Chicago High-Speed Rail Midwest High-Speed Rail St. Louis

Major Study Advocates 220 Mph Operation on Chicago-St. Louis Run

Chicago-St. Louis High Speed Rail MapMidwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a less than two-hour express trip between the cities.

Today, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association released a major report studying 220 mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis. Though the project has yet to be endorsed by any government officials, the Association’s study will stimulate further discussion about the level of investment necessary for the link between the two cities. More importantly, the study’s conclusions indicate that Illinois’ existing plans for 110 mph, four-hour service between the metro regions are out of date and under-scaled to meet travel needs in the Midwest.

The study, completed by consultant Tran Systems, was commissioned by the Association to determine costs and other elements of a potential very-fast service across the state of Illinois. The main challenge of the report was to compare the existing Amtrak corridor, which runs almost directly from Chicago to St. Louis, via Springfield, with another corridor, partially unused, which runs via Champaign and Decatur before continuing on. The latter route was found to be acceptable for a 220 mph operating speed, largely because it is quite straight throughout. The Amtrak route is constrained by numerous curves which would slow down trains considerably.

Excitingly, the study argues that trains could run express between the major cities, with stops in Champaign and Springfield, in 1h52; with more stops in Kankakee, Decatur, and Metro East, trains could complete the journey in 2h04. The study advocates hourly trips. These journey times compare favorably with operations on the very similar Paris-Lyon TGV corridor in France. According to the report, the line could be rebuilt with electric catenary for $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars, an estimate that does not include rolling stock or maintenance facilities. The study argues that the state could prevent a sudden loss of treasury by building the line in seven phases.

The short report is worth a glance-through; though it isn’t particularly detailed, it is the first step towards transforming ideas for this Illinois route from mediocrity to world-class status.

The cost of implementation for this project would be relatively minimal considering how effectively it would likely contest air and road travel along the corridor. This route is currently served by at least 41 daily round trips on a number of airlines, making it one of the U.S.’s major air links and one that would be prime territory for rail market share takeover considering the less than two hour trip made possible by high-speed trains. The route could also serve as the central corridor of a line eventually stretching west to Kansas City and south to Dallas; the connection at Chicago would similarly provide new routes to Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

It’s two bad that this report was commissioned, then, by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, not the Illinois Department of Transportation. We need to push this route as one of America’s major transportation corridors, but few at the state or national levels are willing to take the major political step necessary to begin pushing for a financial commitment similar to California’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond approved last November. Illinois needs a push now to make this study more than simply a series of hypotheticals.

Image above: Potential routes for Express HSR service, from Midwest HSR Association

Metro Rail Paris

Paris Shows How to Automate a Subway

Conversion of Line 1 to automatic operation will occur without shutting down service.

Paris’ Métro Line 1 carries 725,000 passengers a day and has been the city’s most heavily trafficked line since it opened in 1900. Yet continual ridership increases have made congestion a mounting problem, so the city is working on automating the line to augment capacity. Some trains will run without drivers beginning next year, and full conversion will be complete in 2012. The city’s process to convert the line provides an example to other cities with old systems needing to substantially improve operations.

The conversion process began in 2007 with the commencement of work to redo platforms to assure that trains line up correctly. Last March, Bérault station was equipped with automatic platform doors six feet tall that open and close with the arrival and departure of trainsets. These doors, which align with train doors, are standard on new automatic subways around the world, and ensure that passengers make it into the trains; trains cannot depart unless both vehicle and platform doors are entirely closed. The lack of conductor means that the system must be designed to be safe and almost fail-proof.

By summer of next year, all stations on the line will be equipped with the doors; the transit authority installs two doors a night on each platform without disrupting service whatsoever. The use of these platform walls has a number of benefits: reduced delays, far less trash on the tracks, and suicide prevention.

New trains similar to those used on the decade-old automated Line 14 will be brought into operation beginning at the end of next year and slowly replace the existing trainsets, which will be moved to other lines in the system. This means that Line 1 will have both automatic and driver-operated trains operating simultaneously for a year and a half. The primary advantage of the decision to install trains gradually is that it means the system never has to be shut down and it provides a testing period during which problems with the automated system can be compensated by replacing automatic train service with vehicles operated by drivers.

Paris’ investment in a faster, more reliable Line 1 is part of its overall renewal operation, which has been underway for the past ten years. The city has renovated virtually all of its stations since 1999 and is in the process of replacing the majority of its train fleet. The city’s confidence in an automated train system has been confirmed by the success of Line 14, which has been highly popular and suffered few technical difficulties since it opened in 1998. The city’s planned radial circumferential rapid transit line will be completely automated when it opens in 2020.

The French city’s experience demonstrates that a conversion process doesn’t have to be intrusive. New York’s attempt at automating its L Train, a process that began in 1997, has been plagued by repeated delays, and the system still doesn’t function properly.

The key to success on Line 1 in Paris is its staging. The computer-operated control system necessary for trains to move without drivers was installed earlier in the decade. Stations are being renewed one-by-one, and will include necessary devices to improve automation, including the platform doors which New York won’t have. Finally, driverless trains are being incorporated into the system one by one over a relatively long period, meaning that problems can be squeezed out over time. Managers of other older systems should attempt to emulate Paris.

Streetcar Toronto Vehicles

Toronto Secures Streetcar Contract — After Exaggerated Fight With Ottawa

New Bombardier trains will be delivered beginning in 2012.

At an emergency meeting last week, Toronto’s city council approved a major new financial commitment to an April contract designed to replace the city’s fleet of aging streetcars. The deal, which comes after the federal government announced that it wouldn’t help pay for the vehicles, requires Toronto to delay several planned capital improvements.

Unlike the United States, which has standard formulas established by the FTA to ensure transit systems nationwide adequate funds for capital maintenance and replacement, Canada’s municipalities must negotiate with Ottawa whenever they need major aid to improve public transportation. Toronto has recently benefited from a major infusion of national and province-level funds for new light rail and subway lines. These projects will make the city one of the most transit-oriented in North America.

But when Toronto Mayor David Miller agreed in April to a C$1.2 billion deal with Bombardier to buy 200 new streetcars, he had no such assurance from the federal government, even though he assured the city that Ottawa would be willing to commit to a third of the cost. Ontario Province is providing one third of the cost.

When applying for Canada’s national stimulus funds, Mr. Miller asked for C$416 million for the vehicles — and nothing else. The problem is that the stimulus was designed for projects that will be largely completed by 2011; the streetcars are scheduled for staged delivery between 2012 and 2018. Mr. Miller hoped that intense dislike of the ruling conservatives in Toronto, the nation’s largest city, would force Premier Stephen Harper to make a concession. Mr. Harper didn’t bite, to the dismay of New Democrat (left) MPs in the Canadian parliament. On the other hand, the national government did say C$300 million of aid to projects such as sidewalk construction would likely be forthcoming.

Mr. Miller’s attempt to use the stimulus for streetcar funds clearly wasn’t reasonable, and he probably should have waited for Mr. Harper to simply agree to fund the vehicles from a general source, something that would have likely occurred considering the government’s recent attempts to placate Toronto by throwing transit money at the city at high speeds. Now the city council has reluctantly approved doubling the city’s previous commitment to the vehicle replacement by a vote of 36 to 6. Some other major transit projects in the city will now be delayed, including the replacement of several hundred buses.

The failure to get federal government stimulus funds for the streetcars could be framed as a loss for Mr. Miller, but it further isolates Ottawa’s ruling conservatives from Toronto, whose greater metro area represents 25% of the nation’s population. Mr. Harper’s recent efforts in support of new transit lines in the city now seem less prominent, as the conservatives have once again been framed as the enemy in the fight for a better commute.

The New Democrats, who Mr. Miller supports, can claim that they did what they had to do to get the new trains, even though the municipal opposition claims that Mr. Miller’s April decision to order the streetcars was an attempt to buy something without the money to back it up. To many, the mayor will look like a savior, and when the trains start arriving in 2012, the left will be thanked, not the conservatives. In the long-run, the transit-supportive left will do better among the Toronto electorate and conservatives will have to attempt to buy their votes once again with more funds for public transportation.

From the U.S. perspective, the conflict between Toronto and Ottawa seems hard to believe because American mayors rarely demand funds directly from the federal government as a sort of political punishment; conflicts generally arise in the Congress, where senators and representatives fight over earmarks and formula provisions. In Canada, though, full-bore conflict between competing political ideologies at several levels of the federal system has become an acceptable way to promote and fund better mass transit. Perhaps American mayors should attempt to emulate this game — carefully.

Congress DOT Finance

Senator Boxer is Right: There is No Consensus in Congress on Funding

An 18-month extension on the transportation bill looks like the only solution for now.

Today at a hearing on the reauthorization of the transportation bill, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) made it quite clear that Congressman James Oberstar’s (D-MN) proposed legislation won’t make it through the Senate over the next few months. Ms. Boxer’s testimony indicated that she’d push for a no-changes “clean” extension of SAFETEA-LU over the next 18 months, as proposed by Secretary of Transportation of Ray LaHood. More serious reforms will have to wait. This means fewer than hoped for funds for transit and high-speed rail, as well as no substantive improvements in the manner in which federal dollars are distributed.

Congress’ problems are two fold: it has too many other projects on the near horizon and it has no consensus, even along partisan lines, on how to fund a major expansion in transportation funding. Today’s fuel tax, which provides the primary source of revenue for the Trust Fund, is out of cash and cannot fund the nation’s transportation needs alone. A relatively simple extension of SAFETEA-LU, bolstered by an infusion of general fund dollars into the Highway Trust Fund, is the easiest answer.

Though Democrats control large majorities in both the House and Senate, there is enough disagreement among their members to make the easy passage of either a health or climate change bill impossible. Those two pieces of legislation will be on the front lines for the next few months and will require serious negotiations between senators on both sides of the aisle and the White House. Ms. Boxer claimed that her advocacy of an 18-month extension has nothing to do with her party’s major policy objectives, but that statement seems disingenuous. Any major changes to transportation funding at the federal level will require weeks of debate, but there’s no time for that this summer.

More importantly, no one in Congress is being frank about raising revenues to support transportation. Mr. Oberstar’s bill left the funding sections blank, and Mr. LaHood has been openly lobbying against any increase in the gas tax. Ms. Boxer’s comments today reaffirmed her opposition to the same and expressed her unwillingness to support a VMT system, which she called “too intrusive.” No one on the invited panel at the hearing provided serious alternatives to those two funding sources, nor did any senator, though everyone seems convinced that a major program expansion is necessary. Funds from the climate change bill, which might incorporate a carbon cap-and-trade system, may come into play, but those dollars are far off and uncommitted for now.

Mr. Oberstar has been adamant in his desire to push forward the next transportation bill now, but this hearing made clear that the Senate is not going to play along. Ms. Boxer is chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and her position will effectively block Mr. Oberstar’s bill even if that legislation passes in the House. Without the support of the White House, Mr. Oberstar is loosing ground. His inability to pinpoint a stable funding source is similarly problematic.

What hasn’t been suggested, but that which I will continue to bring up, is a simple abandonment of the idea that transportation must be sponsored by its “users.” We are all beneficiaries of a strong transportation network, and filling the Trust Fund mostly with general fund sources is a viable and long-term solution that would require none of the shenanigans that currently deteriorate efforts to raise the gas tax or impose a VMT. Whether now or in 18 months, we’re going to need something better than today’s non-proposals from Ms. Boxer.

Bus Los Angeles

L.A. Breaks Ground on Orange Line Extension

Orange Line Canoga ExtensionBusway will head up Canoga Ave from current western terminus.

Los Angeles’ Orange Line busway will be extended north to Chatsworth by 2012, providing commuters further enhancements to an already popular transit alternative in the San Fernando Valley. The $215 million project will extend the bus rapid transit service from Canoga, near Warner Center, to a Metrolink commuter rail station four miles north in Chatsworth. At the other end of the existing line is the North Hollywood Metro station, where people can ride quickly downtown.

Ground breaking on the extension was held yesterday. The project will also include adjacent bike and pedestrian paths that will improve circulation for people not driving in this distinctively automobile-oriented section of the city.

The line will be built to standards that will allow future conversion to light rail operation if necessary. That’s good news because the Orange Line is already at capacity, having vastly overperformed initial ridership estimates; the road that carries the buses is worn out from overuse and buses are filled to a breaking point at rush hour. But the original 14-mile section of the line cost $324 million to build, significantly less than an equivalent rail line would have required.

The Canoga Extension is the first of many projects to be funded by the Measure R, which is a half-cent sales tax imposed on Los Angeles County citizens after the passage of a referendum last November. In addition to this corridor, additional bus-only lanes may be constructed along Reseda, Sepulveda, and Oxnard Avenues in San Fernando Valley, creating a veritable bus rapid transit network not found in any other American city. Those corridors have yet to be funded, however.

Image above: map of Orange Line with extension, from Metro