UK Ramps Up Intercity Rail Investments

» Continued investment in the U.K.’s rail network comes at a considerable cost, but spending on existing services will complement planned high-speed rail route and further recent ridership increases.

Opposition to the United Kingdom’s second high-speed rail line, the £17 33 billion* connection between London and Birmingham called HS2, has been stewing for years. Critics of the line — much like opponents to rail programs in the U.S. — suggest that the project’s benefits do not justify its enormous cost (both monetarily and in terms of its effects on the rural landscapes trains will pass through) and that other investments on existing lines would be more effective.

While the U.K.’s Conservative-led coalition government, itself teetering and facing a double-dip recession, continues to maintain its support for the HS2 program, it has not limited its public investments just to that line, and this week it announced a £9.4 billion ($14.6 billion) scheme to electrify a number of routes throughout the country between 2014 and 2019. Certain of these projects were announced in 2009 under the then-Labour government. The improvements will provide for a significant expansion in capacity on existing lines, decrease operating costs, and allow the introduction of faster, more agile electric trains — in addition to clearing the way for more space for freight trains.

The spending, which will electrify routes from London to Cardiff, Manchester to Liverpool and York, and the Midland Main Line, is part of a £16 billion total investment in the National Rail route network planned for the five-year period, whose hallmark projects include the construction or improvement of two cross-London lines, Crossrail and Thameslink. It comes after fifteen years of £35 billion of concentrated investments in the U.K.’s rail system — spending in tracks, signals, stations and trains that has radically improved service and dramatically increased passenger counts.

A diesel East Midlands train running north from London on a line scheduled for electrification. From Flickr user Ingy the Wingy (cc)

Unlike HS2, the planned line electrifications are unlikely to see much opposition, in part because the investments made in the country’s rail network thus far have proven so popular despite their high cost. Though there is quite a bit criticism of the operations regime used in the U.K., in which private operators bid for routes (indeed, Labour is “flirting” with re-nationalisation), the publicly owned infrastructure has been improved to such an extent that the nation now boasts the second-most heavily used rail network in Europe, after Germany. Last year, 1.35 billion riders took to the rails, an increase of 50% over the past decade. Though Amtrak’s recent passenger growth has been impressive, its roughly 30 million annual passengers pale in comparison.** So there is cross-party support for projects that improve the U.K.’s railways.

This raises questions about the right approach for investment in rail systems in the United States. The only true high-speed rail project with any reasonable chance of even partial implementation in the U.S. currently is the California High-Speed Rail system, but that effort will require a significant infusion of future federal funds to move beyond an initial operating segment. On the other hand, there are major improvements being sponsored in states such as North Carolina and Illinois that will speed up existing passenger routes, improve freight operations, and expand the number of daily services. In many ways, those latter programs are much more like the British approach than the true high-speed investment proposed for California, and as the evidence has demonstrated, a serious effort to improve existing lines is likely to attract many more passengers.

Yet opponents have cried foul repeatedly in the U.S. Aaron Renn, whose view replicates that of many conservatives, wrote last week that Illinois’ investment in improving the corridor between Chicago and St. Louis represented little more than the implementation of “Toonerville Trolleys” because of the proposed trains’ relatively low 110 mph maximum speeds. He then bemoaned the high cost of the California plan and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor project, while at the same time arguing that “high speed rail could play an important role in US transportation.” He suggests that supporters of high-speed rail will support every project with that name attached to it, but he himself does not seem willing to endorse any project of the type once it reaches the planning phase. Perhaps American supporters of rail are too enthusiastic, but half of that excitement is simply a reaction to the overwhelming, mind-numbing skepticism of opponents.

The fact is that there are reasonable quibbles to be articulated against most infrastructure projects, and it is possible that significant improvements to the U.S.’ existing rail system could be made at a lower cost. In addition, as Alon Levy has noted, improved cooperation between agencies is necessary; it is no surprise that the U.K.’s single rail infrastructure owner is better able to handle upgrades than America’s balkanized pattern of public and private track control. But it seems evident that working through problems where they exist and devoting money to improvements where possible will lead to increasing use of the country’s trains — as has been the case in the U.K.

Nevertheless, difficulties remain in Britain as well. Transport Secretary Justine Greening noted that the private passenger rail companies in the U.K. were operating with “waste and inefficiency” but that there was nothing to do in the immediate term. Meanwhile, because of inadequacies in government funding, passengers would have to take the fall for much of the cost of new spending, resulting in planned increases in fares equal to annual inflation plus 3%. That increase is probably worth it to riders, who will be getting better service as a result, but it will still take a toll on peoples’ finances and potentially limit future ridership increases. At the same time, a similar approach is nearly impossible in the U.S. because of the tiny number of existing passengers.

The U.K. has been a train-riding country for more than a century and it never abandoned its passenger services, unlike the U.S. So it has been easier — both politically and cost-wise – for it to build up passenger counts in recent years through systematic investment. Can the U.S. repeat its successes, despite the lack of existing riders (and related political will), the high construction costs necessary to improve services, and the lack of national control over rail infrastructure?

* The £33 billion cost quote includes links north from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.

** Though this figure does not include commuter rail services, of which many are included in the British number. However, even with commuter rail added to Amtrak, total intercity rail ridership in the U.S. is about 500 million a year — in a country five times as large as the U.K.

109 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Dudley Horscroft

    Horses for courses. In some cases upgrading the existing line is the sane and economic option. In other cases, such as California, a new line is the best option. And even if the full amount of money is not available at the start, putting in a section of line in the middle, plus electrification at the SF end, is the thing to do. Gives a view to the people of what can be done, and let’s face it, the costs are often grossly inflated to start with, and then if the money is known to be there, there is every incentive for many people to spend it- before it goes away!

  • David

    How do you base your statement on busiest rail network in Europe? Based on passenger-km or total number of passengers/year? I was under the impression that the Dutch railway network was the busiest in the world based on passenger train kilometers versus track-km. Trains in the Netherlands travel much shorter distances per service but the frequencies are probably some of the highest in the world.

  • Ocean Railroader

    It’s good they are extending the catenary wires to sections of northern England in that London seems to be getting all the rail atention. Also London getting all the attention and resources was one of the main subjects of Stephen Baxter’s book Flood to the point that it boiled over. At least with this they starting to give the rail lines in the North and the Midlands the atention that they need. But they really should consder widening some of these rail lines to triple and four tracks.

    The Route of Amtrack’s proberms though in the US is really New York City’s Hudson River Tunnels. Once that gets upgraded with a new set of tunnels they could even build new unloading platforms three times bigger in New York City which would take out most of Amtrak’s proberms in that the rest of Amtrak’s proberms are nothing comparied to building a set of tunnels in a 100 plus year old tunnel system 90 feet below the Hudson River.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Once that gets upgraded with a new set of tunnels they could even build new unloading platforms three times bigger in New York City

      The platforms in New York City are underground with huge buildings over them. Making major changes would mean tearing down those buildings.

      • Nathanael

        With through-running, Penn Station could happily operate with fewer platforms; so some of the tracks could be converted into platforms, making the platforms wider.

    • Henry

      There is no way that you could feasibly expand the platforms “three times bigger” – you’d probably need to destroy a good amount of Midtown, and plus you’d need to figure out a way to avoid the various subway and water tunnels in the area.

      Theoretically, Gateway could just completely bypass Penn and have its New York stop at Grand Central, which has the most platforms of any train station in the world, but I doubt that would happen.

      • Ocean Railroader

        The tunnels would not become wider or taller they would be made longer into more loading platfroms. Another idea would be the dig out another set of tunnels a hunderd more feet under the old ones in that there is still pently of room it’s only that you have to dig out the station even deeper. Such as they could have a huge new set of tunnels 200 to 300 feet below the old mess of Amtrak and New York Subway tunnels.

        Another idea about this would be to dig out a four track wide set of new Hudson River tunnels and have two of the tracks carry Amtrak Trains and Two of the new tracks to Carry New York Subway trains under the River.

  • DingDong

    Comparing Amtrak (but no commuter rail or quasi-intercity rail like NY-New Haven or Boston-Providence) to the entire British rail system’s passenger counts is misleading.

    • Tom West

      If you take the averageweekday ridership figures in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_commuter_rail_systems_by_ridership , sum them up, multiply by 365 (an over-estimate) and add in Amtrak’s 30.2m riders, you get… 630 million. That’s less than half the UK, but much better than most people would think.

    • Yes, this is a reasonable point. Thank you for noting it.

      In regards to summing commuter rail with Amtrak figures, yes 500 million annually in the US does not seem too bad compared to 1.35 billion in the UK. Until you remember that the US is five times as populated.

      • Andre L.

        And UK figures do not count, for instance, all traffic of the London Tube, which has extensive surface sections.

        • Well, the US figures do not count subways, either. The UK still has more subway ridership per capita than the US, owing purely to the fact that London’s share of the respective national population is larger than New York’s, but the difference isn’t as stark. The UK has a bit more than a billion, the US about three billion.

      • It would not be surprising if well over half of the US value is in the Northeastern megaregion, which is abouth 1/5 of the US population. So something like 3x to 6x the ridership in the US Megaregion most similar to the UK, and for the other regions of the country, 10x to 100x the ridership.

        • Adirondacker12800

          No source for this allegation and it may include subway ridership. 80 percent of the US rail passenger miles are in metro New York. It maybe 80 percent of trips. whichever, most rail travel in the US happens within the area covered by television signals from the Empire State building.
          If I remember correctly one third of Amtrak trips originate and terminate along the NEC.
          …. other interesting things about the Northeast. When NYNEX ( former NY Telephone and former Bells in New England ) was going to merge with Bell Atlantic ( the rest of what is now Verizon )…. three quarters of the world’s – not the US’s – long distance telephone calls originated or terminated in Verizon’s territory. One half of the world’s long distance calls originated and terminated in Verizon’s territory. Part of that is a telephone call from Jersey City to Manhattan is a long distance call. Or Camden to Philadelphia. Probably DC to Alexandria. At the time the world’s busiest telephone corridor was Manhattan to White Plains and the second busiest was Manhattan to New Brunswick.

          Northeast’s population is usually cited as 50 million, which probably excludes western New York and Pennsylvania…. Usually cited as “within 50 miles of a NEC station”,,, So one sixth of the country’s population.It has one quarter of the country’s income.

          One quarter of the country’s population, roughly speaking, lives north and east of St. Louis….

          • The ‘about 1/5′ I cited was from the Megaregion definition in the Wikipedia article linked to above ~ those Megaregions are defined on a county by county level. It definitely excludes central and western PA and upstate New York, as Pittsburgh is included in the Great Lakes megaregion.

            • Adirondacker12800

              49,563,296/281,421,949 is .176117406
              50/300th’s is about 1/6th. 60/300th’s would be about 1/5th. One sixth of the population generating one quarter of the GDP is a significant difference from one fifth of the population generating one quarter of the GDP.

              • Yes, 18%+ between 1/5 and 1/6, and indeed closer to 2/11 than either 2/10 or 2/12. In the context of the discussion, arguing over the difference between just under 1/5 and just over 1/6 is pointless quibbling to no purpose.

  • Nick Kingsley

    Good piece, just one important clarification: the cost of £33bn ascribed to High Speed 2 covers both phases of the project, which would take the route from London to Leeds and Manchester on new alignment. The section between London and Birmingham is the first phase, costed at around £17bn. Unfortunately the generally woeful grasp of transport detail by our (ie. the UK’s) mainstream media means this mistake is routinely repeated.

    (As a corollary in capital cost terms, the Crossrail route through central London is also priced at £17bn, whilst the refurbishment of track, signalling and power systems on two of our oldest main lines, the West Coast and Great Western, will together have absorbed around £16bn in the c2000-2015 period — which, contrary to widespread perception among most non-specialists, shows that upgrading what you have is not necessarily cheaper or easier than new build).

  • Tom West

    I find it hard to believe the train operator have a lot “waste and inefficiency”. Their current profit margins are typically 2-3%, and I find it hard to believe that their parent companies haven’t tried to improve that through reducing waste and inefficiency

    • Nathanael

      The waste and inefficiency is in the duplication of effort between different train operators.

      Railroads are *natural monopolies*, most efficient if run by a single centralized operation. Hence, British Rail was a good idea.

      • Andre L.

        There is much confusion between network operation design and operation.

        Many European countries, notably Germany, are contracting out the operation of networks that are otherwise centrally designed.

        I don’t agree with the natural monopoly argument (it was once vocally used to defend state-only airline operations in Europe well into the 1980s in some cases), but I’ll leave that aside.

        Let’s assume railway [b]network designing[/b] is a natural monopoly. You could still contract out who is going to operate the trains, maintain the rolling stock, sell tickets or subscriptions (that can be valid network-wide in some unified protocol) etc. and have the “benefits” of an ironclad central planning authority that sets the network, timetable it etc.

        In any case, we’re seen the first true, large scale rail vs. rail competition in Italy with ItaloTreno (NTV Spa). They are already operating and, as from Dec. 2012, will have a seat offer equal to 27% of those of the incumbent in the route.

        Let’s remember that British trains are now safer, and they have never carried as many passengers as now. Most of the rambling against the British rail operators is the result of a political decision of shifting costs of modernization and expansion into passengers (fares), which have the average fare increase 70% in real terms (plus the lazy ones who can’t be bothered with variable pricing).

        • Nathanael

          “Let’s assume railway [b]network designing[/b] is a natural monopoly. You could still contract out who is going to operate the trains, maintain the rolling stock, sell tickets or subscriptions (that can be valid network-wide in some unified protocol) etc. and have the “benefits” of an ironclad central planning authority that sets the network, timetable it etc.”

          Yes, this is true. However, there are often economies of scale which you’re wasting. :shrug: In the specific case of the UK, they have ended up with a ridiculously overcomplicated and redundant ticketing system, and multiple layers of management overhead.

          Of course, the private companies attempt to deal with this waste by having one company buy up multiple franchises… begin to see how this works?

          • Andre L.

            You are wrongfully attributing the blame for ticket problems on “privatization”. First, since ever it there is interticketing on all rail franchises (but not with buses, but that is another unrelated issue). You could and can buy one ticket for whole train trips in UK, no matter how many franchises are you using in the process. What some people complain is against the fare system, which isn’t related at all to whether a private or public company runs trains.

            Trenitalia, for instance, still the major carrier in Italy, has an almost equally complex ticketing system, fares that are cheaper if you buy two separate tickets with an intermediate ghost stop instead of one, and punitive pricing for last-minute long-distance travel… Measures with which I agree, as I’m a supporter of yield management schemes and price discrimination as a perfect way to achieve that.

            As for “economies of scale”, I think once again you are dropping the ball. The franchises in UK don’t even get to buy their own trains, they only lease them. They are for all purposed operator-contractors with some extra leeway in how they manage the rolling stock, the deliver of service and some of the fares. And that is it.

            Germany has more than 15 private train operators, Switzerland has 8 private train operators, both are heavily used systems, and they don’t seem to be faltering. Belgium, Netherlands, France already unwrapped infrastructure and operations into different entities and are just fine.

            The problem is that “privatization” is usually a scapegoat for bad planning and coordination. I’m absolutely sure that American transit activists would jump into attacking and shunning “corporate transit” as the source of all problems and shortcomings on American cities’ transit if they were exactly as they are now except for being privately controlled and operated.

            • Nathanael

              Leasing — another situation with unnecessary overhead.

              Railroads are natural monopolies. Now, using suitable regulations, you can construct artificial competition in a natural-monopoly situation and sometimes that helps a lot.

              Artificial competition is nice and all — it does deal with a bunch of the problems which are created by monopoly psychology — but when it comes with massive overhead, it’s questionable whether it’s worth it.

            • Nathanael

              You are right, of course, that there is no substitute for good management.

              However, “privatization” is usually used *by government officials* as an excuse for not addressing management issues. This was certainly the case in the UK. The best-run post-privatization franchises were the ones picked up by groups of ex-BR managers; what does that say? It says to me that fixing the promotions policies at BR would have dealt with the problems better.

              In Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, this (privatization as an excuse to not fix management problems) was not the case; the situation is that the EU ordered them to separate operations, and they did so as gingerly and carefully as possible while retaining the same management; it will still probably melt down in 10 years, but that’s for economic reasons relating to the necessity of cross-subsidization.

              The involvement of private train operators in Switzerland is minimal to the point of irrelevance.

              More interesting in Switzerland is the level of co-operation of multiple railway companies, owned by the federal government, cantonal governments, and neighboring national governments. The equivalent in the US would be actually getting full cooperation between all the different commuter agencies in the Northeast and Amtrak.

              • Tom West

                “The best-run post-privatization franchises were the ones picked up by groups of ex-BR managers; what does that say?”
                It says that the best people to run a railway franchise were those who had experience running a railway! That’s hardly surprising.

              • If their performance not only beat their rivals, but also beat performance under BR, it also suggests they had people above them in BR holding them back.

              • Max Wyss

                And even more interesting in Switzerland is the fact that the cooperation between the Federal Railways and all those “private” railways started a long time ago (through ticketing, Swiss Rail pass, Half Fare card), on a more or less voluntary base. And I think that this cooperation is one of the reasons why the Swiss are such avid users of public transportation.

                In an earlier message, the number of private railways in Switzerland is actually just the number of operators using the standard gauge network. There are about 30 additional operators on narrow gauge (including five urban operators) … there were more, but there have been some bigger mergers in the last few years. And they too are embedded in the cooperation.

                As it has been said, only very few of those private companies are really privately held. One coming to my mind (which has also some “general public” use) belongs to a power generation company, and the other ones are purely touristic operations.

        • Nathanael

          As for the airlines, the system in the US has been going to hell ever since “deregulation”; Europe’s behind on that, but it’s following the same course.

          At least the air*ports* were kept nationalized in most places, and for the same reasons you stated, that was the key part (the UK is the insane exception).

      • Tom West

        “The waste and inefficiency is in the duplication of effort between different train operators.”
        There are very few routes where train services are duplicated between operators. If you are referring to duplication of management, there is probably some duplication at senior levels. (Less than you might think, because a single rail system with have regional management instead of train operating company’s management). However, that forms only a tiny part of overall costs – most of the railways’ costs come from frontline staff.

        • Yes, that is correct. UK rail operations are established by Network Rail and then bid out to private contractors (or, in the case of East Coast trains, the government). So services do not duplicate with the exception of local/express overlaps.

          The major point in my mind is that the conservative government is admitting that this private approach leads to “waste and inefficiency” — and when that is said, they mean duplication of management, as you wrote, but also excessive profits. In the current contract structure, companies that decide that a route isn’t profitable enough can simply abandon it mid-course and force the government to take it over (as in the case of East Coast).

          • Adirondacker12800

            Privatizing the profits and socializing the risks is one of the favorite pastimes of people who say the private sector is always better….

          • Tom West

            I hardly think profit margins of 2-3% are “excessive”. If the private companies broke even, the effect on ticket prices would be minimal. (Also, don’t forget almost all tickets sold have the annual price increased capped in some way).

            I’m not saying the current system is the best one or even a good one. My main problem is that most people attribute the problems with the current one to incorrect causes.

            Minor correction, Yonah: The franchise areas are set by the UK government, not by Network Rail.

  • Cameron Slick

    “The U.K. has been a train-riding country for more than a century and it never abandoned its passenger services, unlike the U.S.”

    The only country to abandoned a higher percentage of railroads in the early 1970′s than any other country, including the US. Consequently, they must have abandoned a lot of rural passenger service. On the other hand, the number of routes lost in Britain pales in comparison to the routes that disappeared on Amtrak Day.

    Great comparison Yonah.

    • Nathanael

      At its most built-out, the UK had an extraordinarily large amount of railway by any standard; remember, they started the railway boom first.

      The US never had as much, even though we had a lot, and we have lost far, far, far more.

      Most of the rest of the world have lost less, but they all started with less.

      • Nathanael

        Also, the UK and US were two of the only countries in the world to actually have competing private rail companies on a significant scale. Most other countries didn’t build redundant lines; in the UK they really, really did build redundant and duplicative lines. This is one way the UK was able to rip out a huge number of rural lines and still not be missing a lot of them after 50 years.

          • Nathanael

            I don’t know a lot about Japan’s rail history, but although there were competing companies in Tokyo, most of the country seems to have been divided up along geographic lines by different companies. They were certainly doing central planning even during the private railway period.

            • The very first railway line was in the 1870′s. Nippon Railways was established as a private company with government support, with its first main line completed in the 1890′s and the other four of the early Big Five of the 1890′s seemed to have targeted markets that Nippon Railways was not targeting. Since the railways were nationalized after the turn of the century, there wasn’t much opportunity for side by side competition to emerge.

        • Max Wyss

          Don’t forget France, which was private until some time in the 1930s, with fierce competition in some areas. Even Switzerland was all private, but most of the companies got nationalized in 1903, and there were also a competition (turning into a fiasco, where some cities were paying off debts until the 1960s).

      • Dudley Horscroft

        Amtrak’s wish list is just that, it includes a long tunnel under Philadelphia which is unlikely to come this century. No point in improving speeds in terminal areas – the trains have to stop there! Only gain there is if extra capacity is needed, and Penn Station could probably be worked easier, and its capacity improved, if NJT and LIRR trains were through routed other than those trains that use the dead end platforms. Snag is NJT is wedded to slow heavy and cumbersome loco hauled trains, and LIRR uses emus. This is where the “waste and inefficiency” is, not in the UK.

        Best place for AMTRAK to spend money on is upgrading ‘slow’ sections between ‘fast’ sections so trains can run at a continuous high speed. Also saves energy.

        Amtrak would do best by going back to emus again, rather than using loco hauled trains. Far easier on the tracks, far better acceleration and braking, easier to add extra units which do not degrade the performance as adding extra coaches to a loco hauled train does.

        Global warming may add 50 cm to sea heights in the NY region in the next 100 years, but a few miles up the Hudson and the additional river height will be nil. No need to worry about new tracks!

        • Tom West

          “No point in improving speeds in terminal areas – the trains have to stop there!”
          I disagree. The tracks around terminals are often where you can get significant time reductions. If you upgrade mile of 15mph track to 60mph, you save three minutes… the same as upgrading *six* miles of 60mph to 120mph.

          • Dudley Horscroft

            You’re right, Tom, but the important word is ‘If’. I would suggest that if the speed limit is 15 mph on the approach to a terminal, it is because the route is horribly constrained. As a result, the saving of three minutes is deemed un-affordable. Along the line, the constraints are more likely to be slow orders for substandard bridges, sharp curves and a multiplicity of level crossings in wayside towns. The bridges could ‘mostly’ be fixed at a fraction of the cost of a mile of inner city track and, especially in the USA, the rail reserve is so wide that curves can be eased, or even a separate track added with greater cant for high speeds. And politics is the key to getting rid of level crossings. Depends on how much money there is and what the politics are.

            • Andre L.

              That is not the case.

              Speed restrictions on station approaches unrelated to overall track geometry of legacy lines are usually the result of antiquated switches and dispatch systems. Like the old model of having a “control post” with full responsibility for dispatching trains within the station and its close proximity.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Shhhhh, Amtrak and I assume NJTransit are quietly upgrading the switches on the west side of Penn Station from 15MPH switches to 30MPH switches.

              • Nathanael

                “Like the old model of having a “control post” with full responsibility for dispatching trains within the station and its close proximity.”

                This is still the most reliable way of managing a crowded terminal area, and it’s still used by most railroards. Several have actually gone *back* to it after excessively “remoting” their operations and having dispatching meltdowns. A complicated set of tracks needs its own dispatching desk responsible for everything in the area.

                Antiquated, slow switches, yes, that’s a real issue.

              • Andre L.

                @Nathanael: a station fully equipped with the state-of-the-art signaling DOES NOT NEED a control post because it is made totally redundant.

          • Ocean Railroader

            There are several spots in the Amtrak system where you could say a good 20 minutes to a hour on. The big one is the New York Tunnels. The next one would be to extend the Amtrak Pennsyvinia 25Hz system catenary down to Fredricksburg to get out of the mess of change eletric to oil powered trains and Commuter Rail trains at Union Station where the catenary wires end right now.

    • Andre L.

      What you forget to factor in is that Amtrak Day brought, indeed, many passenger service cuts, but the bulk of revenue on those routes had always been freight.

      The busiest long-distance passenger services west of the Appalachians were Chicago-Madison, which had at its peak 9 passenger trains per direction per day, and Chicago-St. Louis, which had 6 trains per direction per day IIRC. Not exactly busy lines…

      Actually, the unprofitable passenger services imposed by the ICC were dragging down the railways and almost bankrupt UP.

      • Tom West

        They weren’t imposed per se – they had originally been created because the railroad felt it could run them at a profit. The problem was the ICC wouldn’t let them *stop* running them when they started loosing money.
        The blanket 80mph speed limit imposed in 1951 (unless lines installed some form of train protection) surely turned some profitable routes into loss-makers.
        (Also, don’t forget the freight side of things was also hobbled by the ICC.)

        • The passenger services that were often established on a loss-leader basis were the interurbans, often established to make money on real estate development in the areas they served. However, many of the interurbans that were established as property development loss-leaders went down in the Great Depression.

      • DBX

        What you fail to note is that the six-daily Chicago-St. Louis service was simply the market leader in that market (Chicago and Alton, using the current Amtrak route). Two other companies (one of them Illinois Central, but both using routes significantly different from the I-55 parallel Amtrak route) also ran from Chicago to St. Louis on a similar schedule, yielding 17 or 18 trains a day total. There were many other similar situations around the Midwest, with the Chicago-Omaha and Chicago-Minneapolis routes hosting particularly intense competition. Five companies competed on Chicago-Omaha until 1971, each on a different route, in part because the services were not only St. Louis style local trains but also had transcontinental connections, and at its early 1950s peak, market leader CNW alone ran ten trains a day on that route.

        I’m not quite sure whether you’ve made the same mistake for Chicago to Madison, but that was also a route served by multiple operators at one point.

  • Mark Dowling

    If you want to move electrification forward it’s probably better to do it from the supply side. One of the biggest boosters of electric transit in Canada is Hydro-Quebec, because they build huge dams up north and then need to sell the power.
    http://www.hydroquebec.com/transportation-electrification/

    How many US electric companies actively participating in discussions about electrification to the point of offering some hard cash?

    It seems to me that if Amtrak are serious about electrification then perhaps they should seek to lease a few of NJT’s ALP45DPs during progressive electrification of Washington DC-Richmond (further south might be too ambitious given how Amtrak service splinters beyond there) to do Northeast Regional runs originating/terminating in Richmond. This would move some current time sucking diesel to electric locomotive swaps out of Washington Union which and ultimately allow the new lighter Siemens locomotives to take over once the project completes.

    An “order of magnitude” study indicated a cost of $1bn above and beyond the $700m required to increase track capacity on the corridor, but there would be operating advantages as mentioned above plus attractiveness of services operating through Union to/from Richmond would be increased by shorter dwell times and increased acceleration to running speed by the electric equipment. Leasing dual power locomotives would allow the capital dollars to be spent more gradually, energizing the “easy” stretches of line and reducing fuel consumption while switching to diesel over the sections of line that require longer construction horizons. While the 130 tonne ALP45s will impose short term wear on the track, replacing the current 110 tonne P42s with 97 tonne Siemens ACS64s will reduce wear over the longer term.

    Reducing the need for P42DCs on the NEC would then cascade their availability for lines which realistically will not see electrification for a much longer time horizon.

    • Ocean Railroader

      Extending the 25Hz Amtrak catenary sysetem along the the fromer four track wide New York Centeral line across New York state to Canada would make a great deal of sense in that there is a large 25Hz power hyro station that they closed down in Niagara Falls. If they extended the Amtrak 25Hz catenary to it they could reopen the plan and send cheap hyro power along the line into New York City’s commuter lines.

      The power company here has plans of expanding one of the Lake Anna nuke plants in VA by 1500 megawatts and what they could do is have 80 to 100 megawatts of that new power could be built in 25Hz Amtrak catenary power and they could use that new base suppy to suport explanding the catenary lines out from Washingtion DC and from Richmond to Norfolk VA.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The 25Hz system in Western New York and Southern Ontario was closed down and converted to 60Hz years ago.

      • On the contrary, there’s little point in retaining 25 Hz. 60 Hz is superior in that it requires smaller transformers on board the trains, reducing their weight and thus their operating costs.

        • Ocean Railroader

          The bulk of the Amtrak line is at 25Hz and when they build that new catenary upgrade it will raise train speeds from 125 miles on hour to 180 miles on hour on the existing line with the existing 25Hz that’s a real good improvment without having to rewire the whole system. Also extensions of the 25Hz system could be used for branch lines such as oil powered commuter rail lines that feed into the existing 25Hz system. Another good spot for a 25Hz catenary extension would be turining the thrid rail system of the New York Central into a branch line of the 25Hz system.

      • Nathanael

        The problem with electrifying the NY Central line can be summed up in three letters: CSX.

        Have the state buy the line out and it could probably be electrified within a couple of years.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Work on Albany to Croton first…

          • Nathanael

            Indeed.

            Unfortunately the nonstandard electrification system used by Metro-North acts as a further obstacle: nobody wants to extend it; so either it has to be replaced (== Metro-North has to buy more equipment which handles both overhead AC and third rail DC) or Amtrak / NYS has to buy equipment which handles both overhead AC and third rail DC.

            I’d also add that with global warming and sea level rise coming someone should really go along the length of the track and figure out if we have to raise a bunch of the Hudson Line, or if it’s a lost cause and we should rebuild the Harlem Line or the West Side Line or something.

            • Adirondacker12800

              No reason why they can’t run two. It has technical problems you would rather avoid if possible but it can be done. And you aren’t going to get “better than 90″ unless you hang catenary.

            • Ocean Railroader

              I would be worried about spending all that money on new Hudson River Tunnel’s and eather having some nut job blow it up like in Daylight or have the sea rise and start spilling into it in that the old tunnels are over a hunderd feet below sea level. They might even should look at some type of other bypass around this mess it might even be cheaper.

            • Max Wyss

              When is the Metro North Hudson line rolling stock due for replacement?

              That might be a moment to consider system changing.

        • Allen

          Does CSX want to sell the line? If not, it won’t happen. Eminent domain isn’t in play with railroads ( weird legal history law stuff ).

          • Adirondacker12800

            Which line? Amtrak leased Schenectady to Poughkeepsie last year.
            ….outside of California when railroads pull the “but we need 30 feet of separation from higher speed passenger trains” tax assessors all up and down the line begin to rummage through their files and start retroactive reassessments of the land the railroad has been claiming is nearly worthless because it’s near a noisy smelly railroad…

      • Tom West

        In the UK, the railways are the second largest single consumer of electricity (behind a steelmaker), but they are classified as a “medium” consumer. That’s because the demand is spread over a wide area, so the demand at any given point is quite low.
        It’s great for the supply company – uses lots of electricity in an easy-to-manage way.

  • I’ll endorse the Alon Levy upgrading for 90% less proposal – lots of concrete and tangible investments there.

  • Dudley Horscroft

    Actually a reply to Nathanael – 18 July at 0006. UK rail mileage dropped from 31,336 km (19,471 mi) in 1950 to 16,116 km (10,014 mi) today (figures from Wikipaedia). But there was little duplicative mileage when you examine it. Most allegedly duplicating lines served different towns on the way. Main lines cut out were those whose rationale had largely disappeared, eg, M&GN Jt, Great Central, Somerset and Dorset. Most of the rest were short branch lines, especially to individual factories, and rural lines that in the USA, apart from using steam power, would have been classed as “interurbans”. BTW, are the US figures that people are thinking of for ‘lines lost’ inclusive of the interurbans?

    • Nathanael

      I’m pretty sure the US figures do not include all the interurbans.

      Actually, I’m pretty sure they don’t include all the “industrial” lines either, given that nobody kept careful track of those.

      Of course the UK figures don’t include the trams which were lost earlier.

    • Nathanael

      The main point I was making earlier was just how much 31,336 km actually was, for a country the size of the UK — that’s a hell of a lot of rail. It’s approximately the same amount as France has now, which is twice as large in area.

    • Allen

      Was that route miles or track miles?

    • Tom West

      @Dudley: Good point. You often had multiple lines running form A to B, but generally line 1 ran via C and line 2 ran via D.
      (Case in point: the Somerset and Dorset line between Bristol and Bath paralleled the GWR’s line – but on the opposite side of the river).

  • Tom West

    I found out recently that British Rail needed to replace about 2% of its track per year for a state of good repair, but only replaced about 1%. Railtrack continued that policy until the Hatfield incident, after which (Railtrack’s replacement) Network Rail started replacing about 3% a year to catch up… so costs tripled. Since Hatfield, costs have come back down, and are at pre-Hatfield levels (even though Network Rail is doing more than Railtrack was).

    • Ocean Railroader

      What I don’t understand about British Rail is that they pay though the noise for rail and yet they are stuff into the trains like sardiens. At the same time they are paying high ticket prices the goverment or who ever else is running the railroad tracks is coming up with ecuese after ecuese on why they don’t have the money to eather add more railroad cars or expand the tracks or add eletric wires.

      • Andre L.

        @Ocean Railroader: just before privatization, British Rail was in a desperate state of deferred maintenance and worn out rolling stock.

        At the same time, it had one of the lowest farebox recover ratios of Western Europe among moder-ish systems of the time, and the government had decided to change that.

      • Dudley Horscroft

        Ocean Railroader – people pay high fares because these are needed to pay for the railways, and they are stuffed like sardines into the trains because the alternative – driving – is worse!

        And unfortunately the dead hand of Treasury and the Department of Transport still holds the whip hand over purchase of new stock. From what I gather, it is worse than the BR days. Keep governments (or, rather, the public service) away from transport!

        • Nathanael

          There is no substitute for competent management.

          The issue is not whether it is “government” or “private”. A government with a bad attitude can make a big mess; a private company with a bad attitude can make even larger messes (mostly because when government screws up people can vote it out).

          The issue is competence. There is no substitute for competent management. “Privatization” ideology won’t get you competent management. “Nationalization” ideology won’t get you competent management either.

          • Tom West

            Shout that from the rooftops! Who owns it is far less important than how it is run.

          • Adirondacker12800

            A government with a bad attitude can make a big mess

            Yes, putting people in charge of government who think government is a bad idea, is a bad idea. [See last 30 years}

          • The core argument for having the operation of the services franchised out to private companies is a belief that its easier for the government to sack a private franchise at the end of its franchise period than it is to sack a government operation and start from scratch.

            • Nathanael

              That is the only good argument for franchising… but it’s a better argument for *contracting out*, like the MBTA does for Boston commuter rail.

              Giving the franchisees control over fares, schedules, and branding, as they did in the UK, is just dopey, and it’s the main source of complaint. If you want to be able to “sack a private operator”, design the fares and schedules centrally, use central branding, and use contract operators.

      • Tom West

        People are stuffed in like sardines because providing extra carriages/trains to reduce overcrowding leads to increased costs but little increase in revenue.

        • Rational Plan

          Then why have trains been extensively lengthened? or why do they run so many trains now? Just like roads increased capacity induces more demand.

          • Tom West

            Longer trains have (generally) come at the behest of government, not from the franchised operators.

            Sardine-like condition are most common in commuter services, where getting people to switch modes (and hence get more revenue) is hardest – so those are the least likely to be lengthened by the operator.

            Most increases in train frequency have come to longer-distance services, not commuter services.

            • Max Wyss

              Could one reason for the operators not investing in rolling stock be that the franchises are too short, making it not possible to fully depreciate new rolling stock over the duration of the franchise (considering also the horrendously lengthy approval procedure for the rolling stock)?

            • Tom West

              @Max: That’s nominally the point of the leasing companies – they can amortise the costs over the lifetime of the rolling stock, so the length of franchise matters less. There’s also rules that ensure that new franchise operators can’t ditch all the rolling stock from the previous franchise, reducing the risk to the leasing company.

              That said, getting in new rolling stock does add to a franchise’s costs, and the new passengers to fill it won’t appear overnight. Consequently, operators are less likely to get extra rolling stock in the last couple of years, so longer franchises are better there.

              That’s not to say operators don’t sometimes buy rolling stock. Some years ago, Virgin Trains (operator of the InterCity West Coast franchise) offered to upgrade its 9-car trains to 11-car trains entirely at its own risk. It also offered to go to 12-car in return for just extra two years on the franchise. Sadly, the government dithered in the extreme… with the result that only half are being extended to 11-car, and the other half are being left as 9-car. *sigh*

  • Rational Plan

    No the issue is with the current form of privatisation is that government has tighter control over the railways than when the old British Railways Board was in control. The real reason little electrification occurred in the Labour government years is that it was rumoured that a senior civil servant at Dft was against it, and all sorts of rubbish reasons were given to the railway press why diesel was best. It was only on his retirement that the industry that had started to form effective lobbying groups to counter this rubbish. It’s at that point that suddenly electrification was on the cards again.

    The same group think seems to have occurred over the Intercity HST replacement called IEP. This dogs breakfast of train is over weight, filled with conflicting technology and very expensive to rent compared to a standard intercity train from the usual manufacturers. up to £20,000 a month more apparently.

    This train is routinely ridiculed in the industry and the rail press (but who listens to them)but on the department blunders making ever more changes to keep it relevant justifying it with talk of a new Japanese train factory and the jobs ( and when will Siemans be allowed into Japan I wonder). The train operators just want a reliable fast train that won’t cost the Earth but what do they know.

  • Allen

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding Mr. Freemark’s point and / or Mr. Renn’s ( below ). But I believe Mr Renn’s problem with the Illinois improvements are

    a) Project like the Illinois ones along with almost ever so-called HSR project pushed by US politicians do not meet the international standard definition for what constitutes high speed rail.

    b) More so, for all the money spent these “fast” trains trips will barely be faster than Megabus.

    http://www.newgeography.com/content/002958-high-speed-rail-advocates-discredit-their-cause-again

    These developments are unfortunate because high speed rail could play an important role in US transportation, particularly in the Northeast. But that’s unlikely to happen because of the indiscriminate way establishment advocates have supported anything with the “high speed rail” label attached, ranging from $2 billion, 110 MPH peak speed Toonerville Trolleys in Illinois that barely beat Megabus in terms of journey time to the California rail boondoggle, regardless of merit. All they know that if it claims to be high speed rail, they are in favor of it.

    • The Chicago to St. Louis project is a justified upgrade to the passenger rail service between the two cities, and certainly worth the money. What difference does it make what label it would have attached to it in what country?

      Plan an Express HSR system through difficult terrain. People complain about the fact that an Express HSR through difficult terrain is a moderately expensive undertaking. Plan a Rapid Rail system along a conventional corridor which will have a farebox operating cost recovery above 100%, at a fraction of the cost per route mile as an Express HSR system. People complain that its not as fast as an Express HSR system. Plan a conventional rail service. People complain that its subsidized.

      None of the complaints address the question of whether the full economic benefits justify the full economic costs, they all involve someone having a mental image of how things are “supposed to be”, and someone proposing a useful infrastructure investment that does not match their mental image.

      • Ocean Railroader

        I’ve seen that area it’s almost perfectly flat they could easly build a new set of high rail only tracks down that rail line that follow side by side with the freight tracks. Or they could divert the freight rail tracks down a different line to that town by buying them up and turning them into passanger rail only tracks.

        • They could, but it would cost quite a bit more than upgrading the Rapid Rail corridor, and take longer. And, of course, the performance of the Rapid Rail corridors will reduce the leeway that opponents have for telling tall tails about people in the catchment area having some kind of irrational aversion to riding trains.

          The Express HSR corridor they are looking at runs on the Springfield alignment, and then across to the St. Louis alignment.

      • Ocean Railroader

        When people get dispointed they can easly turn into haters of these projects and the Califorinia one has somewhat lived up it. In that the suporters want a high speed train but than they do study after study and ask for more and more money at and the same time keep cutting it back and back intill finaly it reaches the breaking point.

        • Yes, and that is why opponents try to generate BS about the corridor in order to give people the impression that there are problems even in areas where there are no substantial problems … if you can con people into thinking that a project is plagued with problems, you can sometimes kill the project.

          But one point about the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt propaganda strategy by the opponents of HSR: they’ve lost each of the biggest chances they’ve had to kill the thing, and their remaining chances are at much longer odds.

          • Ocean Railroader

            That high speed rail project from the looks of it in terms of things going wrong seems to be doing very well keeping things in order in that it’s had the least amount of trouble consdering what they want to do with it. I also notice that this high speed rail line runs into the Metra eletric distrit what they could to is extend the existing catenary wires south towards St Louis or they could look at replacing the voltage on the Metra distrit with something that is more high speed rail like and start extending it south.

            • “that high speed rail project”? You referred to California, I replied regarding California, you have now switched to Chicago / St. Louis?

              As the sole remaining Express HSR project, the California HSR project has been the target of the lion’s share of out of state efforts of the national HSR opponents to disrupt the thing, in coalition with in-state HSR opponents, NIMBY’s, and whatever naive HSR supporters they could con into thinking that this or that secondary alignment argument is more important than actually building something.

              So if you follow it in the newspapers, you’d think the project was ready to fall apart any minute. Generating that impression is part of the FUD strategy.

              But of the legal challenges decided to date, the worst that has happened to the project was being sent back to dot some i’s and cross some t’s; of the political challenges to date, Prop1a was passed, the explosion of scope of the detailed project design under PB was reigned in by the Brown administration, and the first ICS corridor has now been funded. That leaves all the FUD looking like being noise with no substance.

            • FG

              O.R. – the St. Louis route doesn’t intersect with the MED, it runs direct from Union to Joliet according to maps I can find. The connection from Union to MED has some right angle turns that are very slow (some of the Illinois services and the City of New Orleans use this route) between McCormick Place and Union.

              Now electrifying other Metra lines would be great – I was at a job site the other day next to the line out of Northwestern Station watching the diesel hauled trains going to and from the yard. It felt so… 1950′s, particularly watching the trains with the older, small windowed cars.

              • Dudley Horscroft

                No way are railroads natural monopolies. Think planes, trucks, cars, barges – all are competitors to railroads. 150 years ago, perhaps one could think railroads were monopolies, given that the competitor was the bullock cart, or the stage coach, and the railroad was so technically and financially superior that it eliminated all competitors.

                Now it has the government-subsidized highway system to compete with, and it is still winning. But its competitors are still there, and just the very threat of their existence ensures that railroads cannot exploit any hint of monopoly.

              • FG

                I think the term is meant here as one company runs the trains and owns the tracks, not different entities, and that there are not other rail competitors, particularly for passenger rail, rather than no other mode of transport.

              • Nathanael

                Transportation as a whole is a natural monopoly. That doesn’t mean that there are actual monopolies, it means that *monopolies are actually more efficient* than competition, and competition creates *inherent waste*.

                This is very much true of railways vs. government subsidized highways.

  • FG

    How do you address the concern (btw I agree with you that railroads are a natural monopoly) that people might have about monopolies in the US since large railroads were one of the reasons people cried monopoly early last century and led to lingering resentment to big rail companies?

    • Nathanael

      When you have a natural monopoly, you can’t just ‘break up the monopolies’, because they will inevitably form again.

      You need to instead put the monopoly under the control of the voters. So, government owned roads/water systems/sewer systems/electric distribution/railroads.

      • Adirondacker12800

        …telecom… ever notice how the cable company’s “triple play” is priced almost exactly the same as the telephone company’s “triple play”

        • Nathanael

          The telecom duopoly. Except that DSL is only usable within a few thousand feet of the substation, so in a lot of places it’s the cable monopoly.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update