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Commuter Rail Connecticut Intercity Rail New Haven

Connecticut, Intent on Improving In-State Rail Connections, Plans Bond Release

» New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor would get significantly improved service, opening up possibility of Inland Route New York-Boston trains.

As the competition for the rapidly diminishing federal funds for intercity rail heats up, states are apparently taking seriously Washington’s call for increasing local spending on such projects. The $10.5 billion thus far allocated by the Congress for this transportation mode may encourage state and municipal governments to devote much more of their own funds to the program. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation — at least behind the scenes — seems to be informing states that the only way they’ll receive future grants is by committing some of their own budgets to new tracks and rolling stock.

This is the case in Connecticut, which received only $40 million in the first distribution of funds this past January. Governor Jodi Rell (R), who is in her last year in office, wants more, so she has asked the State Bond Commission to release $260 million for the reconstruction of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (MA) corridor, which runs roughly north-south through the center of the state. Connecticut hopes to bring in an additional $220 million from Washington later this year, enough to fund the first phase of the project.

The announcement ups the ante for other states that want the federal government to chip in for their own rail programs.

Connecticut’s project, which has been discussed for more than a decade, would double-track the entire corridor between New Haven and Springfield, a 62-mile Amtrak-owned line that is currently used by half a dozen Amtrak intercity trains a day. Much of the second track was torn out in the mid-1990s.

Stations would be upgraded to high-level platforms at each of the nine existing and three new stations. Once the improvements are completed in 2015, commuter trains would run every thirty minutes during peak periods and every hour at other times. Operations would be substantially bettered: Average train speeds are expected to rise from 40 mph to around 60 mph; daily round-trip trains to Hartford and Springfield would increase from six to 25 or more; travel times from Hartford to New York would decrease from 2h46 to 2h09, and travelers will be able to get to Worcester, Massachusetts from Penn Station in 3h49, a considerable improvement.

The funding that the state received in January already ensures the double tracking of ten miles of the corridor. Electric operations, necessary for direct Metro-North or Amtrak Northeast Regional service into Manhattan, would cost another $100 million and will not be included in the current project.

A 2005 report on the project suggested that the program would only attract about 3,000 daily riders, but that estimate may be low; the study claimed that only eight people would ride out of New Haven Union Station during the morning peak hour — this is a definite underestimate.

Even so, Governor Rell’s claim thatthis is the most exciting mass transit project ever in the state of Connecticut” is too exuberant: The New Haven Line Metro-North trains from New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stamford to New York’s Grand Central will remain far bigger ridership generators and fulfill a more important function in the state’s commuting patterns. And it could be argued that support for streetcar lines in the state could play a bigger role in determining the future of the state’s cities.

But in terms of improving the national rail network, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project is a fantastic investment. If the entire Inland Route is electrified (the route runs from New Haven north to Springfield, and then east to Boston), it could provide direct and vital access from Central Connecticut and Massachusetts to the large Boston and New York metropolitan areas. Intercity trains running along the line from New Haven to Boston will increase in number to six daily. Connecticut’s project will leave room for the future installation of overhead catenary.

In addition, the improvements along the New Haven-Springfield route, in conjunction with the realignment of service to Burlington, Vermont partly funded by the federal government in January, will radically alter the ability of northern New Englanders to get into New York City. Future funding will go towards connecting the line to Montréal, allowing trains from Boston to the Canadian city. Amtrak service to White River Junction from Penn Station will run in 5h32, compared to 7h36 today. In addition, the opening of full double-tracked corridor will ensure more reliable commutes. The Vermonter, which runs on the line now, has an on-time performance of only 84%.

Though the upgraded line does not fit anyone’s definition of high-speed rail, it is exactly the type of improved, fast-enough service that will allow more Americans to take the train without sacrificing their time compared to driving in a car. Connecticut’s decision to implement both commuter rail and improved intercity rail (the latter mandated by the fact that the U.S. grant program is explicitly not for commuter rail) will mean that new operations will be used by a whole variety of users, not be confined to a single purpose.

Image above: Hartford rail station, from Flickr user Mamorital (cc)

Categories
DOT High-Speed Rail

Putting the American Commitment to High-Speed Rail in Context

» Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks the right talk. But the American government seems fated to be unable to deliver on his promises.

The pie chart above puts in context the limited degree to which the Obama Administration and the U.S. governing structure in general have committed to advancing alternatives to our nation’s current over-reliance on the automobile. The image comes from France’s national transportation infrastructure plan, which was introduced to public consultation earlier this month. With €170 billion in funds for transport planned to be spent over the next twenty to thirty years, the report articulates a vision in which 95% of public spending goes towards modes other than road and air — with more than fifty percent of funds earmarked for intercity passenger and freight rail projects. Though the program, promoted by a conservative government, has yet to be approved and lacks a funding source, it represents a sea change in what kinds of transport are prioritized in France.

Under the supervision of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Obama Administration has been making a big deal of its efforts to promote livable communities where people don’t have to drive to get everywhere. At the Netroots Nation conference last week in Las Vegas, Mr. LaHood was especially vocal about his goals. “Americans like their automobiles,” he said. “One of the reasons they like ’em is because it is in some places in the country the only form of transportation, particularly in rural America.”

He promotes an alternative. Americans would act more like Europeans and Asians when it comes to transportation choice, the Transportation Secretary implied, had President Eisenhower made a commitment to high-speed rail when he advanced his Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. “That’s the kind of vision that President Obama and Vice President Biden [now] have for America,” he said. Mr. LaHood suggested that after 25 years of spending, “80% of America will be connected” to intercity rail.

Yet all evidence suggests that despite Mr. LaHood’s statements — the most honest (and exciting) about the future of American commuting by any U.S. transport secretary ever, as far as I know — there is no way that his goals will be implemented unless there is a massive transformation in the way American politicians think about transportation.

There are two principal explanations for this problem: one, a lack of long-term planning in favor of alternative transportation options; and two, a lack of funding.

From that perspective, the recent announcement of the French long-term transportation plan by Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development, and Sea Minister Jean-Louis Borloo is particularly striking. Mr. Borloo, a member of President Sarkozy’s conservative administration, has advanced what the plan itself argues is “a drastic change in strategy, a major rupture in resolutely privileging the development of alternatives to road-based transport modes.” The result: Two million tons of carbon dioxide economized each year, part of a nationwide commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020. In France, transportation consumes 68% of the nation’s gas and produces 28% of all emissions.

The plan, which is worthy of a read for French speakers, has four principal goals: Optimizing the existing transportation system to limit the creation of new infrastructure; improving the performance of the system in serving areas far from major metropolitan areas; improving the energy efficiency of the system; and reducing the environmental impact of the network. These priorities have resulted in what is a clear emphasis on improvements in the country’s already well-developed rail system. Not only will 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) of new (true) high-speed rail be under construction or complete by 2020, but two major north-south freight railroad corridors will be developed simultaneously to ramp up the country’s use of trains to transport goods.

In addition, €53 billion will be pointed towards the creation of new works of public transportation operating in fixed guideways, about half of which will go to the massive Grand Paris scheme. The doubling of congested highways such as the Paris-Lille autoroute have been eliminated from consideration, since road infrastructure projects will be kept to the absolute minimum. The program is likely to be approved by the government at the end of this year.

Though the state lacks a long-term funding source for the commitment, the plan suggests that whatever money that is available will go almost entirely to non-automotive modes of transport. Even if the government loses power in 2012, the plan’s goals won’t die off, since the opposition Socialists, in pseudo coalition with the Greens, are just as interested in advancing a similar transportation paradigm.

The U.S. lacks a similar long-term plan to develop transportation alternatives. National transportation efforts are not guided by an effort to respond to any particular problem, like climate change or metropolitan congestion, and, in reverse of France’s new priorities, they currently overwhelmingly favor investment in roads over transit and intercity rail. Even if the U.S. Congress ever gets around to approving a new transportation bill — a piece of legislation meant to pinpoint six years of federal funding — it will still spend up to three times on highways that it does on other modes. There is no national plan to articulate why it is important to spend more on rail than on the roads, and the Obama Administration does not seem particularly interested in developing one that has the strong backing of the powers that be.

Moreover, the momentum that seemed to be coming last year for a huge down payment for high-speed rail (on the order of $50 billion or more) has disappeared: A few weeks ago, the U.S. House indicated that it would be supporting a transportation allocation this year with only $1 billion for intercity rail (less than the $2.5 billion from the year before), and more spending on highways than ever.

Mr. LaHood is fond of comparing his administration’s support for high-speed rail to the Eisenhower Interstate project, but he always neglects to mention that that program came with a dedicated revenue base to sponsor it — the fuel tax. There is no similar proposal to reliably fund intercity rail or increase spending on public transportation.

The U.S. Senate’s structural bias towards suburban and rural populations is a constant source of problems for altering investment schemes. The decision by the Republican Party to make transportation investment a partisan issue means that the Obama Administration is faced with mounting opposition to a long-term high-speed rail program. Just as important, the complete unfamiliarity of many Americans towards the importance (or even function) of public transportation or intercity railways makes it difficult to convince their representatives at the local, state, and federal levels that it is worthwhile to stop spending so much on roads. The same is not true of the French population, which is used to using transit.

I don’t want to be the eternal pessimist here — proponents of alternative transportation must remain optimistic about the prospects for future change no matter the obstacles in the way — so I’ll conclude positively. Before becoming the Secretary of Transportation, Mr. LaHood was a Republican with little transportation background. Yet no matter the intransigence of Congress, as a member of the administration he has been steadfast in his advocacy for a transportation system that prioritizes getting around by means other than the car. Perhaps we can content ourselves for now by hoping that he’ll be the example to follow in the future.

Image above: Distribution of French spending priorities in transportation infrastructure long-term plan, from French government

Categories
St. Louis Streetcar

St. Louis’ Loop District Gets Endorsement from Feds with Grant for Streetcar

» New “trolley lines” will connect to two light rail stations and activate region’s most urban district outside of downtown.

St. Louis’ successful bid for a $25 million grant to partially fund the construction of a new streetcar line in the city’s Loop district is being hailed in the local press as the latest achievement of a man who has in just a few of decades taken what was once a downtrodden street and transformed it into one of the city’s most active commercial areas. Joe Edwards — the “mayor” of the Delmar Loop — started a restaurant, then restored a concert hall, then opened a hotel and a bowling alley, and recently he has been the primary proponent of this rail project.

From that perspective, it makes sense that of the nine streetcar systems* the federal government has funded this year (thanks to the TIGER and Urban Circulator grants), only St. Louis will be constructing a line outside of its downtown. The rest, including Fort Worth, whose project I described earlier this month, will have their new street-running trains in the center-city.

But the Loop, which straddles the City of St. Louis and University City (both in St. Louis County), is as vital as the downtowns of many smaller cities, and it’s arguably only indirectly served by rapid transit. Its heart is roughly a half-mile from the Delmar and University City Metrolink light rail stations; Mr. Edwards will clearly see his business improve by having streetcars run in front of his enterprises, to and from the rapid transit stations and to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

The 2.2-mile, $44 million St. Louis project has been planned for for more than a decade. It will run along Delmar Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. Construction is planned to begin at the end of 2011, with service sometime in 2012. Vehicles will be designed to include batteries, allowing them to run through some sections without an overhead catenary. Depending on the progress of other cities, this could make St. Louis the first city in the U.S. to experiment with this sort of alternative propulsion for rail vehicles.

To the credit of the streetcar system proponents, they have raised much of the local money for the project themselves, leaving St. Louis County to dedicate its voter-approved transit expansion program to bus rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail routes serving less-served places in the metropolitan area. It would probably be unreasonable to suggest using region-wide funds for a streetcar project running in communities so close to existing rapid transit.

But to partially make up the $19 million in construction costs not being sponsored by the federal government, the streetcar will get $5 to 8 million from private sources in addition to $6 million from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the local MPO). Operations will be covered by a transportation tax residents in the surrounding area approved by 97%. This strong show of local support, both financial and political, is likely one of the reasons St. Louis won the grant from the U.S. DOT over so many competitors.

From an operations perspective, the project won’t do much to improve access, since its most distant station is less than a mile from an existing Metrolink stop. With nine proposed stations on the short line and vehicles running only every ten minutes, it will in many cases be faster to walk. The historic-looking vehicles will not have low floors, meaning they won’t be able to provide nowadays essential handicapped access; just as bad, they will have no capacity advantages over traditional buses (unfortunately a routine problem for most U.S. streetcar programs).

Edwards, the neighborhood developer, has been a proponent of eventually extending the streetcar route all the way to the riverfront, mirroring the route of the city’s old trolley network. Yet this would needlessly duplicate the services already provided by Metrolink. Rather, extensions south along Big Bend Boulevard, passing by the University City Metrolink Station, the two campuses of Washington University, and reaching Richmond Heights, could be truly valuable since it would encourage transit use by students for local-area commutes and connect dense areas with a corridor not currently serviced by rapid transit.

But the program isn’t — at least at the beginning — ready to support significant increases in the number of vehicles using the line. The section of the line on DeBaliviere (leading up to Forest Park) and part of the route on Delmar will be built with only one lane for the streetcars (though it will be separated from automobile traffic, unlike the other sections). This limits frequency since trains heading in both directions will use the same right-of-way.

These are, however, the consequences of what are in transport terms still relativity small investments; similar criticisms could probably be lobbed at many of the other starter streetcar lines currently being developed in the U.S. It’s expensive to invest in a new rail line — putting in the maintenance shops, buying the vehicles, maintaining the track — so even a short line racks up cash in no time. Only so much can be built at such a low budget as is being made possible by these federal grants.

Moreover, whether transport planners like it or not, these systems are in reality a lot more oriented towards fulfilling economic development goals than providing increased mobility. More transportation of any sort, even if it doesn’t seem particularly useful for many people, will encourage investment in new construction or redevelopment. For Mr. Edwards and the community he’s helped develop around Delmar Boulevard, there’s no reason to complain.

* Dallas modern, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, Tucson (TIGER); Cincinnati, Charlotte, Dallas M-Line, Fort Worth, St. Louis (Urban Circulator)

Categories
General

Weekend Links

» This week’s big news. Open thread in the comments.

Follow my Twitter account (@ttpolitic) to get news in real time. I’ll be traveling this week and next; if you’d like to meet up in New Orleans (July 29-August 1) or San Francisco (August 2-7), send me an email.

On The Transport Politic:

Beginnings

  • Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell announces that he’ll consider “flexing” some of his state’s highway dollars for the purposes of funding transit. Despite the fact that federal law allows almost all roads money to be used for public transportation, the instances of that being done are rare.
  • High-speed rail plans in Florida and Illinois are rapidly approaching reality. In the Sunshine State, surveying has begun despite the fact that not all cash has yet been appropriated to the project. Meanwhile, Illinois has announced that construction on the Chicago-St. Louis line (110 mph) will begin in September.
  • Two rail projects of vastly different magnitudes are beginning to have their tracks laid. In Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco, Caltrans has been installing steel along Highway 101 for the 70-mile SMART commuter train (pictured above). In China, the 820-mile Beijing-Shanghai line has had its right-of-way cleared, and similar operations are under way.

Expansions

  • A Québecois leader, affirming his desire to be closer to the U.S. than the rest of Canada, suggests that high-speed rail between Montréal and New York is a top priority, but does little to advance Montréal-Toronto link, despite that being a more realistic and probably more attractive project.
  • Detroit Mayor Dave Bing argues that the U.S. Government is planning to fund the expansion of his number one goal: a light rail line from downtown to 8 Mile. The U.S. DOT has yet to demonstrate its commitment to the program outside of the initial corridor to Grand Avenue.
  • The San Francisco Bay Area’s BART commuter system, advances plan to fund the Oakland Airport Connector, in face of months of protests.

Improvements

  • After one year in service, Seattle’s Central Link light rail system demonstrates steadily increasing ridership, but it may not be able to reach pre-opening projections for the end of 2010. Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile says that “commuting market share is the wrong way to judge transit,” but it would be interesting to know what percentage of people along Seattle’s transit corridor are using the new line to get to work. In the U.S. capital region, overall transit commute share increased from 17% to 21% between 2001 and 2010; that’s an exciting change.
  • Jarrett Walker argues that the Strasbourg model, which uses light rail to promote sustainable transportation between top destinations, isn’t necessarily applicable to many cities in the United States. Now that the U.S. Senate has reduced spending for high-speed rail, increased money for highways, and removed references to “livability” and a future infrastructure bank, that seems especially true. Nevertheless, the DOT continues its relentless pursuit of transit-oriented cities.

Image above: Proposed Petaluma SMART Station, from SMART

Categories
DOT Freight High-Speed Rail

The U.S. Emphasis on Passenger Rail and the Future of Freight

» Industry, citing experience with Amtrak, is concerned that more passenger rail services could increase costs and reduce freight train movements.

The American intercity rail system, it is frequently argued, is notable for the world-class efficiency of its freight trains and the miserable record of its passenger system. While we transport a huge percentage of our goods on track, we move just a tiny percentage of people as such.

The Obama Administration, of course, is spending billions to change that situation, investing in true high-speed lines in California and Florida and upgrades to existing track in Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Though the current commitment isn’t yet enough to produce service that will connect “80% of America,” it will significantly improve the performance of passenger trains in certain areas.

Will those improvements, however, come to the detriment of freight service? The Economist addressed that issue this week in a shock article that suggests that passenger rail is not directly compatible with cargo. The industry, already worried that the government is planning re-regulation (the railroads were deregulated in 1980), is convinced that its willingness to allow Amtrak on its tracks costs $240 million in lost fees each year, and it has already been subjected to a required $15 billion upgrade to install positive train control.

According to the article, by allowing more passenger trains on freight track, the efficiency of the freight system could be reduced, and that would lead to increasing costs for consumers. American freight transport costs on average about one-half of similar services in Japan and France and one-third of those in Italy. Each of those countries has far more effective passenger rail services than the U.S.

Indeed, there are some merits to the argument that an increasing intermixing of passenger and freight trains will lead to reduced effectiveness of the shipping industry, not to mention less-than-perfect reliability for passengers. The primary reason is that passenger and freight trains travel at different speeds on the same corridor.

As shown by the following image from the British government’s Command Paper for its High-Speed 2 program, allowing trains to run at different speeds on the same track could reduce capacity enormously. If you were to follow a 300 km/h train by a conventional train running at 200 km/h, you would eliminate the potential to run up to six trains at 300 km/h speeds — because they would run into the slower train otherwise. This situation worsens the longer the corridor.

In other words, in terms of capacity there are major advantages to running all of the trains on the same line at the same speed. (This chart provided one of the arguments for the UK’s decision to only allow true high-speed trains on its planned expansion.)

Freight trains are limited to slower speeds — around 50 mph — than even the relatively slow people-carrying trains the Obama Administration is promoting on some corridors, running at 79 and 110 mph. The private cargo companies that own the tracks to be used by these passenger trains are rightfully concerned that intermixing slower and faster vehicles will induce serious reductions in capacity. Is this result, likely meaning increasing freight transportation costs, worth the benefits of more passenger trains? Should the U.S. sacrifice its excellent freight transportation system for a mediocre passenger network?

Fortunately, the situation is not nearly as dire as the Economist suggests. For one, the vast majority of freight movements are through rural areas in the Western U.S., few of which are likely to see many passenger trains any time in the next century. Second, the true high-speed rail lines first planned for California and Florida will feature brand-new track, doing little to freight services. Third, with appropriate coordination between freight companies and the passenger services — such as promoting shipping during the night (done on New Jersey’s RiverLine corridor) — many problems could be avoided.

Nevertheless, there are some places where improved passenger rail service will make the running of freight trains increasingly difficult. This fact indicates that improved passenger services probably ought to run on their own tracks as much as possible, even if they’re only going 79 or 110 mph. Yet the federal government’s investments have been too minor thus far to make that possible in most cases. Strategic interventions, like passing sidings, could provide a half-way solution. If Washington continues to prioritize spending on passenger corridors, these are the cheap options.

If the public is committed to the funding of improved tracks along privately owned freight corridors, it has the right to demand that those companies allow passenger trains to run along them. From that perspective, the freight companies have little room to complain.

But the federal government does have a long-term interest in promoting investments that offer improvements in both freight and passenger offerings. Freight lines that run through the center of cities should be moved to new routes that detour, allowing passenger services to take over these access corridors much more essential for people than for cargo. Lines running both passenger and freight trains should be expanded to three or more tracks to allow multiple running speeds in both directions. Projects could theoretically be sponsored by public-private partnership, using both government and freight company funds directed to investments that benefit both.

The kind of coordination necessary to make such investments, however, is still generally lacking at the U.S. DOT. To appease the growing complaints of the freight rail companies, it may be necessary to find it.

Images above: (1) Freight train in Sydney, from Flickr user dicktay2000 (cc); (2) Comparison of train paths, from UK’s HS2 Command Paper