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.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Returning to Cape Cod (By Rail)

This summer will bring the return of regularly scheduled train service between Boston and Cape Cod.   Branded as the CapeFlyer, it provides a new modal option for a trip measured in "miles of backup before the bridge." 

There are only two motor vehicle bridges across the Cape Cod Canal, and both experience major backups on summer weekends.  The only ways to avoid the bridges are the ferry to Provincetown or flying into Hyannis.  And the under-utilized rail bridge. (See photo on right.)

NYNY&H RR "The Cranbury" was
painted in ths special color for the
Hyannis-bound trains from Boston
There was a time when rail service was once the way to travel to the Cape.  Before the dominance of the auto, vacationers from New York, Connecticut and Boston traveled by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H RR) to reach destinations such as Hyannis (with ferries to Nantucket) and Woods Hole (with ferries to Martha's Vineyards).  An age of auto-free intermodal travel!

 Service and ridership dwindled over time with the Boston service ending by 1959 while service from New York continued until 1964.   A fire on the rail bridge over  the Neponset River in 1960 made restoration of service from Boston daunting.

In 1965, the New Haven sold this rail line to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which will be operating the new service to the Cape some 48-year later.  First, the MBTA built the Red Line along this right-of-way (with a new rapid transit bridge over the Neponset River), first to Quincy (service beginning in 1971) and then to Braintree (opening in 1980). 

Cape Cod & Hyannis train at Buzzards
Bay Station with the iconic rail bridge
over Cape Cod Canal in the background.
The Braintree extension opened the door for a "two-seat" restoration of seasonal service from Boston to the Cape in 1982.  Passengers could change trains in Braintree and ride the Cape Cod & Hyannis  (CC&H)   Railroad to both Falmouth and Hyannis.  Then in 1987, Amtrak restored summer weekend service from New York, with an additional train transferring to the CC&H at Attleboro, Massachusetts. 

You know you've reached the Cape
when you cross the Cape Cod Canal
Railroad Bridge, which dates from
1935 and is the second longest
vertical lift rail bridge in the US.
I took this photo from the bike path
along the canal - see my other
blog post.
For a brief period, service was restored from both New York and Boston.  But nothing lasts forever.  The CC&H lost its state subsidy and ended service after 1986.  Amtrak stopped its service to the Cape after 1996 (by which time, the service was a shuttle from Providence).  Since then, passenger service on the Cape has been limited to a summer tourist train from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay.

Commuter rail servie was restored
in 1997 from Boston to
Middleborough, 2/3 of the way to the Cape.
A year after through service to Hyannis ended, commuter rail service was restored 2/3 of the way to the Cape, with the opening of the Middleborough Line from Boston, including a new rail bridge over the Neponset.  For the first time in 37 years, through rail service from South Station Boston to Hyannis was at least possible.  

It took another 16 years to get from the possible to the actual.   This summer, a few of the Middleborough trains on Fridays evenings and over the weekend will be extended to Hyannis.  The two-hour schedule is not indicative of a true "flyer," but it beats a 10-mile backup approaching the bridge.
Cape Flyer crossing the Cape Cod Canal


Maine and Rhode Island Extend Passenger Services in 2012

Last year, 2012, saw two incremental extensions of passenger service here in New England.   None of these were earth-shattering or worthy of national attention.  But, it is a sign of moving forward, after decades of retreating. 

Two ceremonial trains marked the service extensions.  On the left, Nov. 1st  saw the inauguration of Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick, ME after a 50-year absence.  On the right, April 23rd the inaugural MBTA train waits at Wickford Junction while the ceremonies proceed inside the station garage..
Spring saw the April 23rd opening of Wickford Junc-tion south of Providence in Rhode Island, along Amtrak's Northeast Cor-ridor. Along with a station at Warwick (serving TF Green Airport), this day marked the completion of Phase 1 of the state-sponsored South County Rail extension project, returning service after a 40-year absence.   The table above and to the right chronicles the timeline for this retreat of service and for its restoration.  Note that through it all, Amtrak provided intercity service over this line, but only the the major stations, and not the local commuter stops that lost service.

Meanwhile, way up north, a fifty-year passenger service drought ended this fall with the return of service to Brunswick and Freeport, Maine. Ten years after the return of passenger service to Portland, Maine, Amtrak’s Downeaster’s inaugural run pulled into these communities, accompanied by bands, crowds, and speeches.  In this case, the retreat involved all passenger service, and, for a few years, it meant no passenger service on this route beyond the near surburbs of Boston. 

The How’s and Why’s of the Service Retreats and Extension

Part 1: Why the Service Retreats: A Tale of Two Bridges

Here you can see two bridges, side-by-side crossing the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. They represent two approaches to funding and owning transportation infra-structure.  The smaller, lower bridge on the left is older and was private-ly built by the New Haven Railroad, without tax-payer funding. That represented the era of privately-funded transportation infrastructure.

Now, contrast that with the two larger and higher (read: more costly) bridges on the right, built entirely at taxpayer expense. They are part of Interstate 95 which was part of a massive highway construction undertaking in the US, beginning in the 1950s. Call it the public option for transportation infrastructure. While the interstates are partly responsible for the strength of the US economy, they also the privately-owned railroads at a financial disadvantage. Essentially, the federal government created competing public infrastructure that starved the private infrastructure of revenue.

The result was that many US railroads fell into bankruptcy in the 1960s and 1970s. They could not compete with traffic on the interstates.

The first to go in the decline was passenger service. With the advent of buses, privately owned cars, and finally the popular use of air transportation (also using government funded infrastructure), rail passenger service lost its advantages of speed and convenience.  Simply put became no longer profitable to carry passengers.  This resulted in a downturn spiral of cutting services, which reduced ridership, which reduced revenue and lead to more service cuts.  This lead to the creation of government-funded Amtrak in 1971 to run the intercity services, while local commuter services were transferred to local agencies.

This was the backdrop for the loss of passenger rail service to Maine and the retreat of commuter rail services in Rhode Island.

Part 2: Restorations – Tales of Visions, Plans, and Persistence

Each of our examples can be attributed to visionaries and government officials who responded to their vision.  Government spending caused the retreat in passenger rail serivce, and government spending helped restore passenger rail services.

The efforts of the grassroots
TrainRiders/ Northeast lead to the
start-up of the Downeaster in 2002.
In Maine, the vision dates back to 1989, when Wayne Davis and a group of citizens got together to talk about a return of passenger rail to Maine. The effort led to the creation of the grassroots organization of TrainRiders/Northeast. The group, which included interested people from as far away as Bangor in Maine and several coastal New Hampshire towns, explored the feasibility of Amtrak’s extending the Northeast Corridor passenger trains from Boston through New Hampshire to Portland, Maine, as a first step toward expanding service to other areas of northern New England.

Working with elected officials, their efforts lead to  the Maine State Legislature creating the Northern New England Rail Passenger Authority (NNEPRA) in 1995 to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine. With much persistence and political support, federal and state funding was obtained to rebuild the track in New Hampshire and Maine to passenger rail standards after years of seeing only freight service.   Service to Portland, ME was restored in 2002.

Continued efforts lead to the planning, funding, and construction of the service extention to Freeport and Brunswick.  November 1, 2012 marked the inaugeration of this service.  The train was greated by crowds, high school bands, and speaches in both communities.

In Rhode Island, the restoration of service can be traced to two similar visions.  On the public side, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) in 2001 put out its operational feasibility study about extending commuter rail service from its termination at Providence to Westerly on the Connecticut state line.  At the time, Amtrak was planning the initiation of its Acela high speed rail service.  The study considered how expanded commuter rail service could share track time with Amtrak's Acela and Regional services, as well as freight service operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad.

All the while, a local businessman and developer, Bob Cieo, was planning a multi-use development he called Wickford Junction.  Part of Bob's vision was restoring rail service to Wickford Junction.   As a young man, Bob traveled to Boston by rail many times for work and while attending Wentworth Institute.  His property included a parcel abutting the tracks, just the right size for a station with a parking garage.

Fast forward to December 2009, with RIDOT official and Bob joining dozens dozens of contractors assembled for the opportunity to qualify for RIDOT's first  time using the design/built (D/B) procurement method.  The D/B method can save significant time in delivering a project.  Rather than wait for a complete design before the contractor is selected, the contractor hires the designers (engineers and architects) who design the project with interim milestones that enable construction to begin before all design details are finalized.

Next step:  April 23, 2012.  Commuter Rail service by MBTA began with the first scheduled service train leaving in the wee hours of the morning.  Later, a ceremonial train carried dignitariesand others from Providence to the celebration of the station opening at Wickford Junction.  This was a proud moment for me, as Design Manager for the D/B Team.  (For a video of opening day, click on video and scroll down to link for "Wickford Junction Station."


Two extensions, each of two new stations, opened in 2012 here in New England.  Each is the different story, but they share the same elements of passenger rail service retreating in the face of highway expansion, and restoration of service come to fruition by the efforts and vision of both private citizens and state agencies.  This year, 2013, will see at least one more passenger rail extension, with the restoration of scheduled service from Boston to Cape Cod.  Other extensions are in design, construction or planning, including Fitchburg to Wachuestts, Worcester to Springfield, Springfield to Greenfield and beyond in Vermont, and possibly Pittsfield to New York City.