The Triumphant Return of Private U.S. Passenger Rail | CityLab

All-Aboard Florida station

Over at CityLab Henry Grabar writes about All-Aboard Florida in  The Triumphant Return of Private U.S. Passenger Rail: Can new train service between Miami and Orlando be a model for the rest of the country?

Life-cycle of rail in the US. From The Transportation Experience, Figure 6-4
Life-cycle of rail in the US. From The Transportation Experience, Figure 6-4

I was interviewed:

It’s a big project by any standard, but it looms even larger in historical context. No private intercity passenger rail line has operated in the United States in 30 years — and it has been longer still since a new service was introduced. “You’d have to go back over 100 years to find a significant investment in private intercity rail in the U.S.,” says David Levinson, a transportation analyst at the University of Minnesota.

Comment: Of course this depends on significant. There were a few stations built within the past century, and some of the fastest trains are from the 1920s and 1930s, but trackage started its long decline in 1920 and ridership peaked around the same time (excepting World War II).

Later the article talks about economic development effects, since this seems to be a land development project as much as a railroad (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Unlike the activity around commuter rail, subways, and other daily-use transit, the financial spillover effect of a high-speed rail station is not clearly established. “The evidence that’s looked at the economic development effect of high-speed rail has shown that there’s not a whole lot of local effect,” says Levinson. “A comparison is to the airport: What frequent business traveler is going to live next to the airport?”

Comment: See: Levinson, David (2012) Accessibility Impacts of High Speed Rail Journal of Transportation Geography Vol 22 May 2012. pp. 288-291 for more details and review of the evidence.

Also, it appears they are ready to sell bonds, so it looks like it will go forward. Note the bonds are likely to be offered at 12%, so this is considered a very high risk investment. Good luck to them. (I am not an investor in this project).


New commuter rail link ready to roll in central Florida

I was interviewed by Barbara Liston of Reuters for: New commuter rail link ready to roll in central Florida

… All Aboard Florida says 50 million people a year travel between Orlando, the most visited U.S. city, and Miami, Florida’s largest urban area, creating a feasible market for what would be the first privately funded, owned and operated inter-city passenger rail service in the country in a half a century.

If the project succeeds, “then you’ve expanded the effective commuter shed that someone could live in Miami and work in Orlando or vice versa,” said David Levinson, urban systems researcher and civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.

“It happens in Europe all the time and it happens in the Northeast Corridor all the time.”

SunRail is the tenth new commuter rail system completed in the United States since 2000, and follows the 2011 opening of the 21-mile “A Train” in Denton, Texas, according to the APTA.

Other new systems since the turn of the century were built in Austin, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Albuquerque, Seattle, Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon.

Despite President Barack Obama’s attempt to jump-start high-speed rail construction across the country with $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package, no European or Japanese-style train has been constructed, Levinson said. …

Automatic Train Operation

In the wake of this summer’s on-again, off-again BART strike, some of us wonder why a transit union can shut down what ought to be an automated train. Why can’t management “operate” (perhaps at a reduced schedule) the vehicles, as happens in many other organizations on strike? It is surprising that, in 2013, modern, grade-separated rail systems don’t all have automatic train operation (ATO). While there are a number of ATO systems internationally, it is rare in the US. At least part of the problem is lack of trust (deserved or otherwise). There have been at least two notable crashes of test-trains using automatic operation.

Fremont Flyer crash (October 2, 1972) – a train under testing with automatic control overshot the end of the track (link). 8143196966 cbee24a4ef b
A Precariously Positioned DLR Train On (March 10, 1987) DLR-overhang

However in one case (BART), drivers were re-inserted into the system (perhaps enabling this summer’s strikes), in the other (DLR), driverless trains remained standard (and safe).

The 2009 Washington Metro train collision was also attributed to failures in a track circuit part of the Automatic Train Control systems, and since the collision ATO has been disabled.

It should in principle be far easier to automate trains (which run on fixed guideways) than cars, which have to track many more moving parts in their environment. The technologies are very different, since the trains are centrally controlled, while any successful automated vehicles will be autonomous. The issue of course is not only design, but implementation, and robustness to faulty designs.

Fundamentals driving trends in Intercity Transportation in the US

Despite major proposals for investment in high-speed rail, intercity passenger rail in the US remains and will remain a small mode unless there is some sustained exogenous shock to the system such as higher fuel prices, very stringent environmental regulations, an unforeseen war, or act of terrorism that constrains air transportation. As a mode, rail was in decline in the US from a peak in about 1920 through the 1990s. Presently, Amtrak serves 650 million passenger miles in a peak month (a number that has risen considerably since its nadir), US airlines serve about 80 billion revenue passenger miles in peak months).

US Railroads Total KM of Track
US Railroads Total KM of Track

In contrast with the US, internationally, rail passenger service is growing much faster and serves a much larger share of the market. In the UK for instance, there are now 2.8 billion passenger miles per average month (excluding urban transit), well more than four times the US number for a country with one-fifth the population (in other words, rail usage is more than 20 times as high in the UK as the US), a number that has steadily risen, and can expect to rise more with major investments in HS2 and Crossrail.

Lifecycle theory traces out the deployment path of technologies, from birth, through growth, to maturity and decline. These S-shaped curves have successfully described the deployment of many technologies and will be applied to a variety of transportation systems to identify their prospects. The difficulty remains for predicting modes that are still growing, where they will reach market saturation. E.g. how many flights will people take per year? This requires examination of fundamental factors.

There are a number of social and technological changes that may affect outcomes. The most significant for transportation might be automation, in particular self-driving vehicles (what Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors, recently referred to as “auto-pilot”). (Related automation trends include pilot-less planes (drones) and automated trains).

Self-driving vehicles hold the promise of radically altering urban transportation. Their effects on intercity transportation are less clear. On the one-hand they will extend people’s willingness to travel by auto, as they lower the cost to the driver of travel (in terms of their need to exert energy driving and attending to the road), and enable them to engage in other in-vehicle activities. In that regard, they might change the boundary between the “drive or rail” and “drive or fly” decision (e.g. moving the threshold from 300 miles to 400 miles). Thus, they are more likely to affect rail than flying.

On the other hand, self-driving vehicles will likely decrease auto-ownership and increase various types of on-demand car rental, which I have called “cloud commuting”, such as car-sharing (Zipcar, Car2Go, etc.). This is because one of the major difficulties with car rental, especially in less dense areas, having to travel to get the rental car, will be obviated. People with fewer cars on hand are more likely to use shared transportation modes (transit, intercity rail, airplanes), since they will be paying more per trip (they will have to pay to rent the car, while if they owned, they would not attribute ownership costs to a particular trip).

Trade-offs between modes
Trade-offs between modes

Further, so long as other modes remain faster and less expensive over some distance, longer trips will remain in the domain of train and especially airplanes. In the second figure, user-owned driverless cars will likely shift the location of D1, moving it to the right, while user-rented driverless cars change the fixed cost of making a trip by automobile, moving the intercept of the green line with the Y-axis upward (compared to self-owned cars).

We can use this model to examine other types of shifts as well. For instance, more widespread rail networks will aim to push against this trend, moving D1 to the left, and D2 to the right.

How will these trends play out with current and upcoming technologies, considering physical constraints (such as time availability) and economic constraints (such as incomes)? My guess is that car ownership remains the dominant means of transportation for most Americans, and so the range people will travel by car on the net will increase. But the future is complicated, and other factors may intervene.

Vandalism or terrorism

We were returning from Harrogate to London last night on the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) after attending the well-run and interesting UTSG conference.
The trip from Harrogate to Leeds was uneventful. On the trip from Leeds to Kings Cross in London, we were interrupted by what I believe the announcer said was a Code 3 on Coach M. (We were on a different coach so at the time didn’t know what that was), though we did not stop there.
Later the announcer told us that there had been vandalism, a rock through a window, which needed to be repaired before we proceeded.
The coach was held at Peterborough for about 15 minutes while repairs were made to the broken window, and we arrived 15 minutes late. When we arrived, I could not locate the vandalism, so it must have been cleaned up fairly well.
Three observations spring to mind …
(1) If this had happened on a plane it would be called terrorism.
(2) If this had happened on a plane, the delay would be considerably more than 15 minutes.
(3) This doesn’t seem to happen on planes.
This does seem to happen a lot on trains. In fact on 100% of my trips (both of them) from northern England or Scotland to Kings Cross, my journey has been delayed by rocks thrown through windows. The precise statistics on train vandalism (by rocks through windows) I have not been able to find, but it must be common, and there are websites discussing vandalism. It is and has long been so common that it features in a Thomas the Tank Engine season one episode
My previous trip from Edinburgh to Kings Cross on August 30, 2003 was eventful for several reasons.
My notes on the day
“Depart Edinburgh. Check out of Globetrotter, take hotel shuttle to train station, catch next train to London (on the half hour).
Train: operated by GNER
1st conductor upset we are on wrong train, but eventually allows us to stay
2nd train stops at Grantham Station and engineer announces we are stopped because the train ahead was involved in a fatality on the tracks. this involves a 1 hour delay (death = 1 hour)
3rd, train stops south of Stevanage when someone pulls the emergency stop. It seems a window was broken on the car, the glass was inside, suggesting perhaps a rock was thrown?
Arrives a King’s Cross.
Transfer to King’s Cross/Thameslink station, which is not at the King’s Cross Train Station, nor at the King’s Cross underground station, but 2 blocks away. Surely these could have been connected somehow.
Take Thameslink to Gatwick. The train passes through some really poor areas of London.
At Gatwick catch hotel shuttle to Renaissance Hotel Gatwick. Everything operates smoothly.”
So there was what I have later learned has come to be termed a “person under a train”. This too seems fairly common. Several weeks ago I vistited Stevanage New Town, as part of my visits to a number of the New Towns in London (I am from Columbia, Maryland after all). While my train did not hit anyone, another train was cancelled for this reason and the system was delayed. The announcer at the station apologized several times for the train cancellation due to a person being hit by a train. This is a very British thing, saying sorry but somehow blaming events beyond their control. If the person was hit accidentally, I suspect he deserves a much more significant apology than the delayed customers, however that might not have been the case.
These “suicide by trains” are potentially as dangerous as other suicide bombers that we normally call terrorism. But this is rail, not air, so we don’t make an issue of it. The number of people who have been killed by train derailments caused by vandalism and by suicide does not make the news.
Now why are people so disgruntled they feel like destroying? Are the causes political (I don’t like trains because they destroy the environment, or community, or lead to industrialization … the vandals are merely illiterate or uneducated Ted Kasczynskis in the making), or merely for the entertainment of the vandals (It is amusing to see things destroyed)?
Not being a vandal myself, I don’t understand the psychology.
I am not the only one disappointed in GNER service, there is a blog devoted to the issue.
At any rate, I could say the trains are decrepit, but it would be much more polite to say the British make excellent use of their capital investments and don’t waste money on maintenance.
— dml