July 2, 2015

Frankford Junction, Pennsylvania

Filed under: History, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Rob McGonigal looks at the history of the railways in the area of Frankford Junction, where Amtrak train 188 came to grief in May:

In the aftermath of the tragic May 12 derailment due to excessive speed of Amtrak train 188 in Philadelphia, many casual observers wondered what a 50-mph curve is doing in the middle of the fastest, busiest rail corridor in the nation. It’s a reasonable question, especially given the generally tangent track and flat topography in the area.

The existence of that curve traces back to the earliest years of railroads in Philadelphia. As in many cities, Philadelphia’s rail network developed in piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion. What became Amtrak 188’s route through the city began in the 1830s as three separate projects.

The Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore ran generally southwestward from a terminal about a mile south of downtown (“center city” to Philadelphians). The Philadelphia & Columbia, part of the Main Line of Public Works rail/canal system to Pittsburgh, utilized a terminal in center city. The Philadelphia & Trenton, which connected with services to New York, originated in Kensington — an inconvenient 2½ miles northeast of center city. As Albert Churella relates in the first volume of his mammoth history of the PRR (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), municipal authorities in 1840 granted the P&T permission to extend its line into center city, where it would connect with other railroads. However, fierce opposition from teamsters, who profited from hauling freight between the rail terminals, and area residents, who did not want steam trains in their streets, prompted the city to revoke permission, and the P&T was not extended.

Two decades later, it was clear that the three lines should be connected. In 1864 the Junction Railroad was opened, linking the PW&B with the P&C’s successor on the line to the west — the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Indeed, the PRR had interests in all three of the lines by this time.) Three years later the Connecting Railway opened. It diverged from the P&C/PRR line at a place designated Mantua Junction (and later, in expanded form, Zoo interlocking), arced around the northern part of the city, and connected with the P&T in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. As with the connection at Mantua Junction, the geometry of the lines at Frankford Junction resulted in a sharp curve.

May 14, 2015

Solving the Amtrak problem requires thinking outside the box … really outside

Filed under: Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At The Federalist, Sean Davis explains why throwing more taxpayer money at Amtrak isn’t going to do much good:

“Amtrak doesn’t get enough government money,” is the kind of thing someone says when that person doesn’t understand anything about Amtrak, or government, or money.

Created by Congress in 1970, Amtrak was meant to replace the private rail companies that, according to Amtrak, “had operated services at a net loss of millions of dollars for many years.” Net losses of millions of dollars, you say? According to its unaudited financial statements, Amtrak lost over a billion dollars in 2014, the last year for which annual revenue and expense data are available.

Amtrak lost nearly $1.3 billion in 2013. Since its creation, Amtrak has racked up over $31 billion in accumulated losses. And every penny of those losses has been covered by federal taxpayers.

Amtrak has a lot of problems. A lack of taxpayer generosity is not one of them, not even close. The key to fixing Amtrak, to making it function as a “for-profit corporation,” which is how the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak’s overseer, officially describes the passenger rail organization, is not increasing the volume of federal cash it sucks up every year. The solution is not to reform this and that to make the government-owned company work better or more efficiently. And selling off its assets to the highest bidder won’t fix Amtrak, either.

No, the key to fixing Amtrak is to just give it away. Hand over the entire enterprise to whichever rail company wants it. “But that’s crazy!” you might say. “Giving it away for free makes no cents!”

March 10, 2014

Amtrak now hoping to buy good press with a “residency”

Filed under: Media, Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:13

Amtrak P42DC locomotive #29 with a Blue Water or Wolverine train waits on a siding for a train in the opposite direction to pass in Comstock, Michigan

Amtrak P42DC locomotive #29 with a Blue Water or Wolverine train waits on a siding for a train in the opposite direction to pass in Comstock, Michigan (source: Wikipedia)

In Reason, Ed Krayewski looks at Amtrak’s attempt to get some good media coverage by sponsoring a writer with a private rail car:

Do you write? Are you looking for a free ride? Do you like Amtrak, or can you at least avoid disparaging it? If so, it wants to hear from you:

    Amtrak is excited to announce the official launch of the #AmtrakResidency program.

    #AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

Amtrak is one of those worst of both worlds public/private hybrids. Instead of using the power of privatization to improve services previously offered by government (what happens in successful public private partnerships), Amtrak is a “for-profit” corporation that doesn’t actually turn a profit because it gets annual funding from the federal government and various state governments who have stepped in any time the feds have tried to trim funding.

November 25, 2013

Amtrak even manages to lose money on food services

Filed under: Economics, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:08

As I’ve said several times before, long distance passenger rail service is an economic dead-end, and the latest story on Amtrak’s financial situation just reinforces that:

As any popcorn-stand profiteer posing as a movie house operator can attest, captive eaters create golden opportunities to supersize profits. But on the Southwest Chief — and Amtrak trains in general — food and beverages are a financial drain. Last week, the inspector general revealed at a congressional hearing that Amtrak lost $609 million on its meal services over the past six years, citing all kinds of eye-popping details about giveaways to staff, spoiled food, and service workers earning about four times the standard industry wage. Defenders of Amtrak argue that the report was just a headline-grabbing jab that distracts from the larger story of the organization’s resurgence.

But the food service fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. Amtrak has a chaotic management culture, routinely misappropriates funding, and is hamstrung by insane union work rules, as has been described in great detail by its former president, David Gunn.

Amtrak’s been running red ink since its founding in 1971, and tales of its financial imprudence are nothing new. But the 2008 law that authorizes it to operate is set to expire, so Congress is once again mulling what to do with this rolling money-gusher. The Brookings Institution has come out with a major study claiming that in the last five years Amtrak has finally gotten on the right track. The study, titled A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail, characterizes the 2008 legislation as a success that should be tweaked and renewed.

By glossing over facts, the Brookings report obscures the real story. In the last five years, Amtrak has grown increasingly reliant on public subsidies at all levels of government. Between 2007 and 2011, it received a record $8.4 billion in federal funding — a 50 percent increase over the prior five-year period. States have now become major contributors to Amtrak’s bottom line, kicking in an additional $842 million over the same timeframe. Amtrak’s ridership gains in the past few years are a nearly undetectable blip when placed in the context of the larger U.S. transportation network.

I’d often heard that the only profitable portion of the Amtrak network was the Northeast Corridor, but even that heavily used section is only profitable if you play accounting games:

So what about the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is the busiest section of rail in the U.S.? Contrary to Brookings’ assertions, the NEC is also a giant money pit. The study claims the NEC generated a $205.4 million operating balance in 2011, but that figure was arrived at using Amtrak’s own selective bean counting methods. In violation of generally accepted accounting practices, routine maintenance expenses are counted as capital expenditures, according to O’Toole, while real capital expenditures never appear on Amtrak’s books because the federal government picks up the tab. According to calculations arrived at by Andrew Selden, an attorney and vice present of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, the federal government has poured roughly $40 billion into capital projects for the NEC since 1975. Now Amtrak says it needs another $151 billion to bring high-speed rail to the corridor by 2040.

June 6, 2013

Rail technology changes on a slower timescale than other transportation systems

Filed under: Business, Railways, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:50

The Economist looks at innovation in the railway business:

Compared with other modes of transport, train technology might seem to be progressing as slowly as a suburban commuter service rattling its way from one station to another. Automotive technology, by contrast, changes constantly: in the past decade satellite-navigation systems, hybrid power trains, proximity sensors and other innovations have proliferated. Each time you buy a new car, you will notice a host of new features. Progress is apparent in aircraft, too, with advances in in-flight entertainment and communication, fancy seats that turn into beds, and quieter and more efficient engines. Trains, meanwhile, appear to have changed a lot less.

Actually, the perception of change is much greater for cars and airplanes, but there are few changes in those areas that are not merely evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Incremental changes are the rule of the day, as neither cars nor planes travel significantly faster than they did thirty years ago … but they do it safer and more comfortably now.

This comparison is not entirely fair. For one thing, people buy their own cars, so they pay more attention to automotive innovation. Carmakers are engaged in a constant arms race, trumpeting new features as a way to differentiate their products. Nobody buys their own trains. Similarly, air passengers have a choice of competing airlines and are far more likely to be aware of the merits of rival fleets than they are of different types of train. In addition, notes Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, a design consultancy that specialises in transport, trains have longer lives, so technology takes longer to become widespread. The planning horizon for one rail project he is working on extends to 2050. “You have to think about longevity, whereas the car industry wants you to buy a new car in two years,” he says.

Another big difference is that the way railways operate — with a small number of powered units (locomotives) and a very large number of unpowered units (freight cars and passenger cars) that have to be reliably connected to one another and operate successfully. A car can go on any kind of road (or even none, in many places) and a plane can fly in any part of the sky, but a train needs an engineered right-of-way that falls within established standards of curvature, elevation change, and overhead and side clearance. Because of this, any piece of railway equipment that does not run on its own isolated track (like monorails or the various flavours of high speed railways) must always meet the existing standards … which have been slowly evolving since the mid-nineteenth century. With so much capital invested in existing right-of-way and rolling stock, the costs for introducing significant changes can be astronomical.

There’s also the fact that unlike other forms of transportation, passenger and freight trains operate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. Passenger trains need to operate on a known schedule between high population centres at relatively high speed. With higher speed goes a need for better braking systems and more capable signalling methods. Unlike a train full of new cars or iron ore, you can’t just park a train full of living human beings on a siding for a few hours to allow slower trains to clear the way (unless you’re Amtrak or VIA). Passenger trains have to have top priority, which often means the railways have to delay freight traffic to ensure that the passengers are not unduly delayed.

One solution to the problem is to provide separate tracks for the passenger trains, but this can be very expensive, as the places where the extra tracks would be most effective is also where the land is at peak cost: in and around major cities. Most passenger trains are now run by government agencies or corporations acting as agents for local, regional, or state governments, so they sometimes use the power of eminent domain to gain access to the land. This is a politically fraught area, as the more land they need to take, the tougher the process will get.

Brakes are also getting an upgrade. Stopping a train can take so long that locomotive-operators, also known as engineers, often have time to contemplate their fate before an impact. “Your life races before you,” says a former operator who, years ago in Alabama, helplessly watched as his freight train, its emergency brakes screeching, headed towards a stalled truck that ultimately managed to pull off the tracks in time. Stopping a train pulling a hundred cars at 80kph can require 2km of track. Road accidents take far more lives, but 1,239 people were killed in more than 2,300 railway accidents in 2011 in the European Union alone.

Much of the problem is that the faster a train’s wheels are spinning, the hotter its brake shoes get when engaged. This reduces friction and hence braking power, a predicament known as “heat fade”. Moreover, nearly all trains power their brakes with compressed air. When switched on, air brakes activate car by car, from the locomotive to the back of the train. It can take more than two minutes for the signal to travel via air tubes to the last car.

Again, it’s not physically or financially possible to switch over all existing cars to newer technology in one fell swoop, so any updated brake technology must be 100% compatible with what is already in use, or you risk creating more dangerous situations because some brakes may operate out of sequence which will increase the chances of accidents.

Norfolk Southern, an American rail operator, now pulls roughly one-sixth of its freight using locomotives equipped with “route optimisation” software. By crunching numbers on a train’s weight distribution and a route’s curves, grades and speed limits, the software, called Leader, can instruct operators on optimum accelerating and braking to minimise fuel costs. Installing the software and linking it wirelessly to back-office computers is expensive, says Coleman Lawrence, head of the company’s 4,000-strong locomotive fleet. But the software cuts costs dramatically, reducing fuel consumption by about 5%. That is a big deal for a firm that spent $1.6 billion on diesel in 2012. Mr Lawrence reckons that by 2016 Norfolk Southern may be pulling half its freight with Leader-upgraded locomotives. A competing system sold by GE, Trip Optimizer, goes further and operates the throttle and brakes automatically.

This is a good use of computer technology: you add the software on top of the existing infrastructure and use it to detect operational gains without needing to make system-wide changes to all freight cars.

April 16, 2012

“This sort of investment pays for itself ten-fold over a very short period of time”

Filed under: Economics, Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:16

You see? This is what’s wrong with private enterprise, especially in California. Those wimps aren’t willing to invest in something that will “pay for itself” ten times over in a “very short period of time”. That’s why all the greatest economic advances have come from over-aged students, business council speechifiers, bureaucrats, and career apparatchiks!

If you believe calling your opponents names is a sign that you have lost the argument, then this new high-speed rail commercial from the California Alliance for Jobs — in which unexpectedly macho proponents of the $41 billion, $110 billion, $98.5 billion, $68.4 billion high-speed rail project deride skeptics as “wimps” — is pretty much the end of the line […]

What reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the high-speed rail project is not the insults but that what is supposed to be a rousing propaganda piece comes off like an orientation video for new hires at a failing company.

The video’s cast includes hacks respected citizens from Operating Engineers Local 3, including Alliance for Jobs Executive Director Jim Earp, along with leaders from what’s usually referred to as the “business community” whose skill sets cluster around serving on business councils rather than doing any actual business. There’s also a career apparatchik and the founder of the “I Will Ride” Student Coalition, who is apparently a UC Merced senior but looks at least a decade too old.

[. . .]

Again, why not just claim the Fresno-Bakersfield line will end up carrying 38 million people, the entire population of California, every day? It would be no less accurate than the current claims, which have been made with no data on ticket costs, no comparative studies of existing bullet-train ridership, or anything else that can reasonably pass for due diligence.

Oh, and nobody actually knows where the bullet train will go to or from. (Past, present and possibly future candidates include Corcoran, Borden, Fresno, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and some guy named Dave’s rec room.) You wouldn’t build a patio with the amount of planning that’s gone into the high-speed rail project.

To put the headline into a bit of perspective, note that only one high speed rail line in the world is profitable. This is an old hobby horse of mine and I’ve posted about High Speed Railways a few times before.

Update: And to answer the question about why parts of Europe, Japan, and China have high speed rail systems and neither Canada nor the United States do, here’s a brief overview I wrote last year:

The best place to build a high speed rail system for the US would be the Boston-New York-Washington corridor (aka “Bosnywash”, for the assumed urban agglomeration that would occur as the cities reach toward one another). It has the necessary population density to potentially turn an HSR system into a practical, possibly even profitable, part of the transportation solution. The problem is that without an enormous eminent domain land-grab to cheat every land-owner of the fair value of their property, it just can’t be done. Buying enough contiguous sections of land to connect these cities would be so expensive that scrapping and replacing the entire navy every year would be a bargain in comparison.

The American railway system is built around freight: passenger traffic is a tiny sliver of the whole picture. Ordinary passenger trains cause traffic and scheduling difficulties because they travel at higher speeds, but require more frequent stops than freight trains, and their schedules have to be adjusted to passenger needs (passenger traffic peaks early to mid-morning and early to mid-evening). The frequency of passenger trains can “crowd out” the freight traffic the railway actually earns money on.

Most railway companies prefer to avoid having the complications of carrying passengers at all — that’s why Amtrak (and VIA Rail in Canada) was set up in the first place, to take the burden of money-losing passenger services off the shoulders of deeply indebted railways. Even after the new entity lopped off huge numbers of passenger trains from its schedule, it couldn’t turn a profit on the scaled-down services it was offering.

Ordinary passenger trains can, at a stretch, share rail with freight traffic, but high speed trains cannot. At higher speeds, the actual construction of the track has to change to deal with the physical problem of safely guiding the fast passenger trains along the rail. Signalling must also change to suit the far-higher speeds — and the matching far-longer safe braking distances. High speed rail lines cannot be interrupted with grade crossings, for the safety of passengers and bystanders, so additional bridges and tunnels must be built to avoid bringing road vehicles and pedestrians too close to the trains.

In other words, a high speed railway line is far from being just a faster version of what we already have: it would have to be built separately, to much higher standards of construction.

Getting back to the California HSR line; it goes from A to B on this map:

Okay, you think, at least Fresno will get some snazzy slick rail service . . . except this section will be built but not operated until further connecting sections are built . . . at a later date. Maybe. It will be the track, including elevated sections through Fresno, and the physical right-of-way, but no electrical system to power the trains; but that’s fine, because the budget doesn’t include any actual trains.

March 9, 2011

“It’s the libertarians who push this crap”

Filed under: Economics, Liberty, Politics, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:22

Dave Weigel tries to find the answer to the burning question “Why do conservatives hate trains so much?”:

But it could hardly make less sense to liberals. What, exactly, do Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have against trains? Seriously, what? Why did President George W. Bush try to zero out Amtrak funding in 2005? Why is the conservative Republican Study Committee suggesting that we do so now? Why does George Will think “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism”?

“You need to distinguish between Republicans and conservatives and libertarians when you look at this,” says William Lind, the director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. “It’s the libertarians who push this crap.”

Libertarians, of course, have no problem with trains (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugged). They do have a problem with federal spending on transportation, as do many Republicans. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957; Amtrak took over the rails in 1971. Since then, conservatives will sing the praises of private rail projects but criticize federally funded projects that don’t meet the ideal. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., for example, pushed a high-speed rail initiative through Congress in 2008. By 2010, he was denouncing “the Soviet-style Amtrak operation” that had “trumped true high-speed service” in Florida. In 2011, as the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he is interested in saving the Orlando-Tampa project by building 21 miles between the airport and Disney World. This is about 21 miles farther than local Republicans want to go.

May 23, 2010

Jinxed train? Or jinxed by-standers?

Filed under: Cancon, Railways, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 21:41

Amtrak train #63 claimed two lives in separate incidents yesterday:

The Amtrak train struck two people within a space of roughly nine hours, including a man in Toronto, who was killed on Saturday.

Police say a man was walking on the tracks in Toronto, near Lake Shore Boulevard and Dunn Avenue, when he was hit and killed in the early morning.

[. . .]

About nine hours earlier, as the train made its way from New York City to Toronto, it had struck a woman on the Niagara Bridge in Buffalo. She also died, Ms. Connell said, but officials were still trying to determine the cause of death.

Not to be too snarky, but being hit by a train generally provides sufficient kinetic energy to kill people unfortunate enough to be in the way . . .

February 5, 2010

Amtrak’s odd pricing policies

Filed under: Economics, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:09

Jason Ciastko sent this tale to one of the mailing lists I’m subscribed to:

Go to www.amtrak.com

One way ticket from Erie PA (ERI) to Elkhart IN (EKH)… One adult passenger, no discounts or anything else… The day I picked happened to be tomorrow, but it should not matter….

Now your options should be train 49 (Lake Shore Limited) that departs Erie at 0136 and arrives in Elkhart at 0825 or train 449 (Lake Shore Limited again) that departs Erie at 0136 and arrives at 0825… Those observant will notice this is the same train… 49 is the New York to Chicago section and 449 is the Boston to Chicago section… They are combined into the same train in Albany New York (well before Erie PA…

The riddle is I got a ticket cost of $47 for train 49, and $59 for 449… Probably be in the same seat…

One heck of a way to run a railroad…

I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this . . . but I can’t come up with one.

October 29, 2009

Amtrak: still losing $32 per passenger on every trip

Filed under: Economics, Government, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:52

Amtrak would not survive without federal government subsidy, as most people already know. What you may not have realized is just how much taxpayers subsidize every rider:

The Pew Charitable Trusts SubsidyScope Project has just released a new report that finds 41 out of Amtrak’s 44 routes lose money. The losses ranged from nearly $5 to $462 per passenger, depending upon the line, and averaged $32 per passenger. According to the report:

The line with the highest per passenger subsidy — the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles — carried almost 72,000 passengers last year. The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, had the second-highest per passenger subsidy of $193 and carried nearly 353,000 passengers in 2008. Pew’s analysis indicates that the average loss per passenger on all 44 of Amtrak’s lines was $32, about four times what the loss would be using Amtrak’s figures: only $8 per passenger. (Amtrak uses a different method for calculating route performance).

The Northeast Corridor has the highest passenger volume of any Amtrak route, carrying nearly 10.9 million people in 2008. The corridor’s high-speed Acela Express made a profit of about $41 per passenger. But the more heavily utilized Northeast Regional, with more than twice as many riders as the Acela, lost almost $5 per passenger.

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