Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Hear The Train A Comin'

OK, so I'm still mulling over a diatribe about Obama's presidency so far and how I'm at this point going to have a hard time voting for his reelection in 2-1/2 years, but I haven't had any real time to think it through properly.

For now I'd like to talk about the recent distribution of money for rail projects all over the country that Obama just handed out. I'll do my best to not put you to sleep with this post, but I make no promises.

This will be a really long post it seems, so I put regions/states in bold so you could skip ahead to read what it happening by you, I know not everyone is all geeked out about the entire train network like me.

The national media has done a horrible job of describing what the projects are where this money is going. About the only thing most people know is that Obama just handed out $8 billion for "high-speed rail projects" that will come to fruition some time way down the road (and with how train travel has gone in this country for 40 years you couldn't be blamed for thinking this will all probably happen about the same time we colonize Mars).

Well, yes and no. I'm here to let you know some details that maybe you haven't heard. The first is that most of this money is not going to true high-speed rail lines and the second is that a lot of these projects will have real results a lot sooner than you think.

Now of course Obama's plan doesn't yet do anything close to what I would like to see invested in our rail network. To do that he would have had to announce a plan to convert our interstate highways to eight-track high-speed trunk lines (two tracks dedicated to freight, two local passenger tracks, two express tracks and two super-express tracks for going non-stop between large cities like Chicago to L.A. or San Francisco) and I know that's just a dream of mine that won't be happening anytime soon. But it does do some good things, even if they are not all high-speed rail systems, though the politicians love to refer to them as high-speed. Europeans must laugh heartily at us calling a train going 110 mph "high-speed."

Some of these plans that are being touted as high-speed lines will only be returning us to speeds (90 to 110 mph) that trains in America achieved on a regular basis as long ago as the 1940s. But let's not dwell on that.

Here are some of the details to some of the projects that just got funding. Note: almost all of my info comes from a news wire that is only accessible to Trains Magazine subscribers (yes, I'm that big of a nerd) so that's why there are no links to sources. At the end of the post you'll see a map of the projects.

And while I will be writing about the transportation benefits of these projects, Let's not forget that these projects, while helping rebuild our national infrastructure that is in such terrible decay that it might as well be made of sugar, will mean thousand and thousands of construction jobs as well as thousands and thousands of permanent jobs.

All aboard!


True High-Speed Rail Lines. Two states did very well, mostly because they both had true high-speed rail (155 mph and higher) plans in the works that had voter approval (Florida's story is complicated as the state GOP killed it several times even after voters passed it) and other financing in place.

Florida, (web site) with a huge population of senior citizens and the largest tourist attraction in the country has a major need for better public transportation, and this will be a big step forward. The $1.25 billion they got from the federal government will allow them to get to work immediately in building the first segment of their HSR system. Construction will begin in 2011 or 2012 for a dedicated passenger line between Tampa and Orlando that will have trains traveling at 168 mph, doing 16 round trips a day initially. Plans call for this segment to open in early 2015, five short years from now.

California (web site) got the largest chunk of the rail project money and for good reason. California has a plan in place for an HSR system that even the Japanese and the French would call "high-speed." Long term plans call for an 800 mile system stretching from Sacramento and San Francisco to San Diego with 300 daily trains traveling at 220 mph (!!!!!) by 2026. They will first build the Anaheim-L.A.-San Jose-San Francisco segment with completion targeted for 2020.

Once up and running, trains will make the trip from L.A. to downtown San Francisco in less than 2 hours and 40 minutes. Which kicks the shit out of the six hour drive. It also competes very well with the flying time of 1:15 considering the extra amount of time you have to spend getting to and from the airports, security screening, the longer amount of time required to board planes and other hassles. Downtown L.A. to downtown S.F. in 2:40? Try doing that on a plane and let me know how that works out for you.

Which is exactly the goal of high-speed rail. Build a nationwide network like what California is planning on building and you can accomplish a major goal of rail and transportation advocates - eliminating flights of 600 miles or less.


Midwest. (web site) I really though there would be more for the planned Midwest HSR. Obama is from Illinois and James Oberstar, the head of the House Transportation Committee and a big train booster, is from Minnesota. But I suppose Florida and California are much more important to keep happy with their larger number of electoral votes in presidential elections. But the Upper Midwest states didn't come up empty handed.

Wisconsin will be the one of the first places (along with Ohio, see below) that the public sees what is being accomplished with the rail funds. The fact that there is currently no train running between Chicago or Milwaukee to Madison, a major college town, is insane. That will soon end, with $810 million going to help with a planned Milwaukee to Madison extension of the current Chicago-Milwaukee route. Now this will not be a high-speed train like Florida or California, but there are plans to upgrade tracks along the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor (where there are already seven round trips a day) and from Milwaukee to Madison to give trains the capability to run up to 110 mph.

Not only will this train be great for those of us that live in Chicago and want to go spend a weekend in a great town like Madison, but gives a great transportation option for those UW students from the Chicago and Milwaukee areas, as well as giving them a direct "train to plane" transfer with a stop at the Milwaukee airport. It will also serve a large group of people in Wisconsin, with 76% of the state's population living within 30 minutes of a station on the route, giving towns without a lot of transportation options access to the national train network.

And best of all, thanks to some foresight by the state to have already ordered two 14-car trainsets from Talgo in anticipation (and to help their chances) of getting the federal grant, the Madison train will be up and running in 2013. That means in three years we will have train service where there wasn't any before.

The future of this line looks even better, as Minnesota was given $1 million to begin a study of extending it all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Over $1 billion went to a combination of Illinois and Missouri for improvements to the Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City corridors. This will go for track improvements to bump up train speeds to 110 mph in several sections and add more trains to the now five round trips between Chicago and St. Louis and two to Kansas City.

Other funds went to a combo of Illinois, Michigan and Indiana for lots of track improvements to reduce congestion along routes between Chicago and Detroit/Port Huron/Grand Rapids. While this may be less sexy than a new high-speed line, it is no less important. Congestion on the lines kills on-time performance which in turn kills ridership levels. People will choose to take the train, even if it takes a little longer, as long as they know it will get there when it is supposed to get there. Amtrak's record ridership increases the last five years or so have quite a bit to do with their better on-time performance system-wide over that time.

Two projects that I'd hoped would receive funding but didn't are planned lines from Chicago to Iowa, one to Dubuque via Rockford and another to the Quad Cities that has future plans to also extend to Iowa City (serving a huge number of college students who live in the Chicago region) and Des Moines, and even to Omaha, Nebraska. Iowa right now has only one train going through it, the California Zephyr to the Bay Area from Chicago, and it goes through nothing but rural areas and hits none of the state's population centers. Yes, Iowa has population centers. Surprising I know. The only thing Iowa got was a little bit of money for some track improvements along their one passenger route, which will end up being a bigger benefit to freight than passengers.

But the Illinois government has committed to funding both lines, so they will happen, just not as soon as if they got the fed money.

No state with such a sizable population has been treated as crappy as Ohio by Amtrak. Four trains run through the state daily - the Lake Shore Limited eastbound to New York/Boston, the Capitol Limited eastbound to D.C. and each of those trains westbound to Chicago - and looking at the schedule you would think that Ohio had a population the size of Wyoming's instead of being the seventh largest state.

All of those trains call at their Ohio stops after 11:30pm and before 7:30am. It is even worse for Cleveland, the second largest city in the state (and the biggest metropolitan area), with all four of those trains making their stops there between 1:45 and 5:20 in the morning.

Two more trains - the eastbound and westbound Cardinal trains between Chicago and New York through a southerly route - go through Ohio. The only stop in the state is Cincinnati; they run three days a week each and also call only in the middle of the night between 1:15 and 3:30 in the morning.

So Ohio has a grand total of seven Amtrak stations, six see daily service, one sees thrice weekly service and all trains call in the middle of the night and predawn hours. That will change in just a couple of years.

Ohio Received $400 million to start rail service between Cleveland and Cincinnati, which last saw trains in 1971. It is the first line of a planned Ohio regional network called Ohio Hub, which calls for 1,244 miles of new passenger service on seven corridors centered on the hubs of Cleveland and Columbus connecting all the large towns in the state (and the small ones in-between) and reaching out to Pittsburgh, Toronto, Detroit and Ft. Wayne.

This initial line will go up quickly - a plan that has a lot to do with why they got the money, no doubt - with only six stations at first (Cleveland, Southwest Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, North Cincinnati and Cincinnati) and three round trips a day with a target opening date in 2012. Which means Obama could be at a ribbon cutting ceremony in the middle of his reelection campaign.

Then, riders of the light rail in Cleveland will finally have a reason to use the Amtrak station stop, which has never made sense since they built it, seeing as how the light rail only runs during the day and Cleveland's Amtrak trains only stop there at night.

I wish they would get money to move the train station back to Tower City in the middle of downtown instead of way out on the waterfront. Baby steps.


Southeast. (web site) This region, outside of Florida at least, didn't see a lot of major projects get funded. But there were a couple things done that could set the stage for future expansion.

North Carolina scored the best in this region, getting $520 million for upgrades on the state's successful Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh route, allowing them to bump up train speeds to 90 mph which will shave more than an hour off the travel time from Charlotte to Raleigh (competing nicely with travel time by car), and also to buy more locomotives and passenger cars to add more trains to the schedule, adding passenger flexibility which brings more riders.

There are long-term plans to get the line's speed up to 110 mph, which would get the travel time between Raleigh and Charlotte down to about an hour-and-a-half.

Virginia got $75 million to help add a third track to a section of the main passenger corridor through that state, which is huge when you consider that it is on the main corridor that connects New York and D.C. with just about the entire Southeast and sees lots of freight traffic. They also got another $25 million to add a crossover track to help ease congestion between Richmond and Raleigh, NC.

Again, not as sexy as some other projects, but more people take the train when they know it will get there as scheduled.


Of course, the Southwest got almost nothing. Texas got less than $11 million to do some work on an existing line even though they had applied for $1.8 billion. That's what you get for giving the world George W. Bush, bitches.


Pacific Northwest. Not as much as they hoped for, but money for the Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Bellingham-Vancouver Amtrak Cascades train will be a big help for capacity and on-time improvements.

Washington got $590 million for several track improvement and grade-separation projects to ease some bottlenecks and slightly increase travel times (the state DOT is saying by 5%) and they plan to add two more daily round trips between Portland and Seattle.

Oregon only got $8 million since there are only a few miles between the Washington border and Portland (the stretch to Eugene got no project funding this time around), which will go to some minor track improvements and upgrades to Portland's Union Station.

Washington and Oregon planners have high hopes to eventually get funding to build a dedicated right-of-way that handles 150 mph trains, allowing the trip between Portland and Seattle to take only a little over an hour.


Northeast. This part of the country is already the best served by rail, with the Northeast Corridor trains that include the pseudo high-speed Acela service (going up to 150 mph for a mere 16 mile of the entire route between Boston and D.C., mostly running between 120 and 135 mph) as well as a ton of other routes serving the region. A total of $485 million was granted to this region, here's how it breaks down:

The Northeast Corridor service (Boston-D.C.) was given $112 million, though Amtrak also was given another $706 million from a different pot for work on this line. Most of the money will go to replace infrastructure that will probably fall apart in a few years if something is done now, including a 100-year-old bridge in New Jersey that hosts 100 Amtrak trains and 330 NJ Transit commuter trains every weekday. Some of the funds will also go to study replacing the tunnel under Baltimore and to the building of a new station at the Baltimore airport.

New York was given a big chunk of the money to increase performance on their NYC-Albany-Buffalo Empire service. Trains already run faster in a lot of sections on this corridor (110 mph) than in most of the country, but some improvements will include a second track in an area where there is only one, track crossovers, better signal systems and the like to increase reliability (do I have to repeat that thing about people taking trains if they run on time?) as well as station upgrades in Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, including work to make stations ADA compliant.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont were given a combined $160 million, all for improvements the Vermonter route, which runs from D.C. to St. Albans, VT. A beautiful train ride, it is also very slow. Major upgrades in tracks and routing - double tracking a segment in CT, new routing in MA (saving 25 minutes on the route) and lots of track work to increase speeds in Vermont - will make this train faster and more reliable, thus attracting more passengers.

Pennsylvania got $27 million to do some final small improvements on the NYC-Philly-Harrisburg Keystone service trains. They already run at 110mph on electric power, but three remaining grade crossings will be eliminated, taking away the last slower zones on the line. There is also money there for starting to plan the extension to Pittsburgh.

Finally, Maine got $35 million to extend their successful Boston-Portland Downeaster Amtrak train (one of the few trains in America to have free wireless internet) to Freeport and Brunswick. And in Brunswick there will be cross-platform connection to the spring through fall Maine Eastern tourist rain to Rockland. It has been a long time since people have been able to vacation in the beautiful state of Maine without a car, but that will be much more of an option in about two years when this extension opens. Someone will be able to jump on a train, well just about anywhere, get to Boston, jump on the Downeaster to Brunswick and take the Main Eastern to Rockland where they can grab a ferry to any of several beautiful islands.

A vacation to coastal Maine and you can read a book and have cocktails while getting there. Why the hell would anyone want to drive?

We've got a long ways to go to catch up with Europe and a few Asian countries, but this is a start. A very small one, but a start nonetheless.

(click to enlarge)

1 comment:

(S)wine said...

i guess i'm a geek, 'cause this stuff is totally exciting to me. and thumbs up to my current home state (NC) for faring pretty well in the SE corridor.