Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lost Streetcar Infrastructure

A PCC streetcar inbound from
Watertown Square passing through
Newton Corner
(Photo by J. Appleman, August 1966)
From the late 1800s through the 1940s, Boston and vicinity had a robust streetcar infrastructure, taking riders not only on trips downtown but also connecting neighborhoods.  

A streetcar near Union Square in Somerville
Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, this network was trimmed down until only four lines remain.  Three run along major arterials:  Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, and Huntington Avenue.  The fourth was an early conversion from commuter rail, namely the Mattapan-Ashmont “High Speed” Line.  In the late 1950s, Boston picked up a second streetcar line converted from commuter rail when the Boston & Albany Railroad’s Highland Branch became the Riverside Line.

A colleague posted a narrated video of a trip from the streetcar yard at Arborway (once the terminus of the E Branch of the Green Line) to Mattapan yard (still a terminus of the “High Speed” Line.  The video illustrates that back in the day of less and slower auto traffic, the streetcar was an important mode of transport.   Link:

A PCC streetcar from Arborway to Mattapan travels along Cummings Highway.
(Still from the video.)

Approaching Mattapan Square .  (Still from the video.)
Over the years, many of the streetcar routes were first converted to “trackless trolley” (buses with overhead electric power lines) and later diesel buses.  The buses proved more flexible and less expensive to maintain and operate.

Streetcar in a median on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester

PCC streetcar bound for Dudley Square in Roxbury leaves what is now Andrew Station on Southampton Street (Collection of Joe Testagrose, year unknown)
2-car train of PCCs cars heading to the Arborway on what is known at the E Branch of the Arborway on August 13, 1970.  (Photo by Joe Testagrose)

Today, the MBTA Light Rail System is the remnant of Boston's once extensive streetcar network, This includes the Green LIne with four routes converging on the Central Subway under the Back Bay and downtown, as well as the still-running Mattapan-Ashmont Line.

A Type 8 Light Rail Vehicle is running inbound on the E Branch at Huntington Avenue and Forsythe Street by Northeastern Avenue.  It is headed through the Central Subway to the Lechmere terminal in East Cambridge. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Does the Public Think?

Any public transportation study or project these days generally include a series of public meetings to gather public input.  In addition, there are often public input periods where comments are received on a particular report.

But do these methods of public outreach yield the public’s opinion, or only the opinions of the meeting-goers?

This is the dilemma of many officials, planners and engineers:  How do we best get a good cross-section of public opinion?

The Roxbury-Dorchester-Mattapan (RDM) Transit Needs Study:  An example of a robust public outreach program.

I mention the example of this study, dating from 2011 to 2012, as it included some of the most comprehensive methods of public outreach.  The objective was to go far beyond just the likely meeting-goers, and reach a cross section of those who live and work in these three communities within the City of Boston, Massachusetts.

The RDM Study Area
Brief Overview of the Study
This comprehensive study of the travel patterns of these transit-dependent communities was undertaken by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), coming on the heals the 28X Project, a bus rapid transit project that had failed to achieve community support and was dropped by MassDOT.  As recommended by many in the community, the new study would take a step back perform a comprehensive overview of transit needs and explore alternative strategies to meet these needs.

The wedge-shaped study area for the RDM Study is just beyond walking access to the major rail transit lines (the Orange and Red Lines). Many residents are transit-dependent and must rely on existing bus service to meet their travel needs.

Makeup of the Outreach Team
The Study Team was made up of predominantly residents and former residents of the communities.  These are primarily minority communities and, unlike the case in some studies, the Outreach Team resembled the communities.

Member of Outreach Team hands out
questionnaire to transit rider.
We believed the key to a successful study was gaining public trust in  and support for the study process. That is why we assembled a planning team lead by professionals with roots in this corridor. Putting a new, community-rooted face on the planning team was one element in demonstrating to the communities that this study was truly a new start.

Of all those working on the project, only my transportation engineer and I were the only non-minorities on the consultant team.   All-in-all, I think this strategy was key to both our team winning the assignment from MassDOT as well as being contributory to the overall success of the study.

Strategies to Reach the Community
The project included a comprehensive array of strategies to obtain a wide range of input.  The public outreach program went far beyond just public meetings and a web site.  The Study Team literally went to where the public was:  
  • to their bus stops and transit stations, 
  • on their buses,
  • to their libraries,
  • to their community centers,
  • to their community events, and
  • to the churches where they worship
Mattapan Branch Library (William 
Rawn Associates, Architects Inc.)
We learned that many in these communities simply cannot make public meetings, due to work hours, or having to come home and attend to their children.  Also, many did not have computers in their home to perform an on-line survey.

Supplementing the consultant team was a group we called the "Street Team."  Led by the organizer of a local census outreach team, these community residents performed much of the legwork of meeting the community where they were.

The Many Facets of Outreach
Public input into the study came through these various sources:

  • review of previous studies and reports
  • series of public information meetings
  • study advisory committee
  • on-line survey
  • questionnaires administered by hand-held devices
  • paper questionnaires

The Street Tream recorded responses
to the questionnaire on board buses
using hand-held devices
Access to the on-line survey was enhanced by inviting community members to come to the local libraries where Outreach Team members would assist them as needed.  The Street Team went to community bus stops and rode local bus routes to record answers to the questionnaire on hand-held devices, where the data was later downloaded and entered into the needs database.

The use of paper questionnaires allowed many more to participate.  The questionnaires were distributed at community centers, such as health centers, libraries, and churches.  They were also distributed a several major community events, at the transit stations where connecting buses serve the RDM area, and after Sunday Services at local churches.  

Publicity for the meetings and the study itself was extensive.  Besides the MassDOT and MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the local transit operator) websites, the project used Facebook, Twitter, the community newspaper (The Bay State Banner), and the local radio station (TOUCH 106.1 FM), and distribution at community centers.

The overall result of the outreach over about 2 months was 1,344 responses, yielding 154 ideas for transit improvements.   The ideas were evaluated by the Advisory Committee and the Study Team.  The results are in the Final Report for the RDM Study.

For more information on the study or to read the Final Report, visit the MassDOT website for the RDM Study.
The outreach plan was developed by the consultant team which included:

Charles W. Bradley, III, AIA (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Michael Fergus (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Patrick Belizaire (The ARCH Professional Group, Inc.)
Kelley Chunn (Kelley Chunn & Associates)
Adrienne Benton (Onyx Spectrum Technology, Inc.)
William Caines (William F Caines Landscape Architects Inc.) 
Rachel J. Burckardt, PE (Parsons Brinckerhoff)
Kristen Torrance, PE, PTOE (Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Vision Realized

Another thing I like about being a civil engineer: over 20 years ago I was the assistant project manager for a study on how to make the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) light rail system accessible to all users. 

Just today, while leaving Arlington station on the light rail Green Line, I noticed a man in a wheelchair, unassisted, take the elevator to the lobby, go through the turnstiles, and take another elevator to the street. The vision is realized and now what was impossible is just a matter-of-fact everyday event.

Getting on and off the light rail
vehicles required stairs
Back then around 1990, none of the MBTA light rail system was accessible.  There were no elevators in stations.  Passengers had to climb stairs or use an escalator where one was available.  And getting  on and off the cars also required stairs.   Thus, the system was not accessible to people with mobility limitations, especially those using wheelchairs.

Streetcars of 1950s vintage still run
on the MBTA Mattapan-Ashmont
The MBTA light rail system is one of the few in the United States that has its routes in the streetcar system that grew up in the late 1800s.  In Boston, that included the first subway in the US, which was used by nearly 40 streetcar routes and is still in service as the Green Line.  One other distant streetcar line remains, the "Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Line," which got its name in the 1920s when a rail line was converted to streetcar use and "high speed" was defined as 30 mph.

All the streetcars used low, street or track level platforms, which required passengers to climb 3 or 4 steps up into the car.  This practice continued into the 1990s.

The MBTA Light Rail Accessibility Feasibility Study recommended a series of improvements including:

  • adding elevators to subway stations for street-to-platform access
  • acquiring a fleet of "low floor" cars that would reduce the distance between platform and the car floor
  • raising the station platforms to an "intermediate" height to be level (or near level as implemented) with the car floor
The Type 8 low floor cars feature a plate
ramp that allows a person in a wheelchair
 to have level access from platform to car.
As implemented, the MBTA acquired approximately 94 "Type 8" low floor cars, which featured two doors to the low floor section, which is a few inches above platform height.  For wheelchair users, a ramp slides out of the car and one can wheel right into the train.  See photo at right.

The platforms at most subway stations and selected at grade stops were raised.  Elevators were added to most underground and elevated stations.

While not entirely accessible yet, for many trips, using the MBTA light rail system is just a matter-of-fact experience.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Crude by Rail

Photo by Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon
Unbeknownst to many here in the United States, our nation ”will surpass Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer by 2015, and be close to energy independence in the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based adviser to 28 energy-consuming nations,” so writes William C. Vantuono in Railway Age Magazine.  Largely this is due to increasing outputs of both crude oil and natural gas from shale formations in the United States. 

Enabling the Latent Production Capacity
Much of this new capacity is made possible by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).  The safety and environmental impacts of this process is worthy of its own lengthy consideration, so I will not digress to the discuss whether this is a good or bad path for the nation in this blog post.

The southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline
in construction while controversy swirls
around the norther segment.
Photo by 
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Nevertheless, while that discussion is ongoing, there is presently the dilemma of how to transport all this oil, while there is not sufficient pipeline capacity, with such proposals as the Keystone Pipeline raising its own environmental issues related to construction impacts as well as impacts of possible leaks once the pipeline is in service.

How is this gap between demand and transport capacity being met? 

The Growth of Crude by Rail (CBR) 
DOT-111 tank cars carry crude oil.
Photo by Harvey Henkelmann
The railroads have stepped in, allocating tank cars (typically of the DOT-111 specification).  This type of tank car is plentiful in North America, as it constitutes 69% of the US tank car fleet and 80% of the Canadian tank cars. The avail-ability of these cars positioned the railroads to step in where the pipelines remained underdevelop-ment and wrapped in controversy.

Compared to fixed pipelines, CBR presents many inherent advantages:

  • More nimble in meeting immediate demands, compared to the development time for a pipeline, which includes design, permitting, financing, constructing, testing, and commissioning, which can take well over a decade.
  • Whereas a pipeline is a fixed asset between a fixed Point A and a fixed Point B, the railroads can respond to shifting locations of Points A and B.

Nevertheless, this option is not without risk.  This is most vividly illustrated by the horrific runaway-train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which resulted in a fire-ball that killed 47 and destroyed 30 buildings in the town.  While the causes of this accident are many (and worthy of a separate blog post), it is the death and destruction that point to the volatility of the cargo and the risks inherent in CBR.

Risk Comparison:  CBR and Pipelines
For CBR, the risks are both in leaks from railcars (without an accident) and in leaks and potential combustion resulting from an accident.  With pipelines, the principal risk is in leaks.

When it comes to leaks, it appears that CBR has a better track record, in terms of spills per ton-mile between 2002 and 2012:
  • railroads spilled 2.2 gallons of oil per million ton-miles 
  • pipelines spilled 6.3 gallons of oil per million ton-miles 

This is according to the Association of American Railroads, as reported in Railway Age, July 15, 2013.

Still, not all spills are equal.  To assess risk, one needs to consider how to define the risks and how well the risks can be mitigated.  

CBR travel on many rail routes and it is impossible to predict where the next spill will occur, be it at location where a spill is easily contained before damage to humans or the environment happens, or somewhere that the impacts are more significant.  With a fixed pipeline, the higher risk locations are more easily definable and additional accommodations can be made.  With railcars, in my opinion, you always have to consider a crash after a collision or derailment.

Double wall pipe
In both cases, a first line of risk mitigation is containment.  For a long time, fuel tanks and pipelines have been "doubled walled" or a pipe within a pipe.  So, if the pipe or inner tanks springs a leak, the outer pipe or tank can contain the spill.  Bot in both cases, there are other causes of spills that are more sudden and catastrophic.

Pipelines can be damaged by external forces, from a collision, accidental impact from construction equipment, earthquakes, or intentional damage from sabotage or terrorism.  Pipelines under pressure can experience pressure surges that potentially could open up a joint.  Various appurtenances (e.g., valves, branch connections, testing or sampling ports) are of differing construction and these items or the interface with the pipeline could be weak spot.  While pipeline designers know all these risks and consider them, sometimes something can go wrong that was not anticipated or is due to operating the line in an improper manner.

Similar risk issues exist with railcars, and railcar designers can design cars with that in mind.  

Making Tank Cars Safer
Admittedly, the DOT-111 is an old specification and needs to be updated.  Granted much of today's fleet has been upgraded, according to Railway Age, "to AAR [Association of American Railroads] standards implemented in 2011. These standards include double hulls, energy-absorbing head (end) shields, recessed top valves, and shelf-type couplers that are less prone to detaching vertically (and thus puncturing a car) in a derailment."  Nevertheless, the scene in Lac-Mégantic was so horrific, it would be impossible to stay the status-quo on tank car design.

In November, I was pleasant-ly surprised when the AAR, which is the association of the railroads, proactively came out in favor of stronger regulation of its own industry, specifically in regard to the design of tank cars.   As reported in Railway Age, "The Association of American Railroads (AAR) on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, urged the U.S. Department of Transportation 'to press for improved federal tank car regulations by requiring all tank cars used to transport flammable liquids to be retrofitted or phased out, and new cars built to more stringent standards.'  In comments filed with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), AAR said the safety upgrades it recommends will substantially decrease the likelihood of a release if a tank car is involved in an accident."

This is a positive step forward.

The Future of CBR
While I and many others would like to see more renewable and cleaner energy sources linked with energy conservation, we will not get to that future day magically and overnight.  In the interim, our nation runs on energy and the economics of domestic oil production will drive the demand for transporting crude oil from the wells to the refineries.

Will the energy industry wait for the pipeline capacity to be increased?
They simply can't wait that long.

Are the politicians that think the Keystone Pipeline is a key to our energy self-sufficiency about 10 years behind the times?
You bet!  (As are other fossils in DC who think there is any future in coal!)

Will better tank cars prevent any future spill?
No one can promise there won't be another oil spill, but safer tank cars is a good step for now.  Only when we move completely away from oil as a fuel will we end oils spills for good.

Is CBR here to stay?
Unlikely.  But count it in for the next decade, at least.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dedication of Three New Stations on the MBTA Fairmont Commuter Line

As reported by the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on July 17, 2013, Governor Deval Patrick, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard Davey and MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott officially opened the Four Corners Commuter Rail Station, celebrating a series of recent  recent improvements made along the entire Fairmount Commuter Rail Line.  These improvements included track, signal and bridge updgrades, as well as two other new stations, at Talbot Avenue and Newmarket.

These new stations represent a continuing trend in the restoration of passenger rail service in New England within the last 2 years.  The other improvements include two new stations in Rhode Island on the MBTA Providence Line (Warwick/TF Green Aiprort and Wickford Jct.), two stations in Maine on the extension of the Downeaster intercity service (Freeport and Brunswick), and two stations as part of the Cape Flyer service to Cape Cod.

The Fairmont line is unique in the MBTA system, in that it is entirely within the City of Boston.  As such, it acts as a hybrid mode, using commuter rail equipment but serving an intracity transit market.  The line bisects the Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods, nearly halfway between the Orange and Red Lines.

Originally part of the New York and New England Railroad's mainline, it bypassed Back Bay Station, through which most of the south side commuter services ran.  When the line was merged into the New Haven Railroad, which ran all the service radiating south of Boston, it was delegated primarily as the freight route, whereas the passenger route ran up what is now the Providence Line, passing through Back Bay on its way to South Station.  Passenger service was provided until 1944.

Passenger service was restored on Nov. 3, 1979 when commuter trains and Amtrak intercity services were shifted over the the Fairmont line for the duration of the Southwest Corridor project.  Three stations were served by a shuttle service.  This service was kept after the other passenger services were restored to the mainline.

With the opening of the three new stations, service now consists of 40 to 45 minute headways at peak hours and hour headways in between.

Proposals to provide more frequent services (perhaps every 30 minutes) have been explored, as has the use of diesel multiple unit trains, which would be shorter and have faster acceleration.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cape Flyer Ridership Substantial

Crossing the Cape Cod Canal Rail Bridge
Propelled by good weather and the legendary long traffic jams at the only two roadway bridges into Cape Cod, the state-funded Cape Flyer ridership is somewhat exceeding expe-tations, as re-ported in a Boston Globe article.   In my initial post about this train, the Cape Cod Flyer represents the return of direct Boston to Hyannis service after 54 years.

As reported by the Globe:

Sunday’s 25-mile line of vehicles creeping across the Sagamore Bridge may go down as one the worst-ever Cape Cod traffic nightmares, but it also served as a free advertisement for a less stressful mode of transportation: the CapeFlyer weekend train service between Boston and Hyannis, which still has plenty of room for passengers.
Cape Flyer in Barnstable.  Photo by
Doug Scott
To anyone who has returned from the Cape on a Sunday night, this is not news, it's just what it takes to go to the Cape.  The savvy travelers will drive back early on Monday morning.  The more savvy travelers are shifting to the train.

As reported in the Globe, the cool, cloudy weather in June resulted in poor ridership.  But July brought the heat and, with the Cape beaches on their mind, the riders came.  Continued strong ridership may keep the service running into the fall, after the currently scheduled last trips on Labor Day weekend.

Accomodations:  While made up of commuter rail equipment, the train includes some features not found on all trains, including:

  • Onboard concessions* , not quite an Amtrak cafe car, but beer and wine are served after the last "commuter stop" at Middleborough
  • Free bike storage
  • Free wi-fi
  • Connections in Hyannis to ferries to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket
  • Bus connections at Buzzards Bay to Falmouth (by CCRTA)
  • Bus connections at Hyannis to Orleans  (by CCRTA)
*Concession provided by Iowa Pacific, the holding company for the other Cape Cod railroads, namely Massachusetts Coastal Railroad (freight) and Cape Cod Central Railroad (passenger excursions and dinner trains)

We'll see how ridership holds up through July and August.  But, as a alternative to a 25-mile backup, the train is a no-brainer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Future of Coal Traffic for the Freight Railroads

Union Pacific Railroad coal train
 (photograph by Dave Honan)
A watershed moment is coming for the US freight railroads.  Coal traffic, once accounting for as much as 50% of the traffic on some lines, is on the decline.  Coal no longer is king.

In many ways, coal is so much a product of the 19th century.  In its day, coal-fired machines performed tasks with the strength of hundreds of men.  Coal powered machines in factories.  Coal powered the transportation of the the day:  steam ships and steam locomotives.  Coal heated homes.  And coal was an early fuel in the generation of electricity.

Coal powered the industrial revolution.  Coal polluted the air and the lungs of many.

The 20th century brought new fossil fuels.  It took a half century, but diesel fuel displaced coal in locomotives.  Oil and gas replaced coal in the furnaces of American homes.  The newer fuels were far less visible in their pollution of the air, in terms of plumes of coal smoke, and in terms of particulates (otherwise known as soot).  

Perhaps one of the last bastions of coal remains in power generation.  In most cases, railroads transport the coal.

Today, the trends in power generation show the signs, that within a decade or two, coal-fired plants will be relegated to the history books, in much of the US.

While the environmentally minded may be seeing this a result of air quality regulations.  Clearly, this is part of the trend, but the principal driver is the economics of natural gas. 

My work as a civil engineer exposes me to all aspects of what we call infrastructure, from roads and bridges to railroads and transit to utilities and power generation.   

Taking what I hear from professionals in the power industry and from what I observe with various projects, the trend for years has been towards gas-fired generating facilities.  This trend dates back long before the lower gas prices associated with hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

It takes 15 to 20 years to get a new power plant from someone's idea to the day they flick the switch and generate power.  Virtually all are privately funded (though publicly regulated).  Those who develop new power plants have to take the long view.  And for the last couple of decades, that trend has been towards natural gas.

Simply put, gas has usurped the kingship of coal.   Gas plants today are much more efficient in their use of fuel and far less polluting than coal.  (Granted, gas-firing still produces particulates and green-house gasses, but to a lesser extent than coal.)  Even older coal-fired plants are being converted to natural gas.

Clearly, with all the controversy of environmental impacts of fracking and the fact that natural gas does produce green-house gases, gas is far from the ideal fuel from an environmental perspective.

Still, be it the current trend from coal to natural gas or the eventual progression to renewable power generation, the conclusion for the US freight railroads is clear:  coal traffic is in permanent decline.

(See also my guest editorial in Railway Age.  In that editorial, I was countering the notion that the decline in coal traffic is driven by environmental regulation, whereas my view is that the economics of natural gas that is driving the trend.)