Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Nice report on structure of state rail programs from Virginia

Through AASHTO's Standing Committee on Rail Transportation, I just came across this 2005 report from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation that details almost every state's passenger and freight rail programs.

I think we need advocates need to work to beef up each of these state programs (more money and more authority) and the Virginia report is a great resource. Talk to your state legislators today.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that Amtrak Illinois ridership soars

Who says the media doesn't report on good news?

Amtrak Illinois ridership is exploding, thanks to the leadership of the Illinois General Assembly to double service, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Terry Hillig files this report on the 40% growth on the St. Louis - Chicago corridor.

At the end, Hillig notes the on-time performance issues that have hurt the corridor (particularly between St. Louis and Springfield):
The ridership gains have exceeded the optimistic expectations of Illinois and Amtrak officials but have not been without a downside. Trains are often late and it is usually because Amtrak shares its routes with freight trains.

"We had some teething problems in the beginning," Magliari said. "The service was initiated without any additional infrastructure."

But on-time performance has improved steadily, and officials of Amtrak, the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Union Pacific railroad are discussing improvements that will make it easier for Amtrak trains to pass the freights, he said.
Let's hope they get on it. Late trains are unacceptable. And furthermore, we should be able to squeeze out the padding on these schedules to get these trip times closer to four hours than the 5 hours, 40 minutes we have today.

Imagine how many more riders we'd attract with a trip time of four hours!

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Amtrak CEO suggests building a new Chicago-Detroit corridor

As part of a fantastic interview in the Wall Street Journal here, Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant floated the idea of a new high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and Detroit. Exciting! Here's an excerpt:

WSJ: Where are opportunities for creating shorter-haul corridors?

Mr. Kummant: We need to look at any place that has a large population. It's Phoenix to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Los Angeles to Oakland. It could be expanding service between Seattle and Portland, and on almost any route from Chicago. Texas clearly has large population centers, and Florida is a good example of growing population. I would love a major new intercity corridor to catch fire outside the eastern seaboard. It would clearly demonstrate the wisdom of capital investment in passenger rail. I think Chicago-Detroit might be a real possibility. There, we could create a 100-mile-per-hour corridor city to city, except for about for a 35-mile stretch through Indiana which is highly congested. There, you might put in a separate line. It might cost $500 million to $1 billion.

WSJ: Who would pay for a Chicago-to-Detroit corridor?

Mr. Kummant: This could be done through a coalition of stakeholders, including three states, the federal government and, perhaps, the freight railroads, which are eager to mitigate congestion in the Chicago region.

That's vision.

The Midwest region is ripe for significant increases in Amtrak service, both in terms of frequencies and speed. We need to think big and continue to advocate for one-year and two-year incremental improvements (like Illinois' doubling of frequencies for Amtrak Illinois service) that every stakeholder can implement.

Let's lay new track.

The most important part of the Chicago-Detroit corridor, by the way, is building track around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, particularly the part in the City of Chicago. Right now, that portion of the track slows down to a crawl, and fixing the "South of the Lake Re-Route" as the Association has been calling for here would significantly improve the entire Chicago hub - East Coast network.

The interview continues on to the subject of high speed rail, and Mr. Kummant gets it mostly right.

WSJ: Do you think the U.S. will get high-speed trains like France and Germany?

Mr. Kummant: That is a goal we could all aspire to, and the question is how and when the country will be ready. We are talking about tens of billions of dollars, or euros, for a single corridor. I think we could get there in a couple of steps. I believe we could build an incremental approach where we could develop 100 mph corridors with conventional equipment. You build ridership and consciousness. Let's not forget that before the TGV [train à grande vitesse -- high-speed train] was there in France, there was a lower-speed train. There was a natural evolution from lower to higher speeds, and there is no reason we can't do that in the U.S.

It's great to see that Mr. Kummant understands the natural evolution of improving what we have to build the political will and ridership to make serious capital investments in new track to get high-speed rail. My friendly suggestion is that high speed rail *is* a goal that the nation does aspire to (or, at least, should aspire to), rather than a goal that the nation could, if it wishes, aspire to.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

We should double frequencies on every long-distance route out of Chicago

Chicago is a hub of long-distance (usually overnight) trains, spreading to the East Coast, West Coast and the South. It's a great asset for the entire Midwest.

The trouble is, none of these long-distance trains travel more than once a day in each direction.
So, if the 3:30 pm departure (for example) isn't convenient, tough luck. That's the only one.

This is a significant problem for Chicago travelers, but for those cities 300-800 miles away, it is a disaster. Why? Schedules on the graveyard shift.

Consider Cleveland. Until a few months ago, there has been no Amtrak service during the day in the city (and in fact the entire state as All Aboard Ohio has documented very well). Who wants to get on a train at 3 am? The fact that ridership from Cleveland has been greater than zero shows how much people want trains.

Amtrak recently adjusted the Chicago - New York City trip (called the Lake Shore Limited), so now the eastbound trains leaves Cleveland at 7 am instead of 3 am. That's a reasonable time, so, as this Plain Dealer article titled "Clevelanders enjoy boarding an Amtrak train in daylight" by Debbi Snook explains, ridership has risen.

There should be reasonable, daylight service for every city in the United States along the long-distance lines. It's impossible to do that with one daily train with a trip that lasts longer than 12 hours. If we arrange the Amtrak schedule to put some cities in daylight, we'll leave others out.

The answer is to run more trains, spaced 8 or 10 or 12 hours apart. We need to double frequency on our long-distance trains.

Keep in mind, many of these long-distance trains sell out (particularly in the summer). There's strong and growing demand for train service. We should meet this demand with more reasonable schedules by doubling frequencies.

It has worked like a charm in Illinois for state-supported service. Ridership is skyrocketing since service doubled October 30, 2006. It will also work for the long-distance trains.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

How do we squeeze more frequencies from existing crews and trainsets?

One of the things we're trying to figure out is how we can use the existing crews and equipment to squeeze more frequencies and trips into the existing schedule.

Basically, the faster the average speed of the trip (and the quicker a crew can make a trip), the more time we have in a crew's regular 8-hour day to squeeze in another trip.

So, shaving off 5 or 10 minutes from a schedule every 100 miles really does start to add up.

It could mean the difference between 2 trips a day and 4 trips a day on a particular corridor.

On the Chicago to St. Louis corridor, for example, it takes 5 and a half hours to make the trip one way.

Not so great.

If we can get that trip down to 4 hours (which is very doable), then a round-trip takes 8 hours -- and one crew can make a round-trip on the same day.

Right now, as I understand it, one crew takes the train down to St. Louis and then gets in a hotel and spends the night. The next day, they take the train back north to Chicago.

How inefficient!

It would make so much more sense to get a round-trip in one crew day. I'm sure the crew would like that as well (spend the night with their families instead of by themselves).

Of course, it takes some capital investments in trackwork to get average speeds up and a real partnership with the host railroads that own the tracks and dispatch the trains, but those are solvable problems.

Once we know that we can get more frequencies with existing crews and existing trainsets for about the same cost, then we have a goal to achieve.

Plus, if we get a 300 mile trip done in 4 hours like Chicago to St. Louis, that's premium service that can command higher fares. That's faster than driving and from downtown to downtown, faster than flying (counting travel time to the airports).

We should develop an ask on every route in the nation on how to improve travel times and then how to get more frequencies on every route.