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.

Advertisements

Further Quiet Car Chronicles

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

Prior posts on this topic here.

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: https://rbiii.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/bloomberg-poised-for-third-party-campaign/]

Acela average speed illustration

Back in January, I wrote about train speeds between New York and Boston and how much more important average speed is than maximum speed (many people ignore this simple truth). Amtrak’s new president Jospeh Boardman has been out in the Midwest and down in Virgina making this same point recently, quoted here from the Richmond Times Dispatch:

“One way to go fast is not to go slow,” Boardman said. “Many places on our system, we’re down to 10 miles an hour, 20 miles an hour.”

These comments reminded me of a useful New York Times graphic illustrating Acela travel times from a while back – they accompanied this article. I saved the images and include them below. Click on either to see them full-size.

24acela_graphic1

24acela_graphic2

Don Phillips on NJT’s ARC Tunnel

For years now, I have followed the plans to build a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan with genuine interest (Wikipedia article here). I find large scale public projects interesting for all sorts of reasons, and watching this one in particular has shown off the many ways in which America’s planning processes have overwhelmed our ability to make any progress. Of course, these tunnels are not unique in this regard – I have covered the trials and tribulations of New York’s Moynihan Station/Farley Post Office makeover, which also bears the burden of a planning process that overwhelms any chance of progress.

This past February I read a column (Rail tunnel plan to N.Y. is a dead-ender) criticizing the tunnel plans in a number of damning ways. It is the most concise discussion of the project’s flaws I have seen, and I have been hoping to see a counter-argument at some point for the sake of balance. I now think I have found it, in the form of an article written by Don Phillips. Mr. Phillips was a Washington Post writer for years, and then he wrote for the International Herald Tribune, before now writing for Trains magazine. In the course of those assignments, he has shown himself to be one of the few mainstream wirters in America with a comprehensive grasp of the political, business, and operational concerns surrounding passenger rail in America. Along with the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Machalaba, I find their coverage to be qualitatively better than the rest of the press, which usually cannot tell the front of a train from the back.

I received the article by email, and am republishing it below with permission, as it is not available elsewhere on the web.

THE BATTLES OF MANHATTAN RAILROADING ARE DIFFERENT TODAY

POLITICS NOTWITHSTANDING, NJT’S NEW TUNNEL IS BOLD

Some momentous events have a way of sneaking up on us. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that only now is it dawning on me that a historic event is unfolding in Manhattan: the first contract to build the first rail tunnel into New York from the west in a century.

Frankly, I have been thinking of New Jersey Transit’s tunnel project as more of a political brouhaha than anything historic. However, let’s keep in mind that trains first entered Manhattan from the west in 1910 (though a trans-Hudson subway line had opened in 1908). The twin tunnels and the massive station built in Manhattan in those early years were a “bet the company” project carried out under the Pennsylvania Railroad’s legendary president Alexander Cassatt. New York Central had already entered Manhattan from the north into Grand Central Station, and the Pennsy was at a competitive disadvantage.

The controversy surrounding NJ Transit’s new tunnel is fairly simple: many believe it should be connected directly with the current Penn Station track complex by a spur tunnel. However, as planned, the only connections between Penn Station and NJT’s new Manhattan station under 34th Street will be pedestrian tunnels and high-speed escalators. If the new rail tunnel goes deep, as planned, a connecting spur to Penn Station will not be possible. Also, because the new six-track station will be dead-end, at least for many years, it will be of marginal benefit to Amtrak, today’s owner of the Pennsylvania tunnels, if a wreck or some other disaster occurs.

As with many massive construction projects, the story is far more complicated than that. Politics and civil engineering sometimes do not mix. “We live in an imperfect world. You’ve got to live with your current reality,” says Arthur Silber, chief of the Trans- Hudson Express Tunnel project.

The reality is that Manhattan is not built on solid granite, as many thought years ago. The first few dozen feet of subsurface rock are cracked and cannot allow for a solid tunnel bore without much more expensive construction. A more shallow tunnel also would be so close to the bottom of the Hudson River that the under-river portion of the tunnel would be more complicated and more expensive, too.

Then there’s the question of effects on surface buildings and parks from more shallow construction, presenting even higher costs and the certainty of public protest. Running north-south in the area is also the new No.7 subway line extension, which the NJT line has to get over or under. If the subway line could be moved, it’s possible there could be some compromise plans to get a rail tunnel into Penn Station, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has nixed that idea with a statement that effectively says over my dead body. Besides, the No. 7 tunnel was originally built deeper to make way for a NJT tunnel over the top in the days when a connection to Penn Station had been envisioned.

Silber says he too would prefer a more shallow tunnel with a spur into Penn Station, but years of consideration proved that the expense would be too great, the delay too long, and the political and environmental arguments too heavy. Instead, the solution was to dig deep and also do the initial preparation to allow Amtrak some day to dig new tunnels parallel to the NJT tunnels, sending trains perhaps into a new lower level of Penn Station itself.

Then there is NJT’s final ace in the hole: Within a few years, it will be possible to build east from the new station, allowing through train service to Grand Central Terminal and/or east under the East River to connections for Long Island and the Northeast Corridor to Boston.

The reason this can’t be done immediately is that Manhattan’s major water tunnel is immediately east of the new station, and water authorities won’t allow even soil and rock testing in the area. However, a new water tunnel is scheduled for completion in about 2013. At that time, water authorities will drain the old tunnel to search for leaks. That will open the area to rock testing and construction.

Amtrak has now dropped its opposition, signing an agreement with NJT. However, several opponents are far from satisfied.

“At the end of the day, Penn Station will be paralyzed” if something happens to the current twin tunnels, says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Capon points out that one of the old tunnels will be closed every weekend for years for ongoing construction. Furthermore, Capon, who speaks for a number of passenger rail advocates in the New York area, says the capacity of NJT’s new station is not adequate, especially since it was designed with no tail tracks to get trains out of the way.

Capon says that if NJT had the political will to do it, other agencies could be brought along, with the help of a sympathetic federal government. “NJT is not playing straight with the public,” he says.

It is still possible, though less likely every day, that NJT’s decision will be overturned. Some federal officials still have misgivings, although they did not want to speak on the record, but they acknowledged they needed more current information before making a final determination. (The tunnel is projected to cost $9 billion.)

We can’t lose sight of the fact that passenger traffic is rising rapidly all over the country, and especially in major cities like New York. Once again, railroading is suffering from growing pains rather than a nostalgic goodbye. Growing pains are much more painful, so to speak, than they were in Alexander Cassatt’s day. Mr. Cassatt was able to rip out blocks of downtown Manhattan to build his line to Penn Station, and never faced environmental rules or red tape.

I can’t help wondering what Mr. Cassatt would think today if he could return to Manhattan. Personally, I think he would laugh and wonder how life got so complicated. He might also wonder if all the extra expense would have allowed him to build the first tunnels.

DON PHILLIPS, a newspaper reporter for more than four decades, writes this exclusive monthly column for Trains.

Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for Federal rail funds

In today’s Boston Globe, Alan Wirzbicki writes an article entitled Northeast trails Calif., Midwest in race for federal rail funds. The point he makes is that other regions of the United States, such as the Southeast, the Midwest, and the Northwest, have spent more time, money, and effort in recent years preparing the plans, and associated political links, for high-speed rail than the Northeast has. Thus those regions are better positioned to receive Federal stimulus funds, which can be seen as ironic given the Northeast’s premier place as the home of America’s fastest trains since the advent of the Metroliner, if not before. (I am sure some kind foamer can nail that down for me.)

The article notes that President Bush encouraged the states to band together to improve the Northeast Corridor, and the states intentionally refused to cooperate with that to dodge having the financial burden of the NEC placed upon them. While that strategy may have made sense at the time, it may turn out to have been a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

In the absence of a more comprehensive plan, the article notes various efforts to propose local corridors as candidates for funding. Corridors like Boston to Brunswick, Maine (population 21,000), Boston to Concord, New Hampshire (population 41,000), or better still Boston to Hartford, Connecticut (population 125,000) via the Inland Route. While I am sure those plans would serve valuable local needs, akin to the existing Downeaster from Boston to Portland, it is ludicrous that when the nation is discussing a new generation of high-speed rail corridors that the New England response is to put forward routes that are 138, 70, and 100 miles long respectively. The obvious place to invest is the spine, from Boston to Washington. If you are brave and visionary, you might even say from Portland to Charlotte, but the costs skyrocket as one contemplates the North-South Rail Link in Boston and electrification south of D.C.

As I have mentioned before, the Northeast will continue to be underserved by the Northeast Corridor until they take over control, responsibility, and the cost for operating this national asset.

Rather than waste time and money flirting with private industry, a more sensible approach to me would be to form a multi-state agency, akin to a port authority, of the following states: NC, VA, DC, MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, NH, and ME. Have them pool their interests and accept a gradual and proportionate reduction in Federal highway funds over a 20 year period as they invest their own money in the NEC, which they would acquire from Amtrak. Initially, I imagine they would lease access to the NEC to their commuter agencies and to Amtrak, but one could imagine them absorbing those roles themselves. The greatest problem the NEC has had for the last 35 years is the fact that any political support of improvements there came with the quid pro quo of political support for long-distance trains all across America. This has forced Amtrak to underinvest in the NEC while it kept the rest of the country mollified. To free the NEC to achieve its maximum economic utilization, one does not need magic private enterprise fairy dust – one needs to be free to invest the necessary capital in the NEC without having to keep off-corridor constituencies happy.

I truly believe that the coastal states in such a compact would see substantial improvements in train service that would permit reductions in fares, vastly increased numbers of passenger miles, the adoption of newer equipment that would permit faster trips with more modern amenities and the most progressive safety standards. Highway congestion and its associated costs would go down, the cities along the corridor would see their competitiveness rise as reduced travel times expanded both business and leisure markets. This would have substantial environmental benefits, from decreased fuel consumption and pollution to improved quality of life.

When one thinks of the unused capacity that exists in the NEC now, this is one of the most cost-effective steps the Northeast can take to make itself more competitive as a region. Instead of seeing the railroad as pure cost, these states need to see it as the backbone for their communities and, ultimately, their economy.

A post for another day: the political anthill associated with combining the operations and the crews of the various state commuter agencies with the interstate trains.

Hat tip: Trains for America