Thursday, June 28, 2012

FEC intends to develop Miami station as a destination

South Florida Business Journal

Florida East Coast Industries wants to develop all of the nine acres it owns in downtown Miami as part of its plan to create a Grand Central Station for passenger service from Miami to Orlando.

Husein Cumber, who is leading the All Aboard Florida passenger line effort for FECI, told the Miami Commission Thursday morning that FECI wants to turn the site into a “destination” that could include everything from offices to residences.

“Everything is on the table,” he told commissioners.

A project of that size would rival Brickell CitiCentre in terms of acreage, but would be smaller than the more than 30 acres Genting Group has accumulated for a casino and related development at the current site of the Miami Herald and Omni Center.

He likened the commercial possibilities to Paddington Station in London, which has hotels and other amenities.

Cumber told the Business Journal the project might need to be phased in response to demand, but the intent is to develop the entire parcel, which is currently surface parking lots on the west side of downtown.

Also mentioned is construction starting next year, a decision on the cars within the next 60 days, and an incredibly vague price point between $60 and $400.

I'm not terribly surprised of course. Vertical integration such as this is vital for passenger rail: not only are you making money on both ends, but you also drive ridership through the simplest of all solutions to the Last Mile problem: eliminating it entirely. This particular location is also conveniently connected to the hub of Miami public transit for rail, people mover, and bus, which makes any hotel or office accommodations more attractive and with greater rents.

The one year of construction prior to operation makes it fairly certain in my opinion that initial construction will consist of platforms and an Amshack at their proposed stops (including Cocoa Beach rather than Orlando due to lack of present connection) along with some track work for any slow zones. This will initially hurt them, of course, but demonstrated ridership should boost their ability to raise capital for the remainder of construction, both of the rail line and the property development. A few pennies lost now in operating costs will save dollars down the line in interest payments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Surfliner continues its bipolar ridership and revenue trends

Ridership and revenue numbers for May are now out in a presentation for the next LOSSAN meeting. The decline in ridership continues once more with a 6.1 percent decrease, relative to May 2011, against increases of 3.4%, 4.3%, and 4.4% for the San Joaquin, Coast Starlight, and Capitol Corridor respectively. Meanwhile, revenue continued to increase, this time up 9.1% with 4.1%, 3.4%, and 9.6% for the other California trains. Nationally, the increases were 1.6% and 7% for ridership and revenue.

At this point, there is no known cause as to why the Surfliner's ridership has been dropping so much; the major track work programs which started the drop ended in March, though there have been delays this month due to a tie replacement program on BNSF's track between Los Angeles and Fullerton. The new through train, far from decreasing ridership due to double counting, has actually seen a 61% increase in ridership, so it certainly isn't the cause.

The biggest known factor is a drop in Rail2Rail ridership which also handily helps explain how ridership can drop yet revenue increase, however this accounts for only a quarter of the April drop. Technically, the higher fares are theorized to cause a larger share of the drops, but that is somewhat less of a hard fact than the Rail2Rail ridership.

My own theory is that the ridership losses are basically a lingering effect of the delays, with riders hesitant to trust Amtrak until they see it runs regularly on time again. Business travel and other regular riders have likely defected to Metrolink within the confines of Los Angeles-Irvine and Los Angeles-Moorpark. End to end, the scheduled times are fairly similar, with the only substantial difference being that Metrolink does a far better job of arriving on time. Metrolink and Coaster do have the advantage of controlling the dispatching, but the real issue for Amtrak is poor equipment reliability. For Fiscal Year 2011, the only route with more minutes of delay due to Amtrak engine failures was the Northeast Corridor, a route with equally old locomotives and three times as many train-miles; the Surfliner actually has twice as many minutes of delay due to engine failure as the NEC on a per train mile basis. Similarly, only the NEC has more minutes of train delay attributed to "all else." While Amtrak's figures show rather more minutes of delay attributable to Metrolink and Coaster trains than their own engine failures, this is assigned solely the discretion of the conductor and does not take into account the original cause of delay. An Amtrak train which is late and arrives out of slot and grows later because it is now following Metrolink may report it as commuter train interference, but that is a misplacing of the blame.

Since these travelers are often using monthly passes of various sorts or ten trip tickets, all of which are discounted, the revenue hit isn't as great as it might be. Some additional support is granted to this by the 7% increase in average travel length year over year. Partially this will be an increase in actual trip length, partially a potential artifact from the through train not requiring a connection, but part of it would also be from short range trips defecting to other travel options.

With Eticketing rolling out this year for the Surfliner, hopefully we can get a much better breakdown of Amtrak's trip distances and the like. In theory, it should be easily portable to an Excel file which would allow us to see trips by individual train and boardings/deboardings as well as station pairs. In practice, I'd be terribly surprised if that was actually done, much less the information made readily available.

As a final note, the potential fare increase for the Surfliner which was floated previously (2% Monday through Thursday, 10% Friday through Sunday) will evidently not have a decision made until August. Given the ridership decrease, Caltrans is understandably a bit skittish about the potential effects.

Friday, June 22, 2012

FRA weight penalties: Electric boogaloo

A significant part of the reason why I've used foreign rolling stock accelerations in some of my previous posts is that, with the exception of Colorado Railcar and typical diesel push-pull from one MBTA document, I simply haven't had any data on American FRA-compliant rolling stock to work with. Luckily, that's changed a bit as I've finally tracked down a document which has simulated data for  Metro North's M3a and M7 EMUs (page 16). Unfortunately it's hosted on what looks to be the Chinese equivalent of Scribd, so actually getting the PDF isn't terribly feasible, though it can be read online.

Looking at the chart, without ampere limits, an M7 takes about 65-70 seconds to reach 60mph, 110-115 to reach 80mph, and reaches 90mph at some time after 160 seconds. An older M3a takes ~78 and 130-135 seconds for 60 and 80 miles per hour. Interestingly, that is actually worse than a Bombardier Talent DMU. In fact, if you watch the cab ride video of the Class 222 accelerating linked in the comment on that video, that vehicle achieves 60mph faster as well, looking to achieve that speed around the 58 second mark on the video, but only starting to move around 13-14 seconds in to the video, for a 0-60mph time of about 44 seconds.

Now, that said, it could very well be the case that the M7 is simply a poor performer even by American standards. Videos at this blog post comparing the M8 and Silverliner V show the latter achieving  60mph in 35 seconds, a very respectable figure in line with rest of the world equipment, though, of course, this is done at a significantly higher weight and consequently energy consumption.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

GDOT finds HSR from Atlanta to Jacksonville feasible

From Florida Times-Union:

Running high-speed, passenger rail lines between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Louisville and Birmingham is economically feasible, according to a consultant’s study presented Wednesday to the State Transportation Board.
The Jacksonville line should be built in two phases, first to Savannah, and then to the Northeast Florida city, consultant HNTB recommended in its study. Possible stations along the route would include Griffin, Macon, Savannah and Brunswick. The feasibility study was the first of many long steps in setting the final course of the train routes and securing funding.
The three routes were studied after an earlier study showed the feasibility of a route from Atlanta to Charlotte. That project is now in the stage of estimating the environmental impact of possible paths.
Construction of any of the lines is likely to be many years in the future. But the Obama administration has made high-speed passenger rail a priority and provided funds for exploring routes.
Fares between Atlanta and Jacksonville would range between $119.41 and $152.24. Construction would cost from $5 billion to $16 billion, or $11.5 million to $41 million for each mile. That compared to $54 million per mile as the top range of the estimate on the Atlanta-to-Birmingham route.

The last two paragraphs lead me to believe that there's a better degree of fiscal sanity and proper planning involved than has been evident with CAHSR. Advertisements like a $55 fare from Los Angeles to San Francisco, when retracted soon after the passage of Prop 1A, and construction estimates which similarly mushroomed in size did grave harm to the public's support for the program and will delay it severely.

Running it into Jacksonville means a connection with All Aboard Florida (for whom Congressman Mica is attempting to get red tape fast cut). If this project does get a roll on, I would not be surprised to see AAF electrifying and otherwise upgrading their line from Jacksonville to Miami in order to run through service as well as financially contribute to the construction of the line. With a proposed northern terminus in Louisville, it's not past the imagination to believe a connection might be made to the proposed Midwest HSR network in Cincinnati, leading to a 2,000 mile long high speed rail line stretching through almost every environment and terrain America has to offer from Minneapolis to Miami.

Politically, of course, the feasibility is another story entirely. I'm not familiar with the state level politics in the South, so I can't really say as to how likely they are to get this going (although interstate cooperation never bodes well). If AAF is perceived to be a success after it opens in 2014, I think high speed rail in the South stands a good chance of gaining a sufficiency of political support. If so, that opens the door to more Federal funding for CAHSR and Midwest HSR as a quid pro quo with their respective state delegations.

A PDF of the presentation visuals can be found here. Unfortunately it isn't one of the more detail filled examples.

Brown backs down on environmental waivers for HSR

From the LA Times:

After encountering criticism from environmental groups, Gov. Jerry Brown signaled Wednesday that he plans to withdraw his controversial proposal to protect the California bullet train project from injunctions sought by environmental lawsuits.

Brown’s staff told key environmental groups that he would no longer include modifications to the California Environmental Quality Act in a package of legislation this month asking for $6 billion to start construction of the high-speed rail project.

The move was confirmed by staff in the state Senate. A spokesman for the governor did not have an immediate response.

The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council raised objections to Brown’s proposal, saying it was part of a pattern to water down one of the most important pieces of environmental law in history. Critics of the bullet train, meanwhile, said it appeared that Brown wanted to protect his pet project, while leaving other businesses in the state to bear the full brunt of the law.

It appeared that the proposal was jeopardizing support for the rail protect from the environmental movement, a stalwart supporter of high-speed rail, along with labor unions and big engineering firms.

As proof that history certainly rhymes, if not engaging in outright repetition, waiving environmental protection laws for HSR is what sunk the initial attempt back in the 1980's. While Brown doesn't appear to have fully learned from that, it does look like he has learned not to press it in the face of opposition. That's not to say I was opposed to the waivering; the environmental protection laws in California are frequently over the top and contrary to the public good.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How FRA regs cost American passenger rail millions every year

As has been mentioned by many rail bloggers, FRA regulations needlessly add extra weight to American trains. As basic physics would tell us, unless the power to weight ratio is maintained, the heavier train will accelerate far slower. A slower acceleration means a longer period of high power demand and so it is unsurprising that fuel and energy consumption will be rather higher for American trains compared to European or Japanese trains. The degree to which it is higher, however, means that hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted every year by Amtrak and the various commuter rail agencies on additional and unneeded fuel expenses.

Amtrak's 2011 Annual Report shows the following consumption figures on page 36.
Seat-miles per gallon of diesel fuel: 143.7
Seat-miles per kWh of electric traction: 6.85 (.09 kWh per seat-km)

The diesel figure isn't terribly useful for purposes of international comparison; nearly half of all diesel miles are from long distance trains which, with the exception of the all-coach Palmetto, have a rather poor seating density due to sleepers, diners, crew dorms, and baggage cars, although the Palmetto doesn't have a terribly large passenger capacity itself.

Amtrak's monthly reports (such as this April 2012 one) indicate that on a train-mile basis, they average 2.3 gallons of diesel per mile. Combined with the seat-miles figure, our average Amtrak train should have about 338 seats. Studies in Minnesota have shown similar figures, at 2.42 gallons per train-mile, but others have greatly differing figures. A study on restoring passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas showed approximately 1.66 gallons per train-mile using two locomotives and four Surfliner cars (Appendix 6A) while the MBTA reports their average fuel consumption is 2.8 gallons with 6 cars and on some lines, that can rise as high as 3.29 gallons per train mile (with their lowest consumption at 2.23 gallons).

It's a rather stark contrast with the fuel and energy efficiency that we see from lighter British train sets, data on which can be found in these two reports.

With diesel trains, Amtrak might well be contrasted to the IC125, a 125mph capable diesel train set with an engine on either end and seven to eight cars in between. Where Amtrak has a figure of 2.3 gallons per mile (and the Vegas Surfliner 1.66), the IC125 with eight cars and 617 seats has a measured fuel consumption equal to 1.78 gallons per mile (346 seat-miles per gallon). While that's a touch higher than the Vegas Surfliner study, it's with nearly twice as many seats and at significantly higher speeds. A 9-car Class 222 Meridian diesel multiple unit, which can reach 110mph in under 3 minutes, burns 2 gallons per mile for about 239 seat-miles per gallon (by contrast, the notional Vegas Surfliner is ~216 seat miles per gallon).

MBTA's Fitchburg Line, which holds the dubious record of being their single most fuel inefficient line, presents a special case. With 17 stations in 50 miles, it really is more suitable for light rail operations than diesel push-pull commuter trains and I can't find a British DMU with similar station spacings (although there are several EMUs with similar stopping patterns). Capital MetroRail and Westside Express, however, both have similar stopping patterns using DMUs; SMART quotes them as having fuel consumption of 0.57 and 0.65 gallons per mile respectively (page 15). With the Capital MetroRail's fuel consumption and $3.25 per gallon, MBTA could save $4 million annual (with 2010 schedule; with longer station spacings, some British DMUs have even lower fuel consumption however, the Class 150 is 0.517 with 3 power cars and 16 km station spacing as an example). In all honesty, such a line needs to be electrified and equipped with EMUs with even greater fuel efficiency.

An interesting detail emerges looking at British and international electric trains and multiple units and that's that there's a fairly consistent trend of using 0.03 kWh per seat-kilometer for trains under 125mph. With electric trains dominated by corridors and Acela rather than long distance trains, it's rather hard to understand why Amtrak uses three times the electricity of any comparable train and indeed averages 33% higher energy use than European high speed trains (Japanese high speed trains have energy consumption figures comparable to sub-125mph European trains on a seat-km basis). Since single level coaches do not suffer terribly much, if at all, in terms of weight penalty due to FRA regulations, my suspicion is that the Acela, a horribly overweight train set, is also extremely energy inefficient. With its low number of seats, the lowest number of any high speed train in the world, this will have an outsized effect upon Amtrak's efficiency. Somewhat astonishingly, Amtrak's average energy intensity is worse than that of the old Metroliners which, at 7.81 kWh per car-mile, averaged out at 0.07 kWh per seat-kilometer. Fortunately, electricity is cheap, unlike diesel fuel, so Amtrak's energy expenses are not ruinous, but this still represents tens of millions of wasted dollars.

I should note that Amtrak's electricity consumption numbers are sufficiently bizarre that it is entirely plausible that they are completely wrong (they do, for instance, proudly state a rate of 50 kWh/seat-mile in another document). One possible answer is that they decided to account for inefficiencies in generation and transmission of the electricity. Alternatively, 50 kWh per seat-mile was a typo and the number meant was actually a train-mile figure. Combing the two sets of figures would give us 342 seats, a small figure for the Northeast to my knowledge. An old study indicates that an Amfleet of such length (about 6 cars assuming one business class and one cafe) would only use 25.8 kWh/train-mile at 120mph top speed (page 25) which does put us in the unfortunate position of assuming absolutely hellacious energy use by the Acela.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Electrification, power plants, and railroad cost savings

Going to haul this up out of my comment on the last post:
Just using electric locomotives, you're looking at cutting fuel costs to about a third of their previous (methodology: NTD says ~10.5 million vehicle revenue [miles] per year, 2.3 gallons per mile (Amtrak's average) and $3.25 per gallon is ~$78.5 million. A BR Class 90 hauling 500t [six Guardian cars is 450 short tons] gets 22.62 kWh/mile, LA Metro pays 12 cents per kWh, comes out to about $28.5 million).
 Now that may be somewhat optimistic, that figure is for hauling freight rather than commuter travel. An IC225, which is an electric Class 91 locomotive hauling a cab car and coaches with a total of 554 seats (and more room to them than Metrolink's commuter coaches have), runs .038 kWh per seat-kilometer in a simulated run (pages 22-23). That would bump things up to 33.8 kWh per train-mile, though with a longer and faster consist than Metrolink uses, and raise energy costs to the realm of ~42.5 million dollars, still a significant decrease. The use of smaller consists or multiple units, especially on routes that are not terribly well patronized, would drop it back down again however.

A 45-66% decrease in fuel costs is nothing to sneeze at of course, especially since Metrolink is raising fares to cover a $13 million funding gap, four million of which is due to rising fuel costs. However, it could actually be reduced down even further, potentially even to no effective energy costs at all.

Electrifying all 388 route-miles of Metrolink would be a fairly expensive endeavor, costing about two to three billion dollars or more if there needs to be significant engineering work in order to build it such as widening the I-10 median and tunneling through San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. It would also need tremendous political capital, not simply to build it, but also to swing it past BNSF and Union Pacific, who own much of the track in question. Solar, despite its general political acceptability, is unfortunately far too expensive. On a net metering basis, even with low end electricity consumption figures, the cost of installing sufficient solar capacity runs to about $900 million dollars, representing a major increase in the budget.

Nuclear, on the other hand, is rather more affordable, the reason lying in the far greater capacity factor of nuclear compared to solar. Given the timeline of an electrification project, a small modular nuclear reactor should be available and a 30MWe capability would suffice to power the system at current levels of usage, again on a net metered basis. The costs are also rather more reasonable, perhaps $200 million for a 40MWe plant capable of dealing with future growth and generating excess energy in the meanwhile to offset its operational costs (which would amount to just under $4.8 million per year at a 90% capacity with non-fuel O&M; with fuel it would be $7 million). Even without additional energy sales to off-set O&M costs, it would pay for itself in only a few short years and over a reactor's life would result in a substantial cost-savings to the program, to the tune of $445 million with a thirty year life-span or rather more with a longer life.

Unfortunately, despite what is actually a rather good safety record, many environmentalist groups have set themselves firmly against the use of nuclear power; though one might imagine that having sufficient political capital to electrify in the first place would allow them to use a small, safe nuclear reactor, odds are that it would lead to an enormous backlash. In its place, natural gas is most likely (though geothermal can't be ruled out depending on local suitability).

Without carbon sequestration, an advanced natural gas combined cycle plant would cost a thousand dollars per nameplate capacity kilowatt. If operated at an 85% capacity factor and built for the same handling of 33% more future power demand, a 42MWe plant would be required, adding 42 million dollars to the budget, truly a pittance (note, however, that in California, such plants operate at only 50% capacity factor; it might be better therefore to build with the intention of providing sufficient capacity for peak power and run the entire system off such a plant rather than run it with a net metering contract). The EIA quotes a price of $2.185 per million Btu (MMBtu) for the week ended June 13th on NYMEX, and the previous link about Californian plants quotes a heat rate of 7,176 Btu per kWh. Should such a 42MWe plant be operated at 85% capacity factor over the course of a year, fuel costs would amount to $4.9 million dollars plus an additional amount for maintenance (the first link in this paragraph would suggest $1.5 million annually; similarly, if we use its numbers for nuclear, a 40MWe plant would cost $213.4 million to build and cost $4.2 million per year to operate). However, natural gas prices are currently rather low due to a glut, and should climb quite appreciably in the future (as this page shows, it's dropped tremendously from a high of $15.4 per MMBtu in December of 2005).

So, what does all this amount to? Well, at the end of the day, electrification, in and of itself, does do a good job of reducing the fuel costs which are currently squeezing commuter agencies. The main benefit, of course, is increased acceleration and reduced trip times, but over a thirty year period of time, it does look as though it could pay for itself, if one factors in additional revenue and a higher rate of increase in the price of oil than the rate of increase in the price of electricity. Without such factorings, it still recovers much, if not all of the cost. However, if a rail agency is permitted to construct, own, and operate their own power plant to defray the costs of power, especially if they are allowed to sell excess power at market rates, electrification should pay for for itself without any additional factors taken into account.

Update: Much of this is based on a mistaken assumption. The vehicle miles actually appear to refer to car miles rather than train-miles as indicated by the train-miles in the 2012-2013 Metrolink budget.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

WHO: Diesel exhaust can cause cancer

Via CNN:

(CNN) -- Exhaust from diesel engines can cause cancer, a prominent global cancer group that's part of the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
While the International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC) has no power to set or enforce rules, many governments look to it for guidance and the decision could put pressure on those governments to introduce stricter limits on emissions, especially to protect workers who are exposed to diesel exhaust while on the job.
The IARC has for more than two decades classified diesel engine exhaust as a "probable" carcinogen -- a cancer-causing agent -- but until recently there was no clear evidence linking it to higher cancer rates.
This winter, however, two studies were published based on research involving more than 12,000 mine workers done by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study, or DEMS.
Together, the two new papers found an increase in lung cancer rates among workers exposed to diesel exhaust underground, with greater exposure linked to steadily higher cancer rates. In workers with the highest exposure, deaths from lung cancer tripled in one study, and increased five-fold in the other.
It's unclear whether the decision will affect rules in the United States. Since 2008, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has enforced a limit of 160 micrograms of total carbon per cubic meter for workers in U.S. mines. "Total carbon" is used as a marker for diesel fumes.
The IARC didn't specify a level at which diesel fumes are harmful, but data from DEMS suggests that cancer risks go up even at relatively modest levels -- the equivalent of air pollution in some major cities, including London, Mexico City and the Bronx section of New York City.

Hopefully this will result in greater support and subsidization of freight railroad capacity, intermodal freight, and otherwise getting trucks off the road. At the same time, there needs to be investment in clean trucks for short distance and yard duties as well as clean switcher locomotives. While the studies, focusing as they did on coal miners, do not necessarily prove a higher risk of cancer for those living in areas subjected to heavy amounts of diesel exhaust, I'm reasonably certain that application of the risk levels, especially with the DEMS study, will show an increased cancer risk resulting from truck traffic.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is Amtrak outrageously expensive to run?

Earlier, I'd dredged up Amtrak's costs per train-mile in an effort to see the breakdowns in expense for each route. Unfortunately, it's a touch out of context being composed solely of American routes. We can see that some routes are rather more expensive than others, and others apparently being absurdly cheap, but the major question of whether Amtrak's costs are reasonable is unanswered. For comparison purposes, let's look at the Japanese railways.

According to JR Central's 2005 annual report (page 60), they ran a total of 94,273,000 train kilometers in that fiscal year. Against this, page 3 reports $7,605,074,000 in operating costs and expenses for the railway sector of their business, which comes to a total of $80.67 per train-kilometer or $129.83 per train-mile. Adjusting for inflation, from 2005-2011 dollars, it comes out to $150 even.

For JR East, using Central's reported figures, they ran 259,594,000 train-kilometers on an expense of 1,677,929,000,000 yen (page 15), or $15,681,579,439 at the applicable 107:1 exchange rate, producing an operating expense of $60.41 per train-kilometer, $97.22 per train-mile, and $112 adjusted for inflation.

With JR West, again using Central's reported train-kilometers figures, we have 199,796,000 train kilometers on $8,225 million in transportation operating costs. This equates to $41.17 per train-km, $66.26 per mile, and $76.30 after adjusting for inflation.

As it turns out, Amtrak is actually in decent ground when it comes to expenses per train-mile, thought it must be kept in mind that these numbers do include a large amount of commuter work, which should have lower expenses. Where the problem lies is in the fact that the trains are so small, raising the costs per seat-mile and rendering them unprofitable as a result. It's actually rather puzzling why Amtrak chose to build the world's smallest passenger capacity high speed rail train especially at a time when both Japan and France were building double deckers to add even more seats and capacity to their future trains.