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.

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.

Amtrak chooses Boardman as new, temporary, CEO

Amtrak announced, almost two weeks ago, the departure of Alex Kummant as CEO. No explanations were given, and some suggested he was making way for an Obama pick, while others suggested a dispute with the Board over refinancing of Amtrak’s burdensome debt. (For Paul Weyrich’s take, read this.) In a surprising move (to me, anyway), Amtrak announced today the selection of Jospeh Boardman as their next CEO.

Joseph Boardman, 59, who has led the Federal Railroad Administration since April 2005, succeeds Alex Kummant, who resigned from the passenger carrier on Nov. 14. Boardman will serve for a year as Amtrak searches for a “permanent” chief, Chairwoman Donna McLean said today in a statement.

Read his DOT bio here. With talk of infrastructure improvements, Mica’s ill-defined plan, and Kerry’s new bill, this is a singular time to take the helm of Amtrak. I wish him clear signals.

Amtrak meets Twitter

To begin, this is not any sort of announcement about Amtrak having an actual, official presence on Twitter. I think that would be great, but that is not what this is. Instead, this post is a small sampling of thoughts and comments on Amtrak and some of its services as found on Twitter. I think the candid nature of commentary found on Twitter can be an insightful way to see what people are thinking about the train in America today.

(I am using Twictur.es to retrieve and render the images seen below. More on this clever little service here. Most of these Tweets were found using what was Summize, before Twitter acquired them in July.)

Not surprisingly, there are themes that quickly emerge as one follows these snippets:

Rants and raves

Delays are a big topic, not surprisingly.

In fact, they are so chronic that it is the absence of them that elicits some of the best tweets:

Finally, for balance, just so you don’t think it’s all awful, some tweets look like this:

Quiet car

The tweets about the quiet cars on Amtrak’s trains quickly demonstrate how much people love this amenity, and how passionately they feel about it. So passionate, that some of the tweets start to veer towards vigilantism, class warfare, and mob rule. Short of that, many of them speak to the eternal tension between rights and duties in a civil society.

Lack of wi-fi

The absence of wi-fi along the trains of the Northeast Corridor will be a post of its own, soon, but this is a huge issue for the tweeters of the world. It makes sense that people that integrated with the net would want it available, but it baffles people that it’s not available on the train.

 

Other glimpses

Many tweets speak to some timeless truths about humanity and travel, such as:

Tweets about Amtrak and Twitter

There are even some tweets about Amtrak and Twitter itself. Some want the firm to have an offical presence

 

and another person dreams so big they imagine buying tickets via Twitter. I can hardly imagine how one would secure that, but I imagine it’s possible. Either way, it’s an appealing idea. 

And on Julie herself

Finally, Amtrak’s automated voice Julie receives a lot of coverage on Twitter. Some love her, some hate her, but few seem to realize the voice is an actual woman named Julie. The NYT covered her in a 2004 article here.

Kummant interviewed by Reuters

Amtrak President Alex Kummant spoke with Reuters Boston Bureau Chief Jason Szep this past week about a variety of issues affecting the railroad. While not groundbreaking, the exchange nonetheless afforded Mr. Kummant the chance to cover some issues in more detail than most news stories permit. The whole discussion is worth reading if you follow these sorts of things, but I include a few excerpts and my own comments below.

Szep led off with gas prices and their role in Amtrak’s record ridership increases. After suggesting that 10 or even 11 percent growth might be possible this year, Kummant also notes, “we would say roughly that system-wide about half of our growth is because of overall gasoline prices.” He also points out that ridership retention is improving, which is a very encouraging trend. He also gets the chance to note that Amtrak’s on-time performance measures on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) are “significantly better than the airlines and on a tighter window” – that latter point is often overlooked in Amtrak coverage.

Szep then moves to Acela and increasing its market share. Kummant here notes that in the combined air-rail market between New York and Washington, Amtrak now has 63%. One real hurdle Amtrak has to overcome as it tries to increase that already high figure is the lack of excess capacity on the NEC. Kummant suggests that as Amtrak moves three million people per year on its twenty Acelas, which hold about 300 at any one time, less than 10% of additional capacity remains. He also indicates the Regional trains have about 15 to 17% additional capacity. That may be true using Amtrak’s current fleet numbers, but there are numerous Amfleet cars that could be returned to service so I think that there is more capacity in the current fleet than Kummant gives it credit.

The next topic is fleet recapitalization. Amtrak’s NEC fleet consists of Acela trains and 30 year old Budd Amfleet cars. The heart of Kummant’s reply here, overlooked in nearly every discussion of Amtrak in the mainstream media, is the long lead time between the decision to acquire new cars and the time when they enter revenue service – 6-8 years according to Kummant. In other words, service in 2015 requires decisions today. Without the political and financial support to proceed, the nation will be unable to prepare its passenger rail fleet for future service and growth. In the past, Amtrak has gone into debt for its fleet renewal programs, and the firm still labors under those decisions. It makes sense to me that Amtrak look to the Federal and state governments to chose a policy and decide how to fund that.

Referring to last week’s House reauthorization, Amtrak’s first authorization in nearly ten years, Szep asks Kummant how much of the $14 billion over the next five years Amtrak expects to receive. Kummant says the annual capital grant should increase from about $600 million to $1 billion, but he notes, “We could easily spend twice of that if you look at the state of the repair backlog.” It is precisely that backlog – caused by decades of Federal neglect – that would be reformers ignore in their calls for privatization (more on the absurdity of this here). If the physical plant calls for over $700 million of work per year for the next ten years to return to a state of good repair, who imagines a private firm willingly seeking out responsibility for that $7 billion obligation? Any firm that shows interest is anticipating government support, and if they say otherwise they are either fools or liars.

The $7 billion backlog also means that the increased capital grant is, in Kummant’s words again:

“…an important and significant increase. But it still doesn’t leave that much headroom for additional equipment. So if you are still talking about a multi-billion type of acquisition program to replace all the equipment in the Northeast Corridor I think we have to look at more than that.”

Moving beyond the NEC, Szep asks about high speed rail elsewhere in the country. Kummant makes a point here that he’s made previously (here for example), and it is the heart of this interview:

Clearly, we would all love to have TGV-style 200 mph trains. But there are a couple of things there. Those are tens of billions of dollars of investment. So the question becomes: How do we find the public, financial, and political lift for that? We get beaten up every day over raising an appropriations request for $40 million. And in the next breath we are asked ‘Well, when are you going to go high-speed?’ And the answer is, ‘If you have $40 billion we will talk about it.’

So there has to be a genuine political will and genuine political headroom to do that. Not to go too far afield here, but it begs the overall question on when is the federal government going to get serious about fundamental spending on infrastructure in this country like it did in the 1950s and early 1960s. We are way below the GDP levels of spending as a percentage of the federal budget. That’s a question for people that are in a higher pay grade than I am in terms of the political realities here. But that’s still what it comes back to.

Ultimately, these decisions need to reflect a long-term, coherent and coordinated national transportation policy that works hand in glove with a national energy policy to ensure mobility for people and commerce. Amtrak is not the entire solution, but it can be a useful component if it is not starved.

Szep next raises the dreaded p-word: profitability. Kummant’s reply:

I think it is absolute mythology that there’s any national system that is profitable. And I think the naysayers just have to get over it. There is no example. If you peel apart the British rail privatization, there were a tremendous numbers of problems with that. People say ‘Oh look at these wonderful new trains running around here. It’s all because of the miracle of the private market.’ That’s complete nonsense. There’s a bunch of new trains running around there because they spent five times as much tax money today as they did in 1990.

And actually if you look at the subsidy structures, we are awash in subsidies for all modes of transportation. There’s a $10 billion a year cash transfer from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund. FAA gets $2.7 billion. We pay all security at Amtrak and yet there is a $1.5 billion subsidy that goes beyond any user fees for security in air travel. There’s $8 billion that goes into security and life safety for cruise ships. There’s four-plus billion dollars that goes to waterways. Let’s not even get into airport construction which is a miasma of state, federal and local tax breaks and tax refinancing and God knows what. And then there’s private aviation which gets huge subsidies in accelerated depreciation loss for small aircraft.

So I always get a good chuckle, if I’m in a good mood, when people talk about subsidized Amtrak. It’s always a lot of fun then to reel off every other mode that is subsidized. And one final point. If you actually look at the amount of public capital that flows into the rail network per passenger, it’s like $40 a passenger for Amtrak and $500 to $700 per automobile out there through the highways.

Train speed on the NEC

As a follow up to my last post on Rep. Mica’s provocative proposal regarding privatization efforts on the Northeast Corridor, I wanted to discuss for a moment – in a vacuum that ignores politics – the simple practicality of what the Congressman is proposing when he suggests a two hour trip time from New York to Washington. This is a follow-up to two posts on the MAS site – yesterday’s and today’s are both worth a look.

I touched on the issue of Penn Station and the Hudson tunnels and capacity limitations yesterday, so I will ignore them here and simply imagine this plan would be from Penn Station, NY to Union Station, D.C. along the existing right of way. The mileage on that route is 226 miles. The Acela stop patterns vary, but to pick one as an example, let’s look at 2107, which runs from NYP to WAS every weekday in two hours and forty-seven minutes. In those 2:47, it stops at Newark, NJ, Metropark, NJ, Philadelphia, PA, Wilmington, DE, Baltimore, MD, and Washington, D.C. PHL and BAL are each scheduled two minutes for their stops, and the others are as long as they have to be – which is often pretty short, but still between detraining and boarding passengers, two minutes is about as good as it gets. That’s five en route stops costing about ten minutes of time, so the trip time is now 2:37. 226 miles in 2:37 provides an average speed of 86.37 mph. That’s in a train with two 6,250 horsepower power cars able to accelerate back up to speed very rapidly after each stop.

If we think of Mica’s two hour goal as a non-stop time, then he is proposing a 113 mph average speed between NYP and WAS. If his notional train made the same five stops costing it the same ten minutes, the average speed rises to 123 mph. Keep in mind we are not looking at top speed, but rather average speed. 123 mph is a 43% improvement over the Acela’s 86 mph – a substantial increase. I am assuming the notional train would make the same stops because NWK, MET, PHL, WIL, and BAL all offer a lot of riders. I suppose an operator could run express only, but that makes the train a lot less appealing overall.

Think about what would need to be spent by any entity wishing to shave 37 minutes off of the current trip time. Higher speeds would require improvements in bridges, tunnels, signals, fencing, sound abatement, and perhaps some realignment if you wished to shave that 226 down closer to the 205 miles it measures as the crow flies. (Again, ignoring such things as the facts that the crow flight route avoids existing stations and travels under the Chesapeake.) It would require new equipment – in a realm where each trainset would run $50mm+ in all likelihood. [Recall that American regulations and safety practices make it impossible to use foreign designs off the shelf, so forget the idea of simply buying German, French, or Swedish stuff and running it unmodified.] All of this would be incremental cost that the commuters would never agree to. They have no intention of traveling at these speeds (they too would need whole new fleets to do so), so why should they contribute to these expenses if they receive no benefit?

I continue to have a hard time imagining private capital being organized to this end. There are simply too many other endeavors with better return on their investments and far, far less risk. Unless government guarantees are on the table, but as I said yesterday, such a thing is presumably not an option.

Maximizing the value of the Northeast Corridor

This started as a comment on the Municipal Arts Society’s New Penn Station blog regarding their post New DC/NY High Speed Rail Link? It seemed to make more sense to me to post this here, so please read their post first and then the following:

The central issue here is what is the goal of this effort? One statement suggests the answer is: “to achieve maximum economic utilization of the Northeast Corridor.” Economic utilization by what metric?

One hopeful starting point could be the idea that Rep. Mica is talking about moving the most people. Think for a moment and realize that private dollars don’t want to do that. That’s mass transit, and there’s no money to be made in mass transit. To the extent that anyone would do this (and anyone who might is going to seek government guarantees, which defeats the whole idea of privatization), they will want the premium segment – but premium prices will only serve part of the market and only ensure maximum economic utilization for the vendor. Meanwhile, a notional effort like this would starve Amtrak of the very revenues it uses to survive in its current state on the starvation rations it gets currently. (About one quarter of Amtrak’s revenues come from the Acela.)

Under a plan like this, where would this new high-speed train go? Any plan that served New York would presumably use New York’s Penn Station and its tunnels, unless someone had the gigabucks to dig their own tunnels which would open the project to billions more in costs and years of additional work. How would these tunnels, owned by Amtrak, built by the PRR, and over 100 years old, support more trains when they are near capacity today? NJT plans its own new tunnels, but they are years overdue and will cost billions. Clearly access to these assets could be negotiated, but I doubt a new entrant vendor would like paying “market rates” for slots in these tunnels. Moving south, even if you solve the tunnel issue, how does one imagine threading a new train down through NJ, PA, DE, MD, and into DC? Along the existing right of way Amtrak uses – the former PRR mainline? There is room, I guess, but imagine the disruption to Amtrak, NJT, SEPTA, and MARC as this new line was built. Presumably Amtrak would be compelled to permit access to this route? If so, would there be any compensation?

To achieve maximum benefits for the citizens of the country, what you need to do is offer a safe, convenient alternative to driving that delivers a better value to the consumer than using their car so that they get off of the roads, stop consuming so much gas, and take advantage of the rails’ many virtues. Years ago, the American Automobile Association published a fact sheet that calculated one track of well-signaled high-speed track could, in a given amount of time, carry the equivalent number of people as 18 interstate highway lanes. Since then, every time I look at the NEC’s four track right of way, I see 72 lanes of highways running from Washington to Boston. Think of the capacity that represents! Think of the money all of the states in the Northeast spend to maintain and occasionally expand their highway systems. Imagine how much money you could save if you gave the travelers a compelling reason to get off of the highway and onto the train?

How can this be accomplished? I do not see sufficient return on investment to ever get private dollars into high-speed rail in America. (Look at how much money the private sector is currently losing in airlines these days.) The upfront capital costs for the rights of way, the tracks and bridges and tunnels and signals and stations, the rolling stock, and the labor force to operate it all are prohibitive, especially if one adopts archaic work rules associated with organized labor. 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.

Since the private railroads collapsed in the NEC over 35 years ago, Amtrak has held the line on service. It has not had the support necessary to make any changes beyond the basics. To enable a quantum improvement in service here, which could be a catalyst for transportation improvements along many other corridors in the country, the path forward is not paved with privatization, but with aligning the organizations which serve the public with the public interest.

Issues for another rant: the ridiculous nature of the Federal gas tax (Update: find that rant here) and the role of organized labor in modern American rail systems. Also, the reason the Federal 80/20 funding match ensures states pave over everything with roads even when what they really want are trains (covered a bit here).

Edit: Please see the followup to this post Train speed on the NEC.