Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is the climate really right for trains?

"The Climate is Right for Trains" - that's the slogan of Bombarier Transportation (BT). Today, I attended a talk given by BT's President, Monsieur Raymond Bachant at Chicago's Mid America Club, in cooperation with the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Canada-U.S. Business Council Chicago. (Bombardier is, of course, a very Canadian Québequois company, though it does business in 60 countries.)

M. Bachant is very upbeat about the climate for rail. Of course, it's his job to be upbeat - who ever bought anything from a gloomy salesman? But Bombardier has every reason to be upbeat as a major supplier of railway rolling-stock around the world: they expect Europe to add about 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail in the next decade, while China is planning to add over 30,000 km. Even though BT is a relative newcomer to high speed rail, they have a great "track" record in all areas of rail vehicle design, from streetcars, to passenger coaches, to subway trains, to locomotives. I say they're relative newcomers, even though in the 1990s they helped design and build Amtrak's Acela trainset along with Alstom. Alstom has been in the HSR business since the 1970s, when they designed and built the French TGV, so I suspect it was a learning experience for the Bombarier folks. Of course, BT does make jet airplanes - the popular (with airlines) CRJ series - and that's got to count for something in the high speed business!

So that's where BT and M. Bachant are coming from. With over 100,000 BT rail vehicles in use in 60 countries around the world, they can perhaps afford to shrug off the odd behavior of governors of small regions like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. To them, the future assuredly looks bright.

But does it look as bright to us in the U.S.? M. Bachant listed four things that are necessary for high speed rail to succeed for us here:

  1. Consistent and continued funding of rail infrastructure
  2. Compatibility: seamless, convenient, integrated transportation
  3. Competitive environment (but this depends on point 1, Consistency)
  4. Good planning

Here's my take on these...

Consistent and continued funding of rail infrastructure

Passenger rail needs to be "de-politicized", says M. Bachant, and I agree completely. In Europe, the need to excellent rail infrastructure is not a political football (ahem - soccer ball?) as far as I know. In the U.S., the need for good highways enjoys just about the same status. So when - if ever - will the American political establishment bring passenger rail to enjoy the same status as our highways do?

M. Bachant, in answer to a question from the audience, opined that the rising price of oil was the force most likely boost the political fortunes of rail.

Perhaps I'm just a bit cynical, but I think it will take more than that. I suspect that the majority of politicians will only start to favor passenger rail when significant political contributions start to come from passenger rail businesses. The politicians who make the loudest noises about balancing the budget are also quick to protect their biggest contributors from tax increases, which may indicate where their true interests lie.

Oh, and why does funding need to be consistent and continued? Because the boom-and-bust cycle brought about by inconsistent funding is muderous to businesses. M. Bachant pointed out the Bombarier now owns the remnants of two great American rail car builders: Pullman, and Budd. Both shriveled as passenger rail decreased in the U.S., but might well have survived if Amtrak had been able to continually upgrade its equipment over the years. Instead, Amtrak got a big chunk of money for its Superliner and Amfleet cars thirty and more years ago, but practically nothing more until 2009. No wonder our trains and subways are built by companies like Siemens (German), Breda (Italian), Talgo and CAF (Spanish), Kawasaki and Nippon Sharyo (Japanese). Those are all countries that have kept up a steady demand for new rail cars.


M. Bachant stressed the need for transportation to work together as a system - seamless connectivity between high speed trains, airports, regional expresses, and locals, buses, and taxis. This is most certainly true: public transportation must integrate seamlessly in order to compete with the automobile. In a car, you can go from the slickest, fastest freeway to an unpaved, rutted road, without getting out of your vehicle. Not so in a high-speed train. In order to come even close to the same level of convenience, public transportation must be very well planned and coordinated.

But there is another level at which compatibility is important; and though he didn't talk about it, I'm sure M. Bachant would agree: equipment and operating rules must be standardized as well. That's part of what's necessary for competition, the next point.

Competitive environment

Competition is necessary for any sector of a thriving, capitalist economy. M. Bachant didn't delve in to this very deeply, but I can fill in the gaps. Not only do we need a good field of suppliers for equipment, but if the playing field is level and there's enough passenger demand, we can have competition among passenger train operators. This isn't widespread, but in addition to Britain (the most obvious example), Switzerland offers examples of several operators running on the same rails.

In the U.K., a public corporation owns and maintains the track, while quite a few companies offer passenger service and others haul freight. You may have heard England's system dismissed as a "failure" by some American politicians, but countless people who visit Britain - and millions of Brits who ride trains - attest that service there is excellent and flourishing. (Yes, Megabus started there and is flourishing too, but that's another story!)

In Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Railways allow other companies to run trains on their tracks. Some of these are international (French, Italian, and German for the most part); others are freight carriers; and still others are regional operators providing extra local and commuter service for a canton, and subsidized by it - for example BLS, of the Canton of Bern. I believe there are similar arrangements in Germany as well.

Good planning

M. Bachant didn't go into detail with this; do I need to?

I do have an observation, though. Planning is a lot easier in a centrally-controlled system like China's. In 1990, the central powers there decided to invest in high speed rail. They didn't allow any opposition once the decision was made. Perhaps those who disagreed are now mining coal with picks and shovels in China's far northeast. The leaders then set in motion a large, well-funded group of engineers to plan routes and learn everything about HSR technology from the leaders in the field - Japan, France, and Germany. By 2007, they were ready to launch their service, and in ten years they'll have thousands more miles of high speed rail. Everybody who has visited has been awe-struck by how smooth, fast, pleasant, and efficient it is. But they probably didn't talk to the guys in the coal mines.

We don't work that way here. I'm glad we don't. Really. But it would sure be great if we could find a better way to pull together, instead of pulling apart what others have tried to build up.

Any ideas...?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clarification: Ann Arbor to Detroit Commuter Rail

In the last entry, I wrote,

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), after reviewing the proposal for the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter service, decided to "take over" the project.

I misunderstood what was happening: The Federal Transit Administration became the primary federal oversight agency for the AA-Detroit commuter rail project, instead of the Federal Highway Administration, which had previously had the oversight. SEMCOG is still the primary local agency in charge.

My apologies for any confusion and misleading speculation I may have spread. Thanks to Terri Blackmore of WATS for clarifying the whole thing for me!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Three Transit Updates: AATA, APTA, WATS

Family Savings for Using Transit

American Public Transit Association released their monthly calculation of the amount a family would save by giving up one car and taking transit. The annualized average for the entire country is...


Look for a figure over $10,000 next month, reflecting rising gas prices.

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority

There was a little shuffling around at tonight's AATA Board meeting about the Washtenaw Avenue Transfer Center (née Arborland). This is intended to get buses out of the flow of traffic while they wait for passengers, and make it safer for passengers to from one bus to another. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between AATA and the City of Ann Arbor has been drafted and needs to be ratified in order for work to proceed. But the MoU wasn't quite available yet, so the Board will vote electronically after having a chance to see it.

The big moment was the formal adoption of the historic "Smart Growth" plan as the 30-year goal for public transit in Washtenaw County. As Board Chair Jessie Bernstein said after the meeting, it's just a start. There's lots of work to do now. Remember though, signing the Declaration of Independence was just a start...but it was an important start. Still, there was a war to fight before it meant anything.

So what is the "war" we must fight before Washtenaw County actually gets the transit system envisioned in the Smart Growth scenario? Like any war, it will require good strategy, good funding, winning hearts and minds, and good troops in command and on the ground.

  • Good troops on the ground: we're fortunate here. The staff at AATA, including the two Michaels - CEO Ford and Coordinator Benham - have demonstrated their skilled and are eager to keep up the fight. We're also fortunate that Governor Snyder, our representatives at the state and federal level, and most of the elected officials in the county support the "Smart Growth" plan, according to Mr. Ford's extensive polling.
  • Strategy: some of the big strategic decisions involve timing and inclusiveness. Should we press for an early millage vote, while people's attention is still on the new plan, or should we go slowly, carefully, and make sure everything is "done right"? What's the best strategy for including all parts of the County, without losing revenue from Ann Arbor that provides extra services like Night Ride? Is an "Act 196 entity" really the best model for a county-wide transit authority, or might it come with some serious "gotchas"?
  • Winning hearts and minds has been a big part of the process so far, with two rounds of public meetings, a big Web push, and coverage in the media. That needs to continue. Input from public meetings indicates broad support county-wide for the "Smart Growth" option. Here's where we are so far, combining feedback from all the sources:
    Lifeline Plus Accessible County Smart Growth Total

    The "Smart Growth" option isn't really a plan, so much as a scenario - a proposal, a vision - as Board Member Roger Kerson pointed out at tonight's meeting. We've got to continue listening to input from the public, and continue education on what good transit brings to a region.
  • Good funding is "the elephant in the closet", of course. (No political implications intended!) A millage is almost certain to be involved, but other sources of funding are equally important. I can't over-emphasize the importance of public-private projects. It's one of the cornerstones of Wake Up Washtenaw's advocacy. It's working in Detroit with the M-1 light rail, as savvy business men there realized what they can gain by investing in good transit. We should consider everything from sponsored stops to transit centers with shops and cafés helping pay the bills, making passengers comfortable, and making a profit.
    And we've got to help families realize what they can save with a good transit system. It's $9,904 this year, and it's bound to go up. Anyone care to guess what a gallon of gas will cost in 2041?

The Board will have its annual retreat on June 3, and the focus will be on funding strategies for the Smart Growth model. That's when the "elephant" really comes out of the closet.

Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS)

Looking over my notes, I don't see much to be happy about from the WATS meeting Wednesday morning (March 16). Well run meeting, positive up-beat representatives from the various agencies and governing bodies, but most items were just depressing.

Oh - one good item: the intersection of US 23 and Washtenaw Avenue will be reorganized this summer to improve pedestrian and bicycle passage. If you've ever tried to walk or bike through this intersection...you're probably dead. It's a killing zone. Motorists using the approach ramps have too many other fast-moving vehicles to look out for, and can't spare attention for mere human beings. I haven't seen the plans for the new arrangement, but it's got to be an improvement. (Of course, things will be really awful while they're working on it!)

Now the depressing stuff.

  • Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) admin staff is at 50% of its earlier level, and no immediate prospect of hiring anyone new. This is good news for those who want small government, but not so good for those who want our roads fixed.
  • The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), after reviewing the proposal for the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter service, decided to "take over" the project. SEMCOG, which has been in charge up to now, does not know why (according to SEMCOG's point man, Carmine Palombo). This will result in a month or six weeks of delay. Sigh. (This may be just a wild guess, but perhaps the FTA didn't think SEMCOG's experience with rail projects was very impressive. Could it be their lack of "track" record? ;-) We'll have to wait and see if FTA can do any better.
  • Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) has spent about $300 million for salt this winter, about $150 million over budget.
  • Two Ypsi Township projects - Golfside and Ford - will be postponed until next year due to lack of "obligational authority" (i.e. money) until October.
  • Governor Snyder has indicated that he won't be able to turn his attention to transportation issues until Fall. The House Transportation Committee, chaired by Rep. Olsen, will be preparing a recommendation for him late this summer.
  • A tremendous amount of confusion was revealed when Western-Washtenaw Area Value Express (WAVE) pointed out their request for new buses couldn't be entered on time to get them by next year. After hearing a lot of polite but tense discussion, my conclusion is that the fault rests squarely on the US House of Representatives. Their infighting, political posturing, and intransigence has prevented the Federal government from having a budget. As you know, the government is operating on a "continuing resolution" that goes from week to week, almost. In that environment, the FTA can't authorize any new expenditures. Without the FTA's OK, MDOT transit people can't permit new money to be obligated, so SEMCOG has blocked these requests from being entered in their on-line system. The result? Unreliable service between Chelsea, Dexter, and Ann Arbor in a year or two, when WAVE's worn-out buses start breaking down frequently.

Well, draw your own conclusions. I really wish Congress would stop partisan game-playing, show some statesmanship, and start governing the country.