I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things.

I have tried, over the life of this blog, to strip away as much of my own personal political views, to present a non-partisan view of the topics I cover here.  Most of them are technical or mathematical in nature to begin with, and many others are the subjects of broad left-right consensus, so this has not been a large handicap.  Where my center-leftism has crept in, it is the inevitable result of America’s main political fissure: the Republican Party is (broadly) the party that opposes cities and the people who live in them, and the Democratic Party is (broadly) the party of the urban archipelago.  This makes some forms of judgment on political affiliation inescapable.  I didn’t turn my Twitter avatar into an “I’m With Her” button, but I highly doubt anyone would have been shocked if I had.

The present circumstances are not normal.  The broad threat to the rule of law and American political and social norms ought to transcend partisan affiliation (but has only done so to a small extent so far).  It is without precedent in American history, at least since 1865.   Continue reading I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things.

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.

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.

SEPTA Regional Rail strikers ordered to return to work tomorrow

And just like that, it was over.

President Obama has created a Presidential Emergency Board to intervene in the strike by engineers and electricians at SEPTA Regional Rail, which forces both sides back to the negotiating table and forces the strike to be called off for the next 240 days. As the order is timestamped at 12:01 AM tonight, that will delay any further strike action until February 10, 2015.

While it is faintly possible that there will be lingering disruption as service resumes, service should be normal tomorrow morning.

STRIKE WARNING: SEPTA Regional Rail

It is the duty of this blog to forecast that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Division 71, will commence a strike action against SEPTA’s Regional Rail Division tonight at 12:01 am.

What remains unclear is how long the BLET will remain off the job. Under the Railway Labor Act, President Obama may, at request, establish a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to take over the discussions between the union and management. Workers would be legally enjoined from striking for 240 days.

This strike has snuck up on Greater Philadelphia, because requesting a PEB is standard procedure, and everyone, including me, was still factoring in the 240 day delay. But SEPTA management has decided on a gambit to catch the unions short and risk a strike now in the summer, when the city is better equipped to handle a strike, rather than wait until next February when the weather will be against both SEPTA and its passengers. SEPTA is also disrupting any pre-assembled plans to co-ordinate strikes with City and Suburban transit workers, represented by TWU 234. What remains to be seen is what Governor Corbett will do; he has indicated that he will request a PEB on his own, as soon as the engineers walk. Whether he is capable of following through on that effectively remains to be seen.

The BLET, which represents Regional Rail’s engineers, has been without a contract since 2010. The proximate trigger of the walkout is SEPTA’s unilateral imposition of contract terms announced for this weekend, which voids the RLA’s prohibition against striking during negotiations.

The last Regional Rail strike began on March 15, 1983, and lasted 108 days. The primary conflicts were about new work rules imposed or proposed by SEPTA on its takeover of Regional Rail from Conrail that January.

Ted Cruz, you asshole

Overview:

“NEC FUTURE is a comprehensive planning effort to define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), launched by [the FRA] in February 2012.

…NEC FUTURE will create a framework for the future investments needed to improve passenger rail capacity and service through 2040…”

Public Meetings:

“Open House Meetings, October-November 2013 – Postponed”

“Due to the recent federal government shutdown, the NEC FUTURE public meetings have been postponed until 2014 (or after the holiday season). Please check this website for information on dates and locations for rescheduled open houses. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

The cancelled meetings for this area had been scheduled for November 4th in Wilmington and November 13th in Philadelphia.