Should SEPTA add free Wi-Fi to the Regional Rail fleet?

septa-wifi-signal-symbol

With schedules back to normal after the summer’s Silverliner V debacle, thoughts are turning to how SEPTA can regain the ridership it’s hemorrhaged over the last three months of misery (which isn’t quite over yet; trains are still shorter than quota).  Jason Laughlin, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, collected a few suggestions on the Inky’s transportation blog.  A Facebook comment thread discussing his article then brought up the idea of introducing free wireless internet on trains.

Now, normally I’m a skeptic about trying to lure riders on to transit with gimmicky perks.  NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s risible plan to lure younger riders onto New York City’s slow and unreliable buses with USB charger ports (and also wi-fi), instead of creating bus lanes and enforcing them, is an egregious example.  But wi-fi on regional rail and intercity trains has a reasonably solid track record of being a popular feature, that doesn’t cost the transit agency very much at all to provide.  The usual complaint is that one gets what one pays for; Amtrak’s wi-fi is notoriously slow internet, slower than one can get tethering through one’s own phone, if you’re paying for that feature.  But at the very least, the experience of slow internet, while frustrating, does not drive away any passengers who would not have also been driven away by the experience of no internet. But bad internet does reinforce public narratives about transit agencies being incompetent and feckless, especially about IT (a reputation that is not entirely undeserved, in many cases).

So, should SEPTA leapfrog a generation of mobile internet solutions (which are now mostly just a cell router in a cabinet)?  My comment on the subject was this:

Amtrak recognizes that its wifi system is considered subpar, especially by Acela customers who want the premium service that they’re paying for. So they’re currently working on divorcing Northeast Corridor wifi from the commercial mobile internet, building our their own network of trackside antennas dedicated to handling their own data. The expected cost of this is expected to be $30 million for the trackside network, and $2 million for upgrades to the Acela fleet, all starting last year and running through 2019, at the end of which the bandwidth caps are expected to come off, so Acela riders can Netflix to their heart’s content.

Using those numbers to estimate what it would take to bring the same system to SEPTA Regional Rail, we’re talking about $11.4 million-$18.5 million for trackside network infrastructure (depending on how much piggybacking on Amtrak’s system is possible and how much redundancy SEPTA will have to build), and a worst-case scenario of $6.667 million to retrofit the entire Regional Rail fleet, which I think is realistically an overestimate, since retrofits are more expensive than including features in the original design, and we’re about to turn over most of the Regional Rail fleet. We’re now talking about a $20-25 million project that would take 3-4 years, after ridership will have already recovered as much as it was going to from this summer’s debacle, and not a $5 million project that takes six months to a year, starting to pull back riders out of their cars then. Is it a sufficiently better alternative that SEPTA should take it? Maybe. I don’t know. But I think either is better than the status quo.

SEPTA capital dollars are still scarce, so neither the cheap route nor the expensive route are slam-dunk cases.  1234 Market Street has been ruthlessly prioritizing its core services, as it rightly should.  But if SEPTA can make more money (whether through increased ridership or increased willingness to pay for fares) by introducing Wi-Fi, than it will cost it to provide, then it should do so.  And by the standards of SEPTA capital projects, which range up to $1.1 billion for the King of Prussia Rail project, a $5 million project, or even a $20 million project, is small.  I predict that arguments over the wisdom of introducing Wi-Fi will continue, even long after the introduction of the service on the SEPTA fleet, should that ever happen.

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This, too, is America: Burlington Route edition

I’m on the California Zephyr, on my way home from Denver, and the big stories back home are about the continuing lack of Silverliner Vs, and the announcement by Vice President Joe Biden that the Federal Government will be providing $2.45 billion in loans to Amtrak for the next generation of high speed trains on the Northeast Corridor.  Since I saw plenty of Silverliner Vs running merrily along at Denver Union Station on RTD’s A and B lines, and conventional-speed transcontinental trains are both close cousins and as far from sleek, Pendolino-derived HSTs as you can get, I’ve definitely been feeling this weekend as though I’ve been looking at American passenger railroading through a glass, darkly.

The Acela Express has the dubious distinction of having been such a success that it removed fast train travel in the Northeast from the reach of many ordinary people, since even the Northeast Regional trains that are meant to hold the middle of the market are regularly bid up to the sky and/or sold out.  The Avelia Liberty trainsets, which will be the successor to the original Acelas, are going to be an attempt to implement the aphorism that “the main problems with Amtrak can be solved with more Amtrak”.  28 trainsets (a 40% increase), and 9 passenger cars per trainset (a 50% increase), will result in a doubling of availability for high-margin HST seats.  That will give Amtrak some breathing room to continue making money on the Northeast Corridor, although it may suffer from a lack of ambition (9 cars is barely into the range of respectable length by international standards, but will still require expensive alterations to Amtrak maintenance facilities in Boston).  The tractive power on these new trains will be capable of 165 mph, with ambiguous mention of upgradability beyond that (although that might have been marketing targeted at the California High Speed Rail Authority), but the real trip time improvements will come from replacing the Acela’s “flying bank vault” design, and bespoke tilting mechanism, with mature European designs for both crashworthiness and tilting.  The key to going fast will be not going so slow.

Speaking of going “slow”, my current location obviously indicates that I have no intrinsic problem with it.  Conventional trains, whether day or sleeper, have their place, and will continue to do so even after true HSR begins to roll out across the country.  But this trip has been a painful reminder of American national priorities.  Crossing Iowa on the ex-CB&Q, much of the trip is within sight of US 34, a four lane divided highway with virtually no traffic.  Also frequently in sight is “Old Hwy 34”, a two-lane strip of battered concrete that is nevertheless <em>entirely adequate</em> to handle the observed traffic on both roads, or would be with proper maintenance.  Meanwhile, there is plenty of slack intermodal capacity on the railroad, something easily deduced from the evidence that Amtrak is suddenly and consistently running on time or early, both on 5/6 and nationwide.  That’s always a morbid sign that freight traffic is down significantly, in this case from the Death of Coal.

BNSF’s track department really needs to work on their switch installations.  Every one we went over west of Galesburg felt like a cannon shot fired into the bottom of the train.

I still want my 200+ mph HSR from Chicago to Omaha via the Quad Cities and Des Moines.  That’s where the population is, that’s where the travel markets are.  No offense to the CB&Q, BNSF, or the few, but proud, residents of southern Iowa.  And being able to make the Chicago-Omaha hop in 3 or 4 hours instead of 9 or 10 would be game-changing, including for those continuing to Denver or points west.  As amazing a time as I had in Denver, I don’t think it’s worth it to build HSR from there going either east or west to replace the current conventional service, although a north/south corridor along the Front Range would be promising.

The Silverliner V crisis continues; the latest measure will be express buses from select stations, to relieve pressure on crowded trains after Labor Day weekend.

Advanced tips for how to get in and out of Center City during the SEPTApocalypse: Paoli-Thorndale Line

After two days of travel woes due to the Silverliner V crisis, some patterns have been established in terms of where the worst delays are, and how best to avoid them.  This series will be a listing of the best strategies to avoid the worst.

These will all assume an origin or destination in or beyond Center City Philadelphia. Directions will be for inbound travel, and will be reversible unless noted.  There will be some assumption made that money is available to exchange for time and/or comfort.

Outer Main Line

Amtrak’s Keystone Service is already the best bet from Paoli, Exton, or Downingtown, but if you are within walking distance of Malvern, Whitford, or Thorndale, you can use SEPTA for local travel to an Amtrak station, and catch America’s Railroad for the trip in.  This is actually best for outbound trips in the evening, which are exhibiting greater peakiness of crowding and delays.

West Chester residents used to driving to Exton to catch the train there might want to instead take the 104 bus from Downtown West Chester to 69th Street.

Middle Main Line

Daylesford, Devon, and Berwyn riders might consider a wrong-way trip to Paoli to pick up Amtrak there.  Otherwise, riders from east of Paoli and west of the Blue Route should consider taking the train to Radnor or Villanova, getting off there, and walking to the NHSL stations of the same names.  Take the NHSL in from there to 69th Street for the El into Center City.

Inner Main Line

As surface transit options proliferate with proximity to Philadelphia, the optimal alternative changes rapidly.  For Bryn Mawr and Haverford, I would suggest the 20 minute walk to the NHSL.  At Ardmore, Amtrak is making extra stops, but I recommend the 103 bus to Ardmore Junction instead, fulfilling its traditional role from its origin as a Red Arrow trolley.  In Narberth, the 44 bus to Center City  is likely the best.  And in Overbrook, the walk to 63rd and Malvern for the 10 trolley is far better than fighting through the crowds on the train.

The Silverliner V fleet is grounded. How you can avoid the mess.

SEPTA Silverliner V #807 boarding at Temple University Station.
A SEPTA Silverliner V in happier times. All 120 cars in the class have been withdrawn from service. By O484~enwiki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A defect in the trucks of the SEPTA Silverliner V has rendered 120 cars of the Regional Rail fleet inoperable until replacement parts can be fabricated and repairs can be made, a process which is expected to take the rest of the summer.  With approximately 1/3 of the fleet illegal to run, SEPTA Regional Rail will be on an enhanced Saturday schedule until further notice.  Complete schedules are posted on SEPTA’s website.

In order to make up the deficit of ~13,000 seats, SEPTA (and perhaps other agencies TBA) are laying on alternative services to try to avoid a complete rush hour meltdown.  As of now, SEPTA has already extended rush hour service levels on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, the cancellation of the Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel maintenance blitz, additional service on the Norristown High Speed Line and Media and Sharon Hill trolleys, and has additional buses on standby to augment service.

So what should the savvy commuter do in these circumstances?

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SEPTA’s Trainview status board as of 8:40 AM, July 5th, as screen-captured by scotty269 on the railroad.net forums

1. Leave early, stay late, travel off-peak.

No matter what, peak capacity is going to be slammed.  Everything is taking longer than normal to get from A to B.  Take this into account, and also be aware that there will be both unexpected delays to published transit schedules, as well as extra transit service on little to no notice.  Allow plenty of time for everything, and stay connected to service alerts.  Off-peak trains seem to be running reasonably uncrowded, so if you can shift your travel plans, do so.  I expect happy hours across Center City to be well-patronized.

2. Other transit services are your friend.

If you have the option of taking an alternate service into or out of Center City at peak hours in the peak direction, whether that’s Amtrak from Chester County, the NHSL from Norristown or the Main Line, a suburban trolley from Delaware County, or a CTD bus from large swathes of Northwest Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia and Cheltenham and Abington Townships, please do so.  Not only will you make your own trip far more comfortable, but you will free up a seat (or one quarter of a square meter of standing room floor) for someone who may not have an alternative.  We are all in this together, and we can only get through by working together.  (Speaking of which, Amtrak needs to get it together as to whether or not it’s cross-honoring SEPTA passes on the Keystones.  They should, but they also need to be consistent.)  The least-crowded alternative service is the Broad Street Line from Fern Rock and Olney Transportation Centers.

3. Carpool, casually or otherwise.

SEPTA has opened up additional parking lots near the Sports Complex and has suspended parking fees at Frankford TC’s garage, and opened up additional parking in other locations, but a few hundred parking spaces isn’t going to do much in the face of a few thousand missing railroad seats.  If you must drive in, please try to bring along a few other people from your area.  Casual carpools, a/k/a “slug lines“, have yet to spring up in the absence of HOV restrictions on local highways, but are a good solution to the coordination problem of inadequate transit; if anyone hears of one setting up, or wants to start one, tell me and I will signal-boost it.

4. Lyft and Uber are still taxis.  Use them accordingly.

Taking an e-hail taxi into the city is not a systemic solution to the crisis, although it might be the one-off solution to making an important appointment on-time when transit is running very late.  Do consider them for bridging the gap to alternate services, especially in the suburbs, e.g. from Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore, to Ardmore Avenue Station on the NHSL, if the 103 bus isn’t practical; or from Malvern (where Amtrak doesn’t stop) to Paoli (where it does).  Uber’s cross-promotion with SEPTA, offering 40% discounts on Uber rides to or from 11 selected Regional Rail parking lots, is still good even if you board a bus afterwards instead of a train.

5. Don’t take your frustration out on SEPTA.

SEPTA unquestionably did the right thing in taking the Silverliner Vs out of service.  The defective part can fail catastrophically, causing a derailment, and nobody wants that to happen on a crowded train.  Whether they did the right thing in buying them from Hyundai Rotem in the first place is a long story and controversial subject, but everybody involved in that decision has since retired, so the beleaguered conductor or customer service rep isn’t responsible (and isn’t in a position to fix it now).  So take a deep breath, and save your anger for a worthier target.

Still more questions than answers in the wreck of Amtrak 188

The NTSB released its preliminary findings into the Amtrak 188 derailment on February 1st, and to be perfectly blunt, we still know about as much as we did the day after the crash.  We know the “how” of the derailment — that the train went into the curve at Frankford Junction at 106 mph instead of the 50 mph speed limit — and we knew that on May 13th, but we are still no closer to knowing the “why”.  The NTSB report rules out virtually every form of mechanical failure, so focus has descended on Amtrak 188’s engineer, Brandon Bostian.

However, the NTSB’s initial safety recommendation, asking for inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs, essentially admits that there is no way of ever knowing exactly what happened in the cab of Amtrak locomotive #601.  This is distressing, since there are two major theories for what happened, with diametrically opposing conclusions as to fault.

The first theory is that Bostian zoned out or lost situational awareness, and deliberately accelerated, thinking that he was somewhere else.  In this event, engineer error is the major proximate cause of the crash, and Bostian is primarily responsible.

The second theory is that, possibly in response to his locomotive getting hit with a rock (as frequently happens in North Philadelphia, and had just happened to a 30th Street-bound SEPTA train nearby), Bostian flinched in such a way as to render himself dazed or unconscious.  (There is no way to medically determine if the concussion Bostian sustained happened either just before, or during, the crash.)  In that case, Bostian is innocent, and the primary responsibility rests on Amtrak for the failure of its safety precautions (the combination of the lack of either automatic train control (ATC) or positive train control (PTC) on the northbound tracks of the NEC at Frankford Junction, and the failure of the locomotive’s deadman/alerter system to recognize Bostian’s incapacity in time to prevent disaster).

However, with Bostian’s memory, rendered unreliable by that concussion, as the only record of what happened, we have no way of knowing which of these two cases actually applies.  That is no fault of Mr. Bostian’s; similar uncertainty has reigned in other cases, where the engineer did not survive to be interviewed by the NTSB.  With personal-injury lawyers circling, the choice before the civil courts is a guessing game, where if they get it right, it will be a tragedy, and if they get it wrong, it will be a dreadful miscarriage of justice.  As it stands, because this question will never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, it is almost certain that Bostian will never operate a train again.

Perhaps a more interesting question, and one that is conspicuously absent from the NTSB report, is whether the FRA regulations concerning the survivability of passenger cars played any role in saving lives.  American railroad equipment is infamously overweight, loaded up with steel armor to meet a buff strength requirement, so that it does not deform in a low-speed crash.  Despite this, business class car 81528 on Amtrak 188 was smashed to flinders, to the point where first responders didn’t even realize it had once been an 85 foot long steel tube with people inside.  Moreover, passengers still died in the coach class cars behind the business class car, despite those cars’ much less damaged condition.  The rest of the world uses a crash-energy management (CEM) standard for passenger car safety (which encourages safety features similar to the crumple zones in modern automobiles), which makes cars signginicantly lighter weight, which in turn improves both everyday performance and braking in emergencies.  It isn’t clear that CEM would have made for a less deadly crash at 106 mph, but the unwillingness of the NTSB’s Survival Factors Group to even entertain the question is disturbing, especially when the FRA’s process to adopt CEM as a standard in the US is over a year late and possibly in limbo.  Even a finding that the two standards would have had equivalent results would be a very big deal, since the buff strength standard adds enormous capital and operating costs to American railroads.

One change that looks like it’s for the better, but is not, is the installation of an ATC restriction to 45 mph on the northbound NEC at Frankford Junction.  As a short-term stopgap, this is fine, but should be refined or removed once PTC is fully deployed, since the ATC system has no way of displaying or enforcing the true 50 mph speed limit on those tracks.  The redundancy does not actually help, and the delay from the speed restriction is already significant.

Lastly, also left unaddressed is what exactly the NEC is still doing with a 50 mph curve at Frankford Junction.  Straightening the curve is bound to be expensive, but addressing this anachronism would be far more effective, and for less money, than many of the proposals on the table to improve high-speed rail on the NEC.

A brief summary of my remarks to the NEC FUTURE hearing

I wasn’t expecting to speak at Monday night’s hearing on the NEC FUTURE Draft EIS, mostly because I failed to do my homework and realize that they would be accepting spoken testimony.  So I winged it, with some hastily jotted notes.  Here are the highlights of that extemporaneous speech, heavily revised and extended, as best as I can reconstruct it. The best criticism of the NEC Future proposals is and remains Alon Levy’s “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire“, which you should read if you have any interest in the subject.  Summaries of the presentation and hearing as a whole have been written by (in publication order): Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Smith of Philadelphia Magazine, and Jim Saksa of PlanPhilly.

 

My name is Michael Noda, and I am a writer on transportation topics.  I am also an advisor to The 5th Square Political Action Committee, but my views tonight are my own.

My main motivation in speaking tonight is to see a better NEC with the ability to serve many more passengers over both commuter and intercity distances.  That’s why the proposals that have come out of the NEC FUTURE EIS process are so disappointing.  They aren’t coherent about delivering either performance or capacity upgrade value for the money.  In fact the $290 billion price tag for Alternative 3 (“Transform”) is so far divorced from reality that it calls the entire process into question.  Alon Levy suggests that performance upgrades equivalent to Alternative 3 can be had for less than $15 billion in capital upgrades.  I’m far more of a cynic, and think it would cost three times as much as Mr. Levy thinks it will.  So instead of achieving radical transformation of the Northeastern economy at 95% cost savings, I think it can only be done at 85% cost savings.  That is still an incredibly damning indictment of the process to date.

Some of that cost bloat comes from the high costs associated with American public-sector construction.  Far more comes from scope bloat and the inclusion of entirely unnecessary so-called “improvements” that add billions of dollars in cost, for negligible benefit.  The proposed tunnel down 12th Street here in Philadelphia, to serve a new deep-cavern station under Market East, included in Alt 3 (“Transform”), has been widely mocked and derided, and rightly so.  The economic center of gravity of this city today is at or very near 30th Street Station, and splitting future Amtrak service between two downtown stations is not an improvement for any riders, even the ones with origins or destinations immediately adjacent to 12th and Market.  The most optimistic cost estimate of that tunnel could provide gold-plated versions of necessary rail infrastructure upgrades, throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

But the terrible and wasteful ideas aren’t confined to Alt 3.  Alt 2 (“Grow”) includes an inexplicably perennial proposal to detour the NEC to the Philadelphia International Airport.  That might be a good idea for American Airlines.  If they agree, they should get out their checkbooks and pay for it.  The Airport detour has no transit value. Not enough people are in the market to ride Amtrak to catch a flight out of PHL.  Even if we build it, they won’t come.  The large cities on either side of us have three airports each, and have a combined better selection of flights than we do.  And the airports nearest us, BWI and Newark Liberty, already have excellent connections to the NEC.  Again, maybe there is particular benefit to American Airlines and its passengers, but looking after their interests is not the remit of either Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration.

In sum, the project alternatives are wonderful proposals in the Land of Infinite Money, and if the FRA is willing to tell me how to get there, I will emigrate at the first opportunity.  But in the meantime, we live here, where our resources are finite, and determined (in this context) by our political masters.

Of much more interest to Philadelphians, and much higher return on public investment, is the prospect of improvements to interlockings and curves along the NEC that would allow for more and faster trains through the existing plant.  In this area, the biggest problem areas are at: Frankford Junction, site of the Amtrak 188 derailment last year; Zoo Junction immediately north of 30th Street Station; and PHIL interlocking, where SEPTA’s Airport Line joins the NEC, and inbound SEPTA Wilmington Line trains cross over the NEC at-grade.  The straightening of curves to 4000 meter minimum radius, the installation of high-speed turnouts to replace switches designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for far slower trains, and other such improvements will shave significant time from the journeys of suburban and intercity passengers alike.  This process should be done with closer attention and respect paid to the surrounding landscape; the FRA’s Alt 2 seems to show a straightening of the curve of the NEC between Zoo Junction and the Schuylkill River, which is laudable except that the area inside that curve is also known as the Philadelphia Zoo, and to say that that land is not available for any at-grade or elevated option is to put it very mildly.  As well, the construction of additional flyover ramps at these locations will greatly increase the amount of concurrent traffic the NEC can handle, by allowing simultaneous intercity and suburban movements where today those trains conflict and must stop and wait for each other; this would be especially valuable on suburban rail routes like the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line and the NJT Atlantic City Line, which suffer from low ridership as a result of their abysmally low frequency.  All of these are very unsexy fixes that will not result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities, but they will improve the NEC to true High Speed Rail standards within a realistic budget.  And even in Alt 1 (“Maintain”), the alternative mainly focused on such bottleneck improvement projects, there is little attention paid.

Again, I take no particular joy in making these criticisms.  My call for efficiency is is rooted in a desire for abundance, that is, for an NEC that can live up to its potential as a High Speed Rail connection between the cities of the Northeast.  But the only realistic way to achieve that goal — a goal I do believe the FRA genuinely shares — is to guard vigilantly agains unnecessary scope bloat and excessive unit costs.  An attentive agency ought to have realized that a price tag that is twice as much per kilometer as maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, for inferior service, was a red flag that its process was broken, and taken steps to correct itself before releasing the Draft EIS to the public.  That opportunity may have passed, but it is not too late for the FRA to correct its course.  I sincerely hope that it does so.

Thank you for your time.

Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.

 

More in sympathy than in gloating,

-STP