Commuter Rail New York

LIRR Evaluates Use of DMUs for Low-Ridership Branch Lines

» Service changes on Long Island would reduce the number of one-stop rides into Manhattan but lower operations and capital costs.

Though the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the busiest commuter rail operation in the United States, with more than 300,000 daily boardings, its 700 miles of track make frequent services to all parts of the island too expensive to be economically viable. The stations at the end of the system’s two longest branches — to Greenport and Montauk, at the eastern tips of the island — are out of convenient commuting distance to Manhattan, so the LIRR provides only a few trains a day. From Montauk, a more than three-hour commute, there are only five trains daily to Penn Station; from Greenport, there are only three.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the LIRR as well as the New York City Subway and other regional services, is planning to buy new diesel multiple unit trains (DMUs) to serve these and other lightly used routes, with the aim of reducing operations costs.

The very limited service to the system’s far extents results in suffering ridership; Greenport, for instance, had on average only five daily passengers in 2006. Yet as a result of the trains the LIRR currently has in its fleet, the system uses very heavy, diesel-guzzling vehicles for these routes. There is little room for more services to these far-off locales because of the high operating costs of these trains and the limited capacity along the LIRR’s routes approaching Manhattan.

Though much of the LIRR system is electrified and use electric multiple unit trains, several major sections of the system remain reliant on diesel-powered vehicles, though all trains with direct service to Manhattan must be able to switch to third rail electric propulsion as they enter the city. With 45 diesel dual-mode locomotives and 134 bilevel railcars, the LIRR serves the less-populated portions of the island, including unelectrified tracks east of Ronkonkoma and Babylon along the Ronkonkoma and Montauk branches, as well as along much of the Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches. Those latter routes have more service than do Montauk or Greenport, but their offerings are still constrained to about one train per hour.

The dual-mode locomotives and C3 railcars that are attached to them are relatively new, having been bought in the late 1990s. Yet they’ve been prone to maintenance problems because of the complications resulting from their dual-mode power systems.

Suffering from limited funds to maintain service levels as a result of the recession, the MTA is looking for ways to cut operating costs. It may have an answer in its decision to consider replacing the locomotive-hauled trains with DMUs along its least-used routes. If the organization determines that the new trains would save substantial operating funds, an $81 million order of about a dozen trains could come online in 2014 at the earliest. The plans are included in the MTA’s recently released proposed capital program for 2010 to 2014.

Unlike the existing locomotives, which are very gas-consuming since they’re designed to pull ten or more railcars at a time — certainly not necessary along the LIRR’s longest routes — DMUs, with only one or two cars, are much lighter and designed for lines with fewer riders. By providing “scoot” services along unelectrified routes to the terminals of tracks with electric operations, DMUs could allow the LIRR to both increase services and reduce operations costs.

New Jersey’s River Line, the Sprinter service north of San Diego, and Portland’s WES route use variations of DMU technology today. So does Austin’s brand-new Red Line.

The most obvious route candidates for these new trains are the Ronkonkoma branch from Ronkonkoma to Greenport and the Montauk branch from Babylon to Montauk. Though these sections of the line would have their direct services into Manhattan eliminated and riders would be forced to transfer to get to the rest of the island, DMUs would make possible all-day operations since the trains would not have to be competing with the more heavily used vehicles from other branches trying to get into the city.

The savings the MTA would accrue from using less fuel per passenger would likely pay for the cost of more daily services, increasing ridership. If transfers were timed, the connection between the diesel-operated lines and those that are electrified could be simple enough to keep all of the system’s current riders.

For the LIRR, the use of DMUs along these far-off branch lines seems appropriate, since the diesel locomotives the system currently uses are designed for far busier routes and fundamentally inappropriate for places like Greenport or Montauk. Indeed, the decision to consider a conversion to these new technologies should inspire other commuter rail operators to switch to more efficient DMUs; Nashville’s infrequently used Music City Star line comes to mind as an obvious candidate. Lighter, more efficient trains could play an important role in reducing the operations costs of transit agencies across the country, all of which need to find savings to survive.

Image above: Bombardier’s VLocity 160 DMU, used in Australia, from Bombardier

Bus Light Rail San Diego

San Diego Plans Extension to Its Trolley Network, Mostly Skipping Over Inner City

» Metropolitan Transit System will nominate Mid-Coast Corridor Trolley Extension for federal New Start funding, but it has limited other future routes to bus rapid transit.

You would think, with an ideal climate year-round, that San Diego would be one of the nation’s most livable cities for pedestrians and transit users. What is the good excuse for being stuck in the car when the weather’s perfect?

Yet San Diego remains one of the nation’s sprawl capitals, with 85% of the population using private automobiles to get to work every day and only four percent riding transit. That’s in spite of a light rail system called the Trolley that first opened in 1981 and that now carries about 93,000 daily riders across 53.5 route miles and three lines. But most of San Diego and the surrounding region is of only moderate density and an extensive freeway network makes getting around far easier by car.

Nevertheless, the region’s brightest growth spot has been downtown, which according to Census data grew 73% in residential population between 1970 and 2000, the second most of any center city in the country (after Seattle). Regional authorities expect it to grow by another 150% by 2050.

This increasingly vital core, as well as several densifying inner-city neighborhoods like University Heights, should be the focus of the city’s alternative transportation strategy, since it is in these communities that a population of people unattached to their automobiles can be nurtured. It is here that walkable neighborhoods can be developed. Further out, other options should be promoted.

But the Trolley network has thus far been focused on connecting relatively far-away communities to downtown. The newest planned extension, the Mid-Coast Corridor from Old Town Transit Center to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and University City, won’t be much different. The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), the local public transportation authority, is submitting the project to public review next month with plans to seek federal aid under the New Starts grant program next year.

The $1.2 billion Mid-Coast line would extend light rail eleven miles and include eight new stations by the time it is completed in 2016. Most of the corridor is shared with the Coaster diesel commuter rail line that extends from downtown San Diego to Oceanside, though the light rail would get its own right-0f-way through UCSD and its surroundings. The Mid-Coast project would receive half its funds from the TransNet half-cent transportation sales tax reaffirmed by voters in 2004 and 50% from the federal government if Washington agrees.

TransNet is expected to raise a total of $14 billion in funds for transit and highway projects by the time it expires in 2048.

The advantages of the light rail project are clear: it would connect one of the region’s densest areas, University City and the almost 30,000 students at UCSD, with downtown. Initial analysis indicates that the project could connect the area’s inhabitants with the center city in thirty to forty minutes and attract about 25,000 new transit boarding daily. The Coaster commuter rail line currently takes about 25 minutes to make the trip between Sorrento Valley (north of University City) to Santa Fe Depot downtown. But it only runs thirteen round-trips on the average weekday, and it doesn’t provide direct access into the center of University City.

MTS is planning an 8-mile, 15-station bus rapid transit system in that neighborhood called SuperLoop that would interconnect with the light rail line and begin operations this fall.

In reviewing transit alternatives for the Mid-Coast corridor, local officials compared the light rail extension to a bus rapid transit line and a new extension of the commuter rail system directly into University City. The conclusions indicated that only light rail was financially feasible, since it would attract more than twice the number of daily riders at an equivalent cost. Thus from a cost-effectiveness perspective, only light rail would qualify for federal funding, at least under the old rules. Moreover, building on the commuter rail system would never provide adequate connectivity with multiple stations around UCSD since the trainsets wouldn’t be able to run on surface streets.

The study, it should be noted, limits potential commuter rail ridership by artificially limiting theoretical service to every thirty minutes at off-peak times.

A truly rapid bus line operating in its own right-of-way would be no cheaper, though the project would be converted into a more typical express bus if MTS is unable to receive federal money for the project. Yet San Diego seems likely to meet federal approval for light rail.

The dedication of $600 million in local funds to this line is a big commitment that prioritizes its implementation over other potentially valuable corridors. Though the light rail project would serve University City well, it would only include three stations between there and Old Town, basically denying service to a significant segment of the region. The fact that the alignment would follow the Coaster route means that the lovely and popular La Jolla beachfront (admittedly difficult to access via rapid transit) would get no service whatsoever.

More importantly, the high levels of spending on this project alone force other potentially more valuable corridors to stick with bus rapid transit. Though the South Bay project makes sense as BRT since it would run primarily along highways, the Mid-City Rapid route could be perfect for light rail. That project, which is expected to open for operations next year, connects downtown with San Diego State University along a number of wide boulevards potentially ideal for transit-oriented development. Those inner-city neighborhoods, including University Heights, could serve as direct extensions of the walkable downtown, but it’s hard to see them doing so with BRT.

Yet the decision to allocate the majority of transit expansion funds to the University City-bound line makes funding light rail impossible elsewhere.

To spread the money around, the alternatives analysis for the Mid-Coast corridor could have considered a potentially cost-saving possibility: a tram-train system. Modified light rail trains could run along the existing Coaster tracks and then along surface streets. This would mean only one new track would have to be constructed the length of the corridor (versus two in the light rail proposal), saving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. It would also speed up Coaster trains and allow higher frequencies since those commuter rail operations are currently limited to some one track sections with sidings only.

In other words, it would allow a beneficial compromise between taking advantage of the existing track capacity and allowing direct access to transit in University City. In doing so, it would save money for other projects in the region, potentially allowing the conversion of other important projects to light rail technology, or at least making more bus rapid transit possible than currently envisioned.

Existing Federal Railroad Administration rules make the operation of light rail trains impossible along heavy commuter rail or freight tracks, but the required nationwide implementation of positive train control by 2015, virtually eliminating the possibility of train-on-train collisions, makes tram-train technology a realistic option for this corridor. Mid-Coast Corridor plans, however, may now be too far advanced for this option.

Commuter Rail High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Releases State Rail Plan, Promotes Increased Investment in Intercity Systems

» A state rail plan does not mean Pennsylvanian will move forward with a specific project. A lack of ambition, or a reflection of few funds?

The U.S. government’s unwillingness to commit to prioritizing certain rail corridors and its fear of moving beyond empty rhetoric to describe the country’s future rail system are frustrating reactions to the sometimes paralyzing federal system. But intercity rail advocates should take some comfort in the fact that certain states are taking advantage of their governing responsibilities to promote projects and develop detailed long-term proposals. The investment made by states like California, Illinois, and Wisconsin in specific new lines is one indication of this take-the-first-step strategy; so are the proliferation of state-level rail plans.

Several states have assembled long-term reports that indicate how spending would be distributed over the years; Virginia’s 2025 proposal, for instance, highlights what could be accomplished with $10 billion in funding. It doesn’t identify a source for that money, but at least it takes the important step of making a case for how and where investments should be made.

Pennsylvania’s new passenger and freight rail plan, released last week, doesn’t go as far: though it suggests expanded train service along a number of corridors by 2035, it doesn’t pinpoint specific solutions nor establish a sum it considers vital for rail transportation’s future. In absence of adequate federal funding and in the context of a miserable recession, is this as far as the state should go? Or is Pennsylvania simply making a list and hoping it suffices as a plan?

The Keystone State put together similar plans in 2001, 2003, and 2007. The state has the fifth-largest rail system in the country.

The state will need more planning in the future. This study recommends a series of passenger and freight lines for future service, but suggests that each will have to undergo a feasibility study, then a service development plan, then finally be submitted for federal review and funding before improvements are implemented. Especially in the context of the failure Governor Ed Rendell’s plan to toll I-80 for transportation purposes, better rail service is held off for the long-term. No one’s talking about two-hour high-speed rail service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, no matter the merits.

The passenger routes identified for improvements include the currently active Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; the Capitol Corridor between Washington and Pittsburgh; the Northeast Corridor; and the Buffalo-Cleveland Corridor. It also promotes for reactivation New York-Scranton Service and a line through the Lehigh Valley.

States the plan quite plainly: “It is recognized that there are severe funding constraints that significantly impact and make achieving the passenger rail—as described by the high-speed rail, core, and extended passenger rail networks—in this report by 2035 a virtual impossibility.”

Nonetheless, the study does emphasize areas of potential investment for all lines: it would take all corridors up to good repair and eliminate at-grade crossings. For freight, it would ensure the possibility of double-stacked, extra-heavy trains, which cannot run on many of the state’s trackage.

For the Keystone Corridor, the report is a bit more specific. The state completed a $145 million renovation project in 2006 that increased top speeds along the line to 110 mph and significantly reduced travel time between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. That program has resulted in a 74% increase in ridership as well as a decrease in per-passenger subsidy, serving as a model for other states making modest investments in their existing rail lines. The 2035 study would increase top speeds along the line to 125 mph by closing all grade crossings and allow trains to make the link between Pennsylvania’s largest city and its capital in 1h15, twenty minutes faster than possible today. The state requested more than $400 million in funds for these improvements under the stimulus’ high-speed rail package but received only $26 million.

That would keep Pittsburgh seven hours from Philadelphia by rail, despite being only 300 miles away. The two metropolitan areas together house more than eight million inhabitants.

The approach promoted by this plan is well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing. While it takes the “reasonable” tact — there’s no money, so how can the state endorse any major improvement? — in doing so, it cuts off any possibility of encouraging the public or legislature to act on anything other than the status quo.

By sketching out only the vaguest of potential improvements to existing rail lines, the state is implicitly setting the bar exceedingly low. Why not start with a big vision and work down from there? What would be the negative consequences there — letting down the taxpayer? All this plan does is imply that there’s nothing exciting to be done, giving the impression that better train operations aren’t really that feasible.

But Pennsylvania does have serious potential for improved rail services. Someone just needs to point that out.

Image above: Pennsylvania Priority Passenger Rail Corridors Map, from Pennsylvania State Rail Plan

Automobile Finance Infrastructure

U.S. PIRG Slams American Transportation Priorities as Roads Fall Apart

» State DOTs spend too many of their funds on road construction, when they really should be focusing on maintenance.

A year ago, the Federal Transit Administration released a report on the state of good repair of the nation’s transit agencies. The study articulated a massive need for maintenance work on the country’s rail systems and suggested that the federal government contribute an additional four billion dollars annually to its fixed guideway modernization program, which funds capital improvements for existing transit systems. In the ensuing months, the Congress made no such effort.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the American highway network is no better off. After more than half a century of major federal investments in new roads for the Interstate Highway System, there is plenty of repair to be done. According to a new report from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), 150,000 miles of road, including 45% of federal highways, are in less than good condition, as are 71,000 bridges, about 12% of all spans. Yet the federal government is investing far less than necessary to bring those rights-of-way up to par, and states are often working actively against policies that promote maintenance rather than new construction.

The Federal Highway Administration has suggested that the U.S. would have to spend $100 billion or more annually to maintain roads at their existing quality levels. That’s $30 billion more than is spent on roads altogether today, much of which goes to new highways.

For American transportation advocates, the study’s conclusions should serve as prime ground for a reevaluation of current spending priorities. Nevertheless, lobbying groups such as AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) continue to promote road expansion as the key to the country’s transportation future. But do we have the money to maintain our existing roads even as we build new ones?

U.S. PIRG’s report, Road Work Ahead, puts the country’s transportation conditions in context: “One thing is for sure: the deterioration of our roads and bridges is no accident. Rather, it is the direct result of countless policy decisions that put other considerations ahead of the pressing need to preserve our investment in the highway system.” Authors Travis Madsen, Benjamin Davis, and Phineas Baxandall highlight two principal problems: A political advantage in focusing on ribbon cutting rather than maintenance and a lack of federal oversight to ensure a state of good repair.

These structural problems are compounded by the fact that maintenance costs increase exponentially the longer they’re delayed. It’s better to perform constant, cheap check-ups than to have once-in-twenty-years surgery.

But politicians see immediate benefit from building new roads. More capacity is visible and seen as positive, compared to the often-intrusive work required to maintain existing highways. Meanwhile, while states generally perform maintenance using in-house workers, they typically contract out for new roads; it’s no coincidence that private highway interests gave more than $130 million to state and federal candidates in 2008. The lack of evaluation from the federal government for new road construction — unlike, for instance, the transit New Starts major capital works program — means that there is no interference from above, so a new road will be built if a state decides it wants it.

Meanwhile, though the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has the theoretical right to withhold federal highway funds if states fail to maintain roads, that power is not exercised frequently, according to the report. This means that the DOT will continue to transfer billions of dollars every year to states for new highways even as roads fall apart.

For the study’s authors, a “fix it first” policy is necessary. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

Nevertheless, AASHTO, which represents the state departments of transportation, has begun a campaign for massive road expansion. The lobby, which is led by transportation officials from Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah (guess their primary interests), suggests that “Even with strategies to reduce traffic and improve transit, highway system expansion is critical.”

AASHTO’s own report on the future of American transportation, released on Monday, suggests $375 billion in highway investments over the next six years, much of which would be used for the construction of new roads. Following the guidance of its members, AASHTO argues that 90% of funds should be simply transferred to states through a formula without guidance from Washington.

This strategy is disappointing from two perspectives: one, it is clearly focused on system expansion, rather than a renewal of the existing infrastructure in spite of the maintenance backlog highlighted by the U.S. PIRG report; two, though AASHTO claims to be interested in shifting trips to transit, it would spend almost four times as much on roads as public transportation.

What’s perhaps most problematic about AASHTO’s strategy is that it argues that urban areas, more than rural sections of the country, should focus on system expansion. It apparently hasn’t occurred to the organization’s leadership that those places are the prime ground for transit growth, or that the most congested metropolitan areas (L.A., New York, Chicago, and Washington) have little room for more roads. U.S. PIRG’s conclusion that metropolitan areas suffer far more than rural zones from poorly maintained roadways suggests that the focus there should be reconstruction, not new construction.

Like it or not, the United States has a limited pot of transportation dollars. It would be a pity to see so much money be poured into new highways as the old ones rot away.

Image above: Pavement, from Flickr user sfllaw (cc)

DOT Finance HUD

Merging Transportation and Land Use Planning at the Federal Level

» The federal government must ensure that its investments in housing and transportation align. The newly cooperative Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development may improve that prospect.

Roosevelt Island lies in the middle of the East River, a 2-mile-long stick of an island between Manhattan and Queens. Even before its first apartments opened in 1973, New York City officials for years understood the place’s potential — its amazing views and fantastic location would have made it a business bonanza had its land been sold off to private developers. Unlike many of the neighborhoods that had been bulldozed by urban renewal programs in the preceding years, it was virtually empty in the early 1970s, meaning there would be little citizen opposition to new construction.

Under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and planner Ed Logue, the state’s Urban Development Corporation coordinated a campaign beginning in 1968 to build up the island as a mixed-use, mixed-income “new-town-in-town” using federal and state funds. The 1968 Federal Housing Act, which capped President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, provided specific funds and planning tools for this type of development under the assumption that money from Washington could play an important role in creating new types of diverse, livable communities.

In many ways, the project succeeded: Roosevelt Island remains incredibly diverse both economically and ethnically, despite its inclusion of thousands of units of public housing. Federal funds and state planning had produced a neighborhood that achieved the ideal of mixity promoted by the government. Federal urban policy of the late 1960s, despite what you may have heard, was not all crash and burn.

But transportation was always the island’s sticky point. Despite the fact that in 1965 New York’s Board of Estimate, led by Mayor Robert Wagner, approved final plans for a new subway line under the island to be built by 1975 in time for most of the island’s early redevelopment, the IND 63rd Street Line (F train) project was only partially completed in 1989 — and finally connected to the Queens Boulevard line only in 2001, almost thirty years late. Because of the problems getting from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan (the Queensboro Bridge, which soars above, had an elevator connection that was demolished), the Urban Development Corporation had to cobble together a makeshift aerial tramway by 1976 to ensure that the island’s inhabitants could get to their jobs.

In other words, though the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was providing aid for the completion of the project, the Department of Transportation was sitting on its hands. The lack of coordination had its negative consequences.

Development on Roosevelt Island stood at a virtual stand-still after 1975, partially because of the Nixon Administration’s decision to cut aid to public housing programs but also because of the lack of an efficient subway. It is not a coincidence that Manhattan Park, the second stage of island development paid for mostly by private money, unlike the early buildings, didn’t open for business until 1989. For years, this kept the island from becoming the exciting, dense community planners first imagined decades ago.

I bring up Roosevelt Island not because it’s a specifically important case but rather because I’ve studied it extensively and its successes and failures exemplify the problems caused by a lack of unified transportation and land use planning within American federal policy.

Though New York’s Urban Development Corporation received millions of dollars in aid from Washington to construct affordable housing on the island, the similarly state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority was for years not provided federal grants for new line construction — ultimately slowing down the completion of the subway to the island as the city and state underwent significant financial difficulties. The lack of subway service meant limited accessibility to the island and little interest from developers to complete development there. Only when the line opened for service did building resume.

Decision-makers in Washington clearly have case studies like Roosevelt Island in mind considering yesterday’s announcement by the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Though it’s a minor first step, the DOT will coordinate its distribution of $600 million in TIGER II grants based on HUD’s involvement in supplying $40 million in its own money for land use aid. The TIGER program is a series of grants handed out by discretion of the Transportation Secretary after a competitive process.

This is the second major step towards integrating the government’s transportation and urban policy. Last year, the departments announced a joint sustainable communities initiative which provided HUD $150 million for neighborhood development designed with alternative transportation in mind. Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration is promoting its vision of spending transportation dollars on programs that stimulate the creation of affordable housing in mixed-income communities.

It’s a refreshing reflection on the fact that land use and transportation are directly linked — each affects the other, and federal policy should treat the two as a single issue, not two separate policy matters.

Nonetheless, it’s just a start — the FTA supplies more than two billion dollars in new transit line construction programs (New Start) every year, and HUD spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on the Hope VI program, which is designed to refashion public housing complexes into mixed-income communities. These programs should be linked directly; federally-sponsored inner-city housing should by definition include efficient public transportation links, while major new investments in rail or bus lines should spur the construction of associated development, some of which should be affordable housing and financed through HUD.

The FTA has not been uniformly competent in distributing transit funds to projects that emphasize the creation of better neighborhoods around transit stations; though the New Starts guidelines require localities to develop conducive land use rules, this has never been the priority and cities have repeatedly gotten away with very limited development plans. Moreover, the FTA does not have the funds to ensure that there will be money for affordable housing around stations: that’s HUD’s role. Plenty of that agency’s grants go to projects located far from good transit.

As the Roosevelt Island example demonstrates, there are major advantages to spending harmoniously on housing and transit. These are complementary, not competing, efforts.

Part of the problem, of course, is the fact that the DOT and HUD are distinct federal entities: Each submits its own budget every year, each has its own leader, each has its own goals. It’s hard to imagine how federal urban policy could be truly unified without bringing the two departments together. Nonetheless, coordinated grant distribution is the best way to work towards a unified aim within a disjointed system.

Image above: New York’s Roosevelt Island, from Flickr user (cc)