Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Amtrak, HSR, and the Need for Speed

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

by Robert Cruickshank

Joseph Boardman was in Chicago talking to Illinois lawmakers about high speed trains, and threw cold water on hopes of implementing a California-style HSR system in the Midwest:

Introducing ultra-fast passenger trains to the Midwest is less important than the need for more frequent service between cities, reliable schedules that beat the time spent driving and rail connections that permit travel across the United States, Amtrak's chief official said Monday in Chicago.

True high-speed rail clipping along at 200 m.p.h. or faster would be prohibitively expensive to build on the scale needed to serve the U.S., and such systems work best only when the number of stops are limited, Joseph Boardman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, told Illinois lawmakers at a hearing in the Thompson Center on the passenger railroad's agenda.

"It's really not about the speed. It's about reduced travel times and more frequency," he told the Illinois House Railroad Industry Committee. "The competitive advantage is with the train."

Boardman said plans in the Midwest for trains traveling up to 110 m.p.h. on corridors stretching over nine states make more sense. He said the immediate focus must be on modernizing infrastructure to increase train speeds in the Chicago area that currently are as slow as 5 m.p.h. because of freight-train congestion and antiquated track and signaling equipment.

Getting up to even 40 m.p.h. on stretches between Chicago and cities less than 50 miles away, such as Joliet, would be a big improvement, Boardman said.

"One hundred and ten is double the national speed limit" of 55 m.p.h. on highways, noted Boardman, who was administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during several years of the Bush administration.

To which Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic offered a strong reply:

I hate to point out the obvious — something I’ve had to do in the past — but reduced travel times can only be achieved through (a) reducing the distance traveled, or (b) increasing the speed of trains. Since I’m assuming Mr. Boardman wasn’t suggesting that customers simply start taking shorter trips, the only way you can reduce travel times is by increasing speed. So it really is about the speed. Sorry, Mr. Boardman.

Mr. Boardman used this argument to inform the committee that it was infeasible to build true high-speed rail (that is, “HSR-Express,” as we’re calling 150+ mph service these days) at the scale needed for the United States because of its high cost, and said that speed improvements to service at 110 mph were more realistic.

I have no problem with steadily improving train speeds, nor of course with increased frequency. But we should be investing in much faster speeds along the country’s most important corridors, like San Francisco-Los Angeles or Washington-Boston. Those lines, among others, deserve the same level of rail service as is provided in European and Asian countries, and there’s no reason to think that the U.S. is simply incapable of building them. Whether or not some trips taken by Americans are transcontinental, the fact is that the majority of long-distance trips are made by people traveling between cities 100 and 600 miles apart. Those distances are ideal for high-speed rail.

Boardman believes that improvements in Chicagoland can increase speeds from 5 to 45 mph, and that if you can get trains to accomplish 110 mph, you can bring enough people to trains to make it worth your while.

But that's the key issue here - "worth your while." Sure, you can get more people to ride a train from Chicago to St. Louis at 110mph, but as much as would drive or fly? And would a 110mph train change travel habits as much as a 200mph train would?

If you look at Spain you might get a sense of the answer. Madrid and Barcelona have long been connected by fast trains operated by RENFE above 110mph, but it was only when the AVE was completed to Barcelona-Sants in early 2008 that you started to see a big shift in travel habits away from the airlines and towards the train. Of course, there's about 100 miles difference in the distance between the two cities (Chicago-St Louis is about 300 miles; Madrid to Barcelona is about 400 miles) and that might make some difference.

Still, there does seem to be a solid case that true high speed rail - above 150mph - really does make a big difference in terms of ridership. I think Boardman should not be so prejudicial in his comments against that kind of HSR in Illinois or the Midwest, and I hope he doesn't wind up having any influence over the decision about which HSR projects get funded - because here in California, we ARE going to have trains going over 200 mph, and it's the right thing to do.

55 comments:

BruceMcF said...

This seems very much like an allergic reaction to the notion that unless its Express HSR, its not worth doing.

But all too many "mode wars" are fueled by "clarifications" that lean back in the opposite direction.

The difference between the Midwest and Ohio Hub situation and the California situation is straightforward. In California, the Bay and the LA Basin are far enough apart that Regional HSR would only attract a modest mode share from air and a modest mode share from cars, and yet would still require $10b+ in tunneling/viaducts/etc. to get efficient alignments. With Express HSR trips of under 3hrs possible, the increase in benefit substantially outweighs the increase in cost.

The Great Lakes and eastern Midwest are, by contrast, almost perfect terrain for Emerging HSR corridors, including a wide number of rail ROW with owners that have substantial property tax incentives to sell alignments within existing ROW to public authorities.

And the network of services on the Emerging HSR corridors, including local rail services developed on those corridors, will end up being major recruiters for the Express HSR corridors when they are established, will offer the foundations for central urban access, and will provide much of the Express HSR alignments.

However, Boardman has a vested interest in over-stating the case for Emerging HSR, since on the one hand, the Emerging HSR corridors will provide far more direct benefits to the Amtrak conventional rail services than the Express HSR, and on the other hand, it seems far more likely that Amtrak will win the right to operate some or all of the Emerging HSR services than that they will win the rights to operate the Express HSR services.

So, given his vested interests, it is not surprising if his defense of Emerging HSR corridors goes overboard in minimizing the prospective benefits of Express HSR.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I think I agree with Bruce if he means...

Mr. Boardman represents Amtrak, which shares ROW with freight. Investment in HSR, like California, would mean investment in a new and separate system in which he himself operates a service, Amtrak. And, which would likely compete for limited funding.

Instead, improvements in infrastructure serving Amtrak (and by default, freight) is more worthwhile than HSR.


That's what I interpreted when reading Boardman's comment. It seems similar to what I interpreted from what Bruce said of Boardman's comments.

An additional observation... Boardman spoke to a system, or network, serving the nation... rather than regional intercity services. That... improving the national system and its infrastructure were better than a regional only system (on a separate and new network).

Respective of Boardman, to each is own; however, I disagree if applied uniformly across the country.

I feel each modal type needs constant watch and investment. Ignore them, and they whither. I cannot say one is better than the other right now; however for too long this nation and its regions have focused too much attention on particular modes (like auto's) at the expense of other modes (transit, etc.).

Me being a prognosticator... because of Obama's plan to invest in high-speed rail we will see many governmental bodies quickly huddle and come up with plans. However, because their previous planning and preparation for HSR was nominal, if existent at all, we'll see clumsy attempts to hastily develop plans in hope of grabbing some of the Federal funding that is being made available. And, if it requires no local match... perfect. Maybe those local efforts can access Federal HSR funds to fully support a hodge-podge of rail improvements in their bergs if they can make a credible argument, however specious, that HSR may be a possibility in the future. But, they’ll balk when it comes time to provide their own funding in the future as a match.

In addition, some of those governmental efforts to develop an HSR plan will involve joining forces with other bodies already involved in HSR, like the CHSRA, to gather information and exhibit merit to their own project. We will likely see announced planning efforts all across the county; however, more than half will likely drop out.

Has the Dakota or Wyoming HSR plan been written about yet? It's only a matter of time before we see and here about places like those in the news.

BruceMcF said...

Brandon, not just a generic sense of investment in new infrastructure in existing rail rights of way, but the Emerging HSR lines often partly or completely overlap with existing Amtrak routes, so that Amtrak through services are often the first beneficiaries of the incremental upgrade path.

But stating the positive case for Emerging and Regional HSR goes overboard when it starts to descend into Regional HSR vs Express HSR mode wars, because if done right, Regional HSR and Express HSR will ultimately be strongly complementary and mutually supporting.

Boardman may be acting like he has a vested interest in talking down Express HSR, but that approach is, I think, ill-advised. Better to talk up the complementarity.

JoeC said...

It seems that Boardman was really just laying out the realities of building true HSR in the Midwest – basically that it will take a lot of money and political will, and that the states have to be in the lead before the feds come up with additional funding, because there really is not a lot of money to build HSR available from the feds yet.
While a lot of states in the Midwest are looking enviously at California, we’ve really had to work hard to get to where we are today. Remember that a little over twenty years ago, passenger rail in California was practically non-existent; besides Amtrak's overnight trains, there were a few trains per day between San Diego and LA, and two a day between Oakland and Bakersfield. Caltrain was a kind of pokey, lonely line with no links to other rail service. There was no Capital Corridor, no Metrolink, no LA Metrorail, no Surfliner. No ACE, Coaster or Sprinter. No Sacramento or San Jose light rail. And one failed attempt to build HSR to San Diego.
The Midwest has very little existing intercity rail in place now; between Chicago and the Twin Cities (my hometown) for example, there is a single long distance train that takes eight hours over 420 miles, and is often delayed due to it having to cross the Rocky Mountains on the way from Seattle. Would real HSR make sense in this corridor? I think so, but the political effort to even get to the planning stage would take five to ten years, and then it would take another ten years to build it. In the meantime it would make a lot of sense to build a constituency for rail travel by increasing the available options – e.g. improve existing infrastructure to allow higher speed, add frequencies, and build connecting service and plan transit oriented communities around stations (another thing almost non-existent in the Midwest). In the long term, a five hour trip from Minneapolis to Chicago six times a day may not have much impact, but it would set the stage for something much better.

Eric said...

One thing the Midwest does have going for it is land that is relatively cheap and flat, in most places.

I'd imagine engineering and construction costs for true (200+ mph) HSR would be considerably less than in CA.

bossyman15 said...

I agree what JoeC said. It's true that it takes few years to plan the hsr line and another few years to build it.

It does make sense to upgrade the tracks for higher speed today while they plan for true hsr. once that time comes then change it to true hsr.

In our case... well we already far in planning.

Ian said...

i hope he's saying this for some sort of politics' sake, because it is *not* the kind of thought process we want to be having at a national level when it comes to trains...

considering everything gets watered down in the end anyway, setting sights so low is pretty disheartening.

especially since the midwest would be a pretty good true HSR corridor, as explained above. what is boardman thinking? he sounds like a bush appointee...

Brandon in San Diego said...

Boardman may be with Amtrak, but I bet his history and professional upbringing was on the freight side of rail operations.

To that, Boardman probably knows more about how to run a railroad than a passenger train system. And, he'll be more apt to speak to things that improve rail infrastructure of the heavy rail network he knows about than get behind a completely new system.

That said, the Midwest is not in California, is it? So, why must we discuss it?

Robert.. if you're reading... a few days ago you spoke to providing an update of Oberstar's efforts on the next transportation bill. Is that on the way? Inquiring minds want to know.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Brandon - yes! Thanks for reminding me about that. It did slip my mind. But it will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

arcady said...

All that particular article is talking about is the Midwest. And indeed, if you look at what plans for Midwest service are like, express HSR does not make sense: you have the Chicago Hub and half a dozen lines radiating from it in all directions. It's not like California, with its two major urban areas which can be linked with a line that also connects two other fairly large cities, and can have a couple fairly simple extensions and branches to cover almost all the state's population. A decent increase of speed and service frequency could really help boost ridership, and increased frequency really is a kind of savings of travel time: if you have to get somewhere by 5, and the only trains going there arrive at 2 and 6, then doubling the train frequency saves you two hours of waiting around. Unfortunately, this can't really work in California, as upgrading the Coast corridor would still result in travel times that are too slow, while the San Joaquin corridor has the fatal flaw of a mandatory bus transfer at Bakersfield, which is likely to only ever be solved by a new HSR line.

Anonymous said...

HSR + Tornadoes = ugly

Anonymous said...

Anything + tornadoes = ugly

That's why I'm calling for the entire midwest to be vacated. The risk of tornadoes is simply too high.

Gimme a break!

jim said...

I read this same article at work tonight. I thought he made a lot of sense. While no doubt one day true hsr will come, the cost will be astronomical and there is a lot of room for incremental upgrades in the meantime. I am very please with our companies new focus on improvements across the board. There are many corridors planning for these incremental upgrades as well as the restoration of discontinued routes and frequencies.

jim said...

Keep in mind that Boardman is a railroader with experience. We need railroaders in charge of america's railroads, starting with California. As we have seen the gaggle of crusty politicians currently in charge of HSR in Ca are behaving like - crusty politicians. How bout having an actual railroad in charge of building and operating a railroad. Shocking suggestion I know.

jim said...

by the way I thought this was funny - I german ICE engineer came by the station today and wanted to kow where he could take pics of the trains and locos - we talked a bit, and lamented the lack of real trains in europe, "Ours are fast, but america has real trains not electric toys" or something like that is what he said. ----I guess the grass IS always greener......

Spokker said...

Taking mass transit, train or bus, is safer for cat owners.

Eric said...

@Jim

That story about the ICE engineer is hilarious. We go to Europe and we're blown away by how fast and sleek and modern their passenger trains are; but we take for granted how impressive the sheer size and tonnage of a typical North American freight train is to the average European.

It brings up a larger point, though, as passenger demand for speed and punctuality increases at the same time as freight volume grows, sharing infrastructure between the two types of traffic becomes increasingly untenable. It's all well and good for relatively slow, scenic passenger trains like the Pacific Surfliner to share trackage with freight, but for any kind of serious high speed rail, integration with freight traffic is just not viable.

josh said...

The East Coast mainline in England is limited to 125 mph (ie, around the speeds Boardman is aspiring to), with similar speeds from London to Manchester.

Unfortunately, all of those cities connected to London by 125mph rail lines have seen huge increases in flights in the past 10 years (London - Manchester = 200 miles; London - Newcastle = 280 miles; London - Edinburgh =400 miles).

Obviously there are some local factors at play (many of those flights are for people connecting at the country's only really big airport), but broadly, keeping trains limited to 125 mph has resulted in forcing many people into the air.

TomW said...

I agree that to get passengers to switch from air to rail, Express HSR is needed. However, within the mid-west region (say within 250 miles of Chicago), I imagine most people use cars rather than planes to get around. Given that, train only has to beat car - NOT plane. An hourly (or more frequent) 110mph service would certainly achieve that.

The wider point is this: different regions require different solutions to their transport problems. This sounds obvious, but many people forget it. For the mid-west, 110mph rapid rail would encourage a major mode shift, whereas LA-SF needs 200mph+.

TomW said...

@ Josh:
"keeping trains limited to 125 mph" has not "forced" people to air.
Rail's share (market) of the London-Manchester market is climbing, and has been for some time as a result of the upgrades on that route. Air's share of London-Newcastle is small (under 10%, mostly people doing connecting flights) and has been for some time. Air does has the majority share of the London-Edinburgh market, but the split has remained stable. Any increase in flights has resulted from mroe peopel travelilng, not a greater market share.
So, rail's market share has remained constant where route speeds are constant. Further, 125mph rail captures a significant portion of the market for journeys under 300-350 miles.

Rafael said...

@ Spokker -

and now for something completely different.

BruceMcF said...

Brandon in San Diego said... "That said, the Midwest is not in California, is it? So, why must we discuss it?"

Successful roll-out of Emerging HSR and Regional HSR corridors in the Midwest is an important part of building and maintaining the political coalition that will ensure federal funding for the CA-HSR at a generous federal:state matching ratio ... but other than the politics to ensure enough money to build the California system, no real reason.

Josh: "Unfortunately, this can't really work in California, as upgrading the Coast corridor would still result in travel times that are too slow, while the San Joaquin corridor has the fatal flaw of a mandatory bus transfer at Bakersfield, which is likely to only ever be solved by a new HSR line."

That's the key point. California has, on the one hand, the best population distribution in the country for supporting a free-standing Express HSR system, and once you get north of the LA Basin, just about the worst geography and population distribution for building a free-standing Regional HSR system.

So where for most of the country, the sensible strategy is to lay out a broad foundation of Emerging and Regional HSR corridors, and leverage that into select Express HSR corridors by giving more routes that the Express HSR can perform by running onto the Regional HSR network ... in California, because of its peculiar physical and social geography, the sensible strategy is to pursue an Express HSR corridor and leverage that into complementary Emerging and/or Regional HSR corridors.

Rafael said...

One of the problems with the nomenclature proposed by USDOT is that "emerging HSR" implies an inferior level of service to "express HSR". That simply isn't true, the objective should be to use the most appropriate HSR level based on the distances between station pairs.

In particular, cities just less than say, 200 miles apart typically induce car rather than air travel. Therefore, the objective needs to be competitive line haul time door-to-door. There's no point running a super-fast super-expensive train between downtown areas every so often unless there is plenty of affordable connecting transit. Therefore, in this type of rapid rail scenario, it would be plan for simultaneous improvements in intercity train speeds (e.g. to 110mph) and connecting transit (commuter rail, subways, light rail/streetcars, BRT, city buses, train taxi services and/or bicycle paths). Depending on the mode(s) selected, the connecting transit option can easily represent the majority of total capital investment or operating subsidies.

At intermediate distances of say, 150-350 miles between large population centers, the approach should be "baby bullet" rapid rail at 110-150mph with very few if any stops. The idea is to improve line haul times by avoiding slow sections, e.g. tight curves or sharing track with a large number of freight trains. A significant amount of investment in connecting local transit may be required, e.g. 1/3 of the total.

Express HSR comes into its own for connecting very large population centers that are 300-500 miles apart, with only a few relatively small towns in-between. The primary competition is short-hop air travel between the end points and car travel for shorter sub-segments. SF-LA is an excellent example. Such population centers typically but far from always already have some level operational connecting transit - preferably subways or light rail. Concurrent investment in local transit can be modest, e.g. 10%, compared to the cost of the dedicated, fully grade separated HSR infrastructure.

In all cases, the key to success in integrated planning of long-distance and connecting transit. In many cases, connecting transit will be the domain of counties and/or cities, in which case project planners from two organizations have to overcome any turf wars and hammer out serviceable solutions for the interfaces, i.e. the intermodal stations.

---

In the specific context of the Midwest HSR network, job #1 appears to be a freight bypass for the Chicago metro area, featuring multiple yards along the way.

This would have two important benefits: first, it would decongest the Chicago metro area itself, improving commuter rail performance and possibly, freeing up some ROWs for HSR.

Second, transcontinental freight currently spends about as much time getting switched in the Chicago area as it takes to haul it there from West Coast ports, i.e. ~2 days. Improving switching times would make rail freight more time-competitive with trucking.

Locomotives would drop off freight in (typically) multiple yards on the inbound leg, then pick up other freight here and there on the outbound leg. That implies a common bypass alignment with enough tracks to permit large numbers of freight trains to run in each direction. One possible layout would be island yards in-between the through tracks. Cars and intermodal freight trucks would use flyovers.

Spokker said...

Studies have shown that up to 88 percent of French people are afflicted with a disease known as Toxoplasmosis. You can get Toxoplasmosis from contact with cats or eating raw or undercooked meats. The disease can result in neurological disorders, including slowed reaction time. Studies have demonstrated a weak link between car accidents and Toxoplasmosis.

In the US we do not eat nearly enough cats or raw meat to make HSR worthwhile here. I'm afraid science has won again.

BruceMcF said...

Rafael said...
"One of the problems with the nomenclature proposed by USDOT is that "emerging HSR" implies an inferior level of service to "express HSR"."

You kind of left out the workhorse Regional HSR level. Emerging HSR rather implies that Emerging HSR is on the way to being Regional HSR.

And ... there's nothing wrong with that.

"There's no point running a super-fast super-expensive train between downtown areas every so often unless there is plenty of affordable connecting transit. Therefore, in this type of rapid rail scenario, it would be plan for simultaneous improvements in intercity train speeds (e.g. to 110mph) and connecting transit (commuter rail, subways, light rail/streetcars, BRT, city buses, train taxi services and/or bicycle paths). Depending on the mode(s) selected, the connecting transit option can easily represent the majority of total capital investment or operating subsidies." (emphases added)

This is reasoning in stereotype rather than in terms of a diverse traveling population engaged in a variety of transport tasks.

In particular, there is not a single Emerging HSR system in a serious stage of planning that involves nothing but downtown urban stations. They all involve a mix of downtown urban stations, outer suburban stations, and rural access stations.

And for outer suburban stations and stations in small towns that are on strategic transport corridors for broader regional access, it makes all the sense in the world to build the station first and then use that station as the anchor to expand what is normally woefully inadequate public support for anything other than car transport.

For central urban stations, while the transit infrastructure certainly needs to be expanded, these are the locations where there is "some" as opposed to "little or none", and so the priority is ensuring that these stations are well integrated to the existing transit infrastructure.

"Depending on the mode(s) selected, the connecting transit option can easily represent the majority of total capital investment or operating subsidies."

If its an appropriate alignment for a Regional HSR corridor, the connecting transit ought to represent 100% of the operating subsidies, since the Regional HSR line should be generating an operating surplus. If its not, but it is in fact an appropriate alignment, then its been given too many stations too close together, so drop some off to a conventional rail stopping train service and increase the trip speeds on the Regional HSR line so that it achieves an operating surplus.

Eventually the local transport ought to be the majority of capital investment, but offering the theory that work cannot get started on the Regional HSR corridor until there is first some indeterminate larger amount of capital funds provided for local transit is offering an excuse to not get started at all.

"In the specific context of the Midwest HSR network, job #1 appears to be a freight bypass for the Chicago metro area, featuring multiple yards along the way."

In the specific context of the Great Lakes and Midwest HSR network, there is no job #1. There are substantial network economies to proceeding on multiple corridors at once. Job #1 for freight rail is the Chicago Bottleneck, but given that Chicago will be more important as a destination than as a through point, establishing the passenger rail bypasses on the alignments radiating out of Chicago is more critical to the establishment of the Regional HSR network than the freight bypass itself.

Kyle - Boston said...

Great Monty Python video.

jim said...

The positive thing about the incremental upgrades to 110 for instance isn't just the speed, but the fact that the track, signal and other row improvements mean you gain more than just the speed increase. You get fewer delays and more reliability and in my opinion, reliability is more important than speed.

James D said...

The real comparison with the Midwest is what the Chinese are doing. They've now worked out that if they run some trains non-stop (at 225mph) on the HSR they're building from Beijing to Shanghai, they can get the journey time down to about 4½ hours. Shanghai is further from Beijing than Chicago is from New York.

The technology's moved on since America started procrastinating about HSR. Now if it's done correctly, it can go beyond the regional scale.

As for Amtrak, they're clearly worried that HSR would take their funding away...

BruceMcF said...

jim said...
"The positive thing about the incremental upgrades to 110 for instance isn't just the speed, but the fact that the track, signal and other row improvements mean you gain more than just the speed increase."

Quite ... speed is just a number. What far more travelers are willing to pay for is quicker trips. And it doesn't do very much good for traveler that are demanding quicker trips if the train reaches 200mph on a two hour trip, but the train is running two hours behind schedule.

And, indeed, there is a segment of the traveling public willing to pay for trips in order to avoid having to drive ... frequency and reliability is the key to getting the maximum patronage out of that core market segment.

So even if the conventional Amtrak services will not be operating at 110mph on Emerging HSR corridors, the ability to use a 10mi. in 50mi. passing track to get around freight traffic will in and of itself deliver a higher quality of service and therefore stronger patronage.

jim said...

james said "As for Amtrak, they're clearly worried that HSR would take their funding away."
No, they/re not. In fact it's most likely that amtrak will operate many of the new services.

James D said...

@ jim: It's more likely that one or more high-speed rail authorities would be set up, and various operators allowed to bid to operate services.

jim said...

Many of the proposals though will very likely be operated by amtrak. and there isn't any fear of lost funding - in fact it will mean increased funding for local service and long distance routes - which have expansions in the works as we speak

James D said...

Yes, and those are the sorts of proposals that this Amtrak statement is trying to push against anything with the sort of critical mass that would suggest a different organizational structure. It's purely political, bad for rail, and bad for America.

Anonymous said...

You all forget one thing: Amtrak already operates trains in the Midwest, and the incremental improvements are to a significant extent already planned out, and many are literally shovel ready. CAHSRA doesn't run a single train, doesn't own a single train, hasn't built a single foot of track, nor even produced a single design drawing for said track or train. By the time they get around to starting construction, I suspect Amtrak will already have their fleet of new corridor cars and a few 110 mph upgraded lines to run them on too.

BruceMcF said...

James D said...
"The technology's moved on since America started procrastinating about HSR. Now if it's done correctly, it can go beyond the regional scale."

This is an example of what Boardman's unbalanced approach results in ... a put down of the rail infrastructure that would do the Great Lakes the most good, the most quickly, and a focus instead on a lower Benefit/Cost corridor.

"As for Amtrak, they're clearly worried that HSR would take their funding away..."

A bit of precision of terminology is required here ... Amtrak ought to view Emerging and Regional HSR as opportunities to operate services. Its the Express HSR that looks like a far more serious risk that other operators may be running the services.

So the statement flips back and forth between implausible to plausible depending on whether its Express HSR or Regional HSR being read into the phrase "HSR".

Adirondacker said...

That said, the Midwest is not in California, is it? So, why must we discuss it?

Because railroads are railroads and solutions they find in the Midwest may enlighten the problems you are facing in California? Like how to squeeze funding out of the Federal government. Or the solutions they find in Great Britain? Or the ones in Japan? Or Australia? ....

There's no point running a super-fast super-expensive train between downtown areas every so often unless there is plenty of affordable connecting transit.

I'm sure the good people of Wilmington DE. are very proud of their local mass transit. It sucks. Somehow they manage to have Amtrak's 11th busiest station and commuter rail service to Philadelphia. One of the main complaints about the Albany/Rennsselaer station is that the mass transit sucks. It's Amtrak's tenth busiest station.

Express HSR comes into its own for connecting very large population centers that are 300-500 miles apart .

So they shouldn't bother to replace the antique catenary between New York and Philadelphia or New York and New Haven because the stuff already up there is good enough? Or think about upgrading Chicago-Milwaukee to something better than 110?

with only a few relatively small towns in-between.

Hmm, I thought one of the signature qualities of the Tokaido Corridor was that it was one unbroken string of cities and suburbs.

transcontinental freight currently spends about as much time getting switched in the Chicago area as it takes to haul it there from West Coast ports.... Locomotives would drop off freight in (typically) multiple yards on the inbound leg, then pick up other freight here and there on the outbound leg.

Then how does the freight from the west coast ports - that was dropped off at the inbound yards - get to the outbound yards? I'm assuming that this freight isn't destined for or originating in northern Illinios from the words "bypass" and "transcontinental"

Freight doesn't care if it has a 5 hour layover in a cold dimly lit yard. It doesn't want a one seat ride. The crews have legal limits on how many hours they can work. They are only qualified for certain sections of track. Running a train from Oakland to Selkirk isn't the kind of thing that needs to happen unless they have a train load of freight in Oakland that needs to be in Selkirk.

I suspect Amtrak will already have their fleet of new corridor cars and a few 110 mph upgraded lines to run them on too.Um, they have one already, the Northeast Corridor and two that are almost there, the Empire Corridor between New York and Albany and the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

CComMack said...

The problem with Express HSR in the Midwest is Chicago. The Chicago Hub requires 3-4 different approaches to Chicago Union Station (one from the north, one from the south and east, one from the southwest, and one from due west). Each of those routes involves 5-10 miles of density comparable to Mission Bay, and 50-100 miles comparable to the Peninsula. While Express HSR would require building completely new alignments on all four routes, Emerging HSR does not. Even if the political will were there to see it through, the planning delay would cost us decades. (And don't assume the political will to vastly disrupt the Chicago street grid, even temporarily, is there.)

And that "flat empty land" another commenter said would make it cheap? Flat, yes, empty no; Californians don't appreciate how much natural obstacles slow down their sprawl. Flat land gets developed, development means neighbors, neighbors mean NIMBYs. The mere technical challenge of spending $15-20B to cross Pacheco and Tehachapi passes will be a relative cakewalk compared to the task of building ExpressHSR in the Midwest.

Alon Levy said...

Um, they have one already, the Northeast Corridor and two that are almost there, the Empire Corridor between New York and Albany and the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

Empire isn't very rapid. The average speed between New York and Albany is actually lower than between Albany and Buffalo.

jim said...

James D said...
Yes, and those are the sorts of proposals that this Amtrak statement is trying to push against anything with the sort of critical mass that would suggest a different organizational structure. It's purely political, bad for rail, and bad for America.
It is not purely political it's reality and common sense. You may not like it but that's what it is. Railroad people know how to run railroads. Politicians and bloggers do not.

jim said...

CCOMACK_. Each of those routes involves 5-10 miles of density comparable to Mission Bay, and 50-100 miles comparable to the Peninsula. While Express HSR would require building completely new alignments on all four routes, Emerging HSR does not. Even if the political will were there to see it through, the planning delay would cost us decades. (And don't assume the political will to vastly disrupt the Chicago street grid, even temporarily, is there.)

And that "flat empty land" another commenter said would make it cheap? Flat, yes, empty no; Californians don't appreciate how much natural obstacles slow down their sprawl. Flat land gets developed, development means neighbors, neighbors mean NIMBYs. The mere technical challenge of spending $15-20B to cross Pacheco and Tehachapi passes will be a relative cakewalk compared to the task of building ExpressHSR in the Midwest.
That is correct and the point of the comments. "Emerging", is realistic. A from scratch system is not. It may be some day but that day will be decades away. The money and political will aren't there. The only reason all these regions are even piping up at all about HSR is because Washinton DC mentioned handing out some cash, so like a pack of hungry dogs at a backyard BarBQ every state and local politician in the land has come sniffing around for money. The real money needed to implement real HSR from scratch in America is in the hundreds of billions. And most of the population doesn't even know what it is, If by some miracle, CA HSR is up and running successfully by 2025 and sets a good example, only then will similar systems be ready to start construction. construction. No one is even close to ready. In the meantime, for a reasonable amount of money and time, we can make significant and tangible improvements that do a good job for a lot of people. That is just the reality of the situation no matter how hard we daydream and wish upon stars.

jim said...

---speaking of cats and transportation - just look at what can happen when you put inexperience in charge:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rdLOrOLJiA

BruceMcF said...

CComMack said...
"Each of those routes involves 5-10 miles of density comparable to Mission Bay, and 50-100 miles comparable to the Peninsula. While Express HSR would require building completely new alignments on all four routes, Emerging HSR does not."

First, you are doing the same thing as Rafeal, and dropping Regional HSR out, when its Regional HSR that "Emerging" HSR would be Emerging TOWARDS.

Express HSR does not require building all new alignments on all four routes, any more than Express HSR requires building an all new alignment between San Francisco and San Jose.

It won't be going 220pmh in the final approach, but its not necessary to go 220mph in the final 5-10miles. Once the Regional HSR access to downtown Chicago is complete, the Express HSR access to downtown Chicago is also complete.

It will likely benefit from improvements in the 50 to 100 miles approaches, but that is a question for design in detail rather than sweeping stereotype. And when an Express HSR corridor is being added to an existing network of Regional HSR corridors, it is possible to do it incrementally ... a corridor segment from New York through northern PA could junction with the Pittsburgh/Cleveland segment of the Ohio Hub, then the Triple C, then the Columbus/Detroit segment, then connect at Fort Wayne, then improve the bottlenecks facing Express HSR along the Fort Wayne/Chicago leg of the Midwest Hub.

An important part of that is that once the strongest corridors in the Midwest Hub and Ohio Hub have reached Emerging HSR level services, they will be able to generate operating surpluses, which can be used to fund the state match portion of upgrades toward Regional HSR levels of service.

And when the Regional HSR infrastructure is in place, the Express HSR trains can simply run on that infrastructure beyond the end of the Express HSR corridor.

Adirondacker said...

Empire isn't very rapid. The average speed between New York and Albany is actually lower than between Albany and Buffalo.

And very similar to the speeds between Boston and NYC, 56 MPH versus 62 MPH if I've done my arithmetic right. Service once an hour-ish between 5AM and 8PM weekdays. Amtrak's tenth busiest station.. Their doing something right between Albany and NYC.

DBX said...

I'm increasingly convinced that Amtrak sees true high-speed rail as a threat to its existence. Their fear is they would not be the operator of true high-speed trains. To which I say, that's a political concern, not a concern over getting more and better train service. Boardman should keep out of this.

BruceMcF said...

Adirondacker says ... "Freight doesn't care if it has a 5 hour layover in a cold dimly lit yard."

Which is to say, the freight that does "care" presently goes by truck, at roughly triple the energy cost and 15 to 20 times the energy cost of electric freight rail.

"It doesn't want a one seat ride."

That is, the freight that railroads specialize in doesn't need to keep running, because the freight the needs to keep running can't do that for very many routes on the current freight rail network.

"The crews have legal limits on how many hours they can work. They are only qualified for certain sections of track."

Given a freight rail network that has the inside track against road freight for long haul container freight in schedule and reliability, that's a segment of the freight market that can, on the one hand, succeed in meeting schedules for switching crews, and on the other hand, can afford to make sure that there are crews on hand able to keep the freight running.

Crude oil will not stay cheap forever ... sooner or later its heading over $200/barrel.

Eric said...

Given a freight rail network that has the inside track against road freight for long haul container freight in schedule and reliability, that's a segment of the freight market that can, on the one hand, succeed in meeting schedules for switching crews, and on the other hand, can afford to make sure that there are crews on hand able to keep the freight running.US Railroads already carry huge amounts of container freight. What problem are we trying to solve here? Inasmuch as freight cars sit around in Chicago waiting to be switched, it's because Chicago is a convenient hub for directing freight traffic. Expedited freight consists can and do bypass Chicago as needed.

Eric said...

@CComMack

And that "flat empty land" another commenter said would make it cheap? Flat, yes, empty no

Nobody said anything about the land being "empty." However you've got nothing like the engineering costs - putting HSR through California's mountains is as severe an engineering challenge as any HSR line has faced, other than the channel tunnel.

And, if you do have to resort to eminent domain to take over private property, land is generally considerably cheaper in the midwest than in CA. (Yes, I know Chicago has some expensive suburbs - this does not invalidate the point).

jim said...

DBX said...
I'm increasingly convinced that Amtrak sees true high-speed rail as a threat to its existence. Their fear is they would not be the operator of true high-speed trains. To which I say, that's a political concern, not a concern over getting more and better train service. Boardman should keep out of this,
No not a threat and in many cases, it will be the operator. In some cases it won't. No diff than in the existing world of regional, long distance and local rail service. What boardman is saying is R E A L I T Y. versus hsr fantasies. The money for from scratch systems will take decades to come by. Mark you calendar and 25 years from check it and see how many 220mphs are running in the US. In the meantime, people need quiick affordable upgrades. HSr is no "threat" to amtrak, at least not in this century.

Alon Levy said...

Adirondacker: it's 55 vs. 65 - but NY-Boston isn't a very fast line, either. Connecticut just has too many curves. At least it's electrified.

arcady said...

NYP-ALB schedules are padded by at least 5 minutes now, because they didn't shorten the running time at all when they upgraded Hudson-Albany to 110 mph. Another couple improvements (Hudson high level platforms and lifting the speed restriction under the GWB) could cut another 5 minutes off the schedule in total, giving a respectable 60 mph average for local trains and 65 for the expresses.

Alon Levy said...

The current 55 mph average is for the fastest trains, which take 2:33 to do 141 miles.

Adirondacker said...

The current 55 mph average is for the fastest trains, which take 2:33 to do 141 miles.

They have train No. 230 scheduled for 2:30, No.250 is also 2:30 and No. 232 is scheduled for 2:25 or a bit over 58 MPH. I didn't go looking for anything faster. They are doing something right. It's Amtrak's tenth busiest station and service more or less once an hour during the day. Book earlier, some trains sell out. . . A symptom of them doing something right. . .

Arcady, I know they were planning on upgrading Albany to Hudson. They did it? Are the locomotives up to it? .. now to get the money for a second track between Albany and Schenectady...

arcady said...

The locomotives can't quite make it all the way to 110, but they come close, and definitely more than 90 mph according to GPS measurements. As for Empire trains selling out, I suspect that has to do with the fact that the normal consist is 3 coaches and business/cafe car (with no food service!), which just isn't a lot of capacity, and they don't have more spare Amfleets to increase it, and adding more cars of course slows trains down. I agree, the ALB-SDY single track is a huge bottleneck, although it got a little better a few years ago when they extended the second station track from SDY station to the junction with the freight branch. But it's still a major hindrance to reliability, and means late trains get even later, or else delay trains in the other direction, and they need to fix that.

Adirondacker said...

Thanks Arcady. I should save URLs when I stumble across something interesting. The State knows there is demand and has plans to meet it. If for any other reason they avoid having to widen the Thruway and add another lane to the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
Only thing I can find quickly is on the Capital District Transportation Authority's web site, the High Speed Rail Task Force Report.

Vague reference to "additional refurbished rail cars" through 2013 and for the period between 2013 and 2015, 20 additional train sets.

Talking to people up here in the wilds the reason we don't take the train is that it wanders through twice a day. Most of the time it doesn't wander through at the time we need it. So we drive to Albany or drive all the way to New York City. Or a Metro North Station. If they get up to half hourly service every third or fourth train extended to Saratoga Springs would probably get many riders. They'd have to do something about the time it takes to get to Albany, right now the 35 mile trip is scheduled for an hour. There are plans, which I can't find now, for the section between Schenectady and Saratoga Springs. There's definitely demand, especially during racing season.
Food service is sorely missed. The rumors I hear is that the vendors, there has been more than one, didn't make money on it, so they abandoned it.

neroden@gmail said...

"In the specific context of the Midwest HSR network, job #1 appears to be a freight bypass for the Chicago metro area, featuring multiple yards along the way."

Well, maybe. I don't think either the freight railroads or the City of Chicago want all the yards and intermodal terminals moved, and Clearing Yard is certain not going anywhere. The freight railroads do have a plan to decongest Chicago switching, which doesn't require moving their yards. It's called CREATE.

I've followed the Chicago passenger issues pretty carefully.

To be *extremely* specific, job #1 in Midwest HSR is the "South of the Lake reroute" -- fast passenger-only tracks from Union Station well into Indiana (connecting directly to Amtrak-owned Michigan line). This would largely follow the empty trackbeds next to the existing Lake Shore Limited/Michigan Services route. This would remove the single largest freight-passenger interference in the Chicagoland area.

To be even more specific, part # 1 of job #1 is also the top priority in CREATE: an overpass at Englewood to separate the La Salle Street commuter traffic from the freight traffic and create room for the parallel line.

Job #2 in HSR, which is less fully planned, is linking the ex-Illinois Central lines to this new line, via a Grand Crossing connection, and further upgrading them so they don't get blocked by commuter lines at Kensington. After the CN purchase of the EJE, the ex-IC line could probably be purchased and made all-passenger down nearly to Markham Yard now, with the northern segment going to Metra. This would give two straight, fast, passenger-dedicated exits from Chicago: east and south.

One of Boardman's main, and correct points is that top speed is overrated when evaluating speed. Going at 5 mph in the Chicagoland area is a *huge* detriment to average speed. If the trains did 110 through most of Chicagoland, barring curves and turnouts, on the planned route, it would cut 15 to 45 minutes off trips as well as substantially increasing schedule reliability.

To get that kind of benefit from 110mph->200mph upgrades costs many, many times as much. In addition, these projects create the critically important passenger-only tracks which can be upgraded further without fights, and do so in the most difficult areas to do so.

The other major exits from Chicago for planned HSR and regional rail are:

- the St. Louis direction, for which a fast approach to Chicago does not seem to have been planned;
- the route to Aurora for the Quad Cities (BNSF, ex-CB&Q), which is triple-tracked, has been getting very good treatment from BNSF, and will probably be 110 mph the moment the mandated PTC system is installed;

- and the route to Milwaukee, Madison, and the Twin Cities.

I haven't seen what the current favored improvements for the Milwaukee route are, but it looks like the current right-of-way is probably the best one, it's in pretty good shape, and it's already owned by a passenger operator (Metra) as far north as Glenview. The priority on this route is connecting to Madison, Wisconsin, and that is already loosely planned; arguably some serious ROW straightening should be performed to speed up the Milwaukee-Madison segment, and this is the first place where thinking faster than 110mph actually would make sense.

But even before that, the priority becomes expanding capacity at Union Station and linking it to the CTA better, for which several expensive but good plans have already been proposed. Union Station is already crowded.

200mph trains are simply not the top priority in the Midwest. Such huge benefits can be gotten from other work that it would be silly to focus on top speed in the countryside. As someone else noted, California is in a very different situation, where 220 mph trains with new tunnels from LA to Bakersfield are pretty much required to get any serious improvement.