Friday, September 19, 2014

Highlights from All Aboard Florida's Draft EIS

The Federal Railroad Administration released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for All Aboard Florida today; the following are some highlights from it.

According to a ridership and revenue forecast commissioned by Florida East Coast Industries and prepared by Louis Berger Group (LBG) for the Project, the most conservative total annual ridership would amount to approximately 3.5 million in 2019. Among the 2019 project totals, approximately 2.0 million would be short distance trips (Ft. Lauderdale – Miami, West Palm Beach – Miami, West Palm Beach – Ft. Lauderdale) and 1.5 million would be long distance trips (Orlando – Southeast Florida). Total annual ridership is predicted to exceed 4 million by year 2030. (Page S-6)

If 3.5 million is their most conservative estimate, which comes out to an average of 300 passengers per train, I'm really surprised at the lack of capacity in their trains. With one coach as first class seating, their seven car sets will only have 446 seats, 396 if one coach is a dedicated café car. I anticipate that peak trains will probably sell out fairly quickly, especially if their conservative estimates do prove to be conservative. On the other hand, it will be fairly easy for them to expand their capacity as it should be a running production line and the initial Phase 1 operations, West Palm Beach to Miami, should give them a warning as to whether their ridership estimates are significantly off in either direction.

Additionally, if there are 2.0 million trips between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, it's probable that a going proposition could be made simply on that traffic. Orlando nearly doubles the traffic, and is probably higher revenue traffic, but it also represents a major capital investment sink. Quite frankly, Florida should have looked at investing in this corridor a long time ago.

On page S-7, there's a summary of the construction elements involved. The Orlando extension will build six new bridges (including one for the Vehicle Maintenance Facility) while 25 bridges will be reconstructed on the existing Florida East Coast alignment, including seven between West Palm Beach and Miami.

Riders for AAF are expected to be primarily diverted from automobile modes (69 percent of forecast ridership). The Project would have the beneficial impact of removing 335,628 auto vehicle trips per year from the regional roadway network in 2016 and 1.2 million vehicles in 2019.
The proposed passenger rail service would divert 10 percent of its long‐distance riders from private inter‐city motorbus services, which totals approximately 152,600 annual bus passenger trips per year. The proposed service would divert 10 percent of its riders from the air service market, which totals approximately 152,600 annual aviation passenger trips per year. Two percent of the AAF long‐distance ridership is forecast to come from Amtrak passenger rail services. In 2019, this amounts to approximately 31,000 annual trips diverted from Amtrak which is about 4 percent of Amtrak’s 2012 ridership in South Florida. (Page S-9)

91% of ridership is expected to come via various diversions which leaves 9% for induced demand. That's a fairly low threshold to meet: in a perhaps extreme example, the Paris-Lyon LGV is credited with a 27% increase in total traffic while simultaneously rising to 72% of total mode-share, Table 1. If All Aboard Florida has significantly underestimated actual ridership, I expect induced demand to be where it has done so.

The Project would have long‐term direct economic benefits to local populations through the creation of approximately 1,100 jobs on average per year through 2021 and labor income valued at nearly $294 million through 2021. During construction, the Project would create an estimated 10,400 jobs on average per year and labor income valued at nearly $1.2 billion. Overall, the Project would realize approximately $1.2 billion to Florida’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in estimated annual economic development through 2021 and generate approximately $187 million in annual federal, state and local government tax revenue through 2021.1 Includes both direct, indirect and secondary federal, state and local government tax revenue generated from the Project (Page S-17)

The additional tax revenues that All Aboard Florida is claiming are a good reason for governments to look at investing in new and existing passenger rail corridors. Even if the service itself requires financial support, such as most state supported corridors currently require, that money can be recouped through the tax revenue that economic expansion garners, acting as a form of loss leader. That said, I take every job creation and economic impact report with quite a bit of salt.

Without further improvements to the existing I‐95 corridor, by 2035 100‐percent of the urban segments within the I‐95 corridor will be under “heavy congestion, and 55 percent of the non‐urban segments will see increased congestion” (I‐95 Corridor Coalition 2013).
In 1991, FDOT established a limit of ten lanes (five lanes in either direction) at any location on the Florida Interstate Highway System (FIHS) (FRA 2005). This limit to capacity was further solidified in 2002 and 2003, when FDOT procedures 525‐030‐250‐f and 525‐030‐255‐c set up specific criteria for widening all roads on the FIHS. These procedures were based on 2000 legislation (Section 225.02(3) of the Florida Statutes [FS]), which establishes criteria that must be considered when determining the number of lanes on the FIHS. The criteria include consideration of multi‐modal alternatives and considerations of local comprehensive plans and approved metropolitan long range transportation plans. The procedures (FDOT 2003) note:
“Nothing in Section 335.02 (3) FS precludes a number of lanes in excess of ten lanes. However, before the Department may determine the number of lanes should be more than ten, the availability of [right‐of‐ way] (ROW), and the capacity to accommodate other modes of transportation within the existing ROW must be considered.“ (Page 2-4)

Given the ease with which All Aboard Florida will be able to expand its capacity compared to the expense of widening highways, this should guarantee significant increase in passenger numbers for years to come. The biggest obstacles which All Aboard Florida will face are probably related to its agreement with Tri-Rail requiring high fares and a limited number of stations.

Amtrak currently operates two separate train services in the Project Corridor, the Silver Star and Silver Meteor (both between New York City, New York and Miami, Florida). There are two southbound (SB) trains per day and two northbound (NB) trains per day. The travel time between Orlando and Miami on the two Amtrak services is between 5 hours, 45 minutes and 7 hours, 34 minutes. Annual ridership on these two routes was 23,300 (Louis Berger Group 2013).
There are 244 daily and 88,900 annual passengers who travel between Orlando and Miami via airplane (Louis Berger Group 2013). (Pages 2-5-6)

I am quite confused as to how All Aboard Florida can expect to divert 31,000 passengers from Amtrak and 152,600 from air travel when these totals exceed the current passenger levels. Possibly they're considering, but not including, the passengers from Orlando to the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale airports, but that wouldn't explain the Amtrak diversion issues. My best guess, assuming that they're not simply absurdly wrong, is that it is including trips currently made on Amtrak to cities not connected by the proposed All Aboard Florida network that will finish by intermodal connection: A bus from Orlando to Tampa for example.

Middle Section of East-West Corridor (SR 417 to SR 520)
This section is approximately 17.5 miles long. East of SR 417, Alternative A would be within the SR 528 ROW. The alignment would be comprised of mostly a single new track, but would require extensive retaining walls and bridges in order to minimize its footprint and accommodate existing and future SR 528 infrastructure. Constructing a new rail line along this corridor would require stormwater features to capture and treat the runoff. Drainage would be comingled with the existing SR 528 drainage ditch. The proposed ROW in this section is an average of 60 feet wide and would impact approximately 127 acres of land. (page 3-31)
This single track section will probably be the single greatest limitation on capacity for All Aboard Florida if it should try to expand frequencies in the future, though the lack of commuter or freight service on this line means that it shouldn't be too crippling.

The new construction and improvements proposed along the FECR Corridor are:
• Improve approximately 128.5 miles of rail line;
• Reconstruct 18 bridges;
• Add approximately 109 miles of new second track;
• Eight miles of new third track;
• Upgrade highway and pedestrian crossings; and
• Upgrade signals and grade crossings. (Page 3-35)
No comment on this, simply bringing it out as a highlight.

AAF will implement a PTC system throughout the Project, including the E‐W Corridor between Orlando and Cocoa, and the N‐S Corridor between Cocoa and Miami. The new PTC system will be interoperable between the AAF and FECR trains. AAF will outfit 55 FECR locomotives as well as its own locomotives to avoid any incompatibility issues. AAF will also expand and supplement FECR’s Digicon Digital Traffic Control systems and add a new Back Office Server to satisfy FRA’s requirements (49 CFR part 236). The system will also use the existing Parallel Infrastructure LLC’s fiber optic system within the FECR Corridor. (Page 3-41)
There is no information however on the specific type of PTC installation.

The Project’s planned service between Orlando and Miami would consist of 16 revenue round‐trips leaving hourly in each direction from 5:00 AM to 9:00 PM, with planned stops at the two intermediate stations in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The last Orlando‐bound revenue train would arrive in Orlando at 12:10 AM and the last Miami‐bound revenue train would arrive in Miami at 11:10 PM.
Total scheduled travel time, including stops, is anticipated to be 3 hours, 10 minutes between the terminal stations. Station to station travel time would be 1 hour, 50 minutes from Orlando to West Palm Beach, and 1 hour, 20 minutes from West Palm Beach to Miami. (Page 3-44)

This is a good length of time for the trains to be operating, enabling both early morning and late night arrivals. While Orlando to West Palm Beach is approximately 30 minutes faster than driving (according to Google Maps at 6pm EDT), it's roughly the same speed as driving for West Palm Beach to Miami with traffic. Faster is always better, but same speed without aggravation should work quite well on its own.

The rolling stock for the Project would consist of ten train sets. Eight train sets would be required to be in concurrent operation along the AAF route to deliver regularly scheduled, hourly‐service frequency. Each train set would be comprised of two locomotives, and seven coach‐type passenger cars (two Business Cars, a Café/Economy Car, four Economy Coach Cars). In addition, AAF would procure one spare locomotive and one spare café car. The two‐locomotive arrangement provides redundant push/pull operation and would assure smooth operations up to the maximum speed of 125 mph even with an expansion of the train set to nine cars, if needed. The fleet and all facilities (stations and maintenance) are designed to accommodate expansion to nine‐car trains. (Page 3-45)

 So with two business cars the number of seats drops to 364 plus a nominal number, probably not more than 20, in the cafe car. I'll honestly be flabbergasted if they don't expand to 9 cars within a fairly short time-frame, though I'll admit that I may simply be biased by growing up with six car bilevel Surfliners as my norm.

To provide easy and safe train boarding and de‐boarding and to minimize the dwell time at stations, passengers would be distributed evenly along the platform. When AAF passengers purchase their tickets, they would select their seat, similar to the experience of airline passengers today. Along with each seat assignment, the tickets would indicate a number that coordinates with large numbering on each coach door location along the platform where the customer should wait to enter the train. These large numbers would be also affixed along the platform edge to assist with wayfinding. Uniform consistency of the AAF train sets would simplify this procedure, and give comfort to passengers that they have confirmed seating, and know exactly where it will be. These train features would support the planned dwell times at intermediate stations of 1 minute. (Page 3-45)

I'm not going to lie, my initial reaction to this was "Thank you Baby Railroading Jesus." There may be some degree of security theater nonsense going on with station design, but this is exactly how the seating and platforms ought to work and it will provide a substantial incentive, in the form of public relations, for Amtrak to fix its asinine boarding policies.

I'll be looking at the Ridership and Revenue Study Summary in a later post due to the length of this one and because I feel it ought to be considered separately.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Brief timeline of upcoming LOSSAN projects in San Diego County

A brief list of funded projects with a timeline for construction courtesy of a presentation to LOSSAN (end of the file). With the exception of the Oceanside Transit Center project, they are listed according to estimated year of completion.

-Sorrento Valley double track (1.1 miles of double track, raised track bed, two wooden trestle bridges replaced).
-San Onofre double track Phase 1 (with phase 2 will be 5.8 miles of double track and wooden trestle bridge replacement).
-Construction starts on third track, additional platform, lengthened platform at Oceanside Transit Center.

-Poinsettia station replaces at grade pedestrian crossing with an undercrossing and an inter-track fence, 15" platforms.

-Los Peñasquitos Lagoon Bridges Replacement (four wooden trestle bridges replaced, allows increased speed)

-Elvira to Morena (2.6 miles of double track and curve realignment).
-San Diego River Bridge (0.9 miles of double track, new double tracked bridge over San Diego River).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

All Aboard Florida goes with HST solution

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Today it was announced that Siemens has been selected to build the locomotives and passenger coaches for the All Aboard Florida passenger rail project that will connect South and Central Florida. All Aboard Florida and Siemens have been working together extensively on the development and design of the passenger rail cars that will transport millions of tourists, leisure and business travelers along Florida’s east coast.
This will be the first privately-owned, operated and maintained passenger rail system in the United States. When completed, it will also be one of the highest speed train routes running in the country today, operating at maximum speeds up to 125 mph. Importantly these trains, both the locomotives and the passenger coaches, will be “Made in America” at Siemens’ solar-powered rail manufacturing hub in Sacramento.
The initial five trainset purchase to serve the Miami to West Palm Beach segment will consist of two diesel-electric locomotives, one on each end of four passenger coaches. These diesel-electric locomotives will meet the highest emissions standards set by the federal government. All Aboard Florida and Siemens plan to expand the initial trainsets to seven coaches, and purchase an additional five trainsets, concurrent with environmental approvals and additional financing for the segment from West Palm Beach to the Orlando International Airport.
The stainless steel passenger coaches, the first to be manufactured by Siemens in the United States, will be state-of-the-art, ADA compliant and designed for comfort, featuring special ergonomic seating and Wi-Fi. The trainsets will also be level boarding, which allows for the ease of boarding without steps and provides easier access for bikes, walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. The locomotives will meet the latest federal rail safety regulations, including enhanced carbody structure safety with crash energy management components.
Charger locomotive fact sheet
Intercity passenger coach fact sheet

While in a sense it is disappointing that All Aboard Florida is going for locomotives and coach cars, they'll have an impressively high power to weight ratio that should make up for it. Assuming that the coaches are similar to Siemen's Viaggio coaches, it should have a power to weight ratio of 13 horsepower per short ton. This compares favorably with the British High Speed Train (IC125) which in a similar 2+7 has a power to weight ratio of 9.1 hp/ton and even with the Class 221 Voyager DMU's 12 hp/ton (though the Class 220 has one of 14.7 hp/ton). There should be no issues with accelerating up to speed even with the added weight penalties of FRA compliance.

Where this does fall short is in passenger capacity, which is just abysmal, with Siemens quoting 50 in first class and 66 in economy class. The Viaggio Comfort is supposed to hold 60-88 and the Amfleet I holds 62 in business class and 72 in coach (previously with up to 84 seats). As I strongly suspect that Siemens is attempting to position themselves for the future Amfleet replacement order, possibly building these at cost or even a loss in order to secure the contract, it's quite odd that the quoted capacities would be so low. The likely answer is that All Aboard Florida is going with a 2+1 seating as the base level with a large amount of leg room in first class. Personally I'm not overly fond of this as I think capacity should be second only to frequency, but the agreements with Tri-Rail which have required quite high short distance fares may have resulted in a base fare level so high that it doesn't make sense to do otherwise.

On another note, with this order, and especially if Siemens wins additional orders for the Charger and these coaches from Amtrak, Sacramento is clearly becoming a center of passenger rail manufacturing in the United States. It's a position that I don't think anyone would have predicted until possibly a few years ago and is quite an enjoyable finger in the eye of those who constantly claim that California's taxes and regulations are hostile to business. It will be quite interesting to see if Siemens attempts to move into the freight market once they've established themselves in American passenger railroading, bringing a large chunk of the Midwest's heavy industry to California with it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Will 2015 be the year that Amtrak turns a profit?

Nine months in to Amtrak’s fiscal year and it is clear that 2014 is going to be Amtrak’s best year ever financially. Indeed, not only is it set to post the lowest loss in inflation adjusted dollars in its history, but the lowest loss in nominal dollars. In three of the months this year; October, December, and June; Amtrak has posted an operational profit, that is to say that it’s revenues have exceeded the costs of providing the service (but not accounting for items such as depreciation). These revenues were sufficiently great that, even with November showing a loss, Amtrak managed to eke out a profitable first quarter.

For the year to date, Amtrak has posted a loss of $128.4 million and is currently projecting a total loss for the year of $233.3 million. However, to do this, it would need to lose $35 million each month during its best performing time of year. Last year, between all three months combined, it lost only $34 million, posting a slight profit in July of $3 million. For it to show a loss of over a hundred million dollars instead would require that some truly amazing feats of accounting over the previous year. That’s not to say that that hasn’t happened: There is currently a $40.4 million in Auto Train expenses that appear to have vanished into the ether. Should it reappear, it will pose a rather significant impact to Amtrak’s bottom line. If, however, it truly has disappeared, and Amtrak’s performance in the fourth quarter matches that of the rest of the year, we should see operating profits in July and August both, with a small loss in September bringing Amtrak to a total operational loss for the year of only $95 million compared to last year’s $355 million loss.

What accounts for this dramatic change in fortunes? Some of it is the result of increased state payments, but this would be the smallest change. There is so far only a $35.6 million increase in revenue credited to state supported train revenue and $62.9 million expected for the whole year. This is dwarfed by the $79.2 million in increased ticket revenues and the $72.2 million reduction in expenses compared to 2013.

Will Amtrak be able to match this performance next year and thus post a small operating profit? It’s possible. This year has shown a net drop in ridership, even with adjustments to represent more accurate counting (multi-pass ridership was significantly overestimated), and revenue has been mostly stagnant outside of the Acela. If Amtrak can manage to grow ridership and revenue in its other segments next year, it should have a fairly strong chance of meeting that goal. Even if 2015 turns out not to be the year that Amtrak makes an operating profit, we should see it by the end of the decade as new equipment, especially the Acela replacement, comes online and expands Amtrak’s capacity.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Capitol Corridor launches plans to increase Roseville frequencies

The Capitol Corridor is looking at spending $200 million to increase service from one round trip to ten

The project involves building a third rail line on the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way. Officials with Union Pacific, which would own the line, say the project would free up space for their freight train operations, which are expected to increase over time. UP would own the new tracks and pay to maintain them, but would not help pay to build them. Instead, it would grant Capitol Corridor the right to run 10 round-trip trains a day on the line.
The line would require construction of 11 overcrossings, including a train bridge over the American River adjacent to the existing rail bridge just west of the Capital City Freeway, and a new passenger platform at the Roseville Amtrak station.
Capitol Corridor officials say the new trains could be up and running by 2018 if the agency lands state and federal funding for the project. Most of the trains would continue on to the Bay Area after stopping in Sacramento. Trains would run from the downtown Roseville Amtrak station to the Sacramento Valley Station at Fifth and I streets in downtown Sacramento, a half-hour ride.
Although the project’s upfront construction costs are large, operational costs are likely to be minimal, according to Capitol Corridor planning manager Jim Allison. The extended service would use existing trains and crews. Allison said his agency’s research suggests south Placer County is a growth area for train ridership. “The whole Placer County area is a growing community, and they are open to the transit options.”
It seems a bit silly, I must admit, not to go whole hog and spend whatever is necessary to send these trains the additional 18 miles to Auburn. That said, the increased train frequencies should do a very good job of boosting ridership from Roseville. Right now the only Capitol Corridor train comes leaves at 7:03 in the morning and returns at 5:48 in the evening. That doesn't work for commuting, which is fairly common on the Capitols, and works even more poorly for attracting the leisure market which is the bread and butter of intercity rail (and 58% of Capitol Corridor ridership, page 13 of the ridership profile survey). These increased frequencies to Roseville should help to arrest the declining ridership that has been plaguing the Capitol Corridor for the past year.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

All Aboard Florida is taking out a rather pricey loan for construction

From Bloomberg comes the news that All Aboard Florida wants a five-year $405 million dollar loan at 12%.

While such a bond offering certainly does help show that All Aboard Florida is indeed a serious concern, that high of an interest rate is absolutely ruinous for any plans to run a profitable rail line; even at their best, the margins are not terribly high. My personal supposition is that this is intended merely to get the ball rolling while they continue to seek an RRIF loan from the Federal government; part of that loan would then be used to refinance this loan into something rather more reasonable. Without the low interest rates of a Federal RRIF loan, however, I do not believe that this line can be profitably constructed, even with the potential revenue from their hotel and convention center plans.

A modest proposal for RailPac

Lately, it feels like almost every single update from RailPac has to do with the long distance train network. To a certain degree this makes sense; there is a question of interconnection with the national network and the long distance Coast Starlight is currently the only passenger train between Northern and Southern California (though not at terribly good times for anyone wishing to actually make such a journey), and of course the long distance trains are always under attack when Congress is putting together a budget. But the emphasis has gotten quite out of hand with so many messages and calls to action regarding the long distance trains: It calls into question whether RailPac is actually attempting to represent the rail passengers of California or whether they’re simply advocates for long distance trains who happen to be located in California. 91.7% of all the boardings and alightings within the state of California are on the state supported trains with an additional 4.7% coming from the Coast Starlight; the emphasis shown to the Sunset Limited and to the long distance trains in general is downright unseemly on that basis.

It does not help that they continue to endorse a conspiracy take on the Northeast Corridor, blaming it for all of Amtrak’s financial woes and the occasional claim of cooking the books as regards the long distance trains. That they continue to approvingly quote Andrew Selden is a strong mark against them, given his habit of lying, either by omission or commission, to distort the truth about long distance trains and the Northeast Corridor. Take, for example, RailPac President Paul Dyson’s recent post, in which he uses some figures provided by Andrew Selden to claim that “Amtrak’s early management was able to use its experience to operate at a moderate deficit. That deficit tripled as soon as the NEC was absorbed and has grown ever since.” I’m a bit surprised that he required Selden’s help to find those figures since they’re available a short google search away, but be that as it may, those reports very clearly show Andrew Selden to have deliberately misused numbers and misrepresented the numbers that he did use. Very simply, the numbers used for 1973 are not from the same set of numbers used for 1978 (in fact, Amtrak does not appear to use them again after 1973) and the numbers which are used for 1978 contain with them a breakdown of expenses which makes it clear that the rise in expenses is not due to Amtrak taking over the Northeast Corridor.  Here follow the actual compatible numbers for 1973-1978, followed again by the breakdown of expenses from 1972-1978

Year Revenue Expenses Deficit

Percentage change 1972-1978 Absolute change 1972-1978
Maintenance of Way
Maintenance of Equipment
Dining and buffet
Equipment rents

The large increase in expenses was not due to the absorption of the Northeast Corridor and its maintenance costs, though it did have the largest percentage change and was responsible for some increase in expense. It would be rather mind boggling if track maintenance, which, even with the old tunnels and bridges of the Northeast Corridor, is quite cheap, were to be the the cause of such a large increase. Instead, as the 1977 Annual Report notes: "Besides inflation and the ownership and operation of the Northeast Corridor, the increase in expenses, which led to the higher deficit, resulted from addition of new routes and services, and continuing increases in direct labor costs and the cost of equipment maintenance and overhaul." (Emphasis added).

But perhaps it might be too much to ask for that RailPac cease associating with a liar and promoting his distortions of the truth or that it cease to continue spreading what is, I admit, a quite popular, if grievously mistaken, view of Amtrak's finances. Instead, I offer up a modest proposal to RailPac, that they might actually represent the rail passengers of California: Balance.

For every call to legislative action to support the Sunset Limited, there should be a call to legislative action to support the introduction of the Coachella Valley rail service. Already the Thruway route from Indio to Fullerton has 20% of the Sunset Limited's entire ridership. Similarly, for every other call to action on other long distance trains, there should be a call to action for the Coast Daylight, for the San Joaquin extension to Redding, and expansion of the Capitol Corridor. For every post detailing a trip made on a long distance train outside of California, there ought to be a post detailing connections that can be made within California via the Thruway network. From the standpoint of California riders, both actual and potential, Solvang or Yosemite are far more relevant than is Tucson and it is such destinations that RailPac ought to be highlighting.