, however.

  • One of Amtrak's Downeaster trains traveling from Boston to Portland crashed into a tractor-trailer on Monday (July 11) in North Berwick, Maine, killing the truck driver. The collision caused a fireball, apparently fueled in part by the trash being hauled by the truck. Three train passengers were treated and released from a local hospital. The Downeaster typically operates five round-trips daily.

    Site of Amtrak Downeaster collision

  • After being egged on by Tom Vanderbilt, bicyclists in the Los Angeles area will race a JetBlue "carmageddon" flight from Burbank to Long Beach, California on Saturday (July 16th). The bikes will start 1h15 early (15 minutes less than the recommended 1h30 pre-flight arrival time, and will attempt to traverse the nearly 40 mile distance before the 45-minute flight arrives.

  • The Alternatives Analysis for the Gateway Corridor from the Twin Cities eastward into Wisconsin continues. Open houses are scheduled for four locations later this month:

    • St. Croix County Government Center
      July 19, 5-7 p.m.
      1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson, WI
      Lower Level (enter by Sheriff's Office)
    • Chippewa Valley Technical College
      July 21, 5-7 p.m.
      620 W. Clairemont Avenue, Eau Claire, WI
      Room 100A, Business Education Center
    • Woodbury City Hall
      July 26, 5-7 p.m.
      8301 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury, MN
      Ash/Birch Room, Main Floor
    • Metro State/Dayton's Bluff Library
      July 28, 5-7 p.m.
      645 East 7th Street, St. Paul, MN
      Ecolab Community Room, 3rd Floor

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nitpicking bus routes: Hiawatha Line crossings near Metrodome

View Routing change for routes 3, 16, and 50 in a larger map

Here's a minor bus route peeve: Riders on Metro Transit routes 3, 16, and 50 often end up waiting for Hiawatha light-rail vehicles to cross not just once, but twice as they head into downtown Minneapolis. Sometimes buses have to wait for two or even three trains* at the crossing on Norm McGrew Place before turning onto the bus-only contraflow lane along 4th Street South. Then buses typically have to wait for trains to diagonally slice through the intersection of 4th Street and Chicago Avenue.

I'll note that the ABS (automatic block signaling) segment of the Hiawatha Line ends right at the latter intersection, so light-rail trains have the same priority as all other traffic at that point. In contrast, the grade crossing at Norm McGrew Place has a traditional railroad crossing with gate arms.

Anyway, why don't the buses just go an extra block to Chicago in the first place? Is there some regulation against having a bus turn while going across tracks? There is actually some clear space adjacent to the tracks in the intersection (not really visible because Google's imagery is out-of-date), and buses may be able to maneuver through there without touching the rails at all.

* Yes, I've been on a bus once or twice as three trains went through the crossing. I imagine only two were revenue trains, while one was heading to the shops near the Franklin Avenue station

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Let's eliminate transfers (or, the $1 fare plan)

Transfers are killing transit revenue in the Twin Cities.

Metro Transit's local bus routes and the Hiawatha Line only generate about $0.87 per passenger trip, out of standard fares of $2.25 (peak) and $1.75 (off-peak). You might think that heavily-discounted passes are the root of this problem, but this appears to be wrong. If transfers didn't exist, even passengers with deep discounts up to 2/3rds would have to be in the vast majority in order to drag the average fare down to $0.87—a 5:1 ratio or higher—but they are in the minority today. Most riders only get discounts of around 10%, if any.

On the other hand, a single transfer effectively cuts a fare in half, and anyone can do it.

I also feel that the current fare structure discourages short trips. Nationwide, the average full linked trip distance is about five miles. Applied to a $2.25 peak fare, that would result in an average cost of $0.45 per mile. However, passengers going shorter distances get gouged. My own commute is about 2.5 miles or so and only about 1.5 miles of that is on the bus, so I'm paying nearly $1.50 per mile (er, not quite since I have a Go-To card, but you get the drift). By many or most per-mile measures out there, it would appear to be more expensive to ride the bus than to own a car and drive it that short distance (even though in reality it isn't).

I propose that Metro Transit eliminate transfers and instead reduce the individual trip cost to $1.25 or $1.00, which would still be greater than the $0.87 generated today (and would still have a small increase even with a 10% discount). The drastically reduced face value would attract many more riders, since most people only think of the initial cost rather than the full cost when making decisions about whether to purchase something. It would also encourage shorter trips, at least along routes with decent frequency (though it's hard to say if any of those will exist much longer).

With passengers increasingly switching to electronic fare cards, it seems that the value of transfers to both transit riders and transit operators is fading anyway.  They could be considered a cost-saving measure, but since every tap of an electronic pass requires a computer transaction, I would think that the backend cost is about the same whether you're looking at a transfer or a new charge to the card.  It could be that a transfer is less computationally-intensive somehow, but I can't imagine it's enough to be worth it.

I'd also like to see fares change to a flat rate throughout the day. Currently, about 60% of the transit fleet in the Twin Cities is devoted to the rush hour, and that's a disparity which is probably encouraged by the higher fares that can be charged during peak periods. It doesn't make sense to charge more when a resource is relatively plentiful. (Viewed the other way, it does make sense to discount fares when buses are few and far between, which leads to distress among users. However, I think most people view rush-hour fares as costing extra, rather than looking at non-rush fares and considering them discounted.)

And just FYI:

In 2008, the average Metro Transit local bus cost $112 to operate per revenue hour and carried 36 passengers in that amount of time. Hiawatha light-rail trains cost $176 to operate per hour, and carried 76 passengers/hour. (Those services had operating ratios of 0.28 and 0.38, respectively.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Central Corridor stations begin popping up

The eastbound platform of the future Westgate station begins taking shape.

This weekend, I was surprised to find that some above-ground pieces of the future Westgate and Raymond Avenue stations along University Avenue in western Saint Paul have been installed.

It shouldn't be much longer now before traffic flips to the south side of University Ave and the northern (normally westbound) side gets ripped up and replaced.

Eastbound platform of the Raymond Avenue station is at a similar level of construction.