What’s Wrong with the NEC?
A beautiful October Friday and train #175 has just gone on the board as ten minutes late into New Haven from Boston. How can a train be late in perfect weather?
One obvious reason is that heavy track and bridge maintenance in the northeast must be concentrated in the summer. Evidence of big projects is clear. Most obvious to me are the Metro-North bridges at Stratford, Westport and Norwalk. Extraordinarily hot weather can cause lower speeds as welded rail can expand beyond acceptable tolerance, causing heat-related alignment problems. At 95 degrees F, Amtrak cuts its Northeast Corridor speed limits to 80 mph, from a top of 125 mph (37 days this summer vs. 24 last year).
Since we were traveling after 11 am on Friday, the usual round trip “excursion” fare of $78 was not in force. Rather than pay $120 for New Haven to Washington, we had purchased tickets from Providence to Washington for $82. Because Providence is over $65, we could return for $7. New London (between New Haven and Providence) cost $64 so we could not get the special. A conductor waiting to board at New Haven with us was surprised at what we were doing but acknowledged it was a smart move. This is a variation on the “hidden city” strategy (game) used by airline travelers.
How is it possible that Amtrak can take a longer time to go from New Haven to New York than Metro-North? Maybe it is because Metro-North “owns” the pike and believes “the shoemakers children shouldn’t go with bare feet”.
The first problem of double-stops was caused by the length of the train (2 AEM-7’s; 2 snack cars; 16 coaches). The train had to make two stops at each station. Rather than follow the Metro-North practice of moving people to center cars at short platforms, Amtrak stops the front of the train at the platform, loads and unloads those cars; then moves the train in order to spot the rear cars.
At New Rochelle, we had a wait crossing onto the Hell Gate route because of the north-bound rush hour traffic. While waiting, I observed the only non-standard piece of equipment the whole trip – an Amtrak coach with “Santa Fe” still faintly visible on the sides.
Why do we slow at stations where we do not stop? One would think we could breeze through on the middle tracks. Instead, we creep by.
One problem we didn’t seem to have was freight train interference. This can be a problem as rail freight traffic is rising nationwide while railroads concentrate it on fewer lines. Economic efficiency prompts railroads to run without a caboose; however this can cause longer en-route delays as crews walking along a stopped train to find a problem car start from one end rather than both ends of the train. Freights using Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between 7 AM and 10 PM are required to carry cabooses.
We were an hour late getting into Washington’s newly refurbished station. The escalator from the lower level to the station was only running down. All the passengers on an 18-car train walked up the stairs!
Loading and unloading could be speeded up. Let’s start with the escalator system at New York’s Penn Station. The train unloads and passengers go up the escalator. When the train is unloaded, the direction of the escalator changes. Why not two sets of escalators?
Washington’s METRO runs like clockwork. It accelerates and holds to its schedule. If Amtrak isn’t taking advantage of the power of the AEM-7’s; why nor revert back to GG1’s and save lots of money. At $2.5 million, the AEM-7 is the most expensive and most sophisticated locomotive ever delivered. Its 50 foot, 101 ton body delivers 7,000 horsepower (the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio ever achieved by mankind). An on-board minicomputer insures the machine won’t burn holes in the rails from wheel slip.
Air conditioning malfunctions characterized our return trip. I guess nobody believes they are necessary after September 30.
On our return trip, the snack car was closed from Washington to Baltimore. Bet it wouldn’t be if it were ran as a private concession.
Is the level of equipment service causing delays? Budget cuts in 1986 caused Amtrak to raise the number of miles between heavy overhauls. Seven new AEM-7s being built will help immensely. While locomotive levels have been restored to the manufacturer-approved level, many cars have gone eight years without a major overhaul. Amtrak has a goal of overhauling 150 Amfleet cars annually at Bear, DE. Their goal for preventive maintenance is 120-days. Unfortunately, peak travel periods require “stealing” cars scheduled for PM.
Amtrak is redesigning the toilets on older Amfleet cars using all-stainless steel and eliminating the plastic shroud which retains unpleasant odors. In addition, the pump-out frequency is being increased. This is a costly, time-consuming process. Other improvements in the works are a reassessment of the interval for filling the water tanks and installation of receptacle locks on the 480-volt power cables between cars which can become disconnected en route.
The 456-mile Corridor accounts for nearly half of Amtrak’s riders. Not even the budget cuts of the Reagan presidency contemplated killing the Corridor. While much was done in the way of track reconstruction, grade crossing elimination, station improvements, electric power distribution and train performance; we could have had more. The “unwatered” Northeast Corridor Improvement Project proposed 150 mph speeds plus electrification from New Haven to Boston. As finally signed by Gerald Ford in 1976, speed was cut to 120 mph and New Haven-Boston is still an issue. The NECIP ran like a typical government program: that which the Federal Railroad Administration planned turned out to be different than what the outside consultants designed which in turn bore little resemblance to what Amtrak actually built. Many innovations were incorporated into the project. The best example is concrete ties which should last 50 years (versus 25 for wood), provide more stable support for high-speed trains, and save on alignment maintenance.
One final complaint – what ever happened to foot bars on the floor of the seat in front of you?
WHICH DIRECTION NEW YORK & BOSTON?
The campaign for high-speed rail service between New York and Boston is heating up. Presidential aspirant Michael Dukakis (Governor of Massachusetts in real life) made a trip between Boston and Providence on two “tilting” trains that proponents claim could be the key to faster service.
The 43-mile route took 34 minutes each way. Outbound on a Canadian train and inbound on a Spanish one. These trains are capable of holding 110 mph on curves. This is vital since the 232 New York to Boston route miles have 230 curves.
The Canadian train is the LRC built by Bombardier of Quebec and used by VIA Rail. The Spanish train is a Talgo. These trains are undergoing evaluation on the entire route. Testing is under the direction of AMTRAK and the Federal Railroad Administration. A lot of the testing occurs at night so as to not interfere with current schedules. These trains have been seen “holed up” during the day at the motor storage area in New Haven.
The object of the whole exercise is to find a way to better the 4 3/4 hour trip time. Something between three and 3 1/2 hours would provide a viable alternative to a taxi-plane-taxi trip.
Several key decisions must be made:
Improve the equipment on the existing roadbed or improve the roadbed as well as the equipment?
Extend Washington to New York electrification?
How many and where are the station stops?
Will the benefits be worth the cost (ridership?)?
Who will finance (government? private? both?)?
It would be far cheaper to use “technology” trains like those being tested than it would be to improve the roadbed to the point that existing Washington to New York trains could maintain the same pace on a New York to Boston route. Electrification adds a whole new dimension to the cost picture but allows a time savings from no engine changes.
A limited-stop Boston to New York train could run today in 3 hours and 45 minutes. That assumes 7 minutes to decelerate, stop and get back to speed (for six stops). Electrification (or the ability to run in a dual power mode) would cut out the 10 minute break at New Haven leaving running time a little over 3 1/2 hours. Non-stop trains could run in even less time. Unfortunately, it is politically difficult to run non-stop – especially if Rhode Island and Connecticut help pay the bill.
Whichever route is taken to upgrade the “Northeast Corridor-North” will have to grasp with a LOT of curves and bridges. Old New Haven employee timetables have a page and a half of speed restrictions. Some of the curves are tough – for instance at Bridgeport.
Stops could be minimized by using a system of “secondary” trains. Lets assume certain Boston to New York trains only stopped at Providence and New Haven. Another Boston to Providence train would leave Boston earlier and make the intermediate stops. New York or New Haven passengers from any of these intermediate stations would change trains at Providence.
Likewise, passengers to New York from points between Providence and New Haven would take a secondary train to New Haven and change trains. New Haven to New York secondary trains would be operated by Metro-North. Providence to Boston would be operated by MBTA. Providence to New Haven would presumably be operated by AMTRAK.
After a high-speed train arrives in either Providence or New Haven, another secondary train would take passengers from the high-speed train to intermediate stops beyond the high-speed stop.
Conservative estimates show ridership doubling if train time equals taxi-plane-taxi time. About a quarter of Boston (Logan Airport) flights are to New York so a reduction in airport crowding is another benefit.
A big question is would anybody in the private sector be willing to invest and risk the capital. If they were, it might be a way around the several Federal, state and local organizations which would , as always, have trouble working together.
RAIL STATIONS – RECIPE FOR URBAN RENEWAL
How can rebuilding of a rail station spark the renaissance of a whole area of a town? Try Hartford, Connecticut. If its Union Station did not exist, Hartford might of had to invent it. The century-old train station was transformed into a full-service transportation center as well as a retail, office and restaurant complex.
Its been quite a turnaround. Just a few years ago, the neighborhood was a center for head shops, leather stores, rock and disco clubs and was filled with transients, hustlers and hookers. Now the area has taken on an upscale mood.
The Union Station project, which took 18 years and about $20 million, is almost – but not completely – finished. The train, bus taxi and limousine areas as well as the station’s main hall are completed. All of the office and retail store space – including a hair salon, newsstand, travel agency and a variety of professional offices – is leased. Three of five restaurants in the food court are open, featuring Vietnamese, ice cream and burger fare respectively. A cornerstone restaurant called Hot Tomato’s has opened. A deli and a cinnamon bun eatery are likely to fill the food court.
Union Station by itself would never have had an impact, but what it has done is to act as a catalyst for other changes. New upscale clubs in the area attract thousands of people, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Development plans for office buildings in the area are numerous.
Hartford train ridership in the past two years has increased from around 200,000 in 1986 to 250,000 in 1988. While most trains are New Haven-Springfield, there are several that follow the inland route to Boston. Additionally, Hartford is on the Washington-Montreal route.
The station is an important site in Hartford. It is the physical evidence of the city’s shift from river-based commerce to a rail-based system that allowed the city to grow tremendously in the late 19th Century. It is also a rare local example of Romanesque architecture.
Unfortunately, Union Station is not yet a mass transportation center. Its owner, the Greater Hartford Transit District, has some ideas of what the future should hold. Its chairman, Paul A Ehrhardt, is trying to sell officials of area towns what would be one of the most ambitious efforts to change transportation, housing and commercial development in an American city.
Multi-story apartment buildings, park-and-ride lots, office buildings and shops would grow around suburban transit stops. Currently, suburbs are designed around two cars in every garage, but Hartford cannot support the huge daily influx of cars. But if transit lines were built and land around them rezoned for high-density development, then a mass transit system would work.
The transit district has received a $50,000 grant to study two rail corridors. One is the abandoned Griffin Line running north through Bloomfield. This could easily be extended to Bradley International Airport. The other line is the former New Haven Highland Line which crosses the Connecticut River to East Hartford, South Windsor and Manchester.
The study will consist of:
Cataloging how the strip of land along the rail line is currently zoned.
Sketching a suburban transportation center, possibly including “affordable” housing, the terminus for local feeder bus service and/or park-and-ride lots, day-care centers, convenience stores and commercial development.
Mapping a rail route from the end of the state-controlled Griffin Line to Bradley Airport.
Determining how much systems have cost elsewhere (for instance, Pittsburgh and Portland, Oregon). A mile of electrified rail is estimated to cost between $12 million and $20 million.
Looking at possible financing, including tapping the expected increase in value of public land near the transit line.
In Washington, Union Station spurs building. The opening of a new three-level mall last September has signaled the onset of the next stage in redevelopment of the station’s neighborhood near Capitol Hill.
The success of the mall in the 81-year-old structure, renovated at a cost of $120 million, vindicated investment by developers as early as 1980 in the area.
In June, a developer completed the first phase of Union Center Plaza, a 181,000 square foot building now 70 percent leased to trade associations.
Bounded by North Capitol Street on the west, New York and Florida Avenues on the north, Second Street Northeast on the east and Massachusetts Avenue on the south, the 11-block area is now covered with warehouses, coal yards, low-quality Government buildings and two bus stations. Brokers say 18 million square feet of Class A space can be built in the neighborhood, where there is little existing housing, few zoning restrictions and convenient subway and railroad transportation.
On the west side of Union Station, another developer will add over 300,000 square feet to the historic six-story city post office. They are leasing the building from the Postal Service and expect to lease it back to the General Services Administration. It will house the offices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Architect of the Capitol.
Yet another developer is about to close on a purchase agreement for about $50 million with Woodward & Lothrop for the department store’s 500,000-square-foot warehouse alongside the railroad tracks north of the station. The department store will lease back the building at submarket rates until another site can be found for its distribution facility.
The restored Union Station has more than 100 shops, five major restaurants and cafes and a nine-screen movie complex. The Beaux-Arts building, designed by Daniel Burnham at the turn of the century, had been closed since 1981 due to rot and neglect.
Elsewhere, Washington has done it already and now Philadelphia has announced plans to spend $75 million on the dreary 54-year-old neo-classical 30th Street railroad station. 16,000 feet will be added to the existing 14,000 square feet of retail space. Included will be a food court seating 200 people. Two five-story office buildings on either end of the central passenger concourse, now all but vacant, will be renovated into 250,000 square feet of office space for AMTRAK’s Northeast Corridor.
A 450-space underground garage will be built as well as extensive new lighting, landscaping and cleaning. Service for the annual 8.5 million passengers will not be interrupted. The developers view the renovation as the first stage of turning the whole area into a major business and entertainment district. Another developer has an agreement to develop 66 acres of air rights just north of the station.
Opened in 1933, 30th Street was built away from the center of Philadelphia to save the reverse move that was required at the more conveniently located Broad Street Station. Now it has to build a more suitable neighborhood for itself.
U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has drawn a map of High-Speed Rail Corridor Designations.
Yes there are some logical missing links that might be needed on this map such as connecting Cleveland to Buffalo, Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Kansas City to Tulsa, Little Rock to St. Louis, Houston to San Antonio, Houston to Dallas, Jacksonville to Orlando and possibly Louisville-Nashville-Atlanta. Its not that someone would necessarily travel from end to end, say Kansas City to Boston by HSR (though could) but that within that route it would serve many short trips of riders traveling to the next major metro area down the track (i.e. from Chicago to Cleveland). As much as I dislike flying one would still likely fly from New Orleans to New York even if there is a continuous HSR line the entire way. The only other real seperate HSR corridors I would think could be added to this map would be Las Vegas to Los Angeles (and the whole CA HSR system) and a route into Toronto. Ideally I see feeder lines (tying into HSR hubs) as important as the HSR lines themselves. The slower speed feeder lines going into smaller cities away from the main HSR corridors help provide full blanket coverage of a region. Plus they also would cater to rural communities which is needed to provide transport to these areas and for poltical support whereas HSR alone entirely caters solely to large cities.
It all goes back to using transit effectively: airlines good over 600 miles then railroads best until 50 miles. Then trams (or even smelly old busses).
Freight similar. Just don’t do stupid things like cross-country tractor-trailers or expecting a train to be timely for a 20-mile move (exception: using commuter trains for small package delivery.) Maybe this is the route Amtrak should have gone 35 years ago instead of trying to give each Congressional District a Trans-Continental train of its own.
John R. Stilgoe has commented extensively on this: Unlike many United States industries, railroads are intrinsically linked to American soil and particular regions. Yet few Americans pay attention to rail lines, even though millions of them live in an economy and culture “waiting for the train.” In Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape, John R. Stilgoe picks up where his acclaimed work Metropolitan Corridor left off, carrying his ideas about the spatial consequences of railways up to the present moment. Arguing that the train is returning, “an economic and cultural tsunami about to transform the United States,” Stilgoe posits a future for railways as powerful shapers of American life.
Divided into sections that focus on particular aspects of the impending impact of railroads on the landscape, Train Time moves seamlessly between historical and contemporary analysis. From his reading of what prompted investors to reorient their thinking about the railroad industry in the late 1970s, to his exploration of creative solutions to transportation problems and land-use planning and development in the present, Stilgoe expands our perspective of an industry normally associated with bad news. Urging us that “the magic moment is now,” he observes, “Now a train is often only a whistle heard far off on a sleepless night. But romantic or foreboding or empowering, the whistle announces return and change to those who listen.”
For scholars with an interest in American history in general and railroad and transit history in particular, as well as general readers concerned about the future of transportation in the United States, Train Time is an engaging look at the future of our railroads.
“An outstanding study of the intellectual and social ramifications of railway development in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. . . . Whether we are enthusiasts, scholars, buffs, commuters, or Amtrak riders, Stilgoe offers us a new way to look at railroads and railroading. . . . A brief review cannot convey the sweep of this outstanding contribution to American cultural history.”—Keith L. Bryant, Jr., Railroad History
“How railroads affected the landscape and transformed American culture from 1880 to 1930 is the focus of John R. Stilgoe’s profusely illustrated work. In 1983 our reviewer, Dolores Greenberg, called the book an ’impressive’ study and said, ’Here in wonderful detail are the trains and the built environment adjacent to the rightofway they traveled.”– New York Times Book Review
Metropolitan Corridor : Railroads and the American Scene examines the United States railroad environment in the years between 1880 and 1930, focusing on railroad travel, the perceptions of train passengers, and the constituents of the rail corridor itself, everything from power plants and industrial zones to railroad yards, grade crossings, suburban depots and the first landscapes shaped by railroad abandonment.
http://www.dce.harvard.edu/pubs/lamplighter/1996/spring/success.html Stilgoe predicts the return of railroad Investment activity points to future of travel, commerce
The golden age of the railroad ended in the mid-20th century, when Americans switched from Pullman cars to Chevys and eventually 747 jetliners. Yet, to John R. Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Graduate School of Design, trains are anything but passé. Based on analyses of real estate investment patterns along railroad corridors, Stilgoe predicts that trains will once again play a key role in shaping American life.
“Train travel will supplant highway and air travel in the next few decades,” Stilgoe says. “Furthermore, electric railroads will increasingly be used to distribute freight items — such as coal and grain — as well as mail and express packages.” He explores this scenario in a recently published book, “Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape” (University of Virginia Press, 2007).
Stilgoe cites investment and real estate activity as the best indicators of the impending railroad renaissance. He notes that in April 2007, for example, investor Warren Buffett purchased 39 million shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which operates railroad services in the Midwestern and western United States.
“It’s very clear what is happening,” Stilgoe says. “The share price of railroad stocks is going up and up. One would never imagine that railroads could be good investment … but then why is Warren Buffett so interested?”
Stilgoe also says that real estate transfers in Midwestern towns that lie along old rail routes have been more frequent, with most properties significantly increasing in value.
“There is a lot of money moving this way,” he says, “because these satellite towns will be worth a great deal when the trains come back. Investors are purchasing everything from derelict buildings to gravel plots, which can be easily transformed into parking lots when the time is right.”
Stilgoe adds that politicians are increasingly interested in exploring railroad development. In “auto-centric” cities like St. Louis and Atlanta, he says, politicians are initiating feasibility studies to determine how an increased railroad presence would enhance commercial activity.
“Rail-equipment manufacturers are already soliciting orders,” says Stilgoe. “This is well under way.”
According to Stilgoe, the three prime factors driving railroad development are population growth, rising gas prices, and advanced technology.
“Experts anticipate that there will be 150 million more Americans by 2050,” says Stilgoe. “Anyone who drives knows that the highways are already jammed and can hardly accommodate additional traffic.” Stilgoe argues that extension of high-speed rail service would alleviate crowded urban highways by enabling commuters to live farther from the city center.
“If more passenger trains were permitted to go 90 miles per hour — which they are capable of doing — that would dramatically impact the shape of urban and exurban settlement,” he says.
Development in Albuquerque, N.M., provides a compelling example of Stilgoe’s theory. In 2004, city officials ordered 10 new bi-level commuter railroad cars, at a price of $2.2 million each. The cars serve a newly expanded network that connects small communities throughout greater Albuquerque.
“Wealthy people can live north or south of the city, come in to do their work, and leave again,” says Stilgoe.
In addition to population growth, Stilgoe argues that increasing gas prices will lead more passengers to the railroad.
“As gasoline rises it becomes cheaper to travel by train,” Stilgoe says. “Railroads are part of a sustainable future.”
Fuel efficiency will not only alter passenger travel, says Stilgoe, it will also impact the distribution of freight. Electrified railways will provide a convenient and low-cost method of delivering goods and packages throughout the country.
“In the 1930s it was possible to order a fridge in the morning and have it delivered by train later the same day,” says Stilgoe. “Americans forgot about this, but we’re starting to put it back together.”
Finally, Stilgoe suggests that advanced technology will play a key role in encouraging railroad development.
“This is a high-tech industry,” he says. “We have the technology to revitalize outdated tracks, to turn them into electrified rails that can support high-speed, on-time trains.” Eco-friendly locomotives have already been developed, as well as onboard computer systems designed to calculate the most fuel-efficient speeds.
“Few people have taken notice of the developments in the railroad industry,” Stilgoe says. “But they should — because it is going to have an undeniable impact on the future of our nation.”
This November, Californians will vote on a $10 billion bond to anchor funding for its proposed all-electric high speed rail (HSR) network, intended primarily as a long-distance passenger service. The remainder of the projected $40 billion price tag is supposed to come from Washington and private investors. Governor Schwarzenegger is still sitting on the fence because he wants the funding firmed up first.
Proponents want the system to deliver downtown to downtown travel times that are competitive with intrastate air travel, e.g. between SFO, LAX and SAN. The comparison includes the time spent getting to and from the airports, check-in, security and baggage claim. In other countries, airlines are now beginning to code-share HSR stations in their booking systems, effectively expanding their number of destinations. Fewer intrastate flights would mean existing runways could be used to support more long-distance travel.
Fierce debate raged over how best to connect the Bay Area to the Central Valley. The California High Speed Rail Authority recently endorsed a southern alignment through the sparsely populated Pacheco pass (close to SR 152) and across the Central Valley to join the main line south of Merced. This expensive option would allow trains would travel at very high speed between Gilroy and Fresno.
An alternate northern route through the Altamont pass near Livermore would have required many fewer miles of HSR track and enabled regional service for a number of existing cities. It would also have provided better connectivity between the Bay Area and Sacramento, but it was feared the resulting compromise would also have made the service less competitive with airline travel between the anchor cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. After all, you can’t run a train at 220mph through built-up neighborhoods, even on new, grade-separated tracks.
No-one is proposing high speed rail service from coast to coast. In developed countries, such trains are competitive with airlines at distances up to 1000km (600mi) at most, and then only if (a) the majority of the route is traversed at speeds in excess of 200mph.
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