Thursday, January 17, 2013

The joint Amtrak/CAHSRA train order

Amtrak has now officially announced their request for information for a joint purchase of high speed trains by them and the California High Speed Rail Authority. The plan calls for an initial purchase of 12 high speed train sets by Amtrak and 27 by California, with a further purchase of 20 train sets by Amtrak in the early 2020s. The RFP is anticipated this September and an order placed in 2014.

On the face of it, this is a horrible plan. 220mph operation is far more than Amtrak is currently capable of doing on the Northeast Corridor and likely will not be seen within the lifespan of these train sets since the entire NEC HSR plan currently exists only as a concept. At the same time, Californian trains are likely to be burdened with requirements and equipment not needed for operations in California with a probable reduction in performance or increase in cost, though I am hopeful that it will not be significant. That aside, there does appear to be significant upsides to this joint purchase order.

To begin with, by joining with California in a purchase order supported by the Federal Railroad Authority, Amtrak will have additional clout in order to support sane Tier III regulations allowing the import of foreign designs. The fact that California has the ability, at some additional upfront construction cost, to pull out of the purchase order, a project endorsed and desired by the FRA, should the regulations become burdensome and still buy off the shelf train sets further improves their bargaining position with the FRA, who would suffer quite a good deal of embarrassment should their own actions scuttle a major project of theirs.

Secondly, the size of the order is sufficiently substantial and lengthy that domestic manufacturing of high speed train sets will stay open in America for the foreseeable future and will be more substantial than simply assembling components from overseas, as has often been the case. While I personally prefer separate orders in order to foster competition, both now and in the future, the size of this order will be one of the largest in the world and should result in significant competition on its own. Additionally, I would expect it to actually increase in size as, should XpressWest be funded and built, I anticipate them to join the purchase order, probably taking some of the early CAHSR sets for their own service.

Third, since this is partially intended by Amtrak to increase high speed service to every half-hour between New York and Washington, it raises hopes that Amtrak will standardize on one train set for the Northeast Corridor, replacing the current Amfleet Regionals with high speed trains (though this would require essentially writing off most of the ACS-64 order as a mistake). This may already be the plan, since current Amtrak NEC service is two trains per hour, or it would result in a 20 minute headway service of two express and one all stop high speed service.

To my eyes, the California order is too large as a first order and I do see this as a current bad note. 27 train sets would require either a remarkably poor utilization rate (as only 62 daily round trips are expected systemwide with the blended plan, page 4) or the more likely doubling up of train sets into 400m trains. While there is nothing wrong with doubling up train sets, I am doubtful that sufficient demand for the service will be present soon enough that it makes sense to run trains with a capacity for a thousand passengers early enough to be done as part of a first order. However, I could be wrong; the peak trip Surfliners run that many simply between Los Angeles and San Diego and while Fresno to Los Angeles is a significantly smaller market, it is possible that we may see such high levels of ridership. If so, connections to LAX via Union Station FlyAway or light rail via the Crenshaw Corridor would likely be one of the major reasons.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Illinois 110 mph operations are plagued with issues

From a posting by Gene Poon at comes word that Illinois 110mph operations are facing some major issues.

For the most part, it's some technical bugs, scheduling conflicts, and speed limited curves. Cab signals in one area are dropping out regularly which has resulted in a speed restriction and a de facto loss of 5 miles of 110mph operation down to 90mph. That's not too terribly large of a problem as it only amounts to a loss of thirty seconds. More troublesome is a technical flaw in ITCS revealed by a bad meet with a Union Pacific intermodal train; the siding that it takes blocks a grade crossing and tricks ITCS into thinking that there is a potentially hazardous obstruction on the crossing with a resultant 15mph limit for  the approaching Amtrak train. While the immediate problem should be fixable with a scheduling change, this is a bug in the ITCS software which will need to be addressed in the near future.

More annoyingly, and in true "This is why Amtrak can't have nice things" fashion, there is the problem of the second locomotive with no power.

As to that second engine...someone decided that 110mph operation needs a second unit but the System General Road Foreman's office says that according to published Train Handling books and Road Foreman Notices, that second unit must remain off line for that size consist. None of the conditions listed for turning the second unit on are being met. Some engineers have been turning the second unit on; others are complying with rules so they don't run afoul of management, and leave it isolated...269,000 pounds of dead weight.
My understanding is that the second locomotive is required due to a lack of of cab cars certified for operation at 110mph. In itself, that isn't a problem. However, the fact that there was no foresight in clarifying this nor did anyone apparently bring it up and have it clarified is a strong indicator of major management and/or cultural problems within Amtrak. Alternatively, of course, it may very well have been brought up with a clarification that it was to remain off, though this would be the height of absurdity for a new and highly publicized improvement to service.

Friday, January 4, 2013

November ridership and revenue up on Surfliner plus F&B information

November information released


Surfliner +8.6%
Starlight +7.5%
Capitol Corridor -1.8%
San Joaquin +13.7%
Nationally -2.7%
Metrolink +4.4%


Surfliner +16.6%
Starlight +5.7%
Capitol Corridor +3.5%
San Joaquin +10.8%
Nationally -0.4%

On-time performance
LOSSAN North: 87.3%
LOSSAN South: 84.5%
Overall Surfliner: 85.3%
Metrolink VC: 97.7%
Metrolink OC: 96.0%
Metrolink all lines: 96.1%
Coaster: 98.1%

A brief presentation is available regarding Food and Beverage service on the Pacific Surfliner, including the top sellers (mostly alcoholic beverages); sales, revenue, and margin percentages by category; and "revenue by train couplets." I'm not certain why these five trains were singled out for revenue (amounting to $4,451,073); I suspect that it will be addressed in the actual presentation on January 10th.

Given that all of the trains listed are morning trains, and the high percentage of revenue that alcoholic drinks comprise (28% plus an undefined portion of business class' 35%), I would expect a substantially higher amount of revenue per train from the evening trains.