Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Passengers are Kings of the Rails

In my last post, I wrote about Germany's "love affair" with the private automobile. Today, I'm looking at the inter-city rail system.

There's a lot of freight hauled by rail, but on German rails passengers are the kings. During the daytime when I've traveled, freight trains appeared to be outnumbered about 20:1 by passenger trains. The freights I see are mainly container-trains - short by U.S. standards, at about 40-50 cars. I've seen plenty of bulk freight cars waiting in the yards, so I suppose they must move mainly at night, when passenger traffic is less frequent.

Piggy-back service is offered, but it's a bit different than in North America. Tractors as well as trailers are carried, and trains include one or two coaches so the drivers can accompany their rigs.

Most rail lines are owned by Deutche Bahn (DB), the government railway company. DB operates its own freight trains, but several other operators move freight around Germany and through it to points near and far.

However, there's no question of who has the right-of-way on Germany tracks: it's the passenger trains.

At the top of the passenger "pecking order" are the Inter City Express (ICE) trains. These are white with a red stripe and operate using Siemens equipment allowed to run up to 320 km/h (about 200 MPH). They actually spend much of their time operating in the 100-125 MPH range, since not all track is designed for super-high speeds. At any speed though, they're quiet and smooth-running. The densely-traveled long-distance lines have new track designed for true high-speed operation, including lots of tunnels and viaducts to provide straight, level operation.

One level down from the ICEs are the Inter City (IC) trains. They are operated with electric locomotives and older (but still comfortable) coaches, at speeds up to about 125 MPH. Like the ICEs, they all have on-board snack bars or dining cars and choice of first or second class seats. First class seats are wider, 2+1 across; second class is 2+2; I never saw 3+2, as is common in Japanese high-speed trains and on commuter lines in the US northeast.

Regional service is provided in all areas, including several speed options from express, through semi-express, to all-stops locals. These are usually red with white trim, second-class only, and many are locomotive-hauled with bi-level coaches and can operate up to the 125 MPH range but usually slower, and without food service. Single-level coaches and electric multiple-units are also used for this. There is a dense network of regional rail connections, available between just about all neighboring cities and towns, with stops at intermediate suburbs. These provide commuter service as well as frequent mid-day and evening runs under the "DB Regio" trade name.

Suburban and rural service is provided as "S-Bahn" (suburban line). Under this designation you find both trains and light-rail vehicles. Some of the longer runs are locomotive-hauled, but most of the trains are EMU or DMU sets, everything from single cars to ten-car trains. They are operated by DB, by regional transit authorities, and even by private companies. All offer fairly frequent runs (more often during rush hour, of course) in second-class only.

Commuter and regional locals often have tracks in the mainline right-of-way, but designated for local service only. Express trains then run on separate tracks, which has the advantage of keeping fast through-trains away from station platforms. Light-rail S-Bahn vehicles embody the interurban tradition that died out in the 1930s in North America. In cities, they operate on the streets along with cars, trucks, and buses, on the same rails as city streetcars.

A wonderful example of this is the S-41 line that I took to get to my cousin's house in the village of Bad Rotenfels ("Redrock Baths"), in the southwestern state of Baden-Würtemburg. When I de-trained from the ICE in the city of Karlsruhe, I walked out of the main station across a plaza with three low-level platforms for boarding buses and rail cars. The S-41 rolled down the street in a few minutes - an articulated tram car - and I climbed aboard with women, men, and school kids. At a stop in an enclosed station a couple of blocks away, our car bumped into another waiting car, coupling on, and the driver got out and left. With the first car in charge, we soon left and headed south along the rail line at a top speed of about 55 MPH, stopping at all the little stations along the way. Each station was announced by a pleasant, recorded woman's voice and electronic sign. In that bucolic setting, I was rather surprised to see a French TGV breeze past in the other direction. At Rastatt, however, about 15 miles south of Karlsruhe, we left the main track and wound up a line that felt very much like an interurban trolley's: sometimes double-track, often single; passing through fields, trees, and stopping at villages. One of these villages is Bad Rotenfels, where my Krieg ancestors had lived beginning in 1797, making farm wagons, carriages, and related wheeled devices. The S-41 continues south for 32 miles to Freudenstadt, winding through the lovely narrow valley of the Murg river.

Continuing my tour of Germany a few days later, I boarded a morning interurban run and found standing-room only as far as Rastatt, after which I got a seat - and some video out the back window.

Clearly, the German idea of freedom is embodied in their fast cars, good roads, smooth rails, and abundant trains. How do they pay for this freedom, and what effect does it have on their community environment? This will be the subject for future posts.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Land where Freeways First Blossomed

Yes, Germany, not the U.S., was the first place where the freeway concept was implemented on a large scale. Without going into extensive detail on the history of freeways, suffice it to say that in the 1930s the National Socialist (Nazi) government implemented the idea of limited access multi-lane highways, with no legal speed limit. By 1940, more than 2,300 miles had been built. (At the same time, diesel and steam-driven high speed rail technologies were developed.)
World War Two destroyed much of Germany's transportation infrastructure, but with the Marshall Plan, highways and railways were rebuilt and Germany prospered. Companies like Daimler-Benz, Bayrishes Motor Werke (BMW), Audi, and Volkswagen produced automobiles that became highly desired around the world, including at home in Germany. Many people use them for the purpose they were designed for: to travel at high speeds on the well-maintained Autobahns (and also on more challenging country roads). They provide convenient transportation as well as exciting entertainment for those who enjoy it. German cars are designed for high speed, and German drivers are relatively safe and skilled: according to IRTAD, in 2008, there were 2.2 road user fatalities per billion vehicle kilometers. (The comparable figure for the United States is 4.5 fatalities per billion kilometers.)
On the way from the airport to my hotel for the first night, the shuttle-bus took the autobahn for a couple of miles, traveling at a respectable 60-70 MPH. At first it was a bit of a shock when a car passed us in the left lane, apparently going twice as fast. It happened several times.
Later, riding with my cousin, I wasn't surprised that he was driving at about 110 MPH on the autobahn. What was somewhat interesting was doing it in his 12-year-old Ford Escort...and living to tell the tale. I suspect he may have imagined his Escort to be a Beamer in disguise. He is clearly accustomed to driving that way, and does it with skill and precision, even in a car clearly not intended for that type of driving.
Of course, it's not just the active men who drive - and love - their car. Discussing this with 30-something friend, a business woman, I got the impression that cars are seen as a really valuable supplement to public transportation. She uses the tram and subway on a daily basis to get around the city in Düsseldorf, but for grocery shopping and visits to her family in a neighboring town, she prefers to use her car. Living in a moderately dense part of the city, she has to pay extra for a parking spot, but the expense is worth it for her.
Bottom line: Germans love their cars and their good roads. They keep building more, too: we drove through several on-going autobahn widening projects, and as I write this (in a train!) we just crossed over what appears to be a totally new autobahn under construction.
At the same time, Germany has one of the finest public transportation systems in the world. Clearly they've found a way to have the best of both. Hmmm...can we do it in the U.S.?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mobility and Community in Germany

I'm spending a week in Germany, partly to do family research, partly to see friends, art, and culture; but also of course to observe the interaction of mobility and community here.

Many people who have been to Germany have commented to me that "of course" the public transportation here - especially rail - is great. Sometimes these comments are accompanied by a rueful sigh and a shake of the head, as if to say, "naturally, we'll never be able to do anything like this in the U.S."

Like Americans, German people are highly mobile. They love to travel, both within Germany and abroad. Their economy is prosperous, and many of them choose travel as a way to use their discretionary income. Most Germans are hard-working, well educated, and take an interest in world events. Mobility is a highly prized right for them, as it is for us Americans.

But land is very expensive everywhere: even in little Bad Rotenfels, the town where my German ancestors lived, I was informed that one square meter goes for about €400, which works out to more than $2 million per acre. As you can imagine, this has a profound effect on people's mobility choices: driving downtown and parking is an option one has to consider very carefully. And it also explains why so many Germans came to America in the 19th century: as their families grew, most couldn't afford to buy land for expansion.

So for the next few days I'll be blogging about how mobility impacts community in Germany. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Some Perspective on Transportation Costs

A recent article in discussed recommendations from the Countywide Transit Financial Advisory Committee. I had already had the opportunity to check out the complete plan; what struck me about the article was the overwhelmingly negative tone of the comments. After all, most people who gave citizen input about the possible county-wide plans voted for the "smart growth" plan, which was clearly the most costly of the three options presented.

Of course, I realize that people who oppose something are much more likely to speak out than those that support it. And I know that any suggestion of raising taxes is an especially productive way to invite negative comments.

That's what I want to put into perspective. The Financial Advisory Committee suggested a half-mil tax. That works out under Michigan law to be $50 on a house valued at $200,000; which is pretty close to the average of the county's home prices.

My biggest objection to those who rant about taxes for transportation is how it compares with the cost of fuel for automobiles. As I've pointed out before in this blog, the great majority of the money we pay for our gasoline leaves Michigan to enrich others, including the governments of nations that are hostile to us. (More on this in a moment.)

We can't do anything about the cost of gasoline, which is controlled almost entirely by oil speculators for their own profit. On the other hand, most of what we pay for transit stays in the United States, especially in Michigan. (Yes, some does go out of the country to pay for diesel, but remember: AATA uses domestic biodiesel along with diesel from mineral sources.) All the buses are made in the USA, and all the personnel costs stay right here in Southeast Michigan.

But, the critics say, I don't care where the money goes to, I'm talking about where it comes from: my bank account! So here's a little reality check to illustrate how out-of-proportion the objections are...

A 2012 Ford Explorer (the popular mid-size SUV) has an 18.2 gallon tank. Gas has been running about $3.799 per gallon as I write this. That means each complete fill-up of the Explorer's tank costs $69.14. Of course, you won't fill the entire tank unless you totally run out of gas, but you'll easily put in $50 every week (that's just over 13 gallons) if you use the vehicle to commute and/or take kids to school and after-school activities. That's as much as most people will pay in an entire year to make transit more convenient in Washtenaw County.

Of course, that's only half the "reality check". The other half is what - if anything - most people would actually save. Most people won't be able to reduce their car use much, but suppose they're able to let a kid ride the bus to a practice, and possibly take the bus to work once a week. Even saving one gallon a week, at $3.799 (assuming the price doesn't go up - ha!) would amount to $50 in just over three months.

As a business decision, that would make a lot of sense, because a three-month payback period is really good, and the investment ($50) is pretty darn small.

Yes there would be quite a few people who would pay more than $50, and who would probably be reluctant to use their car less, even if transit were more convenient. So why would they vote for this? Maybe because it would save their city from investing even more money to build downtown parking? Maybe because they're able to think far enough ahead to see that our sprawl growth pattern isn't the best for the long term?

The only drawback is that a half-mill won't really get the improvements going very quickly. I'd recommend a heftier millage to build up the transit network sooner - a full mil, $100 per year on average, really isn't all that much for the value the community would receive. It could still only take six months for most people to break even on the investment!

I know there are some folks whose distrust of government is so deep that they would rather pay for anything than pay tax to their government. But you see, when you buy gasoline, you're sending money to several governments. In the blog post "National Deficits: Government and Oil" (linked below), I calculated that 57% of our gasoline money goes to friendly foreign countries and allies, but 6.4% goes to governments that are actually hostile to us.

How does that compare with the proposed millage on a yearly basis? Well, the average car is driven 11,489 miles yearly according to the Federal Highway Administration, and the average fuel consumption was 23.8 MPG. Doing the math gives us a ballpark yearly average of $1,834 for each car's fuel, meaning that we send about $1038 to other countries every year, including $117 to countries that don't like us.

And we can't do anything about it: we can't vote the rulers of those countries out of office, nor can we we pick and choose where our gasoline comes from. So it's not a question of refusing to pay more taxes: we're already stuck paying money into the treasuries of several foreign nations.

But (and here's my point): the more we improve our transit system at home, the less we'll be forced to pay foreign countries for our fuel.

I'm actually pretty confident that most Washtenaw County voters will see the value of improved transit, and will be willing to pay for it.