Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Pacific Surfliner Express is a failure

The preceding image is courtesy of the agenda for the forthcoming March 5th, 2012 LOSSAN board meeting. As is readily apparent, ridership has been stagnant or even dropped on the Express train, rather the opposite of what one would expect. There are a few major reasons for this, in my opinion:
1. Far from being an express train, it's a limited train with only a few skipped stations, resulting in only a 12 minute decrease in total travel time from San Diego to Los Angeles.
2. On-time performance is piss-poor. Even after the January schedule change, which was supposed to help eliminate conflicts with other trains, it has continued to drop. It's performance is poor relative even to other Pacific Surfliner trains at 68.2% for January compared to 74.6% for LOSSAN-South Surfliners. These delays eliminate the goodwill of businessmen who it is supposed to be primarily marketed towards as well as the supposed time savings.
3. Quite frankly, I think it was the wrong train to try it with in the first place. What is currently 763, the first train of the day from San Diego, arriving in Los Angeles at 8:50am, makes for a far better candidate for business travel marketing with a Limited scheduling especially given the elimination of the 2pm southbound Surfliner. While it currently has an even worse OTP compared to the current Express, this is due to its activity on LOSSAN-North rather than its travel from San Diego to Los Angeles.

How to fix things:
1. Change the train. Switching to the earlier train should greatly increase its appeal to the business community for a more appropriate arrival time in Los Angeles.
2. Change the train set. Use some of the current ARRA and HSIPR funding to purchase Talgo train sets instead of rail cars and make sure to have one of those used for the Limited instead of ordinary equipment. In addition to possibly reducing travel times even more thanks to tilting, this grants a sense of novelty, a truly special train, and most importantly, free advertising. As it currently stands, not only is any available equipment used for the Express, but that includes even the Amfleet consist on the Surfliner route some days, which of course will butcher OTP and not enhance the travel experience.
3. Make it reserved. This is a Limited train, so again, we want to create an experience that it is a Limited train. Having it filled with Metrolink passengers, who contribute only $2 per ride to Amtrak when using their monthly pass, degrades the value both to Amtrak and the business community that this must be marketed towards, especially given the timing of the train itself which makes it prone to commuter traffic.
4. Invest in signaling and track work to increase speeds. There are large stretches of straight double or triple track which are currently traversed at 79 mph or less. These should all be upgraded to permit travel at 110 miles per hour, a fairly cheap investment on the order of approximately one million dollars per mile.

Where are the advertisements?

With gasoline increasing over 45 cents per gallon since the beginning of the year, the time is perfect to advertise and push for increased transit ridership. Yet all we hear are crickets. This is absurd when the riders own marginal costs, measured solely in terms of fuel expense, is higher than a transit fare. Toss in the normal free parking at suburban rail stations compared with the expense of parking in downtown Los Angeles or San Diego (or other urban areas) and the billboards, radio and television ads practically write themselves. "Save a hundred dollars a month and start enjoying your commute! Take the train today!"

Yet we hear nothing. I've only once ever heard a Metrolink ad, simply a brief mention after a traffic report on the radio, and the last Amtrak advertisement series was Amtrak California extolling "Wi-Finally" regarding the addition of (slow) wifi service aboard the Pacific Surfliner; an advertisement series which I consider rather poor and likely to have a very low return on investment. Given that the marginal cost to rail operators for increased passengers is nil until they need extra equipment, and even then low until they run out of equipment available, it is mind boggling why they do not capitalize on this opportunity to greatly increase their farebox recovery, increase their loyal customer base, and promote themselves politically. The more people that use Metrolink, Coaster, and Amtrak, the more people are willing to vote for and support political agendas that spend more money on passenger rail.

Similarly, with Mardi Gras occurring recently, Amtrak had a terrific opportunity to market the Sunset Limited, even with its thrice-weekly schedule, and increase its currently poor recovery ratio. Given the nature of Mardi Gras and the age demographics, this should be the easiest and cheapest marketing in the world; simply print out some flyers and post them across USC, UCLA, and other college campuses. But again, nothing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Argentine train crash demonstrates need for crash energy management

An Argentine commuter train pulled too quickly into a station and hit the end of the line at 12 miles per hour, killing at least 49 and injuring hundreds.

The commuter train came in too fast and hit the barrier at the end of the platform at about 12 mph, smashing the front of the engine and crunching the leading cars behind it, Schiavi said. One car penetrated nearly 20 feet into the next, he said.
Most damaged was the first car, where passengers make space for bicycles. Survivors told the TeleNoticias channel that many people were injured in a jumble of metal and glass.
Passengers said windows exploded as the tops of train cars separated from their floors. The trains are usually packed with people standing between the seats, and many were thrown into each other and to the floor by the force of the hard stop.

In a previous post, I linked to the following paper, based on FRA collision tests which predicted 55 fatalities in a commuter train collision at 30 miles per hour. This seems to have been borne out by this tragedy. It would highly behoove the Federal Railroad Authority and members of Congress to, in light of this crash, reform American rail car safety standards in line with UIC standards and focusing on crash energy management to prevent the telescoping responsible for this accident. No one should have died today and no one should die in a future crash in America either.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unorganized thoughts and sources on electrification

Initially gathered these for a post I've since dropped

Prices and Costs in the Railway Sector is a handy quick overview of very rough estimation for non-American rail costs. It's in 2000 Euros, which traded at parity with the dollar, so a simple inflation adjustment is all that's needed to bring costs up to today.

SNCF practice is to use a 60MVA substation every 40-60km and 10-15MVA autotransformers every 10-15km. These are the priciest elements of electrification, but not terribly so. Road overpass reconstructions to create clearance for electrification accommodating double stacked freight is almost certainly going to create major costs in excess of the actual electrification.

Catenary is sufficiently cheap (~$400,000 per track-kilometer) that any argument based upon the notion of delaying electrification because later improvements would require removal and reinstalling catenary ought to be ignored.

Purchasing ALP-45DPs without major modifications might be only 7.8 million per locomotive. Admittedly a high estimate compared to major freight locomotive purchases, but more affordable than their initial cost.

Amtrak's FY reports report a fuel consumption of 2.3 gallons per train-mile, but cost of diesel fuel is accelerating quickly. While Amtrak’s average for the year was $2.76 per gallon (for a total cost of $6.348 per train-mile), by September 2011 that had sharply risen and they were paying $4.38 per gallon ($10.07 per mile). Metrolink has currently secured fuel at a price of $3.25 per gallon and budgets at $3.40 per gallon in the current fiscal year ($7.48 and $7.82 per train-mile). Meanwhile Amtrak's 5 Year Financial Plan estimates a 6% annual increase in the cost of diesel with a price of 3.91 by FY2016 (page 45). I think this is probably on the optimistic side.

The British government sometime ago made available a study with a variety of actual fuel and electricity consumption figures for British trains. Of course they've redone their website since then and broken all the old links to it, but trawling around found it once more. 500 tons is close to the weight of a 6-7 car train set with American cars. Given LA Metro's price of 12 cents per kilowatt/hour, using electrical consumption figures from the Class 90 (22.62 kwh/mile), electrification with locomotives would drop fuel costs by two-thirds. EMU electrical consumption figures vary widely, down to as low as 5.7 kilowatt hours per mile, but also often being as high as a locomotive hauled consist. Off-handedly I want to suggest that third rail electrification may be more energy efficient than overhead.

Eyeballing the acceleration given in this presentation suggests a possible 20% improvement by use of electric locomotives over diesel. That said, I did not account for any difference in power capabilities.

Obama's 2013 budget and rail

Taking a scan through the DoT summary:

• Provides $2.7 billion in 2013 and $47 billion over six years to develop high-speed passenger rail corridors and improve intercity passenger rail service to significantly enhance the national rail network.
Provides Dedicated Funding for High Speed Rail Investments. The Budget provides $47 billion over six years to fund the development of high-speed rail and other passenger rail programs as part of an integrated national strategy. This system will provide 80 percent of Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service, within 25 years. The proposal includes merging Amtrak’s stand-alone subsidies into the high-speed rail program as part of a larger, competitive System Preservation initiative.

American government being what it is, of course, the DoT summary appears to be contradicted by the overall. Go figure.

• Provide 80 percent of Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service, within 25 years. The Budget provides $47 billion over six years, plus $6 billion in 2012, to fund the development of high-speed rail and other passenger rail programs as part of an integrated national strategy. This includes merging Amtrak’s stand-alone subsidies into the high-speed rail program as part of a larger, competitive System Preservation Initiative.
•Establish a National Infrastructure Bank.
To direct Federal resources for infrastructure to projects that demonstrate the most merit and may be difficult to fund under the current patchwork of Federal programs, the President has called for the creation of an independent, non-partisan National Infrastructure Bank (NIB), led by infrastructure and financial experts. The NIB would offer broad eligibility and merit-based selection for large-scale ($100 million minimum) transportation, water, and energy infrastructure projects. Projects would have a clear public benefit, meet rigorous economic, technical and environmental standards, and be backed by a dedicated revenue stream. Geographic, sector, and size considerations would also be taken into account. The NIB would issue loans and loan guarantees to eligible projects. Loans issued by the NIB could be extended up to 35 years, giving the NIB the ability to be a “patient” partner side-by-side with State, local, and private co-investors. To maximize leverage from Federal investments, the NIB would finance no more than 50 percent of the total costs of any project.

So in the magical scenario where Obama gets his budget passed, we have an infrastructure bank and six billion this year for rail and 7.8 billion the next three years, but about a billion of it goes to Amtrak for operational subsidies.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

COASTER and the Marines for TOD on Camp Pendleton

The North County Transit District and the Marine Corps are joining forces to extend the Coaster commuter train north from Oceanside to a station in the heart of Camp Pendleton.

On Thursday, NCTD planners will seek approval from the board of directors to work with the military base on planning and preliminary design for a rail spur and station. The preliminary work is expected to cost up to $334,000.

If the project runs as smoothly as NCTD officials hope, within four years the base’s 70,000 daytime military and civilian personnel and 38,000 residential military family members will have on-base access to Coaster trains.

And quite likely, on-base access to Amtrak Surfliner and Metrolink trains as well.

“We’re excited to have the chance to serve North County’s largest employer,” said NCTD Chief Administrative Officer Alex Z. Wiggins in a conference call on Friday.

Earlier this year the Marine Corps approached NCTD to discuss the creation of a Coaster station on base, according to Timothy McCormich, NCTD director of services planning. The base master plan, he noted, favors high-density, transit-oriented development.

Indeed, an unprecedented construction boom is under way on base. A $65 million grocery and department store exchange has opened; a $500 million hospital is due to open in 2014; a 500-bed barracks compound for unmarried personnel is being built; and there are plans for 900 new homes.

NCTD and the Marines want to land their station in the midst of all this development, near the Stuart Mesa Housing Complex, said NCTD deputy chief operations officer Lane Fernandes.

To accomplish this, the Coaster route would be extended 2 miles on a spur track from its current terminus, Oceanside.

The planners say that among the project’s selling points is that NCTD already has its train storage and maintenance yard on Pendleton property, not far from the Stuart Mesa site. Also, they say, the military has secured environmental clearances for the area in the course of developing its current master plan.

The project fits in nicely with earlier announced plans to extend the Coaster’s southern terminus beyond Santa Fe Station, to the Convention Center. Conceivably, said Wiggins, the Coaster could provide the Navy with a single transit connection between Pendleton and the 32nd Street Naval Station.

From a business plan perspective, the base is a ripe opportunity for NCTD, which currently runs several Breeze bus routes through the base. A study last year found that a substantial number of base personnel already live on the key transit corridors served by Coaster and Sprint commuter trains.

Additionally, base personnel are motivated to use public transit. Since 2002, noted Fernandes, the Navy has reimbursed its troops and civilian employees up to $230 a month for transit pass purchases.

Fernandes and McCormich emphasize that the project is in its earliest stages and there are no actual figures yet for construction costs, timelines or even operational plans.

The first step, they say, is to get approval for the project and the planning and engineering funding from the board on Thursday.

This, I expect, would lead to a major increase in Coaster traffic as well as Surfliner ridership and revenue if they can put together integrated ticketing and cross-platform transfers at Oceanside; neither of which should be an issue thanks to the forthcoming integrated timetable and the future LOSSAN joint powers authority. With boot camp in San Diego and the School of Infantry and other advanced training at Camp Pendleton, specially chartered troop trains between San Diego and this new spur may become a fairly standard feature on the rail line.

Additionally, this may be indicative of a new trend within the US military to return to passenger rail transportation; the US Army is starting troop trains this year between Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Lee in Virginia, the first in twenty-five years, due to concerns about motor vehicle accidents and safety with the previous practice of busing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Amtrak speeds up to 110-mph Chicago-Detroit

Although not announced, some simple math puts the time savings at about 8.5-9 minutes not considering any additional acceleration time required and about twenty minutes all told from the 79 mile per hour speed limit. For only eight daily trains and 600,000 annual passengers, this honestly does not seem like much bang for the buck on Amtrak's part. Once again I feel that Amtrak should be divested from its infrastructure and refocus on national rail service instead of projects like this one. While I hate to be parochial (not really), the same speed increase, even over a shorter portion of the LOSSAN Line, such as from Irvine to Los Angeles, would have reaped far greater results. Three times as many trains each with about 40% more passengers as it currently is and a ten mph increase in average speeds makes it far more car competitive with one of, if not the, busiest automotive corridors in the country, leading to greater revenues for Amtrak. But instead it gets wasted out in Michigan because Amtrak owns those lines and SCRRA owns (most of) LOSSAN-South.