Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rochester's Zip Rail takes another step

Rochester's former Chicago Great Western train station, now serving as a restaurant.

Despite the current political climate, the Rochester-Twin Cities High-Speed Passenger Rail Project (known as "Zip Rail") is heading into a series of studies expected to take 24 months, presumably ending in late 2013 or early 2014. The route got a grant from the 2009 state legislature, and yesterday, the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority authorized the use of $2 million to begin work on a service development plan (SDP). I've never heard of an SDP before, but here's the breakdown given in yesterday's meeting packet (there are a few familiar terms within):
The Service Development Plan will include:
  • Statement of Work
  • Public Involvement Plan
  • Purpose and Need Statement
  • Resource Agency Coordination (Mn/DOT, FRA)
  • Route Alternatives Analysis
    • Engineering Analysis of Alternative Routes
    • Station Sites/Locations
    • Environmental Analysis of Alternative Routes
  • Public/Private Partnership Models
  • Rail Service Levels/Frequencies of Trips
  • Capital Project Needs
  • Ridership/Revenue Forecasts
  • Tier I Environmental Assessment
Following the SDP study, an environmental impact statement (EIS) phase will likely be required, and that's probably going to take two years at a minimum. Mn/DOT plans for the route to initially run at 110 mph. They're capping upgrades at 150 mph, though Rochester boosters would like to see the train go as fast as possible (220+ mph). As much as I'd like to see that, Mn/DOT is probably making the wise choice—on this short corridor, increasing the top speed from 150 to 220 would only drop the travel time by 10 to 15 minutes. On the other hand, a very high top speed would become desirable if the link becomes part of a longer corridor extending all the way to Milwaukee and Chicago.

At any rate, the OCRRA appears to be thinking ahead—immediately after authorizing the service development plan, they authorized a bonding request for $15 million which will go toward funding the NEPA process (including the previously-mentioned EIS) and preliminary engineering. The money may also be used as matching funds for Federal Railroad Administration grants if they become available. Remember that $500 million in bonding that Governor Dayton required before accepting the Republicans' state budget earlier this year? This line could become one of the beneficiaries.

Lest you think this is sudden, a high-speed link to Rochester has been discussed for more than 20 years now. Initially, the city had been considered as a stop along the way from the Twin Cities to Chicago, but the route was also subject of a 2003 study that focused more directly on simply linking Rochester to Minneapolis—Saint Paul.

The line to Rochester may bring with it an intercity train station at or near the Minneapolis—Saint Paul International Airport. Since the airport is 20 minutes to half an hour closer to Rochester than Minneapolis's Interchange station will be, it makes a lot of sense to build a new stop there. It'll be interesting to see what form such a station might take—some plans have called for it to actually be located across the Minnesota river in Mendota or Mendota Heights, though such a station would require an extra bus, tram, or light-rail trip. I'd personally suggest boring a third tunnel at the current Blue Line/Hiawatha Line station at the airport's Terminal 1 (Lindbergh), but we'll see what happens. I suppose it'd be simpler to just plop another station at Terminal 2 (Humphrey).

Minneapolis streetcar moves toward AA phase

View Nicollet-Central streetcar in a larger map

The proposed Nicollet–Central streetcar line in Minneapolis is moving forward and is expected to enter an alternatives analysis (AA) phase a few months from now in January 2012. Last Friday, the Minneapolis City Council took action to begin looking for a consulting company to do the analysis, which is the first phase of study needed to receive federal funding. The route will combine parts of Metro Transit's busy 10 and 18 bus routes into a single fixed-rail service. The buses already carry a combined 18,000 passengers daily, and the 18 passes through the city's densest neighborhood (Stevens Square–Loring Heights).

The AA is one of the first phases necessary to receive federal funding, and generally precedes an environmental review -- an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS). Hopefully the environmental review will go quickly since the planned route is entirely on existing city streets and mostly follows historic streetcar routes. The AA should begin in January 2012 and run through mid-2013.

The route being studied runs about 9 miles from the I-35W/46th Street Station in South Minneapolis up to the Columbia Heights Transit Center, mostly following Nicollet Avenue and Central Avenue along the way (with a brief segment on Hennepin Ave and 1st Ave NE). It's not yet clear what the cost for the entire route would be, but a previous study indicates that a short starter route, such as running the 2.4 miles from Franklin Avenue north to University Avenue and 4th Street SE, would cost around $110 million. If federal funding falls through, the city may be able to build that part of the route on its own by making use of local funding sources such as increased parking fees downtown and special taxing districts.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September 24, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

A variety of stories popped up in local news because of the Railway Interchange 2011 conference held in Minneapolis on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It's a new conference which appears to be the combination of five events that have previously been held separately.
  • The conference itself was held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Train cars and locomotives were displayed at Canadian Pacific's Humboldt Yard. A handful of railfans have been able to get some access. Some shots were also taken of a Canadian Pacific special pulling Milwaukee Road cars (the locomotives were also ex-MILW units). Here's a video too:

  • Coverage of Ray LaHood's speech at the conference on Monday From Railway Age.

  • LaHood then traveled to Saint Paul and spoke in front of the Union Depot. Video and other coverage available from a variety of sources: MN2020, Met Council, Star Tribune, KARE, KSTP.

  • Railroads are going through a hiring boom as employees retire and as the economy recovers. Railroaders are able to retire at age 60 if they've been employed for 30 years or more, and about 30% of railroad workers are expected to retire within the next five years.

  • The Star Tribune does a profile of Loram, a company based in Hamel, Minnesota that makes track maintenance equipment including massive rail grinders.

Construction, planning, and funding:
  • TPT's Almanac gets in on Union Depot coverage as David Gillette takes a tour.

  • The city of Marine on St. Croix (north of Stillwater) is looking into the possibility of putting up a train depot. They are at the southern terminus of the Minnesota Transportation Museum's Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway, which runs weekend excursion trips in the summer. The other two stops on the line, respectively in Dresser, Wisconsin and Osceola, Wisconsin already have depot buildings, so a building in Marine would make the route more complete.

  • It looks like the final details aren't worked out yet, but area transit bigwigs are moving toward fidning operational funding for Cedar Avenue BRT. They need $3 million, so apparently the Central Corridor/Green Line train vehicles looked like a juicy target (they cost about $3.3 million each), and Dakota County members of the Counties Transit Improvement Board threatened not to support purchase of additional Central Corridor trains until some sort of deal was reached.

  • Nationally, there has been chatter about the Senate's transportation bill, which currently only includes $100 million for high-speed rail projects, down from President Obama's proposed $4 billion ($8 billion total for intercity rail, if I recall). That's a tiny amount to try and spread around. Here's some attempt at context:

    • $125 million – U.S. 169/I-494 interchange project (includes 5 ¾ roundabouts).
    • $115 million – Planned (but not yet funded) third main line project to increase capacity between BNSF's Northtown Yard and Coon Creek junction (only a few miles of track, but it includes cost of a new train station at Foley Boulevard, the grade-separation of Foley Boulevard itself, and lengthening of the MN-610 highway bridges currently spanning the track).
    • $34.3 million – Elk Run diverging diamond interchange project along U.S. 52 between Oronoco and Pine Island, Minnesota (includes several miles of additional frontage roads and other nearby upgrades).

  • The empty parking lot on the south side of the Hiawatha Line's Nicollet Mall station is going to turn into a residential tower (with a 6-story podium containing 4 levels of parking. That annoys me, but I'm hoping it will lead to the demise of the ugly, aging ramp on the block's northeast corner).

  • It may have migrated behind a paywall, but HSR Updates' coverage of LaHood's visit to the Twin Cities included notes at the end about 110+ mph links from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee/Chicago and to Rochester. (If you hit a paywall, take a shot at clicking through from Facebook.) It's not clear to me if anything has actually changed in the last several months, but they talked with Dan Krom of Mn/DOT who said the MSP–MKE segment options will be narrowed from four down to one. However, $600,000 promised for the study has not yet been "obligated". A $2.3 million study for the line to Rochester is also planned, with most money coming from the state of Minnesota and the balance being provided by Olmsted County.

  • Anoka County has reduced its 2012 rail tax levy. Funds for studying transit options north to Cambridge have been eliminated, and total funding for corridor development have gone down from $320,000 to $64,000. The Northern Lights Express project will get $54,000, and the Rush Line project will get $10,000 (I didn't think that went through Anoka County, but parts of I-35/I-35E do skim through the southeastern edge)

  • To the south, Union Pacific is planning to double-track an existing bypass route near Omaha in order to increase capacity. They plan to spend $300 million to add 29 miles of track on the segment between Fremont, Nebraska and Missouri Valley, Iowa.

  • Amtrak California #713, part of the San Joaquin service, hit a truck carrying tomatoes near Turlock, CA on Monday. 22 passengers sought treatment following the crash.

  • Amtrak's eastbound #8 Empire Builder originating on September 19th was delayed by 14½ hours, getting into Saint Paul at around 10 PM. on the 21st (the delay was more than 15 hours for St. Cloud passengers). KARE 11 has the story. Delays caused by locomotive failures were compounded when the crew "died" (reached the limit of work hours). In what seems to be a common refrain, passengers again complained of lack of information about what was happening.

  • Investigators believe that the truck driver involved in the July crash of an Amtrak Downeaster in North Berwick, Maine was talking or texting on his cell phone before the collision. In related news, track was just repaired this week at the site of the collision. Workers replaced about 400 ties in the process.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 17, 2011 weekly rail news

Construction, planning, and funding:
  • The Central Corridor Green Line popped up several times:

    • Transiteer of Let There Be Light Rail documented the first rail pull along University Avenue. Check out her page for the amusing write-up and two more videos.

    • It's behind a paywall, so I don't know the details, but apparently talks about mitigation efforts have broken down between Central Corridor representatives and a group of minority-owned businesses along the route. Finance & Commerce says the group is looking to file/(resume?) a lawsuit to halt the project.

    • A collaboration between the City of St. Paul and two other groups is receiving $750,000 for arts in the corridor. Why the St. Paul Director of Arts and Culture insists on calling the area "the trench" is beyond me, but apparently he wants to "Irrigate" it.

    • U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood is visiting Minnesota on Monday, September 19th in order to take a look at the Central Corridor and Union Depot projects.

  • I haven't followed news of the Chicago–Iowa City route, so I don't know what to make of this, but the Iowa Department of Transportation is asking that Illinois be allowed to build their segment of the line, while Iowa itself would fall back to studying extending the route westward to Omaha.

  • A promotional video for the Red Rock Corridor has been released. Their YouTube channel was also updated a month ago with animations based on station-area plans.

  • The committee set up to build the Saint Paul Greenway bike/ped trail—the city's planned counterpart to and possible extension of the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis—has disbanded. Negotiations with Canadian Pacific have apparently never produced much movement, and the group was dealt a blow last year when legal action to try and allocate room for a trail failed. The group says that they could have fit a bike trail up to 20 feet wide into the corridor while still allowing room for two train tracks plus a 25-foot buffer. There's only one track in the corridor now, though more tracks could appear. Amtrak uses it to get to their Midway station and it is likely that the route will remain the primary connecting line between Minneapolis's "Interchange" station at Target Field and Saint Paul's Union Depot as commuter and intercity services reappear.

  • President Obama's jobs plan outlined last week got more detail a few days later. The proposal includes $4 billion for high-speed/intercity rail and $2 billion for Amtrak (in the NEC?).

  • A 19-year-old man was killed in Hartford Township, Michigan when his car was struck by a Grand Rapids-bound Amtrak Pere Marquette train on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

  • Following up:

    • BNSF Railway has released a video documenting some of their flood-fighting efforts this year.

    • Two more lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath of this summer's deadly collision between an Amtrak train and a semi truck in Nevada.

  • BNSF Railway has started a Friends of BNSF site.

  • Tuesday the 20th is Don't X Out Public Transportation Day (bleh, advocating with a double-negative isn't a good idea). In Minneapolis, Transit for Livable Communities has an event planned at the Government Center light-rail station.

  • Alon Levy lays out the argument that rail-trails are a scam. He also had another interesting post about which types of transportation cause the most motion-sickness.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 10, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:
  • Okay, perhaps not exactly "fun", but historian and author Larry Millett has written a work of historical fiction called The Magic Bullet which is set during the Twin Cities' 1917 streetcar strike. MinnPost has an article describing the actual events of the time.

  • Streetfilms takes another look at the Transmilenio BRT system in Bogotá, Colombia.  The system sees pretty massive use—48,000 people per hour per direction at the daily peak:

  • Hipmunk rolled out Amtrak support this week, and appears to be the first American travel website to put Amtrak trip options right next to airline flights (Momondo, a Danish company, has apparently supported Amtrak for over a year). Hipmunk's results grid they use for showing possible trips is very nice, though the site does get a bit confused by Amtrak stations that are spaced relatively close together: On one of my attempts to find fares from Saint Paul to Chicago, it wanted to originate the trip in Red Wing...

  • While we wait for the train to actually happen, Alex gives an idea of what it's like to take a Jefferson Lines bus to Duluth.

Construction, planning, and funding news:
  • Another article and video about the Saint Paul Union Depot construction, this time from the Pioneer Press. The project is now nine months in:

  • While buses may currently be skipping past Lake Street as they travel along I-35W, Bill Lindeke linked to a news update on planning for the upcoming BRT station at the site.

  • Minutes for the August 22, 2011 meeting of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee are now available.  Here are some things that jumped out at me (actionable items move on to the full Metro Council):

    • A draft version of the Regional Transitway Guidelines is being made available for public comment through "late November or early December, 2011". (Gah! Be specific!)

    • 41 forty-foot Gillig buses are being purchased for $23.5 million.  33 will be hybrids, while 8 will be standard diesels.

    • The MP-36 locomotive (apparently still) being leased from Utah Transit Authority for the Northstar Line is getting closer to being purchased.  Apparently a request for a Buy America waiver was a cause for delay (Eh? It was made in Boise...).  The price increased by $112,813 to $2,911,349.

    • A motion passed to increase a Minnesota Valley Transit Authority grant by $729,000 to nearly $2.7 million.  Motion for another MVTA grant of $3.5 million for two Cedar Avenue BRT stations at 140th and 147th Streets also passed.

    • The free shuttles to the Minnesota State Fair are paid for by the fair itself, while shuttle buses from lots further afield that charge fares are able to cover their costs through revenues.

    • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a coalition called Drive Electric Minnesota are planning a project to install 76 public electric car charging stations in high-density areas.  These would apparently be "Level 2" chargers with 240V output, which are claimed to recharge vehicles about 5 times faster than 120V "Level 1" chargers.

    • The Metropolitan Council pays BNSF about $6 million per year for operation of and track maintenance related to the Northstar Line.  A midday run on weekdays is being contemplated, though one of the possibilities for doing that would involve reducing service on weekends.   Ridership was quoted at 2,400 daily.

  • Because of construction bids coming in $34 million under budget, the pool of contingency money for the Central Corridor Green Line has risen to $155 million.    $53 million in contingency funds will be used to purchase 16 additional light-rail vehicles to allow 3-car operation on the line.

  • A northbound Amtrak train clipped the front of a car in Bellingham, Washington on Tuesday the 6th. There were no injuries, and the train continued on its way after being delayed by about an hour and 15 minutes.

  • Less than two weeks after Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee again caused flooding along the East Coast, which has had significant impact on rail operations stretching from the Washington, D.C. area up through Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

  • A BNSF train traveling through Raymond, Minnesota (southwest of Willmar) hit a truck at a grade crossing on a private driveway.  The truck driver was critically injured and is now being treated at HCMC in Minneapolis.

  • Amtrak's California Zephyr struck a man laying on the tracks in Lehi, Utah on Thursday.

  • Union Pacific is now countersuing the Nevada trucking company whose vehicle struck the California Zephyr this summer, killing several people. Amtrak filed the first suit against John Davis Trucking Co., who countersued Amtrak and Union Pacific shortly thereafter.

  • A police report has been released for the July 11th collision between Amtrak's Downeaster and a truck in North Berwick, Maine.

  • A federal judge ruled that Arizona must reinstate mass transit funding because it assists in a federally-mandated air pollution control program.

  • At the national level, there has been a lot of chatter about transportation funding, partly because of President Obama's speech on Thursday.  The GOP released a transportation plan that would slash Amtrak funding, particularly for state-supported routes.  States would have to fully support shorter "corridor" routes themselves.  If there was an upside, it was that corridor routes would basically be treated the same everywhere, as opposed to today where some shorter routes (mostly in the Northeast) are subsidized with federal funds. However, the plan was seen as just a political move by some. If I'm understanding things correctly, it's more likely that the old, out-of-date transportation bill will simply be extended for a few months again, retaining the status quo.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not exactly a Frogger situation

img_4483 by Mulad

The intersection at Pleasant and Arlington Streets on the University of Minnesota's East Bank got some new traffic lights to handle a projected increase in traffic flow. The closure of Washington Avenue through campus for Central Corridor construction has forced local and express bus traffic to go through here. An increase in car traffic was probably also expected, though I'm guessing most of the former Washington Avenue automotive traffic will simply disappear.

My biggest complaint about this intersection's new configuration is that this former 3-way stop now has pushbuttons to activate the crosswalks—At the University of Minnesota, one of the most heavily pedestrian places in the entire state!

This image shows the most baffling part, where Pleasant Street is a single-lane one-way street with a contraflow bike lane. Do you really need to have a pushbutton-activated "Walk" sign to cross here? And, when the walk sign does get activated, how can it possibly change the timing enough to make a significant difference to car travelers?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

September 3, 2011 weekly rail news

[I'm going to try shifting this to a weekend day, since I want my Friday to be a little more flexible.]

Fun stuff:
  • Nice Ride MN is having a sale! $40 for an annual subscirption, $30 if you're a student.
  • Check out a rendering of the planned Central Corridor stop in downtown Saint Paul at 5th & Cedar.
Construction, planning, and funding news:
  • Metro Transit announced their annual fall schedule changes, which seem to partly reflect the Metropolitan Council's reduced funding from the legislature. Many routes saw a few daily trips eliminated.  Other major bullet points included I-35W buses skipping the northbound Lake Street stop during the morning rush hour, a frequency reduction on route 32 along Lowry Ave, and dropping one daily Northstar stop each direction at Fridley.

  • Three Minnesota rail corridors were in the news this week, plus a BRT corridor for good measure:

    • A bus tour was given on Tuesday in North Minneapolis of the possible Bottineau Boulevard transitway routing options.  Two on-street routings would have tight squeezes on Oliver Ave and Penn Ave, respectively.  If Oliver gets used, it would likely become a transit mall.  Alternatively, Penn might just have a single lane for cars.  Another alternative would run along MN-55 and turn north onto a BNSF freight rail corridor, but that would skip past populated areas.

    • Mid-week, backers of the 155-mile Northern Lights Express intercity train to Duluth announced they'd received Federal Railroad Administration approval for the route they'd chosen. I believe the route's environmental impact statement is wrapping up within 1-3 months, and they plan to begin preliminary engineering work in early 2012, with a target to begin operation by 2015. The NLX is projected to run at a surplus within a few years of opening and for that reason the FRA is willing to pay up to 80% of the $650 to $750 million cost to build it. Check out my recent article for a map.

    • On Friday, the Federal Transit Administration gave their approval for preliminary engineering to begin on the 15-mile, $1.3 billion Southwest LRT line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.  Their plan is to begin construction in 2014 and open to service in 2017 or 2018.  Unlike the FRA, the FTA typically covers up to 50% of the capital cost.

    • The Cedar Avenue BRT line along MN-77, already kind of operating with express buses but set to begin proper station-to-station service in 2012, is having some funding issues.  The Metropolitan Council is refusing to buy seven new buses for the route until someone comes up with operational funding for the first three years.  Since the route runs through territory of Republican legislators who voted to strip Met Council funding, this seems like a pretty decent tit-for-tat move to me.  The amount of funding in question is only $1 million per year, so it shouldn't be hard to scrounge up the funds—they should probably check the couch cushions of those legislators first.

  •  I'll have to defer to others who actually live out on the East Coast for good details, but Hurricane Irene did indeed cause significant disruption and destruction in the Northeast.  While most rail service has been restored, a few Amtrak routes remain disrupted (Northeast Regional service to Newport News, Va., and Empire Service and Maple Leaf trains to Buffalo/Niagara Falls, NY).  While a variety of commuter services were affected from Philadelphia to Boston, perhaps the most significant damage occurred on the MTA/NJT Port Jervis line which may take months to repair.

  • The California Zephyr has been suspended since the Aug 26 crash in Nebraska when the train hit a crane boom. It's supposed to begin running again from Emeryville to Denver Sept. 3rd (eastbound) and 4th (westbound).  Service further east will continue to be disrupted for a while longer because of freight traffic being rerouted due to flooding.

  • An Amtrak train struck a vehicle in Lake Township near Toledo, Ohio early this morning, injuring the SUV's two passengers.  The driver had apparently been drinking.  No injuries on the train.
  • Former Congressman Jim Oberstar is hosting a forum on the Stillwater Bridge on September 9th.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Northern Lights Express route approved by FRA

The Twin Cities and the Twin Ports are on track to be connected by passenger rail again within the next few years. The Federal Railroad Administration has told the Minneapolis – Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance—the joint-powers board backing the Northern Lights Express train—that the preferred route (#9) has been approved. As part of a 7-month review, the FRA had asked for information on two alternate routes (#11 and #11A) which had ranked fairly well in previous studies. In both cases, trains would have traveled east from Minneapolis before heading north along the old "Skally Line" until reaching Hinckley. However, those routes would have been slower for many riders and would require rebuilding a significant chunk of trackbed which has been abandoned and largely converted into bike trails.

The FRA's approval means that the rail alliance can go ahead with plans to begin preliminary engineering in early 2012. There will be further approvals needed in the future, but this was a significant one to overcome. Trains could be running by 2015.

Unlike the current commuter-oriented Northstar service from Big Lake to Minneapolis, the Northern Lights Express is being planned as an intercity or regional rail service. It should have periodic trips through the day rather than having a schedule compressed into the rush hours. The NLX could be considered a "restoration" of train service to Duluth, but it should actually be better than anything that has existed before. For instance, an old 1951 timetable shows 5 daily round-trips across three railroads. While the new train will only run along one line, it is currently planned to have eight round-trips daily. Thanks to a top speed of 110 mph, the new train will also be significantly faster, making the run in less than 2½ hours, about an hour faster than the old trains did.

The planned route is surely a disappointment to some, since it won't directly connect to the Saint Paul Union Depot like route 11A would have. However, the Central Corridor Green Line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul should be operational by the time NLX trains begin running.

The service is currently expected to cost between $650 and $750 million to build, with up to 80% of the cost covered by the FRA. It is hoped that the train will be able to pay for year-to-year operational costs entirely through ticket revenue within a few years of opening.