Archive | April, 2008

Changing Railroads in the U.S.: Is now the time for a national electrification program?

Garlynn Woodsong is an occasional guest contributor.

According to this Washington Post article, A Switch On the Tracks: Railroads Roar Ahead, the U.S. railroad industry is currently booming. They’re hiring workers and expanding their facilities, as opposed to just six years ago, when they were laying off workers. They expect that high fuel prices will lead to a continued boom for railroads even as the economy continues to soften.

Also, apparently a diesel railroad engine can haul a ton of load four times more efficiently than a diesel truck. This allows the railroads to position them as the green shipping alternative.

This is all fine and good, but what about communities adjacent to the tracks? A couple of tons of diesel exhaust is a couple of tons of diesel exhaust, no matter how efficiently it is being used to haul its load.

Can our nation easily begin to retrofit the national railroad system to become electrified? The railroads are currently coming to Uncle Sam looking for a handout. Maybe the form of this handout should be tax breaks for electrification projects?

A modern diesel railroad engine is, apparently, something like a hybrid: A diesel generator provides electricity to turn the electric motors. Unlike a hybrid, it does not significantly use batteries in its operation, however. I wonder if a program to add pantographs (catenary arms) to diesel engines could work, to allow them to get the electricity for their electric motors from overhead wires, where available (say, in urban areas, to begin with) and to use their diesel engines where no overhead wires had yet been installed?

An issue with electrification, some might say, would be the extra-tall railroad cars now commonly used by freight railroads.

Catenary height in Europe is a standard 20 feet, and can be as high as 23 feet in Amtrak’s NE Corridor. The maximum height of shipping containers is 9 feet; two of these stacked on top of one another, in a well car with 25″ of clearance above the tracks, would be about 20 feet tall, still leaving nearly three feet of clearance between the top of the car and the highest catenary lines. If most of the U.S. is currently non-electrified, then it would be a simple matter of standardizing at the 23-foot catenary height to allow the U.S. to continue using double-stack trains as it began to electrify its national railway system.

What does this mean for Portland? Why not start the electrification program here? We could electrify all of the railroad tracks in the tri-county area (maybe using a mix of clean air funds, surcharges on shipping and maybe even a diesel tax), retrofit the engines that live here, and have electric switchers meet inbound long-haul trains at the borders of the region.

What’s the favorite tenet of planners everywhere? “Make no small plans.” This, IMHO, is no small plan — but why let that stop us?

Rush Hour Redefined

Via Planetizen:

How will telework change commuting patterns?

Today the virtual work place trend is apparent in college towns across the U.S. like Amherst, Mass., and lifestyle locales like Asheville, N.C., and Bellingham, Wash., which are quickly becoming quality of life destinations for boomers developing their own virtual companies. Rather than experiencing clog ups during rush hour, quality-of-life locales like Amherst are experiencing far more traffic congestion at meal times–particularly lunch–as the self-employed virtual company owner heads to commercial districts for business meetings and to conduct errands. In these sorts of places, it’s a return to the 19th century where people live and work close to a town or village center.

Yamhill County Rail study focuses on 3 options

Plans for linking Portland to Yamhill County by rail will likely fall short of Spirit Mountain and even perhaps McMinnville. The study currently underway by Portland-based IBI Group suggests that the line may go no further than Newberg due to low ridership estimates.

Randy Knapick of IBI Group said three options are getting a serious look. They include:

  • Train service between Newberg and Beaverton, operating as a branch of Washington County’s system, with stations in Springbrook, Sherwood and Tualatin and connections at existing stations in Tigard, Beaverton and Hall/Nimbus. Rough cost estimate: $72 million.
  • Diesel light-rail service from Newberg through Sherwood and Tualatin to Lake Oswego, and then along the Willamette Trolley right-of-way to the North Macadam area of Portland. Rough cost estimate: $98 million.
  • Rail service from Newberg to Tigard, where passengers could transfer to a Tri-Met bus or a MAX train. Rough cost estimate: $59 million.

All of the alternatives would enable passengers to connect, one way or another, with the Westside Express Service system now under construction.

The three project estimates under study all come in below $100 million since the right of way is still available. However, according to one Yamhill County commissioner, current ridership estimates aren’t much higher than they were ten years ago, which may limit the project’s ability to qualify for federal funding.

Several months ago many participants of this blog expressed optimism that a Yamhill rail line would be built, perhaps even to the coast, broadening the appeal beyond a commuter and winery tour train. With a route extending no further than Newberg, does this project still stand a chance as more than just a commuter line? Will McMinnville-to-Portland Metro commuters really bus it or drive to Newberg to take a train to work?

Continue reading Yamhill County Rail study focuses on 3 options

Metro managing all the bridges?

The City of Fairview has passed a resolution requesting that Metro coordinate the repairs on all the Willamette River bridges including the Sellwood bridge:

Metro is a natural fit, he said, because of its three-county reach and because it already handles transportation planning and selects projects to receive some federal transportation funds.

“No matter who puts a bridge up, Metro would be involved,” Weatherby said. “To create a separate and independent bridge authority would create a new layer of bureaucracy. If you already have an agency whose apparatus is there, you get a running start.”

Multnomah County floated the idea to create an independent regional bridge authority as part of its plan to raise the car registration fee to help pay for a new Sellwood Bridge. The plan was shelved in February, after votes against the fee increase by city leaders in Gresham, Troutdale and Maywood Park.

Continue reading Metro managing all the bridges?