January 2010


In November a 40-year-old SEPTA passenger car broke down and burst into flames on the R5 route; a signal if ever there was one that the fleet of aging rail cars needs to be replaced.  Well, the plans have already been in the works and my friend Anthony Campisi (aka A-Ton) has reported on the story of the new replacement cars for PlanPhilly (video of the new cars can be seen on his story page).

As shipments of Silverliner V regional rail car shells make it here from Korea next month, it will mark SEPTA’s first major rail procurement in nearly 30 years.

SEPTA is hoping that the new cars will herald a better rider experience and help meet its growing ridership needs, adding about 4,200 additional seats to the current regional rail capacity.

But rail advocates worry that SEPTA’s decision to sell off the older cars for scrap could put it in a bind if the Silverliner Vs have any manufacturing problems.

The authority has purchased 120 Silverliner Vs to replace 73 older Silverliner II and III cars, some of which date back to the 1960s. They point to brake problems that the Acela Express cars have experienced, which forced Amtrak to take them out of service in 2002 and 2005, and the fact that SEPTA has gone such a long time without designing and procuring a new class of rail cars.

The new cars are designed and built by Hyundai Rotem in Korea.  The new cars will continue SEPTA’s current regional rail seating configuration of rows of three-seats across from rows of two-seats. However, I’m personally more excited to see the double deck passenger cars arriving for the MBTA and SCRRA.  As a former loyal NJ Transit rider I’m a huge fan of the double deck cars, especially when they are set up with only two seats per row, as they end the awkwardness of the middle-seat conundrum; i.e. whether to sit there and when to ask to sit in the middle seat.

However, the cars are outfitted with new aesthetic lines inside and some nifty communications systems designed by Info-Vision Technology.  The front destination indicators in bright lights and color-coordinated series will be a welcome departure from the old plastic signs that slid into the front and side of the current rail cars.

In typical SEPTA fashion there are fears about just how well the cars will perform and whether all the old cars should immediately be phased out:

Though the CAC has not issued an official recommendation to SEPTA about the Silverliners, some members pointed out that Hyundai Rotem, the company that is manufacturing the Silverliners in a joint venture with Sojitz Corp., has never handled a rail project like this one before.

The Rotem venture was given the worst technical rating by SEPTA of all the bidders for the Silverliner V contract.
Because SEPTA doesn’t have the yard capacity to store the older Silverliners, Mitchell suggested they lease storage space from a railroad.

Though freight railroads do this quite often, Bob Parker, president and CEO of the East Penn Railroad, an area short-line railroad, said that his company has never stored passenger cars before. He said that doing that is “a different sort of animal” and that it would present different liability concerns.

All-in-all, it is very exciting for Philadelphia and SEPTA, let’s hope there are no fires on the new coaches.

Shipping containers are everywhere, millions of them.  They travel two high on rails across the country.  They are trailing big wheelers on the highways.  And thousands at a time are loaded upon enormous shipping vessels to be unloaded and reloaded in record times at port terminals across the globe.

I recently finished The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson.  The book profiles the intriguing history of the shipping container and how it affected local and world commerce.  Levinson’s portrait largely follows the narrative of entrepreneur Malcolm McLean.  The businessman founded Sea-Land shipping company, the first transportation company to specialize in containerization.

McLean had a brilliantly simple idea, instead of packing everything into a ship, unpacking it, sorting it, putting the various items on a truck or a train and unpacking them again, put everything in a container.  In the late 1950′s and early 1960′s McLean envisioned a universal transportation system where goods could be placed in one box and shipped around the world without ever being handled, merely placing the same container on a ship, a train and a truck.

However, the idea did not really take off until the Vietnam War when the US military endorsed containerization as the most effective means to supply the 540,000 troops in Southeast Asia.  When the military commissioned container ships standards suddenly needed to be enforced and there was an enormous consumer willing to pay for goods to be consistently shipped via this method.

Levinson does a wonderful job of making what could be a potentially dry corporate history become a world-changing event.  The book still has its dry spots as readers slog through paragraphs on shipping data and increases in shipping volume.  However, the book is full of great anecdotes regarding McLean and his competitors and the legal and business decisions they made.  One of the dramatic highlights of the book is getting an inside view of the longshoremen union battles with the shippers as containerization went into effect.  These tales make On the Waterfront look tame.

The book probes the larger questions not only of how containerization occurred but how it changed global commerce.  Shipping containers changed the nature of where things are made and how countries trade as it drove the price of international shipping way down.  Containerization condensed ports and de-emphasized the need for manufacturers and commodities to be close to ports.  It drove ports in New York out of business and created enormous demand for other areas like Elizabeth, NJ and Houston.  Containerization allowed incomplete products to be shipped and development of just-in-tine production by Toyota.

The book left me asking haunting questions like whether September 11th could have occurred without containerization.  After all, without the container would the World Trade Center have even been developed on the old port land in Manhattan?  Without it, those two buildings would not have been built or destroyed.  Shipping containers absolutely changed the world, especially from a business and consumer standpoint.  All the clothes we wear from Vietnam and China, the commodities from India, the electronics from Japan would not be possible as we know them without the greatest development in international shipping since the invention of the steamship.

The attempted terrorist-attack on a Christmas flight to Detroit ended in the inevitable security restrictions on international flights, including the removal of blankets in the last hour of flight.  While the New York Times was wondering how terrorism has affected the American desire to travel and Slate was commenting on the idiocy and inefficacy of our security spending I have been wondering what would happen if another form of transit were attacked.

Our transportation security measures are incredibly reactionary rather than visionary or proactive.  Just look at how much security there is when boarding a plane and how non-existent a real security presence is at an Amtrak station or major bridge entrance.  I am afraid both of the consequences of this passivity and the consequences of potential increased security.

Forgive me for my non-politically correct statement, but it is rather surprising that a terrorist has not struck an American train as happened in Spain in 2004 or another place of large congregation such as a bridge entrance or bus terminal.  After all, that has to be a lot easier to do than getting through airport security.

As much as I fear the tragic consequences of such an act, I am more afraid of Americans having their mobility restricted.  Terrorists almost certainly are more likely to hit a train or bus than a series of cars on I-95.  Therefore restrictions are likely to hit passengers getting on trains and buses, even commuters and regular subway and bus riders.  Not only is this extraordinarily costly as the TSA demonstrates, but it may serve to do exactly what this country does not need: promote cars over public transit.

I’m not saying that police should not patrol transit stations and dogs should not sniff luggage lying around and that passengers should not report suspicious activity, but making train security similar to airplane security could kill any high speed rail venture.  America’s transit future depends on development and transportation investment that encourages and allows people to travel together rather than individually.  Of course communal transit is more attractive to a terrorist (the same reason we go crazy when an airplane crashes but most ignore individual car crashes even though cars claim thousands more lives than planes do).

America’s economic and cultural future depends on the population having equal freedom of physical movement as it does freedom of ideas and personality via electronic transmission and paper delivery.  American security agencies must keep Americans safe on the rails and the roads as well as in the air.  However, placing similar restrictions on train riders will have disastrous consequences as time-savings via train are not nearly as dramatic as via flight.  To keep us safe the work must be done behind the scenes, not by aggressively screening every passenger and forcing unnecessary restrictions while riding and boarding.

Scientific American features stories from past issues 50, 100, and 150 years ago in each publication.  In this month’s issue the 100-year story was a snippet from a feature regarding a proposed zeppelin-railway system.

DECEMBER 1909
FLYING RAILWAY—“A German engineer has conceived a novel and marvelously impracticable mode of transit, a sort of cross between the airship and the electric railway, in which a balloon supports the weight of passenger cars, which run on aerial cables and are propelled by electricity. The balloon is of the rigid Zeppelin type of construction, and is propelled by electric motors capable of developing an airspeed of about 125 miles per hour. There are engineering as well as financial objections to this scheme.”

In 1909 the New Jersey Zeppelin disaster was still 28 years away, so I do not blame this transit dreamer for scheming.  However, given that railway electrification was emerging at the end of the nineteenth century and railroads could not yet achieve 125 miles per hour, nor could cars and the Wright brothers had made their first successful flight just 6 years prior, this idea does not seem as stupid as it appears to the 21st century eye.

I hope that we live in an age where people continue to dream boldly and ambitiously such that future generations can selectively pick out ideas to poke fun at.  Right now Americans struggle with the idea of high speed rail let alone anything more innovative or revolutionary in the transportation sphere.  May America once again invest and dream grandly regarding its transportation future.

We are all familiar with public transportation maps based on the famous London Tube map with its colored lines and dotted stops. Cameron Booth has developed a map of the US Interstate System based on that style (click above for a link to a larger image) and the map is available in print for sale on his website.

I believe this map is a great cultural commentary on American transportation.  The car may not be as mythic and the road trip may not be as legendary anywhere in the world as in the United States.  In a country where you cannot take a train nearly anywhere long distance and where planes are increasingly expensive and burdensome, the automobile is still the great expression of freedom.

However, as freeing as the car is we are still largely constrained to certain thoroughfares for major long-distance travel.  Yet this map, reducing the country to the format of a city-transportation map also reduces the magnitude of the country to the size of a city.  There is a certain irony in that given just how vast the nation is and how many days it takes to cross by car.  However, there is also something profound about how that Eisenhower Interstate Map shaped our consciousness of physical and cultural space in the country. The interstates made some great cities greater and raised other from the abyss into places of status.

Moreover, the interstates may have done more than anything else in the nation’s history in creating a sense of national community and greater connection.  Eisenhower was first interested in national highways when participating in a post-WWI exercise attempting to transport military materiel across the country on existing roads.  The interstate project suddenly made most of the nation accessible to every American with a car, a little bit of cash, and the time to travel.

The interstates more than any other system my have crashed down the provincial mental and physical walls defining states to trump intense locality with a sense of national community.  Hopefully one day a high speed rail map will once again redefine our national sense of geography, community and nationalism.  Transportation has been and will continue to be the means by how communities are partially defined.

PS: to those who read this blog frequently I sincerely apologize for my extended absence.  It was not intentional, finals and the end of the semester just caught up with me.  I hope to be back to posting nearly daily for the foreseeable future.  Happy and healthy new year to all.

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