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.

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.

The argument for Philadelphia from cost control

A lot of local political bigshots came out to the Navy Yard last Monday to announce full funding for another study of the case for extending subway service to the South Philadelphia office park.  It may not be the most pressing transit need in the region, but it does have good potential.  Perhaps more important: if Philadelphia can build subway tunnel at a tenth of the cost of New York, then that creates a strong political argument to shift federal funding here, to build and strengthen our network.

BSL Navy Yard Extension Map
Proposed routing of the BSL extension from the Navy Yard Master Plan

Discussions of the politics of federal transit funding are always fraught.  I have argued in the past that our fundamental political position with respect to the Federal Government (and the State Government, for that matter) is so weak, that we should not rely on it, and instead look to more self-reliant methods to support our rebuilding efforts.  But there is a moment right now, where federal transportation funding is in limbo, and the urgent transit megaprojects seeking federal funding are all coming from the New York City metropolitan area, a national disgrace of project cost control.  Philadelphia is in a fairly rare place in being able to justify several moderately-expensive ($10^7 to $10^9) projects with very good ROI and ridership numbers, while having a solid foundation in maintenance and state of good repair, and lack of hostility from Governor Wolf, as compared to his transit-skeptic counterparts in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

In contrast, the eyes of the nation (and Congress) are on New York City, which has a majority of transit riders nationwide, and has several expensive ($10^9-$10^10) megaprojects in construction, or in the planning pipeline.  However, New York City is a dumpster fire of project management and cost control.  Scope creep alone accounts for billions of dollars of waste, as station terminals are expanded in the hopes that the fractured, balkanized pieces of New York’s transit agencies might never have to share assets with each other.  Projects are delayed years and overrun their budgets by billions, and yet neither the contractors, nor the agencies, nor the politicians are ever held to account for it.  The three most expensive rail tunnels in human history, by cost per kilometer, are all in New York: the 7 Line Extension ($1.3B/km), the Second Avenue Subway ($1.7B/km), and LIRR East Side Access ($4B/km); the most expensive outside of New York is London’s Crossrail 1 at $1.0B/km.  The two most expensive rail stations in the world are a few blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan: the Fulton Street Transit Center ($1.4B), and Santiago Calatrava’s White Stegosaurus, the World Trade Center PATH Terminal ($4B).  The next big project is the Gateway Tunnels under the Hudson River into Penn Station, whose estimated $20 billion price tag, proposed to be split 50-25-25 between the Feds, New Jersey, and New York, dwarfs the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts budget, which runs at about $2 billion per year.  And in tacit recognition that there is no longer any authority trusted to lead the construction efforts, an entirely new Gateway Development Corporation is proposed to fill that role, an astonishing rebuke to the very existence of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

If Philadelphia can develop a reputation for delivering transit infrastructure projects at rates that are affordable, and not an international disgrace, we can attract the attention of federal funding in a way that we have not since Frank Rizzo secured funding for the Center City Commuter Connection from the Ford Administration’s UMTA (and that our present Congressional delegation has notably failed to replicate).  This will take co-operation and careful management from SEPTA, the City, PIDC, the construction trades, contractors, and luck (it’s possible that terrible soil conditions at the Navy Yard will drive up costs in a legitimate and unavoidable way).  Liberty Property Trust should probably be hit up for some of the marginal cash they will make from building more midrise offices and hotels at the Navy Yard instead of parking lots; development-oriented transit should always have a funding component from the private entities it enriches, as happened at SEPTA’s new station at Lansdale 9th Street with Stoltz Real Estate Partners.

If this strategy works, all those worthy local projects that are languishing for lack of funding, from the City Branch to the West Chester Restoration to the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, will have a fighting chance at becoming reality.  And that is something that can pay dividends across the city and throughout the region.  I don’t think I’m alone in making this calculation; why else would IBEW 98 head John Dougherty be the primary political champion of the Navy Yard subway extension?  But one political leader and one union is only a start; the commitment to keeping costs down has to come from everyone at all levels of the project.  And it starts with an alert and informed public, keeping an eye on the project as it proceeds, and committed to expediting its completion.

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

How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

City Branch Transit: the Transit Equity Express

Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.

Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.

But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.

The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:

Route 48 through Fairmount
WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS

Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.

Route 32 map section
Route 32 is only slightly better.

Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.

I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.

But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.