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.