Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
and then formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Traditional transportation to the Traditional Mass

With Amtrak's schedule changes to the Pacific Surfliner's schedule effective on January 9th comes a very welcome, unexpected, and likely unintentional change that is highly beneficial for Southern California Catholics who are partial to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Mass. On Sundays, Amtrak train #562 out of Los Angeles and train #763 out of San Diego will arrive in San Juan Capistrano at 7:26am and 7:34am respectively. This train stop is quite literally right across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano and, presuming the train is reasonably on time, arrives in time to find a seat for the 8:00am Traditional Latin Mass held in the Serra Chapel (the entrance for which is on the opposite side of the Mission from the train stop).

These are both daily trains operating on their normal schedule so this is most likely a fortuitous coincidence, but this is nonetheless a wonderful opportunity for Catholics across Southern California who are interested in the Traditional Mass.

Caltrans and Metrolink to advertise train times to freeway commuters

Or, how to advertise while taunting at the same time.

Electronic highway signs show commuters that trains are a viable alternative to freeway traffic
IRVINE - Caltrans and Metrolink have jointly developed a pilot project to show commuters that trains are a viable alternative to freeway traffic. Both train and freeway travel times are now displayed on electronic highway message signs near the Fullerton and Anaheim train stations.
"For travel between Orange County and downtown Los Angeles' Union Station, trains are often faster than freeways," said Acting Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. "We want to give commuters real-time information to help them get to their destination quicker."
The train and highway travel is being displayed weekdays on the northbound
Interstate 5 and westbound State Route 91 electronic signs located closest to the Anaheim and Fullerton train stations. The travel times will resemble the message shown here:
FWY 55
11:55 TRAIN 40
"This pilot project will highlight the time a commuter could save by taking a Metrolink train, but that's only one of the many benefits of opting for public transportation over driving your car," said Metrolink Board Member Paul Glaab. "Commuters can also save money, have a positive impact on the environment, and enjoy a stress-free commute. We hope this project will encourage Southern Californians to get familiar with their public transportation options."
Caltrans provides the freeway travel time information using data collected from its vehicle detector stations throughout the freeway system. Metrolink provides train travel times, which include Amtrak and Metrolink train departure and trip duration information.

If memory serves, this should be only the initial rollout of a larger system of such messages along the LOSSAN corridor. They should also act as a useful visual aid for encouraging more investment in the rail corridor to improve system speeds.

Monday, December 19, 2011

On population density and suitability of rail investment

A common criticism of passenger rail investment in the United States is that, while passenger rail may work well enough in various countries of Europe and Asia, it will not in the United States due to the size of the United States and the lower population density as compared to those nations with successful passenger rail programs. This is, of course, a complete misrepresentation of the projection and rationale of the situation.

While the United States is indeed far larger than any of the countries which have built out a high speed rail network, the passenger rail investments proposed for it are not scaled up to the size of a continental empire like the United States, but rather are similar in size and scope to those already built. These are regional networks, existing either entirely within a state (such as is the case with California High Speed Rail) or across a small selection of states (such as the Northeast Corridor). The emptiness of Montana and Alaska is irrelevant to such considerations, therefore, as it is most appropriate to consider the size of the region in question to European or Asian analogues (as has often been done with California and Spain, which share a similar size, population, and density).

However, it is also useful to note that European Russia (that is, those portions of Russia located west of the Urals and containing the large majority of the Russian population) soundly defeats such an argument. While 78% of Russia’s population lives in this territory, itself about half the size of the continental United States, the population density is still extremely low. Whereas the average population density of the United States, even including Alaska, is 87.4 persons per square mile (rising to 103.5 once Hawaii and Alaska are removed), that of European Russia remains only 10.5 per square mile. Yet Russia maintains a high degree of passenger rail operations. Indeed, it recently placed an order for an additional eight Velaro high speed train sets for service between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. To suggest then that the United States, which possesses ten times the population density, is unsuitable for high speed rail, is quite fallacious.

Consider as well the Greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas. Combined, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties have a land area of 9,050 square miles and a population just shy of 16 million. This makes for a land slightly smaller than the Kingdom of Belgium yet nearly 50% more populous. The Swiss Confederation, famous among transit proponents for its high degree of public transportation use, has a population of 7.8 million residing in a total land area 15,940 square miles. There is no rational reason why the United States cannot attain such high degrees of mass transit usage when, with the exception of certain areas in the midwest and Rocky Mountain areas, it has areas far denser than even highly notable European nations.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reserved seating for the Surfliner Express next month?

Spotted this when doing a price and travel time lookup for next year. For whatever reason Amtrak has chosen to renumber the Surfliner Express as 599 instead of 563 with its new schedule starting on January 9th (available on pages 21 and 22). What's more intriguing, however, than the random number change is that it appears that Amtrak is converting it into a premium fare and reserved seat train. In Amtrak's system this starts on January 17th, 2012, which seems odd as that's a Tuesday. This could simply be a bug, of course, which the business class oddities would lend credence to, but Amtrak has yet to return an email asking about this.

Edit 12/14/11 8:33am: Amtrak has finally returned my email.
We apologize that it has taken longer than expected for us to reply. We have had an unusually high number of e-mail requests. Your patience is appreciated.

Apparently, there is a programming glitch which the appropriate department is now working to resolve. All Pacific Surfliner trains offer unreserved coach and upgraded business class seats.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gaudete Sunday

Today being Gaudete Sunday, I find it pretty much obligatory to have this playing much of the day. Nothing to do with trains today I'm afraid.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pacific Surfliner to move to a yield managed fare system

In a presentation given to the November 16th meeting of the LOSSAN Rail Corridors Agency Joint Powers Board, Amtrak representatives mentioned that the fare system of the Pacific Surfliner will be changing, with an ultimate end goal of a fully reserved and revenue managed train service (page 15).

Currently, fares for the Pacific Surfliner are the same for all trains and times of purchase, the price depending only upon the origin/destination and the class of service. With the exception of business class and times of holiday rush, the tickets are unreserved, meaning that they are valid for any train (up to a year from the time of purchase if memory serves me correctly) and do not guarantee one a seat.

In the Northeast Corridor, however, reserved trains are the rule. This takes more of a Southwest Airlines approach to seating however and simply means that they will not sell more tickets than they possess seats; it does not reserve any seat in particular.

As presented in the meeting’s agenda, Amtrak has already embarked upon the first phase of the new fare structure by keeping fares at the peak level of the summer months rather than reducing them following Labor Day, as had previously been the norm. In the spring of 2012 this will transition to having peak-fare days; Friday Sunday, and possibly Saturday being mentioned as the candidates for such pricing. Finally, the third phase, which does not have a starting point mentioned, will be a full migration to reserved seating and yield managed seats with “an expanded fare structure aligned with the demand for each departure.” While not explicitly stated, I suspect that this will mean a variable fare depending on previous demand and the current number of vacant seats per train (likely with a flat fare for reservations two weeks in advance as is currently the practice in the Northeast Corridor).

The first, rather simple stage, of the new fare system has already shown results. Amtrak’s year over year ticket revenues for the Surfliner in September increased by 20.3% on a ridership increase of only 5.1%; of that 20% increase Amtrak estimates that half of it was due to the new fare plan, which was still double their initial expectations.

While I am a fan of the convenience of flat pricing and unreserved seating that are currently features of the Surfliner, increasing the ticket revenue of the Surfliner is certainly needed and this, along with the changes to the Rail2Rail progam (Amtrak currently receives only $2 per Metrolink rider and faces overcrowding on some trains due to popularity, Metrolink Rail2Rail riders forming up to a third of riders on some trains; understandably it is desiring more money), should help bring the farebox recovery ratio higher. In turn, that should help mollify libertarian complaints about subsidization and increase the case for capital grants for increased speed and service on the corridor.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Good news, but unambitious plans for passenger rail in Florida

Florida is spending $118 million to move passenger rail service between Miami and Jacksonville to the Florida East Coast Railway.

Direct Amtrak service between Florida's two largest cities is just a few years away.

The state will spend about $118 million to restore passenger service to Henry Flagler's old railroad — the Florida East Coast Railway — between Jacksonville and Miami.

That money will help build eight new stations in coastal towns between Stuart and Jacksonville, build a critical connector just north of West Palm Beach and make other improvements to the railroad.

The Florida Department of Transportation estimates Amtrak service on the FEC could begin in 2015.

Currently, Amtrak service between Miami and Jacksonville runs on CSX Transportation tracks that parallel Interstate 95. But that trip takes about 10 hours because CSX tracks veer into central Florida and then through Orlando.

A direct route on the FEC would shorten that trip to six hours.

Total cost of the project is $250 million, which includes the trains. But FDOT hopes Amtrak would provide the vehicles or partner with the state to get federal money for the trains.

Initially, service would be one roundtrip daily. Eventually, that would expand to two roundtrips.

"Amtrak has said they don't just want this, but this is its best opportunity to expand," said Kim Delaney, a planner with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. "This is the fastest and least expensive way to restore passenger service on the FEC."

The Amtrak project also may open the door for Tri-Rail's long-awaited northward expansion to Jupiter along the FEC tracks. The commuter line now ends in Mangonia Park, just north of West Palm Beach.

But the Amtrak proposal is separate from a plan to return commuter-rail service on the FEC between Miami and Jupiter.

Ignoring for a moment the oddity of spending that much money while rejecting an essentially guaranteed and cost free high speed rail system, this is an important and worthwhile investment. With a six hour travel time, travel time becomes competitive with travel by car or faster, depending on congestion (which, by all that I've heard from Floridians, is horrendous). However, a single trip per day will not suffice for high levels of ridership. Four should be considered an absolute minimum with preferentially a higher number of trips per day in order to cater to those who have time commitments or desires which one or two roundtrips will not suffice for. Additionally, an increased number of trips per day reduces worries about missing one's train and being left on the other side of the state.

Provided that Florida DOT is willing to pony up the requisite amount of cash, improving capacity and speeds for the rail service should be a fairly straightforward affair. Florida East Coast Railway has been shipping an increasing amount of intermodal freight to and from the Ports of Miami and Jacksonville and has been investing to expand its ability to capture that market. As intermodal trains are preferentially faster trains, there is no major roadblock to such partnerships.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fare pricing and transit ridership

Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve Corporation, recently gave an interview about game pricing strategies, with some perhaps surprising information as to the level of revenue increase thanks to lowering the price of games.

“The sale is a highly promoted event that has ancillary media like comic books and movies associated with it. We do a 75 percent price reduction, our Counter-Strike experience tells us that our gross revenue would remain constant. Instead what we saw was our gross revenue increased by a factor of 40. Not 40 percent, but a factor of 40. Which is completely not predicted by our previous experience with silent price variation.”

While retail purchases of games is, obviously, not the same as mass transit, the synergistic effect of heavy advertising combined with temporary reductions in fares should achieve the result of large increases in transit ridership. Presuming a decent level of service and that non-sale fares are kept at reasonable levels, a high proportion of the patrons ought to be kept, resulting not only in major increases in ridership and farebox recovery ratio, but also in political support for the capital funds needed for expansion and service enhancements.

Coaster, for instance, has seen a major gain in ridership this past year due in large part to lowered fares. According to page 47 of the November LOSSAN meeting, which details a Coaster ridership survey, 68% of new pass holders started riding due to lower fares, in full or in part. This is while showing 20-30% gains in ridership year over year and 26% of all monthly pass holders surveyed had started since January of this year, when a price reduction went into effect.

There are two major notable factors concerning ridership however. The first is that only 30% of Coaster passholders pay the full fare themselves. 23% have it paid entirely by their employer (46% of all new pass holders) with a similar amount receiving subsidies from their employer (over half of whom pay less than half the full fare out of pocket as a result). Advertising should probably focus upon this market then, seeking to win more customers from a pool already interested in Coaster ridership thanks to the very low fares. This could be as simple as liaising appropriately with individual companies near Coaster stations (or in San Diego proper) and getting permission to hang posters in the break rooms advertising Coaster and mentioning the individual company’s transit subsidization policies.

Such a simple means of advertising would do rather well as current Coaster advertisement is atrocious. 52% of those surveyed first heard of Coaster by word of mouth. Valve’s price drops don’t occur in a vacuum and they could not achieve such remarkable gains as 40-fold revenue increases without heavy sales promotions. Valve does have the advantage of a somewhat captive market when it comes to their promotions. All Steam games are, of course, through Steam and advertising for sales is presented when logging into Steam or upon exiting a game.

While there is not such a similar captive audience means for commuter rail ridership, the same principle of heavy focused advertising along with discounted fares should result in greatly increased ridership, with the loss of captive audience being made up for by a higher degree of advertising with consequent spending. This is something that Metrolink, with its stagnant ridership since the downturn of the economy and low existing ridership per route mile, needs to look at in order to boost its ridership numbers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The highway boondoggle that broke Maryland's transportation budget

A whopping 136 million dollars per mile for the 18.8 mile InterCounty Connector. What's even worse is that this was apparently in a semi-rural area for the construction, not an urban area with its attendant expenses.

The 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector, which opened in full Tuesday, could be the last publicly funded highway built in Maryland for a generation, as the state’s tolling agency, which financed its $2.56 billion construction, reaches its debt limit, local transportation experts said.

Financing for the six-lane toll road linking Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County leveraged the Maryland Transportation Authority’s statewide toll collections.

But the transportation authority’s debt capacity is tapped out from borrowing to build the ICC and $1 billion in express toll lanes on I-95 northeast of Baltimore, state budget analysts said. Mounting debt recently prompted the authority to raise tolls statewide as the authority also struggles to maintain its aging bridges, tunnels and roads.

“You’re probably looking at another 20 years before we see another major road like this be built,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Supporters say the ICC provides a vital east-west link long missing from Maryland’s highway network, but some critics worry about the toll road’s long-term financial effects. They say the ICC’s hefty price — it’s the most expensive road Maryland has ever built — has hamstrung the state’s transportation finances for years.

“The state has mortgaged its transportation future in many ways to the ICC,” said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a longtime critic of the highway. “The opportunity cost of building the ICC has been huge, because it’s foreclosed improving many other roads.”

Whether the highway proves worth the investment — and at what cost — will play out over the next 10 to 30 years in several key measures: how many vehicles the ICC absorbs from local roads, time saved by motorists who use it, job growth from companies that rely on it to attract workers, and the impact it has on local streams and air pollution.

“The road, from an economic standpoint, will pay for itself many times over,” said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who helped put together the ICC’s financing plan in 2005 when he represented Montgomery in the General Assembly.

More at the link.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

OCTA considering no confidence vote on CAHSRA

The Orange County Transportation Authority is considering sending state high-speed rail officials a memo urging them to "pull the plug" on the proposed $98-billion Anaheim-to-San Francisco project.
The 17-member board will vote next month on the wording of a message it plans to deliver to the state's High-Speed Rail Authority, which has overall authority to contract for construction of the rail system if the state Legislature and federal officials approve financing.
OCTA plans and builds most Orange County highway and rail systems, using federal, state and local tax money. But it has no jurisdiction over the planned 520-mile high-speed rail project.
A vote of no-confidence would come in part from a Republican-dominated board and be directed at Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislators and members of Congress who support the rail plan.
But it was a Republican, former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who spearheaded much of the local support for the project. Pringle also served on the OCTA board and chaired the High-Speed Rail Authority in 2009 and 2010.
With Pringle gone, no one on the OCTA board spoke up for the rail system during Monday's meeting.
And at least six of the OCTA board members said they opposed the way the project is being handled.
The high-speed rail project has been beset by management problems. Voters approved the system in 2008 on the condition that when it is finished, no tax money will be used to operate it.
A new business plan released earlier this month was hailed for its realistic approach. But that created other problems, because the plan estimated the cost would be $98.5 billion, more than double the previous $43-billion estimate. It also predicted that most private investment, which had been promoted as a way to offset tax money, wouldn't materialize until after the system is up and running.
The rail authority's new business plan is open for public comment through January, which prompted OCTA board member Peter Herzog, a Lake Forest City Council member, to suggest the board send its own comments. Some wanted to vote immediately to oppose the project.
"The emperor has no clothes," said Supervisor John Moorlach, one of the OCTA directors. "Sometimes with a deal, it's good to tell someone 'no.' "
But OCTA Chairwoman Pat Bates, also a member of the Board of Supervisors, said, "Today, I don't think, is the day we should say ‘pull the plug.' I think we should have a deliberative process and not just knee-jerk here."
The board asked two of its committees to review the business plan and next month recommend what to tell the High-Speed Rail Authority.
Even though a no-confidence vote would have no legal effect on the rail authority, OCTA board members said such a vote coming from the transportation agency in California's third largest county would carry impact.
"Orange County already is left out of most of it," said Fullerton City Councilman Don Bankhead. "The whole thing doesn't make sense anymore."

While I've been a supporter of high speed rail in California, and continue to support a high speed rail network for California, the demonstrated incompetence and corruption by the Authority's recent business plan has caused me to turn against the current implementation of it. I intend, actually, to write to OCTA in support of this no-confidence motion.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The value of crash energy management

FRA delay and refusal to reform on its current "safety" regulations is inexcusable.

Edit on July 7, 10:15am: This brief paper puts forth in lives the difference between current standards and CEM: With only a 30 mile per hour impact, 55 lives would have been lost in the demonstrated collision with FRA equipment, but none with a CEM consist.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Some bad news for San Jose-San Francisco CAHSR

A recent CAHSRA memo bodes poorly for the current planning up in the Bay Area:

Since June, Caltrain has made significant progress in determining what capacity could be realized on the Caltrain corridor. The HST service would require at least four trains per hour per direction to serve the estimated passenger demand to and from the Peninsula and San Francisco. The Phase 1 service plan used for the Project‐level SF to SJ EIR stated that eight high‐speed trains phpd would be required for a fully built out Phase 1 during peak periods. Consequently, Caltrain has focused its operations simulation efforts on studying scenarios with six Caltrain trains and four high‐speed trains phpd which will offer the required performance level expected of high‐speed rail and the passenger capacity expected during this initial phase. While the initial model results show promise that such an operation is possible, as discussed above there are compromises that will need to be made by the Authority in order for the blended approach to work. Specifically the Authority will need to accept:
• That the high speed trains will not operate at 125 mph as originally envisioned for the SF to SJ corridor and consequently not be able to make the 30 minute travel time goal between SF and SJ as stated in Proposition 1A. It is not yet clear whether high‐speed trains will need to operate at 79 mph or possibly may be able to reach speeds of up to 110 mph on the Caltrain corridor. Further investigation continues.
• That the high‐speed trains will operate on a railroad with “at‐grade” crossings. The original performance criteria for the statewide system required a “fully grade‐separated” system.

An estimate of the capital cost of providing the necessary infrastructure for a blended solution indicates that it remains substantial. Initial estimates based on the existing engineering work by the Authority puts the total at approximately $5.3 billion (2010 dollars) for the mid‐line overtake solution.
The Transbay Transit Center (TTC) in downtown San Francisco is the preferred destination for the statewide HST system in San Francisco. According to recent estimates from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the estimated cost of developing the tunnels from 7th and Common Street, to the Transbay Terminal at Fremont and Mission Street is approximately $2.6‐$3 billion in year of expenditure dollars. This estimate includes the tunnels, stations and platforms at the TTC that would be able to serve thehigh‐speed and Caltrain trains. The $2.6 billion cost of this project is not currently included in the $5.3 billion estimate for the blended service described above.

At a grand total of eight billion dollars for the construction of a segment that will not manage the speeds (indeed, quite possibly being slower than current Metrolink and Amtrak trains in Orange County along the LOSSAN line) necessary to meet Prop 1A requirements, it is highly unlikely that CEO van Ark will not choose to "value engineer" the routing as is being studied with the renewed look at the Grapevine routing. Indeed, choosing to go with the superior Altamont corridor as a cost savings measure (since it would require a much smaller amount of shared ROW between Caltrain and CAHSR and would reduce the cost of the Sacramento extension) seems like it would almost be a slam dunk as the Authority is not prejudiced in its routing options, either Pacheco or Altamont, under the terms of Proposition 1A while the Authority is likely going to need to convince the Legislature to amend the law to permit the Grapevine route to proceed, bypassing Palmdale.

It also introduces the potential that an IOS encompassing the entire San Joaquin Valley, from Sacramento on south (and potentially to Los Angeles) might not be as crazy an idea as it initially seemed. Phase II extensions, after all, are permitted if they will not interfere with Phase I construction or funding. If extending to San Jose or San Francisco is delayed due to routing studies or insufficient capital, Sacramento may be ideally placed to take advantage of that delay, using the on-hand capital for a quick expansion and ignoring much of the current NIMBY issues in the Bay Area.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the Authority's apparent willingness to consider mixed traffic with at grade crossings. If it is willing to do so in the Bay Area, it may very well be willing to similarly do so in Southern California and adopt a "blended LOSSAN" system rather than the current Riverside-Inland Empire dogleg. Not only this save a tremendous amount of money, but while the total cost of a Los Angeles-San Diego LOSSAN upgrade retaining grade crossings is likely in the same eight billion dollar ballpark as San Jose-San Francisco, it has the advantage of serving a much greater populace with a far larger potential for automobile diversion and ridership than either the current dogleg or the Bay Area Caltrain upgrade.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Canadian Pacific rolling out an innovative new intermodal system

From RailwayAge:

Canadian Pacific on Monday said it will be the exclusive Canadian rail transportation provider for trailer supply company Contrans, using innovative multimodal flat rack containers from Calgary, Alberta-based Raildecks Intermodal.

CP has been testing Raildecks' 53-foot collapsible, multimodal carriers through this past summer at its Toronto Intermodal Facility in Vaughn, Ontario. The testing proved successful on CP's long-haul intermodal trains, offering an alternative to shippers who have been relying on trucks to move their products over a long distance, Raildecks said.

“Raildecks’ innovative product extends the efficiencies of intermodal rail to industrial products shippers,” said John McBoyle, vice-president Intermodal at Canadian Pacific. “We believe industrial product customers will be attracted to the consistency, efficiency and , reliability of our long-haul intermodal network.”

“The Raildecks solution provides a viable option to convert some of the industrial freight that is moving over the road to be transported on intermodal rail,” said Raildecks CEO Rick Jocson. “By converting a traditional over-the-road commodity to rail, Raildecks are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, freeing up major roads and highways, and reducing costs for shippers.”

“We are excited to be able to provide shippers with a brand new service offering,” stated Stan G. Dunford, Contrans' chairman and CEO. “This will revolutionize the long haul flatbed market and will result in substantial efficiencies and savings for shippers.”

The Raildecks solution should allow for increased use of rail by customers using flatbed trailers and cars at present. Additionally, routes currently constrained in train length due to sidings or other issues should see a capacity increase for those cargoes currently traveling on flat cars due to the doubling up that these cars provide.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

San Diego is doing something right: Double digit gains in Coaster and Sprinter ridership

The American Public Transportation Association has put out a report on growth in the use of public transit in the first six months of 2011 compared to 2010 and San Diego comes out leading the rest of California in terms of percentage gain. In light rail, Sprinter posted an 11.55% year over year gain, while the San Diego Trolley came in second with a 7.4% increase. Similarly, commuter rail showed a 17.13% increase for the Coaster. Altamont Commuter Express came in second with a 9.37% increase, closely followed by the Capitol Corridor's 9.17%. Metrolink, by contrast, came in at an utterly anemic 1.7% increase in year over year ridership.

While these figures are certainly going to be a bit inflated by the low starting position that San Diego's lines began from, compared to the rest of Californian systems (in absolute terms, for instance, Caltrain had three times the increase of Coaster), they still represent a major increase. They also pose an interesting question that I do not have the answer for at present: Why is Coaster doing so well while Metrolink is not?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Another's comments on Paris-Marseille TGV

Taking ericmarseille's comment from the CAHSR Blog:

Totally OFF TOPIC but, I hope, informative :

I came back yesterday from a trip in the Parisian region (Marseille-Paris and back, 480 miles)

The good :

- Took an IDTGV, so could book on internet and print the tickets myself
- Only €100 for the entire trip, decided only two days before departing
- Was able to upgrade to first class for €2 on the Marseille-Paris leg
- Was able to change my ticket the day before I was supposed to leave for a €10 fee and did it all on internet too, including printing the new ticket
- Still as fast and cool as ever
- on the return leg, arguably in an off period, I was able to strech my legs as much as I wanted for 45 min, I was in a face-to-face configuration and the guy who was in front of me got out at Avignon and nobody took his place. Everybody staying in the car after Avignon either was alone on its two seats side or didn’t have someone in front of him in face-to-face configuration, smart seat management from SNCF
- Los of seat and elbow room in first class (lateral seat configuration : 2+1 instead of 2+2 in second class) ; so much seat room in fact, that I felt a bit loose in my seat (and I’m 240lbs)
- The croque-Monsieur at the snack car, still shockingly good (I mean, good, which is shocking given SNCF standards)

The bad :

- Last-time tickets on the busiest part of the week-end can grow to up to €110 for a single trip
- First-generation TGV first class atmosphere (dark grey, dark red, and black) was good for regular TGVs, but on the duplex, lower and less luminous it is sad and even creepy
- On my first leg the TGV was so old that the first class car stank of old furniture textile, and even old, very old, cigarette odour ; the smells of the arguably refined perfumes that the first class passengers use in abundance, as a social status sign, all mixed, didn’t help either
- Not only that, but for the first time of my life in a TGV, I was annoyed by the noise of the train itself (still on the first leg, first class), which, instead of a whirr comparable to a cat’s purring, was rather comparable to a vacuum cleaner noise ; still not as noisy as the dreaded Parisian RER, but, hey, it had to be a very, very old TGV
- more than €6 for a croque-Monsieur, the rip-off goes on at the snack car

Additional thoughts:
1. Paris-Marseille, at 481 miles, is about a hundred miles further than Los Angeles-San Francisco. A one hundred euro fare, round-trip, is currently worth $132.90. Booked two days in advance, this is significantly cheaper than the vaunted Southwest fares between Los Angeles and San Francisco for two days in advance as well. Not only is it significantly lower than the $351.40 round trip fare, it is even cheaper than the $165 one way fare.
3. SNCF is probably in dire need of new or refitted rolling stock. Thankfully smoking odors won't be an issue with CAHSR trains.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Grapevine study's potential

Grapevine high-speed train route could save $4 billion

Building a high-speed train route over the Grapevine instead of through the Antelope Valley could save up to $4 billion, according to a July progress report released Wednesday.

A conceptual study identified more than one feasible alignment over the mountain pass, prompting engineers on the project to propose a more in-depth study of the Grapevine proposal, originally rejected in 2005.

But missing from the conceptual study, as of July anyway, was a close look at what effect a Grapevine route would have on the project's overall economics.

"More detailed analysis of ridership and revenue figures is required to complete the analysis between the Grapevine and Antelope Valley Alternatives," engineers with Parsons Brinckerhoff wrote in the July update released Wednesday by Bay Area opponents of the project.

Board members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority are not expected to review the study's findings until October or November, at which point they could decide whether to launch a detailed study that would place the Grapevine in direct competition with the Palmdale route.
With up to four billion dollars in cost savings, this could definitely push the current initial operating system debate, whether Bakersfield-San Jose or Merced-Los Angeles, decisively in favor of at least south to Sylmar and possibly all the way to Los Angeles Union Station. This is, of course, predicated on actual cost savings. It could very well be that both options are tremendously expensive and that it is simply the case that the Grapevine routing is less "more expensive" than the Palmdale routing. Unfortunately, I have yet to find the actual report itself as of yet.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Possible joint powers authority for LOSSAN

More rail service could spring from new agency

A plan is in the works that could lead to a significant expansion of rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Regional transportation agencies are considering joining forces for a super authority that would oversee 351 miles of coastal rail between San Diego and San Luis Obisbo.

Among the many changes forged by that authority could be as many as 27 additional daily train trips along the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor, officials said.

Currently, Amtrak has 11 daily trains each way.

If such an agency comes into being by 2014, as supporters believe, Coaster trains could be running all the way to Los Angeles and Metrolink trains could run from Los Angeles to San Diego, in addition to Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains.

The Metrolink currently comes as far south as Oceanside, which is the northern terminus for the Coaster.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, endorsed the concept of the broad rail authority at its board of directors meeting Friday. Other agencies along the corridor are being asked to back the concept.

The San Diego-L.A.-San Luis Obisbo rail corridor — known as LOSSAN to officials — is the second-busiest in the country and is also a complex patchwork of fiefdoms that includes seven owners and five operators, while passing through seven counties.

All the various interests have a voice on the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Joint Powers Board, which strives to coordinate and support the numerous interests, but in 2009 its members began looking for a “new vision for the corridor.”

From the discussion at the Friday’s meeting, it appears the LOSSAN group needed to look no farther than Northern California for a role model: the Capitol Corridor between San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento — the nation’s third busiest rail corridor.

SANDAG officials were told Friday that a single administrative authority would create greater efficiencies in the rail corridor, better manage assets and carry greater clout in Sacramento and Washington.

SANDAG board member Matthew Hall, mayor of Carlsbad, expressed the concern of many, saying “I want to make sure we don’t end up with lots of control and no money.”

Nobody was underestimating the magnitude of the shift in power the creation of a super agency would require. SANDAG for example, currently is administering the $1.5 billion improvement project on the county’s coastal tracks, which are owned and operated by the North County Transit District.

“The group used to be the 800 pound gorilla,” observed Chris Orlando, chairman of the NCTD board and a SANDAG member. “Now the 800-pound gorilla is in Los Angeles.”

Still, the benefits of a super agency proves alluring and the board voted to back the process.

“We’re not getting married,” said SANDAG chairman Jerome Stocks. “We’re agreeing to date -- and so far it is only a lunch date.”
This would be a tremendously important move for the Los Angeles-San Diego rail corridor. As many as 38 daily trains would make it the second most frequently trafficked rail corridor in the country in terms of intercity trains behind Philadelphia-New York. With a single coordinating authority behind the wheel as well, upgrades to improve service frequency and train speed throughout the system rather than individual pieces (such as the Fullerton-Laguna Niguel OC Metrolink train expansion) are more likely. This may also result in the upgrading of the general system to permit 125mph speeds from Los Angeles to San Diego, eliminating the need for the highly expensive Inland Empire routing of the high speed rail system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Domestic intermodal is on the rise

Intermodal seen closing gap with trucking

Domestic intermodal rail service is now service competitive in relatively shorter-haul traffic lanes traditionally dominated by truckload carriers, and after more than three decades is finally being regarded by shippers as a viable transport option, according to a long-time intermodal consultant.

Lee A. Clair, a partner at management consultancy Norbridge Inc., said domestic intermodal service can compete with solo truckers on stages as short as 500 to 550 miles, a distance usually covered by a solo truck driver in one day. Clair appeared on a Sept. 16 webcast sponsored by the investment firm Stifel Nicolaus & Co., which transcribed Clair's remarks.

Based on total freight spending, rail-based domestic and international intermodal represent only 3.8 percent of the total U.S. market, Clair said. However, intermodal is now the largest class of traffic moving on North American class I railroads, based on units moved, Clair said. The consultant defined units as containers, trailers, or carloads.

Domestic intermodal has grown to become nearly as large as the international segment, which has traditionally been most closely associated with intermodal service, Clair said.

Shippers looking to reduce their fuel spend and their carbon emissions are increasingly eyeing intermodal as a more cost-effective alternative to truckload carriers for domestic deliveries. Railroads, in turn, are investing more marketing dollars and operational resources into strengthening their domestic intermodal businesses.

The trend is a break from the past, when U.S. intermodal service was considered an extension of international service that involved a prior or subsequent ocean freight movement. For railroads to compete strongly in the domestic arena, however, they must deliver consistent and reliable service comparable to truckload operations at shorter distances. A typical intermodal move stretches anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 miles.

Domestic container traffic in the second quarter rose to 1.22 million containers, a 9-percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to data from the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA). International container traffic rose 5.4 percent in the same period to 1.88 million containers, IANA said.

With the future introduction by GE of hybrid locomotives reducing fuel consumption up to 15% and mullings by BNSF of electrification, this is a trend that I think will only continue to accelerate.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CA-241 job claims

CA 241 claims 17,000 jobs would be expected from a 16-mile, $1.7 billion extension of the toll road to the I-5 south of San Clemente. Such numbers help justify the CAHSRA's own job estimates of 600,000 jobs over the construction of the project. It is also interesting to note that the price of the 241 extension, $106.25 million per mile, is more expensive than current estimates for construction between Bakersfield and Fresno. While the Transportation Corridor Agencies will probably raise the funds on their own, any government funding would be far more profitably invested in upgrading existing rail service along the LOSSAN corridor paralleling Interstate 5, alleviating congestion via mode capture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A five billion dollar boondoggle in Texas

Alon Levy posted a few months ago on road boondoggles, but Texas is showing its determination to prove that everything is bigger, if certainly not better, in Texas. Witness a 5.2 billion dollar third beltway around Houston. To make matters worse, the renewed push for the project is largely to try and keep ExxonMobile's headquarters in the region, not of any actual congestion or other criteria which might present a somewhat rationale criteria for the construction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bakersfield to Sacramento?

An interesting, if unlikely proposal:

School kids don’t cope well with geography, tests show. But adults shy on knowledge of our own state’s heartland? What is there about California’s central valley they don’t understand? A lot, it would appear from those — media included — who call the valley “nowhere,” as in deriding federal support for state high-speed rail to begin with a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced link. They say it’s a “train to nowhere.”
Well, let’s see. For a century and a half, “nowhere’s” crops have fed and clothed (lately with China’s help) much of the known world. For good measure, valley wines pleasure international palates. The best rival French vintages.
“Nowhere” supports six universities awarding bachelor’s and higher degrees, among them the University of California’s Merced campus. College commuters are a mainstay of Amtrak valley service. Faster trains would boost their numbers.
What’s next hurts but must be said. “Nowhere” is an unthinkingly crude term. Valley people suffer high rates of asthma and other pulmonary disorders linked to automotive and agricultural air pollution. For them, fast trains spell relief. That’s an unsung part of high-speed rail’s rationale: Good transportation, competitive with cars and some flights, is a sound way to address tainted air.
A step-back, second-wind high-speed rail review is in order. Flexibility in confronting challenges is a hallmark wherever trains at 100-200 mph have proved their worth. Big question: Is insistence on Bay Area primacy truly the best route to a north-south rail alternative to congested air- and freeways? Airplanes also pollute, remember.
Peninsula resistance to high-speed rail has mounted. Neighbors fear losses to rail corridor widening. Recently proposed “blending” of high-speed rail with commuter rail, using the same tracks, may stem such fears. But only as a stopgap, pending corridor tweaking for higher speeds.
Grade separations, vital to speedy trains, present tough issues. San Bruno’s grade sep will raise rails 17 feet before they dive under Interstate 380. “Humps” and high speed don’t blend well.
While the Peninsula mulls high-speed rail, another scenario is emerging. It would have the California High-Speed Rail Authority consider, up front, extending new trackage from Merced to Sacramento. High-speed rail’s first operational stage would then embrace two-thirds of the Central Valley — almost a miniature of the entire system, of real value in and of itself, but poised to spread wings.
Sacramento is after all our state capital, worth more than second tier in high-speed rail’s vision. Making it an early destination could change minds among legislators who aren’t high-speed rail fans. It would boost the capital’s urban stature while benefiting valley travelers.
What a feather in CHSRA’s cap — making the valley a stand-alone segment of the whole, with trains running sooner and more affordably.
We have that opportunity. Sound arguments support its study, including these: Terrain north of Merced is largely non-urban and level enough for relatively rapid construction; conditions favor incrementally faster trains that could provide valley service within a few years (the incremental approach has worked well in France and Spain); CHSRA stands to benefit from early train experience — the valley would make a good lab.
Federal Railroad Administration startup funding would put trains within striking distance of Sacramento. It’s logical for California’s capital to be part of high-speed rail’s earliest loop.
Normally I'm fairly parochial about Bakersfield-Los Angeles being the next segment that should be constructed and the initial operating service being from Merced to Los Angeles. In fact, I would be harshly critical if San Jose were to receive the next construction segment. However, I would be supportive of building to Sacramento next (which, to comply with the law, would likely need to be a requirement of federal funds) for two main reasons. First, there is my conviction that, of all the cities that will be connected by the high speed rail system, Sacramento is likely to benefit the most, in terms of induced traffic, thanks to the greater availability of connections. Second, such an alignment would offer great weight to moving back to the far superior Altamont Pass alignment, not only saving money and speeding travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, but also capturing a very significant amount of ridership from cars between Sacramento and San Francisco which the Pacheco Pass option, taking two hours to go between San Francisco and Sacramento, does not.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

This particular bit of propaganda, especially the claim about high speed rail ticket prices per mile, has been making its way around lately, including by State Assemblyman Jerry Hill. It provides an excellent example of the value of cherry-picking one's data to support the conclusion.

Using empirical evidence from analyzing fares on high-speed train routes in Europe and Japan, it appears the CHSRA’s high-speed rail per mile rate should be about $0.44/mile to recover operating and construction costs; 80% higher than their presently-used $0.24/mile. Setting aside for a moment the fact that all but two of the world’s high-speed rail routes are subsidized, and assuming they at least break even, the analyzed per mile rate would make a one-way SF to LA ticket cost about $190.5 Therefore, if the CHSRA’s assumed private operator must charge enough to break even, four tickets for a LA/SF round trip would cost at least $1,520.

First the lie: The California High Speed Rail Authority is not required to recover construction costs, only operating costs and any revenue bonds sold on the basis of HSR ticket revenue. It is therefore, irrelevant, to cite what may be needed to recover construction costs.

With regards to the damned lie, as I have already shown before, every high speed rail operator recovers operating costs based on passenger revenue. The claim that "all but two of the world’s high-speed rail routes are subsidized" is a falsehood based on which routes have fully paid off their construction bonds, an assumption that does not necessarily work if, as SNCF has chosen to do, profits are used to invest in expansion rather than paying off the extant loans. It is a rather foolish person who considers a business unprofitable simply because the original loan is not yet paid off.

Lastly, we come to the statistics. Their empirical evidence fares in Europe are peak hour next day 2nd class fares upon Paris-Lyon, the most congested and hence profitable line within France. As any economics student could easily point out, when lines are operating at or near maximum capacity and there is still substantial demand, the fares will, absent outside regulation, reflect the highest price the market will bear. At 425 kilometers and 86.4 euros peak, this reflects a price of €0.20/km or $0.47 per mile. However, if we look at the Paris-Marseille segment, which covers 783 kilometers in three hours, we have next day fares ranging from €54 to €97, or $0.16-0.29/mile. Advanced fares drop as low as €39.90 for two weeks in advance, twelve cents per mile. Seen in this light, if anything, the 24¢/mile fare proposed for CAHSR is actually too little.

Similarly, the Japanese fares referred to appear to be from JR East's Tokaido Shinkansen who charge a flat fare of 14,050 yen on the Nozomi express trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka. That equates to a hefty 53¢ per mile, but again, this is not a sign of actual operational need rather than profit-taking. The congestion and demand on the Tokaido Shinkansen is sufficiently high that JR East is planning to build a ¥9 trillion maglev line to supplement it (a line which will be entirely privately funded and expected to be operational). A longer journey from Tokyo to Hakata, again using the Nozomi express along the congested Tokaido Shinkansen, is ¥22,320, 40¢ per mile. It is, of course, notable that that fare level does not impair traffic, contrary to the assertions of the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail.

A more proper response by CC-HSR would have been to try plugging in numbers for themselves and seeing if the numbers worked. Then, and only then, would it be appropriate to criticize the 24¢/mile figure if the numbers did not pan out. Since they failed to do so appropriately, I'll make some effort at doing so.

1. The trainset will resemble a Siemens Velaro E with a cafe car and a total of 405 seats in three classes (however, for the purpose of this analysis, all seats will be treated as coach).
2. The notional average trainset will travel an express route from Los Angeles to San Francisco with no stops.
3. Attributed maintenance costs will be equal to $33.74 per mile, in accordance with the tolls SNCF pays along Paris-Lyon.
4. Electricity use shall be 35.41 kilowatt hours per mile, similar to the TGV Atlantique (page 74), and the price per kilowatt hour 8.46 cents.
5. Three employees (engineer, conductor, and cafe attendant) whose total compensation per hour is 40, 30, and 25 dollars per hour respectively, with an assumed 3 hours of paid time per notional average trip.
6. The average train will have a capacity factor of only 50%.

These direct marginal operating costs come then to a total of $16,154.82 for the 432 mile journey. At 24 cents per mile, the 202 passengers paid a total of $20,943.36 ($21,210 if we round up to the $105 ticket cost) in fares, meaning that the average train should cover its costs handily. Amtrak's experience is that the cafe car adds an additional 7% to the revenue, boosting total revenue to $22,694.70, an operating profit of $6,539.88. Provided that these numbers truly represent the average train, the California high speed rail system should not face any difficulty in raising sufficient operational revenue to run an operational profit at the 24 cents per mile fare level.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why did freight electrification fail in America?

Having recently acquired a copy of The Milwaukee Electrics by Noel T. Holley, I thought it might be worthwhile to go through and post some thoughts on why electrification did not become more widespread and was generally dismantled in the United States.

1. Electrification was extremely expensive. The Milwaukee Road’s 654 miles of electrification cost 23 million dollars when completed in 1920, some 200 million dollars adjusted for inflation using a GDP deflator or some 3.78 billion as a relative share of GDP. While that would not pose a major problem for the Class I railroads of today, that amount was a rather large sum for the Milwaukee Road and, in part, led to its bankruptcy in 1925.

2. It did not produce major financial gains, even with regards to steam locomotives. After subtracting the cost of bond and interest payments, electrification amounted to only one million dollars in annual savings on the Rocky Mountain Division and $100,000 on the Coast Division (the Coast Division having had construction and interest prices increase greatly compared to the Rocky Mountain due to World War II). Higher traffic would have greatly increased the savings, however the Milwaukee Road was the Johnny-come-lately transcontinental and suffered accordingly. It is tempting to believe that had it been the Great Northern which electrified instead, the electrification might have been maintained to the present day.

3. The World Wars, Great Depression, and economic troubles for some in the 1920s put severe limits on the financial capability of the major railroads to make the major investments that electrification entailed.

4. Diesels provided nearly all of the advantages of electrification at far less cost. While electrification required the construction of extremely large amounts of infrastructure before a single locomotive could run, diesels could be integrated into the normal purchasing cycle and gradually replace steam locomotives.

5. For quite a long period of time, electrics did not offer a significant difference in motive power cost compared to diesels and could in fact be more expensive to operate. To quote the aforementioned book:

A study performed by Laurence Wylie in 1949 indicated that new diesels would be slightly cheaper to operate on the Coast Division than the old electrics. The purchase price, interest and taxes are what made diesels are more expensive choice.

This closeness of costs was not unique to Milwaukee. A 1948 study on the Great Northern electrification found diesels to be slightly cheaper to operate there also. The Great Northern blamed this on the exorbitant rates it was paying for electric power. Its variable rats went as high as $.01 per kilowatt hour (kwh) including demand charges. Joe Gaynor, who headed the G.N. electrification, felt the rate would have to be cut to $.005 per kwh for economics to justify expansion of their electrification.

Energy costs were one of the factors favoring electrics on the Milwaukee. From the late 1940’s through the late 1960’s, the Milwaukee paid $.09 per gallon for diesel oil compared to $.068 for enough electricity to produce equivalent power. (Calculations and locomotive tests showed that one gallon of oil equaled 12.5 kwh which were purchased for $.00544 per kilowatt hour.) This rate was quite good in comparison to the Pennsylvania RR which paid roughly $.009 in 1950 and $.013 by 1966.

Today of course, the situation is quite different when it comes to the price of fuel. However, that does not necessarily support electrification of the mainline corridors as a real possibility within the next few years. With only a limited amount of funding available for improvements, expansion of freight service is likely to be a more profitable endeavor, and so receive the monies, than electrification absent a public-private partnership for the purpose of electrification.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Oil prices lead to higher usage of intermodal rail services

Survey Sees Major Shift of Truck Freight to Intermodal

Shippers shifted freight from all-truck modes to intermodal at the fastest pace in years during the second quarter, according to a closely watched survey by the Wolfe Trahan research group.

Based on preliminary results of the survey conducted in July and early August, the shift from roads to rail occurred more than at any point in the last eight years, the analysts said, and shippers expect to shift more domestic cargo to intermodal in the months ahead. The full results of the survey are scheduled to be released before Labor Day.

During the April-June quarter, “shippers in our survey shifted a net 4.5 percent of their volume from truck to rail,” said analysts Edward Wolfe and Scott Group, for “the highest net shift to rail in the past eight years of our survey.”

Shippers also said they expect to move a net 3.6 percent more to rail from highway-only transport over the next 6-12 months, which is a pickup from recent surveys. In this year’s first quarter, shippers projected a 3.2 percent net shift in the coming year, up slightly from last year’s fourth quarter.

For most of last year, surveyed shippers told Wolfe Trahan they only expected to shift a net 1.3 percent to 1.9 percent of their business away from road delivery to intermodal.

While rail industry officials often credit the shift to improving rail service times and investments to convert more of their rail networks to doublestack clearances, researchers found a strong correlation between modal shifts and oil prices.

When average quarterly oil prices were below $70 a barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude during 2009, the survey found freight shifting back to trucks and the delivery convenience they provide.

But when WTI quarterly pricing moved above $70 per barrel in 2010 followed by a spike this year, shippers increasingly put more cargo aboard trains for the long-haul part of the trip.
With realistic long term oil prices remaining above $70 a barrel for the foreseeable future, freight rail is increasingly going to be the shipper of choice. Electrification, which offers energy prices roughly one third of the current cost of diesel, may become a means of competition between shipper; however, this is presuming that there is sufficient capacity on the rail lines to warrant such, which is generally not the case at present. Certainly however, the expectation of 500 hybrid locomotives sold by 2020 is one that should be easily matched. My own expectation is that such a number is probably on the more pessimistic side, should the claimed fuel savings hold up in practice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When rail spending is depressing and an outrage

Earlier today, Secretary LaHood announced an additional $336 million in Federal funding for the purchase of new intercity locomotives and rail cars. This brings the total of such awards to $782 million for a total of 33 locomotives and 120 passenger cars. This is, quite frankly, an absurd amount of money. At an average of five million for each vehicle, the utility of continuing to purchase individual locomotives and cars rather pales. Diesel or electric multiple unit train sets, even FRA compliant USRailcar models, become a far better value for the money as they offer increased performance over traditional locomotive and car consists. Their relative novelty to American passenger railroading may also offer a useful public relations boost with a "futuristic look."

Consider, for instance, that NCTD in San Diego County was able to purchase twelve Siemens Desiro DMUs at a total price of 52.2 million when they set up the Sprinter rail service, a price of 4.35 million per unit. For this price, instead of receiving 6 locomotives and 42 rail cars, California could have purchased 48 such multiple units. Four unit consists would enable 478 coach seats and 24 business class seats, using Desiro Classic specifications and assuming each end car contains business class seats. These twelve trains would be capable of taking over, in part or in full, for any of Amtrak California's routes and providing increased service in the process, perhaps allowing even for an authentic Surfliner Express rather than the paltry 15 minute savings currently offered.

As a further note, it is outrageous that California is the only state to spend substantial sums of it's own money on increasing capacity through this measure. 42 million, 20% of the total funding, came from California's own funds. Only Illinois paid as well and their funding amounted to a paltry 11.6 million, barely 5% of the purchase that was made for and about 2.5% of the total projects Illinois is involved in. Further Federal funds should require a state match similar to that of California's.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why do I, as a conservative, support high speed rail in California?

That modern American conservatism is, in general, highly opposed to high speed rail programs is not a matter of dispute and one that I do not believe I need to source or prove. In certain respects it is even understandable where passenger rail advocates have grossly misrepresented or wrongly implied basic passenger rail improvements as being “high speed rail”, such as was the case in Ohio and Wisconsin and is the case, although the funding remains, with line upgrades and extensions in Illinois and Iowa. That is not to say that I oppose those projects, merely that I understand why, with the lackluster reality of 79 and 110 mph trains when the implication is one of bullet trains, conservative opposition might greatly result. However, opposition to the lines in Florida and California, where the lines are truly high speed, is less clear, if perhaps even more vociferous. So what are some of the reasons that I, as a self-identified conservative, support high speed rail in California if the zeitgeist of conservatism is opposition to high speed rail programs in the United States?

1. High speed rail systems support themselves

As I have previously noted, every high speed rail system in the world brings in enough revenue to cover its operational costs. While they may not necessarily cover the initial capital costs of constructing the lines, that makes them no different from most toll roads and certainly no different than any newly constructed highways. The overall economic benefits of increased mobility and commerce are sufficient to make the initial capital investment a worthwhile expense, especially given that the government can take the long view and evaluate investments not merely over the next few quarters, but over a century or longer (which is not to say, of course, that projects are necessarily a good idea if they take a century to recoup their investment value).

2. High speed rail, especially where it overlays commuter rail, decreases congestion

Currently, despite not being time competitive against cars, the Metrolink commuter rail system ”clears the equivalent of one lane of the 91 Freeway per day” and is expected to do so with another lane following the Perris Valley Line extension. Trains operating on the OC Line add an additional half lane of capacity in terms of riders and cars removed between the hours of 4am and 8am while the San Bernardino Line, over the course of one hour (5:15am to 6:12am) removes just under 2,000 riders, or a full lane of traffic, from the highways. 125 mile per hour commuter trains sharing lines with high speed intercity trains will represent trip times that are not merely time competitive with cars, but outright faster than automobiles on uncongested roads, leading to greater use of them and decreasing overall trip times for those who stay on the roads while others change modes.

Similarly, because high speed rail is competitive with airlines on shorter distance hops of five hundred miles or so, with rail journey times under three hours taking approximately 70% of the air-rail market, air congestion can be lowered (assuming proper regulatory authority is granted to airport managers to ensure that flights are actually dropped rather than replaced with smaller jets and turboprops), resulting in safer air travel with fewer delays.

3. High speed rail reduces the need for other capital investments

We do not live in a static world, but rather a dynamic world of fairly continual growth (at least for the next few decades), and our infrastructure planning must plan for the future. That means we must rationally look at the most cost-effective means of expanding transit mobility to keep up with the expected population growth, expected to reach approximately 44 million by 2020 and 49 million by 2030.

What the recent “Carmageddon” flap in Los Angeles showed, although it was not remarked upon, is that it can no longer be taken as a given that highway spending is the most cost-effective means of reducing traffic congestion. One billion dollars is being spent upon that project in order to add a single carpool lane in each direction for a total of ten miles. One hundred million dollars per mile is tremendously expensive, on par with the cost of building and upgrading urbanized high speed rail lines, and more expensive than building greenfield rail lines (even with America’s cost inflation relative to the rest of the world when it comes to infrastructure projects). For all that, the additional capacity is only up to 2,300 vehicles per hour per direction, or about 4,600 persons since this is a carpool lane requiring at least two persons per vehicle. By contrast, a rail line, for the same money or less, would be capable of carrying as many as 8,300 passengers with ten minute intervals between trains, not including standees, effectively doubling the capacity of the highway improvement for similar amounts of money. With the tremendous population growth in the Inland Empire that we have seen in the past decade and expect to see in the future, it makes far more fiscal sense to utilize high speed rail to expand our mobility solutions rather than the continual expansions of highways that has previously been the case in the California. This is especially the case when high speed rail is more than capable of operating without additional government spending and as the Phase II expansion through the Inland Empire, in particular, is currently intended and expected to be financed through CAHSR revenues and private investment rather than taxation or general obligation bonds.

4. High speed rail insulates intercity travel and commerce from oil shocks.

The heart of economic growth lies in the rapidity and affordability of transport, both for goods and persons. With the current poor fuel efficiency of American cars and the general inefficiency of short distance airline hops such as represented by intrastate air travel, rising fuel costs pose a general harm to our ability to continue to engage in the normal travel and personal commerce to which our economy is accustomed, the loss of which most likely having a deleterious effect upon the economy as a whole. With extremely low profit margins hovering around 2% and cumulative losses of $54 billion over the previous ten years, it is entirely possible that, although the Bay Area-Los Angeles Basin represents the heaviest travelled air corridor in America, future oil shocks may result in curtailment of service, either by airlines seeking to cut costs, or from travelers cutting their own costs and forgoing travel and with it the commerce that would have resulted. Electric high speed rail, by contrast, is unaffected by increased petroleum prices. For those who have work commutes that may be accessed by rail, the steady fares of high speed rail and commuter trains on high speed rail trackage in the face of fuel price increases may very well represent a viable alternative which saves them money. Discretionary income saved (or rather, continuing to be spent in a discretionary manner) rather than being turned into non-discretionary income for transportation is far more beneficial to the economy.

5. High speed rail, as currently designed in California, expands travel and commerce opportunity and activities

Currently, if one wishes to travel in California somewhere other than between the LA Basin and Bay Area, their only choices are extremely expensive air fare or a lengthy piece of driving. Personally this was quite recently hammered home to me when, looking at the potential for meeting up with a friend from out of state who would be visiting Sacramento, I was faced with the options of either spending several hundred dollars on airfare, with inconvenient flight times, or 8-9 hours each way driving, the latter of which was not a feasible option due to work scheduling. For many areas, such as in the Central Valley, driving is currently the only option. With the more convenient transit that high speed rail can generally provide, travel and tourism, already major industries in the state, can only benefit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Do we actually want DesertXPress?

Note: This was reposted to accurately reflect the day it was written rather than Blogger's insistence on publishing it from when the draft was first created.

The proposed private high speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, DesertXPress, has gotten quite a fair bit of attention and some degree of government support, such as use of the I-15 corridor. As it would, if current plans proceed at their current rate, be the first true high speed rail line in America (Acela only briefly touching 150 mph for a few miles), it also has a strong degree of support from high speed rail proponents. Is DesertXPress necessarily a rail line we want however?

To begin with, DesertXPress is not likely to succeed financially. While they have claimed to have large amounts of private capital behind them, they have also applied for a 4.9 billion dollar Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan from the Federal Railroad Authority. These loans carry "interest rates equal to the cost of borrowing to the government"which is currently equal to 3.75% on a 30 year bond (the Wall Street Journal is reporting about 4.3% currently). At that rate, the annual loan repayments would equal 273.4 million dollars per year (292.2 million at 4.3%), around the same amount as Taiwan High Speed Rail paid in 2010 (NT$8.9 billion, page 5; that is US$308 million today, but the NT$ has risen in value against the US$ and one year ago, that amounted to $276.2 million). The Taiwan HSR system was unable to pay the cost of financing and required a government takeover to refinance the loans at even lower interest rates despite far higher revenues than DesertXPress expects. Page 16 shows the revenue levels that DesertXPress expects to make. It is not until 2031 that revenues would be sufficiently high as to lower financial charges to only a quarter of total revenues. Given that operational profits prior to interest and taxes is less than 10% of total revenues for European high speed rail operators (running from a Spanish 2% to SNCF at 7%), it is unlikely in the extreme that DesertXPress could meet its interest expenses and would be forced into bankruptcy. This would not be the case, of course, if there should happen to be an appropriate sum of private investment to build the line rather than building it on loans, however, it raises the question of why DesertXPress would apply for a loan sufficiently large to build the entire line if it had the requisite private investment secured.

When and if DesertXPress fails, it will be a tremendous PR blow for the case of the California high speed rail program and other high speed rail programs in the United States. Any initiative that has been gotten in the public mindset is likely to be lost with such a visible failure, especially as anti-HSR groups such as Reason and Heritage seize upon it to use as an example in their mantra of the unprofitability of high speed rail (while ignoring toll roads with much higher margins being similarly crippled by debt loads).

From another standpoint, there must also be considered the nature of the line. While high speed travel between New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. is mutually enriching, high speed travel between the Los Angeles area and Las Vegas is unlikely to so be. The main industries of Las Vegas and the main reason for the relatively high level of travel to Las Vegas are parasitical in nature, gambling and the leisure and entertainment industries which serve its customer group. From the viewpoint of California, given the low return spending which the connection would bring from Las Vegas, it would be greatly preferable not to have it and instead encourage that gambling be conducted at Indian casinos within the state (such as the promotion between San Manuel and Metrolink), thus keeping the dollars and their related jobs inside California rather than exported to another state with little return.

Additionally, Las Vegas is itself of dubious quality. While there is nothing inherently wrong with responsible gambling, Las Vegas has consistently promoted itself as being the home for every vice it can, as being a destination and resort for debauchery and decadence, thus earning its nickname as "Sin City." Promoting and encouraging easier access to vice runs contrary to good order and the benefit of society and hence on that basis ought to be avoided except whereas deemed necessary by pragmatism (for instance, were it to lay upon one of the best routes connecting two worthier cities rather than being the entire purpose of the line itself).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Have Metrolink Express trains been a success?

On May 9th, Metrolink introduced express train service along the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino lines. These lines both received a pair of express trains, one heading to Los Angeles in the morning, and one leaving Los Angeles again in the evening. Now that a few months have passed, ridership data for the months of May and June have been posted, allowing us to see whether the faster train times resulted in higher ridership.

Antelope Valley Line total ridership
April 2010: 141,616
May 2010: 132,876
June 2010: 139,586
April 2011: 137,327
May 2011: 142,024
June 2011: 144,762

San Bernardino Line
April 2010: 281,242
May 2010: 268,550
June 2010: 279,766
April 2011: 290,095
May 2011: 295,575
June 2011: 298,514

Even a simple eyeballing of the numbers indicates that the combination of additional service and express trains has resulted in much higher ridership than would otherwise have been expected. However, the express trains appear to be underperforming. AV 282, the morning express service, averaged 214 passengers per weekday. That's only 55-60% of the performance of its preceding and following local services which averaged 383 and 349 passengers respectively. Similarly, the afternoon AV 285 averaged 291 passengers against the 411 and 366 of its earlier and later trains.

San Bernardino does far better however. SB 383 averages 522 passengers per weekday to Los Angeles, substantially better than the earlier SB 305 with 279 passengers and close to the following SB 307 with 583 passengers. In the afternoon, SB 384 carried an average of 563 passengers, substantially better than its neighboring trains at 531 and 511 passengers.

There are two explanations that come readily to mind for why the Antelope Valley express trains do so poorly. The first is that the commuting population is more concentrated in the stops served by the express trains on the San Bernardino Line than they are on the Antelope Valley Line. Considering the 2007 boarding pattern, the express train only serves 36% of commuters and serves the first, fourth, and eighth (third to last) busiest stations. Meanwhile, the San Bernardino line served the busiest three stations representing 46% of the total commuters.

The second explanation may simply be a lack of sufficient time saving to draw a suitably large number of commuters from other trains and from cars. The new express trains, if on time which the AV trains had some trouble doing at first, are slightly less than half an hour faster than their local counterparts (with the noted exception of SB 383 being 45 minutes earlier than its predecessor, arriving 15 minutes before it despite leaving 30 minutes later). San Bernardino is now competitive in terms of trip time with cars, although it is still slower when one accounts for the first and last mile problem of mass transit. Antelope Valley, however, is still slower than the car (in both cases, using Google Maps to determine trip time). In this case, the dominating factor is going to be the arrival timing since it cannot function as a suitable alternative to road congestion for those who are intent on minimizing their transit time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Oil prices, airline ticket prices, and CAHSR

In 2010, Southwest Airlines reported that the average price that they paid for aviation fuel came to $2.51 per gallon (source, page 3). That price represented nearly a third, 32.6%, of all operating expenses and slightly more than double the price of fuel merely five years prior. In total, over the past ten years, fuel costs have risen by 250% from 99.6 cents (after inflation adjustment, 78.69 cents in 2000 dollars, page F22) and an increase in total operating expenses of 186% from 17.4% of total operating expenses in 2000 (ibid, page F7). As of this week, the world price for fuel is $2.998, a 344% increase in nominal and a 273% increase in real price since 2010.

Working backwards from this carbon calculator's result of 203 pounds of CO2 per Southwest traveller between LAX and SFO (Southwest chosen due to being the most commonly cited and advertised airline between the two airports and their entirely economy seated aircraft), we can see a fuel consumption of 9.6 gallons per passenger per flight with $24-29 per ticket being devoted simply to paying the fuel cost (depending on 2010 hedged SWA price vs current market price). The portion of the price paid simply to account for the fuel costs is quite large, as much as half the ticket price with current $59 discounted fare sales but still remaining a solid 25-30% of the ticket fare at the more common $99 fare level that travel on that route sees this year (for an advance purchase ticket).

This rise in fuel prices is not indefinitely sustainable of course. Too high of an oil price will cause major drops in consumer spending as increased transportation costs raise the price of goods and lower household discretionary incomes. At a certain breaking point, this causes a sufficiently large drop in demand as to cause an economic downturn, reducing the price of oil. Until and unless significant forces of alternative fuels (be it Fischer-Fropsch synthetic fuel, biofuel, or widespread adoption of electric cars and mass transit) or a coordinated price fixing action by the oil producing nations act to stabilize the price of oil, this will result in a perpetual cycle around the "sustainable" price.

Still, it is certainly possible for oil to increase sustainably by another 50% (to an average world price of $150 dollars per barrel and an airline price of $4.50 per gallon) or catastrophically double (to $200 and $6 respectively). This would push up the fuel price between LAX and SFO to $43.20 and $57.6. If airline operating expenses and profit seeking (in terms of dollars per ticket) remain fixed and fares only rise in accordance with fuel, our $99 baseline fare would rise to $114 and $129. Assuming that other factors similarly rising (such as wages to deal with transportation expense inflation) meant that fuel did not exceed 40% of the total airfare, only the catastrophic scenario would see a price rise, to $144 per ticket.

While this would impact transportation to a degree, in neither case does it seem that air travel between the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions would be greatly affected. There is a sufficiently high degree of travel that increased fuel costs are unlikely to so greatly reduce demand and profit margins such as to significantly reduce service.

Among the trains cited in "Estimating Emissions from Railway Traffic" (page 74), the TGV Atlantique, which runs 300 km/hr maximum and 240 km/hr average between Paris and St. Pierre des Corps (Tours), best represents CAHSRA's planned 350km/hr top speed, 220km/hr average speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That train consumes 22 kilowatt-hours per kilometer for a total consumption upon the 695 kilometer route of 15,290 kilowatt-hours. With 485 seats, if we assume an average train capacity factor of only 50%, the energy consumption will be 63 kilowatts per passenger. At the 2010 price of electricity for transportation customers in California of 8.46 cents per kilowatt-hour, the fuel price per passenger is a mere $5.32.

This does not mean, of course, that high speed rail tickets will necessarily be able to drastically undercut the price of airlines. Rail, after all, has significant infrastructure maintenance costs that airlines do not. Renfe financial report shows traction energy costs amounted to only 7.5% of total expenditures (source, page 163). Following that result, if averaging only 50% of total seat capacity, a break-even fare, of all operational costs, would be $71, declining to $50 at 70% capacity factor. Electricity is somewhat cheaper in Spain, but this should not greatly affect matters. SNCF reports energy costs averaging 4.3% of total costs from amongst all divisions, with the result of much higher train fares if that were to hold true for CAHSR ($123).

In the end result, higher oil prices are not likely to impose a significant burden to air demand although competitive pressure may lead to failures and consolidations before ticket prices rise to match fuel costs. Provided that gold-plated design can be avoided, maintenance costs kept low, and tendencies towards overstaffing as currently demonstrated by American passenger rail kept at bay, the California high speed rail system stands a very good chance of potentially greatly undercutting airline fares and establishing itself as the major low cost carrier of high speed intrastate intercity travel.