Thursday, March 31, 2011

'Cuz you're the one I just don't need

Fitz and the Tantrums - MoneyGrabber

What the funk, GOP?

I could say that for just about anything these days, but I'll stick to transportation. The Minnesota House passed a bill with a provision to cut $130 million in funding for the Metropolitan Council. How did we go from either $69 million or $120 million last week to $130 million this week? I don't understand the intricacies of it, and it's not worth it to me to dig into it further at the moment because the state senate's bill is less egregious, from what I hear, and it's hard to say what Governor Dayton will decide to do.

Crises do bring an opportunity to examine issues in greater detail. I'm pretty sure that Metro Transit will be forced to make some cuts of some sort. I hope they can avoid trimming urban routes and weekend service (which is already pretty minimal).
  • The first thing Metro Transit should cut is the number of bus stops to optimize spacing. It seems that the average distance between stops is about 600 feet in Minneapolis—only one block for north-south routes, and two blocks for east-west routes (generally the opposite is true in Saint Paul). That's basically too close together for buses to even get up to the speed limit before stopping. Metro Transit should cut between 1/3 and 1/2 of its stops, increasing the average spacing to every 2 long blocks or every 4 short blocks.

    This will frustrate a lot of people, and even I get a bit concerned about the idea, but this would speed things up and make schedules more consistent, hopefully reducing the need for timed stops, thereby increasing speed further. The exercise would also probably free up some transit shelters and benches, which could be relocated to the many fairly busy stops that are currently just slabs of concrete and which would attract more riders if there was better cover.

  • Secondly, the Go-To Card and other transit passes need to be promoted even more heavily, and it needs to be easier to buy and fill up those passes. I see people using the Go-To Card and the U-Pass a lot on my regular route, the 3, but that's partly due to a heavy student population. When I travel out of the tech-savvy student zone, the cards become a lot less common.

    The cards are a great way to get around because they get rid of the need to keep getting dollars and coins (which are harder to get these days now that people use credit cards more often). They also speed up boarding and reduce the need for passengers to fumble for change.

  • Consider reducing the amount of time that transfers are valid down from the current 2.5 hours. That must cover almost all one-way trips on the system, plus many two-way trips. Dropping it to 1.5 hours could continue to cover most one-way trips yet stealthily increase the revenue generated by two-way errand traffic. However, I worry it would hurt the most transit-dependent riders the worst.

  • Area transit agencies should engage local neighborhoods and businesses to offload the costs of constructing and maintaining bus shelters—and hopefully work on maintaining local sidewalks as well as constructing them where they currently don't exist. Neighborhoods throughout the core cities and inner suburbs need to get competitive about promoting themselves through their local infrastructure in order to combat flight to the exurbs.

  • Transit agencies should also work with the cities and counties they serve to see if roads can be cheaply reconfigured to run buses faster—hopefully also finding room for bicyclists in the process.
Of course, I'm not sure if any of those things would have much of an impact on the bottom line, though I do think that speed is a very important driver of interest in public transportation. For instance, I live about 2.5 miles from my workplace, yet it takes me 30–40 minutes to get there by bus. The bus only takes me a little over halfway, so I spend at least 20 minutes walking and waiting. Sadly, it only takes me about 45 minutes to walk the entire distance, so it's not very effective for me (and it only takes 20 to 25 minutes to get to work on my bicycle).

Increasing speed wouldn't help my situation all that much, though it would help a lot in the aggregate. Mn/DOT likes to use time savings when talking about highway projects and expensive transit investments—like the Hiawatha Line, the Northstar Line, and the Marq2 project in downtown Minneapolis—yet the vast majority of urban bus riders have hardly seen any attempts at speed improvements. I have to think that some significant speedups could occur, on the order of a minute per mile. Considering that there are somewhere around 280 million passenger-miles run on Metro Transit's urban routes each year, there would be an immense bang for the buck from speeding up service. Increasing average speed by one mile per hour would probably save more than 1.9 million hours per year for passengers and more than 160,000 hours for bus drivers—which could directly translate into a $3.2 million savings for the company. Saving a full minute per mile goes up to 4.7 million hours for passengers, 380,000 hours for drivers, and a $7.6 million savings for the company.

Well, life is always more complicated than the math figures I can come up with, but I think there's an extremely strong case for my first point about removing excess bus stops. It should save money while improving quality of service, which should translate into more riders and more revenue.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Seeking truth about possible transit cuts

Minnesota House Rep. Mike Beard (R-Shakopee) has proposed reshuffling funds for Twin Cities transit services, taking $69 million from the Counties Transit Improvement Board (the CTIB, funded by a 0.25% metro-area sales tax) for the next two-year biennium and forcing it to be used for existing transit instead of for future lines. The Metropolitan Council has said that this would effectively end up being a cost of $120 million over the biennium. They laid out two scenarios about how such a cut would affect transit in the Twin Cities:
  1. If transit systems must recover the funds through fare increases, the cost of a ride could go up by $4.00, resulting in fares of $7.00 in some cases, and losing 60% of ridership (a loss of 40 to 48 million riders annually, or around 150,000 per day).
  2. Alternately (and more likely), 45% of regular-route services would be cut, 550 people would be fired, fares would rise $0.25, and 22 million rides per year would be lost (around 70,000 per day).
I'm frustrated that I'm getting different sets of numbers from each side. I am disinclined to believe the numbers from Rep. Beard, particularly since I agree with the assessment that this is a raid on funds that the state has no right to take away—an allegation he denies. Yes, Mr. Beard, the CTIB is a creation of the state legislature, but that's simply because city and county governments in Minnesota are not allowed to enact local sales taxes without the legislature's approval. It's also a regional entity covering more than one county. Of course the state had its hand in the CTIB's creation—it's a requirement under the circumstances! By no means does that make it appropriate for the state to take away the funding, even if it has supposedly been backfilled with $51 million from the general fund (which comes with restrictions preventing them from being used on new rail transit projects).

It seems at first blush that the Metropolitan Council's response has been alarmist, but how does that hold up to further scrutiny? Conveniently, the revenues for metro-area transit systems add up to just over $100 million per year, so an annual extra cost of $35 million would require a fare increase of at least 35%, and an annual extra cost of $60 million would require at least a 60% fare increase. That doesn't factor in losses in ridership due to the increased cost—apparently there's a rule of thumb in the industry that a 10% increase in fares translates to 3% fewer riders, meaning that a 10% increase only translates to 6 or 7% more revenue. Of course, the amount of revenue you can generate is a curve—at some point, increasing fare costs drive ridership down so much that revenue begins to fall.

The Twin Cities transit system might be able to absorb a $35 million hit through fare increases alone, though the increases would need to be very large—perhaps more than 55%. Using the really dumb model of a 3% loss for every 10% increase in fare cost, it would not be possible to cover a $60 million gap, no matter what you charged for the fare. My curve started declining when the fare hit 210% of current costs (current fare plus 110%), and peaked at about $41 million in additional revenue.

An actual economist could give you better numbers, but this exercise lends a fair amount of credence to the idea of a $4 fare increase. It could be that the Met Council's models also maxed out before they could find $60 million in additional revenue, and they just picked a big, round number.

It would clearly be insane for the Metropolitan Council to attempt to retain the same level of service when faced with a $60 million shortfall, so let's take a closer look at their alternative scenario: 22 million riders lost. What might that mean? Well, as I said, it seems to translate into roughly 70,000 riders per day, or more than twice the daily ridership on the Hiawatha Line. If those riders each got a car, it would require a decently-sized highway—at least two lanes in each direction. Many riders would have little choice but to buy a new car—if 30,000 people bought cars, that would have serious consequences. Clearly, many people who ride the bus can't afford cars in the first place, so the personal outcomes would be dire, and it would add up to some huge amounts of money in the aggregate.

Even the American Automobile Association says it costs $9,519 per year to own a car. 30,000 new cars at $9,500 a pop? How does $286 million per year sound? Some of that money would stay in the local economy from cars being locally serviced, but a lot of it would flow away to pay for cars, parts, fuel, insurance, and corporate profits on the cost of service in general.

Okay, that's likely an overestimate on how much it would cost, but a cut of $60 million per year would clearly lead to an economic hit that is significantly larger than $60 million. Many people won't buy cars, but tens to hundreds of millions of dollars will get redirected. Some riders own cars already and will simply start paying more for fuel, maintenance, and parking. Some riders will shift to carpools, while others will bike or walk. Some people will move closer to work, probably paying more money in the process. Others will move away from the Twin Cities entirely, reducing the tax base. Some will lose their jobs and become dependent on their state and local governments for support. People who are unable to drive may have to turn to Metro Mobility or other dial-a-ride services, which are also very expensive and heavily subsidized.

The tremendous cost of automotive "rolling stock" is a major factor that usually gets left out of conversations about public transit. When investments can be made into transit, cycling, and walking infrastructure to allow more people to live car-free, it leads to more money in the pocketbook, which collectively provides a significant economic boost to a region.

You scarcely need to get rid of 100 cars to add up to $1 million per year. That's well within the scope of what can be done in a neighborhood or small town through proper planning. Saving $9,519 per year for 10 or 20 years also adds up to a huge amount that can be invested in better housing or better education. This is why it's good to design walkable, bikeable environments everywhere, and build for transit whenever possible.

Instead of cutting funding to transit, we should be funding it more. The Twin Cities is under-served by Metro Transit and other providers, and we have more people here who would get rid of their cars if service was improved, which would have a big impact on pocketbooks around the region and could make the economy significantly more robust. We remain behind other comparable regions when it comes to building high-quality bus and rail transitways, and we need to catch up. Cutting funding will only work to slow us down further.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sampler of old Midwestern trains

Here's an interesting sampling of old trains from around the Midwest:

The video starts with a train headed by one of the Milwaukee Road's F7 locomotives, the second-generation engines for the Hiawatha to the Twin Cities. The F7 is a contender for the fastest steam locomotive ever built, as it apparently reached a top speed of 125 mph. Unfortunately, any official records of such a run that might have existed have been lost to history. It was much more powerful than the previous Class A locomotive, which is known to have reached 112.5 mph in testing.

About 50 seconds into the video is a brief clip of a Chicago & North Western 400 train, and there are a few shots of various Burlington Zehpyrs.

I'm considering purchasing some of the videos being advertised here by Herron Rail Video. Each volume runs $39.95, though they also have a specific Trains at Speed! video for $29.95 which focuses on fast trains of the past.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dakota 400 and friends

Here's a video of some Chicago & North Western trains in Elroy, Wisconsin. Considering the fanfare at the beginning, the film probably begins with an inaugural run of the Dakota 400, which launched with diesel locomotives in 1950 and extended the route of the predecessor Minnesota 400 into South Dakota.

The route ran from Chicago through Madison to Winona, Minnesota, and then across the southern part of the state into South Dakota. At one point, it ran all the way out to Rapid City, a distance of around 900 miles (my book with the correct number is not handy at the moment). I believe it covered the distance in 24 hours, so this route wasn't particularly fast, only around 37 or 38 mph average speed.

The speed was partly due to lighter and cheaper rails used along the route, particularly from Winona on westward. Even today, Canadian Pacific and their subsidiary DM&E are still replacing the old light rail with heavier continuous welded rail. It also stopped fairly frequently, operating something more like a local train than an express.

The train eventually got cut back to Mankato, Minnesota and was renamed the Rochester 400. It stopped operating on July 23, 1963, the same day as the original 400 which ran from Chicago to the Twin Cities.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Amtrak's old North Star to Duluth

There was passenger service from the Twin Cities to Duluth with Amtrak's North Star up until the mid-1980s, though it was a state-supported train and the political will to keep it running was eventually lost. Here's a video documenting one such battle:

The Jeno Paulucci they speak of is he of Jeno's Pizza Rolls and other pizza-related endeavors. What's remarkable to me is that they are only concerned about a sum of $27,000. Twenty-seven thousand dollars! If only our subsidies could be so low these days! Of course, I'm sure that was just a short-term charge—they must have had a budget overrun that year. The fact that Amtrak was also able to find $100,000 to keep the line operating is pretty amazing to me.

Amtrak's accounting methods were fairly questionable at the time. One analysis from 1984 indicated that Amtrak was significantly overcharging states for routes like the North Star which operated as reserved trains and generated lots of revenue from on-board food service. Mn/DOT got charged the equivalent of $13.75 per call to operate a telephone reservation service, when it should have been closer to three dollars each.

The North Star was the last in a series of trains along the route. It started service in 1978 as a once-daily train with one extra round-trip on Fridays. The service eventually got cut back to daily or weekend-only service. On top of that, the train took 3 hours 35 minutes to travel 153 miles, an average of 42.7 mph. (Even with freight trains today, the route to Duluth operates with manually-thrown switches).

Low speed and ever-decreasing service frequency of trains in the latter half of the 20th century both contributed to the near-demise of train travel in the U.S. Cars are attractive because they let you travel anytime, anywhere. It's absolutely impossible for a weekend-only train to compete with that. The railroads probably should have responded by making trains more frequent rather than less frequent. In Europe, it's common to see intercity trains running once an hour! We can hardly get regional metro-area bus routes to operate that frequently much of the time.

Fortunately, the planned Northern Lights Express to Duluth should address both issues of speed and frequency, with a little extra local service mixed in. The trip times should be down to 2 hours 17 minutes or less, averaging between 66 mph on up to about 75 mph. The route is planned to have eight round-trips daily, and it will have 7 total stops along the way rather than the North Star's 5.

Faster, more frequent, and serving more people. That's the way I like it.

By the way, if you are interested in checking out the route, the operators of the Milwaukee Road 261 steam locomotive run a fall colors excursion up the line each autumn.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Florida rail money will be redistributed

I'm amazed, yet not necessarily surprised that the Florida Supreme Court has allowed Gov. Rick Scott of Florida to reject the $2.4 billion the state was going to receive. Despite assurances that the state's share could be paid for by international companies interested in the market there, and confirmation that the state would not be liable for a single cent of cost overruns, the money will get pushed elsewhere.

Sad news for Florida—good news for someone else.

"Tracking the Supertrains"

Here's an episode of NOVA from 1982 which came out shortly after TGVs began operating in France. It's largely focused on the TGV, the Japanese Shinkansen, and maglev technology which seemed somewhat promising at the time. The episode includes appearances by David Durenberger, then-U.S. Senator from Minnesota.

Playlist link.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Faster trains work better

Faster trains do better financially
The fastest train in the United States made $104.5 million in profit last year, and it did it by traveling at a modest average speed of 68 mph—about on par with Interstate highway travel speeds across the country.

It's not clear if TomTom counts potty breaks.

The Acela Express first rolled forth a decade ago to the familiar catcall of "Boondoggle!" The train had teething problems because it is a mishmash of Canadian and French technology squeezed into a form shaped by outdated federal regulations and sharp 170-year-old curves—a TGV only a committee could love. Yet today it operates as a popular route which carries more than 3 million people per year.

Amtrak as a whole runs at a severe loss every year because most of its trains travel too slowly make any money. The company would likely run at or near break-even if average speeds could be improved by just 20 to 30 mph. This is why state and federal governments have been pushing the idea of high-speed rail which isn't quite "high-speed" by international standards—A train limited to 90 mph on a fairly straight route would likely be able to achieve an average speed of 65 mph. A service with a top speed of 110 mph could likely average about 80. Note the trend line in the graph above—a train averaging 80 mph would have a strong chance of making money at that speed.

The theory goes that trains can make even more money as they go faster. Faster trains also increase ridership, providing a larger pot from which to draw funds. While high-speed trains are often lambasted as pipelines of luxury built on the backs of poor workers, that's not really the case. In France, the TGV (with a 186-mph top speed and with average speeds around 130 mph) was designed to be an inexpensive service to use, and many French consider the trains to be "cheap" today. Apparently, few other countries have followed that path, but it's certainly a valid way to go.

In the U.S., the Acela commands fairly hefty ticket prices. The trains are exclusively either Business Class or First Class. Business Class is about 50% more costly than standard Coach Class on the Acela's slower companion service along the route, the Northeast Regional. But, because each Acela train is fairly small, the higher prices arguably limit demand to keep seats available longer. The Acela may not be reaching its full potential, and Amtrak wants to cater to this latent demand by purchasing 40 more coaches for their fleet of 20 trains over the next few years.

There is a theory that speed limits imposed upon passenger trains in the mid-20th century were a major factor in causing their near-total demise in the United States. Following a 1946 crash in Naperville, Illinois, most trains across the country suddenly fell under a new 79 mph speed limit. A few kept the ability to go 90 or 100 if they had special signaling, but the new rules essentially put an end to increases in train speeds. Railroads slowly removed much of the expensive signaling technology that allowed their trains to run faster than 79 mph. By the turn of the 21st century, the only train outside of the Northeast to still make use of the signals was Amtrak's Southwest Chief.

That's a sad turn of events. Imagine if train speeds had continued to improve. The Burlington Route's Twin Zephyrs operated over the 427-mile route from Chicago to the Twin Cities in just 6 hours, for an average speed of 72 mph. They and other trains in the Midwest were capable of 110 mph or so back in the 1930s and 1940s. In that context, the emergence of Japan's Shinkansen at 130 mph in 1964 feels somewhat unremarkable. But, the United States was concerned enough about that turn of events that Congress passed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. That legislation spurred development of the Budd Metroliner, which recorded a top speed of 164 mph in testing, though it was generally limited to 100 or 125 mph in regular service (still an improvement over the other GG1-propelled trains of the day which had a fairly hard limit around 100 mph). Today's Northeast Regional is a fairly direct descendant of the Metroliner, and continues to operate with a 125-mph top speed.

Another burst of interest came in the 1980s as France's TGVs began operating. There were plans for maglevs and TGVs all across the country. The 1990s brought the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA), and designated a number of high-speed rail corridors to be studied around the country. That laid the groundwork for the Acela, and led Amtrak to equip the rest of its fleet with diesel locomotives capable of 110-mph speeds in anticipation of improved rails. Unfortunately, little real investment occurred. Promising corridors continued to lay dormant or only have modest investment. It basically until 2010 for money to really start flowing again.

It's deeply troubling that so many decades have been lost to political wrangling. While we are continuing to see political ideologues reject federal funding for faster trains, I hope the resistance is shortlived. Faster trains work better. Amtrak could begin untying itself from federal subsidies if it could operate at high speeds.