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.

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.

Seven Minute Primer on the future of US high-speed rail program

Yes, I know this is from FOX television, but the content is not partisan. Melissa Lafsky, of, recently appeared on FOX to discuss the plans and the players behind the current administration’s push towards HSR.

Not much new here if you follow this stuff, but helpful for someone getting up to speed.

As an aside, notice how little mention is made of Amtrak. Surprise, surprise. Also, very little talk of how small the current $8 billion is in relation to what would need to be spent by 2015 or 2020, given the scope of the plans Lafsky details.

Hat tip: Trains for America

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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hat tip: Trains for America