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.

We are quiet car people!

In a previous post, I have touched on the phenomenon of the Amtrak Quiet Car, and I guess at some point I should flesh that out further. Today is not the day to do so.


For the moment, I am going to encourage you to take less than ten minutes and listen to a portion of a This American Life show, from December 19. In this episode, #370: Runing It for the Rest of Us, producer Nancy Updike discusses some thoughts of hers after commuting aboard the Quiet Car. I think the following link will bring up the player for you. If not, then click on the epsiode title above and look for the “full episode” link. Either way, the quiet car segment begins 47″ into the piece.

Favorite line: Everything I need to know about the appeal of fascism I am learning from the quiet car.

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?

Amtrak’s Boardman discusses electrification from FL to ME to Chicago

From Brian O’Neill, at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in the article  A fast track away from oil dependency, which relates a conversation he has with Amtrak’s new president Joe Boardman

Mr. Boardman sees an electrified American rail system, both for passengers and freight. The passenger side is well-established in the Northeast, and he’d like Amtrak to move south from Washington, D.C., and eventually electrify an East Coast line from Maine to Miami.

Next up would be the routes from Chicago to Washington and New York. You dont have to be a geography major to know that Pittsburgh would be in that latter path.

Visions of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s plans from seventy years ago, aren’t they? Given the amount of time it took to string wires from New Haven to Boston, this idea is nothing less than audacious.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Starting in the spring, the news has carried a series of stories about Florida Representative Mica’s ideas about the private development of high-speed rail in America. Building on those stories, please see the following from Progressive Railroading today:

Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Today and tomorrow, U.S. Rep. John Mica R-Fla. will conduct briefings with high-speed rail stakeholders to review pending U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue a request for proposal for high-speed passenger-rail service.

Last month, President Bush signed into law legislation that enables private sector participation in the development, financing, operation and maintenance of high-speed rail service in the United States. Originally proposed as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 H.R. 6003, the legislation — introduced earlier this year by Mica and other Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members — was included in the Rail Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 H.R. 2095/S. 1889.

The bill requires the USDOT to solicit project proposals by Dec. 15 from the private sector for the 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Governors and mayors, freight and commuter railroads, labor organizations and Amtrak will evaluate the proposals for each corridor.

Briefing participants will include representatives from financial investment firms; train and railroad equipment manufacturers; federal, state and local governments; private rail operators; labor groups; and Amtrak.

I have covered this idea in several previous posts. Given Mica’s initial briefings which spoke about pursuing such an idea in the NEC, I began with some basic questions about scope and practicality here. After that, I turned to a discussion on train speed on the NEC (including Mica’s consistent lies about Amtrak’s top speeds) here. The train speed post was extended with a comparison to HSR speeds in France here. Still an unanswered question is how Mica’s efforts will mesh with those oh Sen. Kerry. For more on Kerry’s plans, see this post, Kerry’s letter to his colleagues, and this recent update.

Kerry pushes high-speed rail

From Kerry pushes high-speed rail

Senators John F. Kerry and Arlen Specter introduced a bill today to fund high-speed rail lines along the East Coast and in several other key areas of the country.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the legislation would help repair the nations crumbling infrastructure, and at the same time create jobs when the country appears headed for a deep economic recession.

“At a time when our economy desperately needs a jumpstart, we need an effective national investment that puts Americans back to work,” Kerry said in a statement. “A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again.”

The bill would provide money for tax-exempt bonds to finance rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour. It would include $10 billion over 10 years to fund improvements in the Northeast and California, and $5.4 billion over a six-year period for 10 rail corridors, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities along the East Coast.

This sure appears to be a follow up to the Kerry bill discussed back in September here and here. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds.

New high-speed rail bill from John Kerry?

BSen. John F. Kerry, Mass.-Dack in July, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry spoke a bit about the need to improve the average speed at which the Acela travels the Northeast Corridor. (For more discussion about top speed vs. average speed, please see this post.) In a conversation with the Boston Globe (story now archived, snippets here), that paper reported the following:

Kerry plans to file in two weeks a $1 billion bill that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels and tracks that prevent the train from hitting its 150-mile-per-hour maximum and getting commuters to their destinations faster.

Given the fact that the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission concluded in December that America needed to invest $353 billion, at a rate of $8 billion per year, to bring our passenger rail infrastructure up to snuff, Kerry’s $1 billion figure was so laughably small that I did not bother to write about it at the time.

Today brings news that Sen. Kerry may now be thinking on a larger scale. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an interview with Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson (R.) about his planned support for a the “High Speed Rail for America Act… [a] major rail initiative… to finance an interstate high-speed rail network that could serve as the spine for local transit lines.” A letter from Kerry states: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax-credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds for rail infrastructure.”

How would this work? In Sen. Isakson’s own words:

I Sen. Johnny Isaksonhave been very interested in the possibility of a high-speed rail line from Birmingham to Washington [through Atlanta]… the big deal with rail is being able to get the capital together at the beginning to put in the infrastructure to put in lines like [the NEC]. Sen. Kerry’s bill focuses on raising capital. … I support creating the financing mechanism to reinvigorate rail in the United States of America. … I think that all transportation ought to be a function based on user fees. … Sometimes you have to make the investment in the hub… to then make the rest of the system viable. … This is the very beginning of a long process.

It is perfectly appropriate that Sen. Isakson sees the benefits in local terms – Georgians are his constituents after all. I think it’s telling how he keeps referencing Birmingham and the NEC, as transportation networks are only as valuable as the nodes to which they connect. He points repeatedly to the NEC, which was built with private capital originally, but that occurred in a completely different era in terms of tax burden and regulatory cost. The modern history of American HSR is silent testimony to the fact that private capital seeks endeavors with far more reliable returns than passenger trains, and if America wished to see its passenger rail system develop, it will need to catalyse that growth with some form of government funding or stimulus. Isakson refers to user fees being the only appropriate way to fund transportation, and I assume there he is distinguishing between operating funds and capital support. The latent accountant within me could easily diverge on a tangent about how the highways and the airlines receive substantial indirect operating support from local, state, and the Federal governments, but I understand the ideal Sen. Isakson desires, even if it is elusive in practice.

If Sen. Kerry does introduce such a bill, and his office’s response to the AJC was no comment, it seems it will focus on the development of public high speed rail corridors with the goal of relying on private operators for the actual train service. This begs several questions:

  1. Would these be new, dedicated rights of way, would they run parallel to existing freight trackage but operate independently, or would they bootstrap off of the existing freight network? Truly independent operations offer tremendous appeal in terms of safety and operational flexibility, but the associated cost soars compared to shared facilities. Shared facilities would need to contend with substantial safety ramifications, driven home this past week in the Metrolink crash in California. Freight operators will not be eager to share their private assets without a great deal of compensation for the subsequent costs of improved cab signals and positive train control that would surely be necessary. Similarly, the freights’ ability to delay Amtrak’s own trains have been an enduring source of agony for that railroad’s long-distance passengers. (To the tune of $137 million per year in cost to to Amtrak.) The freights are all too willing to contribute generously to politicians in exchange for not being required to honor their obligations regarding Amtrak access and priority. I think the difficulties with shared facilities will lead towards dedicated rights of way, but real estate and environmental issues will make that very hard, too. (See this post for a discussion of related issues in the NEC.)
  2. What part of the government would be responsible for the corridors? The Federal Railroad Administration? A government-owned private corporation, a la Amtrak? Regional associations of states, like port authorities? Amtrak itself? I doubt very much it will be Amtrak for several reasons – Amtrak is a perennial target of Republican abuse, and one sure way to ensure no bipartisan support of a bill like this would be to hitch it to Amtrak’s wagon. If it came to pass, the other private operators would want a neutral party as the overseer, I am sure, rather than Amtrak, which would, presumably, be seen by them as a competitor. I cannot see the FRA taking on this duty, as it too would spook the Republican fear of open-ended government expansion. I think you’d be most likely to see multi-state entities, like port authorities, emerge to take on the management of the corridors (akin to this suggestion I made previously). You might also see state management, akin to the interstate highway system, but it would be hard to imagine states developing the expertise to build and maintain modern high-speed rail on their own.
  3. How will this relate to Amtrak? Will Amtrak continue to plod along freight tracks as the Chevy to this new Cadillac? Would a new entity that owns the new HSR lines absorb ownership of Amtrak’s fixed infrastructure, evolving Amtrak and its fleet into one of the new operators? Would Amtrak run this whole new creation itself? I doubt that last one very much, but there will need to be some central integrating agent to ensure that operations mesh cleanly. Ideally this would extend between not only the HSR operations and the conventional Amtrak operations, but also to the regional rail operations throughout the country. I am not going to hold my breath on that last point.
  4. Will the network Kerry envisions build on the proposed American HSR network that grew out of the 1993 High Speed Rail Development Act? (Isn’t it great how that legislation has done so much over the last fifteen years?) The following map is from the FRA and dates to 2001 (A much larger version can be found on Wikipedia here.) See also here.
    2001 FRA-designated HSR corridors
    2001 FRA-designated HSR corridors

    It should not surprise you that the FRA web site itself offers no readily apparent information on their goals for American HSR.

  5. Finally, and briefly, how does this idea fit with Florida Representative Mica’s vague plans for a new rail line in the NEC? Was that a camel’s nose under the tent for this larger plan? I doubt it, but the politics of high gas prices makes for some strange bedfellows. Either way, would a plan like this receive any support from either of the presidential candidates? Obama – yes. McCain – no. Curiously, given the fact that high-speed trains are nearly always electric, they would be a perfect fit with the expanded network of nuclear power plants McCain has proposed.
Whenever a politician speaks up about the importance of improving the transportation options available to Americans, I am quick to listen and hopeful they will succeed in advancing their ideas, but the modern history of passenger rail in America does not make me very sanguine. I look forward to watching this develop.

Via Trains for America.