Saturday, March 31, 2012

CAHSR cost lowered to $68B and IOS-South

So reports the Fresno Bee:

The Brown administration has lowered the projected cost to build California's high-speed rail line by $30 billion -- to $68 billion -- as it braces for crucial hearings in the Legislature, according to sources familiar with the plan.
The lower estimate is tied to a series of changes to the project, primarily by relying on existing rail lines in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area.The changes are expected to be announced Monday in Fresno, just five months after the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated the project could cost $98.5 billion. The business plan underpinning that estimate was widely criticized as inadequate, including by lawmakers and by the rail authority's own peer review group.
Elements of the revised plan were suggested by rail officials weeks ago, including the "blended approach," in which existing tracks in urban areas would be upgraded and eventually used by high-speed rail.
The plan now will rely on a high-speed line down the spine of the state -- from Merced to the San Fernando Valley -- with tie-ins to improved tracks in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
 The lower estimate for California's high-speed rail project is tied to a series of changes to the project, primarily by relying on existing rail lines in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
The approach could result in the authority spending more than $1.5 billion to improve commuter rail service in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area, pleasing lawmakers in those areas.
The new plan also will abandon the idea of the so-called "train to nowhere," the much criticized initiative to begin the project with a line from near Chowchilla to Corcoran, sources said.
The federal government, which is contributing some $3.3 billion to the project, conditioned funding on starting in the Central Valley.
Now construction is planned to begin in Merced and move south to Lancaster and the San Fernando Valley.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to ask the Legislature to appropriate some $2.3 billion in rail bond funds within weeks. This week, he told reporters he spent "several hours" on the project changes.

The Revised Business Plan will also be released at 10am Monday, April 2nd.

With the initial reporting at least, it does look like at least some of the lowered cost might be due to slight of hand. On the other hand, much of the costs were due to the patently ridiculous number of trains that they planned on running. A more realistic approach with many elements ditched for "upgrades as warranted by future traffic" might also be the reason for the cost reduction. It'll remain to be seen on Monday.

It does look like my January prediction that the ICS would be abandoned in favor of going straight to IOS was on the money however.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What ridership does All Aboard Florida need to break even?

With All Aboard Florida's initial announcement and their declaration that it would operate without public subsidy, it's worth taking a gander at how reasonable such a statement is. For the purpose of analysis, I made two assumptions:
1. That their hourly service really was hourly and that this schedule was consistent every day of the week. I don't expect this to be the case for the first couple of years (in large part because of the expense and unavailability of enough train sets to manage it), but it's a reasonable assumption for a mature service.
2. That it took four hours from departure until the train arrived at the final destination, was turned around, and departed again.

Between these two assumptions, the result was eight train sets with a total of 32 daily trips between Orlando and Miami with the first train leaving at 6am and the last leaving at 10pm. With a 240 mile long route, that runs to a hair over 2.3 million train-miles per year. At Amtrak's FY2011 budget of $78.42 core expenses per train-mile (page A-2.2), that presents a total annual cost of $219.8 million to run the passenger service. This, however, might be considered a high end figure. A British report (Figure 2.11, page 30) indicates that their cost of train service is £10.6 per train-kilometer plus an additional £6.83 for track access charges (which we may lump together) for a total cost, after conversion, of $44.76 per train-mile (although this figure is somewhat normalized for direct comparisons with various European nations rather than being an exact figure). Since Metrolink achieved $55.7 in 2006 (page 5), $60.14 in 2010 dollars, this seems a reasonable figure and we may figure $125 million per year as a low end figure (an additional support may be found in Figure 3.1, page 23 of the 2007-2008 Pacific Surfliner Business Plan which quotes $48.43 as train expenses per train mile, however this may not include infrastructure and does not appear to include other overhead which the British figure does).

Interestingly, although using the British figure as the lower bound, it is entirely possible that the numbers might be even lower. A brief examination of Amtrak's FY2009 budget, the last to contain expense figures for the entire year, indicates that the Piedmont costs as little as $13 ($28, I neglected to account for a schedule change) per train-mile, the Carolinian $33, and the Palmetto $42.8 (meanwhile, the Acela costs $99 per train-mile and the Surfliner $64). The Ethan Allen Express is the most interesting since it runs the same distance (241 miles in 5.5 hours) at an average cost of $25.58 per train mile. There may be some creative accounting involved, however, and it will be interesting to see how the numbers change once Section 209 pricing is fully implemented. It is also possible, though I would think it profoundly unlikely, that the lower frequency of the trains contributes to a lower cost basis.

With these figures, the question becomes one of ticket pricing. Referring once again to Amtrak's budget, their average ticket yield of 28.96 cents per passenger mile equates to a $69.50 ticket for Orlando to Miami. This is actually a fairly price competitive fare given a US average fuel efficiency of 23.8 miles per gallon, $4 a gallon gasoline and tolls on the competing roads (although there is a 30 minute slower routing which is free of tolls), especially given the car competitive times of the planned rail service. Assuming this, All Aboard Florida would require 1.8-3.2 million passengers, paying full fare and traveling the whole length, in order to break even. Higher or lower fares, of course, would change the numbers.

Is this a reasonable figure? It does appear to be so. The ridership figures fit comfortably within the potential carrying capacity of the trains (at 500 seats per train, in line with current Surfliner consists, they represent a 30-55% load factor). Both numbers are also significantly lower than the Florida High Speed Rail Authority's Orlando-Miami planning study predicted for a 120+ mile per hour system, although with a longer travel time as well (2015 ridership of 4 million, with a 2011 start, and a travel time of 2:33). Provided that they are able to market themselves well, especially to the younger demographics, they stand a healthy chance of reaching that ridership level.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A possible contributing factor to All Aboard Florida

The announcement about All Aboard Florida has led to quite some confusion among rail fans and others watching the industry, mainly resolving around the question of why. After all, passenger rail operations, even when profitable, do not have a terribly high profit margin, and it's unlikely that it would earn back the one billion dollars that they've stated they plan to invest in it. Given that businesses do not tend to be altruistic, what gives?

A clue lies in the initial press release itself. While it would run on Florida East Coast Railway track, the announcement was made by their holding company Florida East Coast Industries which describes itself as a major real-estate owner and developer in the state of Florida. Looking into their holdings, we find one very prominent eight acre parcel in downtown Miami that is especially interesting. This used to actually be the location of the FEC Miami station and skirting the northern edge of the property there remains a single tracked FEC line. It also currently possesses an entitlement for up to 2.5 million square feet of mixed use development.

While this area is certainly valuable enough as is, both due to its inherent location as well as its proximity to Metrorail and Metromover stations, the addition of easily accessible intercity rail connections to the rest of the state greatly boosts that value, especially if developed with an eye towards the tourist trade. Of course, the increase in value to this location does not mean that it will come anywhere near completely recouping the investment costs of All Aboard Florida. Additionally, I was unable to identify additional properties in cities to be served by All Aboard Florida whose value would be similarly enhanced. However, I believe that using passenger rail service to enhance real estate values and incomes, the original purpose of the Florida East Coast Railway in fact, is a significant contributory reason for the All Aboard Florida announcement.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Florida East Coast and rubber-tree plants

A column at

One item that jumped out at me:

The press release announcing All Aboard Florida, as this enterprise is called, talks of 110-mph trains. That would be in the future, Skoropowski says. Initially hourly service would be conducted at 79 mph. Besides those 40 miles of new track, the existing FEC would need to be double-tracked. That’s not as difficult as it seems, he insists. “The FEC once was double track, and all the subballast and the bridges are still there.” At 79 mph, Skoropowski adds, the trip could be made in 3¼ hours. The Acela between Boston and New York City requires 3 hours and 25 minutes.

If this goes forward, once the upgrades to 110 miles per hour are complete, this will, in terms of average speed (which is far more important than maximum speed) be the fastest operating passenger railroad in the Americas until a true high speed rail line opens up, likely the CAHSR initial operating system since Brazil's project doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

An additional bit of news from the article is that the train may still run by 2014 even if the tracks to Orlando are not yet finished by running to Cocoa Beach from Miami in the interim, still a fairly worthwhile market. This, I believe, is easily achievable, given that they already have the trackage necessary for that, with the only hold up being station construction and rolling stock acquisition, both of which can be done on a temporary basis for this.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Some more information about All Aboard Florida

From ProgressiveRailroading:

The company launched a feasibility study for the project several months ago, and an “investment-grade” ridership study and engineering work are under way, according to a press release. Now, FECI will begin to work with local, state and federal officials, as well as communities along the route.
Because the project currently is in what All Aboard Florida spokesperson Christine Barney terms the “due diligence” phase, FECI has not yet determined what type of trainsets it will need to purchase or what firm will operate the trains, she says. Once ridership and environmental reports are completed, the company will be able to issue a project timeline.
At least one date has been issued: FECI plans to launch All Aboard Florida in 2014, a timeframe that’s realistic because the majority of the service will operate along tracks already in service on the Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FEC), Barney says.
The studies under way also will help FECI determine train speeds. The company plans to operate trains at top speeds of 100 mph to 110 mph, says Barney.
And while the line’s operations, maintenance and ownership will be “100 percent privately funded with no risk to the state,” Barney did not rule out the possibility of obtaining at least some public funds for the line’s construction.
“What, if any, minor participation from the state may be required is premature to say at this time,” she says.

I am less than thrilled with the fact that they are only just now doing an investment-grade ridership study and engineering work and working with officials. That, as well as the fact that they do not yet know what type of train sets they will need to purchase, lead me to believe that they will most likely not achieve their anticipated 2014 start date. Other than some legacy Pullmans, which may not be available in the quantities needed, the only intercity rolling stock likely to be available is Wisconsin's Talgos and possibly an additional set or two if they contract with Talgo to continue manufacturing them. Alternatively, of course, they could lease or purchase some commuter rolling stock and refit it, with replacement a few years later, although I don't imagine that would start them off with the best image. The old Mark Twain Zephyr is apparently available for sale however.

It is, however, encouraging to see them planning to operate at up to 110 miles per hour. With the limited number of stops, flat topography of the route, and the PTC mandate for passenger rail, there isn't much reason not to operate at such speeds.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Army cancels troop train plans


The Army’s plan to resurrect the idea of sending troops by rail to training areas has been derailed.
 On Thursday, the Army canceled a pilot project to transport thousands of soldiers from Fort Lee, near Petersburg, to Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County. The Army cited higher costs and longer transport time as the reason.
 In a press release, it added that several locomotives and rail cars it had purchased  last year would be used by the Army for other purposes.
 “While working toward establishing this rail service, we have continued evaluating the program in the face of a changing fiscal environment,” said Maj. Gen James L. Hodge, commanding general of the Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee.
 The command said the evaluation found  a “much higher start-up and operating cost than originally estimated,” while total travel time would have nearly tripled compared with the current method of sending the soldiers on buses.
 The bus trip from Fort Lee takes about three hours; the train journey would have taken eight or nine hours.
 The Army bought three locomotives and 10 gallery-style passenger cars last year from Virginia Railway Express for $250,000.
 But it estimated that other start-up expenditures of as much as $325,000 would have been required, along with additional ongoing costs that were deemed unacceptable.
 For example, the cost of contracting for the operation of the train would have been more than $1 million annually—about $400,000  more than initial estimates.
The Army began looking at the rail option in 2010 after  two earlier crashes involving vehicles transporting troops on highways, including Interstate 95. Several soldiers were injured in one incident.
 After a Base Realignment and Closure Commission decision in 2005, more soldiers were being shifted to Fort Lee, so more were heading to Fort A.P. Hill for mandatory field training. The Army began chartering buses to carry them.
 The Army was projecting that 800 to 1,000 soldiers would be carried on the train about 40 times a year.

Florida East Coast is bringing back private passenger rail

Florida East Coast Industries, Inc. Announces Plans for Private Passenger Rail Service in Florida

Florida East Coast Industries, Inc. (FECI), the owner of Florida’s premier passenger rail corridor, is developing a privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail service to connect South Florida and Orlando, which will be operational in 2014. By connecting the most visited city in the United States with South Florida’s business and vacation destinations, the passenger rail project, called All Aboard Florida, is designed to serve Florida’s growing number of business travelers, as well as families and tourists traveling for pleasure.
The All Aboard Florida passenger rail project will connect South Florida to Orlando through a 240-mile route combining 200 miles of existing tracks between Miami and Cocoa and the creation of 40 miles of new track to complete the route to Orlando. Eventually the system could be expanded with connections to Tampa and Jacksonville.
More than fifty million people travel between South and Central Florida annually, largely over highly congested highways. All Aboard Florida is envisioned to transform the way people travel throughout the state, offering a faster, safer, and more enjoyable mode of transportation between Florida’s two largest metropolitan areas.
Targeted to begin service in 2014, the approximately $1 billion project will operate on a regular schedule throughout the day transporting business and leisure passengers between South Florida and Orlando in approximately three hours

All Aboard Florida, their new website.

This is going to have tremendous impact on Amtrak as every state supporting corridor service, as well as Congress, is going to be drawing parallels between the two services. If Amtrak management in charge of various corridors that have performed poorly yet have high ridership and revenue potential is not quaking in their boots, they are completely blind. With a one billion dollar private investment and the apparent expectation of not only covering their operating costs, but also their investment, from service revenue, this stands as a firm slap in the face of Amtrak's current philosophy and practice.

That is not to say, of course, that all intercity rail services can or will be profitable. But where Amtrak does not invest in corridor services, requiring the supporting states to put forward all the money unless the track belongs to it, and continually demands greater subsidies for them, we see a major investment by a private organization, risking its own money, and asking no subsidy at all. If they're willing to make similar investments elsewhere, even if to a lesser degree and asking for similar or smaller state subsidies, I foresee them easily winning contracts to run corridor services instead of Amtrak.

There's also an important realization here: This is going to be a higher speed rail service. At a flat 3 hours, the 240 mile route would be running at an average of 80 miles per hour; that's about the same speed as the Acela between New York and Washington. I believe much, if not all, of this track will be signaled for 110 miles per hour as a result, or possibly only 90 if an average speed of 70 miles per hour is to be attained and the approximately 3 hours means rather 3.5 hours. More than that and I personally would say "less than four hours" rather than approximately 3.

With all that said, I don't see this as something that will be emulated by the other freight rail companies. FECRR has been greatly expanding their intermodal service and does not run the long heavy slow coal and other bulk trains that the major freights do. For them, light and fast is applicable both to their freight and passenger services. In addition, this is a major tourist travel corridor and in addition to being car competitive time-wise, the existence of tolls (about $16.70 cash) helps make rail a more affordable option.

Edit at 12:40pm: A slight reconsideration on average speeds: It is possible that, when they refer to South Florida and approximately three hours, they're referring to the northernmost southern stop, West Palm Beach. In such a case, the average speed would, obviously, be slower, only about 60 miles per hour, although still significantly faster than corridor operations elsewhere. The FRA mandates positive train control for all mainline passenger rail service, which I believe would be covered by this; should the track be in condition for it, much of the route may be signaled faster than 79mph as a result of the mandate.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

NS slows Amtrak down to 25mph in Michigan

Blames track problems and no need for them to maintain it to higher standards for freight:

Michigan’s version of high-speed passenger rail has hit a speed bump.
Barely a month after Amtrak trains started running at 110 mph in parts of Michigan on the Chicago-to-Detroit route, the passenger service is now crawling as slow as 25 mph on a nearby section of the corridor due to poorly maintained track, Amtrak officials said Thursday.
The slow zone imposed by Norfolk Southern Railway, which cited track safety reasons, is adding as much as 1 1/2 hours to the total scheduled trip time of 5 1/2 hours between Chicago and Detroit, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
The slow order was imposed Thursday by Norfolk Southern on stretches of track the railroad owns between Kalamazoo, Mich., and Ann Arbor, officials said. Amtrak trains formerly operated at up to 79 mph on the segment.
Norfolk Southern said it has no plans to restore the track conditions for faster trains, saying its freight train traffic is operating smoothly at 25 mph.
Amtrak trains will continue to run at up to 110 mph on most of the segment that Amtrak owns between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind., officials said.
But that increase in speed over the previous 95 mph maximum cut only 10 minutes off the running schedule.

I'm surprised that the contracts with Norfolk Southern to run trains over their territory did not specifically require that they appropriately maintain the tracks to a standard sufficient to maintain 79 miles per hour for Amtrak service. Looks like the consequences of that folly are coming back to bite them.

CAHSR looks to IOS-South first

High-speed rail planners focus on running trains to L.A. before Bay Area

No final decision has been made, but high-speed rail planners are increasingly focused on Southern California as the most financially promising place to build the project's first operational segment.
In what could become a political win for the southern portion of the state, project officials say ridership and revenue projections clearly favor connecting the Los Angeles Basin's larger population base to initial construction proposed in the Central Valley. Tracks to the Bay Area would follow at least several years later under that scenario.
Recent discussions with transit agencies in the north and south could soften the impact of any decision on where the system would operate first. Project officials say they are looking at connecting as soon as possible with L.A.'s Metrolink and the Bay Area's Caltrain. Observers say these improvements could be made simultaneously.
But as the rail authority puts final touches on a revised business plan that could determine the project's fate in the state Legislature this spring, Chairman Dan Richard confirmed that planners are giving "more attention" to starting service between Merced and the San Fernando Valley rather than between Bakersfield and San Jose.
Richard denied having a preference for one option or the other; neutrality on this point has been the rail authority's policy. He also emphasized that a final board decision could be years away, and that both options will continue to be investigated in case of unforeseen obstacles.
Even so, he said in an interview earlier this month that he and other board members cannot ignore recent estimates suggesting Southern California has more potential for delivering early operational profits.
"We will be guided to a great extent by the (ridership and revenue) numbers," he said.
If they follow this, it would be a great dose of extra sanity for the high speed rail authority. IOS-North doesn't offer terribly much, there's already a rail connection between the Bay Area and it would still take a significant amount of time to connect between San Francisco/Oakland and the Central Valley due to the Caltrain corridor. IOS-South connects the state rail network and, because it has a fast and immediate connection to Los Angeles (and SCRRA is highly likely to fund electrification for the "last mile" from the San Fernando Valley to Union Station), is of high utility, especially considering the large amounts of traffic (about 65,000 average daily vehicles) through the Grapevine, which is subject to weather related closures and delays. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Capitol Corridor to eliminate an extremely poor train

There are low performing trains and then there are low performing trains. From the Capitol Corridor's draft 2012-2014 business plan:

Operating Plan. The CCJPA recognizes that the under-performing economy has resulted in lower than expected diesel fuel sales tax revenues into the Public Transportation Account (PTA) [the sole source of state operating and capital support]. To maintain its 13-year track record of success, the CCJPA plans to implement a service plan for FY 12-13 that optimizes available resources and meets ridership demand. When the Sacramento Railyards Relocation Project (Phase 1) is completed in May 2012, there will be increased storage capacity for trainsets, which will provide the CCJPA the ability to redeploy the trainsets used in the morning. As a result, the CCJPA will reduce the weekday service levels from 32 trains (16 round trips) to 30 trains (15 round trips) by eliminating a low performing Oakland-to-Sacramento morning train (20 riders per train per weekday vs. 165 system average), and merging two, late weekday evening Sacramento-to-Oakland trains into one trip.

Were there no ridership studies prior to the introduction of this added train which would have shown how poor the ridership was? Even if they were horribly wrong, why was this service permitted to run for at least five years with such extremely poor ridership? Even commuter services, which the Capitol Corridor really is in truth, if not in name, would not offer a train with such poor ridership.

Speaking of the Capitol Corridor as commuter train, however, there is some good transit connectivity news from them. Over the next few years they plan to study the following:
Explore Clipper smart-card fare collection technology or other current best-fit technology of a similar basis on the Capitol Corridor trains provided it can be incorporated into the Amtrak ticketing structure
Continuation and expansion of transit connectivity programs such as the Transit Transfer Program, joint ticketing, and transfer of motorcoach bus routes to parallel local transit services

FRA standards and historical crash safety

Much has been written about the weight penalties that FRA standards impose upon American passenger rail equipment as well as their dubious safety advantages. In line with this, I've decided to go back through intercity and commuter rail accidents with on-board fatalities for the previous twenty years and see whether FRA standards were necessary or advantageous.  In order to be necessary for my purposes, it is necessary that the accident not be preventable through ordinary other means, such as the use of positive train control. I also freely acknowledge that there may be a selection bias in only examining fatal accidents; accidents where FRA compliance successfully prevented fatalities are necessarily excluded. It is worth keeping in mind that I am not an engineer and make no pretense of being one; my opinions as to whether FRA standards aided are strictly amateur and may be completely wrong.

Where possible, links are to the NTSB investigations.

June 24, 2011: A speeding truck operated by a driver with a history of citations for unsafe driving slams into the side of an Amtrak train, killing five aboard the train in addition to himself. It does not seem likely that alternate safety standards following UIC or Japanese practice would have helped or hindered compared to the existing FRA standards.

September 12, 2008, Chatsworth, CA: Metrolink commuter train crashes head on with a Union Pacific freight train at a combined speed of 84 miles per hour resulting in 25 fatalities. The lead passenger coach telescoped 52 feet into the locomotive and was the known location of 22 of the 24 passenger fatalities. FRA compliance clearly did not aid crash safety compared to alternative standards incorporating crash energy management. This accident would have been preventable with the use of positive train control and indeed was directly responsible for the current positive train control mandate.

September 17, 2005, Chicago, IL: Metra train derails during a crossover, killing two passengers. The crossover was rated for 10 miles per hour, the train traversed at 69 miles per hour. There was no information provided as to the nature of the fatal injuries, but they were most likely due to collision with objects or the interior of the car. This accident would have been preventable with the use of positive train control.

January 26, 2005, Glendale, CA: An aborted suicide results in a Metrolink commuter train impacting an empty SUV intentionally left on a grade crossing. 11 aboard the train were killed after the train derailed and struck a stationary freight locomotive and another passing Metrolink train. FRA standards are of unknown impact.

April 6, 2004, Flora, MS: Amtrak train derails at 78 miles per hour due to poor track maintenance and inspection. One passenger is killed due to a "traumatic impact injury." FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

January 6, 2003, Burbank, CA: Poor signal design at a grade crossing, where a steady red signal turned into a blinking red (normally indicating that one may proceed as though it were a stop sign) as a Metrolink commuter train approached, leads a truck driver, legally drunk at the time, to proceed through the crossing, where he is struck and killed. An elderly Metrolink passenger dies of injuries two weeks later. FRA standards are not applicable to this

April 23, 2002, Placentia, CA: A BNSF train passed a stop signal and struck a stationary Metrolink commuter train. Two passengers died  from blunt impact injuries received from striking a work table. This accident would have been preventable with positive train control.

April 18, 2002, Crescent City, FL: Amtrak Auto Train derails at 56 miles per hour due to poor track maintenance. Four fatalities resulted during the derailment due to trees dislodging the windows and resulting in the full or partial ejection of six passengers in two cars. FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

March 17, 2001, Nodaway, IA: Amtrak train derails at 52 miles per hour due to a defective rail. One passenger is fatally injured with no information provided as to the nature of the injury. FRA standards do not appear to have been applicable to this accident.

March 15, 1999, Bourbonnais, IL: Amtrak train strikes semi-trailer at grade-crossing and derails, striking freight cars parked on an adjacent siding. 11 passengers were fatally injured, all located in one particular sleeping car which had wound up wrapping itself around the second Amtrak locomotive in the train. As many as five may have perished due to fire rather than the impact itself due to inability to rescue, but no positive determination was made. It does not strike me as though alternative standards such as UIC would have helped or hindered in this event.

June 18, 1998, Portage, IN: NICTD two car EMU strikes a truck carrying steel coils, one of which penetrates the first car, killing three passengers. The steel coil weighed approximately 19 tons and provided an impact force of 2.36 million foot-pounds, nearly an order of magnitude higher than the 300,000 foot-pound requirement for collision posts in multiple units at the time (which were raised post-collision). Accordingly, they do not appear to have aided safety. Furthermore, this grade crossing was a known hazardous crossing and would have been preventable had it been separated or a more effective safety plan put into place with it.

February 16, 1996, Silver Spring, MD: MARC commuter train collides with Amtrak train and derails with 11 fatalities aboard the commuter. At least 8 of these fatalities were due to the catastrophic failure of the leading Amtrak locomotive's fuel tank resulting in fuel spraying into the MARC cab car and resulting fire. This accident was preventable with the use of positive train control. 

February 9, 1996, Secaucus, NJ: A New Jersey Transit commuter train proceeds through a red stop signal and collides head-on with another NJT commuter train, resulting in three fatalities. The offending engineer failed to correctly perceive the stop signal due to an unreported color blindness which was not caught during his company physical. This accident would have been prevented with the use of positive train control.

September 22, 1993, Mobile, AL: Amtrak's Sunset Limited derails and plunges off a bridge into the water, killing 47. The rail was kinked due to a barge colliding with the bridge several minutes earlier. FRA standards are not relevant to this accident.

January 18, 1993, Gary, IN: Two NICTD commuter trains collide head on after one passes a stop signal, killing seven passengers. This accident would have been prevented with the use of positive train control.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Really Amtrak, seriously?

Canadian National has responded to Amtrak's STB filing regarding CN's dispatching and Amtrak's statutory preference. Included in the filing was this gem:
As a result of Amtrak failing to properly fuel its locomotives, this has been a recurring problem, particularly in the area of Champaign, IL. [For example, on September 4, 2011 Train #58 (New Orleans to Chicago) was delayed for half an hour in Champaign while it was refueled after it left Carbondale, IL, with insufficient fuel to make it to Chicago. Similarly, on July 5, 2011, Train #391 (Chicago to Carbondale) ran out of fuel on a single-track segment just south of Delrey (between Chicago and Champaign), causing more than 15 hours of delay to itself, another Amtrak train, and four freight trains.

For the record, that's about a one hundred mile distance from Chicago where it ran out of fuel. Admittedly, not quite as bad a situation as the Gimli Glider, but still absolutely ridiculous and completely without any excuse whatsoever.

Wisconsin votes to mothball Talgo, use conventional Amtrak cars

State legislature votes to throw away $72 million in sunk costs and continue using 20-30 year old equipment as well as open themselves up to lawsuit by Talgo. Now, granted that sunk costs are generally fallacious, but choosing to mothball available equipment in favor of increasingly decrepit equipment that will need to be replaced in the near future anyhow is just absurd.

However, now that they've indicated that they have no wish for the train sets, this represents a golden opportunity for the state of California. Two bargain price Talgo sets plus a maintenance facility would allow for an ahead of schedule introduction of California's planned Coast Daylight service between Los Angeles and San Francisco (via Oakland). The maintenance facility which was the sticking point for Wisconsin may be cheaper for California as well thanks to the opportunity to colocate with Metrolink, Caltrain, or Amtrak facilities. Use of Talgo sets may additionally allow for a decreased running time from the current 11-12 hours, an important consideration with a daylight running train. That said, I am of the opinion that, using conventional trains, a sleeper service would be far more successful than a daylight train in terms of cost recovery and patronage since it would result in little to no productive time loss, in contrast to a daylight train which absorbs the whole day and is not time competitive with cars.

An added advantage to California purchasing these train sets is that Wisconsin could then use the money to purchase additional conventional rail cars in joint with California, Illinois, and other states later this year, adding capacity and replacing older equipment even without the Talgos.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Housekeeping note

At some point last year the video used in the value of crash energy management post was changed to be private. I've since tracked down the original video and reuploaded it publicly to YouTube to fix that problem.

Dan Richards claims price reduction coming for CAHSR

High speed rail chief: Bullet train won't cost $100 billion

Promising "improvements" to the state's controversial bullet train plan, the new head of the project told a Senate hearing in Silicon Valley on Tuesday he now believes building high-speed rail would cost less than the alarming estimate of nearly $100 billion.
"I believe the number's coming down," Dan Richard told a packed auditorium Tuesday night. "Obviously the $98 billion was sticker shock for a lot of people."
Using existing tracks like Caltrain and speeding up the construction schedule would bring down the costs of the project, Richard said in defending the much-criticized plan that Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed him to revive. He also promised quicker upgrades to Bay Area and Los Angeles commuter lines that would share the track and upgrading the initial leg of track in the Central Valley.
Richard said the project's first segment in the Central Valley -- dismissed by some as a $6 billion "train to nowhere" -- will be tweaked to offer more "immediate benefits," but he offered no specifics.
He also vowed to spend some $750 million in state funds in the next few years to help electrify the Caltrain line and $1 billion for similar commuter rail upgrades in Southern California, laying the foundation for bullet trains in those regions. The state's new plan will call for launching train service sooner by breaking the 520-mile line into "bite-sized" segments that can be built quicker. Previous estimates had delayed full service between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 2034.
Also mentioned was the fact that the revised business plan should be out within the next two weeks.

It remains to be seen whether the cost and completion time reductions will be due to substantial changes or whether it is just going to be a sleight of hand change such as redefining the blended plan as the full build. Being somewhat cynical and, quite frankly, rather distrusting of the Authority at this point, my money is on the latter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Amtrak's poor on-time performance for Surfliner

Every month Amtrak, along with Metrolink and Coaster, provides on time performance data to the LOSSAN board. However, the numbers are not strictly comparable. While Metrolink and Coaster use an on-time definition of “within 5 minutes” for their trains, Amtrak, following the definitions of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, defines an on-time arrival as within 10 minutes of the scheduled terminus. The question then arises as to what the performance is when using comparable definitions.
As detailed in the agenda for the March 5th, 2012 LOSSAN meeting, Pacific Surfliner performance between Los Angeles and San Diego had dropped to only 74.6% on time performance in January of 2012 under Amtrak’s definition, despite a schedule change on January 9th that was supposed to resolve passenger train conflicts. By contrast, San Diego’s Coaster achieved a 94.2% on-time performance and Metrolink’s Orange County Line was on-time for 97.7% of all trains.
When we delve into the data and calculate figures based on an on-time definition of within five minutes, rather than ten, Amtrak’s performance figures, as would be expected, drop significantly. Between January 9th, the first day of the new schedule, and March 5th, the last day for which information was available for all trains when I began the data collection, the weekday performance for trains terminating in San Diego was only 59.5%. 

Somewhat surprisingly, since many trains were late due to track work north of Los Angeles, the weekday performance for trains arriving in Los Angeles from San Diego was even worse, dropping to 58.75%. Considering only 500 series (which do not run north of Los Angeles), southbound train performance improved to 66.8%

Certain trains, of course, contributed far more than their fair share. 567, which leaves San Diego at 8:05am and has a scheduled arrival of 10:50am, had an on-time arrival only 8 out of the 41 days studied, a pathetic performance of only 19.5%. During February, that dropped to 14.3% with an average delay of 17 minutes and a typical delay of 12.5 minutes for the single worst performing train in the Surfliner route.
As was previously recounted on this blog, the Pacific Surfliner Express train, 599, actually performed worse than the rest of the line. When adjusting to a 5 minute definition, it’s performance improves to be slightly better than the rest of the pack, at 63.4%; however, it arrived on-time less than half the time in February, with only a 42.9% OTP and a typical delay of 9 minutes (however, half of the delays were 30 minutes or longer). This essentially wipes out the time savings which the express train is supposed to represent and is an extreme business failure. 
Weekend performance is slightly better, as would be expected given the greatly restricted number of train meets. Metrolink’s weekend service consists of only four trains per day, only two of which extend past Laguna Niguel to Oceanside, while Coaster has a somewhat more robust weekend schedule with a total of eight trains operating between Oceanside and San Diego. Nevertheless, Amtrak’s on time performance fails to exceed 70%, with 68.18% for northbound trains and 67.74% for trains terminating in San Diego, although a restriction to 500 series trains improves results to 77.9% for southbound trains.

This poor performance is despite extensive schedule padding which allows trains to make up as much as fifteen minutes. The padding is sufficiently egregious that the scheduled time from Solano Beach to San Diego ranges from 38-48 minutes, longer than the scheduled time for Coaster to make the same journey with two additional stops in Sorrento Valley and Old Town San Diego (scheduled time for Coaster being 37-40 minutes). Train 774, in particular, has some rather large schedule padding. While the statistics may be somewhat inflated due to a number of its trips being cancelled or shortened without arrival information available, it had an extremely high percentage of trips arrive substantially early. 21% of trains arrived late, but an astonishing 47% of trains arrived in excess of five minutes early to San Diego. Removing five minutes of padding from its schedule would result in only one additional of the trains which ran during the timeframe studied being declared late under the 5 minute threshold and none at all under Amtrak’s 10 minute threshold. 580 may also be subject to this as not a single additional train would be late with a five minute reduction in schedule time (however, it had a dreadful January performance with no weekday train running on time until the 31st; post-January it managed an overall 79.5% OTP).
While the Amtrak status archive does not give reasons for the delays, given the limited performance gain for the almost entirely commuter train free weekends, it seems evident that much of the problem is unrelated to train meets or preferential treatment by Metrolink and Coaster dispatchers, but rather to problems which are entirely of Amtrak’s own making, such as unreliable equipment leading to breakdowns.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Metrolink ticket utility will change in June

From LA Metro's blog The Source comes word on possible changes due to MetroRail locking down their gates:

EZ Transit and Metrolink passes will be TAP-enabled or will no longer be valid for transfer onto the Metro Rail system. (NOTE: Paper fare media can remain valid for bus transfers.)

I greatly hope that the option taken will be one of TAP enabling Metrolink passes rather than rendering them non-valid. In addition to maintaining the current great utility of permitting free transfers to MetroRail and avoiding the inevitable issues with customer relations when this turns on, should TAP readers be placed aboard Metrolink trains as well, this would enhance the flexibility of the system for all current TAP users, who could now debit from their card rather than purchase an additional paper ticket, as well as encourage the adoption of TAP cards by surrounding agencies such as OCTA.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Liberty University offers to build Amtrak a new station

Liberty University offers to build a new station and handle all construction costs, which would then be leased to Amtrak.

When Amtrak trains arrive at Lynchburg's Kemper Street Station, passengers are dropped off in the heart of the city.
It's a convenient location for travelers like Robert Thomas.
"It's been excellent," said Thomas, who was traveling through Lynchburg Wednesday on his way to Philadelphia.  "We would not be in Lynchburg if it wasn't for the Amtrak service."
Not everyone likes where the station is located.  Some say it's hard to find.  Others want it closer to a major highway.

Officials at Liberty University are offering a solution.  They want to build a brand new train station, right next to their campus.
"We believe many more students would use the train if it would be close by here," said LU Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Junior, who has submitted a proposal to Amtrak.
The school is offering to build a new train station, and pay for all construction costs.  Amtrak would then lease the property from LU.
Students who already ride Amtrak are excited about the idea.
"I think it would be great, because it would actually be close by," said LU Student, Josh Brelsford.
But would it be convenient for everyone else?
Falwell believes it would.  His proposed site is next to the junction of Routes 29 and 460.  A train station in this location would be 15 minutes closer to Roanoke and points west than the current Kemper Street station.
By building a new train facility near the Lynchburg Regional Airport, Falwell thinks the area could become a regional transportation hub.
"It's the only place that's easily accessible by car to the whole four-county metro area," Falwell said.
This is the sort of opportunity upon which Amtrak management ought to be throwing themselves on the floor shouting "Praise the Lord!" A free station next to a 12,000 resident student university (and a 4,500 student community college on the other side of the tracks)? Not only that, but this presents the opportunity to influence what is traditionally a demographic hostile to passenger rail, right-wing Evangelical Christians.

Operating as a stop in addition to the current Lynchburg station should not pose any major issues with current or future Amtrak service. The station would be directly along the line to the next stop for the Crescent in Danville, VA which means simply a brief halt (checked baggage and Amtrak Express LCL ought to be continued to be handled at the main station, but "checkable" to this station; a brief run with a pickup truck to the university mail room would not only suffice but give the impression of a superior customer service). With current Lynchburg service, of course, there is only a few miles of continued running before terminating at this station, resulting in no operational difficulties. An anonymous "train expert" is quoted in the article as saying that it may pose a problem for planned service to Roanoke; an examination of the area with Google Maps indicates to me that it should be a simple wye movement or even easier if push-pull is utilized, resulting in minimal additional delay to the line and well worth it in my opinion.

Of course, it should be hoped that the university will design it in such a way as to cater to pedestrians, as university students typically are, rather than turning it into a parking lot hell as the "regional transportation hub" comments imply.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

CAHSR bond payments $709 million per year

So says the Legislative Analyst Office in a recent letter to the state attorney general. Until such time as the Authority can demonstrate some degree of competence and cost control (and preferably have the state get a better interest rate), I'm going to have to agree that the state would be better off without the high speed rail project.

Monday, March 5, 2012

OCTA bus farebox recovery ratios

Stumbled across this the other day, thought I'd put up a link for those whom buses are their thing. My own initial impression is that frequency of connections is a major criteria for ridership, quite possibly exceeding housing or employment density along the individual route.