Sunday, March 25, 2012

March 24, 2012 weekly rail news

The big stories:

Early in the week came news that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has decided to let last week's legislative decision on the Talgo maintenance facility stand. I'm still baffled that the committee had so much power (no need to bring this to the full legislature?), and that it was so lopsided (12 Republicans and 4 Democrats?).

More recently, many train-related blogs I follow have been full of chatter about Florida East Coast Railway's plan to restart—on their own—passenger service between Miami and Orlando. This seems to be the first real foray back into the privately-funded for-profit passenger business by an actual railroad. There are a few private operators running regularly-scheduled service around the country, though they're all subsidized as far as I know. I made mention on Twitter of the Greenbrier Express as a privately-funded attempt aimed at the high-end market (and nicely filling out service along the current half-daily Amtrak Cardinal route)—but that came much more from a preservationist angle and ended up stalling last year as costs escalated and there were questions about meeting FRA regulations with heritage equipment.

I remain a bit skeptical about the FEC proposal, since they have an aggressive timeline of starting service by 2014, but I do think the Florida coast is one of the best corridors in the country for passenger rail. People are attracted to living near the ocean, and the Everglades limit most development in the southern part of the state to a narrow slice of land that's sometimes only 10 miles wide. Train traffic on the FEC is also dominated by fast intermodal trains, making it somewhat easier to mix in passenger service (which they propose to—at least eventually—run at top speeds up to 100 to 110 mph—station stops will drag the average down, of course).

Still, to directly serve Orlando, they'd need to build about 40 miles of new track and much of the existing corridor would need to be double-tracked. The plans for service apparently began to be worked out several months ago, though it doesn't look like they've gone through detailed ridership studies. A potentially bigger problem is the availability of rolling stock—To make their target date of 2014, they'd basically need to have equipment ordered already. I've speculated that they may make a bid for the Wisconsin Talgos, but that's probably not enough. Amtrak and various other state DOTs have ordered a decent amount of equipment in recent years, so maybe there will be enough Amtrak cast-offs to be sufficient. The FEC appears to be proposing hourly service, which would probably require at least 4 trainsets.

Regardless of whether they actually start running in 2014, I do generally believe they're doing the right thing at about the right time. Gas prices are now as high (on an inflation-adjusted basis) as they were back in the 1920s when rail ridership was at its peak. Now, that's actually a relatively meaningless data point, but it's one of an array of things that tell me that good business opportunities for passenger service will begin appearing again.

Fun stuff:

A wargamer's analysis on how to get a seat on the London Overground.

Minnesota news:

There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Northstar Line commuter station in the city of Ramsey this Tuesday, and they're aiming for a first day of service of November 16th. The project had been expected to cost $13.2 million, though it's currently $2.5 million under budget due to low bids. (Note my previous coverage.)

The Northstar Link commuter bus which connects to the Northstar Line has continued to see growth. There were 46,437 rides in 2011 vs. 26,263 rides in 2010, and January/February 2012 ridership is 30% above what it was in the first two months of last year (though I imagine a chunk of the growth comes from expanded service).

Open houses will be held for the Gateway Corridor (eastward from St. Paul) over the next two weeks.  The first is on Tuesday, March 27th.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 6-8 p.m.
Eastside Community Center
Harding Senior High School
1526 East 6th Street, St. Paul, MN

Thursday, March 29, 2012 5- 7 p.m.
Chippewa Valley Technical College
Room 118, Health Education Center
615 W. Clairemont Avenue, Eau Claire, WI

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 5-7 p.m.
St. Croix County Government Center
Lower Level (enter by Sheriff’s Office)
1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson, WI

Thursday, April 5, 2012 5-7 p.m.
Woodbury City Hall
Ash/Birch Room, Main Floor
8301 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury, MN
The Interchange project at Target Field in Minneapolis is currently $30 million short on funding, even though the county is planning to select a contractor on April 10th. Also, so far, only one bid has come in below the $67.7 million projected cost.

The complete rebuild of the Milwaukee Road 261 is continuing in Minneapolis.  Boiler tubes are being replaced, and hydrostatic tests followed by first steam are expected this spring.  They aren't expecting the locomotive to be available for excursions this year, though it may be taken out for some test runs.

Bus driver Jeff Iceman of Red Lake Transit came in third at the National Tribal Transit Roadeo in Scottsdale, Arizona.

National news:

In California, it appears that politicians have wrangled votes to pass funding for that state's first high-speed rail line. It's not clear when a vote may happen, however.

Amtrak's rollout of e-tickets is continuing. The railroad's City of New Orleans is apparently the most recent train to get e-tickets. Nationwide rollout is still expected this summer.

The startup Detroit Bus Company is going to attempt to operate one route in the city and see if they can break even doing it. They're currently looking at $5 fares for an all-day pass.

Google and the city of Mountain View, California are apparently considering personal rapid transit for employees.

The Freakonomics guys put up a podcast about hitchhiking, some reasons why it has fallen out of fashion, and why and how it might see a resurgence.

International news:

There were protests in Bogota, Colombia over the state of the city's vaunted TransMilenio BRT system.

The Channel Tunnel between the U.K. and mainland Europe may soon get used by high-speed mail/parcel trains as an alternative to air-mail/freight. EuroCarex recently ran a test train which they say has 7x the capacity (by mass) of a Boeing 737 cargo plane.

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