Open thread for week of November 3-9, 2013

A few news items:

The floor is open!

29 responses to “Open thread for week of November 3-9, 2013”

  1. According to Stephen Smith, the FRA is planning reform their regulations to allow the use of European-style, lightweight DMU trains on rail mainlines.

    If this is true, by 2015 we could buy affordable DMU vehicles currently used for many rail services in Europe. For example, Stadler makes the “Regioshuttle” vehicles (similar to an articulated MAX car) for about $3 million, with a passenger capacity of 80 to 90 seated and as many standing, and a max speed of 120 kph (75 mph) and power of 12.5 kw/ton. It weighs 40 tons and has 690 horsepower.

    Compare this to over $5 million cost for a WES car, which is heavier and slower: it weighs over twice as much at 87.5 tons, with the same horsepower, for a ratio of only 5 kilowatts per ton. This means it takes over twice as long to accelerate.

    This is the graph for the Regioshuttles acceleration:
    It reaches 60 mph in 1 minute (after traveling just over a km), and 75 mph in 90 seconds (2 km of distance). This isn’t as good as the acceleration of the electric MAX cars, but it is within an order of magnitude. The current WES vehicles take over twice as long, and twice as far, to reach these speeds; that’s why the stops have to be so far apart, yet WES still only averages 37 mph speed over its 15 miles of track (it takes 25 minutes end to end).

    50% lighter vehicles would also reduce the cost of track and train maintenance, and save on fuel costs. It will make DMUs viable as an alternative to light rail, on routes where wider station spacing is reasonable and where there is not enough ridership to justify service every 15 minutes.

    If the freight railroads are willing to share tracks, it could be possible to start service between Oregon City and Vancouver along the Amtrak Cascades north-south alignment, and also from Portland to Troutdale east-west.

    [Feel free to remove the duplicate of this post from LAST week’s open thread]

  2. Could the use of European style trains also be used on Amtrak routes? For example, on the Empire Builder between Portland/Seattle and Chicago? Would the end to end trip time be reduced appreciably over such a long route? Would the maintenance and fuel costs be noticeably reduced and thus make the line more profitable (or at least run with a smaller deficit)?

    • There might be some potential savings, but not as much. Long-haul transportation is less sensitive to start/stop times, simply because they stop far less often, and stop times are dominated by the need to handle baggage.

      I can’t imagine the Empire Builder, or similar long-haul lines serving long stretches of sparsely-populated areas, ever being profitable. Portland-Great Lakes is too far of a distance for rail to serve competitively (a plane can get you there far faster), even if HSR. The Empire Builder does provide a useful service to towns along the line, such as Minot, ND–but at this distance, Amtrak simply cannot compete with planes. (And for low-cost travel, it can’t compete with bus).

      The biggest potential advantage to the rulemaking is in shorter-distance routes: commuter rail, as well as possible future “tram-train” service (something not currently found in the US)–and possibly medium-distance things like a Portland-Seattle service where no checked luggage or similar amenities are provided.

      • The Coast Starlight and other curvy routes could benefit from improve performance thru curves. If the FRA allows higher levels of unbalanced superelevation, as used on curvy routes in Japan, trains could shave hours off of the route between Redding and Eugene. It might even become feasible to route the trains thru Grants Pass, Medford and Ashland again, if the states are willing to spend money to upgrade the run-down tracks and buy trains.

        Read all about it:
        Curve speeds between different trains and regulatory regimens:
        Reasons why FRA regulation trains are slower:
        The best trains for curvy routes, used in the mountains of Japan:

        It turns out that the current Amtrak route from Sacramento to Dunsmuir can be sped up by almost 2 hours thru small track upgrades (better maintenance and superelevation) and new trainsets, even with the old FRA regulations. With better regulations, it would be possible to do Sacramento to Dunsmuir in under 3 hours – better than 70 mph average, despite the 574 foot radius curves, making the new Coast Starlight competitive with driving and faster than buses.
        Even with the FRA compliant equipment in this example, it would be possible to do Ashland to Sacramento at almost 60 mph average with stops:
        Saving a few tons of weight off the trains and allowing faster cornering would cut down on that trip time, making it reasonable (if not affordable…) to resume train service to Southern Oregon.

      • The speed is not competitive with flying, you’re right. Still, I have taken the train all the way to Minneapolis in spite of that because on average the price of fare on Amtrak is *half* that of flying. Sometimes price is the ultimate deciding factor. Oh, and there is not way in hell that I am riding a bus across country. That’s just asking too much. A few hours I can handle, but after that, forget it. I just won’t go. I need to be able to get up and move around. You can’t really do that on a bus. I think it’s also worth point out of that the Empire Builder only averages about 45 MPH. If that average speed could be doubled, the two day trip from the cost to Chicago would be cut in half. Would an average of 90 MPH be really that demanding? Hell, just increasing the current average by 50% would shave twelves hours off the end to end trip time. That alone would be a game changer. I think there is more potential for transcontinental train service than if often imagined. Of course, most people are only going over a portion of the line. Most don’t ride the full length. A very modest speed-up could bring a lot more people to it, though more runs would probably do more to increase ridership.

        • Andrew,

          The crew costs are and always will be killers for long distance trains, except explicitly “premium” trains.

          Why should general taxes subsidize what is essentially a vacation mode?

          Yes,the EB is an essential service between Spokane and Fargo. Trips beginning and ending within that service area should be subsidized in the same way that the “Rssential Service” airline tickets are. But people traveling through should pay for the privilege. And it IS a privilege to ride a fine train through beautiful country.

            • I’m not sure if it’s totally fair to label trains a “vacation mode.” A lot of riders are using it for reasons other than vacation, much like airplanes and driving. Spending 36 hours on a train, by the way, is not exactly a pleasant experience without a roomette (which most people could never afford). The first day is fun, but after that, you can’t wait to be done traveling. One gets tired of the rednecks and white trash, occasional howling babies, conversationalists who think everyone wants to hear their monologues, and people on cell phones who also never shut the hell up. Also, sleeping in those seats is damned uncomfortable! Still, when you’re in a low income bracket, dollars matter. Flying I have found is usually a lot more expensive than taking a train or bus.

              As for why should these trains be subsidized? Why not? Air travel and highways are, so why not trains? Why single just the one out? Amtrak’s annual budget represents the proverbial drop in the ocean of the US budget anyway. I would also point out that the essential service between Spokane and Fargo is vital like you say, but very often people are using the train to get between a big city and a small town, so to only subsidize travel between those two points would penalize many of them I think unfairly. Often people head to the cities for shopping, doctors, airports, visiting family, even going to the State Fair in the case of Minnesota, or other events that are normally held near major population centers. The reasons for people’s travel are complex and varied, and many of the riders on the Empire Builder are not exactly swimming in money.

              As for crew costs, speeding up the trains would certainly help there. The crews have to spend two days on the train from the West Coast to Chicago. If that was reduced to one day, that would cut operating expenses in half, wouldn’t it?

              Well, that’s my few cents based on having done the trip a few times and taking the good and bad each time. I kind of hope the rest of my family eventually migrates out this way, much as I like being able to visit where I grew up from time to time. The trip would be so much faster and easier. :P

            • Andrew,

              By “crew costs” I mean the operating crews: the railroad staff, not the on-board Amtrak employees.

              The operating personnel are good for about 250 miles these days, which means nine sets between CHI and SEA, with another pair between SPO and PDX.

              There are one pilot and one co-pilot (who generally makes bupkies) on a flight. Similarly the on-board Amtrak staff rides the entire distance. I do not know how they are compensated for it.

              Long-distance trains will never be anything but a lifestyle choice except where there is no parallel bus service, as along US 2.

              Now that’s a lifestyle choice I like to make as much as anyone, but taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize me when I make it.

            • Now that’s a lifestyle choice I like to make as much as anyone, but taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize me when I make it.

              And while I hate to put on the libertarian hat…if there were no Amtrak service along the Great Northern corridor–who thinks that Greyhound/Bolt or another long-distance bus company wouldn’t fill the void in a heartbeat if they didn’t have heavily-subsidized competition?

              You can ride Greyhound from Minot to Grand Forks, but the trip requires going south to Bismark, east to Fargo, and then back north to Grand Forks–there’s no direct service. No point in doing so when a subsidized ride on Amtrak costs a similar amount of money, and is a much nicer ride.

              (And as much as we might debate the merits of rail vs bus for local transit; I doubt anyone will argue that rail is not a much more comfortable mode for long journeys than bus, assuming similar seating amenities).

            • Bus service requires passable roads, and I’ve heard that US 2 in the winter can be very hazardous. So even if someone wanted to start a highway-based service, they might not be able to reliably do it.

            • (In response to Jason)

              But Greyhound does run to Minot, on US83 from Bismark. And they run service through plenty of other places with regularly nasty winter weather. (Busses with chains do well in the snow; particularly in flat places like the Dakota plains).

              It’s only the US2 corridor that has Amtrak service.

    • “Could the use of European style trains also be used on Amtrak routes?”
      Why yes, and it would have large benefits!

      ” For example, on the Empire Builder between Portland/Seattle and Chicago? ”
      …not as much benefits there. Much more benefits on shorter regional routes like Cascades or the Michigan services.

    • I’m curious about the TriMet management shuffle. Implicit recognition the max isn’t terribly reliable these days?

      I wish TriMet had the gumption to put a repair and upgrade ballot measure to the voters. The PMLR bridge costs…$127 million or so? That’s a fairly modest amount to replace the steel bridge as the main river crossing for max.

  3. Speaking of travel modes, I’m in the middle of my first trip on Bolt Bus, visited Eugene for the first time ever.
    Faster service than traditional Greyhound or even Amtrak, with fewer stops and a lower price.
    Since the Bolt stop in Portland is right in downtown, it’s now easier to access Albany and Eugene on transit than Salem (requires transferring to the 1X in Wilsonville or taking Greyhound or Amtrak).

    • I would love to see an expansion of Bolt Bus to other destinations. I wonder if there would be enough demand for direct service to Medford, Bend, or Coos Bay? Our family would definitely take a direct bus to Medford, to visit family, but Greyhound is too slow to make it worth dealing with the kids.

      • The Portland-Albany-Eugene service is already an expansion on the original Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, BC service started in 2012, and Greyhound also recently started Bolt between Oakland-San Jose-Los Angeles-San Diego.

        Comments elsewhere on the web and on the street indicate Seattle-Ellensburg-Spokane may be coming, as well as Los Angeles-Las Vegas. There was an article over a year ago, IIRC, explaining that Greyhound does some through analysis before expanding Bolt service, and that it also depends on the number of buses available.

    • This is great news! There is NO better way to strangle the mindless sprawl here in Clark County than by building nothing!

      Helicopter Don shot himself well north of the foot!

    • Is there any way that Damascus could be removed from the Urban Growth Boundary? That seems like what many of the original residents (and most of the current residents?) would support.
      Is there any political support to amending the UGB so that we do not have to constantly add more land to it, every few years?

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