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.

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!

portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

Septa Market Frankford EL

Well, it happened.  The Phillies staved off elimination in the World Series against the Yankees.  Barely before the dust from the fireworks had settled in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park the transportation workers’ union did the inevitable, they started to strike.

They strike is based on struggling contract negotiations.  I’ll let the Philadelphia Inquirer explain fully:

Rendell said the union chose to walk away from an “excellent” contract offer that includes 11 percent in wage increases over five years, and 11 percent increase in pension contributions, and no increases in workers’ contribution for health care.

“Think about that,” Rendell said. “Whose pension has been increased in this day and age?”

According to TWU officials, SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wanted to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.

The union wants a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent. It is also seeking an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

The TWU also is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA’s 5,100 unionized bus drivers, subway and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

I am a huge public transportation advocate and I have made a point on this blog in the past about treating transit workers with respect.  However, I find this strike rather distasteful.  First off, in a city and region that depends on transit you need to give riders greater warning than just walking off the job at 3am.  If you want respect you need to give it back.

Moreover, while transit employees work hard and deserve a living wage, they also do not have any real fungible skills or training.  The $24.40 an hour they can earn after four years (equivalent to $48,480 a year on a 40-hour work week) seems perfectly appropriate given the position.  Two people earning that salary can more than support a full family in Philadelphia.

The healthcare, wage and pension expectations seem plain greedy when 10% of the country cannot find employment at all and many of their riders are working overtime just to make ends meet.  Most importantly, the union is bargaining with a semi-public agency, not a multi-billion dollar publicly held company.  SEPTA is not trying to gouge its workers, rather just trying to make ends meet on an already stretched budge.

This strike needs to end soon, it is not good for any of the parties involved.

SEPTA Bus, Go Phillies

The buses in Philadelphia pass across Broad Street flashing route numbers and the ubiquitous “GO PHILLIES!” but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a strike by the transit workers may be impending.  The Transport Workers Local Union 234 – which represents the bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics – voted to strike as early as the end of the week.  The workers, who have been without a contract since the spring are prepared to strike just as the World Series, featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, would begin.  It would be ironic for the buses to stop flashing their cheerleading signs just as the team they support would most need the fans who ride the buses.

The impasse is over how much the workers should be paid (isn’t it always?):

Management has proposed a zero wage increase for the first two years of a new four-year contract, with 2 percent increases each in the final two years. It also wants to increase contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent; and to freeze the level of pension benefits to members.

The union wants a wage increase of 4 percent each year, and an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

I am no expert on collective bargaining or SEPTA’s finances, but I hope this comes to a peaceful resolution for the residents of Philadelphia who depend on their public transportation system. My personal opinion is limited to the fact that transit workers generally are compensated rather well for a job that by-and-large requires no real skills to apply for.  This is not true for mechanics and sheet metal workers, but drivers and operators are usually trained on the job.  Every worker deserves a living wage, but those workers also must honestly assess the finances of the businesses they work for.

Of course, as the Transport Politic has illustrated so well, if they strike, this will not be the first time SEPTA workers have done so.  In fact, they have done so in 1944, 1998 and as recently as 2005.  So I trust the good citizens of the city of brotherly love will cope should they need to.

SEPTA is not the only transit organization with worker issues, as VIA Rail in Canada is also engaging in contract talks with its unionized workers.

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.

hoover bypass

Montana:  The state has created secure structures, including tunnels, to help wildlife cross US 93.  As evident here.BLACK_BEAR_6 More importantly, the state has an amazing video game on the dangers of crashes between motorcycles and cars.  Most importantly, you get a character and you get to change his “general awesomeness” which means adjusting his mustache; including a fumanchu!

Nebraska:  The Department of Roads has posted the Nebraska road laws from 1898 including the following gems:

  • No person owning any carriage, running or traveling upon any road in this state, for the conveyance of passengers, shall employ, or continue in employment, any person to drive such carriage who is addicted to drunkenness or the excessive use of spirituous liquors …
  • No person riding any horse or mule shall run the same on any public road, except in cases of necessity
  • The term “carriage” as used in this act, shall be construed to include stage coaches, wagons, carts, sleighs, sleds and every other carriage or vehicle used for the transportation of passengers and goods, or either of them.

Nevada:  Certainly the coolest project is the impressive Hoover Dam Bypass being built, as seen in the picture above.

New Hampshire: I need to get a bike up to New Hampshire!

New Jersey: As a one-time NJ resident, I was a frequent rider of NJ Transit and SEPTA.  However, I was unaware of the transit village project, attempting to develop towns around transportation and decrease sprawl.  Go NJ!

New Mexico:  The state has some of the most scenic roads I have ever been on.  The promotional videos for the land of enchantment are lame, but the images are still gorgeous.

New York:  I like the concept behind the GreenLITES program, certifying the green and sustainable characteristics of transportation projects.  Now, NY should make it stick, if it hasn’t already with some sort of economic incentive.

North Carolina: The state apparently has 74 public airports and over 300 private airports.  That seems like a lot, but I do not actually know, and North Carolina was of course first in flight.NC license Plate

North Dakota:  The DOT offers a defensive driving class to drivers 17-24, called Alive at 25.  Seems like a good proactive step, especially by a rural state.

Ohio: 5,484 miles of railroad track crisscross the Buckeye state, operated by 35 railroad companies.  I now want to visit just to take advantage of all the great railroad tourism.   Unfortunately, my railroad vacations have been limited to a solitary trip to the Altoona Horseshoe Curve.

Oklahoma:  A really boring website save for the information on the Heartland Flyer, the 10-year-old project to reinaugurate passenger rail to the state.

Oregon: The state is celebrating its 150th anniversary and the DOT is participating.  Interesting facts include:

  • 1792: Captain Robert Gray enters Columbia River (May 12) and names river for his ship. George Vancouver explores Columbia River to its confluence with the WillametteRiver.
  • In 1913 there were only 25 miles of paved roads in Oregon. In 2008, there are more than 36,000 miles of paved roads.
  • From 1804 – 1806, explorers Captain Merriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled from Missouri across the Rockies and down along the Columbia River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By 1833, Oregon’s first shipment of lumber sailed for China.

Pennsylvania:  The Keystone state has a lot of great information on their page, including transportation research.  Most impressive to me are the overall stats, including the 403.3 million annual trips on fixed route vehicles.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.