Moynihan Station receives $83 million grant

Despite my recent slow blogging, I cannot ignore a big development in the New York Penn Station/Farley Post Office/Moynihan Station morass, which has been a recurring topic here at Quod Ero Spero. Past posts on this topic have highlighted Amtrak’s amnesia over its involvement in the project (and its rejection of it under David Gunn), linked to the Municipal Arts Society’s (apparently formant) site advocating for Moynihan Station, examined the whereabouts of the old station’s original stone eagles, looked at the lobbying budgets of the developers associated with the effort, noted a refutation of the idea that the death of the original Penn Station gave birth to modern preservation efforts, presented an overview of the then-current efforts to develop the Farley Post Office, lamented the delays and cost-increases imposed by New York’s political inability to execute this project, noted Sen. Schumer’s desire to shakedown Amtrak for $100 million, remarked on Amtrak’s oddly pivotal role in this whole mess, been amused by the unspeakable nature of the Farley effort, compared the inept, 16+ year public effort to build a station with the original, successful six-year private effort by the Pennsylvania Railroad, contrasted the Farley effort with NJT’s own troubled-yet-nonetheless-advancing effort to build a new tunnel under the Hudson, terminating in a deep, controversial, commuter-only station, and discussed the all-New York cabal behind Amtrak’s decision to rejoin the project in September 2009.

I provide the above summary to ensure that you, gentle reader, come to this week’s announcement with a full sense of the last few years’ developments as they relate to the Farley/Moynihan effort.

On Tuesday this week, New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the Moynihan Station project had received $83 million in grant money from Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). Grrr. Further news emerged from the Friends of Moynihan Station group, run by the late Sen. Moynihan’s daughter, which explained what the grant covered: building two new entrances to Penn Station’s platforms from West of Eighth Avenue through the corners of the Farley Building; doubling the length and width of the West End Concourse; providing 13 new “vertical access points” (escalators, elevators and stairs) to the platforms; doubling the width of the 33rd Street Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse; and other critical infrastructure improvements including platform ventilation and catenary work.

In comments quoted in the New York Times, Sen. Schumer went further: “The money is there for phase one, and every major hurdle has been cleared. This was the last step, not the first step.”

Really, Chuck? This project has been percolating since 1994, has seen its scope go from roughly $450 million to $1.5 billion, and you believe that a grant that amounts to approximately 5% is the last step? The New York Department of Transportation has pledged $14 million to the project, and apparently the Port Authority has committed to some as well. There’s still going to be a lot of passing the hat ahead of them for these agencies to get from well under $200 million to the full $1,500 million for which they are aiming.

Still, Wednesday saw Governor Patterson charging the Empire State Development Corporation with managing the project, and heralding a signed memorandum of understanding with Amtrak president Joseph Boardman. Just what Amtrak and the state of New York understand was not clear from the Governor’s statement, but it seems to cover cooperation with the construction involved in Phase I.

I should not let my skepticism confuse the fundamental issue here, which is that I think this is a good project that should proceed. I just marvel at the pace, cost, and political nature of this effort. Yes, how could it be otherwise in the heart of New York city – I know. Yet doesn’t it take more nerve than you thought anyone actually had for Schumer to look at this tiny down payment and declare it the “last step?”

Here’s hoping he’s not just arrogant, but prescient, as well.

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.

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.

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.

Working on the railroad, in winter, in Ruso, ND

On Saturday, January 24, two Canadian Pacific diesels and a wedge plow operating between Ruso and Benedict, North Dakota derailed when they struck a twenty foot drift of snow. While this may not be the definitive answer to what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, it does come pretty close.

The local news station, KXMC out of Minot, covers the story here, with some small pictures and video. They report that one man was treated at a local hospital and released.

While this may be a small story in the scheme of things, I think the following pictures are vivid reminders of how hard some people work in this country to keep our economy moving in the face of very harsh conditions. Despite boasting an average temperature of 1° Fahrenheit, Ruso was a chilly -11° F that day. Years ago, Senator Bob Dole used to quip about his father’s advice on looking for a job – to find something indoors that requires no heavy lifting. Clearly the work of keeping the rail lines open in a North Dakota winter fails that suggestion on both counts. We are all the beneficiaries of the efforts of these railroaders.

Here are the pictures of the derailment:

Also, a few shots of the units involved in better (and warmer) moments:

Soo plow 900182 – I have not learned anything about this unit’s origin or age.

Lead engine, unit 5926. A 1979 EMD SD40-2. General SD40 information here.

Trail engine, unit 4423. A May 1979 EMD GP38-2. General GP38 information here.

Rescue engine, unit 2016. A 1966 EMD GP40. General GP40 information here.

All pictures attributed via link – please click on them to see larger images and a full attribution.

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:

NYP-STM-NHV-PVD-RTE-BBY-BOS

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 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.