Tuesday, May 22, 2012

San Diego to Los Angeles in two hours for $600 million

One of the long standing goals for the Pacific Surfliner is to reduce the total travel time between San Diego and Los Angeles from its current schedule of two hours and forty minutes down to two hours. Previously, electrification of Laguna Niguel-Los Angeles was looked at to see what sort of gains might be made there, which resulted in shaving 26 minutes off of a 55 mile route. Unfortunately, NIMBY and environmentalist opposition, plus pedestrian safety concerns in the San Clemente area, make electrification of the entire route a non-starter at the present time. [Edit: In retrospect, this is too harsh on environmentalists and NIMBYs: Especially in the Del Mar area, electrification would almost certainly require the already planned tunnel in order to be feasible, which would increase project costs to the billions of dollars]. However, we do have acceleration data for Bombardier’s Talent thanks to YouTube, permitting a rough estimate of time savings using world standard DMU equipment. As before, time tables from BNSF and Metrolink/San Diego Northern were used for speed limits.

At the time that I did the calculations, I was unaware of the actual braking rate of the Talent and used Metrolink’s demonstrated 1.62mphps as a conservative placeholder; further research after the fact showed it to be 2.13mphps, which does not appreciably change matters. The vastly greater acceleration, however, allows for a major reduction in travel time, though not quite to the two hour bench-mark. With a one minute dwell time a departure on the hour ends up looking as follows:

Arrival Station
0:00:00 San Diego Santa Fe 
0:28:28 Solano Beach
0:40:57 Oceanside
1:05:08 San Juan Capistrano
1:15:18 Irvine
1:24:15 Santa Ana
1:31:14 Anaheim
1:38:00 Fullerton
2:06:30 Los Angeles

With 7% schedule padding, the total scheduled trip time would drop to two hours and fourteen minutes which, while good, especially for less than a hundred million dollars and the political capital involved in wrangling a waiver, isn’t quite to the full standard that Caltrans would like. An important caveat about the presumptive scheduling: It is very much an optimum schedule which assumes no conflicts, high balls the entire way, and a high degree of precision in train control.

The next biggest bang for our buck is unfortunately a bit on the expensive side, involving as it does a few miles of tunnel. This would involve the boring of a tunnel through Miramar Hill near San Diego rather than taking the rather winding and slow route that it currently does. Both options for the tunnel are in the $500 million range; in exchange, not only are numerous slow curves eliminated, about five miles of of total route length is cut from the route length; if built to 90mph standards, this should reduce travel time by seven to eight minutes with the Talent DMU set, bringing us back down below two hours for total travel time and just  a few minutes above it for a scheduled time. Unfortunately further decreases in travel time would require more tunneling, especially through San Clemente where there is a 2.6 mile stretch of 40mph running; or the 90-125mph dedicated passenger tracks between Los Angeles and Anaheim planned for by the California High Speed Rail program. However, with an express schedule, a two hour trip is possible for the cost of the Miramar tunnel and new train sets with a total cost in the region of six hundred million dollars.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Surfliner ridership drops 10%, fare increases to come

From the agenda for today's LOSSAN meeting:

Ridership on the Pacific Surfliner has declined year over year each month from October 2011 through February 2012. Ridership increased slightly in March but preliminary numbers for April show a 10 percent drop. It should be noted that despite the drop in ridership, revenue has maintained positive growth.
Caltrans reported that the 10 percent drop in ridership in April was potentially a result of several factors since they were only anticipating a 3 percent loss due to the increase in fares. One issue that was identified is related to the January 9, 2012, schedule change when the new Train 790, which runs all the way between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, replaced two trains that previously required a transfer at Union Station. Prior to January 9, 2012, passengers were counted twice due to the forced transfer. However, this impact should not be unique to the April figures. Additionally April 2011 had one more peak day (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) than April 2012. There was also speculation that there may be residual effects of people not taking the train due to all of the track work service disruptions that occurred in December and January.
Metrolink and OCTA reported they have seen fewer Rail2Rail passengers, a decrease of 6.5 percent in January, February, and March. Caltrans agreed that a drop in Rail2Rail passengers may explain how ridership has been declining to a greater degree than expected revenue.
Caltrans announced that Amtrak and Caltrans are planning a fare increase in June in order to improve revenues on the Pacific Surfliner to meet Section 209 budget requirements. There are options for both a 2 percent across-the-board fare increase and a 5-10 percent increase for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday trains. There is a huge demand for travel on weekends so a fare increase would provide an opportunity to increase revenues. 
The 10% drop in ridership is a fairly major one, especially without major track work in April disrupting service, which was the major contributing factor to previous declines. Amtrak really needs to get a handle on what the drop in ridership is (whether it is actual revenue passenger decrease or Rail2Rail and double counting) and fix any issues. It is especially glaring in comparison with the regular 10+% increases in ridership for the San Joaquins.

As for the fare increases, I'd prefer to see the 5-10% weekend option being the one adopted, preferentially towards the 10% level. That should have the largest gain in revenue with the lowest ridership discouragement. There is quite a large number of riders on these trains with up to 900 anticipated riders between Los Angeles and San Diego even in the off-season for the busiest of them. Not bad for trains with only 500 seats.

Incidentally, I would also like to see this strategy of fare raising applied to the long-distance trains. There's no real reason that the fares should be as low as they are on a per mile basis, especially for those which have high ridership and load factors. Given that the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder are marketed as premier trains, they would be worthy candidates for a trial run.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pantograph Interstates

Siemens working on overhead electrification system for trucks on the 710

Los Angeles may be one of the first global cities to adopt a new electric freight trucking system, unveiled by electrical engineering giant Siemens Corp. last week at the 26th Electric Vehicle Symposium, or EVS26.
The new technology, called eHighway, is a highway electrification system that uses overhead electrical wires to transmit energy to freight trucks in select vehicle lanes, similar to modern-day streetcars.
“Most people think about cars when they think of vehicle emissions, but the reality is it’s freight trucks,” said Daryl Dulaney, chief executive of North American infrastructure and cities sector for Siemens.
Siemens’ eHighway is one several technologies the AQMD is investigating. It’s currently running pilots of zero-emission electric and fuel cell trucks at the Port of L.A. and envisions marrying the eHighway to near-zero-emissions technologies to help meet federal clean air standards.
The eHighway’s so-called catenary system uses diesel hybrid trucks outfitted with software that senses when an overhead electrical line is available and automatically connects or disconnects as needed. When the trucks’ rooftop connectors are attached to the electrical lines, the trucks run entirely on electricity. When the connectors are lowered, they run on a hybrid electric propulsion system similar to the Toyota Prius. In hybrid mode, the trucks save 30% on diesel fuel.
In addition to reducing emissions, the trucks also reduce noise pollution. But there is a downside: Siemens estimates the system will cost between $5 million and $7 million per mile to build.
I've joked about doing such things in the past, but I'm pleasantly amused at the idea that someone is doing this seriously.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

FEC study for go/no-go on Miami-Orlando passenger trains due next month

Orlando Sentinel

A Coral Gables development company expects to have a study completed next month that could determine whether it builds a privately funded $1 billion train linking Miami with Orlando.
If the ridership study finds enough demand, Florida East Coast Industries could begin construction next year, Husein Cumber, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Railway, an affiliate of FECI, said Monday.
"Everything right now is trending in the right direction," he said.
Cumber spoke to a gathering of Central Florida government and real estate officials at the offices of MetroPlan, which sets transportation policy in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
So far, Cumber said, four stops appear certain for the train that has been dubbed All Aboard Florida: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando. The exact locations remain uncertain, except for Miami, where FECI owns nine acres downtown.
Missing as a possible stop is Cocoa, where the proposed train would veer west for Orlando. Bob Kamm, director of the Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization in Viera, said Brevard County officials want to know if they will have any involvement with the system.
"All we would see is the negatives … if you are just blowing through and waving as you go by," Kamm said.
Cumber said the ridership study would determine if there is a Cocoa stop, but he added that the train's biggest appeal is that it would be faster to ride it to Miami or Orlando than drive a car. The projected travel time is three hours and two minutes, he said, compared with about four hours by auto.
I'm somewhat surprised that this study is now, rather than before, but I believe I've remarked upon that in the past as well. I would be tremendously surprised if they did not find enough demand to build the line.

More importantly, three hours and two minutes is the fastest time I've yet seen officially quoted for All Aboard Florida, and it indicates that the train will do most of its traveling at 90-110mph qualifying it as high speed rail by American definitions, poor as they are. Upgrading the grade crossings for that will take a fairly decent chunk of change however and will likely be where the FEC asks governments to step in (as has been noted: The $1 billion cost is only mostly privately funded, not entirely, leaving open the door for some government construction subsidies).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why commuter railroads won't run diesels

Earlier I talked about why freight will never electrify their railroads. Now I'd like to show, by way of an example, why commuter railroads won't run diesels in the future, choosing instead to electrify their lines. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, operational costs have a far greater prominence than do capital costs owing to the nature of government agencies as opposed to private agencies. An investment that is hard to justify for a freight operator becomes much easier for a public agency that is receiving "free" funding from another agency and in the process is able to reduce its operational costs to those to whom it is immediately responsible. In such a way does spending hundreds of millions of dollars to save a few million per year become an attractive financial option.

More importantly, however, is the fact that electric trains accelerate much faster, and electric multiple units, compared to a diesel locomotive hauling several rail cars, accelerate like a bat out of hell. The Fairmount DMU study gives the acceleration characteristics of a diesel push-pull train set such as MBTA and other commuter agencies use. Accelerating to 60 miles per hour takes 166 seconds; by extrapolation of the acceleration trend, 80 miles per hour would take 301 seconds. That's significantly slower than the Talent DMU that my last post featured, but look at it in comparison with a Stadler FLIRT:

The FLIRT reaches 60 miles per hour in only 27 seconds, over two minutes faster than a traditional American train set and reaches 100 mile per hour in about 76 seconds, a minute and a half before our vaunted American train has hit 60 miles per hour (it's just about to hit 35 miles per hour). It also breaks significantly faster.
In this video we can see a deceleration from 70 kilometers per hour to 10 kilometers per hour in 9 seconds, which is an average braking rate of 6.67km/h/s or 4.145mphps. This NTSB report on a Metrolink train exceeding a stop signal reports:
The third test used the service air brake and dynamic braking but did not use the emergency brake. The brakes were first applied when the train reached 74 mph. In this test, the brakes were applied in increments, as in the first test; however, there was less time between brake applications. The total stopping distance was about 2,490 feet.
Working backwards from the stopping distance equation on page 21 of a Department of Defense study on using TGVs to haul M1 Abrams tanks, the train's stopping rate is only 1.62mphps, about 40% that of the FLIRT.

The upshot of this is that more time is spent at higher speeds, reducing the time penalty for any individual train stop and greatly increasing the average speed, making it more attractive to travelers and increasing its patronage, and political support, as a result. By way of example, I ran a calculation of trip times using the Stadler FLIRT, as demonstrated in the above videos, to see how this would affect Metrolink's schedule between Laguna Niguel, the most southern point on the OC Line where NIMBYs and single tracking are not a concern, and Los Angeles Union Station. For this purpose, the use of Metrolink and BNSF timetables was invaluable. I assumed a 30 second dwell time, that unless it resulted in only ~.1-.2 miles of cruising acceleration to and braking from the maximum legal speed were called for and that all curves were accounted for by the speed limits. Additionally, while it is not always true, it was assumed that the mileposts were accurate and that they did equal a true mile. Briefly following is all the speed limits, to save others the trouble.

Laguna Niguel-Irvine: 8.7 miles (MP 193.7-185) 90mph all miles
Irvine-Tustin: 5.5 miles (MP 185-179.5) 90mph all miles
Tustin-Santa Ana: 4.3 miles (MP 179.5-175.2) 90mph till 176.1, 50mph after
Santa Ana-Orange: 2.6 miles (MP 175.2-172.6) 50-174.7, 79-173.8, 40-173.2 60 after.
Orange-Anaheim: 2 miles (MP 172.6-170.6) 60-172.4, 35-172, 79 after
Anaheim-Fullerton Jct: 4.4 miles (MP 170.6-165.4) 79-170.4, 70-169.2, 79-165.9, 55-165.4
Fullerton Jct-Fullerton: .4 miles (MP 165.4-165) 79mph
Fullerton-Buena Park: 4.7 miles (MP 165-160.3) 79-163.8, 75-163.5, 79-161.1, 70-160.8, 79 after
Buena Park-Norwalk: 4.2 miles (MP 160.3-156.1) 79-156.6, 75 after
Norwalk-Commerce: 7.6 miles (MP 156.1-148.5) 75-155.9, 79-154.2, 70-153.8, 79-153, 50@153, 70-152.5, 79-152.1, 50@152.1, 79-151.7, 65-151.4, 79 after
Commerce-Soto: 4.1 miles (148.5-144.4) 79-144.5, 40 after
Soto-LAUS: 4.2 miles to CP San Diego JCT (144.4-140.2), 0.2-CP Mission (MP 0.8), .8 to LAUS (MP 0.0).
144.4-142.8 44mph, 142.8-141.2 79mph, 141.2-140.8 45mph, 140.8-140.2 35mph, 0.8-0.5 25mph
The current schedule reads as follows, adjusting to make a Laguna Niguel departure :00 (using train 603)
0:00 Depart Laguna Niguel
0:09 Irvine
0:16 Tustin
0:23 Santa Ana
0:28 Orange
0:32 Anaheim
0:41 Fullerton
0:47 Buena Park
0:55 Norwalk
1:05 Commerce
1:19 Arrive Los Angeles (there are 7 minutes of padding which makes scheduled time 1:26)

Calculated with a FLIRT:
Laguna Niguel-Irvine
Leaves 0:00:00 arrives 0:06:18 departs 0:06:48
Leaves 0:06:48 arrives 0:10:58 departs 0:11:28
Tustin-Santa Ana
Leaves 0:11:28 arrives 0:15:20 departs 0:15:50
Santa Ana-Orange 
Leaves 0:15:50 arrives 0:18:52 departs 0:19:22
Leaves 0:19:22 arrives 0:21:42 departs 0:22:12
Leaves 0:22:12 arrives 0:27:16 departs 0:27:46
Fullerton-Buena Park
Leaves 0:27:46 arrives 0:31:46 departs 0:32:16
Buena Park-Norwalk:
Leaves 0:32:16 arrives 0:35:52 departs 0:36:22
Leaves 0:36:22 arrives 0:42:29 departs 0:42:59
Commerce-Los Angeles:
Leaves 0:42:59 arrives 0:53:25

Obviously in practice and as put on a schedule, the gains would not be as great, but it does indicate gains of up to 26 minutes from Laguna Niguel to Los Angeles Union Station are possible. This is, in many respects, a best-case scenario. The FLIRT is among the best accelerating train sets, it would require a waiver to operate in the United States, and it has limited seating rendering it somewhat less suitable for commuter operations (a six car unit has 260 seats and while American commuter seating density would raise it to about 425-450, a comparable bilevel six car set offers nearly double the number of seats). While multiple-units can alleviate this, it would require greater staffing, Metrolink's contract, which is similar to Amtrak's, requires an additional conductor if there are more than six cars. 

I'll also admit that I can't shake the feeling I messed up the partial braking calculations, although it shouldn't greatly affect matters; at most I suspect it would counteract always rounding up acceleration and braking distances to the next tenth of a mile.

That, in a nutshell, is the advantage which electrification offers alongside fuel savings: a 33% reduction in travel time and making commuter rail operations truly time competitive with car travel. In this particular instance, the cost would be about $500 million or less for the electrification, plus the cost of train sets (Hungary recently purchased four FLIRTs for 20 million euros), and much of the electrification cost can be covered through the California High Speed Rail program, making the burden more manageable on OCTA and the other Metrolink member agencies. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

A visual demonstration of FRA weight penalties

While doing a bit of research for a future post, I came across this video of a Hungarian Railways Bombardier Talent accelerating. While shorter than Colorado Railcar's former offerings, it is still broadly comparable (and working in multiple units they should be able to alleviate any passenger capacity shortcomings with negligible acceleration downsides).

Now compare that to the example of the FRA compliant Colorado Railcar as given in the Fairmount DMU study. With two single level multiple units and two trailers, Colorado takes 123 seconds to accelerate to a speed of 60 miles per hour. The Talent, however, has blazed past Colorado, reaching 95 km/h (~60mph) in 40 seconds. Indeed, by the time that Colorado has reached 60 miles per hour, the Bombardier Talent has reached the FRA's normal speed limit of 130 km/h and been cruising at top speed for 50 seconds. Indeed, it reaches 130km/h in just a hair over a mile compared to Colorado's 1.35 miles and by the time that the Colorado Railcar reaches 60 miles per hour, the Talent is 0.8 miles and 20 miles per hour ahead of it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Amtrak Thruway and the Bakersfield Gap

The agenda for LOSSAN's May 10th meeting is now up and with it an interesting presentation by Amtrak regarding the Amtrak Thruway service:

1. 1 in 6 Amtrak California riders use a Thruway bus.
2. There are 107,000 bus passengers taking a Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo-Oakland bus. Many of these would presumably transfer to the Coast Daylight when it starts.
3. There are 10,000 passengers on Amtrak Thruway buses between the Coachella Valley and Fullerton. Amtrak's continued refusal to make the Sunset Limited a daily train is puzzling since these would be a shoehorn in for it. Yes, Union Pacific is resistant to it. But Amtrak isn't even fighting over something that they themselves identified as lowering annual losses.
4. The LA-Bakersfield Gap sees 212,000 annual riders by Thruway bus, all of which requires a connecting ticket to another Amtrak train (though the holder is not required to make that connection of course). The importance of completing the infrastructure for a one-seat ride between LA Union Station and Bakersfield cannot be overstated.

The Surfliner finally had a ridership gain in March (1.6%), compared to a previous year, after declines from October through February due to track work playing merry hell with train delays and cancellations. Impressively, it was accompanied by a 22.3% revenue increase. The San Joaquin was up 15.9% and 18.1% respectively.

Private company trying to raise money for Texas HSR

Texas Central Railway attempting to raise $10 billion for Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Imagine heading from North Texas to Houston on a train doing more than 200 miles an hour. The concept of making the trip, on the ground, in 90 minutes, could soon be a reality.
Robert Eckels is the head of Texas Central Railway and says the trip could be possible in less than a decade.
Texas Central Railway is raising private investments to try and fund a $10 billion high-speed rail system connecting the metroplex with Houston and San Antonio.
“We are not looking for a government subsidy on this project,” explained Eckels, “that’s one of the key elements to make this project work and is distinguished from others is that we would be a privately operated system.”
If and when the high-speed train comes to fruition officials with Texas Central Railway say ticket prices would be about 70-percent of an airline ticket from North Texas to the Houston area.
If a group of investors commit to the high-speed rail the operation could be up and running by 2020.

Now, I do have good deal of reservation about this. The first is that there is no record I can find online of a "Texas Central Railway,"though it isn't unheard of for some of these organizations not to have a web presence. The second is the emphasis on speeds of 200 miles per hour or more. This raises up the construction costs tremendously and with it, my third degree of reservation, the difficulty of finding private financing on such a large scale for an operation which, quite frankly, has only a limited amount of return on investment. It's better, in my opinion, for a system like this to start off with 110mph track, ideally sharing established track or right of way as much as possible. While Union Pacific is unlikely to be willing to cooperate in such a manner, BNSF also has a line from Dallas to Houston, which has the added advantage of being somewhat more direct, and if I've read the density map right, it is not completely chocked with freight trains, unlike the UP lines.

On the other hand, if they can stick to a 90 minute timeframe, while they'll be competing with 65 minute flights, that's a closer time gap than the Acela or CAHSR faces and against what looks like a higher base fare (looking at fares from May 27-June 30, they remain at $118 the entire time), allowing for greater revenue with lower operating costs.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Freight Will Never Electrify

Since Conrail tore down its electrification in the 1980s, no major freight railroad in the United States has used electric traction to haul cars, relying instead on diesel locomotives, much to the consternation of environmentally focused railfans. Proposals such as that of the Steel Interstate Coalition, almost as a general rule, include overhead electrification of freight lines either to eliminate environmental emissions or reduce American oil use. The problem, however, is that the freight railroads simply will never electrify.

As with most things, the primary problem is one of money. With some exceptions, capital investment is made to either increase revenues or decreases costs. As publicly held company responsible to their shareholders, investment is ideally ranked according to return on investment, with those projects having the greatest returns on investment receiving a higher priority and thus more likely to receive the investment. This is also collective rather than singular; a project which may individually have the highest return on investment may have a lesser return on investment than several other projects combined, and so be deferred in their favor.

This is the problem which freight electrification faces. While electrification would represent a lessening in fuel expenses, especially as the price of oil is expected to rise another 20-30% over the long-term, this is a fairly minor savings for the railroads. Take, for example, Union Pacific, the largest freight railroad in the United States. Fuel expenses in 2011 came to 3.5 billion dollars, about one quarter of total expenses. At 6.5 gallons to the mile (a back calculation from 480-ton miles to the gallon and typical 3100 ton train) and $3.25 per gallon for a typical train vs 80 kilowatts per train mile (2 Class 92 locomotives) and 12 cents per kilowatt (LA Metro's cost of electricity), the cost would be halved, from $21.125 per train-mile to $9.6 per train-mile, resulting in a total annual savings of $2 billion, trending upwards as the price of oil rises faster than the price of electricity. However, this is actually less than the $2.243 billion which Union Pacific charged in freight surcharges. So long as the freight railroads are permitted to charge fuel surcharges, they have no economic incentive to electrify.

Even should we presume that the impediment of fuel surcharges is in some way overcome, the cost to electrify is a daunting one. The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates approximately 5.5 million dollars per route-mile for electric traction, a 30% premium over European examples of  electrification, but this is normal for American infrastructure projects. Applying this to Union Pacific’s 757-mile long Sunset Route, which they are finishing the process of double tracking, results in a cost of 4.1 billion dollars. For this, forty-nine trains per day would have reduced fuel expenses 156 million dollars annually. A twenty-six year period before financially breaking even does not endear a project to analysts.

Of course, the cost of electric traction supply is essentially a fixed cost and the Sunset Route is not the most highly trafficked route in America or even amongst Union Pacific’s routes. BNSF’s nearby Southern Transcon sees 120 trains per day, for instance, and is expected to reach 150 in the near future. Such corridors would see a relatively quicker break-even point. However, all of this is ignoring one crucial cost element: The locomotives themselves.

Electric traction is only of any use if there are electric motors available to utilize it and, as they are not possessed, they too must be purchased. For each daily train between Los Angeles and the Midwest, this means as many as sixteen locomotives would be required depending on the number of locomotives required per individual train, assuming in this case four days from initial departure until a locomotive has been “recycled” to make the journey in reverse. Although the freight railroads order in sufficiently large quantities that, unlike Amtrak, there is unlikely to be a price premium over the $2 million average currently paid for locomotives, this still adds a substantial additional burden to the price, further increasing the amount of time before the investment is paid back.

There are also major operational issues with the use of electric locomotives. Though a diesel locomotive may go wherever it wish, an electric locomotive must necessarily remain under wire. Not only does this necessitate the expense of electrifying branch lines or maintaining a diesel fleet in electrified areas to handle traffic not originating or terminating on the mainline, but it also points to the problem that electric locomotives are power limited based on external factors to a degree that diesel locomotives are not. While any number of diesel locomotives may use up to their full ratings in a given area, subject only to the physical capabilities of drawbars and car couplings, a given substation can only provide a certain amount of power, providing an additional constraint on train capacity which requires additional or larger substations to overcome, increasing the expense still further.

This leads to the one of the biggest issues with electrification for freight: It is a single point of failure for busy routes. Currently, severe weather and earthquakes resulting in washouts and landslides covering the line are the only significant single point of failure for the lines. Failure of electric traction, due to inclement weather, mechanical or electric failure, represents an additional single point of failure. As this would preferentially be installed upon the busiest and most critical routes, failure of the overhead catenary system has the potential to cause extremely severe and expensive congestion throughout the American rail network.

Congestion, as it happens, is the final reason why the freight railroads will not adopt mainline electrification. Electrification is a major endeavor which would soak up the available capital investment of any given railroad for some years. The opportunity cost involved here is major expansion of existing capacity upon American railroads, whether through double and triple tracking major routes as is the case with the Sunset and Southern Transcon, or major projects like the Crescent and Heartland Corridors. A study by the American Association of Railroads indicated that 148 billion dollars, 135 billion of which would come from the seven Class I railroads, is needed in upgrades to deal with expected gains in rail traffic by 2035, a figure nearly double the expected actual investment that can be afforded, and presuming that there is no mode shift, a dubious assumption in light of higher oil prices and a shortage of truck drivers. Money spent on electrifying, which we noted earlier doesn’t have a revenue advantage due to fuel surcharges, forgoes all the potential revenue and cost savings that additional track capacity provides. There is, as a result, no economic or operational justification for a major freight railroad to invest in electrification today.

All of this is why, today, only one common carrier railroad hauls freight with electric traction and that is the Iowa Traction Railroad, using the remnant of an old interurban to perform interchange work with 90 year old locomotives. Potentially one or two small Class III railroads may electrify with restored locomotives, but the major freight railroads will not electrify in the foreseeable future.

Iowa to put Chicago-Omaha rail service on Iowa Interstate

Des Moines would receive intercity rail service once again with nearly a million projected riders

The study's authors examined all the existing freight railroads crossing the state, and one that was largely abandoned 30 years ago, before deciding the best course is to build on a revived Chicago-Moline route Illinois is developing for planned launch in late 2014.
Backers hope service would be extended to Iowa City, but Gov. Terry Branstad and legislative Republicans have so far been unwilling to appropriate the state's $3 million annual operating subsidy.
"That is a route that is able to deliver passenger rail service that meets the purpose and need," said Mark Hemphill, director of rail consulting services for HDR Engineering of Omaha, which is conducting the study. "Most of all it's a competitive rail service that's attractive to travelers."
Now that a preferred route has been identified, it will be the subject of a detailed environmental study over the next year. IDOT and the federal government are splitting the study's $2 million cost.
IDOT, the Federal Railroad Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation will host meetings this week to discuss the study and take public comment on the project:
Jerome Lipka, president and CEO of Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Interstate, said the railroad will consider hosting the new service if it doesn't interfere with its profitable freight traffic.
"As long as there's no impact on our freight service and as long as there is total cost neutrality to us, basically we would be in support of it," Lipka said. "We've got to be concerned about our business, and we've got to be concerned about our ability to survive and to grow."
The initial review of the potential for Omaha service found the Iowa Interstate route, which also serves Des Moines, Grinnell and Newton, would draw up to 935,000 riders a year on five daily trains in each direction operating at speeds up to 110 mph.
That would require track, signal, and maintenance upgrades to Iowa Interstate's present track, which Lipka said now has a maximum 40-mph speed limit. He said Iowa Interstate operates up to 14 freight trains a day "and looking to grow even more" over segments of the 360 miles between Wyanet, Ill., and Council Bluffs. 
Left unsaid is that the improvements would also greatly improve freight service for Iowa Interstate, which currently runs entirely dark territory, without signals. I must admit to being rather surprised at five daily trains in each direction; given the length of the total run, 9 hours, I wouldn't have expected such, though it makes rather more sense in the context of many of the shorter trips available on the route.

Trading suburban homes to live near train stations

From the Wall Street Journal:

Tom and Pat Kelly spent 22 years living what many people consider the American dream: They owned a four-bedroom home with a pool and a big yard in Turnersville, N.J. They traded that in to live near a train station.
With two of their three children living on their own, the couple no longer wanted to spend time raking leaves, shoveling snow and doing other maintenance their large home required. So they moved to LumberYard, a mixed-use condominium development near their son's and daughter's homes and within walking distance of the local train station.
Now, instead of spending two or more hours commuting daily in his red Volkswagen Beetle, Mr. Kelly, 56, hops on the Patco high-speed train line and gets to his Philadelphia law-firm job across the Delaware River in about a half-hour. "It's just a much more enjoyable life," he says.
LumberYard is a transit-oriented development, or TOD, one of a growing number of mixed-use developments that combine town houses or condominiums with retail shops, hotels and other businesses—all perched near a train station.
The Collingswood development's condos are steps away from a hair salon, an Italian restaurant and a Pilates studio. "You could get to anything without a car," says Ms. Kelly, 58.
Tom Kelly slashed his commute time when he and his wife, Pat, moved to the LumberYard after 22 years in a large suburban home.
Developers say this type of project is now one of the fastest-growing areas of the housing market. The growth comes as developers regroup after the housing and financial crises. Some developers say they aim to focus more on these projects.
Efforts to rein in sprawl slowly gathered steam over the past couple of decades, but the housing bust helped shape this latest crop of TOD newcomers. During the housing frenzy, Americans were willing to buy a pricey home an hour or more from their workplaces. But now gas prices around $4 a gallon have made that commute costly.
Plus, housing values have dropped by a third or more since the 2006 peak, so tying up one's net worth in a suburban home that isn't guaranteed to increase in value seems too big a risk.

More at the link.

It isn't mentioned in the article, but I suspect that demographic trends are also a major contributing factor to this. The couple cited, for instance, belong to an older cohort and have few children remaining at home (just one in their case). This age group is expanding, as is the number of young adults, while the age group which is actively raising children, due to a continually delaying age of first marriage, is projected to remain steady. Demand for large housing will accordingly remain low for quite some time, especially as it was overbuilt during the housing boom, while the younger and older age groups, who have less perceived need of space or isolation, as well as more disposable income, will drive demand for more convenient transit oriented development.