Friday, October 26, 2012

When the humble bus stop is a little too humble

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This is the busiest transit stop in the state of Minnesota, seeing about 4,300 boardings daily, though you'd never know it by looking. It's on the south side of City Center on 7th Street and Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, and lacks most of the amenities you'd expect to find at a location with that volume: Shelters to provide cooling shade in the summer and heaters in the winter, as well as rain, snow and wind. There is a little seating, but not much. Good lighting, signage, and information kiosks are practically nonexistent.

Less obvious in photographs is the simple lack of space. The sidewalk has frequently been getting filled up with bus patrons, leading Metro Transit to add some markings to the pavement to delineate the areas where bus passengers should stand to separate them from the flow of pedestrians.

Um... Great?

As part of a campaign dubbed "WalkSafe", the benches (mostly obscured in this photo from Metro Transit, but still barely visible in the distance) have been moved away from the wall of City Center, and some brightly-colored stickers have been added. A NexTrip sign indicating bus arrival times has also been added, but it's tucked away in a spot that's hard to see. Sure, some people will go along with the new separation of space, but this arrangement is uncomfortable for others who prefer to hug the side of the building in order to grab what little shelter they can, and simply to take a load off by leaning up against the wall. Unfortunately, the sidewalk is already crowded, so attempting to add shelters, benches, or other street furniture would only make it harder to move through the area.

There should be other options, including expanding the sidewalk area. While it might be possible to carve a space out of City Center, the better option is probably to add a bulb-out to extend the sidewalk area into the street. 7th Street is a one-way with three lanes for through traffic plus curb lanes on each side. The street could handle moving the buses into the right-most through lane and extending the sidewalk into the right-hand curb lane, more than doubling the room in the waiting area.  That would open up a huge range of possibilities for good designs that will pull those stragglers away from the wall of City Center.

Extensions like that have cost up to around $60,000 in other cities, including new shelters—this stop probably generates that much in fare revenue every 2–3 weeks. With a pace like that, there's a clear benefit to making a real investment in this stop to change it into a place where riders can feel like they're human rather than trash to be shoved out of the way. Believing that this site can be improved by simply moving the existing pieces around is patently ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Update on Amtrak derailment in Niles, MI

The National Transportation Safety Board gave an update yesterday (Tuesday, Oct. 23) on the derailment of Amtrak Wolverine #350 this past Sunday, where the train hit a misaligned switch, sending it off the mainline and into a small rail yard. From this Chicago Tribune report and this Detroit News report, we get the following details:
  • The train had a green signal prior to hitting the switch.
  • The train hit the switch at about 60 mph. The jolt knocked the engineer to the floor, but he was able to hit the emergency brake.
  • There was a derail device on the track to the yard, but it did not have any effect on the fast, heavy train locomotive. The train ultimately derailed 290 feet beyond the switch.
  • The train came to a stop 21 feet away from empty hopper cars (for carrying ballast) that were parked in the yard.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this line is supposed to have Positive Train Control signaling installed to prevent dangerous situations like this from happening. The details thus far reinforce my belief that the switch involved was simply not wired into the signaling system, since a "reversed" switch would have changed the signal to either a stop or some other indication telling the engineer that the train could only proceed at low speed. But, other possibilities remain, such as an improper design to the PTC hardware or software, a fault that went undetected, or even a broken switch that failed just as the train went over it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Amtrak derailment in Niles, MI appears to show weakness in Positive Train Control

This past Sunday, October 21st, an eastbound Amtrak Wolverine train from Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac derailed just outside Niles, Michigan, shortly after leaving the station there. While most news outlets have simply reported the derailment and the modest number of minor injuries that resulted, the Detroit Free Press noted in its reporting that the train ended up on the wrong track.

View Amtrak derailment, Niles, MI 2012-10-21 in a larger map

The mainline here only has a single track, so the "wrong track" appears to be a spur into an old yard area adjacent to the mainline. There is a siding right in Niles so that trains can pass each other at the station. Heading east, the line narrows back down to a single track about 1.3 miles out. Immediately after becoming single-tracked, there's another switch that leads off to the aforementioned yard area. According to Google Maps imagery, this is the only spot where it's possible to leave the mainline until another siding appears in Dowagiac, 12 miles away from Niles.

The track in this area is able to carry trains at speeds up to 110 mph in part because it has a Positive Train Control (PTC) system installed (specifically GE Transportation Systems's Incremental Train Control System, or ITCS) which is supposed to improve safety by preventing collisions between trains. Unfortunately, it looks like that system failed in some way, and disaster was probably only averted through the use of a very simple device actually known as a derail—a wedge-like hunk of metal that is locked onto a rail with the express purpose of derailing anything that rolls over it. This is generally used to prevent parked rail cars from accidentally rolling out of a yard or spur track and onto the mainline, but (as happened in this case) can also prevent a train inadvertently coming off the mainline from slamming into parked rail cars at full speed.

In fact, a derail device can be seen on another track in this shot of the derailment from the Associated Press. The mainline appears to be the track way off on the left, partially obscured by the orangish freight cars, while the derail appears below them (in the foreground):

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating this incident. Hopefully they will have an initial report coming on it soon, though their full investigations typically take a year to 18 months. The NTSB has been recommending PTC be installed on rail lines for many years now, so it will be interesting to see how they react to an incident in a zone where it is apparently in use. Perhaps this specific spot didn't have it. My gut is leaning toward the idea that the switch that led off to this spur was intentionally not included in the PTC signaling system. Is it a manually-thrown switch, or is it controlled remotely? Amtrak actually owns the mainline here, and dispatching is their responsibility. If the switch is remotely controlled, then the dispatcher out on the east coast probably screwed up.

It'll also be interesting to learn how fast the train was going when it entered the spur and when it (presumably) hit the derail, and when or whether the brakes were being applied. If the signals were all working correctly and the switch off into this yard area is actually wired into the signaling system, the train probably should have had a "stop" signal just west of the misaligned switch—either the engineer should have stopped there because of the signals he/she saw in the cab and/or in the signal heads adjacent to the track, or the PTC system should have automatically stopped the train.

However, there's a decent possibility that the expected outcome here would have been for a train to get a signal telling the engineer and PTC system that it could proceed at a slow speed into the yard (probably 30 mph at most, and likely less than that). But, looking at pictures of the derailment, it seems to me that the train was going much faster than 30 mph when it hit the either derail device or a warped-enough piece of track to cause it to start sliding along the ground. (That said, there's an incredible mass there, and my imagination may not handle it properly. I also don't know exactly where the derailment began.)

One complexity thrown into the mix here is that a train traveling between two points has a very different method of operation from a train working in a yard. Out on a mainline, two trains should never really occupy the same stretch of track, but yards, spurs, and sidings often involve partially-assembled trains shoving things around, attaching and detaching themselves to or from other train segments. In theory, the PTC system probably should have known that the Amtrak train is a passenger train and had no business going into a freight spur.

There's a possibility that the switch leading off the mainline actually broke either as the Amtrak train went through it or shortly before, but that seems pretty unlikely based on where the train ended up: The train probably would have derailed as it passed over the mainline switch, rather than managing to continue a couple train lengths beyond. Some of the train—particularly the lead locomotive—probably also would have continued forward along the mainline in that event. Stranger things have happened, though.

This line is really one of the primary test beds for PTC implementation around the country: Amtrak first installed ITCS in 2002 to test it out, and speeds have been raised progressively over the last decade. Starting out at 79 mph in 2002, the limit went up to 95 mph in 2005, and Amtrak trains finally began operating regularly at 110 mph in February 2012.

The derailment came just two days after Amtrak made their first 110-mph test run along the Chicago to St. Louis corridor, also enabled through the use of ITCS PTC. That line is owned by Union Pacific and has historically had a cab signaling system in place to prevent train collisions. The cab signaling system might have acted as a fallback if a similar situation occurred in Illinois, but it's not clear to me if the newer PTC system would override that or not.

Speaking as someone who wants to see passenger trains deployed much more broadly across the U.S. and operating at higher speeds to be more competitive with car and air travel, this is extremely frustrating. It really looks like someone did a half-assed job either in designing the underlying signaling technology, or at least in their implementation of it it on this line. For all that has been written about the problems leading up to that high-speed train crash in China last year, our signaling systems in the U.S. are generally far less able to prevent accidents than the system in use there. PTC is supposed to make things much safer, but it failed to do its job on Sunday.

[Edit: Please take a look at my update to this story.]

Friday, October 12, 2012

New light-rail vehicles bring a fresh look to Twin Cities transit

A new Siemens S70 parked at Target Field alongside a Bombardier Flexity Swift in new "METRO" paint.

Metro Transit officially unveiled their first new Siemens-built light-rail vehicle on Wednesday, previewing what most of the Twin Cities light-rail fleet will look like just a few years from now.  It also marked the first showing of vehicles with the new "METRO" branding which will be used on light rail and bus rapid transit lines going forward.  Both the new Siemens LRV and one of the original Bombardier LRVs showed up in a brighter paint scheme of yellow, blue, and light gray, but still following the general pattern established by the older units when they began service on the Hiawatha Line in 2004.

By now you may have heard the "Green Line" moniker that has been attached to the Central Corridor LRT project, and that the Hiawatha Line will soon be known as the "Blue Line".  The Southwest LRT project is now being called the "Green Line extension", and the Cedar Avenue and Interstate 35W BRT services are planned to be known as the Red and Orange lines, respectively.

Those routes are going to be unified under the "METRO" name.  This seems like an attempt to keep everyone thoroughly confused, though it does have a purpose: At least one of the BRT lines will be operated by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority.  The METRO system will represent a unified brand across two different agencies and service regions.  It's an interesting political tool, but will any riders actually notice?  We'll have to wait and see.

The new branding has been rolling out slowly and has been most noticeable up until now along the Green Line where information kiosks at new stations have incorporated the METRO name.  While the train that rolled in to Target Field this week was described as "the first Green Line car", it will first see revenue service on the Blue Line.  This first car actually arrived in the Twin Cities last month and has been undergoing some initial testing.  Along with a second vehicle that arrived this week, the pair will be tested extensively, with overnight runs in the tunnels under MSP airport, before going into service around January.  Later arrivals will probably only need about one month of testing each before being officially accepted into the fleet by Metro Transit.

59 vehicles are currently on order for the Blue and Green lines, and there are options in the contract for 40 more.  The Hiawatha Line had 24 Bombardier LRVs operating by the end of 2004, but the line's ridership blew away expectations and Metro Transit ended up operating more trains and longer trains than anyone had anticipated.  They were able to exercise options for 3 additional vehicles a couple of years later, but that was the maximum allowed in the contract.  After those three were completed, Bombardier shut down the Flexity Swift manufacturing line for good, and Metro Transit has been making do with an undersized fleet for several years now.

12 of the new trains will go toward beefing up the Blue Line fleet, while the remaining 47 in the order are intended for the Green Line to Saint Paul.  Most or all of the last 40 options will probably be picked up once the Southwest extension gets approved for funding.

Metro Transit has been preparing for quite a while to receive the new trains.  The Franklin Avenue shops have been undergoing an expansion for the past year to make room for the new vehicles, and some operations that don't require direct access to the train chassis have been moved into a new Light Rail Support Facility about half a mile south.  Some vehicles officially intended for the Green Line may have a temporary home by Franklin Avenue until the new maintenance facility in Lowertown Saint Paul becomes complete enough to receive the new trains.

The new trains have some improved features as well as reduced weight compared to their older counterparts.  The older Bombardiers weighed in at 53 tons each, while the newer Siemens model is only 50.  That reduction by 6,000 pounds should help with overall efficiency and reduce electricity consumption, though it falls short of what could be achieved.  The Bombardier Flexity Swift model was primarily sold in Europe, and Metro Transit turned out to be the only American buyer.  The LRVs on the other side of the Atlantic only weighed in at 41 tons.  Federal regulations for crash requirements appear to be the culprit in porking out our original fleet as well as the newer vehicles, increasing energy consumption and adding extra wear and tear to the rails—and, of course, having the perverse effect of making it harder to absorb the energy of a crash in the first place.

The new Siemens S70 trains are a bit boxier than their elders in the fleet, which isn't to everyone's liking.  However, they have been made a bit sleeker through the removal of rear-view mirrors, replaced by rear-facing video cameras with displays inside the cab.

img_6177 img_6182

The interior features light gray surfaces rather than the Bombardiers' yellow walls. The new trains have 68 seats rather than 66 in the Bombardiers.  The seating arrangement has changed a bit, with seats up on the high-floor sections above the driving wheels facing toward the middle section of the vehicle, rather than the face-to-face seating found in the Type 1 cars. There is some face-to-face seating in the enlarged middle section of the Type 2 cars, though.


The new trains also have a beefier heating system than the Bombardiers, and the unit on display this week was actively pumping out heat as the media and other onlookers gathered to check out the first article on a fairly cool and blustery day.  Improved insulation should help keep the interior warmer and quieter than older trains as well.

But I shouldn't forget to mention the Bombardier train painted in new colors which was also displayed on Wednesday.  These trains will probably still be with us for another 20 years, and it was good to see them getting spiffed up with a new paint job.  While I think the old paint scheme had aged relatively well, some trains have begun to look quite dirty despite getting washed on a regular basis.  The old paint has been physically aging, and deserves a refresh.