Tuesday, February 28, 2012

1962 wreck of the North Coast Limited at Granite Lake, ID

Back in early December, I went to a dinner for the Northstar chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society where Bill Kuebler gave a presentation about a crash of the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited as it passed Granite Lake, Idaho at 10:18 pm on March 2nd, 1962. Both the locomotive engineer and the fireman died after the lead locomotive left the tracks at high speed, tumbled through the air, slammed into a table of land below (the fatal incident), and finally slid into the lake.

I should have written down more stuff after I heard the presentation, since a lot of the details have faded. Fortunately, Bill Kuebler does post things on the Internet on occasion, and I've been able to resurrect a few of my hazy memories by reading his comments in this discussion thread.

Anyway, the incident occurred on a high curve of nearly 8 degrees near a trestle in a mountainous area, and I think the superelevation was about 7.5 inches. That level of banking is disallowed by regulation today, though it could have saved the lives of the crew if they'd only slowed down by about 10 mph. Speeds were technically limited to 30 mph on the curve, though the overturning speed of the locomotives at that site was calculated to be 69 mph. Based on handful of skid marks left by wheels of the locomotives as they flew off the rails, it was estimated the lead engine hit the curve at 75 to 80 mph. Fortunately the rest of the train hit the curve at lower speeds, so the passenger cars slid to stop without falling into the lake, and additional fatalities were averted.

On paper, both the engineer and fireman had a lot of experience. The engineer was a pretty competitive hothead, but still good at his job: He had been operating over the territory since 1916 and knew it very well. He also knew how to push a train to its limits. The fireman was kind of the opposite: He basically followed his instructions to the letter, but was unable to respond to changing situations. He had also been operating over the territory for 20 years and was qualified as an engineer, though most of his experience was with slow freight trains that didn't require as much thinking ahead as fast passenger trains do.

Back then, it was common for train operators to flout the official speed limits as they made their way from point A to point B. A new travel time record through Montana and Idaho had just been set by another train crew, and the engineer was amped and ready to break that record.

According to the records of that night as the train flew past small stations and waypoints, the engineer had essentially achieved a new record miles before reaching the point of derailment. As the train approached Granite, the intervals for the last few reporting points showed the train operating at regular speeds. The fireman had been handed the controls, and was basically expected to guide the train in like normal—though he did have the psychological threat hanging over him that if he screwed up and wasted too much time, he'd blow the record-setting pace and get an earful from his cab-mate once they made it to their destination. (It is certain that the fireman was at the controls, since that's where his body was found.)

The curve at Granite was a tricky one—I don't know the ins and outs of train brakes, but the North Coast Limited had a fairly complex system which had been experiencing some problems earlier in the evening. It was pretty advanced, including features similar to anti-lock brakes on today's cars. An electro-pneumatic subsystem had been giving an earlier train crew grief, so that had been disabled for the rest of the run out to the west coast before this new crew even got onboard. The standard brake system was working just fine, as was shown by the fact that the engineer could race along for the first part of the journey, which included a lot of technically challenging curves.

Nonetheless, the train's brakes are important to the story: the brakes needed to be "set up" well in advance of reduced-speed zones. There was an "advance warning reduce speed" sign 3,076 feet away from the curve, but that was not far enough away for the brakes to have any significant effect if they had not already been prepared properly.

Train crews, especially those operating passenger trains with their unique brake systems and requirements, were typically made aware of this and told to watch for certain landmarks and set up the brakes by the time they reached a switch farther east along the tracks. In Kuebler's interpretation of events, the fireman lacked the situational awareness and forward thinking ability necessary to do this in time. There's some indication that he may have attempted to do the right thing, but was hesitant—at least one crew member reported feeling the brakes apply like normal ahead of the curve, but then they released seconds later. The fireman just wasn't quite sure where he was, and didn't want to screw up the speed run.

There is good indication that the fireman was paying attention up until the last second, however—just 700 feet from the curve was a grade crossing, and he blew the train horn accordingly in the standard long-long-short-long pattern. The engineer, who had most likely been taking his mind off things and yammering or resting elsewhere in the cab, appears to have been jerked back to reality by the horn and was probably reaching for the emergency brake as the engine started hurtling through the air.

The Interstate Commerce Commission was the government body responsible for investigating the crash (the formation of the National Transportation Safety Board still five years in the future at the time), though the Northern Pacific also did their own internal investigation. To their credit, the company took a multi-pronged approach to resolving many of the issues that contributed the incident as well as others that could lead to problems elsewhere. While the cause pretty much comes down to human error, that was really just the tip of the iceberg. The curve itself was pretty dangerous, coming up after a long stretch of fairly straight and boring track, so that whole segment was rebuilt in 1965 later with gentler curves. There was a culture within the railroad that allowed quite a bit of risk-taking behavior—especially speeding—and a crackdown ensued that really changed the way the railroad operated.

I was finally inspired to write this after reading about the crash of the Niagara Falls–Toronto VIA Rail train 92 in Burlington, Ontario this past Sunday, which seems to have at least a few parallels with the North Coast Limited crash. Three crew members in the locomotive were killed, apparently as the train switched tracks—an operation that's only supposed to occur at 15 mph even though the rest of the corridor supports speeds of 80 mph. The crew included two highly-experienced engineers plus one trainee—actually a 40-year-old man who had just been hired on after 20 years of service as a freight engineer.

The derailment happened just 1.3 miles away from the previous stop at Aldershot station, so it may not have reached high speed—It's not yet clear exactly how fast the train was going when it hit the switch because the onboard data recorder was damaged and is going to delay things by at least a few days. It also remains unclear who was at the controls.

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see what the investigation uncovers.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February 25, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

A fairly recent video from my favorite French railfan, dashloc:

BoingBoing recently had a good article on the huge machines built under the country's Heavy Press Program in the 1950s, which are still used today for critical components.The machines that made the Jet Age

This XKCD comic might explain what's wrong with the Star Tribune's comment section...

Twin Cities transit:

The big local transit story has been the disruption of the Hiawatha Line (and nearby car/bike traffic) due to a cable snapping on the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge, a cable-stayed structure that carries bikes and pedestrians along the Midtown Greenway over the LRT line and the busy Hiawatha Avenue (MN-55). URS Corp., who designed the bridge, also consulted on the I-35W bridge which collapsed in 2007 and paid out millions of dollars as part of a settlement in that incident. Trains have been replaced with buses between the Franklin Avenue station and 38th Street station (including Lake Street in between) since Monday.

Despite the outage, Jason DeRusha was able to intro and outro this story about wrap advertising from a moving train on Wednesday:

Metro Transit is finally rolling out an auto-refill system for owners of Go-To cards.

Light work has continued to be performed on the Central Corridor throughout our mild winter, but heavy construction is set to begin again on March 1st.  The remaining segments of the route that were not torn up last year will undergo construction this time around.  The longest chunk along University Avenue will be reduced down to one lane in each direction much like the western part of the street was last year.

The segment of University Ave just north of the capitol between Rice and Robert will also be entirely closed for a while after the legislature's regular session ends.  On that segment, the track will be running on the south side of the street rather than down the center median like it does on the rest of the avenue.

Road work will also happen in the Prospect Park area of Minneapolis, all through the University of Minnesota campus, and in downtown Saint Paul.

Park-and-ride use hits new high in metro area, says the headline. Some fairly disturbing statistics are included for the number of spots used along the Northstar line, such as only 29 of 668 spaces being used at Fridley—yes, they're typically only 4% occupied. On the other hand, the massive Foley Boulevard park-and-ride (which is right next to the Northstar tracks but doesn't have a station, yet may have as many as 3,200 stalls) is more than 90% full. The cost-effectiveness index strikes again... (though it's also true that there's way more frequent bus service there than Northstar can handle at this time).

I made a passing mention of the general idea last week, but the Star Tribune had city council members talking streetcars this week as the city talks about what sort of service should be available in North Minneapolis to complement a light-rail Bottineau line which would largely bypass that area of the city.

Metro Transit is holding open houses over the next two weeks to share the results of their Arterial Corridor Transit Study, which promises to bring "rapid bus" features to a number of major local routes (plus one suburban route that really should be performing better than it currently does).

Metro Transit has posted a summary of schedule changes to take place on March 3rd for Twin Cities-area transit routes.

Transit aficionados have known for a while that the Met Council has been looking to unify local LRT and BRT lines under a single brand name. Now officially official, it will be called METRO. Earlier plans for a corresponding "M" logo have been scrapped, and they'll just use the standard "T" logo instead. Each line will have a color, with Hiawatha and Central Corridor LRT becoming Blue and Green Lines, respectively. The head-scratcher continues to be the I-35W and MN-77 (Cedar Ave) BRT lines, which will get colors despite having schedules that probably don't justify being called out in that way yet.

Hmm.  I tend to think of the future opening of Chick-Fil-A at MSP Airport as a sign of the coming downfall of the airline industry, but that's just me.

Mn/DOT is having bicycle planning meetings across the state from February 28th to March 15th.  They've also started up a service to send e-mail updates on the state's complete streets policy.

National stuff:

Amtrak riders in Sacramento will start walking farther from the depot to new platforms/tracks being built as part of a rail yard reconfiguration.  Apparently they also want to build a new depot, but the money isn't there yet.

Here's a profile of the Olympia, WA Amtrak station. Community-funded and volunteer-staffed, yet Amtrak can scarcely bring themselves to acknowledge the effort put into it.

More for the image than the article, this post about the Tappan Zee Bridge shows an example of pretty effective pro-transit advertising.

Out in West Virginia, it appears that three tourist railroads are working together to create a 90-mile loop by restoring an abandoned trackbed.  They're going to reuse track from another line that had been partially washed out in 1985 and convert that route to a rail-trail for cyclists and hikers. Apparently up to 8 trains per day may operate on the loop, which would be a unique attraction compared to other tourist lines which are forced to backtrack to their origin and repeat scenery.

Nashville appears to be leading the way with their zoning code changes and have made a plan to grow transit in their very sprawling metro area where access is currently very poor.

The BBC had a nice piece about the Raleigh, N.C. area showing some activist-made pedestrian signage for the downtown area, plus an exploration of the barriers to movement in more suburban settings.

The travel site rome2rio now has an interesting transport layer on its maps, which revealed a number of bus services (well, mostly airport shuttles) that I wasn't aware of.

International stuff:

There was a very bad commuter train crash in Argentina where 50 people were killed (more than those who officially died in the Chinese high-speed rail crash last year, though no one knows how accurate those numbers were). The Reason & Rail blog noted that the speed of the train may have been as low as 12 mph (some other stories say up to 16 mph). Many of the deaths were a result of two rail cars telescoping into each other, a problem that can be mitigated fairly.

China has dramatically slowed expansion of their rail network, shrinking from 70 new projects last year to just 9 this year, and suspending about 2/3rds of what was in progress.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The weight of light rail

While wandering down the Hiawatha LRT bike trail to take a peek at the broken Martin Olav Sabo Bridge, I took a look at the light rail tracks. Rails have the weight and the year of manufacture stamped on their sides—Hiawatha tracks appear to be 115 lbs./yd. and were apparently forged in 2001 (at least along that segment).

Oh, and the rails are already rusting up after not even 3 days of disuse (well, it did rain/snow in the interim, which makes a difference. My car's disc brakes oxidize within hours when they get wet).

I tried to take a photo of the stamp with my phone camera, but the resolution just wasn't enough to pull it off. It's also always tricky to get embossed markings to show up correctly. Someday I'll pull out my DSLR and try again.

Anyway, I'm no expert on rail weights, but this is fairly heavy stuff. I think most of the Twin City Rapid Transit streetcar network used 90-lb. rail. According to Wikipedia's article on rail profiles, most of the New York City Subway uses 100-lb. rail. The Hiawatha LRT tracks could support relatively light freight duty, though apparently they wouldn't be enough for busy mainline tracks like what the Northstar runs on. Wikipedia again indicates that weights above 130 lbs./yd. are used on main tracks.

So, I guess my next task will be to figure out what weight the rails actually are along the BNSF. It'd also be amusing to check out the ex-Milwaukee Road/current Minnesota Commercial tracks which run along the east side of Hiawatha Avenue south of Lake Street. I wouldn't be surprised if the Hiawatha "light" rail tracks are heavier than those...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Urban bus routes in Rochester

View Rochester City Lines urban routes in a larger map

I took a shot at converting Rochester City Lines' maps into something I could actually understand. They've got a bunch of maps for routes on their site, but most of them look like they were created with a drawing tool not much more advanced than Microsoft Paint. Therefore, I'm not entirely certain how accurate this map is. I didn't attempt to include the weekend, peak-period, or "direct" routes (limited stop/express routes).

Of course, there's also the problem that Google Maps doesn't have a facility for showing the direction of a line—not that I was really able to understand what was going on with some of the route maps... I'm sure it's adequate for people who have the time to try out a route. Not so hot for first-timers, however.

Anyway, like many smaller cities, Rochester's routes are mostly loops. They tend to intertwine with each other, so you may end up taking one route to the store, then a different one to get back to your trip's origin. Even more confusingly, many routes switch directions in the afternoon.

I feel that perhaps the craziest route in the system is the #6 bus—it goes down U.S. 63 (Broadway), pulls off the highway at 40th street, heads up the frontage road to the old Fleet Farm, goes back down to 40th, crosses the highway, and then goes up frontage road on the other side! Oh, and that's before the bus gets to the "Shoppes at Maine" sprawl-plex.

Rochester has made noises about building streetcar lines in and near its downtown area, though the city never had any streetcars in the past. Based on where the buses are most heavily concentrated, it would make the most sense along 2nd Street Southwest, North Broadway, and probably 3rd Avenue Southeast. I'm rather doubtful that any of them are justifiable. There are some steep hills and relatively limited crossings of rivers that might make it a tiny bit more feasible, but that's stretching it. Sprawl has definitely taken a toll on Rochester, though I think city leaders have begun to realize that. It's still not always clear when I see new buildings going up whether they have a "new urbanist" character because they are really trying to be urban for everyone, or if it's just a new senior center where non-automotive life is expected.

Oh yeah—If you haven't seen it, also check out my old post about Rochester City Lines commuter buses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The way to Winnipeg

View Minneapolis-Winnipeg via Duluth in a larger map

I came across an opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press discussing a rail link from Winnipeg to Duluth, which could then connect to the Northern Lights Express train service to bring passengers to Minneapolis. And they seem to be suggesting running the trains at 110 mph all the way to Winnipeg.

This, of course, seems like a crazy idea if you know about the existing transportation networks in Minnesota.  I never thought of going that way—Why would you attempt a 380-mile route between Minnesota and Manitoba when Amtrak's Empire Builder gets within about 150 miles up in Grand Forks?  Bouncing through Duluth adds about 80 miles, which  would likely blow away any time savings to be had by running at 110 mph.

There are a few reasons why it might not be so totally nuts. The shortest historic link between Grand Forks and the border has been severed, so trains would have to detour via Crookston or other cities to go north. The line to Duluth has the advantage of being on Canadian National's main line to Chicago with full CTC and freight speed limits of 60 mph (almost certainly capable of 79 mph for passenger trains), though it is mostly single-tracked. The route would also make it easier to justify connecting the Iron Range and International Falls to the rest of the state's mass transportation network. In Canada, the connection could help justify reinstating service between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay (a tri-weekly Budd RDC service until 1977—and the train dipped into Minnesota between Warroad and Baudette to get around the Lake of the Woods).

Train services also often do a bit better in places where the road network is relatively weak.  Big highways thin out as you head north, though Chuck Marohn pointed out in this week's Strong Towns podcast that MnDOT has been working on upgrading U.S. Highway 53 to a 4-lane divided highway. They've gotten about 16 miles past the Iron Range town of Virginia with that project, and may eventually extend it to the border. It was planned back in 1975 when Voyageurs National Park was created and overly-optimistic projections for numbers of visitors made the highway sound like a good idea. It never became that popular, but the highway still became designated as a High Priority Trade Corridor under TEA-21 in 1998.

As much as Jim Oberstar did for alternative forms of transportation, he did far more for fairly silly highway projects.  Not even 85 more miles to go to convert U.S. 53 to 4 lanes, though maybe they'll only ever get as far as building passing lanes on that chunk of it.

Anyway, this all got me wondering what really would be the best route to Winnipeg, and wondering what services might have existed in the past.  As far as I've been able to determine, the Soo Line/Canadian Pacific Winnipeger was the last train service to run between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities back in 1967—but there's a big caveat that I don't have any good info on when competing service from Great Northern (and possibly Northern Pacific) ended. I also don't know much about historic passenger service on the route these guys proposed.  As I said, Canadian National continued running trains to Thunder Bay several years into the Amtrak era, clipping the Northwest Angle, but trains leading down to Duluth from the Fort Frances/International Falls area must have ended service a decade or two earlier.

Still, if we ever restore passenger train service to Winnipeg, it seems like it would be better to go on a more western route as opposed to bouncing through Duluth.

You could just restore the Winnipeger on the Canadian Pacific all the way from Minneapolis: It's got CTC and 60 mph speeds out to Glenwood (the transcontinental mainline to Chicago), but from Glenwood up to the border is only 40 mph and dispatched via radio with track warrants.

It might be a bit more feasible to take Amtrak's route along the BNSF to Detroit Lakes before turning north.  I've thought it might be a good idea to run that way, then spend some dough to build a track from Thief River Falls to Grand Forks and operate a shuttle between the two cities, or perhaps something running in a loop down to Crookston.  The roads up there are mostly aligned on a grid, so a diagonal rail line could come out ahead in terms of travel time.

In the end, I'd still have to put more weight behind the idea of branching off from the Empire Builder in Fargo or Grand Forks and following the Red River corridor.  It's just a lot shorter and (in my mind) probably connects places that Winnipeg residents would actually want to go to (not that I know for sure where they'd really like to go...).  In my ideal world, I'd do both. We'll see how ideal the future turns out to be.

Well, it's kind of fun to think about.  Yes, VIA Rail is being attacked by conservatives just as Amtrak is being attacked here in the States.  Yes, I know that international links underperform, but if you're going to do it anywhere outside of the northeast or northwest, Minnesota is probably the place to connect because we have pretty high levels of passport ownership.

MnDOT has something penciled in to Winnipeg for sometime after 2030.  We definitely need to work on intra-state, nearby interstate, and travel to Chicago first, but a link across the border should be kept in mind if new opportunities open up.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Acela vs. TGV optical illusion

After watching a number of videos of high-speed trains in Europe and comparing them to what I saw of Amtrak's Acela Express, I became convinced that the Acela trains were significantly shorter than TGV trainsets.  Our train has one power car at each end plus six intermediate cars, while the TGV has eight intermediate cars plus the two power cars.

However, it turns out that TGV and Acela trainsets are very similar in length.  The Acela has carriages about 87 feet 5 inches (26.6 m) long, while TGV carriages extend about 65 feet (20 m).  Power cars seem to be about the same size here as they are across the pond.  The end result is that the Acela is about seven feet longer than the TGV.

Listening to the whooshing noises as the trains passed by in video clips enhanced the sense of speed from the TGVs: At 186 miles per hour, about 4.2 carriages pass by each second. An Acela running at the current top speed of 150 mph will only have 2.5 carriages pass in the same time. It looks and sounds like the American train is going 40% slower, but the actual difference in speed is only about 20%.

Of course, TGV trainsets are frequently coupled together to form trains that are about a quarter mile (400 m) long, so they are still longer overall in many cases.  Similarly, Eurostar trains that run from London to Paris are built from the ground up at this larger size.  Japan's Shinkansen can also extend about a quarter mile. Trains of this length aren't entirely unheard-of in the U.S., however—the Empire Builder often runs pretty close to that long. You're not going to catch the EB going anywhere close to 150 or 186 mph anytime soon, but considering that Superliner cars are about 85 feet long, your viewing pleasure may be usurped by a similar effect.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Map of Wisconsin cities with populations over 5,000

Here's a map with placemarks for all of the cities in Wisconsin that have populations above 5,000:

View Wisconsin cities over 5,000 population in a larger map

This population distribution is very different from what we see in Minnesota. Most Minnesotans live in or near the Twin Cities region, but Wisconsin's populated cities are largely distributed along the eastern edge of the state, from Milwaukee up to Green Bay along the shores of Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan.

Here's the Minnesota map:

View Minnesota cities over 5,000 (2010 census) in a larger map

Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 18, 2012 weekly rail news

I have been neglecting my weekly news round-up. It's pretty hard to do sometimes, and my regular schedule got heavily disrupted by the holidays. I'll also note that the National Railroad News blog had been blasting out links to a ton of stories recently—I was impressed by both the breadth and volume of what they linked to, though it seems the author/editor may have gotten a bit overwhelmed by the task (understandable, since I got overwhelmed by the volume of new material to sift through). Oh well, enough excuses—I'll just get back into it as much as I can.

It's relatively easy to get back into this because my spirits were greatly lifted by the news of 110-mph trains in the Midwest. I wrote on Monday about upgrades to the Amtrak-owned line between Porter, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan that allow the new speeds. Amtrak ran a special train on Wednesday, Feb. 15th (the first day high speeds were officially allowed) carrying some company VIPs, supporters, and members of the media in the railroad's (rather ugly) president's car, 10001 Beech Grove. Anyway, it's great to see this finally happening after seeing the carrot dangling out ahead of us for the past decade, though it will still be a few years before the Chicago–Detroit line is fully upgraded (sounds like 2015). The Chicago–St. Louis line will probably beat them (sounds like 2014), and things will take a bit longer to get the Chicago–Twin Cities line going (it had hopefully been on track for 2017 before WisDOT stopped cooperating under direction of the Scott Walker administration, so that'll probably be delayed by a year or two).

Some coverage worth looking at: WGN, WKZO, Chicago Sun-Times

Back here in Minnesota, the route of the now-defunct Minnesota Zephyr dinner train has been purchased by the Department of Natural Resources and will be converted into a bike trail (effectively an extension of the Gateway Trail, though it's going to be called the Brown's Creek Trail).

Alex had a good series discussing the Bottineau Boulevard line through North Minneapolis: Part I, Part II, Part III. I'm a rail fanboy, so I'm pretty reluctant to agree that BRT should be the option chosen for the route, but he's probably right (a disappointment, since BRT was already being planned way back in 2004 when the Hiawatha LRT line opened and blew the doors off of projected ridership figures). The City of Minneapolis has come out in support of the under-populated D1 alignment, but with the caveat that something like Metro Transit's planned arterial/rapid bus services should also be included on surface streets.

Partly due to changes in FTA rules about what guidelines are used to choose the transit projects that get built, the city of Saint Paul is dusting off its ideas for streetcars and taking another look.

The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority says "Expect Big Things in the Gateway Corridor in 2012." They think they're on track to be the next route to be constructed after the Southwest LRT line, which is quite uppity of them (or is that a banned word?). There's other stuff that's been in the pipeline for much, much longer (though on the other hand, I do think it was a mistake for the I-94 corridor from Wisconsin to be untouched by predecessor studies).

Cab car shells have arrived at the Talgo plant in Milwaukee, to be used for trainsets ordered by Wisconsin and Oregon for the Milwaukee–Chicago Hiawatha and the Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest.

Amtrak filed a complaint against Canadian National with the Surface Transportation Board for causing freight train interference on the route from Chicago to New Orleans 99% of the time. There were 4,000 instances last year alone.

Older than a week, but out in Troy, Michigan, there had been some back-and-forth between the city, state, and feds regarding construction of an intermodal transit station in the southwest corner of the city (on the border with neighboring Birmingham, and the site of an existing Amtrak station on the Wolverine line). The city initially voted to reject funding for the station because they didn't want to pay for ongoing operating costs (complaints similar to what was heard on the Milwaukee–Madison extension of the Hiawatha before that got shut down). Apparently they changed their minds, but only after the architects trimmed down the proposal to shave $2.3 million from the initial project cost and the city's Chamber of Commerce committed themselves to paying the estimated $30,000 annual maintenance budget.

The Trillium Solutions folks, who work on translating bus schedules in Oregon into data that is munchable by Google Maps and other services, came across a study comparing hypothetical coach bus service to the federally-subsidized Essential Air Service system and put up a post about it. Sounds like, as with many studies, the authors were a bit conservative in their estimates of what could be accomplished.

At The Transport Politic, Yonah discusses the idea of returning control over transportation dollars to the states, but the idea that the states are really lacking in control at the moment is a political canard.

Paulus Magnus put together a post of Unorganized thoughts and sources on electrification.

In France, a planned high-speed 220-mph LGV line between Marseille and Nice has been tabled in favor of upgrades to an existing line, which would be widened to 3 or 4 tracks to accommodate fairly high-speed (125 mph average speed) travel without the cost or physical impact a brand-new line would require. Sounds a lot like the Caltrain–HSR combination being planned along the peninsula route to San Francisco...

Salon had a good article, "The Tea Party's war on mass transit".

The U.S. railroad industry is planning to invest $13 billion in their infrastructure this year.

Plans to extend the Texas–Oklahoma Heartland Flyer farther north (possibly to Kansas City) have been tabled (which I'm guessing is for political reasons).

Here's a TEDx video about the Alberta tar sands that was filmed back in November and posted just recently:

Friday, February 17, 2012

A thought or two on bulb-outs

Bulb-outs at bus stops are becoming a popular request among transit geeks—they extend the sidewalk out into the street and make it so the bus doesn't have to weave in and out of traffic in order to pick up passengers. Reducing the weaving action and removing the need to wait for automotive traffic to clear up as the bus gets underway also shortens the amount of time spent stationary or hardly moving, improving the experience for riders.

As with normal bus stops, business owners are quick to leap to concerns about parking. However, bulb-outs should actually have either zero or a net positive impact on the amount of available on-street parking—traditional bus stops need clearances for pulling in and pulling out, often about 20 feet. That's one reason why mid-block bus stops are so discouraged—they need both pull-in and pull-out space, thus taking away 40 feet of parking space in addition to the room needed for the bus itself.

If you're in a city that is contemplating bulb-outs, they are most likely also considering bus stop consolidation. Rather than stopping every one or two blocks, buses may start stopping every two to four blocks. Again, removing stops would most likely lead to a net gain in the amount of available parking.

Terminology Needed
Now, as a bit of a cyclist, I feel it's probably best to hold off on reclaiming that extra road surface and giving it away to cars. Depending on how they're designed, bulb-outs may end up blocking bike paths. It's actually often a good idea to make a bike path or cycle track weave away from the road's centerline and effectively split the bulb-out away from the rest of the sidewalk. That way, cyclists can continue riding without having to wait for the bus to move, and it again reduces the need for buses to weave.

As for bus stops that may be removed, it would make sense to add bicycle parking and/or bike-sharing stations in the new empty space.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Trains are speeding up in Michigan

This is a post I put together for streets.mn.

View Amtrak Michigan Services in a larger map

While anti-rail fervor has hit a high-water mark in the past two years and major intercity rail projects have been canceled in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, progress is still being made in other states. Despite neighboring both Ohio and Wisconsin, the state of Michigan has remained fairly committed to upgrading its intercity rail network.  The result is that two Amtrak routes will soon be running at 110 miles per hour on a shared stretch of track. The Chicago–Detroit–Pontiac Wolverine and Chicago–Port Huron Blue Water are the first services outside of the Northeastern U.S. to see such speeds in the modern era.

It seems a bit strange that faster trains would appear in Michigan before much of the rest of the country. Why would the home of Detroit, the seat of America's car culture, get faster trains before other parts of the country? For one, the distance between Chicago and Detroit is only 281 miles, only 2/3 of the distance between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and comparable to Chicago–St. Louis. Secondly, Amtrak has directly owned a 98-mile chunk of the route for at least a decade now, the longest segment of Amtrak-owned track outside the Northeastern U.S.

While almost all of the country's passenger rail network outside of the Northeast is limited to 79 mph, the Amtrak-owned track from Porter, Indiana to Kalamazoo, Michigan has been incrementally improved over the last dozen years. The line began allowing speeds of 90 mph in 2002 following installation of positive train control (PTC) signaling technology and other upgrades. In 2005, top speeds were bumped up to 95 mph. Now, following a period of upgrades and testing, the federal government recently gave the go-ahead to running at top speeds of 110 mph on a regular basis.

It's great to see a line finally reaching that target. Planners have been looking at building a Midwest Regional Rail System centered on Chicago since the mid-1990s. Even with today's limited passenger rail service, Chicago remains one of the largest hubs in the country—Union Station ranks 4th in number of Amtrak passengers per year, preceded only by stations in New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. The plan has been to upgrade several routes to 110 mph and increase service frequency, making trains much more competitive against car travel, and hopefully boosting farebox income enough so that these lines operate in the black going forward.

However, there's still a long road ahead. The piecemeal, incremental approach taken so far means that individual upgrades are a bit underwhelming in their impact: Schedules will probably only be shortened by about 10 minutes, and it's only going to be about 20 minutes faster than the old 79-mph schedule prior to the year 2002 improvements.

A speed boost will soon happen on another stretch of track, however. This past autumn, the Michigan Department of Transportation also began the process of buying another 136 miles of track from Norfolk Southern Railway between Kalamazoo and Dearborn (just west of Detroit), which they also plan to upgrade. 83% of the distance from Chicago to Detroit (and 77% of the total route from Chicago to Pontiac) will soon be under the control of Amtrak and MDOT. Upgrades to this second section from Kalamazoo to Dearborn and the removal of choke points in the Chicago area should allow for more substantial travel-time reductions. The ultimate goal is to get what is currently a 5½-hour journey down to 4 hours or less.

Those upgrades should come pretty quickly: The state of Michigan has already finished the needed environmental reviews in order to proceed with construction. Trains should see speeds climb on that second section within just a few years.

There are three daily round-trips between Chicago and Detroit/Pontiac on the Wolverine, plus one round-trip for the Blue Water to Port Huron. There's a third line serving Michigan—the Pere Marquette—but apparently it doesn't make use of the upgraded tracks, instead operating on another, roughly parallel line.

So, you might ask, are there any other places in the Midwest seeing upgrades? When will it start helping us in the Twin Cities?

It seems that Amtrak may be able to reroute a third train onto a segment of the upgraded tracks, the Pere Marquette. It's hard to tell in the map, but that route apparently runs on a separate line only a short distance away from the Amtrak-owned rails. There may be practical reasons why this hasn't happened, though.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Illinois is working hard right now on the line between Chicago and St. Louis. It carries the Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle. 110-mph service is expected to begin there in 2014.

As for Minneapolis–Saint Paul, we didn't have a route selected when funding was handed out to Michigan, Illinois, and others, and we have been impacted by the shifting political landscape in Wisconsin. Funding for the Hiawatha Service extension to Madison was sent back to the federal government after Scott Walker was elected, and he has been opposed to building high-speed rail on other new routes in the state. He has said he supports upgrades to the Empire Builder, though the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has suspended its involvement in enhanced-speed service along the route. They remain willing to discuss a "second Empire Builder" running to at least Saint Paul and possibly farther westward.

Results of a study for that second daily round-trip should be released around mid-2012, but it's hard to say where the political winds will be blowing at that point. The Minnesota Legislature will be out of its regular session by then, and the Wisconsin recall may happen around the same time. I don't foresee any new funding being allocated legislatively within the next year, but perhaps some funding sources could bubble up internally within MnDOT and WisDOT after the study is done. And, if Walker does get recalled, hopefully the planning for faster service and frequencies beyond just two daily trains can also resume.

Advocates for more rail service to Chicago will also have to hope for political shifts within Minnesota as well. We currently have a very anti-rail chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Mike Beard (R-Shakopee), which makes progress difficult. There are many reasons to be legitimately critical of rail projects, but an upgraded route between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been shown to have good benefit/cost characteristics again and again and again. Add that to the fact that freight railroads are making massive investments themselves—$13 billion this year alone—and it makes opponents seem pretty out of touch.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Zip Rail bonding not included in Gov. Dayton's proposal

The legislative season in Minnesota began on January 24th and is is getting into full swing, so let your crabby letter-writing commence!  Governor Mark Dayton released his bonding proposal a week before the session started, and one thing that's missing is $15 million requested by the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority for the Zip Rail line from the Twin Cities to Rochester.

The regular session is constitutionally limited, ending in late May or earlier (I went to a meeting with my state senator and representative on Tuesday night, and they think it may end in April this year).  The session may be halfway done before you know it...

I don't totally understand the process, but Minnesota's two-year legislative cycle usually works by passing the state budget in the first year, then passing a bonding bill in the second year.  (There are, of course, many other non-budgetary laws that happen as well.)  The biennial budget is big, on the order of $35 billion (actual numbers seem to be rather fuzzy).  The bonding bill, in comparison, is tiny.  This year, Governor Mark Dayton is proposing one totaling $775 million, though apparently Republican leaders want to limit that to $300 to $400 million.  Democrats would probably like something bigger than the governor's proposal.

Anyway, to put the numbers in a broader context, compare it to Minnesota's GDP—on the order of $265 billion in 2008.  Note that this number should be doubled to compare it to biennial budget and bonding numbers.  Governor Dayton said that he declined to support the Zip Rail line because he didn't foresee a way of funding it, but I feel that's a poor justification.  For one, we still don't even know what route the line will take—substantial spending on the full line (probably on the order of $1 billion in total) is still years away, and we don't know what the political landscape will be like at that point.

I'll just say that Mn/DOT seems to typically get about $1 billion per year in funding, though I think that shrank in the most recent construction season.  Somewhat surprisingly, Governor Pawlenty's administration seems to have had a program to boosted spending by the state DOT, at least during his second term, though that has now more or less ended.  On balance, I wouldn't be surprised if we've roughly maintained overall transportation funding levels, however—The Central Corridor light-rail project is spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but it is largely a Metropolitan Council project rather than a Mn/DOT one.

A few days before releasing his bonding proposal, Governor Dayton directed Mn/DOT commissioner Tom Sorel to create a new advisory committee to find funding sources for transportation in the coming years and decades.  According to the governor's press release, the group is supposed to submit a report by December 1st of this year to outline non-traditional sources of revenue for projects in the state over the next two decades.

I guess I find it striking that the governor is both attempting to look forward and feeling constrained at the same time, and I'm not quite sure he's coming to the correct conclusions.

It's easy to succumb to the fatalistic drumbeat of those who believe that in one way or another, our country or society is failing.  In some ways we are, but the solution isn't just to pull the plug on government or the idea of progress.

I wrote a letter to the governor about the Zip Rail project because I felt he was getting the wrong idea.  I started it off by recalling an event from my teenage years when my history teacher told the classroom, "You may be the first generation to see a world without oil."  I often think of that scene when I ponder which paths we need to explore.

Rochester is somewhat unique because there was never a rail line between it and the Twin Cities that is as direct or as fast as U.S. 52 is today.  For most of the state, and even most of the country, we just have to rehabilitate what already exists and make sure it operates as efficiently as possible.

Despite the governor's disinclusion of funding, I don't think it will put a halt to the Zip Rail project—as I noted back in September, they were initially starting on a $2 million study.  The requested $15 million would really be put to use in later stages of the planning process.  I suspect we've still got a year or so before that amount of money is really needed, but it's always good to have things ready ahead of time.

Apologies if this is a bit more rambling than usual—this is a topic that has been stewing in my mind for a few weeks, and I just wanted to get it relatively finished before I find myself looking at the tail end of the legislative session.