Monday, October 15, 2012

Our Link to the West

Michigan's Department of Transportation is takng part in a study of the rail corridor that connects Michigan with the West: the stretch of track between Porter, Indiana, and Chicago. They have asked for public input as part of the Federal study of alternatives, and here's what I had to say:

I submit this comment as a concerned member of the traveling public, and as someone who would like Michigan to be a prosperous, well-connected state for my grandchildren and their generation.

Rapid, reliable passenger rail is a critical link in providing a sustainable future for coming generations, given the growing economic and environmental cost for air and highway travel. The Chicago-Porter segment is a vital part of Michigan's link not only to Chicago but to the entire West of the United States. And this is true not only for us in Michigan, but for Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and Indiana itself. Further, it is a key to making Michigan an active link with Ontario, Quebec, and the maritime provinces of Canada.

Given this critical role, the Chicago-Porter corridor study must include consideration of fully high-speed rail with speeds up to 220 MPH. Given today's economic realities, such speeds may not be practical in the immediate future. However, it is essential that the corridor's initial engineering studies be conducted with these higher speeds as the ultimate goal. Decisions which preclude 220 MPH speeds over most of the corridor must be excluded from the final alternatives. To include suboptimal alternatives would jeopardize Michigan's future position as a transportation leader, and seriously impede our grandchildren's access to a prosperous economic future.

You can submit a comment too - if you do it TODAY, October 15. Midwest High Speed Rail Association has provided a direct link to do that: Click here to submit your comment!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Heritage TOD" in New Jersey

Back in July, I wrote about looking at transit-oriented development (TOD) in three phases: Heritage, Mature, and Young. today, I'd like to take a look at New Jersey's "heritage TOD", based primarily on a visit in March, this year.

One evening during my visit, I arranged to meet friends for dinner in Summit. I took an evening NJ Transit train from Penn Station, New York, where I happened to be that afternoon. This train travels on what NJ Transit calls the Morris & Essex Line, previously the Lackawanna. As the train stopped at station after station, I heard the ring of names made familiar by my mother: East Orange, Orange (where she had spent much of her childhood), South Orange, and Maplewood (where she was born). Her father (my grandfather) had lived in New Jersey and commuted daily to 635 Broadway in New York City. Gradually, the realization sank in that my grandfather must have ridden this same train back in Lackawanna days, past these same stations, day after day during the 1920s and 1930s - maybe longer. Looking out at the twilit towns I realized that almost all the buildings and stations were the same, too. After 80 years, that part of New Jersey had only added a few layers of grime to the bricks.

And I realized, "These towns are all transit-oriented development, heritage style!"
Aerial photo of "The Oranges" (Google Earth)
New Jersey has grown and developed a lot since that time, but the towns as seen from this rail line have remained largely unchanged. Much of the growth has been filling in areas that lay between towns, while the centers of many small cities have retained most their early twentieth century appearance. Now, Northeastern New Jersey is an almost solid tapestry of commerce, industry, and residences, as you can see this is the aerial map of "The Oranges" (click it for a larger version). Lighter gray areas are the commercial districts, and the dark green is forest reserves. The rest is all residential.

The Morris & Essex rail stations are shown with blue train symbols, and the line itself appears as a thin, dark line. It enters from the east (center right) and heads northwest toward the City of Orange; then it turns abruptly southwest to avoid a hill (dark green area). Beyond Maplewood, it swings west for a short distance before bending southward, leaving the photo area in the lower left corner. Notice how the commercial areas and the rail line are close together. Smaller commercial areas like Livingston (lower right) are found along roads where there is no rail service, but when this area grew up, the rail lines, rather than the roads, were the primary transportation arteries.

According the the Eire-Lackawanna Historical Society, the rail line we've been looking at opened from Newark to Orange in 1836, and westward to Morristown two years later, in an era when the alternative to rail travel was horse-and-buggy or horse-drawn omnibus. The line was electrified in 1930 in order to provide better commuter service, and it is powered by electricity today. (According to the Sierra Club, New Jersey has a strong clean-energy policy. About half of its electricity is generated by nuclear power, and it derives more energy from photo-voltaic sources than any state except California. Wind-power generating facilities were being built along the Atlantic coast as of mid-2011 - see the report linked below.)

Main Street, Orange, New Jersey (Google Streetview)
Not all the stations are surrounded by commercial or mixed-use districts: beyond the City of Orange, some of the stations are in residential neighborhoods. Buildings in the commercial station areas of the Oranges appear to be two- and three-story mixed use structures, with the traditional shops on the ground floor and apparently apartments above. They are very much like Michigan towns built around the same era - the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That mixed-use pattern, commercial with residential in the same building, is the use now recommended by most urban planners.

In the area of Brick Church Station, there appears to be some newer transit-oriented development as well.
One block north of Brick Church Station, Orange, NJ

Even with the many transit lines available, the population density is such that highways are overcrowded, while NJ Transit has been purchasing double-deck rail cars and more powerful locomotives to pull more of them. Trains serving Orange run from 5:05 AM to 1:48 AM the next day on weekdays with a total of 102 trains. On weekends service is also good, with 40 trains running between 5:18 AM and 1:48 AM the next day. About half of these run to and from Hoboken, a growing center of employment now, while the other half serve New York Penn Station. In the other direction, the line splits west of the Summit station, where some trains terminate; others travel southwest to Gladstone (population 2,582), while the remainder travel northwest to Dover (population 18,157) and a small number continue to Hacketstown (population 9,724).
The Raritan line, originally the Central Railroad of New Jersey ("Jersey Central"), shows an even clearer pattern of development along the line. In this next picture, you can easily guess where the railway runs, even without the stations marked.
Where's the Raritan Line? (Google Earth)

The aerial photo below is the same, but with stations marked.
Raritan Line with stations marked (Google Earth)

Did you guess right? (The other stations on the right-hand side of the picture are on the Northeast Corridor, running almost straight northeast-southwest, and the New Jersey Shoreline (originally New York and Long Branch) which leaves the NEC and runs south parallel to the Atlantic coast.

My mother's brother, like his father, lived in New Jersey and worked some days of the week in New York City. (He was a writer and editor, and was able to work at home the other days of the week.) He originally lived in Westfield, later moving a little north to a more suburban, wooded area in Mountainside. His wife drove him to the station in Westfield when he needed to go in to the city.

The town of Westfield (population 30,316) shows a very transit-oriented design from the air:
Westfield, NJ - Raritan Line detail (Google Earth)

The commercial area, north of the station, is clustered around it with the clear implication that many Westfield citizens' commute began and ended with a trip to the station. Industrial and commercial buildings are stretched along the railway line, no doubt confined there by zoning ordinances.

Westfield NJ, Jersey Central Depot (1892)
What is now downtown Westfield was first settled in 1720; the railroad line from the coast reached it about 1840. The Jersey Central built the Westfield station in 1892. The settlement's population grew, and the area was incorporated first as a Township, and finally in 1903 as a Town. But of course the mid-twentieth century saw the rise and dominance of the automobile, and with it a change in development and ridership patterns. This table shows ridership in selected years on the Jersey Central:
Jersey Central revenue passenger traffic, in millions of passenger-miles.
Year Traffic
1925 480
1933 337
1944 480
1960 175
1970 124
Source:ICC annual reports

Ridership on all Jersey Central's lines peaked in 1925, and probably would have continued falling had not World War II, with its fuel rationing and cessation of automobile production intervened to force people back onto trains. Now, with NJ Transit investing more in rail service, the ridership has climbed again: it was up to 1,007,035 on the Raritan Valley in 2005. (I can't find more recent figures, and can't convert what I've found to passenger-miles, so I can't really compare current ridership with the past.)

In many ways, northern New Jersey's early twentieth century development patterns are a model for newer TOD. The clusters of higher density around stations seen in the Oranges and Westfield are being emulated in contemporary TOD plans. The streets then were laid out primarily in a grid pattern, which traffic engineers now tell us is more effective than the meandering roads and culs-de-sac favored in late twentieth-century developments. But as in Northeastern New Jersey, there are not one but many patterns of successful TOD. One size did not fit all as that region developed, nor does one plan work in all regions now. Planning TOD remains a challenging, evolving science, with a great deal of art and local wisdom mixed in. But we're fortunate to be able to see how it was done a century and more ago.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Look at New Jersey Transit

In March of 2012, I spent a week bumming my way around New Jersey riding their transit, as part of my ongoing survey of transit systems. I'd like to do a series of blog posts on New Jersey, because it's a fascinating system and illustrates all three of the types of transit I discussed in my July 18 post: "heritage", "mature", and "young".

In this series, I'd like to post on the "heritage" system, the "young" systems, the rail service offered to three low-density areas of the state, and the light rail systems. Each offers interesting observations on how transit affects community development and sustainability. But first, here's an overview of New Jersey Transit (NJT), including the demographics of the state.


New Jersey Population Density (2000)
The 2010 Census counted 8,791,894 residents of New Jersey, giving an overall density of 1195.5 people per square mile, making New Jersey the most densely populated state in the nation. New Jersey has held this distinction since the 1970 census, when it surpassed Rhode Island.

As you can see from the population density map, the greatest concentration is in the northeast, adjacent to New York City, with a concentration in the southwest across from Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, that's where the heaviest concentration of transit is found as well.

The nickname of New Jersey, "The Garden State", is a clue that it's always been a place where people from the big cities go to find a peaceful home community. Soil in the state is actually not great for gardening or farming, leading to early development of industry. And New Jersey has always been on the forefront of transportation, with railroads under construction as early as 1831.

Principal highways of New Jersey
The combination of early railroads and industrialization encouraged population growth along the rail lines where industry was sited. This pattern continued until the 1950s, when highways became a popular alternative. The New Jersey Turnpike was planned in the 1930s, though construction did not start until 1948; the Garden State Parkway was started in 1947. Both are toll expressways, built before in Interstate Highway System was enacted, and development along their routes presaged the impact of the Interstates on U.S. community growth patterns elsewhere. Traffic on New Jersey's many expressways and surface streets is very congested, as you'd expect in such a densely populated region, so travel by train always remained a popular option.

None the less, people crowded the highways to make their homes in rural areas. Tim Evans, of the New Jersey Future organization, recently wrote a post (linked below) noting a reversal in state growth trends over the last three years (2008-11). Rural counties had, for the preceding 50 years, been the fastest growing in the state; now the top ten growth counties are those that are already most heavily built up. As in other parts of the nation, people are realizing the cost and time benefits of living closer to work and public transportation; most of New Jersey's out-counties have seen growth slowed, and one or two have actually lost population.

Transit patterns and history

NJ Transit rail lines
Although New Jersey has impressive industry, research,and corporate headquarters itself, the main orientation has always been toward New York City and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia. Above the network of local roads and transit, the highways and railways are primarily directed toward one or the other of the two big cities, or to both.

The spine of the system (shown in red at left) is the portion of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) that enters the state at Trenton, the capital, with a population of 84,913, more or less at the midpoint of the state. It runs straight northeast to Newark, New Jersey's largest city (277,140), turns east and dives into the twin tunnels under the Hudson River to New York City's Penn Station. This portion of the NEC was built by the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company between 1834 and 1841. In 1933, under Pennsylvania Railroad ownership, electrification was completed in New Jersey (and in 1935 all the way from New York City to Washington, D.C.).

From the NEC and a terminal in Hoboken, NJT operates seven other heavy-rail commuter lines. In the southern part of the state, service is operated between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. These all follow railroads that were built in the 19th century and were operated by private rail companies until the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when a combination of shrinking ridership, regulation, and high operating expenses drove the private lines out of business.

Private operators of commuter service in the recent past included the Central Railroad of New Jersey, Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, Eire Railroad (these two merged into the Eire-Lackawanna), New York & Long Branch Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Because these operators used rail lines built in competition with each other, commuter service hardly amounted to a "system" when Conrail, formed in 1976 through the merger of several financially troubled Northeastern railways, took them over and provided commuter service under a contract from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Though diminished, ridership was considered "too big to fail", in the sense that highway capacity and parking space could not have been provided for all riders even if they had all owned cars.

New Jersey Transit was formed by state law in 1979 with the goal to "acquire, operate and contract for transportation service in the public interest." It currently operates 536 miles of heavy-rail commuter service and 107 miles of light-rail. According to the 2010 report submitted to the National Transit Database, NJT commuter service provided 82 million passenger-trips for a total of more than 2 billion passenger-miles. Light rail provided over 21 million trips totaling 101 million passenger-miles.

In addition to its railway operations, NJT operates almost all the bus service in the state. 2009 figures indicate that the Northern bus division ran 83 routes, the Central ran 80, and the Southern 69 - altogether, 232 bus routes. In addition, NJT contracts with seven other operators to run 54 routes branded as NJ Transit. Average weekday bus ridership in 2009 was more than half a million. The 2010 National Transit Database report shows 2,401 buses providing more than 162 million passenger-trips and over a billion passenger-miles.

Bus service provides an extremely important link between New Jersey and New York City. My March 30 post (linked below) gives an account of how this system works.

Next post, let's take a look at the "heritage" rail lines. Check back soon!
To learn more:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What do Michigan Voters Want?

Today's issue of Bridge Magazine (online) has an interesting analysis of votes on Michigan's 805 millage issues in the August election. Most were renewals, but others were new. The bad news...?
The bad news is for the anti-tax forces: 90% of the millages were approved by voters. Here's my summary, in order from most popular to least popular issues:
% Passed
Senior-related 100
Mosquito control 100
Gypsy moth control 100
Public Safety 96
Total of all millages 90
Roads 89
Libraries 88
Millage renewals 81
Schools 71
Requests for new millages 70
So I suppose the bad news is also for the mosquitoes and gypsy moths (though there were only 8 issues related to either). We seniors did well, as did fire fighters and police. Though a healthy 71% majority of school millages passed, kids fared less well than seniors. Food for thought.
Read the Bridge analysis here.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Two Big Es for High Speed Rail: Environment and Economy

Two Big Es for High Speed Rail: Environment and Economy

Continuing the discussion of the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail, let's look at two important factors: the environment and the economy. Both of these aspects of HSR are key to Wake Up Washtenaw's support for it: shifting travel to HSR is good for the environment and helps grow the economy. In general - but always? The answer is nuanced, so details are important. First, the environment...


A question at the first round table was, "Are environmental concerns an appropriate justification for the investment in HSR?"

Interestingly, Joseph Boardman, CEO of Amtrak and a great HSR supporter, pointed to studies that HSR is not environmentally justified throughout US. There are certainly routes where it makes environmental sense in reducing emissions from other forms of travel - but not everywhere.

Andrew McNaughton, Chief Engineer of the UK's HS2 project (a new high speed line to serve England's west midlands), pointed out that although HSR is the most environmentally sound form of transportation (other than walking or cycling), it does create a negative environmental impact as it is built and, to a lesser extent, as it is operated. So it must be done carefully. One critical factor is how the electric energy that runs it is generated. If it's all coal-fired, the advantages of HSR are slim to none. But of course, the beauty of electricity is that there are many ways to generate it; and as better, more environmentally friendly ways are developed, they can be integrated without having to replace the vehicles that use it.

Satoshi Seino, Chairman of East Japan Railway Company (JR East), emphasized that although rail is the most efficient form of powered transportation, HSR is not a "simple solution". Yet even after nearly 50 years of HSR service in Japan, more extension of Shinkansen lines is taking place. The southern island of Kyushu completed an HSR line to its southern tip last year, and the northern island of Hokkaido is building a high speed line up to Sapporo as we speak.

JR East's E5 Shinkansen
(Wikimedia Commons)
Seino-san's company has developed new trainsets that improve not only speed and passenger comfort, but the impact of one of their most noticeable environmental disadvantages: noise. As everyone who lives near a freeway can attest, any vehicle running at high speed makes noise, and when you run a large one at 150-200 MPH at ground level through a populated area, it can get really ugly. So JR East's new equipment has several noise-reducing features, including semi-enclosed wheels, noise shields around the pantographs, and incredibly long noses to prevent sonic booms when they enter tunnels.

So, though not without negative environmental impact, HSR "done right" can be a net positive impact on the environment.


Several aspects of HSR economics were discussed: where to get the money - including public-private partnerships (PPP), the effect of competition in providing service, and what HSR does for the economy of countries it serves.

So, what are the "external" benefits from investment in a HSR line - benefits not directly related to getting from Point A to Point B?

Martha Lawrence, World Bank Sector Manager - Transport, has studied this in several countries. Looking at pairs of cities connected by HSR, the World Bank has observed increased economic activity in both cities as compared with nearby cities not connected by HSR. To fund the investment, tax districts are often created and can capture, - somewhat - the increase in economic value.

Michele Elia, CEO of Italy's state railway, pointed to the reduction of travel risk brought about by HSR, and indicated that it can be monetized. Also, the increase in economic competitiveness for the regions served and the country as a whole can be considerable. In Italy, congestion relief brought about by HSR has been measurable; several studies the I know of in the US have quantified the cost of congestion, both in fuel and in time wasted. Sr. Elia remarked that since new HSR lines must be linked to other transportation services, indirect development is needed and produces further economic benefits.

Where HSR is concerned, how much should a government sink into the project? The whole cost, capital and operating?

RENFE's Talgo 350
(Wikimedia Commons)
Julio Gómez-Pomar Rodriquez, President of RENFE, the Spanish Rail Transport Operator, reminded us of Spain's difficult moment - the banking and finance problems they are experiencing. In spite of the troubles, Spain's rail spending continues year-by-year averaging about $7 billion USD, though down to only $5 billion this year, and project time-lines have been extended. (We'd be glad in the US if Congress would appropriate even half that much for HSR.) It's seen as a good stimulus: after all, isn't it more risky not to do the project, when a billion dollars translates into about 25,000 jobs? Sr. Gómez-Pomar emphasized that although Spanish government has changed parties, commitment to HSR is viewed as non-partisan, and continues as strongly as possible.

It's well known that China has invested billions to quickly bring a vast HSR network into service. Jianping Zhang, an officer of the People's Republic of China's Ministry of Railways, confirmed what we've been hearing: China uses HSR, among other things, as an investment a tool to stimulate the economy. But how much they decide to invest depends on the specific recovery of investment estimated from any given HSR project.

China's planned and existing HSR network
Click map to see larger size; original here
(Wikimedia Commons)
Ms. Lawrence, of the World Bank, added some useful detail. The World Bank did a study in cooperation with China to determine how much traffic needed to support HSR. The result: to repay operating costs, a line needs about 20 million passengers per year; to fully recoup the capital investment, annual ridership should top 40 million.

Barbara Dalibard, CEO of SNCF Voyages, the French HSR operator, noted that while a line may be estimated to recover its costs in 20 years through revenue alone, if carbon offsets are part of the computation, the payback period is only 11-12 years. That's a great way to monetize the environmental benefits of HSR. (France's population density of 289 per square mile is less than or similar to the US states of New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, New York Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.)

But not many places can expect the level of ridership considered by the World Bank to be self-sustaining. That means that HSR is a good bargain for investment if the project itself can meet the ridership levels. According to Amtrak, ridership on Acela (the US's only claim to HSR) was 3.219 million in 2010; total Northeast Corridor (NEC) ridership for that period was 14.925 million, though ridership has been increasing steadily.

What to do about that? Well, you can either grow your ridership or continue to get support from the government. Acela trains are running near capacity now, and Amtrak is getting ready to add two more cars to each trainset. Beyond that, the NEC itself is at or near capacity with regional and commuter trains. Amtrak might do what France's SNCF did - run double-deck high speed trains - except that double-deckers won't fit through the tunnels to New York City. Not serving NYC would cut the route in half and the ridership way down, so the only other option would appear to be building new crossings to the Big Apple - which Amtrak has been planning to do (if they can find a fistful of billion-dollar bills).

Who's got that kind of money? If governments won't come through with it, how about the private sector?

What about Public-Private Partnership (PPP)?

Wake Up Washtenaw has always advocated strong partnership between public and private sectors in funding transportation. True, successful models for doing it are not easy to find. Investment in transportation can be both risky and slow to return profits, making private enterprises and banks leery of jumping in. One question to roundtable participants was, Should ridership risk - that is, the risk that ridership won't be high enough to generate an operating surplus - be public or private?

Mr. McNaughton has been intimately involved in the risks of setting up a new high-speed line as Chief Engineer for England's HS2. As a project is launched, it needs political support - but it is inappropriate (or unlikely) for politicians to risk their careers for HSR. It's also inappropriate for engineering firms to risk their own money planning the details. Acquiring land, which some alternatives may require, is an inappropriate risk for private capital as well. On the other hand, design-build-maintain-operate arrangements are appropriate for private companies in some circumstances. But revenue risk? That gets difficult again! In all cases, Mr. McNaughton feels that government must carry most of the risk, and hence maintain overall specification and quality control, lest private firms cut corners, compromise public safety, and milk the government for undue profit.

Ms. Lawrence of the World Bank advised that the risk must be placed where it can best be borne. Private companies are no longer willing to take ridership risk - that is, gambling on sufficient ridership to repay their investment. Seino-san told us that JR East is big on demand forecasting. If their forecast determines that a line won't be profitable, they'll lease the line to a private company, where the forecast determines the terms of the lease. Presumably, the lower the demand forecast, the lower the lease payments, giving the operating company a better chance to make a few yen from their fares.

Sr. Gómez-Pomar insisted that PPP is not new. It works well for Spain. A good example is the 25-mile link with France uses PPP and is profitable. Stations are leased to or built by private concerns; 100 miles signaling and telecom was installed in which a private firm provided 35% of capital and entered into a 20 year maintenance agreement. However, the risk must be clearly delimited, and competition is key to success. (I believe he meant competitive bidding on contracts, though this wasn't totally clear to me.)

England's HSR plans
(Wikimedia Commons)
Mr. McNaughton said he believes public funding is needed, but not 100%. Capital expenditure on track, stations, and similar long-term infrastructure, with a payback period of 25 to 30 years, can be handled by the private sector. (This may be true in the UK, but sounds very unlikely in the US!) On the other hand, ultra-high cost features like tunnels and bridges can most effectively be built with public funding. He cautioned that "Funny money" (known to investment firms as "creative financial instruments") are absolutely no good for rail. This caution may be the result of some highly controversial techniques used in Britain to fund public works with private money, the result of which (according to some) was private enterprise simply milking the taxpayer's cash cow.

OK, so capital expenditure by private parties is unlikely; what about operating concessions, such as the British arrangement to run private trains on government rails? Mr. McNaughton felt that since the rail line is a public system built for the public good, public must have a say in it. Public financing parties will inevitably have authority in setting fare policies. This is the case in the UK, and the rail infrastructure company charges the operators "tolls" for the use of their rails. But the tolls don't cover the costs of maintaining or improving the infrastructure - the government pays about half that cost.

Interestingly, China has been trying to engage the private sector in infrastructure investments. They've had very limited success, with an insurance company being the largest investor. Why insurance? Because insurance is a long-term business, and such companies are willing to wait if they can be assured of adequate return.

Mr. Boardman of Amtrak reminded us of an early example in American history: many farmers along the route of the Eire Canal voluntarily helped dig it, in expectation of later returns as their products fetched higher prices in urban markets. He also held up Amtrak and Conrail as examples of public-private partnerships, which goes to show that PPP means many things to many people.

Does competition enhance projects?

One issue that's relevant to the economics of high speed rail and to building public-private partnerships is the role of competition. Competition is often presented as a panacea to high costs and poor customer service, and there's no doubt that it often helps. There have been some industries in which the benefit of competition has been questioned, so the topic was discussed at the first round table.

The question presented to participants was, "Is competition in the rail sector favorable to rail infrastructure projects, If so, how?". Although the question focused on infrastructure, the discussion was more wide-ranging.

Fabio Senesi, Manager of RFI, the Italian rail infrastructure provider, appears to have been referring to competition among operators when he said that it does increase expectation of performance and leads to higher demands on infrastructure. His company's studies show that a 300km/h "slot" can be sold every 5 minutes thanks to the advanced signaling system they recently installed. He believes the competition on Italian high speed lines has produced "virtuous cycle", in which companies have indeed improved their offerings.

However, Sr. Senesi cautioned that private companies will want to "cherry-pick" profitable routes and leave the state railway to take the losses on unprofitable ones, so for competition to really work, there must be a policy that balances the "cherries" against the "lemons". But the bottom line is that competition is good for customers.

Mr. Boardman pointed out that competition in some cases can degrade service, citing competition for capacity into Penn Station. This is a classic case of competition for a scarce resource, which often leads to a stronger competitor eliminating weaker ones. Not good. (Though Amtrak owns Penn Station and its approaches, the public is clearly best served by having NJ Transit and MTA Long Island Railway providing regional commuter service while Amtrak provides long-distance trains.) But competition helps in a sense, because everybody knows there must be infrastructure capacity improvement. (Well, almost everybody...New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appears to be a prominent exception, having turned down multiple billions of federal dollars for the Access to the Region's Core project in 2010.)

The second round table ended by asking whether a capital-heavy system like HSR can be flexible enough to serve the needs of generations to come. Deputy FRA Administrator Karen Hedlund and Mme. Dalibard agreed that Investments must be made in the very best technology available today: rolling stock must last 30 years, and infrastructure far longer.

I sincerely hope my grandchildren will be able to say that our generation built the beginnings of a really high-quality, high speed rail system in the United States.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

High-Powered Thinking on High Speed Rail - Part 1

As I mentioned in the post of July 12, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail (HSR). A round-table discussion kicked off the second and third days with questions to some of the most influential and forward-thinking men and women in the HSR world. Countries represented included China, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and (transnationally) the World Bank. Panelists were presidents and CEOs of rail companies, upper-level government rail administrators, consultants, an academic dean, and a chief engineer.
Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, Director General of UIC
Moderator of Round Table 1

I've regrouped my notes from these two sessions to bring you their ideas in a more coherent, topical form. Today I'll share their thoughts about the present and future of HSR, and next time I'll turn to environmental and economic aspects.

How's it going?

In brief, HSR is having a great time except for one thing: the impact of the recession.

Ridership growth is exceeding estimates and capacity in many of the countries represented. Global congestion drives transit ridership in general, and emerging countries are experiencing a great deal of congestion resulting from population growth and a fast-growing middle class.

But economics are hurting the rail and transit agencies. Just as they need to accommodate more riders, their sources of revenue are shrinking. Globally, this has not hurt HSR as much as regional commuter and local transit services. Major investment in HSR is being made around the world despite the economic slowdown. Famously China, but also Japan and Europe are growing their HSR lines. Even Spain, despite its banking and debt situation, is investing half its $14 billion USD transportation budget in high speed rail.
HSR Trains in Málaga, Spain

Population demographics are favoring the growth of high speed rail: in real estate, 80% of growth has taken place in cities, rather than suburbs. This means that HSR, whose operation favors making connections between large center-cities, is ideal for connecting the growth hot-spots. Many observers around the world have described how innovation and prosperity increase fastest in cities, where people can most easily get together and share ideas. HSR makes it efficient and effective for people with new ideas to get together with other idea-generating people, and with sources of capital to bring their ideas to reality. It can do so with a minimum loss of productive time compared to air and highway transportation. Cities connected by HSR are prospering more than cities not so connected. As Neil Peterson said, "Agglomeration is real", referring to the economic theory expounded by Giles Duranton and Diego Puga (link below).

And how does it look for the future?

Participants identified several trends that will affect high speed rail in the coming years. (Some of these are economic, and I'll take a look at those in the next HSR post.)
  • (From Cogito, Johns Hopkins)
    Fuel prices are volatile and expected to rise (not news!)
  • Sprawl development is declining and center cities are being re-populated
  • Fewer young people (at least in the US) are getting driver's licenses
  • Young people are more inclined to make decisions at the last minute
  • A recent (unnamed) poll in California showed greater than expected differences between younger and older people
  • people are renting more and buying less in high-cost areas like housing and vehicles
Will electronic communication erode the market for transportation in general? The consensus was that although e-communication of all types has exploded in popularity everywhere, people are also traveling more. Karen Hedlund, Assistant Administrator of the US Federal Railway Administration, concluded, "Technology will never replace face-to-face interaction."

What can be done to improve HSR's future?

Lots of ideas here!

Consider HSR as part of a unified travel experience. Work to get travelers door to door, not just city to city. This means making it easy for people to book and pay for transportation regardless of mode, seamlessly, electronically, from the front door at Point A to the front door at Point B. People should be able to hop on and hop off public transportation in much the same way as they do with circulating tour buses. Work with bike-sharing and car-sharing organizations. Include taxis in the online booking and payment systems - even jitneys, rickshaws, and horse-drawn carriages where appropriate!

Take a cue from the automobile industry. Find out what your customers want, and aggressively work to give it to them. Move from providing "transportation" to providing "an experience" - and make sure it's a good one!

Barbara Dalibard, CEO of France's high speed rail company, SNCF Voyages, emphasized that the first step is to get the basics right. According to their customer surveys, the basics are:
  1. punctuality
  2. security
  3. timely information about delays and changes of service
  4. cleanliness
She went on to point out that after the basics are satisfied, what people hate most about rail travel is ... their neighbors on the train! How very true. And how very unfortunate. But as I look at my experience with public transportation, I can see it so clearly in my own behavior. Everybody tries to keep a double-seat for themselves, whether on the bus or the train. The biggest drawback to air travel in the last few years has been the near impossibility of having an empty seat next to you. On Amtrak's Wolverine service, business class - where there is a row of single-seats - is almost always sold out long in advance. I'm even willing to spend a lot of extra money on long distance trains to get a roomette, insuring privacy.

Frankfurt, Germany
Airport Station and Office Complex

So,how to provide a train both for the masses and the individuals? For families? For seniors? For businesses people? Private vehicles are available in a vast array of types, sizes, and prices, but trains provide a very limited array of accommodations. As Adrian Corry, Senior Consultant for Public Transportation at BMW emphasized, we must put ourselves in the traveler's place and ask, "What's in it for me?" (Interesting that BMW has a consultant for public transportation! And Mr. Corry appears to be a very sharp fellow.)

While the on-board experience is important - and rail has the advantage over most other forms of transport in comfort and productive use of time - the entire experience must be taken into consideration. Stations must be comfortable, roomy, and provide amenities (which, as airports have found, are a good way to increase the flow of cash from travelers' pockets to the facility's cash registers!). Boarding must be quick, and accurate information must be provided in a timely, understandable way. People with mobility challenges must be considered and graciously accommodated. Transfers to other modes of transportation must be clearly indicated and comfortably accessible.

...and the "Competition"?

One of the questions asked of the panel concerned which mode of transportation was high speed rail's most serious competition. There was vigorous and cogent objection to the question from Andrew McNaughton, Chief Engineer of the HS2 project in the UK. Transportation must be viewed as a holistic system, not as competing businesses. We heard a lot about integration and the need to make transportation a seamless experience for the traveler.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737
landing at Dallas Love Field

Airlines that once opposed high speed rail are no longer objecting. Why is that? Because HSR (and rail in general) fills a very difficult transportation niche, the 300-500 mile segment. Neil Peterson, Executive Adviser to CH2M Hill and an airline specialist, explained that "fuel burn" was the biggest cost to airlines, and also the most unpredictable part of their budgets. Because of the way jet aircraft operate, they are very costly to fly under 500 miles. This is why airlines are dropping flights to small cities, causing consternation among the citizens. Southwest Airlines started as a short-haul provider, and it was while they provided this type of service that they effectively scuttled Texas's plan to build HSR between Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Now, these routes are losing the airline money. What a shame.

Into this niche are stepping the bus companies. In the US, Megabus, Bolt, and Greyhound are beginning to be more profitable (or at least not losing as much money). Buses compete effectively in the low-budget market, and SNCF in France has felt the pressure to the extent of launching its own bus lines, according to Mme. Dalibard. SNCF rates buses ten times as safe as personal automobiles, and almost as cost-effective as their high-speed trains. And buses are effective on many routes, both in competition with trains and where trains are too costly to run.
Inside Megabus
In several parts of the US, Amtrak runs bus service to extend its reach, and I've taken Amtrak "Thruway Motor-coaches" in Michigan, Florida, and California. But I'm always glad when I get to the train, because it's roomier, far less jerky, much easier to walk around in, get a drink or a snack, and use the rest room. I've ridden in Megabus double-deckers to and from Cleveland, and they're much more cramped and bumpy than the train.

For rail, the "sweet spot" is that stretch between about 200 and 500 miles: too short for airlines to make a profit, and too long for buses to be anything but numbing. Above 200 miles, conventional-speed rail (max 80 MPH) takes more than 5 hours and loses its competitive edge with air, even though the airlines are reluctant to fly in the 200 to 500 mile gap. Hence the push in places like Illinois and Michigan for 110 MPH trains, which extend the practical range of rail and could theoretically bring 300 miles down to as little as 3 hours. But that still leaves the gap between 300 and 500 miles: which is grueling by car, torture by bus, and too slow by conventional train...unless you have true HSR, running in the 150-200 MPH range.

So high speed rail should be presented as a time-management tool, rather than as a sexy technology that runs very fast. After all, the airlines don't advertise how fast their airplanes fly (though they did at first). Surveys of users indicate that 90% can use their time productively on trains, as compared to only 6% on airline flights. What a difference! That's really what can "sell" HSR.

Automobiles have an important role to play in both short- and long-distance travel (especially if we can solve the energy and safety issues that plague auto travel). One is in carrying families and small groups. Because the cost of carrying five people is essentially the same as carrying one, cars - and especially vans and SUVs - are cost-savers on family vacations. SNCF's wildly popular and capacity-constrained HSR still only carries 20-25% of the traffic between northern and southern France, according to Mme. Dalibard.

On the short-distance end, especially the "last mile", cars are critical for travelers with heavy luggage or with mobility limitations. But that doesn't necessarily mean driving your car to the station and parking it there for two weeks. Taxis have long been used for this kind of travel, but other car-sharing plans are being tried in some places. One French company encourages travelers to leave their car at the bus station, where it will be rented to others while you rent someone else's car at the other end. (I can see drawbacks to this scheme...)

In short, high speed rail is filling a useful travel niche in many countries, and is being expanded in several of them. There are trends that indicate increasing success and importance for HSR, but there are also many things that can be done to improve not only HSR but the travel experience as a whole and the many modes of travel as a system.
Next time, I'll look at the environmental and economic aspects of HSR, especially the possibilities for public-private partnership.

To learn more:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TOD: Heritage, Mature, and Young

I've been visiting a wide variety of cites, looking at their transit with an eye on their Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Some of these cities have had transit - specifically rail transit - "forever"; others started several decades ago; and still others are recent developments. It's interesting to compare these types of cities and speculate on the future of the newer efforts in light of the older ones. I'll introduce the idea today, and look at details in future posts.

NJ Transit's Princeton station built 1918
"Heritage" transit-oriented metro areas I've visited include New York (especially northern New Jersey), Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco; in Germany, Düsseldorf and Berlin. In these cities, rail and rubber-tired transit have been part of the fabric of the city for so long that we might say the entire city is a TOD. Transit has allowed these cities to increase in population and remain dense, both in their core and in many of their suburbs. Of course, some "sprawl-burbs" have developed in each of these regions, but it's safe to say that without intense transit, these cities would not have grown the way they have, either in population or in layout. Also safe to say: if their rail transit were to become unavailable, they would quickly become unable to function.
Heritage: NJ Transit's
Westfield north station building
built 1892

Mature: Bethesda Metro Center
built over WMATA Metrorail station
in the mid-1980s
"Mature" transit oriented cities, those that have developed transit over the last several decades, are exemplified by Washington, D.C.; Toronto; San Diego; Los Angeles; and Portland, OR. These cities grew with rail transit in the early 20th century, and (except for Toronto) dismantled it in the decades immediately following World War II. As population and auto ownership grew, these cities found they had reached the limits of the capacity that roadways could provide. Washington's wide surface streets, designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, became gridlocked; Toronto's ten-lane-wide 401 freeway became a parking lot every morning and evening; and Los Angeles's freeways were so crowded that people started shooting guns at one another in extreme road rage. These cities invested heavily in rail beginning in the 1970s and 1980s; rail quickly became popular, and though each of these cities' rail transit is "mature" in some ways, they have continued to expand their rail and bus systems to this day. Transit-oriented development has thrived in these cities, with significantly higher real estate value in the immediate vicinity of rail transit stations. If their rail systems were disabled, these cities would be in very serious difficulty - not quite the shutdown that "heritage" cities would face, but major inconvenience and disruption of a wide range of services due to many employees' inability to get to work on time.
Young TOD:
Medpark station and apartments
on DCTA "A-Train" Line, north of Dallas
currently being expanded

"Young" transit cities, those that have turned to rail in the last decade or two, include a host of cities like Charlotte, Miami-Palm Beach, Nashville, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas, Austin, Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City. Jerusalem, Israel, is among cities around the world that have built a light rail line opening in the last year or so. Orlando may be the latest US city in this category, currently building stations and adapting an existing rail line for their "SunRail" commuter system. Rail facilities are optional for the cities: if they become unavailable, the city continues to operate with relatively minor inconvenience. But they are the catalysts for changed growth patterns that will lead to healthier, more sustainable communities.

What can we take away from this? First, TOD is nothing new. Second, its sustainability is demonstrated in old, compact cities like New York City, where citizens have the smallest carbon footprint in the nation. Third, growing cities around the nation (and around the world) are turning to rail as they reach the limits of their roadways' capacity. The cities that are building rail now are those that have grown significantly in the last half-century.

But in Michigan, we have the opposite problem: our population is shrinking. Our streets and freeways are crowded during peak hours, though not as badly as they were in 1990s. So are we good candidates for rail transit? If we build it, will they come? Is rail transit an incentive for growth, or simply a response to it? Were our crowded roads and lack of transit capacity in the 1990s part of the reason why Michigan's population shrank?

I invite your comments, and expect to explore this in greater detail.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Normal in Illinois is not normal in Michigan

On Saturday, the town of Normal, Illinois, dedicated their new transit center, Uptown Station. It's not just an Amtrak+Intercity+Transit bus station, it's the hub of a new development center in town that has attracted millions of dollars in new building thanks to the promise of higher speed rail on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. This is precisely the sort of transit-oriented development that Wake Up Washtenaw was founded to advocate.

What especially interested me was something said by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (former Republican U.S. Representative from Illinois). You can see a TV report on the dedication at the Secretary's official blog site (linked below).

Everywhere that I go where people make progress, everywhere that I go where people solve problems, it's because communities come together. They work together. They have an agenda. Everybody knows what the agenda is. People set aside their own egos and their own personal agendas for the common good.

I'm convinced that's the real reason Detroit hasn't gotten the funds for the M1 streetcar. Yes, the business plan was probably skimpy in details, but the underlying reason why LaHood has serious doubts about the Detroit metro area is the inability to "set aside their own egos and their own personal agendas for the common good".

"A house divided against itself cannot stand". And apparently it can't build modern, effective transit, either.

To learn more:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Individualism, Anti-stateism, Populism, Egalitarianism...and High Speed Rail

This morning, we started our plenary session at the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail (HSR) with an interesting short talk from Zhenhua Chen, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University. He's been studying high speed rail in the United States from a cultural perspective, and he has identified four cultural forces here that influence our acceptance of HSR.

Individualism gives citizens greater power to block HSR efforts - NIMBYism ("Not In My Back Yard") has already been felt in California's HSR efforts.

Anti-stateism results in greater power to smaller areas. As we know, three states have exercised that power to reject HSR funds.

Populism - as I understand Zhenhua's use of the term - means the public is always right. Vox populi, vox dei is the proverb: "the voice of the people is the voice of (a) god". In our country, this often means that people with the background and experience to solve a problem are seldom listened to. This may be particularly true of politicians who, after all, are elected by popular vote, not by expert opinion... And since most people find change of any kind disturbing, many of them reject "new" notions like high speed rail.

Egalitarianism is the doctrine enshrined in our national psyche that everyone is equal. In American culture (and this is my intepretation, not spelled out by Zhenhua) cars are symbols of equality. When I'm in my car, I'm as good as you are - even if my car is an old clunker and yours as a new SUV - because the laws apply to us equally. Expensive vehicles have to stop at red lights, just like cheap ones. If the SUV has a stop sign and I don't, he has to stop and I get to go. But on trains (and transit of any kind) I am pretty much who I am. I can't hide my scruffy clothes and ragged hair from the guy in the pinstripe suit with the haughty stare. So don't try to take my car away from me by funding buses, light rail, or any of the "socialist" nonsense.

I may be exaggerating this last point, but walking around in downtown Philadelphia for the last few days, I've been very aware of these differences as I pass people on the street.
So Zhenhua's conclusion was that high speed rail has an uphill battle in the United States, not just economically but culturally. He may well have a point.

But it's not hopeless. This morning, I posted on the Wake Up Washtenaw Facebook page (*do* Like it!) a note about APTA's survey of high speed rail. The overall verdict was very positive: 62% of respondents said they were either "Somewhat likely" or "Very likely" to use high speed rail if it was available.

Here are three summary charts from APTA:

How likely are you to use high speed trains?

Results by region
Results by age group

 Interesting observations and questions:

  • The Northeast has HSR now, but was less likely to ride it than the rest of the country. Why?
  • The Midwest had the least enthusiasm for HSR (though a majority are still likely to ride). Why?
  • The South, normally the most conservative part of the nation, showed the highest likelihood of using HSR.
  • The 18-24 age group is the most enthusiastic about HSR, which is great because they're the future of our country and - let's face it - HSR is way in the future for most of this country!
  • I live in the midwest and am in the 65+ age group; both these groups scored lowest in HSR enthusiasm. So what the heck am I doing in Philadelphia at the HSR conference, riding Acelas to New York and back!?!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is it Really All About Density?

As I mentioned in the last post, people in the U.S. often say Europe has more rail service because of its greater density. But Is population density really necessary to support good rail service? Back in 2009, I posted a comparison of Michigan and the Japanese island prefecture of Hokkaido. In many ways, that's a better comparison with Michigan, but I'd like to take a look at Germany by way of further proof that it's not density, but population distribution that makes passenger rail practical...or not.

Density overview

Overall: Area SqMi Pop Per SqMi
Germany 137,876 81,751,602 593
Michigan 55,365 9,695,974 175
Not really fair? Germany is much bigger in area, population, and density.
But areas of Germany are comparable, just as areas of Japan are comparable. Though Germany differs much more from Michigan than does Hokkaido, it is still worth seeing how they make trains work in some of their less dense areas.

Comparing Density

These maps show that both Michigan and Germany have areas of greater and less density: Germany has two or three areas of low density, and Michigan has two or three areas of high density.
Michigan population density from 2010 census

German population density in 2010
(© 2010 Benjamin David Hennig)

To drill down in a little more detail, I compared areas in Germany with areas in Michigan. I chose to look at Germany's "land-states". (I excluded three German "states" because they are actually cites with the legal designation of "states" - Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen. These three each are smaller than 500 square miles, so are not comparable to the areas of Michigan I chose.)

I divided Michigan into regions by location and population: the Upper Peninsula (UP) is essentially all rural, and the Lower Peninsula has many rural areas as well. The denser areas in Michgan are those in the west, around Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo; the Lansing (capital) area; the Saginaw Bay area, including Flint, Bay City, Saginaw, and Midland; and of course the southeast. For this purpose I've defined the southeast region as Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Monroe, Jackson and Livingston Counties, but I've also done the numbers on two sub-areas: the urban core - Detroit, with Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties; and the core plus Washtenaw County.

This table shows German and Michigan regions together, in order from least to most dense:
Area Location Area (mi²) Population Pop. per mi²
Upper Peninsula total Michigan 16,419 311,361 19
Lower Peninsula rural areas Michigan 27,461 2,107,903 77
All of Michigan Michigan 55,365 9,695,974 175
Mecklenburg- Vorpommern Germany 8,949 1,642,327 184
Brandenburg Germany 11,381 2,503,273 220
Lower Peninsula total Michigan 38,946 9,384,613 241
Capital Urban Region Michigan 1,709 452,559 265
Bay Urban Region Michigan 2,781 833,258 300
Saxony-Anhalt Germany 7,894 2,335,006 300
Thuringia Germany 6,244 2,235,025 357
Lower Saxony Germany 18,381 7,918,293 430
Bavaria Germany 27,239 12,538,696 461
Schleswig- Holstein Germany 6,100 2,834,259 464
Southwest Urban Region Michigan 2,493 1,288,942 517
Rhineland- Palatinate Germany 7,665 4,003,745 523
Saxony Germany 7,110 4,149,477 588
All of Germany Germany 137,876 81,751,602 593
Hesse Germany 8,152 6,067,021 743
Baden-Württemberg Germany 13,803 10,753,880 780
Saarland Germany 992 1,017,567 1,036
Southeast Urban Region Michigan 4,503 4,701,951 1,044
North Rhine- Westphalia Germany 13,159 17,845,154 1,355
Core + Washtenaw Michigan 2,677 4,208,715 1,572
Core (3-county) Michigan 1,967 3,863,924 1,964

What I found is that the dense areas of Michigan rank right up there with the dense areas of Germany. Although Michigan's dense regions are also smaller in area and population than the densest German regions, this chart shows that their potential for service by passenger rail is comparable.
Densest 8 areas in Germany (red) and Michigan (blue)

That's not to say that all areas of Michigan invite practical passenger rail: the UP and the northern LP are poor candidates for it, except possibly for seasonal service to resort communities in the northern LP. (By "practical" I don't mean "profitable". I mean that subsidized rail service, like subsidized roads, will bring measurable economic benefit to the region.)

Service in sparse German regions

For comparison, let's look at the service that's available in the least dense German state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, with an area of 8,949 square miles and 2010 population of 1,642,327. Density is only 184 per square mile. That density is the same as Eaton County (Charlotte), Michigan, though the Germany state is sixteen times larger.

Here are a couple of sample rail trips:
  • Berlin to Schwerin (pop. 95,220) is about 130 miles, comparable to the distance from Chicago to Kalamazoo (138 miles). Deutsche Bahn (DB) takes about 2 hours 15 minutes; Amtrak takes about 2 hours 30 minutes. DB offers 9 trains on weekdays and 11 on Saturday; Amtrak offers 4 trips every day.
  • Schwerin to Stralsund (pop. 57,670): 103 miles. DB offers 12 trains daily; the trip takes about 2 hours. This service would not be dissimilar to service from Lansing (pop. 114,321) to Port Huron (pop. 32,338): about 108 miles. Michigan funds one Amtrak trip each day, and the trip is scheduled for 2 hours 42 minutes.

Alternatives: the Cost of Driving

One important factor in the practicality of passenger rail is the cost of driving. That, of course, depends to a large extent on the price of gasoline. On-line services make discovering this easy, so I checked on Berlin, Schwerin, and Stralsund to see how much it would cost to fill up in each of the cities I used above as examples of rail frequencies. As of this moment (July 10, in the wee hours of the morning in Germany, converted to US dollars per gallon):
  • Berlin $7.533 per gallon
  • Schwerin $7.622 per gallon
  • Sralsund $7.711 per gallon
So, to put 10 gallons in the tank would cost $75.37 in Berlin, $76.22 in Schwerin, and $77.11 in Stralsund. A real incentive to take the train.


So, is it really about density? Like most complicated situations, the answer isn't simple. Density is a factor, but It's not population density by itself that makes or breaks passenger rail for a region. It's the distribution of population within that region. We have the density in much of Michigan to make more frequent passenger rail feasible within and between four dense regions: the southeast, the Saginaw Bay region, the capital area, and the southwest.

Let's get it going before gas prices rise to German levels.