Thursday, January 26, 2012

Disappointing outcomes for Snelling Avenue project

View Snelling & Montreal repaving, 2012 in a larger map

The Minnesota Department of Transportation just held an open house meeting on Tuesday, January 24th, showing their plans for a $2 million mill-and-overlay repaving project along the southern end of Minnesota State Highway 51 in Saint Paul—Snelling Avenue just south of I-94 down to Montreal Avenue, and along Montreal down to West 7th Street.  The overall length of the project is about three miles.

The Sierra Club and Transit for Livable Communities became aware of the project a little over a year ago, and held their own public meeting in a packed room at the Highland Park arena last January, which Mn/DOT representatives attended. Despite that meeting and other private ones with bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups over the past year, the current plan is to make virtually no change to Snelling other than adding or improving pedestrian curb cuts and pushbuttons for signalized crosswalks—changes required by the Americans with Disability Act and subsequent regulations.

Bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups had hoped to see bike lanes added on the street as well as improved crosswalks, potentially with median islands to provide pedestrian refuges. One segment of Snelling Avenue next to Macalester College had been rebuilt in 2010 with an added median, but that treatment is not being repeated on other parts of the street at this time.

One bright spot is that Montreal Avenue is getting a modest "complete street" makeover, with bike lanes being extended all the way from Snelling down to West 7th Street. Today's short 4-lane segment east of Juniper Lane is planned to undergo a 4- to 3-lane conversion to add room for the bike lanes: Two westbound (uphill) lanes plus one eastbound (downhill) lane. This was possible because Montreal has lower traffic volumes than any part of Snelling—less than 10,000 vehicles per day (according to year 2008 traffic counts).

Snelling itself ranges from a massive 43,000 AADT at the northern limit of the project at Dayton Avenue down to 14,400 between Ford Parkway and Montreal Avenue. The road has 4 through lanes for the whole distance from Dayton down to Montreal, plus the occasional center turn lane. One increasingly popular method of calming traffic is the "road diet", where traffic lanes are removed or narrowed, which typically has the effect of slowing down traffic and can result in lower traffic volumes. Speeding is considered to be a major problem on the avenue, so many people have pushed for some sort of road diet along the route.

The existing high traffic volumes make it difficult to do a road diet. Mn/DOT's current recommendations are apparently to only allow 4- to 3-lane conversions at volumes below 17,000 AADT—the only segment of Snelling below that level is south of Ford Parkway. Some other cities and states are willing to make such conversions at volumes up to 22,000 vehicles/day—if that standard were used, it would be possible south of Randolph Avenue.

The Mn/DOT representatives at Tuesday's meeting did not seem to believe in road design as a way to slow down traffic, instead calling current excessive speeds "an enforcement problem". They said similar things at last year's meeting, where it was also mentioned that they have to comply with laws and regulations that are biased toward maintaining or increasing traffic speeds rather than bringing speeds down to a level that is safer for non-motorized road users. For instance, a community concerned about the speed of traffic on a local roadway may request a speed study to be performed—but the law is written so that the speed limit would be set to a value near the 85th percentile speed. The speed limit on that road would be more likely to go up than down, and future road designs would be built around the new speed.

It has also been difficult to get changes to Snelling because of its designation as a truck route. Trucks have a limited number of options in Saint Paul, and apparently the state's roadway design manuals require wider lanes than normal.

As frustrating as the planned design is, things could be worse—one Mn/DOT representative said that their design manuals would actually recommend removing some of the existing marked crosswalks: If I understood their statements correctly, standard practice is only to have painted crosswalks at signalized intersections, but there are several at unsignalized crossings today.  In some cases, traffic signals are half a mile apart.

It seems that the additional crosswalks had been requested by the city over the years. As things stand, no crosswalks will be removed, but none will be added either. The representatives I talked to did seem to leave the door open to adding pedestrian amenities, but apparently such requests have to come from the City of Saint Paul. Representatives from bike and ped advocacy organizations were understandably miffed by this, since their one-on-one meetings with Mn/DOT apparently had little or no effect.

One odd thing is that the current design doesn't take into account the results of a safety audit conducted along Snelling Avenue just a week or two ago. Apparently the results of that audit are still being compiled.

While I think there's still some hope for Snelling Avenue getting a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly layout in this project, the window of time for changes to be made is rapidly diminishing. The project is expected to begin in May and will last until the end of the summer. However, it seems more likely that any reconfiguration of the street will have to wait a few more years.

At least one opportunity is waiting in the wings: Metro Transit is planning to come through and add "rapid bus" service along Snelling at some point in the next few years. Specifics haven't been laid out yet, but the new bus service could include street alterations—the biggest change could be the addition of bulb-outs at bus stops, which extend the sidewalk into the street. Bulb-outs make boarding faster and reduce or eliminate the need for the bus to wait for an opening in traffic before leaving the stop.

Still, if Snelling Avenue simply gets rebuilt with today's configuration, it proves that Mn/DOT is still doing business as usual rather than looking forward to a more multi-modal future. While the state now mandates a "complete streets" policy, it is considered fairly weak. Certainly, if Mn/DOT officials consider it a victory just to retain existing crosswalks and not see them eliminated, they're still operating under "incomplete street" rules. The state Department of Transportation needs to work harder on their design manuals to make multi-modalism the standard rather than the exception on urban projects.

Monday, January 16, 2012

When will railroads start electrifying?

I was disappointed to read in the February issue of Trains magazine that another electrified short-line railroad has parked its old locomotives and taken down catenary, converting entirely to diesel operation.  The line connects Luminant Energy's Martin Lake generating station to a nearby lignite coal mine.  However, the character of traffic along the line has changed a lot in the last decade or so, leading to some logistical challenges.  At the same time, locomotive maintenance has become more difficult simply because there are so few electric locos in the U.S. and parts are in short supply.

The lignite coal from the nearby mine is too dirty these days to meet current emissions regulations, so sub-bituminous coal from the Powder River Basin has been getting shipped in since 2000.  The original trains operating on the tracks weren't very long—only about 20 cars—because the fuel could be produced more or less on demand.  However, unit trains coming out of the PRB region are typically 100 to 120 cars long.

It also seems that the plant has had to deal with waste materials in new ways over time.  Bottom ash, fly ash, and byproducts from scrubbers all need to be handled.  I'm not entirely sure I believe them, but apparently these issues combined to make the electrification impractical for Luminant.

I find this disappointing since trains powered by electricity have huge energy savings, huge savings in terms of carbon output, and are quieter and more powerful to boot.  As I look toward a future where extracting petroleum becomes more complicated, energy-intensive, and expensive, I find it ridiculous that we are still tearing down electrified infrastructure.

Fortunately, I think we've more or less hit bottom.  There are probably more electrified miles of track being installed than there are being torn out, but that's really only due to the investments we're making in electrified urban services—primarily light-rail and streetcars.  Expansion in the freight world remains nonexistent, even though we need to be looking at the task of electrifying tens of thousands of miles of track nationwide, an enormous endeavor that will cost tens or hundreds of billions and take decades.

Of course, the story of electric trains in the U.S. has followed a path pretty similar to that of high-speed and passenger rail in this country.  There was a lot of development in the early 20th century, but efforts petered after World War I.  Catenary was pulled down extensively after World War II, and there were some famous last throes such as with the Milwaukee Road deciding to tear out their electrified mountain division in 1970, just in time to be hit by the 1973 oil embargo (though the Milwaukee was in such a bad financial state at that point that it wouldn't have changed their ultimate fate).

Railroads have been teasing at the idea of re-electrifying ever since the oil crises of the '70s, but none of the Class I carriers added any electric mileage as far as I can tell (and Conrail ended electric operations along the Northeast Corridor in 1981).

BNSF and Norfolk Southern got some news for talking about electrification following fuel price spikes in 2008.  I haven't been able to find the original comment, but a statement attributed to BNSF said that electrification would only be practical once gas reached $4.00 per gallon.  Of course, I suspect either the BNSF representative misspoke or someone else mistakenly inserted the word "gas" when they meant "diesel", but maybe they actually did mean $4.00 gasoline...

At any rate, the average gas price in 2011 was $3.56.  Retail diesel prices have been considerably higher than gasoline, somewhere in the $3.80 to $3.90 range for the past year, but again it's not clear if BNSF cares about retail prices—they buy fuel in bulk and therefore care about contract prices, which are considerably lower (they currently seem to be about $3.00/gal).

So, we're either a dollar away from electrification or ten cents away.  BNSF representatives have become a bit dismissive of electrification in more recent comments to the media, but it'd be interesting to find out what sort of incentives they'd need in order to move forward.

I wouldn't be surprised to see some mandates come down from local or state governments requiring electric trains in the coming years, though any such efforts would likely face huge legal battles.  I could imagine California pushing it through on emissions grounds.  It'd also be interesting if Chicago required electrification, since they are so central to the movement of goods across the country.  Ideally, changes there would ripple across the country, but there'd be the possibility of railroads moving their switching operations elsewhere.

Railroads should probably also participate in cap-and-trade systems in order to bring in revenue from a shift toward electrons.  China reduced their trains' energy consumption by 60 percent per ton-mile from 1980 to 2007 (though admittedly they were still running plenty of steam trains not so long ago)—but that was still the reduction across their entire system, only about 1/3 of which has been electrified so far.

Some recent events in the U.K. could make electrification faster and cheaper: The Reason & Rail blog had a story about a £35 million ($54m) "factory train" which is planned to be used for installing catenary infrastructure along the country's rail network.  It's being designed to allow about 1 mile (1.6 km) of track to be electrified per day.  In theory, this should reduce the amount of money it takes to install catenary poles and wires (though Alon Levy mentioned in the comments that substations are a bigger factor when looking at costs).

Of course, living next to a rail line myself, I think there's a decent chance that value capture could provide at least some assistance (though likely only in busy corridors going through highly-urbanized areas).  I am constantly awakened by train traffic on BNSF's St. Paul subdivision, so I have a vested interest in making that line quieter.  Electric trains are not silent, but they should be quieter than what I get going past my apartment today.  My sense is that converting the line to electric power would significantly improve land values in my neighborhood (though I'm not sure the amount of revenue that could be generated would be enough to tip the balance).  A (multi-decade) tax holiday for the railroad property itself could also be considered.

There's also the straight argument that electrification increases a rail line's capacity.  I suppose this is an outlier, but Trains magazine reported in their November 2009 issue that on one segment of rail in China, "passenger traffic jumped from 32 to 108 daily trains [...] while annual freight traffic rose 71 percent, from 42 million to 72 million tons" following electrification.  I imagine there were improvements to the ground-level infrastructure as well, but clearly electrifying railroads could really help us as we think about rebuilding the passenger network in this country.

The arguments against passenger rail by the railroads themselves always come down to capacity, but if we've got railroads that already have electric service in the back of their minds, I again have to wonder what sort of incentive they need to bring that to the fore.  Will there be a point where it would be cheaper for state DOTs to get the capacity they need for passenger rail by contributing to an electrification project rather than exclusively spending money on track improvements?

Well, that's probably a slim chance.  I don't hold out much hope that the rails near my place will have catenary strung any time in the next decade or so, but it does seem that there are other places in the country where it makes sense.  Clearly, since the wires are already there, freight trains should return to using electric power in the Northeast Corridor on a regular basis.  Other areas along the East Coast, the New York–Chicago corridor, and in California should also seriously look at it.

As important as it is to rebuild our passenger network and add high-speed rail, electrification of our freight network even more important.  Fortunately, it dovetails nicely into those other two efforts, and they can support each other.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Minnesota's Canadian tailpipe

Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Refinery
Flint Hills Resources' Pine Bend Refinery (Flickr/Chuck Olson)

Here in Minnesota, we don't have any fossil fuel resources of our own.  There are no oil wells, fields of natural gas, or coal mines anywhere in the state.  While the state has committed to using more and more renewables over time, we have to import most of our energy from elsewhere—and that mostly means Canada.

About 80% of our oil comes from Canada, fed into the state via the Enbridge Pipeline System—historically known as the Lakehead Pipeline.  When it was first built in 1950, it ran almost 1,000 miles from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.  A few years later, it was extended all the way to Sarnia, Ontario.  A junction point at Clearbrook, Minnesota connects to the Minnesota Pipeline, which brings petroleum down to refineries in Rosemount and Saint Paul Park.

Over time, an increasing amount of the material sent through the pipeline has been synthetic crude oil extracted from the Athabasca oil sands region in northern Alberta.  In areas where the oil sands are near the surface, petroleum has mostly come from strip-mining operations.  Bitumen is dug up from the ground, then sent through a process to heat and dissolve the sticky oil so that it releases itself from the sand and clay particles embedded within.

This is mostly done in factory-style operations these days, where material dug up from the ground is fed into large above-ground equipment.  Newer projects in the area are working on how to extract fuel from deposits farther underground that are difficult to reach through strip-mining.  In the future, it appears that more operations will drill down to inject steam and other solvents into oil sands formations to try and loosen up the material in-place, then pump it out and do futher processing.

These are messy processes that have caused drastic changes to occur in the Athabasca region.  Large amounts of water are needed in the recovery process.  Lots of waste materials are also produced, which are often stored in large above-ground ponds.  Tar sands extraction is also energy-intensive, meaning that the oil used in Minnesota has a higher energy overhead than fuel produced by more traditional processes, though there is some hope that newer methods of extraction may decrease the amount of energy required to pull a unit of synthetic crude out of the ground.

Our lack of internal fossil fuel resources is one reason why Minnesota has been a leader among our nation's states in terms of renewable energy production.  We had the country's first statewide mandate for 10% ethanol in our gasoline back in 1997, followed several years later by biodiesel blending requirements (currently set at 5%).  We've been among the top states for wind energy production for many years as well.

This doesn't mean that we can stop, however.  Oil sands are being used to produce more and more of our oil each year.  The amount used by our state is unclear, but Canadian oil sources have shifted to the point where about half of their production comes from oil sands today.  If this holds for Minnesota, 30 to 40 percent of our liquid fuel comes from tar sands, and it's an ever-increasing proportion. 

This is one reason why I personally choose to drive less and walk, bike, and take transit more.  Even though my car is a fairly economical Volkswagen Jetta TDI (diesel), it seems to me that it is likely to become less efficient over time because of processes happening long before a drop of oil hits my fuel tank.

A version of this article also appears at

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition opposition to

Here's something that was just posted by the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition regarding the planned routing of Chicago to Twin Cities trains via La Crosse and up the Mississippi River.  They'd prefer to see a route go through the Eau Claire area instead.
Wednesday, January 11
10:00 a.m., Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce

The West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition will hold a Press Conference to release details of its request to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that the federal agency reject a preliminary recommendation drafted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to select the existing Amtrak line via La Crosse as the sole route to be considered for future High Speed Rail between Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
The Coalition will present evidence that Wisconsin citizens were inappropriately left out of the decision making process; that the report contains serious errors, omissions and inconsistencies that adversely affected consideration of routes via West Central Wisconsin, and that the report’s conclusion designating only one route is not supported by the actual details in the report itself. Leaders of the Coalition assert that the West Central Wisconsin route is still very viable as a route for passenger rail service, and that this decision is too important for it to be made by the transportation department of another state.
Thursday, January 12, is the final day for the public to comment on the report’s preliminary recommendation, so the Coalition is seeking to get information out to citizens who may wish to provide their own input to MnDOT/FRA.
More information on the study: Project website
The public may submit comments by (deadline January 12):
• Email:
• Fax: 651-366-4248
• Phone (leaving a recorded message): 651-366-3199
• Mail: Minnesota Department of Transportation
Passenger Rail Office
Mail Stop 480
395 John Ireland Boulevard
St. Paul, MN 55155

Reminds me that I've been forgetting to send in some comments....

It is rather nice to see YIMBY rather than NIMBY attitudes on something for once, though after more than two decades of studying the issue over and over, I just want to see something built.  I suspect I share many of their concerns, and it'll be interesting to see what they come up with.  My personal opinion is that Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other nearby states really deserve a mesh of rail services rather than just a simple few lines or a modest hub-and-spoke layout.  Eau Claire is included in Mn/DOT's 20-year rail plan, and it should have been in Wisconsin's plan as well (though as far as I can tell, that effort was canceled once Governor took office).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Can trains be hacked?

Here's a presentation from last month's 28th annual Chaos Communications Congress (28c3) in Germany asking, "Can trains be hacked?". Unfortunately for me, while many or most presentations at the conference are presented in English, this one is in German. I only ever took two years of German language classes, so this is well outside my ability to understand. It does include some nifty videos of training centers for old mechanical interlocking stations and more modern electronic ones.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A three-train crash, you say?

Due to the nature of rail transportation, it's pretty unusual to hear of a three-train crash, but one happened today about 11 miles north of Valparaiso, Indiana. One train crashed into the rear of another, apparently causing cars to jackknife and push a passing train off the neighboring rails. They all seem to be CSX trains.

Two crew members were injured (presumably the ones operating the train that hit the rear of the other one), but none of the others were hurt. Residents have been evacuated from the area, however. At least one of the trains had some tank cars, some chemicals appear to have spilled, and a fire was triggered by the crash.

I am baffled why rear-end crashes like this still happen with trains, though. I don't know enough about how electronic signaling systems work, but coming from my computer and networking background, it seems like detecting the presence of two trains on a single segment of track really shouldn't be hard. Seems to me that each locomotive should broadcast its presence along the rails and listen for any others. Simply finding if two trains occupy the same segment of track isn't sufficient to prevent a collision, but would usually slow trains down before a collision occurred (repeaters connecting adjoining track segments would be needed to create a zero-collision system).

Well, I'll save further pontification for later. For the moment, here are a few links related to the crash: