Thursday, November 26, 2009

Will Buffet electrify the BNSF? Part III—operation advantages of electric power

(part 3 in a series)

Why use electricity? Rail transport is already very efficient (you've seen the ads)—436 ton-miles per gallon. (FWIW, the average car gets about 40 ton-miles per gallon, trucks do somewhat better.) So, that's good, right? Yes. It's good. But, in addition to easing operation when built, freight rail could triple that number. One ton across the country, on two gallons of gas.

Railroads are already efficient—significantly more efficient than their chief competition: trucks. Pipelines and barge traffic are also quite efficient but each have significant limitations. Pipelines are expensive to construct and can only carry liquids. Barges are cheap to operate and energy efficient (especially going downstream, where they use the flow of a river to their advantage) but are tied to navigable rivers and stream flows, which, when low or icy, can preclude their use. In addition, barges have a very limited top speed, and also need long periods of time to navigate locks when making any change in elevation. Thus, barges are only useful for bulk materials which are not time-sensitive. To receive or deliver goods anywhere which is not on the barge network requires time-consumptive and expensive break-in-bulk procedures, which, when combined with the restrictiveness of the navigable waterway network, further decreases their utility.

So, highways and railroads handle the bulk of freight in the United States. Trucks have advantages in flexibility (they can deliver almost anywhere) and, generally, speed. Railroads have advantages in fuel consumption, labor costs, and maximum carrying capacity (by unit; the size of the largest rail car is significantly more than a trailer). While labor costs and maximum capacity would be relatively unaffected by electrification, fuel costs would decrease further. Using diesel power, railroads are already between 1.5 and 10 times more efficient than trucks. A factor of three or four is probably a conservative estimate. Railroads and trucks use the same fuel, so the efficiencies are not realized there. They appear in both economies of scale of railroads larger engines, wind resistance (in effect, each rail car is drafting the one behind it) and, more importantly, the effect of rolling resistance. Rubber tires on asphalt roads have significantly more friction than steel wheels on steel rails.

Even with these efficiencies, railroads are generally cheaper than trucking because of labor costs. Each truck requires a driver, and a train, which can carry the equivalent of 280 trucks with a crew of two. With current energy prices, labor is a greater advantage for railroads than fuel. But it doesn't mean that diesel power is operationally preferable to electricity. Once the initial infrastructure (catenary, transmission and substations) is built, electric rail is operationally superior for several reasons including the simplicity of electric motors, the lack of a need to ship fuel, acceleration and operating speeds, and, finally, the ability to use regenerative breaking on downhills.

The first reason is that electric motors (technically, electric train engines are "motors") are simple. As discussed in part II of this series, many of the electric motors the Milwaukee Road used were fifty years old and worked fine when the railroad ripped out electrification. Diesel engines last rather well, too, but aren't in the same league. With fewer moving parts, after the initial investment, a railroad could expect to have to pay very little for new motors for some time.

A second advantage is where the power for engines comes from. With diesel engines, there is both the need to carry fuel on-board, and to frequently refuel. The weight of the fuel on the train itself is quite minor, considering a train might weight several thousand tons. However, the transport of the fuel requires resources, either pipelines or delivery by the railroad, which uses capacity that could be used for other shipments. In addition, fueling the tanks takes time, during which the engines could otherwise be in service. With electricity delivered from overhead wires, there's really no reason, except for crew changes, that a motor would ever have to stop.

Furthermore, when diesels do have to stop, they can't be turned off and back on at the drop of a hat. Diesel requires warm temperatures to operate, and to keep engines warm, they either have to be plugged in or kept running, whether they are hauling anything or not. Electricity, on the other hand, is as easy as flipping a switch. In the mountains and along the northern transcontinental route, it gets mighty chilly.

Electric motors benefit from better acceleration and higher operating speeds. Acceleration is very important for passenger rail, especially when there is not much distance between stops (which is why subways run on electricity) but not as important for freight rail. However, having a top speed faster than competing services would allow freight rail to be time-competitive with trucking.

Getting rid of the on-board power supply also gives the ability to reduce the dependence on one fuel type, which, in the case of rail, is oil. Diesel-electrics use on-board power plants, which are only 30 or 40 percent efficient. Some electricity-generating technologies are more efficient. (HowStuffWorks has a nice article on diesel locomotives.) The cynic's view is that railroads will turn to coal in order to get their power, and, while this may be true (they're the ones hauling the coal, after all), there are certainly other options. The Milwaukee Road ran mainly on hyrdo power. As we'll explore later, the BNSF runs through wind- and solar-heavy regions. Finally, since there is some power loss, having major, centralized coal plants might not make as much sense as power sources along the route.

Finally, a diesel engine runs whether the train is accelerating or not. If the train is decelerating, the engine can, in a sense, be run backwards to slow it down. (Your car runs very similarly, albeit on a smaller scale.) This is called "dynamic braking." Of course, physics dictates that this energy has to go somewhere, and it does: it is converted to heat and blown through huge vents on the top of the engine. This is a major waste of energy.

Electric engines also have the ability to use the momentum of the train to slow it down, but instead of dissipating the energy as heat, they throw it right back in to the wire above. This is "regenerative braking." (The Prius does the same type of thing, but can only store energy in a battery.) With wires above, there is little limit to the amount of energy which can be put in to the system. If another train on an adjacent track is climbing the hill, a downhill train can transfer much of its power across to it; if not, the power can be fed back in to the grid. Since every transcontinental line climbs and descends several thousand feet through the Rockies and coastal ranges, there is the potential to save huge amounts of power.

I. We've discussed how being part of a larger organization like Berkshire Hathaway may allow the BNSF to spend more freely on capital improvements in this section.
II. We'll then look at a history of freight rail electrification, including the sad tale of the Milwaukee Road and some freight rail electrification abroad.
III. We'll look at some of the operational advantages of electric power, and
IV. Some of the economic advantages, in the long run, of electric power generation, and how the whole system would be built.
V. From an environmental standpoint, we'll look in to how electricity can be generated on-route, and whether there are options beyond coal (such as wind and solar), and
VI. How this may mesh with the construction of a smart grid.
VII. Finally, we'll see if freight rail electrification may have any benefits for passenger rail, on the BNSF routes and other main lines.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Apparently, there are folks whose schedules don't fit Northstar

Last week, I wrote about how late night commuter service helps rush hour trips. The main contention is that for anyone who doesn't have a very stable 8-4 or 9-5 job, the Northstar Line is not a viable option, and how this is actually the case for many other commuter rail systems in the country.

One of these prospective riders wrote about it in the Star Tribune. We seem to agree. Her worry is, however, that if ridership is muted, it will never be able to expand north or to change its schedule. The politics and logistics of adding trips are very tricky, but it seems that having a later evening trip or two (8 p.m. and 11 p.m.) would provide a safety net allowing many more commuters on the late trains. A sweeper bus or two would work as a preliminary measure (there is currently one bus which leaves at 7:00 and only serves some stations). If not, well, it means more cars on the road, and fewer riders on the rails.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Northstar Line, and how late night service helps rush hour ridership

A shorter version of this was originally posted as a comment on The Transport Politic.

One problem with Northstar, and most new systems, is that by running only at rush hour they are aimed strictly at the 8-4 / 9-5 crowd. Anyone who ever has to stay later at their job can't take the train, or wind up a very costly ($80-120) mile cab ride from home. In order to plug a deficit, the MBTA proposed cutting service after 7 p.m. in Boston and there was a ton of outcry. People basically said "having late trains, even ones running every two hours, allows me to take the train every day. If you cut those trains, I have to drive." So there's a whole market which is ignored by limiting transit to commute hours only.

Of course, Boston and other legacy commuter systems (New York, Philly, some of DC, Chicago and San Francisco) have existing trackage rights or own their track outright, so don't have to worry about freight rail's demands. (The Northstar Line shares track with a major BNSF transcon route which sees about 50 freight trains a day.) Of the non-legacy systems, only Miami-West Palm Beach, Utah, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Connecticut's Shore Line East provide any sort of evening service.

This evening service, while not well patronized, helps more people take transit. While there are no definitive numbers, let's make a some assumptions/educated guesses for cities with full-schedule commuter rail. Eighty percent of transit ridership is during traditional rush hours: in by 9, out between 3:30 and 6:30. Ten percent is on midday services, and ten percent on evening services. It seems that you could cut these services, and lose only 20% of your ridership while eliminating 40% of the trains. However, it's not this simple.

One of the reasons people don't ride transit is because of their families. A frequent issue brought up by many potential riders is "what happens if my kid gets sick and I need to pick them up at at school?" (Nevermind that this is an infrequent enough occurrence that the money saved on gas and parking would more than cover a cab fare twice a year.) But, it's a valid concern, especially for systems where suburban transit quits from 9 to 3. Even with hourly or every-two-hour service, it provides some safety net. If your kid gets sick you'll be able to get there at some point in before the school day is out.

The other reason people eschew transit in underserved cities is the "what happens if I have to stay late?" question. As mentioned, in the the legacy commuter rail cities, if you have to stay late, you'll get home. You might not be able to walk down to the station and get on a train which runs every twenty minutes like at rush hour, but if you have to stay until 7:00 you'll at least get home in time to say the proverbial good night to the kids. The late trains provide a sort of safety net—for people who have to occasionally and unexpectedly stay late, it allows to them to come to work without a car and know that they'll get home. For a lot of employees, this makes the difference between taking the train to work and driving.

So let's go back to the 80-20 rush hour–non-rush split. For people who might sometimes have to work late, probably 95% of their trips are during rush hour—ten or twelve times a year they have to stay late at work. So, out of a hypothetical 100 riders, 95 of are crowding trains at rush hour, and 5 are taking trains later on. However, if you cut the late service, you not only lose the five people on these relatively uncrowded services, but the 95 on the earlier trains, too. So you can't cut evening trains and expect to retain your full peak ridership.

There is another element to running late-night service: it allows people who work downtown to stay downtown. Many American cities has 9-5 downtowns: they empty out at night and seem desolate. This is mainly because there is not the critical mass of people to populate the streets and go to restaurants and shows. In a city like Minneapolis, which has a rather high transit mode-split but little late night service, people who want to stay out late, if they are from the suburbs, are forced to drive. Minneapolis has a good number of services downtown, from a full-scale Macys (originally Daytons) to a full-scale Target, as well as baseball and basketball arenas, as well as the Guthrie Theater and Orchestra Hall. Providing later service would allow people to take transit in in the morning and stay downtown to avail themselves of the amenities which are not available in the suburbs.

One means to this end might be shorter trains or, in the very long run, electrification of commuter runs. The Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth uses old Budd RDCs for some off-peak trips, which are more efficient for transporting smaller numbers of passengers. With locomotive-hauled services (or motor-hauled electric services) there is little incentive to shorten trains, as uncoupling a few cars decreases efficiency very little. (This is why off-peak trains in Boston, for example, often operate full-length trains with only two or three cars open.) With DMUs or EMUs, there is a significant energy-use savings with shorter trains.

In the long run, the plan is to run service from Minneapolis to Saint Cloud. While criticisms of the first phase of this project may be apt, it will make much more sense if there are trains running to the proper end of the line there. It would be more of a cross between intercity rail and a commuter service, and would probably necessitate midday and evening trips (these could be run every three hours in each direction with only one train set and crew). Saint Cloud is home to 60,000 people, has a local bus system, and, possibly most importantly, has a 20,000 student state university, with most of the students undergrads, and many from the Twin Cities. The campus is about 1/2 mile from the potential station site, adjacent to downtown, and bus lines currently connect the two.

So while the first phase is probably not cost effective, the overall project—with passenger rail service between two cities' downtowns at highway-competitive speeds—may be quite a bit more useful to quite a few more riders.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The fallacy of one-way car sharing

(This all began a few months ago, when a friend in Austin and I discussed a one-way rental scheme there. Months have passed, he's moved, and one-way car sharing still isn't open to the public in Austin. Or anywhere else in the hemisphere. And, outside a couple isolated cases, I'm not sure it will ever work. I distilled the argument, a bit, in a comment at the Transport Politic, and promised to flesh it out. Here's my best attempt …)

One of the most frequently asked questions for those of us in the car sharing industry is "when are you going to have one-way rentals." There's no good answer. Yes, car sharing is a relatively young industry: Communauto is celebrating 15 years in Montreal, most other Car Sharing Organizations (CSOs) in the western hemisphere are 10 or younger. While the technological advances during that time have been rapid, from paper log books and lock boxes to iPhone reservations and remote unlocks, everyone has been vexed by one-way rentals. Supposedly some very smart people (at MIT IIRC) tried to build an algorithm to allow for one-way rentals, and it failed miserably. So, with one minor exception, if you take out a car sharing vehicle, you have to return it to the same space.

The one exception is with Car2Go (not to be confused with a similarly named CSO in Israel), which is "operating" in Ulm, Germany and Austin, Texas. Why Ulm and Austin? Well, Car2Go is backed by Daimler, and has a fleet of Smart Cars in each city. I know very little about the operation in Ulm (or the city itself) other than it is a small, dense, European city. As far as Austin, I know two things. First, the system there is not open to the public. Second, it seems to have backing from the municipal government and the University of Texas, at least as far as parking, which is why it might not fail. Might.

There are two ways to figure out why one-way rentals do not work for car sharing. One is to take a CSO, its members, vehicles, and a defined area, and try to create an model which takes in to account car usage, parking, times of day and fees per mile or minute to see if it, well, works. That is very complicated and, even if it proved successful (so far it has not) is still only a model. The second method, however, is to take a step back and look at some of the underlying factors which would create a workable one-way car share, and how these mesh with such a program. Doing this, it becomes quite clear that one-way car sharing will never really work, no matter how many GPS-enabled cell phones there are.

So, let's take that step back. In North America, one-way rentals would seem to be based on cities with high density, i.e. cities where, once a car was parked, it would not be long before another driver needed it. We can use a very good proxy for this: cities which are existing major car sharing markets. These are, in the United States, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Portland and Seattle; and in Canada, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. (All have at least 300 shared cars on the road, except Portland and Seattle, which have about 200.)

What do all these cities have in common? They all have the soft factors which, in my opinion, are supportive of car sharing: the availability (or lack thereof) and cost of parking, the frequency, reliability and speed of a transit network, and the prevalence of urban congestion. (See this post about car sharing for a longer discussion of these three factors.)

Why won't one-way car sharing work in these cities? One word: parking.

Imagine starting something like this in a city like Boston (a stand in for our dense car sharing cities because I am poaching most of the next few paragraphs off of an email I wrote a while back). No one would use it. The reason Zipcar is successful (as are other CSOs in other cities) is that when you return your car you are guaranteed a parking spot. If you are going from Cambridge to the South End, you take the T, because it is faster (or marginally slower) than driving, cheaper, less aggravating, and less likely to experience a traffic jam. (And if it is delayed you can walk—you're not wedded to your car.) If time is of the essence, you take a taxi; as long as you aren't going right there and back it's probably cheaper than a shared car (you pay for when you use it, driving or not, so if you are going to a party, it's cheaper to that the T there and a cab home). You use Zipcar for trips to the grocery store when you don't want to haul groceries on the T, trips to Ikea &c., trips to the suburbs or places to which the T doesn't run and to which a cab would be abhorrently expensive (anything within spitting distance of 128).

Now, imagine the one-way car sharing scenario. You pick up a car near your house in Cambridge, and drive to the South End. It works well because it is an easy trip. But there are two problems on two different scales. On a small scale, you get to the South End, and start looking for parking. Most likely, any time you saved driving you lose trying to find a space. Maybe a firm comes up with a way to send the location of spaces to your phone (I worked for one of these for a while, and it did not work out), but there is still a lot more demand than supply. So circling the block eats up any time savings you may have enjoyed. And there's no way that this service, at $300+ per space per month, goes out and buys enough spaces around the city that you could always find one open and convenient. It might work if you dynamically base the price of the destination based on demand, but then high-demand locations will cost more than taxicabs.

Based on the density of cities like Boston alone, one-way car sharing would work. Except that it is impossible that the parking could be worked out. You'd almost necessarily have more parking spaces than cars, which is both an economic and social detriment: parking, especially empty, is antithetical to density and walkability. (Most CSOs have as many parking spaces as cars; some have fewer. If a CSO has 15 cars assigned to a lot and knows that 99.5% of the time no fewer than 2 cars will be checked out, and lower pricing for off hours can encourage this, they can buy fewer spaces than they have cars. At $300 a space, this is a nice thing to be able to do.)

The other problem is large scale, one of congestion. Imagine that you somehow solve the parking conundrum this takes off. Imagine that whenever you need a car, you can get one and drop it off wherever you need to, and pay a few dollars for its use. It would be great. Everyone would use it. And, there's the problem. And all of the sudden, tens of thousands of people who used to be carried below grade on subway lines (and some buses) would be clogging the streets in their little two-seater cars. Even if they were in such eight-foot long vehicles, they'd take up a lot of space. In cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, adding a few percent to the already at-capacity roads throws the system in to gridlock. You'd pretty quickly lose whatever time advantage you had over mass transit, trips would be more expensive than transit (or, if they were short enough, still more expensive than walking), and it's not pleasurable to sit in stopped traffic in a city.

Finally, cars will necessarily flow to certain places at certain times of day. From residential areas to office areas, from offices to restaurants to entertainment districts. If there are too many, you have to move them. But cars aren't like shared bikes. You can't send one buy out with a truck, load ten of them up in one location, and ship them off somewhere else. You need a driver for each, and that gets costly.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are less dense American cities, some of which do have shared cars on the street. I'm not speaking of universities which pay for a couple of shared cars, but cities with smaller shared car fleets on their streets, like Madison, Denver/Boulder, Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. We'll use these are stand-ins for the less-dense American city, which may not have the aforementioned factors in place.

Here our stand-in will be Minneapolis and Saint Paul, because, uh, again, I can coƶpt much of an existing email in to this post. In the Twin Cities parking is pretty easy. But for a scheme like this to work, you'd need so many cars in order for them to be within walking distance of enough people. (Add to that the fact that in the neighborhoods where it works best—Uptown, the University of Minnesota, the downtowns—parking is an issue.) So there are a few neighborhoods where it might work okay, they are not very well connected, and many people living there ride their bikes anyway. Andy pretty much every city I can think of falls in to this category.

In addition, cities such as the Twin Cities have many services which are only available in the suburbs. For instance, in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, there are REIs and Apple Stores easily accessible by transit. In the Twin Cities, they're in the suburbs. So for a lot of trips, you have to drive somewhere, leave the car in a suburban parking lot, and need it to get back. One-way rentals don't really apply here.

The only cities I can think of that might be able to solve the parking issues yet have dense enough areas to support many cars are mid-sized cities with huge, urban college camuses, decent transit and middling parking issues, and the right "clientele" for the service. Basically, Austin and Madison. The colleges can be strong-armed in to giving up enough parking to make it viable on the campus, and the geography might work out otherwise. (Of course, would this program be used by broke college students when free options like biking or walking abound?) It's definitely a might; I'd still be surprised if it works.

You may notice I have not said a word about the logistics of the whole charade yet. I am rather well-qualified to speak to them, and it would scare the hell out of me. Basically, what happens when a car goes off to never-never land—a part of the city which might be in the city limits (or the sharing limits), but where no one really wants to drive from. Either it sits there generating no revenue until someone wants it, or you have to dispatch someone a folding bike to get it. Either way costs staff time and mileage.

What happens when someone parks it and leaves it in an underground garage with no GPS reception. You know, like Whole Foods (in Austin, which has underground parking)? (I assume they'll have sensors there, which would be somewhere I'd assume a lot of the cars would wind up, but you'd have people walking up and down the aisles in the lot, or have the cars in a special parking space. Still, now you've spent a lot of money wiring every garage in the city for connectivity.) No one can find the car, you have to have someone call the previous user (and good luck reaching the jet-set type anymore, many of us don't answer calls promptly), and try to find the car. CSOs know where our cars are—they are returned to their spots 99.9+ percent of the time.

Finally, take the following scenario: you live near the outskirts of the drop-off area and work eight miles away, also near the outskirts of the drop-off area. You pick up a car one day and park it at your house, where no one else is likely to use it. Then you wake up, drive it to work (you pay for what you drive, so 15 minutes costs you $3) and leave it at work, where, likely, no one will want to use it. At the end of the day, you drive it home, another $3, and leave it there. All of the sudden, you've paid $6 for a 16 mile round-trip commute, gas and insurance included. If someone else uses the car, you take a bus or bike in to town, pick up another one, and do it again. If this happens every couple of weeks, it's a minor inconvenience,  and your total commuting costs might be $120 a month. It's not a bad deal for you, but would bankrupt anyone trying to run the thing.

A couple more tidbits:

A lot of car sharers often make reservations in advance. Like, weeks in advance. Every Tuesday evening they drive to the grocery store, or their great aunt's house, or the climbing gym. The car is where the car is and they know it will be there. With one-way rentals you don't have any assurance a car will be where a car will be. Thus, you throw out the segment of the market which has reserved in advance. (Without throwing around any insider information, let's say this market is below 50%, but still significant.) You could have a dual system, where some cars are round-trippers and some are one-ways, but then you have more overhead and member confusion (we've found that simplicity, in car sharing, is a virtue). And the logistics—people parking in the wrong spaces; people taking one-way cars on round trips, would be an administrative nightmare. Or, you could have a system robust enough that there'd almost always be a car where you wanted it. But I think I've given several reasons that such a system is unlikely. And you'd still need a system whereby people could take cars for longer trips and pay for the non-driving time in between to guarantee the car would be theirs.

Okay, so what about bike sharing? It works, right? Yes, but bikes are smaller than cars. A lot smaller. You can put fifteen bikes on a sidewalk without disrupting the traffic flow of pedestrians or vehicles. Try doing that with one car, let alone a dozen.

To sum up, a one-way car sharing system only works in an area well-served by transit. However, to get from one area served by transit to another, you don't really need car sharing. Car sharing fills a specific niche where transit is too slow or inconvenient, taxicabs too expensive, and cycling too impractical. One-way car sharing would be like taxis without drivers. Except when taxis aren't carrying a fare, they are doing one of three things: they are either parked in an out-of-the-way location, driving to find another fare, or idling (generally at a cab stand or high-traffic area) with a driver in the seat. Taxis never have to find parking. Take away the cabbie, and the system fails. As would, in my opinion, one-way car sharing.


Want to find a CSO near you?'s list a pretty good list. If you are in the Twin Cities, HOURCAR is fantastic, although, full disclosure, I do work for them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Will Buffet electrify the BNSF: Part II—a short history of electrified freight rail

(part 2 in a series)

Electrifying a railroad—at $5m a track mile or more—may seem like a bit of folly. Sure, there are light rail lines, and subways, and something over in Europe. But it is at all feasible? Has it ever been done? Who's ever electrified a freight rail line? Quite a few organizations, it turns out.

Many of Europe's freight lines are electrified, but rail market share there is quite low (in the 8-10% range), so it's not a great comparison (there are several reasons for this, including short distances between industrial centers, steep mountain passes which are only now being crossed with straight, flat rail tunnels. In addition, less power in Europe comes from coal (France, for instance, is mostly nuclear) so there is less need to transport that commodity. Finally, much of the investment in Europe has been in fast, efficient passenger rail, which accounts for most of the traffic. So Europe is electrified, but it doesn't have several long lines which have 75 100-car long freight trains per day under the wire. (In the United States, freight rail mode share is 36.2% overall, and 56% of the rail-truck breakdown.)

Let's move east. Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railroad. Built before the first World War, it has recently been fully-electrified (full double-tracking is a work in progress). It's nearly 10,000 kilometers long—the distance across the United States … and back. It is heavily used for freight, but not as heavily as it could be, as gauge breaks at the Chinese and European borders necessitate two time-consuming break-in-bulk-type points in a journey from the far east to Asia. According to press from the time of full electrification (2002) the goal was a more efficient system: one that could compete with shipping around Africa or through the Suez, with longer and more efficient trains. It's also worth noting that the Trans-Siberia goes through, well, Siberia, so it pretty much experiences anything mother nature can throw at it.

Finally, it's worth examining electric railroads in the United States. There are three main categories: electrification in the east, short lines and interurbans, and the Milwaukee Road. The first two are relatively small potatoes. Several east coast railroads operated electrics, but these were mainly for commuter services or where steam engines were disallowed (underground terminals). The Penn Central and others had some electric freight, but it was mainly to take advantage of the electrified mainline from New York to Washington. Many interurbans hauled freight along with passengers, but switched to diesel when passenger service ended (most were abandoned outright). The Iowa Traction railroad, a short line in Iowa, operates regular electric freight, albeit over a short distance. And several coal mine operations have operated electric railroads, probably due to the large loads and readily available power supply.

There was one electric operation, however, which was not built mainly for passengers. The Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul & Pacific, better known as The Milwaukee Road operated several hundred miles of freight railroad through the mountains in the western United States. The original line went from Chicago to Minneapolis and then west in to the corn fields, but in the early 1900s, the railroad planned and built a transcontinental link in order to remain competitive with other lines. The line was shorter than other transcon routes, and had decent grades, but, since it was built last, it bypassed most of the population centers along the route (not that it is densely populated) and was suited mainly to long-distance shipping. And without land grants, the road took on quite a bit of debt in order to build the line west.

Perhaps the reason that the land was sparsely populated was the cold. While the Hill Lines (the Northern Pacific and Great Northern) operated in similar conditions, the Milwaukee found the operation of steam locomotives to be difficult in winter conditions. In addition, they saw small-scale successes with electrification, including the mainline Cascade Tunnel and the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific railroad, which carried mainly ore. With ample hydro power in the mountains and available copper, the road decided to electrify the portion in the Rockies. The Cascades came next. By 1920, 656 miles of line was under the wire. It wasn't constructed to the high speed lines of the Pennsylvania, but provided ample power for freight operations, and passenger speeds of up to 70 mph. (In a publicity stunt, the railroad staged a tug-of-war between an electric motor and two steam engines at full throttle. The Electric motor won.)

The Milwaukee had some iconic electric motors; some of the most powerful electric motors built to that time, clocking in at or above 5000 hp in some cases. There were the Boxcabs, which looked like box cars with windows, pantographs and a bunch of wheels. There were the distinctive bi-polars, which were designed for passenger service and served in that capacity for nearly four decades without significant maintenance. The best-named were the "Little Joes." These engines were built in the late 1940s for Russian Railroads, but after the start of the cold war, were surplus as the US would not allow them to be sold. The Milwaukee wound up with a dozen of them, and they were referred to as "Little Joe Stalin's locomotives," shortened to "Little Joes."

The cost of electrification and the extension to the Pacific threw the company in to bankruptcy, and the depression didn't help. The showpiece of the line in the 1930s was the 100 mph-plus Hiawatha from Chicago to Minneapolis, one of three lines competing on the route. The line tried to merge with the Chicago and Northwestern in the 1960s but was denied, and the merger of the Hill Lines and the Burlington Route created a behemoth competitor in its territory in 1970. But the end of the Milwaukee came mostly from mismanagement, and removing electrification was a contributing factor.

The first issue was operational. World War One and the ensuing economic downturn after it put the kibosh on the plans to electrify the gap between the two electric divisions, and the company never really had the money to do so. Thus, the railroad had two separate divisions with coal, and then diesel, power, and two separate divisions with electric power, decreasing inefficiency. Diesels came in the 1950s and were significantly more efficient than steam (especially with diesel fuel easier to haul from the east for power), but with the capital investment in place and new motors, the line kept the electric divisions going. However, the railroad wanted to merge in the 1960s, and in order to appear profitable, deferred maintenance considerably.

After the Burlington Northern was formed, the Milwaukee found itself unable to merge with the C&NW, the whose stock had declined considerably. The merger plan, which had taken most of the last decade, had failed, and the board inexplicably rejected an offer to buy the railroad outright (wanting to merge with a larger line) despite the operational efficiencies which would ensue.

However, due to the size of the BN, it was required to open more markets to competition, and traffic on the Milwaukee grew rather handsomely. The problem was that the railroad didn't really have the capacity for the growth. The track bed was, in many cases, beginning to fail, and car shortages brought on by financing schemes scared off some of the new business. The line wanted to improve its books and looked at some of the assets it had, including a copper wire running for 656 miles. It was worth about $10m. The railroad could finance diesel engines, sell off the copper, and come away, in the short term, with their balance sheets in good shape. Oil was cheap in 1971, so the operational efficiencies of electrics were not dramatic, especially since the old parts for the motors were becoming harder to find. Of course, for the same $39m it cost to finance these diesels, the remaining gap could have been electrified and the diesels there transferred east. This would have been far better in the long run, but less so in the very short term.

This decision was justified by saying that the infrastructure had passed the end of its useful lifespan, although this was, generally, not the case. The supporting poles were wearing out. The caternary wasn't, and the engines had plenty of life left (electric motors tend to last a very long time). The power sources needed some updating, but with mostly-free hydroelectricity, they could provide power for time to come. The track was in worsening shape, but that had nothing to do with the energy source for the trains operating. The Milwaukee was a bit desperate but more shortsighted and narrow-minded, and chose to abandon the electrification.

The timing could not have been worse. Copper prices dropped, and the railroad only received $5m from the scrap. At the same time, oil prices quadrupled, and suddenly electricity would have been significantly cheaper. The track condition hobbled the line more, and travel times slowed considerably. By 1977, the line filed for bankruptcy, and asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line. They did so in 1980.

Had the chips fallen slightly differently (had there been slightly more foresight in the management) the Milwaukee could have linked its electrification in to a nearly 900-mile long system from Seattle to Montana. With slightly better maintenance, the line could have thrived during the oil crises, with dramatic operational advantages based on electricity, and may have considered spreading the wire east. But they didn't and instead the railroad is now abandoned, the only transcontinental line to be completely abandoned in the history of American railroads. Since then, oil prices decreased significantly, and no one has built a significant electric freight line (the only major electrification has been the Northeast Corridor from New Haven to Boston, built almost exclusively for passenger use).

Of course, diesel hit $5 a gallon last year, and may only go higher. In the 1970s, electrification would have had a four-to-ten year payback time for the Milwaukee Road. It's a long-range investment—one which might be doable with some foresight and an ownership which looks far down the road. Or track, as it may be.

A few pages about the history of the Milwaukee:
A report from 1973; the company was bankrupt four years later
More about electrification
Some information about the end of the electrification

This series:

I. We've discussed how being part of a larger organization like Berkshire Hathaway may allow the BNSF to spend more freely on capital improvements in this section.
II. We'll then look at a history of freight rail electrification, including the sad tale of the Milwaukee Road (who de-electrified with about the worst timing possible, ever) and some freight rail electrification abroad.
III. We'll look at some of the operational advantages of electric power, and
IV. Some of the economic advantages, in the long run, of electric power generation, and how the whole system would be built.
V. From an environmental standpoint, we'll look in to how electricity can be generated on-route, and whether there are options beyond coal (such as wind and solar), and
VI. How this may mesh with the construction of a smart grid.
VII. Finally, we'll see if freight rail electrification may have any benefits for passenger rail, on the BNSF routes and other main lines.

Will Buffet electrify the BNSF? Part I

(part 1 in a series)

So, the Oracle of Omaha, the esteemed Warren Buffett, bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF). He's given several reasons why he made the deal (from liking to bet on the future of the American economy to not having a train set as a boy but there is probably no singular reason other than the fact that he thought the BNSF was a well-run corporation which would give solid, if not stellar, returns for the long term.

And he's probably right. Left for dead in the 1970s in an era of disinvestment and mismanagement (when railroads like the Milwaukee Road abandoned transcontinental routes even as they were likely making money; we'll get to the the Milwaukee Road later), and with trucks taking larger shares of the marketplace, freight railroads have come roaring back in the last 30 years. Efficiencies have improved, some branch lines have been jettisoned (in order to focus on the steadier, long-haul traffic) and deregulation allowed for more profitability. And while Conrail was formed on the east coast in 1976 out of several bankrupt railroads, it's since been reprivatized, and the US is the only major country which has not nationalized its railroads.

Energy also comes in to the picture. The environmental skeptics say that Buffet is betting on coal having an increasing role in the American economy—and freight rail is the only way to move coal. (The New Yorker had a great two-part article about coal transport a few years back. (It's firewalled, though.) But, coal originates in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, which is not near anything, and has to be shipped east (generally), and trains are the only way to feasibly do this. The other side of the coin is that Buffet may be betting on higher oil prices, which make freight rail even more economical than highway trucking. And that would likely be good for the environment.

It's pretty likely that Buffet made a good, long-term investment. The question is how much he will invest in the company. Like most publicly-traded firms, the BNSF had quarterly reports and a board of directors and, even though they are nearing completion of a double-tracking of their Southern Transcon (the old ATSF route of the SuperChief and the freight hotshot Super C which was scheduled from LA to Chicago in 40 hours), such restrictions likely wouldn't have resulted in significantly higher capital outlays. Now, however, with Buffet aboard, there's a chance they might take a bigger capital bite: electrification.

With electrification, it turns out that there is much more to it than meets the eye. I was originally going to write one post here but started taking notes and it became unwieldy. So, I'll break it down in to the following mini-posts (some of which might not be that mini) and link them each as I post them:

I. We've discussed how being part of a larger organization like Berkshire Hathaway may allow the BNSF to spend more freely on capital improvements in this section.
II. We'll then look at a history of freight rail electrification, including the sad tale of the Milwaukee Road (who de-electrified with about the worst timing possible, ever) and some freight rail electrification abroad.
III. We'll look at some of the operational advantages of electric power, and
IV. Some of the economic advantages, in the long run, of electric power generation, and how the whole system would be built.
V. From an environmental standpoint, we'll look in to how electricity can be generated on-route, and whether there are options beyond coal (such as wind and solar), and
VI. How this may mesh with the construction of a smart grid.
VII. Finally, we'll see if freight rail electrification may have any benefits for passenger rail, on the BNSF routes and other main lines.

Will we answer the question of whether Buffet should electrify freight rail be answered? Of course not. But it is an interesting question to ponder.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: which corridors work where

A recent study (PDF) from a group called America 2050 has put together one of the most data-heavy (and that's a good thing) approaches to examining high speed rail corridors in the country. There are still some issues, most notably the fact that corridors over 500 miles were ignored (yes, they should be weighted less than 200-400 mile corridors, but, no, with proper speeds attained, they shouldn't be dropped) and their map does not seem to fully mesh with their data. Still, they take in to account such factors as transit accessibility in cities analyzed, economic productivity (higher local GDP is better), traffic and air congestion and whether the city is in a megaregion (this seems to be a rather ancillary data point).

Their subsequent phasing map, while better than most, seems to be, well, not completely in-line with their data. This is mainly because each corridor seems to be analyzed separately, and overlapping corridors, from their report, are not shown well.

First, they did get the two big corridors right (the "no-brainers," if you will): California and the Northeast Corridor. Both of these corridors have multiple city pairs in the top-10 of their analysis; in California the San Francisco-San Jose-Los Angeles-San Diego line and in the northeast the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor. Of course, those are obviously the top high speed rail corridors in the country. However, the rest of their "first phase" corridors are less obvious.

In an effort to, perhaps, not leave out the Midwest (where much of the current political support for high speed rail originates), they include, in phase 1, lines from a Chicago hub to Minneapolis, Saint Louis and Detroit. These are all worthy corridors but, according to their analysis, are not in the same echelon as the coastal corridors. Chicago to Saint Louis clocks in at 14th, trailing Chicago to Columbus by a spot. Chicago to Minneapolis ranks 25th, behind corridors such as Cleveland to Washington and Phoenix to San Diego.

With Chicago to Detroit (11th), however, things get interesting. Let's introduce two maps in to the equation. The first is a map of the top 50 corridors analyzed by America 2050, with the color of a line indicating if they were in the top 50 (red), 40 (orange), 30 (green), 20 (light blue) or 10 (dark blue). Opacity is set rather low, so overlapping lines should show up considerably darker (see the Northeast Corridor, where four top-ten corridors intersect from New York to Philly). From Chicago to Minneapolis and Saint Louis, there are single lines. Despite the presence of some smaller cities (Decatur, Springfield, Urbana-Champaign; Milwaukee, Madison, Rochester) none of these corridors crack the top 50. (Milwaukee-Chicago was not calculated as it is less than 100 miles.) East of Chicago, however, there is a web of lines. From Chicago going east, three cities make the top 16: Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus. And east of there, these cities are all linked eastwards. (Any city with at least two corridors is shown with a point, its size corresponding to the number of corridors.)

So it begs the question: which routes are most applicable to high speed rail if we overlap corridors which could share significant trackage. For instance, Chicago to Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus could all share one high speed link, with short spurs to each of the cities. These three cities could all share a link across Pennsylvania (with Pittsburgh) to Washington, Philadelphia and New York. 11 of the top 50 city pairs are between New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the east and Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit in the west. Since most of the capital costs of constructing a high speed rail line is the initial capital cost, combining several corridors could dramatically reduce the amount of line needed, saving billions.

So, the second map. For this map, lines with little or no overlap were ignored. Other corridors were assigned a (rather arbitrary) point value based on their ranking:

1-10: 6 points
11-20: 4 points
21-30: 3 points
31-40: 2 points
41-50: 1 point

(Why did the top 10 get a slightly higher weight than the rest? Well, the numerical rankings of the top 10 ranged from 100 to 91. The rankings of the next 40 ranged from 91 to 85.)

Here's another scheme: assign a route with a score of 85 one point, and an additional point for each increase in the score. This is, perhaps, a more equitable approach for larger corridors, and it really pops out the Northeast Corridor. A possible network of 2450 miles (1870 in the East and Midwest, 580 in California) could serve Boston, New York, Philly, DC, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, LA, San Jose and San Francisco (and several smaller cities, like Toledo, Harrisburg and Hartford). Adding up only the top 50 MSAs served (those with populations over 1m) and 2500 miles would serve 90m people. That's not bad.

So, what's the takeaway here? Well, there are two. The first is that, as much as we want to build a multi-regional high-speed rail network, the Northeast Corridor is still, by far, the largest market for HSR in the country. The second, however, is that even when you exclude the Chicago-to-East Coast routes, the New York-to-Chicago Corridor should still be the third-highest priority to build. And if properly built (with top speeds of 200 mph or a tad more, especially across the flat land west of Canton) such a corridor could begin to compete with airlines, even on >500 mile routes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Soft factors that benefit car sharing

Since I work for a car sharing organization, people often ask me what makes a city or neighborhood ideal for car sharing. While certain factors are easily measurable or obvious (density, walkability, and mixed use development), others are a just as important but not as apparent. I've come up with three such "soft factors" (soft because they are not hard measurements which can be gleaned, say, from census data). These seem to be quite indicative of whether car sharing will thrive, and seem to be good for creating livable cities as well—as long as livability is not intertwined with car ownership.

They are the availability and cost of parking; the frequency, reliability and speed of a transit network; and the prevalence of urban congestion.

1. The cost and availability of parking. Owning a car is expensive. However, once you start paying for parking, you're throwing money at little more than a 100-square-foot plot of ground for your car not to drive. Once this cost gets over about $100 a month, it contributes significantly to lower car ownership. Enmeshed with this factor is the availability of parking. It's almost always possible to find street parking if you look hard enough. But if you have to circle a block six times, jockey your car in to a tiny spot, and/or move it every third day to the alternate side of the street, it makes car ownership more of a burden than a freedom.

Cities where car sharing thrives are not cities where it is easy to find a parking space. One of the major reasons car sharing took off in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco is that they were able to advertise that their cars always had "reserved parking," a godsend for residents who had to deal with expensive private lots or arduous on-street spaces. All of the sudden, they could take a two hour car trip, get home, and not have to worry about how many blocks away the nearest spot would be. Or, if they gave up their private spot, they might find a couple grand in their pocket at the end of the year.

2. The frequency, reliability and speed of a public transit network. The three adjectives here generally go hand-in-hand-in-hand, with the exception of a minor explanation regarding speed. Speed is relative. Sure, antiquated subways in Boston, New York and Chicago may creep along through ancient tunnels or els, but compared with the gridlock above (or below)? Well, private right-of-ways do have their advantages. And are they reliable? Well, about as reliable as highways which, at any time, may devolve in to a traffic jam.

The most important piece of the transit puzzle seems to be frequency. Or to put it differently, "can you walk to the nearest bus line and get on a bus without knowing a schedule." This generally means that most lines should have midday headways of 15 minutes or less. And while grade-separated, rail transit carries a large fraction of riders in many of these cities, reliability and frequency seem to be more important to car sharing than the exact mode. Seattle, for example, was until a few months ago a bus-only transit system (We'll ignore the monorail and one-mile streetcar.) and the new light rail line doesn't serve many high-car sharing neighborhoods. Still, most lines run every ten or fifteen minutes all day and in to the evening, and while they're not particularly fast, they come pretty often.

Do a lot of car sharing users walk or bike? Yes. But if it's raining, or cold, or they just want to make use of transit, the ability to walk to the corner and not have to wait 25 minutes reduces the need and desire to own a car. (Especially when it might take that long to find a parking space; see factor 1 above.)

3. The prevalence of urban congestion. This is probably the most confusing of the three factors, since I don't mean congestion on freeways leading in to the city in the morning and out in the evening. What it refers to is the prevalence of random traffic jams and tie-ups. In other words, how often during non-peak periods (middays, evenings and weekends) is there horrible traffic for no apparent reason? How often do you get in your car and, because a lane has been blocked off or a light has malfunction or an inch of snow has fallen, a trip that should take ten minutes takes half an hour? How often do you sit and watch a light a quarter mile ahead and realize that there are 40 cars ahead of you and only two are making it through each cycle? And how often is there some event—a parade or a race or a visiting dignitary—which so screws up the traffic system that no one in their right mind would drive downtown?

In cities which support car sharing, everyone's had the experience of sitting in traffic on a Saturday afternoon for, well, no apparent reason. Urban congestion is not just that there are too many cars on the road, but that they are dynamic urban environments which sometimes don't mesh with the automobile. If one small protest or minor accident closes off a main street corner, it can cascade across the street network, creating gridlock at a time it's not expected. Of course, as anyone driving in any of these cities knows, there's no time when there's never been traffic.

Are these the only three factors which contribute to a dynamic car sharing market (or, in other words, make owning a car so unpalatable that many people do without)? Of course not. Also important are population and employment density, walkability (which has to do with these factors) and, to a small extent, the availability of bicycle facilities, the cost of gas, planning ordinances, physical geography and the like. But, from what I've seen, these are some of the most important factors, and they not only create a city with good car sharing prospects, but one in which people actually want to live.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Progressive cities: are they racist?

Andrew Sullivan has recently been blogging about an article that certain progressive cities are progressive because they have fewer African Americans. This is not only preposterous, but it completely ignores the historical perspective of minorities in cities. Take my current hometown of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, particularly Minneapolis. As late as 1970, Minneapolis was 93% white. This is rather astounding. The African American community was concentrated in a couple neighborhoods, and the rest of the city was almost completely white. (Saint Paul, while slightly more diverse, was also rather white.)

Most of the African Americans who moved north in the first half of the 20th century did so during the Great Migration, and where they moved was mainly based on the railroads. Since Chicago was the end of the Illinois Central (and other lines) which reached in to the south, most blacks stayed there (or took interurbans to Milwaukee for a few nickels). Minneapolis's industrial employment during through the war was diverse, if you count Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Germans and Irish as diversity.

While the other cities mentioned—Austin, Seattle, Portland, Denver—have had different migration patterns, none were on rail lines which led directly back in to the black belt, so they didn't pull from the pool of African American labor in the industrialization of the early 1900s. And, thus, they are generally less diverse—if you look at diversity as purely black-and-white—than some other cities.

However, Minneapolis has changed, dramatically, over the last 40 years. The minority population, at seven percent in 1970, has increased more than fourfold, and now stands at nearly one third. Much of this has been Asian and Hispanic immigration, but a significant portion has been African Americans moving from other cities, especially Chicago. And the adjustment to a more diverse city has not been smooth. In the 1980s and 1990s, Minneapolis saw increased crime, often blamed on imported street gangs and drugs. In the 1990s, the city was nick-named Murderopolis, and saw nearly 100 murders in a year—for a city with fewer than 400,000 residents. And the change has been dramatic; in many>neighborhoods, (an example from the Minneapolis Neighborhood website) there has been an almost full-scale switch from white to black in 20 years (all taking place after the 1980s—i.e. not done illegally through redlining), a phenomenon David Carr described last year in the Times. (Recent surveys show the racial makeup of the city may be stabilizing.)

In other words, Minneapolis is not a white city without any racial tensions. It's far from it, yet it's continued to be a rather progressive place. (Although some of this can probably be attributed to conservatives fleeing to the suburbs—the same suburbs that spawn creatures like Michele Bachmann. Minneapolis's outer suburbs are very, very red.) But in the last few years, a curious trend has emerged. Crime has been dropping, which is often attributed to more police on the streets and community development. This summer, the city had six murders in the first six months of the year, shocking some local historians. The trend has continued to be low; there have currently been about a dozen murders this year in the city, so it's on place to be at one-sixth the rate of the mid-90s.

In the mean time, the city (along with Saint Paul, which is also rather safe) has welcomed tens of thousands of new immigrants, including many Hmong and Somali refugees. There's no second language in the city—signs and materials are often translated in to Spanish, Hmong and Somali. Renn's contention that these progressive cities are only progressive because of their racial makeup holds no water. In other words, causation does not necessarily imply correlation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: the myth of the 400 mile cap

Recently, we began to consider interregional high speed rail, or, in other words, high speed rail spanning more than the current corridors proposed. Before we delve in to details, it's time to dispel some myths. The first one is that high speed rail is not competitive over distances of 400 miles.

No, I'm not making that up. Obviously, as distances become longer, air travel becomes more competitive, since when they are flying at cruise level, planes are faster than trains. However, making up a number, in this case 400 miles, is just not true. The problem is that very important economists writing for very important newspapers (in this case, Ed Glaeser for the Times and Robert Samuelson for the WaPo) make stuff up, and because they have degrees from places like Harvard, people believe them.

Both writers pieces have been thoroughly discredited (and there are many more such posts, like this one), but no one has mentioned one of Samuelson's rather-blatant misrepresentations. In his piece, he states as fact (without any source, of course), that
Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes.
. This is rather interesting. Why? because not only does he fail to mention places where trains compete comfortably with planes in a 400-500 mile corridor, but he doesn't mention either a 500+ mile corridor where a train line doesn't compete or offer any rationale about why they couldn't.

So, I'll do his dirty work for him. First of all, let's find a city pair with high speed rail of greater than 400 miles. Say, Paris to Marseille. By air, it's 406 miles, by road, it's about 482. Either way, it's in Samuelson's not-really-competitive range. Here's the interesting thing. Of the air-rail market on the Paris-Marseille route, the TGV has taken 69% of the traffic. That's up from 22% before completion of the line. I think that's competitive.

In fact, it's time, not distance, that governs competitiveness, and the time is definitely more than three hours. According to SNCF's Guillaume Pepy
High-speed rail has historically captured the major share of combined air/rail traffic along routes where train journeys are under 3 hours. But this is changing, says SNCF's Pepy: "With air travel becoming more complicated and increasing airport congestion, high-speed rail now wins 50% of the traffic where rail journeys are 4.5 hours or less," he said. On the Paris-Perpignan route (5 hrs by train), TGV has 51% of the air/rail market, on Paris-Toulon (4 hrs) 68%.

It seems that, even for trips of four or five hours, high speed rail can be competitive. In that amount of time, a train averaging 160 mph could cover 640 to 800 miles. If that is the case, then a lot more corridors are plausible for consideration for high speed rail including a route between the East Coast and the Midwest. Especially between cities with congested airports. In other words, New York and Chicago.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The strange tale of the 21, 53 and 63

This was originally posted as a comment on the Minneapolis Transit blog about increasing limited bus service.

1. Cutting service on the Selby section of the line to every 26-28 minutes is probably not a good idea. The line is rather well-patronized along that section with the current 20 minute headways and reducing it beyond that would make it much less useful (I think it should have more frequent headways, every 15 minutes, anyway). There's a lot of land along Selby which is either vacant or parking, and better transit service might serve as a catalyst for redevelopment. A better economy would help, too, of course.

2. The 21D is a farce. Supposedly it was wrangled by Saint Thomas in order to have better transit, but it is usually empty until it clears the river. The worst part is, however, that the 20 minute headways on the 21D match the 20 minute headways on the 63 which ends at the same stop, but no one at MetroTransit has ever thought of interlining (I asked). How much sense would that make? Lots. Grand Avenue's line would no longer dead-end at Saint Thomas, providing access from Grand to the LRT (to Minneapolis and the airport) and Uptown.

Furthermore, of the buses that run west from Saint Paul more than twice an hour (the 3, 16, 21, 63, 74 and 54), the 63 is the only one without a western "anchor." The 3 and 16 run to the U and downtown Minneapolis, the 21 to Uptown and the 54 and 74 to the Light Rail. The 63 ends in a residential neighborhood in Saint Paul. Finally, going from Grand Avenue to Downtown Minneapolis requires two transfers (unless you go east to Saint Paul, not feasible from the western part of the route), which is time consuming and inconvenient. Interlining with the 21D would solve many problems with little or no additional service required (except, perhaps, when the 21D doesn't run at rush hour). Running the 63 in to Minneapolis seems almost intuitive. I guess that's why it hasn't been done.

3. The bus stops along the 21 line from Uptown to Hiawatha (and in most of the Twin Cities) are way too close together. Since there is often someone getting on at every block, the bus winds up pulling in and out of every stop. No wonder it is scheduled to complete this section of route in 25 minutes, at a speed of less than 10 mph. If bus stops were halved few people would notice the longer walk (still generally under 1/10 miles) and the buses would be speedier. Plus, what it its real utility when it doesn't run at rush hours?!

4. Finally, the jog to University is very helpful for people who want to transfer there, but very time-consuming for through-riders on the 21. Perhaps the midday 53 could, instead of using the Interstate from Snelling to downtown, use Selby, with stops every 1/2 mile at major cross streets (Hamline, Lexington, Victoria, Dale, Western).

When this was changed some time around 2004 (from the historic Selby-Lake route dating back to the streetcar era), it increased the utility for travel to University and a transfer to the 16, but decreased the utility for cross-town trips by adding to the already-long run time of the bus. Considering how many people transfer to and from the 21 at University, it seems like it would almost make sense to have one leg of the 21 run on Selby to University and Snelling, and then west on University to Minneapolis, and another to run on University from Saint Paul to Snelling, and then west on Marshall and Lake to Uptown. Better 53 service would, of course, help as well, and just cutting off that jog, with half a dozen lights and a mile of extra route, would cut service times.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: mapping its genesis

This topic was raised by an IM discussion I was having with my dad as he sat on the tarmac on a plane in Saint Louis:
Dad: My flight has now been delayed a total of 2:35 on account of, they say, air traffic control in Boston because of weather.
Me: Hey question: if you could take a 6 hour train ride from Saint Louis to Boston (feasible, albeit barely) would you rather do that than deal with these airplane shenanigans?
Dad: You betcha. There ought to be a 90-minute hop from here to Chi, and then the eastbound super-express. What route would you propose for that?
Ask and you shall receive.

Before going in to the route (in a separate post to come later), it would be interesting to see what has been proposed for high speed rail routes, and what the genesis of such proposals has been. There have been several, and it is actually quite interesting how they have evolved. What I am going to try to illustrate here is that high speed rail has too-often been touted as a regional solution; it is really an interregional solution as well. Thus, I am consistently flummoxed that few maps show an interest in an East Coast-to-Chicago trunk line, paralleling one of the most congested and delay-prone air routes in the world. (Mention O'Hare and JFK, Newark or LaGuardia in the same breath and seasoned travelers will curse or faint.)

So, now to the maps. I've tried to link them in as best I can, but my apologies if some of the links break: some of these maps are rather old. We'll start way back in the year 2000, when the Bureau of Transportation Statistics published an early draft of an HSR network. It should be noted that this was eons ago in the life cycle of high speed rail. Gas was cheap, airlines were profitable (ha!), and the Acela hadn't yet run from Boston to Washington.

In general, this looks pretty similar to some of the more recent maps. So it's pretty much a base. Which is problematic: once people have drawn lines on maps, it's often hard to redraw them, no matter how little sense they make. Luckily, as a base, most of the nonsense here comes from connections not made, like not linking networks in Jacksonville and Tampa, Houston and Austin or DFW, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It's the last of these which, as we'll see, is somewhat persistent.

High speed rail didn't come up much during the Bush Administration (which was preoccupied with throwing enough money to build these entire systems show here at the Iraq money pit), but a new map (from the DOT) was offered up in 2005, which was a general template for the next several years. And it was ... pretty similar to the previous one.

It was being used by several sources as late as this year. In other words, from 2000 to 2009 there were basically no changes made.

Finally, the Obama administration, which has now promised money to high speed rail, released their own map, and, well, didn't rock too many boats. Their "Vision for High Speed Rail in America" is not much more than a couple of tweaks of the existing map. And still, ten years later, regions are, for some reason, not linked.

In the mean time, there have been several regional agencies which have come up with their own maps. The two most prominent are in the Midwest and California. California's map is relatively simple (although minor changes, such as which pass to use to get from the Bay Area to the Central Valley, have been the cause of much contention) and very nifty on their website. The Midwest map, which is less further along, has seen a bit more flux.

The first map released by the Midwest High Speed Rail authority was rather modest, vague and, frankly, not really high speed rail (with top speeds of 110 mph):

That map disappeared from their server earlier this year (the Web Archive grabbed it, however) and a new, more ambitious one arrived, along with the news that they'd push for 220 mph service from Chicago to Saint Louis (ooh, good idea):

This is actually one of the better maps I've seen. It might be overly ambitious, but it does show the high speed routes to major cities, with connections to the east coast, which have been missing previously. Of course, there is no straight line across the Midwest from Pittsburgh, but at least the network realizes that it should be interregional.

Finally, there are a bunch of maps created by various blogs and lobbying groups for high speed rail networks.

The Transport Politic blog offers:

Richard Florida talks about Megaregions and high speed rail without putting up a specific map (a good idea, perhaps)

But others take that map and run with it.

Finally, with that map as a base, a lobbying group called the United States High Speed Rail Association has an ambitious, 17,000 mile network.

So what's the takeaway? Well, the first is that nothing is really set in stone (except, perhaps, in California). But the second is that only more recently has anyone started looking beyond the corridors first set forth in 2000 (and, presumably, even before then). Which is good. Because even the newest maps, none of which have the backing of the government, have some issues with linking together longer corridors. Both the USHSR's map and the one from the Transport Politic go through Philly, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toledo on their way from New York to Chicago, adding enough mileage to negate the use of the corridor for longer distances.

Update: America 2050 has posted a study that actually has some basis to it, and the map they create is probably the most sensible yet.. The Transport Politic thinks so, too.

In any case, these maps should be refined: a strong case could be made for the competitiveness of a high-speed line from New York (with branches to Philadelphia, D.C. and even Boston) to Chicago (with branches to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus and other cities). Considering the dismal state of air service between the first and third largest cities in the country, and the horrors of getting from the CBD of each (the two largest downtowns in the nation) to the airports, a modern, 200 mph line could definitely hold its own.

A future post will discuss this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cash for clunkers: proof that a gas tax would work?

There has been a lot of debate as to the overall efficacy of the Car Allowance Rebate System, (legislators love acronyms) colloquially known as "Cash for Clunkers." On a few subjects there isn't much contention: it has been "successful" in getting people to buy new, and generally more efficient, cars. In other words, if people have a financial incentive to trade up to a more efficient car, they will do so. Especially if the incentive is (probably) set too high.

So, I'm not down on Cash for Clunkers. First of all, it's proof that a government program can work. It was quick and effective and probably stimulative (more so than environmental)--most of the cars in the program were made in the United States. That's good in that it may help convince some anti-government types that government is not always the problem. Second, it is not increasing the number of cars on the road. While it is certainly not perfect, a far more worrisome development would have been a program that mailed out checks to people to buy new cars; a program which I could see government embracing. Third, it can't be debated that the new cars on the road are, in fact, less polluting than the current ones. While not everyone went out and bought the newest Prius (although many are), a 60% gain in efficiency is nothing to scoff at. Even if these cars may be driven more than their predecessors (since they'll be new and reliable and, well, not clunkers) there will likely be an overall decrease in emissions.

On the other hand, the program could have, obviously, been better administered. First of all, $3500 to $4500 is a lot of money. I thought about buying a clunker, trading it in, buying a new car and turning around and selling that--even with the title transfers, time involved and money lost to depreciation, I'd probably clear a couple grand. (I'm not sure, however, if I could have qualified with a new-to-me clunker.) In any case, smaller sums--$1000 to $2000--would have likely resulted in many sales but not the veritable run on the bank that car dealers have recently seen. In addition, there was no provision for people with clunkers who wanted to get out of car ownership completely. The only way they could do so would be to trade in the clunker, buy a new car, and turn around and sell it. Maybe the next program should be that if you bring in an old car, the government will give you a year-long transit pass for the agency of your choice and a $1000 credit for your local car sharing agency. This, too, would cost less than $3500, and dramatically reduce emissions and the number of cars in the road. (Yes, I have a bit of a vested interest in the second half of this proposal.)

While the transit-car sharing idea is a bit of a pipe dream, politically, one which is less of one would be a better-graduated system. The CARS program had hard cutoffs. If you car gets tenth of a mile per gallon over the limit, you get nothing. A tenth less and nearly $5000 can be in your pocket. Furthermore, you get this money whether you upgrade to a still-overpowered sedan or SUV getting in the low 20s or a Prius (or similar) getting twice that. So what would make more sense would be a graduated system. Trade in an 18 mpg car and go to a 22 mpg and we'll give you a few hundred dollars for your trouble. Go from a 14 mpg SUV to a Prius (or a similarly "clean" car), and you can cash in on the full $4500. Or more.

That's all well and good and probably won't happen. Nor will credits for transit commuters, cyclists and others who choose not to drive. It costs too much money and isn't terribly stimulative and probably doesn't have the votes. Furthermore, the CARS program was very simple. Your vehicle either does or does not qualify, and you can get either $3500 or $4500. For these others, we'd need charts. And if you put mathematics in between an American consumer and a deal, they're far less likely to do it. In other words, if you make it as confusing as doing your taxes, people are going to like it about as much.

There is a relatively simple way to achieve nearly all of these objectives. It would require little administration, since the methods of collection and distribution are already in place (and have been for years, and work fine). Yet, for a variety of reasons, it is a political third rail. It is, of course, the gas tax.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. That's right. 18.4 cents. Most states have their own taxes on top (Alaska is the only holdout) raising the total tax as high as 60¢, in New York State. The federal portion was last raised in 1991. Yup, 18 years ago. Since then, prices have increased 58%. Had the gas tax kept up, it would be 29¢ today. The gas tax in 1991, however, accounted for about 17% of the cost of a gallon of gas (at that time, gas, with the tax, cost about $1.20). If gas taxes were based on percentages, they would be about 43¢, and last summer would have crept to nearly 70¢.

So, it's obvious that gas taxes are low. And it's also pretty obvious that there is some climate stuff going on, and that having people use less gas would be beneficial. In addition, using less gas would keep prices lower and supplies more stable, as well as encouraging energy independence. These are all good externalities, but, perhaps most importantly, the gas tax, if it is adjusted for some rural populations and low income communities, is a very efficient way to raise tax revenues.

Mention raising the gas tax and you'll hear two responses. One is "it's not politically possible." The other is "it's regressive." The first is, sadly, perhaps true. The second is not, and, particularly when it is offset with some sort of tax credit, potentially a straw man. When the tax was last raised, 18 years ago, this was debunked. In several manners, it has to do with how you look at gasoline: whether it is a necessity or a luxury. If it is a necessity, then, yes, the tax is likely somewhat regressive. This is the reason we don't place punitive taxes on clothing and food: you need both to survive. Gasoline, however, is a different story. In New York City, 55% of the residents do without a car. Yes, it's a special case. But is there anywhere where more than half the residents do without food or clothing? In several other major cities, more than a quarter of households don't have cars. For some it is an economic decision. For others, it is about lifestyle. But it is rather obvious that, especially in areas with decent public transport, owning a car is not a necessity.

And for these people, which number in the millions, a gas tax is not regressive at all. Many of them are the same people who the highway lobby defends; the people for whom a gas tax will be painfully regressive. However, as long as they aren't driving a gas tax will have no effect, although it might drive more people towards transit use and increase service levels.

The other worrisome issue are those people who live in rural areas. For them, higher gas taxes will result in higher costs, because living at a low density tends to require a lot of driving. And for farmers, a rise in gas prices will create a rise in production costs, for both mechanized agriculture and transportation. There are two ways of dealing with this issue. One is direct subsidies to growers to buy cheaper fuel, although such a system would be fraught with fraud and inefficiencies. (If we'll sell you 10 gallons of cheap gas, is there much of an incentive to economize and only use nine?) A simpler way, of course, is to pass the costs along: food prices might rise a bit, but everyone would have increased costs, and everyone would pay. In addition, there would be a fine incentive to save fuel, which would both reduce costs and be more environmental. For those who live rurally for the lifestyle, they've made a choice to live a car-dependent (and fuel-dependent) lifestyle. It's only fair that they pay more.

Finally, there is a way to make sure that a gas tax would both not hit the poor especially hard and be stimulative as well: return the extra money spent on gas, in advance, as a tax credit. Estimate the amount of gas used per year (recently about 140 billion gallons) and the amount of money that, say, a $1 gas tax increase would raise (with less use, about $120 billion). Knowing that that revenue increase was in store, the government could turn around and write a $500 check to every tax payer in the country at the beginning of the year. A nice letter could be enclosed:
We know that we're increasing your gas tax. Here's $500. If you need it for gas, use it for gas. If you want to buy a more efficient car, here's some help to buy a new car. If you are interested in local transit service, here's a website where you can find out more. Here's information about car sharing, car pooling and other fuel saving techniques, too.

Oh, and enjoy the $500!

People worried about fuel costs could save the money for the year. Many others would spend the money in ways that would stimulate the economy. Others would, in the face of higher gas prices, use it for transit passes. And it would be a very progressive tax rebate: it would benefit those at lower income levels far more than those at the top.

In the long run we might, as a society, want to use this money to fund more effective transportation policies. Maybe the amount would decrease by $50 a year as people got more used to higher taxes, by driving more efficient vehicles or driving less. Any extra money could be put towards funding expansion and operation of transit agencies, and building new energy and transportation networks (as the current gas tax is earmarked for transportation). In the short run, as has been discussed in several places (including liberal blogs), consensus is that we can't get everyone out of their cars tomorrow. But instead of expanding the Cash for Clunkers program, and making it more top-heavy and unwieldy, a gas tax would likely give us better results with easier implementation (since it's already implemented).

And if everyone were promised a $500 check from the government, it just might be possible.