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.