News roundup

Sorry to everyone still waiting on Part III of the Pittsburgh Trilogy, but I’m currently fighting off Mutant Death Plague, on liquids and bedrest, and not very good at writing or analytical thinking. Meanwhile, there’s too much news today to let it all go past without mentioning.

  • Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Architecture Critic and unofficial dean of the Philadelphia Urbanism Scribblers’ Corps, is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. It’s an honor long overdue. Congratulations, Ms. Saffron!
  • While you have your champagne flutes handy, pour out a small libation for Conrad Benner: SEPTA is announcing the return of all-night subway service on Fridays and Saturdays, starting in mid-June and running through at least Labor Day as a pilot.
  • For anyone not obsessively following this through other channels, the TWU and SEPTA continue to negotiate, and a strike is NOT imminent.
  • SEPTA Budget Hearing season is about to kick off with operating budget hearings in all five counties, starting with Bucks County on Wednesday. Unlike last year’s hearings, which included a triennial major fare hike, this year’s hearings are expected to be quiet and uneventful.

I promise I’ll have Pittsburgh Part III out by Thursday at the latest, and likely earlier.

The iron road to the Steel City: Keystone West

Part 2 of a 3 part series.

So, the question I posed yesterday was, “How can intercity rail help fix the mess that is travel between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia today?” The key to implementing any program of improvement to the Keystone West line (the term of art for trains that continue west of Harrisburg), will of course be Jarrett Walker‘s old axiom: Frequency is Freedom.

When Southwest made its doomed run at the PHL-PIT market, it flew six trips a day. That’s a typical schedule for any airline flying a mid-market origin/destination route like this one. Greyhound, an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, has about ten scheduled runs each way between the Steel City and the 10th/Filbert bus terminal. Megabus, making a strong play for the Turnpike market with its 81-seat double-decker buses, runs three daily round trips from curbside at 30th and JFK. If ordinary business and leisure travellers are going to take Amtrak seriously as an option, the schedule is going to have to look more like those, and less like the once-daily schedule of today.

The present Amtrak timetable lists a 12:42 departure from 30th Street Station and a 20:05 arrival at Pittsburgh Union Station. That is mostly convenient for connections to the west on the Capitol Limited, which calls at Pittsburgh at midnight on its way from Washington to Chicago. Eastbound, the Pennsylvanian is again timed for Capitol Limited connections as much anything else, leaving Pittsburgh bright and early at 7:30, and arriving Philadelphia 14:55. That schedule might be convenient for a Pittsburgher with an evening meeting in Philadelphia, or for a Philadelphian able to charge an extra night or two in a downtown Pittsburgh hotel to an expense account. But it’s pretty useless for anyone else, apart from aforementioned transfer passengers. Even if you think that’s an acceptable schedule, what’s good for the goose should be sauce for the gander; it cries out for a midday departure from Pittsburgh, arriving Philadelphia in the evening, and an early train westbound from Philadelphia arriving in Pittsburgh early enough to check in to a hotel before dinner. And as much as anyone gets twitchy about the timekeeping of any Amtrak train, it’s barely humane to the people changing from the Pennsylvanian to the Capitol Limited to keep them sitting in an underused Pittsburgh station for nearly four hours; eastbound connections only seem to require two and a half hours, from a route where timekeeping is much more out of Amtrak’s hands.

I’ll note briefly, this being a Philadelphia-focused blog, that there are more markets served by a PHL-PGH train than those endpoints. Intermediate cities like Johnstown and Altoona have lost all direct air service with both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And the Turnpike serves a different alignment; if you want to serve all those intermediate markets by bus, your schedules and timekeeping are going to go pear-shaped very quickly.

The current Pennsylvanian service provides one-seat rides to and from New York City, which is nice to have but theoretically not essential for every run; passengers dislike transferring, but Pennsylvanian (and Keystone) trains are shorter than Northeast Regional trains, making them a less-efficient use of valuable tunnel slots at Penn Station. Any one-seat ride between New York and Pittsburgh necessitates a change of locomotive between electric and diesel, probably at 30th Street where the train would also have to “change ends” (i.e. reverse direction). That process takes 30 minutes, which in my opinion falls squarely in the realm of “might as well transfer”.

If one takes one train departure every three hours as a service guideline (sparse but plausible as a minimum), and reasonable waking hours at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia during which all service must happen as 07:30-21:30, that allows for three trains a day each way. It’s not a coincidence that that’s how many trips Megabus is running, although Megabus is much more lax about early departures and midnight arrivals. It seems to be a reasonable floor for overland service frequencies in daylight. More might be better, but it’s a good place to start.

The next step is to consider how to reduce the time it takes to get from A to B. Now, I put this as a much lower priority than increasing frequency, because I have confidence that many people will find the experience of riding the train to be better than the experience of driving, or of riding the bus. On the train, you don’t have to devote all your attention to driving, nor do you have to carefully time stops for meals or bathroom breaks. The nearest bathroom is never more than an 80 foot walk away, and while the Amtrak café car can’t be mistaken for five star cuisine, neither can anything you can get at Sideling Hill Plaza.

Unfortunately for the cause of higher speeds, we’re caught up by the structure of the American railroad system. While Amtrak owns the tracks from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is owned by freight carrier Norfolk Southern (NS). NS is the more-passenger-friendly of the two major eastern roads, but it’s not going to undertake upgrades on Amtrak’s behalf for charity. They’ll upgrade their line, but they’ll want a check from PennDOT to cover their costs. And that will be a very big check.

The good news is that the major improvements to the Keystone East (Philadelphia to Harrisburg) have already been accomplished. The story of how then-Amtrak CEO David Gunn was able to bring the Keystone tracks back up to 110 mph electric operations is a fascinating one, which you should read in his own words. While there might be time left to squeeze out of the line east of Harrisburg, not much of it is relevant; Amtrak’s current diesel locomotives have a top speed of 110 mph. The next generation of diesels being ordered on Amtrak’s behalf by a coalition of state sponsors will be capable of 125 mph, but that’s still not very much time savings left on the table.

Leading off the big-ticket items will be adding stretches of third track to the line. (The PRR had four tracks Pittsburgh-Harrisburg; Conrail ripped out two over most of the distance.) A 2005 study commissioned by NS said that adding frequencies would require $110 million in improvements, featuring 66 miles of new track along the 250 rail miles west of Harrisburg. Conditions have changed since then, but that’s a good order-of-magnitude estimate for the work that would have to be done, just as a baseline. Still, compared to expanding road or airport capacity, that’s still in the realm of dirt-cheap.

As it so happens, there are a lot of small, incremental improvements to the Keystone West line possible, that the state government could facilitate, and would mostly accrue benefits to NS freight ops. Most involve land swaps to straighten the line out more than was possible when the railroad was being built with picks and shovels in the 1840s and 50s. It’s easier and more important to optimize a railroad to be flat than to be straight, but we have industrial earth-moving equipment lying around that isn’t needed to build new roads, now that we’ve hit peak VMT (never mind that we seem to be building them anyway). We might as well use them to take out some of the sharper curves, since they force freight and passenger trains alike to slow down, which wastes time and fuel. How much time you could save from the schedule would depend heavily on how much you were willing to spend; straightening a 40-mph curve in a rural area to allow for 79- or 110-mph speeds should be a cheap operation, but also only saves a minute or so from the schedule. One major savings available would be to flatten the ruling grade east of Johnstown, but that would involve bypassing Horseshoe Curve and possibly the entire city of Altoona. Engineering marvel that it is, I’m not attached at all to the curve (there goes my railfan cred for all time), but serving the city of Altoona is important enough to me that I’m skeptical of the 15-18 minutes savings available from a bypass; NS might be more interested in the ability to forego helper locomotives for the steep climb up the Allegheny Frontal.

Electrification is a popular proposal, but sadly it’s still slightly too expensive for now. I’m a rare fan of freight electrification, but the freight railroads disagree with me for now, and it’s their money, not mine. And electrifying ~100 daily freight trains on behalf of between two and eight daily passenger trains is absurd on its face. I think PennDOT’s ideal role here, is to keep a plan updated for a rapid buildout of electrification, for use at some future point by NS, probably under some flavor of energy crisis conditions (various sources in the freight railroads have put the break-even price of diesel fuel vs. electrification at around $5.00/gallon; it’s slightly lower in mountainous terrain like central Pennsylvania, where regenerative braking is a bigger deal). The estimated cost of electrification is between $550M (Conrail, 1971) and $650M (Penn School of Design, 2010).

The cheapest and fastest way to shave time off the schedule also solves an entirely different problem: rolling stock. I’ve been assuming so far that any service would be operated with Amtrak’s P42 locomotives and Amfleet I coaches, and also that Amtrak has enough of both to cover any schedule. That is no longer, strictly speaking, true. The locomotives are not a problem for now, but after years of skyrocketing demand on the Northeast Corridor and its feeder routes, Amfleets would have to come from somewhere else, and PennDOT would be on the hook for making up that lost revenue. The next generation of single-level Amtrak coaches, meant to replace and expand upon the Amfleets, is still in the design phase, and won’t be available for years.

However, there are two high-speed Talgo trainsets sitting in Wisconsin that are capable of making much better time over the railroad than conventional Amtrak; Talgo engineers estimate that they could cut trip times west of Harrisburg from 5 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours 10 minutes, i.e. Philadelphia-Pittsburgh trip times could be reduced to 6 hours flat. Those trainsets were originally built for Chicago-Milwaukee service, and are available because the anarchist Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, engaged in shenanigans to stop payment on them after his election in 2010; Talgo is suing the state of Wisconsin for $66M (i.e. more than the trains were worth to build) for breach of contract, costs, defamation, and other claims. The Talgos, sadly, are not a good long-term fit for Pennsylvania; they’re short and built for low platforms, which restricts them to a single track in 30th Street Station and will soon see them completely incompatible with key stations like Paoli and Exton. They are also incompatible with Penn Station New York, which would settle the question of one-seat rides PGH-NYP in the negative. But as a short-term stopgap, they’re probably the best solution available for Pennsylvania. We’d need to lease them from Talgo America and somehow boost them out of the factory in Milwaukee where they’re currently mothballed, but it’s certainly doable. To achieve maximum performance out of the trainsets, PennDOT would have to fund some amount of adjustment to the signal system on NS; that’s a completely acceptable expense. They may also require additional third track in addition to the baseline.

After all this, what’s the final bill? In annual operations, the controversy will be between those who believe that additional frequencies will achieve diminishing returns in ridership, and those who believe that additional frequencies will attract greater ridership through network effects. I am in the latter camp, but in the interests of budgetary conservatism, I will say that the effects will cancel each other out completely, and the necessary subsidy of three round-trips is three times the cost of one: by current estimates, a total of $11.4M per year. I will pessimistically estimate the total cost of track and signal upgrades to the Commonwealth at $250M. I think the total will be less than that, at least in any initial phase, and that NS may be convinced to contribute, since the upgrades will also benefit the expansion of their freight business, which is growing very fast as the direct rail link between Bakken oil and Philadelphia-area refineries. Still, again, I will be conservative. And if PennDOT pursued the Wisconsin Talgos, the purchase price would be around the $36M that Oregon paid for its two trainsets, although it might be wiser in our case to lease.

Still, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has an annual capital plan of between $500M and $750M for the next ten years, on revenues of more than $900M. The Turnpike Commission’s fiscal health is not what it was pre-Act 44, but Act 89 has pulled it out of the fire. While Act 44 was a poorly-designed piece of financial engineering, putting Pennsylvanian service in the budget of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has an elegance that Act 44 did not, and also a strong element of fiscal realism; the PTC can afford it.

So now that we’ve dropped travel time from 7 hours 32 minutes to 6 hours, and are running three or four times a day, and identified a potential source of funding, are we done? Well, no. That 6-hour endpoint-endpoint time is still a big, nasty constraint; even if you can work from your laptop on the way, that’s still a lot of time to spend in transit, and time-sensitive people are still likely to fly, if expensive airfare is in their budget. Even if you’re fine with arriving at 11:00 at night, and not everyone is, you’re still catching the last train of the day at 5:00. We can still do better by travelers. Tomorrow in Part 3, I’ll show how the effective time on the train can be dropped to nearly zero, with far less in terms of investment or lead time required, and only a little upending of conventional wisdom.

This post has been crossposted to this old city.

Two cities separated by a common everything: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would probably be inextricably linked together even if history hadn’t lumped them together into the same state. As it stands, though, we have a lot more than an ugly blue flag and a bunch of corrupted mountebanks in Harrisburg in common. Both cities fell hard from the heights of their industrial power. And today, both are experiencing rebirths as centers of health care and education, and attracting young adults hand-over fist as leaders in the national urban renaissance, and heavily leveraging their legacy industrial assets to do it. There’s certainly plenty of demand for cross-Pennsylvania travel.

So why is it so hard to get there from here?

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is America’s oldest superhighway, and wasn’t built first because Pennsylvania’s government was any more enterprising or innovative in 1940 than it is today. Over the last decade, toll rates have more than doubled, but traffic counts and VMT are flat (PDF, page 125/140), just as VMT has remained steady nationwide on mostly free-at-point-of-use roads. Driving from Center City to the Golden Triangle (or vice versa) via the Parkway East, the Turnpike, and the Schuylkill Expressway, is about 5 hours with minimal traffic, which of course there never is. Also, only the hardiest road warrior would ever drive such a distance non-stop; most have to take a break somewhere on the way for gasoline, food and drink, or avoiding deep vein thrombosis. That adds an indeterminate amount of time to the drive; the various intercity bus services generally put the trip at around 7 hours, including traffic and intermediate stops. And once you’ve finished the drive, you’re still stuck with a car in the middle of a dense major city. Even if you’re fine with that, the city shouldn’t be.

In the last decade, Southwest challenged the incumbent US Airways on the route between its Philadelphia hub and its Pittsburgh focus city — and lost. If anybody could offer a cheap flight from PIT to PHL, it was the short-haul specialists at Southwest, but no dice. Plane tickets on US Airways remain expensive, and the casual flyer spends just as much time in line for security screening at the airport as in the air. And PHL airport is congested, and airport and airlines both would much rather add flights to Glasgow and Doha than the short-haul market of Pittsburgh, even as a commercial air monopoly.

And meanwhile, the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, is the last passenger train on the NS (ex-PRR) Main Line west of Harrisburg. After the the rises in Turnpike tolls and the price of gasoline, Amtrak’s coach fares are actually very competitive with driving. Many people would love to take the train, but it’s slow (7 hours 23 minutes, vs. about 5 hours driving and 7 hours by bus), and terribly infrequent. The Corbett Administration, the Legislature, and PennDOT had to be strong-armed into accepting responsibility for sponsoring the Pennsylvanian in March 2013, under the new Federal rules regarding short corridor Amtrak services, but they did do so, and the state is now underwriting the train to the tune of about $3.8M per year (more accurate figures will be available next winter).

So we have a state of affairs where it’s either expensive or abominably slow to travel between the two largest cities in the Commonwealth, despite the fact that they are very similar cities, with identical major service industries, and longstanding political, economic, and cultural ties. The road isn’t getting any faster or cheaper, and flying is a profligate expense. Someone is clearly falling down on the job, and the fact that we share a common state government means we can point the finger straight at PennDOT. If there’s going to be improvement in getting there from here, it’s going to have to come from the rails. Fortunately, while the Pennsylvania Railroad is no more, its legacy remains. Part II tomorrow will cover the options for how to take better advantage of that legacy.

This post has been crossposted to This Old City.

Strike Watch remains in effect, but resolution may be close

Shortly after my update on the state of play went up last night, TWU 234 president Willie Brown came out of the negotiation session saying that a deal for a short-term, two-year contract was “close”. Talks are scheduled to resume this morning at 11:00. In terms of an actual contract deal, I’m taking an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach, and not lifting the Strike Watch.

A shorter contract term was a union proposal, and it’s interesting that SEPTA seems inclined to accept it; they may think that their bargaining position may be strengthened by negotiating the next contract at a different point in the three-year fare hike cycle, or simply that the Regional Rail state of good repair upgrades, combined with Philly Bikeshare, will strengthen the ability of SEPTA to accommodate surge crowds in the event of a major strike. There are also not yet any reliable unbiased reports as to the precise terms of the wage and benefits provisions; again, we have to take a wait-and-see approach to them, if and when those are hammered out today.

It would be nice to see SEPTA go a full six years without a strike; its history of fractious labor relations has not served anybody well, least of all the actual workers. And I would suggest that the next time TWU wants to conduct an industrial action, they can do as they did in 1995 and blockade the Schuylkill Expresswaybefore escalating to a strike. If you’re going to be disruptive, the least you can do is to do the Lord’s work and be disruptive to assholes.

STRIKE WATCH: SEPTA City and Suburban Transit

Conditions are favorable for the development of negotiation breakdown capable of producing a strike. If deadlock has either produced a strike or radar has indicated intense walkout activity, then a Strike Warning will be issued.

With City Transit Division contracts expired, and Suburban Transit Division contracts expiring Monday, this blog rates the probability of a strike against SEPTA in the next week at higher than 50, but lower than 80, percent.

TWU 234 president Willie Brown, is publicly a subscriber of the school of thought that says that if you negotiate an agreement without a strike, you left something on the table. That said, while his militancy is genuine, the aura of stupidity he tends to project is (one must assume) not. He has to know, whatever brave face he needs to present, that public opinion is strongly against him, both personally and on the merits, and prefers SEPTA management’s position. He is failing to get any traction with his calls for binding arbitration, a forum that tends to produce advantageous deals for labor. Therefore, I strongly suspect that he is going to look for force multipliers for any industrial action.

The easiest available point of leverage is to partially replicate the strike of October 2009, where the strike was put off for a few days after the expiration of contracts and the authorization vote by union members (it was called in the small hours of the morning, a few hours after the last out of the World Series at Citizen’s Bank Park). I see a strategy of deliberate ambiguity about the timing of a strike to be the most likely option, and the best tactically for the union if they are committed to a militant path, as they seem to be; they gain the ability to disrupt without actually incurring the self-inflicted harms of striking.

The most difficult is to induce the Regional Rail unions to go through all of the hoops of the Railway Labor Act and attempt a simultaneous transit/railroad strike, which has never happened at SEPTA before, and is realistically never going to happen. (Some Regional Rail workers have been without a contract for years; neither side has invoked the RLA yet.) Even if the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen waited out the injunctions and cooling off periods necessary to strike, it would push the timetable back into Winter of 2015, at the earliest. At that point, the emergence of bikeshare in Center City, among other developments, may reduce the bargaining power of the union; it’s unclear as to whether waiting that long produces a net positive for TWU 234.

Willie Brown is right that the two sides are miles apart (the publicly aired proposals are a 6% raise over five years and a 25% raise over five years). Still, there has not, to my knowledge, been a strike vote at TWU 234. I strongly anticipate having to issue a Strike Warning over the weekend, or whenever a strike vote is called. The question is when, and under what circumstances.

One piece of leverage Willie Brown has already passed up, though; it’s much nicer outside than it was three weeks ago. Those who will be turning to long-stored bicycles for transportation may want to get them tuned up now, if they haven’t already.

Philadelphia needs driverless subways

Tying a few recent threads together, there have been a lot of jokes on the internet in the wake of the recent derailment of a CTA Blue Line train at O’Hare Airport station in Chicago. But of course, as Eric Jaffe pointed out in The Atlantic Cities, we have the luxury of laughing because the train went off the end of the trackway in the dead of night, with a relative handful of people on board, resulting in none of the 30 injuries being life-threatening. We can also avoid the sorts of knee-jerk responses we see after accidents with nonzero death tolls, like last year’s derailment at Spuyten Duyvil in New York.

Both the O’Hare crash and the Spuyten Duyvil derailment have been linked, in early media reports, to operator fatigue. While there are many technical safeguards in place, and more coming online in the next few years, to prevent operator errors from causing accidents, it’s clear that those measures are not yet 100% effective. As SEPTA prepares to join CTA in the elite club of 24-hour subways, it’s worth noting that people are more fatigued overnight than during the day, and that there is a straight line between fatigue and error rates. (I have plenty of experience with this phenomenon, being someone who sees quite a lot of the other side of midnight.) SEPTA is going to see an increase in operator error rates if it runs overnight; that is an unavoidable fact.

Except, of course, that it is entirely avoidable, by removing the operator from the circuit entirely. This is a drum that Stephen J. Smith has been banging on for quite some time, but he’s right that the time is long overdue for automated trains to come to America. Automating trains, unlike automating cars, is a mature and well-understood technology, and has not only been installed on many new-built transit lines, but has been retrofitted to older lines. One of the better-known examples of a retrofitted line, at least among transit nerds, is the Paris Métro’s Line 1, which first opened in 1900, seven years before the Market Street Elevated, and completed the changeover to automated operation in 2012.

Like many automated lines, new and old, Line 1 paired automation with the installation of platform edge doors (PEDs), which is not a technical requirement of automation. Still, PEDs are a big safety and liability-reduction upgrade that comes relatively cheap bundled with automation, especially at the claustrophobic deathtrap that is City Hall Station BSL, as well as other platform pinchpoints throughout the system, mostly caused by poorly-placed stairways and elevators down to track level. We may have avoided the New York City Subway’s critical design error of placing ubiquitous support columns in close proximity to the platform edge in most places, but not quite everywhere. If PEDs can make the passenger experience at the Broad Street Line’s busiest station better, without bringing the eponymous building down, then I’m all for installing them at the first opportunity. About a dozen or so people per year die after being struck by SEPTA trains, and cutting into that number is also a worthwhile enterprise, although it’s noteworthy how much smaller that number is compared to the traffic violence on the streets and highways.

Driverless trains also provide financial encouragement to transit agencies to operate far more frequent service in off-peak hours. This effect is strongest in systems where train length can be adjusted based on hourly demand, as SEPTA theoretically can, but currently does not. With driver compensation out of the marginal cost equation, it’s approximately the same amount of money to run three two-car trains as one six-car train, but three times as many train departures is obviously much more attractive to riders, even if they have to walk down platforms a bit more than they already do.

But this week, there’s another issue that insistently argues in favor of automating Philadelphia’s rapid transit lines: industrial action. Labor negotiations between SEPTA and TWU 234 are continuing, and the rumor mill surrounding the process (TWU head Willie Brown is talking to reporters; SEPTA is not) suggests that, despite there not yet having been a strike authorization vote presented to the TWU 234 rank and file, the two sides are far enough apart that a strike sometime in the month of April is likely. In response to the imminent threat of the third SEPTA strike in eight years, State Representative Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) has introduced legislation that would completely remove TWU’s right to strike. Nevermind that TWU is reaching Italian levels of triggerhappiness when it comes to industrial action, and thus has a public approval ranging somewhere between Jack the Ripper and the United States Congress. I strongly believe that completely revoking TWU’s right to strike is an overreaction to its abuse of that right. It also might endanger SEPTA’s federal funding, to the detriment of labor and riders alike, although that’s more ambiguous. But driverless subway trains, while not actually laborless, can be run with skeleton crews of management replacements, which is an infamously bad idea for human-operated trains. Driving a train is highly specialized skilled labor, but cleaning a train at its terminal is not. If the subways kept running, even perhaps at reduced capacity, during a strike, alongside (mostly) strike-proof Regional Rail and a bikeshare system coming online a year too late to pick up slack during this round of troubles, then Philadelphia would be functional in a way that it is not during a transit strike today. That reduces the power of TWU’s bargaining position, but not nearly as much as it would be reduced by Rep. Harper’s bill, or by a clone of New York State’s Taylor Law, which may be the alternatives facing TWU. This is not a surrender by labor so much as it is nuclear disarmament; if conflict is inevitable, as Willie Brown seems to think (and this is his second act at the helm of TWU 234), then conflict should be thinkable. The other route, the nuclear deterrence option of Mutual Assured Destruction, doesn’t seem to be enough to keep TWU off the picket lines.

So yes, let’s add automating the subways to the queue of capital improvements in the Catching Up plan. It’s a nontrivial investment, but it will be paying dividends in blood, fortune, and labor relations for decades to come.