21.5.15

THE VALUE OF FREQUENCY AND CONNECTIVITY.

The gods of the high iron are, to quote David P. Morgan, "a sardonic lot," and sometimes they give us a train wreck for Infrastructure Week.  (On a smaller scale, I've been doing my part.)  But the derailment of Amtrak 188 has provoked a number of policy discussions, including the value of upgrading the Passenger Rail network, the usefulness of a national Passenger Rail system, and the possibility of privatizing part of Amtrak.  We open with a Michael Tomasky observation about service on the Northeast Corridor being no faster today than it was fifty years ago.
[The Beatles] did Ed Sullivan’s show and then took a train from New York to Washington DC, where they performed their first live U.S. concert (with a young Al Gore in attendance, fwiw).

I was reading along learning nothing new because I know all there is to know about all that until I came across a line that just staggered me. It wasn’t anything about the group; rather, it was a reference to their “two hour and 15 minute train trip.” Their what?! That trip today, as you know, is at best two hours and 40 minutes, but that is only for the “high-speed” Acela, and in truth that’s only theoretical. It’s usually more like two hours and 55 minutes. That is, if it gets there, as we might add after Tuesday night’s tragedy.

It seemed totally beyond belief that the train ride from New York to Washington could have been faster in 1964 than it was the year I was reading this article. But it was true: I was so floored by this that I called Amtrak and some rail experts I know to check, and it checked out. The reason: aging sections of track that trains have to slow down for.
Perhaps The Pennsylvania Railroad took better care of those sections than Amtrak has. And perhaps The Pennsylvania Railroad laid on a special train for the Beatles. But the best running time in timetables of the era is just over three hours.  (That noted, Baltimore to Boston on an Acela involves performance that the Afternoon Zephyr could achieve with good old Electro-Motive diesels, Budd dome coaches, and cab signalled single track.)  At the time, I remarked, "[F]aster trains, in much of the country, are possible at much lower outlays than those feared."  That is unlikely to be the course of human events.  It might help, though, if observers of the national scene would get out of the Official Region and think about Passenger Rail service as a network, involving Amtrak or whatever long distance and regional operators emerge, and the big-city commuter rail operations, as a system.  But last Sunday's Fox News Sunday discussion of the derailment and the policy implications reached bipartisan consensus on the possibility of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and liquidating the rest of Amtrak.  The panelists appeared to accept the argument that the Northeast Corridor is "profitable".  (Yes, on an above-the-wheels basis, something that airlines have trouble doing these days.  But not according to generally accepted accounting principles calling for recovery of the capital investments, i.e. infrastructure.)  Here's Jim Loomis of Trains and Travel, with the corrective.
If you believe the Amtrak accountants (and a lot of people don’t) revenues from the NEC exceed operating costs. But there are a couple of other very relevant factors to consider.

For one thing, Amtrak’s long-distance network feeds passengers into Northeast Corridor trains, and if the long-distance network goes away, the Northeast Corridor will lose some share of that business.

Then there’s the matter of Amtrak’s equipment, much of which is old and needs replacing.

But the real issue—the big bull elephant in the room—is the issue of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure. By that, I mean the repair, maintenance and upkeep of the 450-or-so miles of tracks and catenary, tunnels and bridges between Boston and Washington. Amtrak estimates that more than fifty billion dollars is needed just to bring everything up to a state of good repair.

So what do you think? Will a prospective buyer take on all that?
Keeping in mind that at the height of its prosperity, The Pennsylvania Railroad's Philadelphia Improvements did not include a re-profiling of Frankford Junction. (And the New Haven Railroad looked at the return on investment to building a straighter line through Connecticut and sold the real estate it had acquired for that purpose to the Connecticut Turnpike Commission.)

And our east coast savants misperceive the Amtrak network beyond the Official Region.  Case in point: this New York Times investigation of the difficulties the railroads experience installing and cutting in Positive Train Control.  First, a reality check.
Rail safety experts have noted that far less costly upgrades, including an older braking system found on tracks opposite the site of last week’s crash in Philadelphia, would have prevented high-speed derailments like this one. And they say that even with positive train control, not all accidents can be avoided.
They refer to intermittent Automatic Train Control, which has been protecting commuters on the Galena Division for nearly 100 years, and to Automatic Train Stop, which is in use elsewhere in the Metra network.

They recognize that the General Notice and the Special Instructions have a purpose.
Despite the current focus on new technology, accident rates for both freight and passenger trains have been dropping in recent years. The overall rate of accidents per million train miles fell to 2.3 in 2014, from 4.1 in 2005, a 44 percent drop, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The safety of passenger railroads, including all 22 commuter rail systems and Amtrak, shows a similar improvement, with overall accident rates falling to 1.3 per million train miles in 2014 from 2.3 per million train miles in 2005. In fact, there were no passenger fatalities involving these railroads in three of the past four years, according to federal data.
And yet, the article offers this. "Chicago’s commuter rails are not likely to have the safety system for years while comparatively sleepy train service on Amtrak’s Michigan line already has it."  That supposedly sleepy Michigan service is the first installment of the Cold Spring Shops "Free Rein to 110" campaign, which envisions incremental upgrades to track, running times, and frequency in preference to electrified bullet trains.  In Michigan, there's insufficient frequency, running times east of Dearborn are painfully slow, and Detroit or Pontiac aren't the traffic generators they could be.  Moreover, the regional routes out of Chicago are not timetabled in such a way as to connect with other regional routes, or with Metra. (I'm not familiar enough with the expanding California services to commend or carp about connectivity there.)

I wonder, though, whether any proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor and liquidate the rest of Amtrak would pass Congress, Republican enabling of rent-seeking road-builders notwithstanding.  The national network permits connections, inconvenient though they often are, between the overnight trains and the corridor trains.  The overnight trains are in some places the only option other than a private automobile for intercity travel.  And the pundit class in the Official Region might be able to learn something about the mind-set of people in "fly-over country" by riding a train through it.

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