Saturday, May 28, 2011

Opening up the NEC to private operators

Amtrak could lose Northeast line

WASHINGTON -- Congress would take away Amtrak's popular Northeast corridor train service and invite private investors to bid for the right to develop high-speed rail under a plan outlined by a key House Republican on Thursday.

The densely populated corridor -- which extends from Washington to Boston, including service to New York City and Philadelphia -- is the most viable region in the country for truly high-speed trains averaging speeds better than 110 mph, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said.

But Amtrak has failed to provide fast service despite tens of billions of dollars in federal aid, he said while outlining his plan at a hearing.

Amtrak's Acela trains reach speeds over 150 mph in some portions of the corridor. Mica said trip times average only 83 mph between Washington and New York and 72 mph between New York and Boston.

His calculations include wait times at station stops along the route, which lowers the average speed. Some trains in Europe and Asia achieve speeds over 200 mph.

Last year, Amtrak proposed a plan to upgrade its Northeast corridor track and trains and to eliminate bottlenecks so that trains can travel up to 220 mph. Trip time between Washington and New York would be reduced to 96 minutes and between New York and Boston to 93 minutes.

The plan would be phased in over 30 years and cost $117 billion to implement. The railroad is seeking private investment to pay for some of the cost.

Mica, a longtime Amtrak critic, wants to take away the rail company's 363 miles of track and infrastructure, place it under the control of the Transportation Department or a new government-created corporation, and solicit bids from private investors for the development, operation and maintenance of high speed service.

The plan will be incorporated in a long-term transportation spending bill the committee is drafting and expects to introduce around mid-June, Mica said.

"I believe that we have great potential in the Northeast corridor," Mica said. "The only thing standing in the way is Amtrak or the federal government or Congress."

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Transportation highway subcommittee, said Mica's plan probably has enough support from Republicans to pass the House, but it is unlikely to be accepted by the Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a leading Amtrak supporter, warned in testimony at the hearing that potential Northeast corridor investors will want a profit, which means ticket prices likely would increase.

Mica's plan "hasn't begun to get any legs to stand on as I see it," he told reporters afterward. He said the plan would amount to a "death potion" for the transportation spending bill, which pays for highway and transit construction.

Amtrak is a private corporation, but it depends on federal subsidies. Amtrak is in debt to the federal government for about $4 billion, according to a committee briefing memo. Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said the railroad had paid off about half the debt as of last year.

Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 to provide passenger train service between cities after passenger railroads failed in the face of competition from airlines and interstate highway travel. But with the U.S. population expected to exceed 400 million people by 2050, nightmarish congestion is forecast for the nation's already crowded highways and airports.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to put high-speed intercity trains within reach of 80 percent of the American public by 2025, but he has run up against resistance from Republican governors and members of Congress who say the nation can't afford the cost.

Quite frankly, this is a reasonably good idea, as long as it is handled well (for instance, by mandating that whatever private organization receives the NEC makes certain improvements, ie regular service between NYC and Washington, D.C. within two hours, upon pain of severe penalties and revocation of franchise). Amtrak's handling of the NEC has been extremely poor, their plans quite frankly incompetent, and any improvements by Amtrak would be at taxpayer expense.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Increasing the revenue potential of HSR

While the focus of high speed rail is on passenger movement (with only the TGV La Poste providing freight movement amongst all the world's high speed rail lines), the potential for freight traffic should not be overlooked as well. Not only does the diversion of freight from road to rail relieve congestion, pollution, and road damage, but rail freight is also a valuable source of revenue, potentially exceeding that from passenger travel, which increases the viability of the rail system and enhances its ability to self-fund improvements and expansions. As a result, this particular information regarding San Diego freight traffic is particularly interesting:

How significant is the need for a larger airport in San Diego County? And what is wrong with Lindbergh, the current airport?

There is significant need for new airport capacity today, not 15 years from now. Two-thirds of San Diego’s air cargo is currently trucked up to LAX and Ontario airports. Thirty percent of our passengers go outside the county, primarily to LAX, for long-haul and international flights. Lindbergh is a lovely short-haul airport—if you want to go to the Bay Area, Las Vegas, or Sacramento.

But, at only 600-plus acres, Lindbergh is far too constrained for full long-haul, international, and air cargo service. And there are no other currently available sites in the county for a new airport. Of all possible sites, the best one remains Miramar, which is in military hands and isn’t likely to be turned into a civilian airport any time soon.

With 127,261 tons of cargo in 2010, we can see that comes out to approximately 250,000 tons of freight, in loads easily manageable by high speed rail vehicles. As the current plan envisions a stop at Ontario Airport and San Diego is proposing an intermodal hub at Lindbergh field itself, intermodal freight shipments between San Diego and Ontario Airport could prove to be a valuable service in addition to the passenger traffic along the LA-San Diego line.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

OCTA authorizes more Metrolink trains within OC

Transit board approves 6 new O.C. Metrolink trains

The Orange County Transportation Authority board approved a scaled-back plan to add six trains between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel, after the agency initially envisioned adding 32 weekday countywide trains.

These trains will operate in the late afternoon and evening beginning this summer, providing service to a previously underserved market, OCTA officials said.

The Orange County Transportation Authority board approved a scaled-back plan to add 6 trains between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel, after the agency initially envisioned adding 32 weekday countywide trains.

The six trains provide a total of 48 daily trains servicing Orange County. An additional six trains could be implemented in fiscal year 2014-15.

The expansion, which was approved by voters as part of the renewed Measure M sales tax ballot initiative in 2006, ultimately envisions bringing the daily total of trains to 76. The overall cost, which includes buying new locomotives and passenger cars as well as making improvements to stations, expanding parking lots, and making street crossings safer, is more than $400 million.

When voters approved the measure, the county was going through a robust economic growth and officials predicted that by 2010, average weekday ridership on the three Metrolink lines that serve Orange County would grow from about 14,000 to more than 30,000.

Then came the recession.

During the past three months of 2010, combined average weekday ridership on the three lines servicing Orange County was 14,093, a decrease of 1.3 percent compared to the same period in fiscal year 2009-10.

Will Kempton, OCTA's CEO, believes that once trains are running more frequently, more people will ride them.

The idea is that, with trains running every half hour or so, "people won't have to worry so much about a schedule," Kempton said in a previous interview. "They can simply go to the station and know that there will be a train."

A $7 intra-county day pass for use on all OCTA local buses and Metrolink service was also approved to correspond with the new service.

Meanwhile, as the OCTA approved this plan, Metrolink launched an express service for passengers who travel on the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino lines. The service is supposed to save daily commuters up to five hours a week by limiting the number of times the trains stop.

"As gas prices continue to increase and transportation funding remains scarce, Metrolink is assuming a bigger role in meeting the region's transportation needs by adding service that provides more solutions for our ridership," said Metrolink CEO John Fenton in a statement.

The OCLink Pass may turn out to be even bigger than the increased Metrolink schedule. One of the larger detractions to ridership on Metrolink is the cost of a ticket. An all day pass for $7, however, is a major reduction in cost, by more than 50% on a round-trip ticket between Laguna Niguel and Fullerton for instance, and a drop to 33% of the normal round-trip fare between the outliers of Buena Park and San Clemente. These ticket prices are lower than parking alone for Angels Stadium or the Honda Center, which are both directly served by Metrolink, which means that, presuming that the schedules have enough trains, especially trains later in the evening, there should be a healthy boost in ridership, especially for the Honda Center, whose parking costs are sufficiently high to make it cheaper to bring multiple people by train rather than drive and park.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why the 241 Toll Road makes the argument for high speed rail

Lately, the Transportation Corridor Agencies, who own and manage CA-241 and certain other toll roads, have been using a new website to promote extending the 241 south. Of note is this particular claim:

Extending the 241 will ease traffic on Interstate 5 by creating an alternative route for the hundreds of thousands of motorists a day who travel between San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Without the toll road, travel from the San Diego/Orange County border to Mission Viejo will take one hour in 2025. With the toll road constructed, the same drive on Interstate 5 will take 25 minutes and only 16 minutes on the toll road. The 241 is also expected to take pressure off Interstate 15, currently used by many driving from eastern Orange County into San Diego County. The 241 Toll Road will carry thousands of vehicles that would otherwise be clogging neighborhood streets and Interstate 5.

This is highly interesting and applicable to the high speed rail program and conventional intercity travel for Southern California. Such a level of congestion would make even the current Pacific Surfliner route significantly faster for travel from Orange County to San Diego as well as the high speed rail route (however, travel from Orange County to San Diego is liable to be faster along the current Surfliner route due to the backtracking to Los Angeles and inland route; currently Irvine to San Diego is comparable according to Amtrak schedule and CAHSR Trip Planner, upgrades currently in the works and reasonably foreseen by 2025 would put the Surfliner in the lead).

Given the previous failures of the 241 to extend south, as originally intended, and its lack of actual connection to Mission Viejo, it is doubtful that they will succeed in this current venture, and such high levels of traffic congestion and delays will occur. If, however, Orange and San Diego Counties are able to cooperate on expanding rail service, increasing average speed, and cutting delays, intercity and commuter rail should prosper well and take the place that the 241 cannot.