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.

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

Should have built it sixteen years ago

A further update to one of the stories I follow around here – New York’s slow, halting efforts to renovate the Farley Post Office into a ‘new’ Penn Station.

The New York Observer reports today:

Plans to expand Pennsylvania Station across the street into the Farley Post Office face fresh hurdles, as a new cost estimate for the project, known as Moynihan Station, leaves a funding gap of up to $1 billion. … The Port Authority of New York and New Jerseycompleted a preliminary cost analysis of an expansion, coming up with a price tag of $1.4 billion… more than twice the construction cost estimate given in 2006, though it includes new underground components that were not previously includeIn the works since it was pushed by Senator Daniel Moynihan in 1992, the planned station has proved repeatedly to be a textbook case of the inability to execute large-scale public projects in New York City. There has long been support from civic groups and key politicians — four governors and three mayors have endorsed it — and even full funding has been lined up on previous occasions (though costs rose). But each plan has successively faltered before a shovel even hit the ground.

If they had committed to the plan as it existed in 1994, at twice the estimate as it stood then, they would have come out ahead and had a fabulous station to serve the city for more than a dozen years. Instead, people continue to scurry through the existing Penn Station, which now serves 600,000 passengers per workday for Amtrak, LIRR, and NJT. What a mess.

penn_station3The irony here is that plans for the original Penn Station were announced by Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt (brother of the painter Mary Cassatt) in December 1901, construction of the tunnels began in June 1903, and the station itself was underway in May 1904. Train service began in November 1910. The $114 million the project cost all come from the Pennsylvania Railroad alone (in 2007 dollars, that represents a $2.5 billion dollar expenditure – such things occurred in an era before corporate taxation.) Depending on the milestones then, the original Penn Station – from train yards to tunnels to the station itself – took nine years from plan to operation. I cannot help but think Cassatt would marvel at modern New York’s inability to get its act together.

The project that dare not speak its name…

[I realize it has been a long quiet time around here. I apologize for that. Life is busy, but even more than that, I am of a mixed mind what I want to do with this site. While I ponder that thought, I cannot help but pass on a link to one of the stories I follow around here – New York’s slow, halting efforts to renovate the Farley Post Office into a ‘new’ Penn Station.]

farley_thumbBack in March, the Farley station issue cropped up again as Sen. Schumer suggested Amtrak be compelled, er, encouraged to chip in $100 million in stimulus funds towards the station (which it backed out of when Amtrak was under David Gunn‘s direction, allowing NJT to enter the scene under another former Amtrak president, the late George Warrington), rather than fund the station out of the $21 billion in stimulus funds being directed towards the state of New York. I have not heard another peep about that idea since then, so I was curious to see the following item on the blog of WNYC radio. I am leaving their aside in, as I would have made the same snark, but WNYC has saved me the trouble.

The chiefs of economic development for the city and the state spoke before construction industry executives this morning, trying to reassure them that all was well even in these hard times… New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, one of the moderators, brought up another hibernating project: Moynihan Station – which was first conceived in the early 1990s as a renovation of the Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue, exploded in scope, and has since returned to smaller, but indeterminate, shape. (Bagli called it the project that “none dare call its name.”)

Marisa Lago, the state economic development chief, threw cold water on Senator Schumer’s idea to convince Amtrak to devote $100 million of its stimulus funding to the station, saying officials had not figured out what part of Moynihan could qualify as “shovel ready.”

There you have it: More than 15 years, and three-and-a-half environmental reviews later, Moynihan Station still isn’t shovel ready.

Schumer pokes at the Moynihan Station mess

I have previsouly covered New York’s laborious efforts to convert the James Farley Post Office, across the street from Penn Station, into a new passenger station that would serve as an homage to the original Penn Station. It is a great idea, and somehow only in America could an idea like this, with so much support, manage to languish for so long. To get a sense of where this has been, please see the articles found here.

New York’s Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer gave an interview this weekend in which he offered his opinion that $100 million of stimulus funds should be directed towards finally getting this project underway. As much as I am inclined to agree with him, I find it ironic that he wants to see that money come out of the $1.3 billion set aside for Amtrak or the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail, and not out of the $21 billion earmarked for the state of New York. Go figure. Curiously, his desire to see Amtrak as the central tenant in the new station ignores the fact that Amtrak, under David Gunn, told New York to take a hike, permitting New Jersey Transit, under former Amtrak President the late George Warrington, to sweep in and secure for itself the central position.

Articles here and here.

[As an aside, NJT hopes to build new tunnels into Manhattan from New Jersey (the first in over 100 years) and plans to do so in a very odd way that seems designed to limit future flexibility. Perhaps the whole Hudson tunnel, New York passenger station, Amtrak/NJT ruckus can be solved but I continue to suggest one not hold one’s breath.]

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.

Good coverage of the Kerry HSR bill and Clinton’s 1992 failures

Since September, I have been following news of John Kerry’s proposed high-speed rail legislation. I covered it in some detail here, but that was when it was first announced, and details were sparse. As more information has appeared, The Transport Politic has beaten me to the punch and written up a good synopsis of the bill and some of its strengths and weaknesses. The Daily Kos linked to some of my articles right before Thanksgiving, leading to my highest traffic figures ever on this teeny tiny blog. I am pleased that there is sufficient interest on the web to drive that sort of traffic, and sincerely hope that such interest will form the foundation for sufficient support to have these plans move forward.

While I am mentioning the Transport Politic, I should point out another post they have which covers Bill Clinton’s grand high-speed rail and maglev promises from 1992, followed by his spectacular failure to do anything for rail but accept the late Amtrak President George Warrington‘s absurd claims of economic self-sufficiency at face value. For those of you who are sure Obama’s inauguration is about to herald a new day of passenger rail in America, this reminder of previous broken promises (promises made in a much more prosperous environment that today) is a worthwhile cautionary tale.