Railroads


Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

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.

MBTA near miss

Last week’s SEPTA strike was deeply unsettling to me and momentarily made me rethink my approach toward transit workers.  However, even if the SEPTA workers were greedy and stubborn, I still believe we should appreciate those who get us from here to there and back.

In particular, we should all be thanking Charice Lewis who operates an Orange Line train for the MBTA in Boston.  On Friday night Lewis managed to pull her emergency break in time to save the life of a passenger who drunkenly stumbled onto the track (the picture above has a link to more photos and the article linked to has video).

The fact that this train stopped is a minor miracle.  The passenger fell off at the front of the platform such that the train had the least amount of time to stop.  Of course the woman who fell off the platform had been drinking for several hours prior.  She managed to survive with just scraped knees.  While the operator should be heralded, the passengers who took care to wave down the train should also be congratulated.  Though it is not quite as impressive as the man who jumped into the NYC subway in 2007 to save another man’s life.

So, thank your public transportation drivers, they are critical to your movement and routine, and just might save your life.  Oh, and please stand behind the yellow line!

BNSF System Map

The biggest railroad news in a while occurred yesterday when it was announced that Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway were purchasing BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).  Buffett agreed to purchase the 77.4% of the company that he did not already own for $26 billion.

BNSF, which is a relatively new railroad as an entity, is actually a combination of many older railroads including the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe.  The railroad covers 32,000 miles of track, 6,700 locomotives and 220,000 freight cars.  The company’s biggest clients are coal and agricultural product shippers.

That begs the question of why Buffett made the investment.  Is he betting on trains, coal, industrial agriculture, or all of the above?  Streetsblog’s Elana Schor takes a swing at that question:

That environmental rationale for Buffett’s deal struck some in Washington as dubious. Frank O’Donnell, president of the green group Clean Air Watch, wrote on his website that the BNSF deal was “the biggest climate story of the day,” bigger even than the political maneuverings of the Senate environment committee:

This is a $34 billion dollar bet that coal will remain the centerpiece of American energy policy in the future. Buffett clearly believes that coal use will remain strong – and possibly grow. So he is putting his money on a vision of America with no effective climate policy at all – or at least one that doesn’t slow coal growth.

BNSF’s reliance on coal is indisputable; the black stuff has accounted for nearly half of its tonnage this year, and MarketWatch estimates that 10 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal hauled by the railroad.

As coal-hauling railroads go, however, BNSF has made an attempt to distinguish itself on the energy efficiency end. The railroad is developing an emissions-free hydrogen-powered locomotive, and in May started to test-run a group of GE locomotives that cuts emissions by 40 percent over previous, dirtier models.

My take (and part of Elana’s) is this purchase is a good thing.  I personally don’t care if Buffett is invested in coal – because it is admittedly not going anywhere any time soon – because Buffett will be invested in transportation and rail infrastructure.  He will be invested in making the rail infrastructure solid, having working trains and hopefully growing the network.

Passenger transportation gets the most news coverage, but freight transportation is equally important.  The effect of truck freight transportation on roads and the environment is well documented.  Moving more of our freight to rails is good for everyone, including driver safety and those living close to highways.

Moreover, maintaining high quality rail corridors is also good for passenger rail as Amtrak and many public transit commuter rail systems already run on freight-owned rails.  Expanding networks is good for the future of commuter and inter-city rail too.

Good for Buffett in seeing that America’s transportation future lies on the tracks, not on its asphalt roads.

velib

In Friday’s New York Times was an article about the French bicycle renting system, Velib’.  I was disappointed to learn that the system is being plagued by vandalism and theft.  According to the article, the bike-renting service provides 50,000 to 150,000 rides per day.  However, 80% of the original 20,600 bicycles have been stolen or damaged.  Much of the crime has to do with Paris’s social inequalities and perceived economic and class dynamics of the transportation mode.

The heavy, sandy-bronze Vélib’ bicycles are seen as an accoutrement of the “bobos,” or “bourgeois-bohèmes,” the trendy urban middle class, and they stir resentment and covetousness. They are often being vandalized in a socially divided Paris by resentful, angry or anarchic youth, the police and sociologists say.

Bruno Marzloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, said, “One must relate this to other incivilities, and especially the burning of cars,” referring to gangs of immigrant youths burning cars during riots in the suburbs in 2005.

He said he believed there was social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.

“It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous,” Mr. Marzloff said. “There is an element of negligence that means, ‘We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.’ ”

The Velib’ has expanded beyond the Parisian urban core to 29 other towns and suburbs.  I hope that there are solutions to the problems the Velib’ faces in Paris, because I would love this to be a viable model for other cities and towns around the world, and especially in the US.

While Paris requires a credit card to borrow a bicycle and fines individuals for not returning bikes perhaps they should consider making users better internalize the costs true to form of most car rental systems, including Zipcar.  When you rent a car you can frequently choose to forgo paying for insurance, but most drivers purchase it in case of an accident.  Perhaps Velib’ should make riders pay more for the costs of damage and stolen bicycles and offer insurance to cover such costs.

In addition, social ownership of public transit is a problem throughout the world.  In order to keep public transportation clean and well respected the riders must feel a sense of ownership for the system and a sense of responsibility toward keeping it safe and productive.  I know very little about French socioeconomics, but perhaps more bicycles need to be placed in urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps there need to be discount rates for the underprivileged.  Whatever solutions are available, I hope they can be implemented so more cities look to Paris as a model rather than a warning.

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In unrelated news, the New York Times also had a quirky and enjoyable vacation feature on the Station Inn in Cresson, PA.  It sort of looks like the nightmare train scene from My Cousin Vinny, but it also looks like a really fun vacation.  The Station Inn provides railside views of dozens of freight trains passing through every day and people come from all over the world to watch the trains and discuss rail trivia.  I mostly would want to go to sit on the porch and hear all the rail enthusiasts chat it up.  However, something tells me my partner would not be interested in such a trip.

Inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station

I have no idea what it costs to charter an Amtrak train, but I love the idea.  As I excitedly noted yesterday the World Series is coming and it’s a pure Northeast thriller with the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the New York Yankees.  Apparently the Phillies chartered a train from Philadelphia to get to New York.

Evoking a bygone era when rail travel was the main mode of transportation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into Penn Station on a chartered train about 6:03 p.m. Monday, but they were not looking to the past century for inspiration.

The Phillies previously took the train to the World Series in 1950, when they were swept by the Yankees. But that dreary omen did not deter the defending champion Phillies from using the same mode of transportation that Philadelphia’s Whiz Kids took 59 years ago.

The reason for the train was neither historical novelty nor an exercise in team building in advance of the World Series, which begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. It was pure convenience. The distance between Philadelphia and New York is too short for a flight, and a fleet of buses traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike could spend as much time on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel as the entire train ride.

The only shame about this trip is that the Phillies got the pleasure of starting in the glory of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but had to end their trip in the travesty that is New York’s New Penn Station.  That said, I hope this becomes more of a trend for organizations like sports teams as so many cities can be traveled between effectively on rail, such as Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee and Los Angeles and San Diego.  I hope more teams partner with Amtrak for their own sake and as an advertisement for America’s train services.

CSX Freight

I grew up a block from a railroad.  I am aware of the awesome power and danger or railroads, having laid pennies on the track as a kid.  Moreover, it was a once every five to ten year occurrence that someone died or was severely injured on the tracks.  With that in mind I am pleased that the National Transportation Safety Board announced a drop in railroad fatalities in 2008.  Fatalities dropped from 794 in 2007 to 777 in 2008.

I have written previously on the necessity of factoring in safety when making transportation policy decisions.  Railroads are an incredibly safe means of transporting goods in people.  The fatality rate is even more sparkling when juxtaposed with the 39,397 total transportation deaths last year in the US.  Moreover, 14 of the rail deaths last year were due to car driver inattentiveness at grade crossings.

American freight is going to continue to move in enormous quantities, especially given the size of the continent.  Given the choice between placing that freight on rail or on the highways on which we drive the choice for rail should be clear.  Rail is the safest choice and the best choice for other financial reasons as well.  Trucks take an enormous toll on the shape and quality of roads, and hence their safety.  See the Missouri Department of Transportation’s depiction below. (H/T Infrastructurist)

Trains can crush pennies, but they are so much safer than putting freight on the back of an 18-wheeler.  America should continue to invest in rail infrastructure with the goal of shipping more freight on rails and saving more lives.

stuttgart-21

Last week’s New York Times published an article about the efforts to expand the rail station in Stuttgart, Germany.  Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the project which is designed to house new high speed rail lines and help connect rail lines across the EU:

The clash between builders and preservationists is as old as architecture itself, but it reached a fever pitch in the recent gilded age. And it is especially fraught in Germany, where the construction boom that began with the country’s reunification sometimes seems like a convenient tool for smoothing over unpleasant historical truths.

Few current projects better illustrate this conflict than Stuttgart 21, a plan to build an enormous new railway station, along with 37 miles of underground track, in the heart of this old industrial city. The $7 billion development, which is expected to be approved by the end of the year, is part of an ever-expanding high-speed train network that planners hope will one day link the entire continent. As one of the largest developments in Europe, it could radically transform the city center.

But the design shows a callous disregard for architectural history. Its construction would require the partial destruction of one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: the Hauptbahnhof, Paul Bonatz’s Stuttgart central rail terminal, a monument of early German Modernism built from 1914 to 1928.

Car have rest stops and airplanes have airports, but no means of transportation has a place to intersect with the mode quite like railroads and their train stations.  Train stations can be magnificent like Grand Central Station and 30th Street Station.  Classic train stations have also frequently been ruined and mocked, like New York’s Penn Station (H/T Infrastructurist).

I appreciate the efforts in Stuttgart to build something magnificent and memorable and forward thinking, but it should not come at the expense of history.  There are certain buildings and places that stand as landmarks and should be preserved not just as art, but also for the sanctity of the identity of the city.  I also believe rail stations should be alluring to the passenger.  Airports and highways are conveniences of necessity.  Railroad stations should not just be practical spaces, but entrances and destinations.  The new design for Stuttgart is impressive, but I hope they can preserve the current station while making the additions.

Railroads are promoted for their convenience as usually being placed in the middle of cities, as opposed to major highways and especially airports.  Those train stations should be city jewels and once built be part of the identity of the city for years to come.  Cities are frequently defined by their architecture, whether it is skyscrapers and bridges.  The appearance of trains is guaranteed to change over the decades, but a train station can always be a classic.  I only hope that trains will be in such demand that stations must grow to accommodate the traffic, but they should not be changed such that they lose their souls.

Amtrak Bridge

In last Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer there was an article on the sad shape of Amtrak’s infrastructure in and around Philadelphia.  As a particularly disturbing example of disrepair, the article first focused on the 108-year old 52nd street bridge, which carries both Amtrak and SEPTA traffic.  According to the Inquirer the bridge is in such sad shape that piers are cracked, holes are visible in the deck, and trees are growing through it.

Amtrak is of course is not entirely to blame for the sad state of its infrastructure.  The organization was set up doomed to fail as it inherited all its infrastructure from various private railroads who were desperate to get out of the non-profitable passenger business.  So goodness knows what condition the bridge was in in 1971 when Amtrak was first created and first underfunded.  That underfunding has led to the following infrastructure crisis:

Nearly half of Amtrak’s 302 bridges in the Philadelphia region have some elements rated “poor” or worse, according to Amtrak’s bridge-inspection reports, prepared over the last two years. The Inquirer obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The inspections show that 143 bridges – 47.4 percent – received “poor” or lower marks for such defects as deteriorated metal plates or decaying stone walls. Some have eroded support piers, others badly worn girder elements and missing rivets. (The count does not include marks for painting or signs, which would push the number of “poor” structures even higher.) None of the bridges had any “failed” marks.

Amtrak officials say the bridges remain safe for travel. But decades of deferred maintenance mean the aging bridges will require hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them into good repair.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the country, where Amtrak owns about 1,400 bridges, largely in the Northeast. Lacking money to meet all of its repair and maintenance needs, Amtrak has deferred an estimated $5 billion in capital and infrastructure maintenance spending.

And regarding the need for repairs in Philadelphia and when they might occur:

As bridge elements deteriorate, they can cause the rails to bend or shift, making trains slow down or even derail.

Amtrak’s Yordy, standing under the 52d Street bridges, said that even with its litany of problems, the structure “is still serviceable.” But he noted that its age was catching up with it.

“One-hundred-year-old bridges should be considered for replacement,” he said, noting the corrosion and the possibility of steel fatigue.

As Yordy and Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black examined the structure recently, a pedestrian chastised them: “Why don’t you paint it so it looks like something?”

Black looked at the rusting bridges overhead and acknowledged, “These are ugly, just as that guy said. But they are safe. They may need some remedial work. But one bad member won’t bring them down.”

With more bridges than money, Amtrak has a challenge to determine which repairs can afford to wait and which must be made now.

Amtrak alwyas has had funding problems since its inception and that is not likely to change dramatically, even with Obama and Lahood allocating funds for rails at historic rates.  Amtrak has been so neglected for nearly four decades, and the rails it runs on for decades before that, that no one time boost is going to solve its infrastructure woes.

This is why Amtrak needs a railroad trust fund that is similar to the highway trust fund.  The highway trust fund provides resources for maintenance for the Interstate Highway System via fuel taxes.  A railroad trust fund could similarly provide for funding through taxes and an initial grant by the federal government.  It is insane to tax Amtrak riders or public transportation users.  However, perhaps each Amtrak rider could be charged an extra $1 that goes to the trust fund.

Moreover, given that drivers do not currently pay the fuel tax that provides for the highway trust fund, the oil that is essentially already taxed to be used by railroads should be provided to the railroad trust fund.  Rather than providing oil revenues used by railroads to highway improvements, such money should be directed to rail maintenance. Also, since many rails run on electricity, including Amtrak, perhaps there should be a small electricity tax.

These are partial solutions at best, but at least a start.

UPDATE: Apparently, I was not the first to come up with this idea and have been done one better with the notion of a national infrastructure bank.  Such a fund would allocate money to any mode of transit and be done so wisely, especially as the highway trust fund no longer pays for itself with low gas taxes.

7-light-rail-train

For a class I am taking I read the National Resource Defense Council report on Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Pollution Runoff.  In that report I happily stumbled upon the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

Transport imperviousness generally exceeds rooftop imperviousness in urban areas of the United States.5Cumulative figures show that, worldwide, at least one third of all developed urban land is devoted to roads, parking lots, and other motor vehicle infrastructure. In the urban United States, the automobile consumes close to half the land area of cities; in Los Angeles the figure approaches two thirds.”6 The city of Olympia, Washington, also found that transport imperviousness constituted approximately two-thirds of total imperviousness in several residential and commercial areas.7 This distinction is important because rainfall on transportation surfaces drains directly to a stream or stormwater collection system that discharges to a waterbody usually without treatment, whereas some roofs drain into seepage pits or other infiltration devices. Research has also found a strong relationship between curb density and overall imperviousness in residential areas suggesting that roads lead to the creation of other impervious surfaces.8

The creation of additional impervious cover also reduces vegetation, which magnifies the effect of the reduced infiltration. Trees, shrubs, meadows, and wetlands, like most soil, intercept and store significant amounts of precipitation. Vegetation is also important in reducing the erosional forces of rain and runoff. In one study, conversion of forest to impervious cover resulted in an estimated 29 percent increase in runoff during a peak storm event.9

Urban life will always have impervious surfaces, it’s the nature of human settlement.  We cannot possibly achieve runoff totals that mimic life before urban development.  However, that does not mean we cannot plan for the future or current establishments to cut back on the total amount of roads, parking lots, driveways, garages and other automobile related structures.  While railroad tracks exist on firmly packed land and are therefore impervious as well, they also are not the same as asphalt in terms of the type of imperviousness.  Moreover, light rail can exist in green spaces, as in the above picture.

However, the most important part of rail technology is it takes up less space than roads.  The number of people that can travel on a skinny railroad track can mimic the number of people on a busy multi-lane highway.  As I always say, roads are not about to and nor should they disappear.  However, decreasing the number of roads and other auto-dependent land uses would be a boon to the environment.

Runoff is a danger for a number of reason: for the pollutants it carries, for the erosion that occurs, for the way it prevents water from getting back to aquifiers, ground water, and other elements of the watershed.  Decreasing our impervious surface area by relying on rail more and our roads less would be a boon to our cities not just for ecological and economic reasons, but also because it would open up more space for the city to either grow in density or for public space to be available to be used.  Imagine your busy roads now being parks instead!

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