Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Benefits of Rail

You may have heard or seen the recent commercials by the major railroad CSX:
  • A gallon of fuel moves 1 ton of freight 423 miles
  • One train takes the average of 286 trucks off the highways
Finally, there is a railroad is touting the benefits that come with operating at a lower coefficient of friction. Steel wheels on steel rails translate into less fuel needed.

While I've known the many benefits of rail over trucking, it has never been advertised to the general public. Likely, because the public has little interest or concern for railroads, except when they are held up at a grade crossing.

But now CSX believes there is a reason to sell this to the public. And they are hitting the major talking points. In esseence, using less fuel used translates into benefits that both conservatives and liberals can appreciate.

First, the economic benefit: less fuel used saves money. This is something even trucking companies realized in the ‘80s and ‘90s when they employed railroads for cross-country shipping of containers and trailers. Business and the economy in general benefit from lower shipping costs.

Second, less fuel used means less pollution including less greenhouse gas emissions. CSX is touting how shipping by rail is “greener” than trucking. And with new improvements in locomotive fuel efficiency, including Prius-like locomotives, rail is becoming even more environmentally friendly.

Third, when freight moves from highways to rail, it reduces highway traffic (something CSX promotes in one of its commercials). Instead of trucks pounding the payments and bridges built and maintained by gas tax dollars, rail freight runs on privately maintained infrastructure by companies that pay taxes. Why aren't the free-market conservatives all over this one? Shift freight to rail and reduce taxes while promoting business and increasing tax revenues!

Fourth, less use of fossil fuels reduces dependence on foreign oil.

The concept is simple: operating at a lower coefficient of friction, rail freight uses less fuel and produces less emissions.

Postscript: Now, while CSX is spreading the word, no one should believe they are the epitome of sustainability and environmental protection. Any railroad is an industrial operation that produces a number of hazardous materials from the preservative in wood ties to leaky fuel tanks and spills of petroleum products. Still, by advertising a commitment to sustainability and environmental protection, CSX and other railroads are cleaning up the operations.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama on U.S. high speed rail: "Make no little plans"

As reported by Railway Age:

President Obama on Thursday, April 16, released an
unprecedented long-term strategic plan to advance
U.S. high speed rail development, beginning with
the $8 billion “down payment” provided through the
Administration’s recent American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act, augmented by $1 billion per year for five years in budget appropriations.

"Make no little plans," the President said at a nationally televised news
conference as he presented a plan—centered on rail—for the future of

U.S. transportation. It would begin with upgrading existing rail lines—a
foundation, so to speak—and then progress to building dedicated high
speed corridors, as has been done elsewhere in the world. In great detail

and with an almost startling breadth of knowledge about the high speed
industry, he talked about the many benefits of high speed rail, among them
the convenience of center city to center city travel and relief from highway
and air travel congestion.


So, what does this all mean?

On the positive side, this is the most pro-rail announcement of any recent administration. National passenger rail advocates line the American Public Transit Association (APTA) and the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) were falling over themselves in praise of the announcement.

And when you compare this announcement to the lean years of Reagan, Bush and Bush, a rail advocate would think they died and went to high speed rail heaven. In the Reagan years, even Amtrak was zeroed out in the administration's budget and there was no thought of high speed rail, unless it was paid for by the states or private sector. Even the Clinton years were no panacea for funding new intercity rail.

Putting the euphoria aside, what does this mean for funding? Well, it's a total of $13 billion over about 6 fiscal years:

  • $8 billion in stimulus funding
  • $1 billion per year for 5 years

Sound like a lot?

Again, it's a monumental amount compared to the past; I'm afraid it's a drop in the bucket compared to building a system that looks like real high speed rail, such as the TGV in France.

First of all, the funding will be diluted among 10 politically-determined corridors:

Do the math, and it's a average of $1.3 billion per corridor. Somewhat impressive, but say the corridors are about 500 miles (most are longer), that's $2.6 million/mile which is a nice upgrade, but won't buy you a TGV system.

Second, look at what this is buying. Pres. Obama talks about upgrading first. And the press release also defines "high" speed rail at 110 mph, which sound high compared to 65 mph on the interstate, but not compared to TGV speeds over 200 mph.

Now, my background in intercity high speed rail includes working on the US Dept. of Transportation's "Commercial Feasibility Study" were we looked at what it would take to run rail operations with maximum speeds of 90, 110, 125, 150 and 200 mph on most of the same corridors listed above. My job involved looking at maps and track charts in great detail and "test driving" the corridors (using a spreadsheet-based simulation program) to see how fast you could go if you upgraded the tracks or if you built new tracks (for the 200 mph option). Then we estimated how much it would cost it would take to reach each of these top speeds.

In short, I know what you can get out of these corridors and how much it would cost to get there.

Here's a summary of my conclusions:
  1. The selection of the 110 mph top speed actually proved to be the most cost-effective target in terms of capital cost compared to increased ridership and associated revenue. While 110 mph is modest compared to TGV (at 186 mph), it is a prudent first step.
  2. Where the federal funds meet local funding (e.g., in California, they have voted $10 billion of state funds), it may kick start something more than the studies I've seen over the last 2 decades.
  3. Portions of the Empire Corridor (near Albany, NY) and the Chicago-Detroit corridor have segments already at 110 mph, so this funding can incrementally piggy-back on existing improvements.
  4. Though not listed as one of the 10 corridors, the Northeast Corridor (Boston-Washington) can compete for funds.
  5. The funding still depends on local initiatives. This is working in California, but has been a start-stop process in Florida (depending on who the Governor is) and here in New England, the failure of New Hampshire to provide modest funding for the Boston-Montreal corridor has crippled the efforts. This intercity rail is really interstate commerce, and last time I looked, the Federal government was responsible for that!
  6. Bottom line: other than California (where they may actually build a high speed line), don't count on much. Despite what the President's rhetoric, I say "Make no grand plans!"

Start of a New Transportation Blog

Having worked as a civil engineer in the transportation field for over 30 years, I've developed a perspective on current transportation issues, locally in the Boston and New England areas, nationally and internationally. Having tested the patience of collegues and friends as I go on about this and that, I thought I'd start my own blog. This way, those interested can read on, and those not, can pass it up.

Actually, I'm planning on 2 blogs:
  1. Transportation Issues Today: news and comments on current events, etc.
  2. New Initiatives in Transportation: this will contain practical proposals for improving transportation, focusing on the more "sustainable" modes: walking, bicycling, public transit, and other rail transporation.

If anyone out there is reading these posts, please leave your comments.