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.

Further Quiet Car Chronicles

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

Prior posts on this topic here.

Amtrak Buys Back in to Farley Station

Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

Amtrak reached a preliminary agreement to move to an annex of Pennsylvania Station planned for the James A. Farley Post Office Building, state, federal and railroad officials announced on Sunday.

It offers this detail behind the progress: “The breakthrough was made possible by the government’s agreeing to Amtrak’s request to share revenue from retail outlets in the expanded station and to make some design changes.” To place this into full context would require quite the essay, but please recall my first post on this topic – in August 2007 – when I noted Amtrak’s statement: “We were belatedly brought to the table in recent months.” The irony in that 2007 comment is that Amtrak had been involved in this effort for three years when I played a minute role in it in 1995, so any suggestion of Amtrak’s lack of involvement has always sounded hollow to me. It was David Gunn who torpedoed Amtrak’s role in the redevelopment, noting with some merit that Amtrak had no money to commit to such a plan. Former Amtrak President and then director of New Jersey Transit George Warrington stepped into the breach, claiming a flagship role which has become less and less appealing to NJT as they commit to the tunnel and associated station in the ARC project. (More on that here.)

Back in March, New York Magazine offered an update on the negotiations (post here) in which an unnamed source was quoted saying:

Amtrak, which would move from Penn to Moynihan, won’t commit until all three elected officials [Bloomberg, Paterson, and Corzine] are onboard. “Amtrak is the trickiest part,” one Moynihan negotiation veteran says. “If it sees even a crack of daylight between the mayor, the governors, and the Port Authority, they’ll drive an Acela right through it and kill this chance.”

Looking again at yesterday’s NYT article, with the above comment fresh in your mind, I cannot help but focus on this statement:

Senator Charles E. Schumer, who has been trying to resuscitate the project, said on Sunday that he and Gov. David A. Paterson had been negotiating with Amtrak for six months and had found the new Amtrak chief, Joseph H. Boardman, formerly the New York State transportation commissioner, “far more helpful” than his predecessor.

Looking back at the last time Schumer made waves over Farley, covered here, it seems his contention then was that Amtrak should be the source of substantial stimulus funds as part of the project. Since Gunn’s time, Amtrak’s contention has been that Amtrak would not be a part of the project. I can only assume that the quid pro quo for Amtrak to secure a share of the retail revenue in exchange for contributing stimulus funds towards the project. Curious, is it not, how easily the New York politicians found it to work with Amtrak’s new New York president to spend Federal dollars on a New York project that will not improve the speed of any of Amtrak’s trains? (Admittedly, it should increase capacity in New York, but that is not nearly as beneficial to Amtrak as it is to NJT and LIRR.) I’m sure there are many Amtrak riders far from the NEC who could have found different ways to spend that money, but no one asked them.

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.



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

Another Quiet Car Fascist…

Following up on earlier posts on the topic, I wanted to note a NYT column about the social pressures applied within the Amtrak Quiet Car.

Link here.

Train speeds on the NEC, Part III

I have discussed the operational side of Northeast Corridor train speeds previously. These discussions were prompted by Florida Congressman Mica, who proposed a plan to reduce trip time between Washington and New York from less than three hours to a flat two hours. I wrote in general terms about how to evaluate such a proposal here, and then in more specific terms about some of the issues raised by this plan here. That last post emphasized the difference between top speed and average speed, and discussed how one would have to increase the current Amtrak Acela schedule from an average speed of 86 mph to 123 mph to meet the two hour goal. While 123 mph is a speed reached in revenue service in this country for decades, no one has a right of way where such speeds become the average. Finally, in a later post, I noted how the new French TGV Est line between Paris and Strasbourg, which hosted the world record speed run of a steel-on-steel train at 357 mph, serves a revenue schedule with an average speed of 80 mph. Clearly there is a world of difference between top speed and average speed.

I am drawn to this topic today after reading a trio of tweets earlier today. [To see other Amtrak twitters and read more about this odd form of voyeurism, click here.] I include them below:

1159506780 1159547102 1159517946

I would like to review the assumptions that underlie the above statements.

The current best Acela time from New York Penn Station to Boston South Station is three hours and thirty-one minutes. The trains that make that run stop at Stamford, New Haven, Providence, Route 128, and Back Bay. If one allots two minutes for each stop, then the train has 3:21 to be in motion. In those 201 minutes, it currently covers a time table mileage of 231 miles, for an average speed of 68.96 mph, despite its 150 mph top speed. For the sake of discussion here, I am going to begin by assuming a fast train would cover the same route and make the same stops; obviously both of those assumptions should be reviewed. To cover those same 231 miles in two hours, and accounting for the same five two-minute stops, one can then compute that the desired average speed would need to be 126 mph. Finally, to make it in one hour with the same five stops it would need to run at 277 mph on average. If you decided to run a non-stop express train in an hour, you could settle for a more leisurely average of 231 mph.

Update: Please see this later post for a valuable New York Times illustration of the Acela and its performance over this route.

I find the above calculations useful because they put a clearer light on just what would need to be accomplished to move a train from Boston to New York in one or two hours. Americans are accustomed to envying European and Asian rail systems, with their high-speeds and high frequencies, but they often forget how hard it is to incorporate the infrastructure associated with such service into their landscape. Many European and Japanese cities had their urban centers leveled in the course of the Allied bombing campaigns, and subsequent redevelopment efforts thus had a nearly blank canvas on which to design as they laid the foundations for today’s modern rail networks. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have fortunately never had anyone perform this same favor or urban destruction, which makes modern routing a much harder exercise. The 231 miles includes 36 miles of meander over a straight route from NYP-STM-NHV-PVD-RTE-BBY-BOS, and NYP-BOS all by itself is 188 miles. One could argue that a train from New York to Boston could make the run in one hour operating at 188 mph, but to do so would require an entire new route that would need to ignore fundamentals of geography, the environment, population centers and existing facilities. Clearly, that makes no sense.

If one looks at the route from above, it appears like this:


A map makes clear how much of the 36 miles of meander occurs between New Haven and Providence. Any effort to address this will need political support from both of those states, as improvements will cost a fortune both economically, environmentally, and politically. Could it be done? Sure – America landed men on the moon, so clearly we could reroute the trains and then engineer a whole system to meet this goal. Doing so would cost billions of dollars, invested in a portion of the country that already has the best train service in America. Senators and Representatives from across the rest of the country would demand enormous investments elsewhere in exchange for the necessary support to accomplish this. Remember that the modest capital amounts earmarked for Amtrak in the current stimulus bill triggered an amendment by Jeff Flake (not coincidentally from Arizona) yesterday that would have zeroed out those funds. While it was defeated, 116 Congressmen supported it.

To summarize then, let me be clear that I admire the enthusiasm for rail evidenced in the tweets that triggered this post. From a limited, engineering perspective, they are right that one or two hour service is feasible. What makes me shake my head in frustration is how little thought many give these topics beyond the obvious one of engineering feasibility. To build such a system entails tremendous costs, and involves issues of local, city, state, and Federal planning for finance, zoning and eminent domain, and environmental reviews. The political horsetrading to do something like this in the Northeast would compel enormous balancing efforts in other parts of the country, which likely would double or treble the cost and vastly complicate the process by which something like this could ever proceed.

One last point while I am on this topic – after last year’s gas price increases, and with the election of our new president (and Amtrak Joe as Veep), and with the current plans for epic stimulus spending by the Federal government, now is the best alignment of the planets, a perfect storm if you will, for investments in America’s rail system. If those investments are not made now, I think it will be fair to say the United States will never make those investments. It is a hopeful time for rail advocates, but one of great peril for us as well. If not now, then when?