The Power of Speed

[I will start with a brief apology for the long silence since the last post. Suffice it to say I am uncertain about blogging and have let it lapse.]

Last night, I read a post by Yonah Freemark about French plans to introduce low-cost TGV service between Paris and Marseille. Ignoring for a moment that the French conception of regular cost varies fundamentally from the fares to which we are accustomed in America, the article included some interesting facts.

[The new service] will offer 300 km/h TGV speed at very low prices, starting at €10 for journeys between the Paris region and the Mediterranean coast (Montpellier and Marseille, via Lyon), a trip of about 500 miles. … Double-decker trains will seat 1,268 passengers … Trains themselves will be scheduled to run more often than typical TGVs, traveling about 80,000 kilometers per month, double the normal rate.

Since I am used to Acela trainsets carrying 304 people, my first reaction was to be surprised at how many people a double-decker TGV consist can carry, but when one reads about a normally configured TGV Duplex, it carries more than 500. Remove the dining and first-class accommodations, lash two together, and the capacity makes perfect sense. I also learned that Alstom has delivered more than 140 Duplex consists, which again dazzles my NEC-centric mind.

Moving past the seat numbers, the 80,000 kilometers per month figure caught my eye. I assume this figure is a press release value, lacking significant digits, but for the sake of consistency, I will convert it into miles exactly: 49,710. Since that value is twice the normal usage, the regular monthly usage is 24,855 miles. If one spelunks through Amtrak press materials and annual reports, it is not hard to derive a figure of about 14,000 miles per month per consist for Amtrak’s 20-trainset Acela fleet. When one compares the TGV Duplex train-miles to Amtrak’s monthly train-miles, it appears the French are working their trains about 78% harder. Since I am familiar with just how hard Amtrak works to obtain the usage it does from the Acela fleet, my first thought is that the French values must be impossible – there just aren’t enough hours in the day for Amtrak to run the Acelas 78% more than they do, and even if they did, there’s no market, as the trains would be traveling through the night.

Moving from the other direction, I measured the distance from Paris to Marseille, via Lyon, in Google Maps. By road, Google informs me that it is a 781 km journey. For the purposes of the back of the envelope, I will accept that value for the route distance, although I am sure it varies a bit. 80,000 kilometers a month, in 781 km increments, is 102 trips, or about 3.4 trips per day. Moving over to the RailEurope web site, I gather that the fastest non-stop Paris-Marseilles no connection trip is 3:05. If one converts the 781 kilometers to miles, one finds the average speed of this train is 158 miles per hour. Again, for the NEC centric crowd, the maximum speed the Acela operates at presently is 150 mph, and its average speed between New York and Washington is between 83 and 86 mph. For context, please take a gander at the old NYT Acela speed graphic you can find here.

If each trainset makes 3.4 trips per day, then it is in service for 10.4 hours each day, leaving plenty of time for the turns between each run, as well as for its daily maintenance. Looking then at these various numbers, all of which seem reasonable, the conclusion is inescapable – by creating a rail network capable of supporting such high speed operation, the French have enabled their assets to generate service figures inconceivable within American standards. At American speeds, the Paris-Marseille journey would take about 5:40. Four Acela trainsets, carrying 1,216 people would make one trip is just a bit less time than one TGV Duplex pair could carry 1,286 people from Paris to Marseilles and back.

None of what I have covered here is news, by itself, but it is still worth comparing what the rail network in France can do for the French. Think about moving 1,300 people 485 miles for between $13 and $110, and overlaying that on the United States. Imagine getting from Manhattan to Cleveland, to Raleigh, to Toronto, or to Quebec for $13? Or from Atlanta to Tampa, New Orleans, Little Rock, Cincinnati, or Richmond? Or from Chicago to Nashville, Kansas City, Toronto, or Pittsburgh? I know the trains and the rails do not come cheap, I know they reflect decades of public policy surrounding infrastructure and taxes and energy and transit, and I know that American geography makes my 1:1 overlays overly simplistic. Still, imagine for a moment the economic vitality that could come with this sort of safe, reliable, and affordable transportation? The employment opportunities that would open, the educational resources people could pursue, and the housing advantages of living in a world with such fluid mobility? Not to mention the safety and environmental benefits of converting so much personal transportation from automobiles to trains?

The United States needs to think seriously about the costs it has imposed on itself from decades of automobile-centric policies, and genuinely consider alternatives that would enable its people and its economy to take better advantage of the array of talents and opportunities that exist here now. We are mad if we turn a blind eye to the advantages offered by rail. While decades of substantial public investments in highways and an auto-centered lifestyle have delivered indisputable benefits, they have long passed a point of diminishing returns. How best to change course from one pattern to another is no easy feat, especially in an era when politicians vary between being unwilling and unable to govern, but people, businesses, and states should make it clear that they expect a more responsive national transportation policy that will deliver the sort of mobility the nation needs to compete and produce effectively.


Chris Ward on Moynihan Station

From an interview in the Commercial Observer with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Chris Ward:

What’s the latest with Moynihan Station? Will it ever get done?

We’ve made great progress on Phase I. We want to turn this into a transportation project to start, and not a real estate project. So we have negotiated with our joint venture partners and the federal government for the initiation of Phase I, which is about to kick off in probably late October. And with successful completion of Phase I, a demonstration of that project is going forward. We’ve had good communications with Washington on funding and partnership for Phase II.

But the mistakes with the early Moynihan Station was that it was overburdened with costs and complexity, and it was clear we had to break it down into manageable construction projects and build the transportation benefits over time and then realize the large-scale real estate development afterward.

Further Quiet Car Chronicles

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recounts another cheerful exchange on the Acela.

Prior posts on this topic here.

Two Moynihan Station nuggets

I have clearly fallen very far off of the blogging wagon, but I do continue to try to keep a good chronicle of news relating to the long-delayed Moynihan Station project in New York. The most recent post in that group is here, and all of them can be found here.

Today’s updates are modest, but worth noting…

  1. An August 16 story from NY1 discussing the work performed on the station so far. Concolidation of postal space, a 30% increase in vertical transportation capacity to and from the platforms, the coversion of a loading dock into a taxi stand, etc. The article includes this serious understatement: “But the train hasn’t left the station yet, so to speak. Funding is not set for the more than $1 billion needed for the new transit hall. However, officials are confident real estate money for the private spaces in the new station will fill the hole.” It also includes this two minute video.
  2. Crain’s reports that: “The state and the city have re-entered negotiations with Vornado Realty Trust and The Related Cos. over the sale of 1 million square feet of air rights associated with the new Moynihan Station, says the new president of the Moynihan Station Development Corp., Tim Gilchrist.” The suggestion follows that the commercial construction could begin and finish before the new Moynihan Station is ready for travelers. Funny how much faster the city moves when profits are at stake. Here is the rest of this piece:

The developers entered into a memorandum of understanding with the state in 2006 to develop the Farley Post Office into a new train station and to use the air rights to build an adjacent mixed-use development topped by a 67-story tower.

But the plan, including $110 million from the sale of the air rights, was never approved by the Public Authorities Control Board.

The recession forced the state to split the development into two phases. Eventually, federal stimulus funding provided the final $83 million needed to build the $267 million first phase, which entails linking the Farley building to expanded Penn Station platforms to give passengers another exit.

The initial construction contracts were approved Monday, and now attention is turning to funding the $1 billion second and final phase.

That’s where the sale of air rights comes in. The Farley building—which occupies the square block between 31st and 33rd streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues—comes with 2.5 million square feet of transferable air rights. While Related and Vornado have dibs on the first 1 million, the remaining 1.5 million square feet are up for grabs.

If an air-rights agreement with the two developers is reached, the 1 million-square-foot “Penn West” could begin rising before construction on the station’s first phase is completed in the next three to four years.

“We have a way to move forward, we just have to negotiate the pieces,” Gilchrist says. “I’d love to get money to build [the station].”

Time is ticking: The agreement that gives Related and Vornado exclusive development rights expires in 2012.

Moynihan Station Approved by Key State Board

From the Eliot Brown article in the New York Observer:

Plans for an expanded Penn Station received a boost today as the Public Authorities Control Board—a state-run board that previously blocked a different version of the project—approved a first phase for the plan, known as Moynihan Station.

With each additional approval (of which there are many), it’s actually looking like the project, which would eventually move Amtrak into the Corinthian column-lined Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue, will see the start of construction. The long-sought expansion, which has been in the works for two decades, has become a symbol of the tortured progress of New York public works projects.

The approval today was for $267 million in infrastructure construction that would expand a concourse and complete ventilation work–most certainly not the sexiest or visually appealing part of the project. On its own, this probably isn’t worth $267 million in value for riders, as the spending rests on the assumption that the state will eventually find money for the rest of the project.

Back in 2006, the PACB, which is controlled jointly by the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, blocked Governor Pataki’s plans for the project, as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stood in the way of the plan. Complete with the project’s narrative of ever-overreaching visions, the incoming Governor Spitzer then championed a larger version that involved moving Madison Square Garden to the post office, which more than a year later fell apart, due largely to the tremendous level of complication involved. (In retrospect, this plan approved today isn’t all that different from what the PACB was being asked to approve three-and-a-half years ago. Of course, that was before tens of millions of additional spending on consultants, borrowing costs, etc.)

This time, however, all the legislative leaders were on board with the spending, which was mostly federal money earmarked for the project. (Here’s the PACB agenda.) In the past year, state officials reworked the plan to be able to construct the project in chunks, as opposed to the prior strategy of waiting until all the various moving pieces fell into place. Should construction actually begin, it will be in large part due to this new strategy.

Still on the table, in theory: the sale of at least 1 million square feet of air rights over the Farley Building to a venture of developers Vornado and Related, which would build a tower across the street next to 1 Penn Plaza. (That, too, would need further approvals.)

Terrific New Jersey ARC Tunnel Commentary

(Yes, it’s been ages since I posted – sorry about that. I am still pondering what I want to do here.)

Excellent commentary from the North New Jersey Record on the flaws in the current plan to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. The article is here. Attentive foamer that I am, it came to my attention via the NARP blog here, and it’s worth noting their comments are worth reading as well.

I have covered the pros and the cons of this tunnel here before. While I respect the pro argument made by Don Phillips, I am inclined to think this current plan is a mistake and it is not at all clear that changes will be made in time to fix it. That is a shame.

I knew I liked Bloomberg

Building off earlier comments here, I was pleased to see more common sense from Mayor Bloomberg.

Epoch Times – Speaking Out Against Firearms on Amtrak

[The first link keeps vanishing, so here it is again:]