High-Speed Rail

Is Direct Service the Defining Element of Rail System Success?

» Eurostar has 85% market share on direct trips to and from London; trips requiring transfer, however, have less than 5% share.

Slightly less than fifteen years ago, Eurostar began offering services under the English Channel between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. The line has been met with unequivocal success. Railway Gazette reports today that Eurostar has grabbed an 85% share of the air-rail market on trips between London and Paris, Bruxelles, and Lille. The speed-up of the service over the years, from 2h56 between the French and UK capitals in 1994 to 2h15 today, has played a large role in the corridor’s high ridership. Eurostar’s popularity, like that of domestic high-speed services in France, Spain, and Japan, demonstrates the great value of investing in fast train systems.

Yet the Gazette article also notes that on routes where customers are required to transfer — such as between London and Koln, a link that can only be made via a connection to a Thalys train at Bruxelles — Eurostar market share is reduced to a pitiful 4%. What gives? Are people so disinclined to transfer trains that they’ll switch to an air trip if they can’t take a direct train? Is through service the only way to ensure high ridership?

There are obvious reasons for customers preference for direct trips. Once you’re settled in on the train, you have a cafe at your disposition, power outlets, sometimes wireless internet. You have far more space than on the airplane and the ability to walk around at will. In other words, a train trip, as long as it’s reasonably quick, can be incredibly productive for business people and far less stressful a travel experience for everyone else. The Gazette piece points out that on other European rail services, trains have a 50% air-rail market share on trips of up to even four hours — when there are direct connections.

But on trips requiring transfers between trains, the advantages of rail travel diminish significantly, because much of the productivity possible on the train comes as a result of the comfort it provides, not as a consequence of its speed. Once customers have to lug their bags from one train to another and walk through often-crowded stations, train travel looses many of its advantages. In the air, direct flights are easier to come by, and even with a transfer, your bags are handled for you, out of sight.

In some ways, of course, Eurostar is an exception that exasperates the problem. Because the United Kingdom is outside of the European free exchange zone, travelers must pass through customs and stations must be outfitted with immigration facilities if they are to provide direct service into London. Taking a train between France and Germany, on the other hand, requires no such bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, the disadvantages of transfers apply to other routes as well. If we are to assume that direct service is necessary to convince people to take the train, through-routing of trains should be prioritized over more frequent service. For customers using a potential future Midwest high-speed rail network to get between Milwaukee and Detroit, for example, four trains a day directly from Milwaukee to Detroit might attract double the patronage of eight trains a day between Milwaukee and Chicago and eight trains a day from Chicago to Detroit — even though the latter option would probably save a lot of people time. Eliminating transfers is incredibly important.

Jarrett makes a strong argument at Human Transit that terminal stations provide a better customer experience than through-stations, but the evidence presented above may demonstrate that the appeal of direct routes should dictate that virtually every high-speed station be through-running. France’s plans for new interconnections around Paris seems appealing from the perspective of increasing the number of direct trains, and a track connection between Eurostar services and the United Kingdom’s planned High-Speed 2 seems all but obligatory if British planners want to encourage rail travel to mainland Europe from anywhere other than London.

Bay Area Commuter Rail Light Rail

Monterey County Selects Light Rail as Preferred Local Transit Alternative

Monterey Bay Transit Map» Initial line would extend from Monterey to Marina, with eventual extension to Castroville; commuter rail to San Francisco also due by 2012.

The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), California, approved plans yesterday to open a new light rail line by 2015 between Monterey and Marina. A future phase would reach north to Castroville and east to Salinas; both would interface with planned Caltrain and Amtrak service along the corridor.

The route, which extends along the coastline, would also serve the towns of Seaside and Sand City, but the combined population of the affected municipalities totals fewer than 100,000 — meaning that this new line may serve the smallest community of any rail project planned for the United States. With only about 3,500 projected daily riders, the $200 million project won’t reach many people, but the project may well be worth its cost as it will make an already attractive section of the California coastline even more appealing.

If implemented, Monterey Bay would get diesel multiple unit trains every 15 to 30 minutes during the day serving 11 stations between downtown Monterey and Marina. The first phase of the project, which was approved by the transit agency’s board at a meeting yesterday, would cost $130 million, 60% of which TAMC hopes to be covered by the federal government’s Small Start grant program. Trains will run on the already existing Monterey Branch right-of-way, which the county purchased in 2003 for less than $10 million.

Though the cities affected are tiny on the national scale, they are relatively dense, with almost all inhabitants of the area within a mile of the proposed line. In addition, the line’s connection to Cal State’s campus just south of Marina will allow thousands of carless students easier access into downtown Monterey.

The line’s approval comes despite resistance from the Monterey City Council, which wants a more detailed environmental review of the project’s effects. With trains only running four times an hour and little construction required, though, TAMC made the right decision in moving ahead anyway. A BRT system was also being considered, though that option was dropped because of the psychological appeal of rail and the equivalent costs.

The more important advantage of implementing a train system, though, is the potential use of the corridor for future intercity rail service. The county’s transit agency is already planning an extension of Caltrain service from Gilroy to nearby Salinas, which is significantly larger at 150,000 people. The $101 million project, using existing Union Pacific tracks, would allow commuters direct access into San Francisco in three hours or San Jose in 1h45 four times a day; operations are planned for 2012 and are expected to attract around 2,000 daily users. Its funds are mostly accounted for, unlike those of the light rail project. If the light rail line is extended to Castroville as planned, inhabitants of Monterey would have a one-transfer connection to San Francisco.

But the opening of the Montery Branch to new train services would also introduce Monterey, Seaside, and Marina to intercity trains, which could use the same track. If the state of California assembles adequate subsidies, Amtrak could offer trains directly from Monterey to Sacramento or Los Angeles. Either would encourage the development of a statewide rail network; this would be true especially if the line were eventually electrified and California high-speed trains connected via Gilroy.

The light rail service proposed, then, is as much an effort to improve the state’s overall passenger network as anything else, and it opens up long-term possibilities for service expansion in Monterey Bay that won’t be possible unless incremental improvements such as this come to realization.

Image above: Proposed Monterey County Transit, from TAMC

Streetcar Washington DC

Washington Promotes Massive New Streetcar Project

DC Streetcar Plan Map» Lines could be completed in ten years; is it the right investment?

Like seemingly every other city in the country, Washington, DC is planning a streetcar network. Its transportation officials, however, seem uniquely positioned to actually construct their system; unlike other municipalities, Washington is installing tracks in the ground — albeit with no power source — and owns several streetcar vehicles — though they’re in storage in the Czech Republic.

Last week, Greater Greater Washington broke the big story, which is that the District plans eight streetcar lines to be built in three phases, to extend 37 miles across the city. Beyond DC followed up with news that local transportation officials expect the project’s completion in ten years or less at a total cost of $1.5 billion. It would be the most significant example of municipal entrepreneurship on behalf of such street-running light rail vehicles in almost a century.

At a first glance, the project seems well-planned — the streetcar network would complement existing Metro lines and complete connections that are tenuous today. The first routes would serve transit-deprived and primarily lower-class neighborhoods along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington; along the planned K Street Transitway downtown; from Anacostia north along 8th Street through Capitol Hill and into the developing Navy Yard/Ballpark district; and north-south along 14th Street and Georgia Avenue.

The full network, as illustrated above, would connect a number of destinations with the intention of linking Metro stations circumferentially. Anacostia’s Minnesota Avenue Orange Line stop and Anacostia Green Line stop would be linked directly along Minnesota Avenue; Woodley Park, Adams Morgan, and Union Station would find themselves closer via a new streetcar on Calvert Street, U Street, and Florida Avenue; and new Rhode Island Avenue and Columbia Road lines could ensure east-west connections in Mid City. Wealthy and white Northwest DC would get virtually no service. This plan is dramatically more ambitious than that envisioned in 2005 by the city, which proposed fewer streetcars and more bus lines.

There is no provision for new transit on Pennsylvania Avenue, which bisects the city; this despite the fact that the 30s buses that currently use the street are the city’s most popular.

From a process standpoint, the District’s decision to pursue streetcar construction in a series of phases rather than line-by-line is an unusual approach that indicates the city’s interest in developing the system as a network, rather than as a series of individual elements. Each of the three phases will undergo an impact study, and will be constructed as a unit. The 1.5-mile Anacostia line already planned for fall 2012 and the tracks being laid on H Street and Benning road already will be incorporated into the first phase.

This is an important advance that evokes memories of the development of the Washington Metro, virtually all of whose construction followed a single plan and environmental assessment developed when the project was first authorized. Because of procedural changes in the 1970s and 80s by the Federal Transit Administration, most transportation authorities have approached capital expansion from the perspective of serving one corridor at a time, rather than in the interest of planning a unified network from the start. Washington’s decision to articulate a streetcar system now, rather than suggesting, for instance, one line in Anacostia, followed by something else to be determined at a later time, is the right move.

The decision to move forward with this network plan would allow overall completion by 2019 if the District is able to assemble enough local and national money. Federal aid in the form of Small Start grants seem likely.

There are some contradictions in the District’s proposal. The Department of Transportation, according to Beyond DC, plans streetcars as a quick way to get around the city, with stations positioned every four to five blocks (a quarter mile), versus every two blocks, typical for local buses (and the Portland Streetcar, for instance). For many people, streetcars would be the city’s most convenient and fastest mode of transportation and provide service levels somewhere between that offered by express buses and the Metro.

Yet plans also call for platforms that aren’t full-length; worse, the city will not generally operate trains with more than one car, meaning it’s not expecting particularly large numbers of users. Streetcars will operate in mostly mixed traffic, with the exception of along K Street, M Street Southeast, and Rhode Island Avenue: everywhere else, the vehicles would be competing with automobile traffic. That’s not a recipe for success, but it certainly will allow the city to build more miles for less money. It’s the primary explanation for why $1.5 billion is enough to construct this large of a system.

One wonders if Washington would benefit from fewer lines with increased investment in those that are built. Though right-of-ways are not available for full reservation, between intersections most of the DC streets planned for streetcar lines are wide enough to provide independent lanes for the streetcars alone. There’s no reason to mix train and automobile traffic, and if the city chooses to separate the right-of-ways, ridership will increase correspondingly.

The city wants to build a 37-mile system, but perhaps it should double its proposed price tag and extend the time frame for completion. A faster, more reliable system that takes longer to build will be more worthwhile than a street-running network thrown together at a minimal cost.

Image above: DC Streetcar Plan, from District DOT

Light Rail Philadelphia

Philadelphia Selects Waterfront Transit Alignment

Philadelphia Waterfront Transit Map» New link proposed between City Hall and the waterfront — but how will trains traverse the T-shaped corridor?

Philadelphia has some of the biggest unmet transit needs in the country, but its transit planners have frequently been unable to expand core capacity by adding fixed-guideway service to major routes. SEPTA, bogged down in the maintenance and repair of its decades-old subways and subway-surface light rail lines, has been unable to find the funds or political will to build new projects; its last attempt, the Roosevelt Boulevard subway extension, went down in flames.

But the Delaware River Port Authority, which runs the PATCO Speedline between Philadelphia and New Jersey, has big ambitions for the city and for the last year and a half has been contemplating making a major investment in a new light rail line along the Delaware River. It would act as a stimulus for increased development along the already booming waterfront, as well as extend the reach of vibrant Center City. DRPA is also planning to build a new DMU rail line between Camden and Glassboro. The agency’s involvement indicates a political recognition that SEPTA’s management simply isn’t working well enough for SEPTA to engage in any big new projects at this time.

Yesterday’s announcement by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Senator Arlen Spector (D-PA) that a locally preferred alternative has been selected for the waterfront route shows that efforts for a new line are not simply a fantasy on the part of the agency; DRPA really wants to make this project happen.

In August, DRPA revealed preliminary alternatives for the route, all of which would extend from the Sugarhouse Casino to Pier 70 along the waterfront, but which offered differing connections into Center City Philadelphia. Suggested links could run down Market Street to City Hall, stop at Franklin Square (where a new PATCO station in planned), or follow a circuitous route to 8th Street. An initial analysis done by the agency showed that the City Hall route, illustrated above, would have the highest ridership, with 12,000-15,000 daily riders, compared to 7,000-10,000 for the other two alignments. On the other hand, it would be the most expensive, costing up to $500 million total, resulting in annualized capital costs of $36 million, compared to $30-34 million for the other two. The project could be completed in six years.

Mr. Nutter’s support for the Market Street route makes a lot of sense — it is the city’s main street, and the alignment leaves open the possibility of connecting the new service to the subway-surface light rail lines that extend from City Hall into West Philadelphia. The other two routes being considered would have provided poor connections for existing transit users. So it’s a good choice, and if Philadelphia wants to ramp up development along the Delaware River, the waterfront line has excellent potential. It should be noted, however, that many of the existing projects along the river lack the kind of people-scaled features that allow transit to work best. Philadelphia will have to embark on a significant reform of the way development occurs along the river if it wants to make this project fully functional.

The line would run mostly in the street, though it would have its own lanes, putting it somewhere between a streetcar and light rail in terms of operations. DRPA has suggested that it could interface directly with the Girard Avenue Line, opening up the possibility of running trains from West Philadelphia to the Delaware Waterfront via Girard. This is an exciting opportunity considering that the restored trolley line already serves 12,000 riders a day, a number that could expand significantly if development continues apace along the corridor. This, however, would require the new waterfront line to use the trolley wire that powers Girard Avenue trolleys — an antique but cheaper technology to implement.

The somewhat odd-ball configuration of the proposed line, illustrated in a T-shape with no indication of exact service possibilities, could prove to be a problem. Would trains run from north and south, meet at 2nd Street, and then extend downtown? Or would there be some through service?

One problem is that DRPA, hindered by low ridership estimates, is only planning trains every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes at night — making it difficult to envision more than one route. That said, if ridership increased, Philadelphia could look to the Hudson-Bergen light rail line in northern New Jersey as a model. There, the 40,000 daily riders are able to choose from three routes; one route runs north-south, bypassing Hoboken; the other two run from the termini to Hoboken but do not provide through-service. Two routes overlap in every section, and each route runs every 10 to 20 minutes at all times.  This ensures that customers can get on a train every five to ten minutes and get to any specific destination every 10 to 20 minutes. In Philadelphia, there could similarly be three lines, two running from the termini to City Hall and one running from Pier 70 to Sugarhouse Casino without heading downtown.


If DRPA is incapable increasing service frequencies, however, this three-route operation is not an option, since it would require more trains and drivers: a two-route service could be cheaper.  One option is simply not providing through service at all and running trains from the two termini to City Hall; a customer wanting to ride north-south along the waterfront would have to transfer in the middle.


An alternative option could have some trains running along the waterfront and other running from City Hall to the Waterfront; customers would have to transfer at 2nd Street. This could be done more cheaply if some Girard Avenue trains simply continued south along the waterfront and if some subway-surface vehicles continued to the waterfront along Market — the second possibility, of course, would require an expensive underground connection downtown that no one appears to be ready to pay for at this time.


None of these options are ideal, but this is the problem with a T-shaped route. Yet DRPA’s transit planners seem to have approached this problem from the perspective of serving destinations, rather than in the interest of getting customers between destinations, which, after all, is what transportation does.

Philadelphia’s estimates for cost and ridership make it difficult to envision the city getting New Starts financing at this time. Indeed, there are plenty of other corridors in the city that would probably make for a better, more cost-effective investment. Yet, SEPTA’s mismanagement and the leadership of the DRPA — clearly focused on the river — has made the waterfront line the priority.

Cost limitations, even if the project manages to secure a federal earmark, will make the subway under Market Street still being investigated by DRPA in preliminary engineering now being pursued simply a non-starter; it would increase costs exponentially and make the project infeasible. The extension from Pier 70 south to the Navy Yard and stadium complex envisioned by the agency for Phase 2 would be a waste of money considering the complete lack of walkable development south of Pier 70 and the need for other areas of the city to better transit first.

Even so, Mr. Specter’s support for the first phase of this project and the administration’s avid interest in promoting development-spurring streetcar proposals indicates that there may be a future for this line. But the waterfront line won’t reach its full potential until it is adequately linked to other services, and until new buildings along the river are appropriately scaled for pedestrian movement.

Update: For those interested, reader Jim Resta has put together a nice map of his own idea for potential Philadelphia streetcar lines. More bang for the buck, he argues.


Image above: Philadelphia Proposed Waterfront Transit Map, from DRPA

Amtrak High-Speed Rail

Amtrak Contemplates a Renewed Northeast Corridor and Lays Out the Stakes

» A full regeneration of the line, speeding trains between New York and Boston in just over three hours, would cost $10.2 billion.

After releasing studies last week that described the costs and benefits or new long-distance rail services, Amtrak has produced a report evaluating opportunities for its most important line, the Northeast Corridor. Long in the coming, the study documents capital needs for the tracks connecting Washington, DC and Boston and provides some preliminary cost estimates for decreasing travel times. With most federal rail capital funds now likely to be earmarked for states pursuing new rail programs like California, Illinois, and Florida, however, Amtrak will have to justify a dedicated revenue source for rail improvements in the northeastern region.

As the report notes, “Reaching a state of good repair on the Northeast Corridor after years of deferred investment and adding needed capacity to the Corridor will be expensive. Currently, there is no obvious existing mechanism to provide the required level of investment resources.” Amtrak’s study, though direct in its assessment of the railroad’s needs, does not indicate where the money will come from for any improvements. Those decisions will have to be made by Congress.

The Amtrak Acela Express moves between New York and Washington as quickly as 2h52 and between New York and Boston in 3h34. Those travel times are difficult to improve using existing equipment and tracks, though one effort earlier this decade to speed trains between New York and DC in just 2h30 by stopping only at Philadelphia resulted in inadequate revenue as a consequence of lower than expected ridership. Either way, Amtrak has been unable to meet the original goals of the Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail Improvement Program, which sponsored significant upgrades in tracks, stations, and catenary in the 1990s with the goal of 5h30 overall corridor travel times.

Despite the fact that trains average only about 80 mph along the corridor today, Amtrak has managed to snag 63% of combined air and rail travel between New York and Washington, compared to 37% before Acela’s implementation. But the rail company only represents about 6% of total corridor travel ridership, so it could see a lot of growth with faster services. That, however, won’t come easily.

Part of the problem is the corridor’s huge maintenance backlog, which has reached $8 billion and which will require an investment of more than $700 million a year over the next decade to reach a state of good repair. That figure will be touched in fiscal year 2010 as a result of stimulus spending, but Amtrak’s limited regular subsidies make similar annual investments difficult to envision in later years unless there is a major effort on the part of the federal government to provide new funds.

In addition, the Northeast Corridor suffers from increasing congestion due to growth in train travel and increasing population. The map below, included in Amtrak’s report, illustrates the sections of track that are most prone to delays and which will be unable to support increased Amtrak services until new tracks have been laid or curves have been realigned.

Northeast Corridor Capacity Constraints

In order to decrease trip times to 2h15 between New York and Washington and to 3h15 between Boston and New York, Amtrak estimates that it would have to invest $10.2 billion in track upgrades along the corridor. The most prominent roadblock to real service improvement is the set of tracks between New Rochelle and New Haven, which are owned by Metro-North Railroad and which currently limit trains in many sections to 60 mph. These Connecticut and New York sections are currently being renovated, with expected completion between 2015 and 2018; no significant improvements in trip times between New York and Boston can be achieved before the completion of that work.

The New York-Washington segment, which is straighter than the northern section, suffers from the weight of its antiquated electrical supply equipment. Unlike the New Haven-Boston section, which has constant-tension catenary, allowing speeds up to 150 mph, the southern line’s trains cannot accelerate above 135 mph. Newly added intermediate catenary supports, which could be installed for cheap, would shorten spans between lines, allowing increased speeds, but full constant-tension would be needed for 200 mph operation — if someone pays for it.

In addition, because of problems with the truck stability of Acela Express trainsets and because of the age of Northeast Regional equipment, Amtrak will have to buy a full set of new trains over the next decade, according to the study. The fastest of these new vehicles will be able to reach 200 mph, up from 165 mph today. These trains would be able to decrease trip times along the full length of the line by a total of around 20 minutes.

Overall, though, none of the specific investments pinpointed by the rail agency would result in a massive decrease in travel times. A new tunnel through Baltimore, for instance, would save commuters a full two minutes. Only with concentrated investments along the entire corridor will major improvements for commuters come. The map below shows the modifications that would allow for the reductions in trip time noted above.

Northeast Corridor Major Improvement Projects

Three-hour trip times between New York and Boston are unrealistic in the short-term, according to the report, because of the huge investments in track replacement that would be necessary to handle the curve problems of the Connecticut shoreline. A true high-speed operation, which could complete travel from Boston to Washington in 3h30, would only be possible with a mostly brand-new track alignment between New York and Boston.

Nonetheless, even the incremental improvements documented here are unlikely to happen unless the Congress decides to invest again in upgrading the corridor. “In Amtrak’s view,” states the report, “continued reliance on annual appropriations to fund the Northeast Corridor capital program will continue to frustrate efforts to achieve a state of good repair and meet capacity and trip time goals for the corridor.” There must be a new effort to convince the House and Senate of the importance of improvements for America’s original high-speed corridor, which is arguably more important than those proposed for other parts of the country. Only a new Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, with dedicated, long-term funding, will ensure the realization of faster services along the line.

Images above: Northeast Corridor Capacity Constraints and Potential Improvements, from Amtrak