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Archive for July, 2009

Caltrain makes horns even louder

According to news reports, Caltrain has had to make its horns even louder, to comply with counterproductive FRA regulations. It used to be that states and local jurisdictions had control over the amount of horn blasting, until the FRA Federalized regulations in the late 1990s. The horn blasting has made it more difficult to implement Transit-Oriented-Development near rail lines, because nobody wants to live near a noisy neighbor.

Here again, the FRA approach to rail safety is polar opposite to the European approach. Typical operating practice in Europe is to only sound a horn in an emergency, or at unguarded railcrossings. For protected crossings (with gates and bells, etc), there is no need to sound a horn. Indeed, sounding the horn gives false sense of security and over time can lead people to venture onto tracks if they can’t hear the horn.

Here we see a Dutch intercity train at a grade-crossing:

Note that proposed grade-separation for Caltrain (as part of the CA high-speed rail) won’t entirely fix the problem. The FRA requires horn blasting at stations, even if they are grade-separated.

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Winning the APWA Outstanding Public Works Project of the year award was probably the last thing Minnesota Dept. of Transportation expected when the I35-W bridge suffered catastrophic collapse.

Mn/DOT will share the coveted Disaster or Emergency Construction/Repair category with Caltrans (for their emergency repair of MacArthur maze and two other projects).

Personally, if I were on the APWA committee, I’d award Mn/DOT +1 points for the replacement bridge….and minus ten billion points for allowing the original one to collapse in the first place.

The Muni Metro East Maintenance Facility was also given an award, though interestingly not in the “Disaster” category.

Security camera images

Security camera images

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CATS (Charlotte Area Transit) reports:

The average light-rail passenger is better educated than the typical express bus rider, and Lynx passengers belong to households earning more money, according to a Charlotte Area Transit System survey of Lynx Blue Line riders.

CATS touted the survey results – especially a finding that 72 percent of light-rail riders didn’t use public transportation before. That shows that light-rail has attracted new riders, said Olaf Kinard, a marketing manager for CATS.

A couple notes on this:

  • 72% of 15k transit trips = 10k new riders, or 5k persons making round-trips.
  • There are some 3200 parking spots at Lynx stations, so the new transit trips are not necessarily car-free trips.
  • The huge upfront capital costs ($462.7 million) means the cost of each new trips is on the order of $6 (not including operating subsidy).

By any measure, 10k new trips in a city following post-war, sprawl development patterns is respectable. Though the metric obviously depends on the availability of transit which preceded the project .

The problem, again, is the huge upfront capital costs of nearly $50m per mile. The CATS service area is a whopping 445 square miles and there is simply not enough money to build a comprehensive passenger rail network over such a huge area at $50m / mile. As a result, the long-range Lynx plan shows a very skeletal network despite a multi-billion price tag.

Given that the line runs entirely within a pre-existing rail ROW, the $50m / mile cost does not compare favorably against similar non-USA rail projects. To put in perspective, $50m / mile is what it costs to build underground metro lines in Spain. And in Germany, the cost to convert old freight track to modern “LRT” is an order of magnitude cheaper.

Archaic FRA regulation is one reason for the cost blowout. Whereas Germany permits mixed operation, FRA does not allow mixing of LRT and freight trains except under waiver. Thus, we get nonsense like this very expensive grade separation, where LRT tracks had to be put on an aerial over lightly-used freight tracks:

Further down the line we find another grade-separation at Woodlawn. The only possible explanation I can see for this expensive aerial was to preserve all-important LOS for the automobiles (i.e. scarce transit dollars benefiting only motorists).

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BMW SUV
If you’ve ever been wanting to get that new BMW SUV, now is your chance.

Thanks to the generosity of US taxpayers and the Kash for Klunkers program, you can get $3500 off a new BMW X3 SUV (some restrictions may apply). Help stimulate the economy, and enjoy that nice warm feeling from knowing you’ve done your part to help environment by upgrading to a 4000 pound, 20 mpg SUV.

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Not very SMART

SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit agency, has decided to use heavy, clunky, Amtrak-style trains for its new, 21st-century passenger rail line.

When voters in Marin and Sonoma counties (just north of San Francisco) approved a $700 million transportation sales tax measure, they were promised “modern, sleek, 21st century” trains.

In fact, trains would look something like this:

This is the “heavy” (FRA-compliant) DMU made by Coloardo Railcar. If that company had not gone bankrupt late last year, SMART almost certainly would have gone with this vehicle.

To put in perspective, a here is a photo of a standard class 644 “Talent” as used all over Europe:

Besides looking like a “modern” train (the Talent 644 is more than 10 years old now), the performance characteristics of a modern DMU are far better compared to the heavy Amtrak-style trains favored by SMART. Because the European DMUs are light-weight, they have far better acceleration and braking — which allows for better dwell time at stations. More importantly, they have fuel economy that is 35%-100% better, meaning that for the same operating cost SMART could run a LOT more service.

What’s really going on here is a classic case of Not-Invented-Here Syndrome (also known as Buy America policies). Rather than adopt industry best-practice and purchase the best off-the-shelf rail vehicle the market has to offer, SMART instead has defined its procurement requirements such that only a domestic manufacturer can comply.

Since no other rail transit agency on the planet is interested in running archaic, heavy, Amtrak trains, and since the only manufacturer of those types of trains is now bankrupt, SMART has decided to design its own trains from scratch.

Designing a new rail vehicle is a major undertaking. Given SMART’s minuscule budget and staffing resources, this task is way beyond the agency’s skill level. In many ways, this is a repeat of Acela fiasco, when Amtrak also tried to design a new train (a tilting high-speed train no less). As in the case of Acela, we can expect SMART to produce a train that is unreliable, heavy, slow — and years late to get up and running.

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NY Times blog Freakonomics argues high-speed rail has negative environmental benefits:

Unfortunately, a study undertaken by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton for the U.K. Department for Transport raises some troublesome questions about whether these conditions can be met in reality.

Booz Allen considered two potential U.K. HSR lines (London-Manchester and London-Edinburgh/Glasgow). They found that the CO2 emissions required to move HSR passenger seats were about the same as those required to move automobile seats — hardly a slam dunk for rail. In fact, intercity bus came out considerably cleaner than HSR on a per-seat-mile basis.

Of course, this is the same UK Ministry of Transport which for years decades has favored runway and highway expansion over railway investment. So, no surprise they funded a report validating predetermined funding priorities.

M1 motorway

M1 motorway

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