Friday, August 31, 2012

Minor obstacles and interesting information for All Aboard Florida

All Aboard Florida is seeking no or low cost land leases from three government agencies and a Church of Latter Day Saints owned ranch in order to connect from Cocoa Beach to Orlando International Airport.

I doubt that this will be any sort of issue, though I suspect that the cost for the ranch land will be rather pricey. A couple of interesting tidbits from the article:

A stop for Cocoa also would be opposed by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, one of the four property owners in talks with All Aboard Florida. The others are the state, the airport and the Mormon Church.
The expressway authority owns much of the BeachLine Expressway, where the right of way is the most logical place for the train to lay tracks. The state also owns parts of the road.
A depot in Cocoa could end up costing the expressway money because it could siphon toll-paying motorists off the road and onto the train, said agency director Max Crumit. That likely would be a deal breaker between the authority and the train, he said.
"It would be a huge competitor," Crumit said.
I'm actually somewhat surprised that it would be seen as a major competitor to the BeachLine Expressway. It's only about forty miles and with a somewhat inconvenient origin at the airport, I wouldn't expect to see much ridership between Cocoa Beach and Orlando.

More interesting is the airport station infrastructure.

Discussions with the airport have been going slower than anticipated. Both sides originally set out to reach an agreement within 60 days. That had to be extended another two months at an OIA board meeting two weeks ago.
Airport director Phil Brown blamed "lots of complicated issues, but nothing in particular" for the deal not coming together. Rinaldi said there was "no particular holdup — just a reflection of time needed."
OIA is being asked to help pay for a garage and depot for the train that would cost more than $210 million. About 80 percent of that would be for a 3,500-space garage. But who pays for what part of that bill has not been determined.
The airport also would be responsible for building a mile-long elevated monorail to serve the station at a cost of $181.4 million. Roads and other infrastructure costs of about $78 million would fall to OIA, too.
All Aboard Florida might not be taking direct subsidies from the government, but that's a quarter billion dollars in investment by a public agency simply for connections, not counting the additional costs that Orlando Airport might bear the burden of for the parking and station itself. Such connectivity costs are probably a major reason why we don't see private investment in passenger rail, with this notable exception, since they greatly increase the cost of low and higher speed rail systems and diminish the value of using existing infrastructure.

The monorail connection to the airport has one obvious benefit in that it would allow for an extremely simple codeshare agreement between national carriers and All Aboard Florida. Given the consolidation and cutback trend in the American airline industry, I think it fairly likely that, with higher speed rail connecting Florida, Orlando will become the hub airport and siphon a good deal of traffic away from the others. There is, however, the potential downside of having security theater thanks to the connection; hopefully the AAF leadership will avoid it entirely.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Amtrak California revenue and ridership for July

The agenda for the August 30th LOSSAN meeting is now available and with it the revenue and ridership trends for July. There is also an agenda for joint meeting with the Coast Rail Coordinating Council which looks like it's a reiteration that they're more than a decade behind schedule for the Coast Daylight thanks to Union Pacific.

Ridership year over year
Surfliner: -5.0%
San Joaquin: +0.8%
Capitol Corridor: -3.1%
Coast Starlight: +11.4%
National: +0.8%
Coaster: -2.7%
Metrolink: +7.1%

Revenue year over year
Surfliner: -4.9%
San Joaquin: +2.4%
Capitol Corridor: +1.7%
Coast Starlight: +2.6%
National: -2.1%

The Surfliner Express gained passengers compared to the last couple months but is still 29% below July 2011's ridership. On-time performance dropped to a record low 47.6% thanks to to track work between Los Angeles and Fullerton. I really do have to wonder at what point they will simply pull the plug on what is obviously a failed experiment.

LOSSAN South OTP overall dropped to 52.6% for the Surfliner due to the aforementioned track work,  while Metrolink's OC Line, with tighter requirements for on time performance, was 83.9%

It's somewhat worrisome that the Surfliner's ridership decline is continuing and that it has now resulted in a drop in revenue, however, this may be a result of the track work delays again compounded by the fact that the raised fare period has run out (since this is the time of the summer peak fare). An additional partial cause may be cannibalization by increased Metrolink weekend service between Oceanside and Los Angeles, though I don't believe this would be a major factor.

As for the Coast Daylight, if the state has a legal right to the train slot as I've heard it does, it may very well be time to pursue some means of legal action against Union Pacific in order to launch the Daylight service. I do, however, continue to believe that it would be most successful as a premium fare night service running through between San Diego and Sacramento, timed to permit overnight business travel.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

An interesting All Aboard Florida infographic

From the Sun Sentinel comes this infographic:

I am somewhat concerned by their ability to make the projected 3 hours, 3 minutes time frame from Orlando to Miami with 30% of their route, everything from West Palm Beach south, restricted to no more than 79mph while also using a slow accelerating diesel locomotive hauled consist. It is doable, of course, but it does require rather greater average speeds on the remainder of the route. With speeds capped at 79mph, it also means that it will not be car competitive on that section of the route. It probably won't amount to a major loss in passenger traffic, but every seat filled helps the bottom line.

I must admit to being perplexed at AAF's insistence on only serving Orlando at the airport. Connecting to the Orlando train station is a simple matter of extending for another seven miles along Route 528 and building a crossover to what I believe is CSX's line and running north for another eight miles of mostly single track. The marginal cost, even of double tracking those eight miles, is fairly minor in the grand scheme of things and it's difficult to believe that the benefits would not exceed the costs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Personalizing ticket prices

I've mentioned before that I think that the state of California ought to consider developing it's own reservation system for high speed rail and Amtrak California rather than pay large fees to access Amtrak's antiquated ARROW system. In addition to possessing rather more flexibility than the current "X number of seats at Y price," such a system would also allow for increased ridership and passenger revenue generation through personalized ticket prices, as Amazon has done for some time and now grocery stores are beginning to do.

Building such a new reservation system also allows a seamless integration with the panopticon that modern data collection has become. Consider, for example, a business professional who has made somewhat regular trips between two stations with Amtrak. Knowing this, the reservation can be tied into Caltrans' Quickmap and push a notification when there are traffic conditions increasing the value of taking a train relative to that of driving and offer an appropriate ticket pricing. Alternatively, a discount might be offered if a habitual, but not always taken, train is predicted to be operating with excess seats unsold. This is to the benefit of both the state and the passenger. The passenger receives a discount while the state fills another seat at a profit (assuming that the fare covers all incidental costs of course).

Such a system would also allow for a proactive response to sudden events which increase demand, such as a major traffic accident closing down lanes on the interstates or another power outage causing complete chaos for the roads, increasing ticket prices and passenger yields. It might not be terribly popular to do that, of course, which ought to be taken into consideration during system deployment, but it does present a potential means of increasing revenue.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The problem with American passenger railroading summed up in one quote

NJ Transit officials told the Journal that Clever Commute’s information contained “gross inaccuracies” and wasn’t providing a truly helpful service for commuters.

“Unbelievably, the operator of this website infers that NJ Transit customers are rational enough to receive this information, even if it is inaccurate,” said John Durso Jr., the railroad’s spokesman. “Here at NJ Transit, we place a premium on accuracy.”

NJT cuts off train platform information to developers.

Probably 90% of the non-regulatory issues with American passenger rail can be attributed to the fact that the companies and agencies involved assume that their customers are idiots. It's an entirely unwarranted assumption and one that really hurts them in the long run for the obvious reason that it results in poor customer service and retention.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

FEC going ahead with All Aboard Florida

Via Stephen Smith comes word that All Aboard Florida is going ahead:

A Miami real estate and transportation company announced Wednesday that it plans to go ahead with a $1 billion project to build a privately run passenger train service between Miami and Orlando to begin operations by the end of 2014.
Florida East Coast Industries said its "All Aboard Florida" project is financially viable without any need for federal and state grants or subsidies.
"After completing our due diligence we have decided to go through with it," said Husein Cumber, vice president of corporate development at Florida East Coast Railway, which operates the company's existing freight line.
Construction would begin in early 2013, Cumber said, and when completed the new service would be the only privately run, non-subsidized passenger rail link between two major cities in the United States. A similar private scheme has been proposed in Texas to link Houston and Dallas.
Amtrak, the government-owned national rail corporation, currently offers a twice daily service between Miami and Orlando, taking five to seven hours.
The announcement comes after Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected federal funding in 2011 for a high-speed rail service linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami, saying the state could not afford it.
The new service is designed for tourists and business travelers and would link two of Florida's major urban centers, Cumber told members of the Beacon Council, a public-private partnership to promote business development in Miami-Dade County.
The $1 billion cost includes a set of 10 diesel-powered trains with a 400-seat capacity offering an hourly service with First-class and Business-class seating, gourmet dining and Wi-Fi, as well as new tracks and stations in downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and the Orlando airport.
The trains would make the journey in 3 hours 3 minutes traveling at speeds of up to 110 mph at a "cost competitive" price compared to the cheapest round-trip airfare of $140-160 or the roughly $120 cost of car travel, Cumber said.

Given the recent issues with Amtrak's food and beverage service, it will be an interesting comparison to see if they can make a profit on their gourmet dining service here or whether it will function as a loss leader here. My expectation is that it will move away from gourmet dining towards a more casual sit down atmosphere, such as Ruby's Diner is out west.

While I don't believe that the $120 cost of car travel is accurate, I believe that's the rather flawed AAA methodology rather than a more appropriate incidental cost, more than likely you'll see ticket prices in that range. With a market of 50 million annual travelers stated later in the article, this only has to be as competitive with driving as the Acela is with flying. Perceived social class for business travel, time advantage against driving, and the substantial number of tourists for whom the costs of a rental car must be added to the cost of driving should all result in a healthy amount of patronage and a high occupancy rate. Earlier I estimated it would need about three million trips to break even; with 50 million annual trips, that's only a six percent marketshare and I think that's easily reachable with a service that is substantially faster than automobile travel such as this.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

NJT to replace Arrows with multilevel EMUs

Quoth their board meeting agenda:

Since 2005, NJ TRANSIT's multilevel vehicles have enhanced the comfort and quality of service for customers and improved the reliability of rail service wherever they are operated. The vehicles feature state-of-the-art onboard communications, wider seats and more leg room, and improved mechanical systems that are less prone to weather conditions.
NJ TRANSIT's rail fleet management strategy includes use of more multilevel rail cars to maximize capacity for customers in the capacity-constrained Hudson River Tunnels and Penn Station New York. NJ TRANSIT has already deployed 321 multilevel vehicles in revenue service and an additional 100 multilevel vehicles have been ordered and will be delivered in the year ahead.
The single-level, self-propelled Arrow III Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) rail cars, which were manufactured nearly 35 years ago, are the next vehicles in NJ TRANSIT’s fleet that require replacement. NJ TRANSIT will replace these outdated Arrow III vehicles with new Multilevel Power Cars (MPCs). These new self-propelled rail cars will feature all of the customer amenities that are provided on the existing multilevel fleet including the two by two seating, but will also include onboard propulsion that will allow the cars to operate without a locomotive.
The MPCs will be mixed with the current fleet of Multilevels to provide self-propelled train sets without locomotives. Since these new train sets will utilize rail cars from the existing fleet, there are significant capital cost advantages to these new MPC vehicles versus replacement of the Arrow III fleet on a car for car basis.
The new multilevel trains with MPCs will increase the peak hour capacity into New York Penn Station by approximately eight percent. The Multilevel Power Cars will meet all current Federal regulations and accessibility requirements. These vehicles will provide operational flexibility for both smaller trains that operate in low ridership areas as well as with longer trains that operate in places such as the Northeast Corridor.
I suppose it's too late for a waiver such as Caltrain's, but it may well be worth it for Metrolink to look at some degree of involvement, even if only for insight into the EMU market, and to begin planning its own electrification.

Unfortunately, while the total purchase will be cheaper because of the fleet mixing, much of the acceleration advantage will be lost in such a mixed consist.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Amtrak food and beverage losses break down

This is taken from the Inspector General's testimony to the House yesterday.

As the second image states, the three quarters of the state supported routes include state support for food and beverage services, and so they aren't a terribly good figure for comparison to the rest of the services.

The poor performance of the long distance trains isn't terribly surprising. They require more staff with the dining cars but couple it to significantly lower passenger loads.

In addition to the recommendations that the Inspector General makes for improving Amtrak, I'd like to see them do some more experimentation in preparation for the states' being entirely on the hook for their routes. As I understand it, Amtrak currently has a surplus of cross country cafe diner/lounges; playing around with these as a bar car or rapid meal service on current corridor trains is a fairly safe way of seeing if they can achieve a higher rate of return on their current services.

June Surfliner ridership down, revenue up

Information about June is now out.

Surfliner -3.0%
San Joaquin +3.9%
Capitol Corridor -0.6%
Coast Starlight +0.6%
Nationwide +3.2%
Metrolink +1.1%
Coaster +1.8%


Surfliner +4.6%
San Joaquin +6.1%
Capitol Corridor +9.3%
Coast Starlight +0.1%
Nationwide +8.8%

Surfliner on time performance dropped to 74.3% in June thanks to BNSF tie work between Los Angeles and Fullerton, though Metrolink's OC Line only dropped to 88.5% with a more demanding set of criteria (5 minutes grace vs 9 minutes). The Express train dropped to 52.4% OTP, but with a slight uptick in ridership, to an average of 190 riders, though that's a 37.4% drop since June 2011.

It's noted that the peak fare issue is no longer applicable as we are now into the summer months and the fare is what it would have been raised to anyhow, so we're back to the mystery of declining ridership.

An interesting comment made in the June meeting is that it would be substantially pricier for the state to utilize Amtrak's reservation system if the Surfliner were to transition to a completely reserved system. I'm not certain why it should cost the state any extra for what should be simply changing a few settings, though it's possible that ARROW is a sufficiently horrible kludge that it does involve a major degree of work to do. However, with PRIIA 209 coming into effect and the forthcoming high speed rail system, it may be worthwhile for the state to develop its own reservation system and require operators of Amtrak California to work with the state's reservation system instead of requiring the state to pay significant sums for access to Amtrak's reservation system.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

$7 billion for parking in Washington?

Matthew Yglesias wrote about the logic behind the new seven billion dollar remodeling of Washington Union Station and it's a bit puzzling.

First, of course, I should note that my earlier complaints about the Amtrak design were misguided on the basis of the Washington Post article. It isn't $7 billion for six new underground high speed rail tracks, it's $7 billion for no tracks, but rather widened platforms, some increased retail space, and a larger underground garage.

Reading through his article, it seems that most of the remodeling expense is due to the fact that, in order to widen the tracks before air rights development removes the potential for it, they'll need to get rid of the parking garage overhead. So far, so good, but then they decide to rebuild it, with significantly more spaces, underground and, since they're tunneling anyhow, create a few underground concourses and an "iconic" train shed.

What I'm missing is the purpose of rebuilding the garage underground and making it bigger in the process. There are outdoor parking lots within a reasonable proximity to Union Station; could they not have simply purchased one and built a parking garage with shuttle service to Union Station if retention of parking was needed? For that matter, given the costs of building sufficient underground parking in this particular location, why could they not have simply announced that they would do without their own parking and that the free market would provide whatever parking was required? At once, you achieve a bipartisan union that man previously not even dared to dream of: the support of both hipsters and Tea Partiers; the former for lack of parking and the latter for a prevention of government waste and increased reliance on the free market. If nothing else, it would have been worth it simply for the popcorn.

That said, the actual cost of the underground parking shouldn't be a major factor in the total price of the structure. Underground parking is only about $40,000 per spot, on its own that should only represent about $200 million or so. But the perceived necessity of providing underground parking was likely the lynchpin for scope creep which led to a ballooning cost. In a similar fashion, decades ago nuclear power for US Navy surface combatants often led to various other upgrades in design thanks to the capabilities, larger hulls, and higher prior cost associated with nuclear reactors. It made nothing but rational sense for a nuclear powered hull to have the most powerful radars it could mount, even if a lesser sized radar could do the same job and would be programmed for conventionally powered versions of the design. Just so, it makes nothing but rational sense to tunnel out an even larger area for underground concourses while you're already tunneling and to replace the train shed with something hideously ugly: The problem, as we appear to see, is that it results in a gross inflation of total costs and puts the program at risk.

The idea of long distance trains as money makers

Among American rail supporters, there tends to be a persistent myth that Amtrak is hiding costs from the NEC and inappropriately transferring them to the long distance trains with the intent of making them look worse and justifying service reductions and increased spending on the Northeast Corridor. Among some, this goes sufficiently far as to suggest that the long distance trains are actually profitable. The United Rail Passenger Alliance said recently, as one example:
 So, why are we seeing program upgrades for Washington Union Station in the $7 billion range which only serves one city, and not seeing any realistic proposals to replace and upgrade the sleeping car fleet of the long distance system, which generates huge amounts of cash? Amtrak continues to have its priorities wrong, focusing on the care and comfort of the Northeast Corridor traveler, and mostly ignoring the unloved, but cash-generating long distance train traveler
Let's start with the question of whether Amtrak's sleeper passengers generate "huge amounts of cash." In Fiscal Year 2011, Amtrak's long distance sleepers generated $171,319,021 in ticket revenue, 35% of the total of $481,262,202 in ticket revenue that long distance trains generated. While that's a significant fraction of total long distance revenue, and a higher per passenger fare than any other Amtrak service, it's not really what should be considered a "huge amount of cash."It is, after all, less than the $204.9 million operating surplus that the Acela posted (excluding OPEBs and other costs).

However, that's just revenue and ignores the significant costs incurred with sleeper service and with long distance trains in general. Now, I am a critic of Amtrak's overstaffing: I see absolutely no reason why the Surfliner, for instance, should run with a crew of four to five. But that's half the crew size of a typical long distance train (page 92). In addition to the sleeper attendant, whose costs must be apportioned amongst those in his car, a significant fraction of the food service costs must be attributed to sleeper passengers, who receive food complimentary as part of their fare. That alone should dispel the idea of a sleeper passenger being a cash-generator since one should also include the opportunity costs of those free meals. In addition to this, there is the significant problem of late trains resulting in ordering busses and overnight hotel accommodations for connecting passengers.

What of the idea that Amtrak passes costs from the Northeast Corridor onto the long distance trains? That may very well have happened decades ago, but without any hard evidence, it's difficult to say that that currently is the case. Certainly it seems an odd thing to claim when Amtrak's costs are higher for their NEC trains per train-mile than for the long distance trains. It also doesn't pass the smell test: There simply aren't terribly many costs which could be plausibly passed on to long distance trains and what costs there are are, or should be, fairly insignificant next to the total costs of the long distance trains. Take for instance, the cost of maintaining the NEC, which is the most cited item I've seen for costs passed on to long distance trains inappropriately. At $150-200,000 per double tracked route-mile for high speed rail, a worst case scenario for Amtrak puts the cost of maintaining the 1,555 track-miles of NEC and Harrisburg Line rail at $116-155 million. With long distance trains expensed at over a billion dollars in Fiscal Year 2011, the idea that Amtrak is unfairly burdening the long distance trains seems outlandish.

Lastly, there is the question of opportunity costs. Every item of equipment which is currently operated in long distance service could also be potentially used in corridor service, even the diner equipment, though sleepers would likely need to be remodeled into a coach or business class car. Certain of the peak Surfliners, for instance, are projected for over a thousand passengers on their travel; it stands to reason that a dining car would be of far more use there than on a long distance train which serves only a few hundred passengers across its thousands of miles. But new or enhanced corridor service (such as turning the Cardinal/Hoosier state into an 8x daily service between Chicago and Indianapolis) is another area where equipment could be put to more productive use and this is fairly crucial when taking into account asset depreciation, something Amtrak currently does not display on a per route basis but which will hit long distance trains heavily.