Thursday, August 16, 2012

NEC Future public meeting and comments

On Monday, the FRA held its first public meeting to receive input on the NEC Future project, at 10 Park Plaza. It is:
[A] comprehensive planning effort to define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), launched by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in February 2012. FRA's work will include new ideas and approaches to grow the region's intercity, commuter and freight rail services and the completion of an environmental evaluation of proposed transportation alternatives.
They will also be accepting comments in writing or by web form until September 14th. The format turned out to be a set of posters, a presentation of the same information available on the website, and a public comment period which lasted about 2 hours. There were approximately 40-50 people attending.

The public comments began with words from elected and formerly elected officials:

  • Governor Dukakis, State Senator James Eldridge from Acton, a representative from the board of the Downeaster, and several others spoke in support of building the North South Rail Link.
  • One woman requested a study to consider the revival of passenger service on the Providence and Worcester railroad serving northeastern Connecticut, which was last operated in 1966. Now, she says, the Peter Pan buses have just been discontinued to that region as well.
  • One man asked if thought was given to affordable ticket prices for those not looking to pay Acela-like pricing, and if they were being careful about competition from cheap buses.
  • Another man pointed out that cheap buses from NY to Washington were "eating Amtrak's lunch." (ed note: recent article claims a third of bus riders would have taken train, but ridership is growing nonetheless)
  • Someone noted that they observed a Metro North commuter train keeping pace with their "high speed" Acela one time while riding through Connecticut.
  • A couple of folks complained that there was a lack of sufficient notice for them meetings, it only being placed in the papers last week or so.
  • Another person thought the timeline was too long: if it is going to take 5 years just to plan an upgrade, then it might be out-of-date by then, and they'd have to start the process all over again.
  • The Sierra Club sent two representatives to speak. One pointed out that the North South Rail Link could potentially remove 55,000 cars a day from the road and 583 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a day from the air (ed note: assuming this study is their source).

I also learned about the meeting just the previous week, so I prepared a handout as best I could on short notice, and also spoke. This is the handout that I gave to the meeting chairperson, the stenographer, and also to other folks in the room who were interested.
I did not write down my comments in advance, but this is the gist of it (with links added for convenience):
Amtrak's proposed $150 billion inland HSR and $7 billion Washington Union station improvements (which do not include railroad upgrades) are outlandish and risk discrediting more realistic efforts. Instead, they should focus on the German notion of "Organization before electronics before concrete:" Fix problems in organization and operations; then fix problems in electronics; and then only if necessary, make changes with concrete. This focuses the most effort on the most cost-effective and easiest improvements. 
I am glad that the FRA has come to discuss the North East corridor with us, but I must say that the FRA is part of the problem here. The weight requirements that the FRA forces on trains are incompatible with modern, efficient passenger rail service. They are also profoundly unsafe: the FRA itself has conducted a study showing that FRA regulations, which date to the 1930s, are less safe than modern methods of crash protection such as Crash Energy Management. The current regulations have led to some of the failures of the Acela, which is far too heavy to do what it was meant to do. The requirements are as ridiculous as if we required all cars on the highways to be as heavy as tanks. The FRA has taken some small steps towards reform, but it is slow going and should have been done decades ago. 
Amtrak and commuter rail agencies should be using lightweight modern trains similar to what is used successfully all around the world. In addition, they should be adopting off-the-shelf, proven standards in railway and signalling technology from Europe and Japan. 
Another organization-related problem that can be fixed is: MBTA and Amtrak compatibility. The two agencies must work together to optimize usage of the available resources. Instead of building out a full third track between BOS and PVD, they should look at carefully placed passing segments and develop schedules to take advantage of them. The other problem is that the MBTA uses 80 mph push-pull diesel locomotives, upgrading to 93 mph in a couple years. Since Amtrak and the MBTA share 70 km of track, it is imperative that the MBTA run faster trains in order to be compatible with high speed intercity services. It is much more difficult to schedule trains that have such widely varying capabilities. Instead, Amtrak should pressure the MBTA to purchase electric multiple-unit trains based on the Stadler FLIRT design, or similar, which can achieve high acceleration and 125 mph. It would be cheaper for Amtrak to buy the trains for the MBTA, to use the existing wires, than building out the full third or fourth track. 
The other organization to work with is Metro North: currently speed limits are 75 mph in Connecticut and 90 mph in New York on the New Haven line. Intercity trains are not able to take advantage of tilting or reasonable superelevation to speed up. That is why the other gentleman observed a Metro North commuter train keeping pace with an Acela on that segment. Scheduling Amtrak intercity trains to pass Metro North stopping trains is tricky but absolutely necessary. Metro North must be convinced to allow upgrades to the current speed limits: 75 mph in unacceptable. It is even worse in some locations, where crumbling bridges impose restrictions of 45 mph. Those must be replaced as soon as possible, regardless of what happens afterwards. After those options have been exhausted, Amtrak should look to reuse the I-95 right-of-way for passing segments where HSR can avoid sharp curves and local trains. One such segment exists between Rye and Cos Cob, avoiding Port Chester and Greenwich. 
In summary, the very first thing that must be done is FRA reform: it is imperative that we be able to use modern, safer, off-the-shelf trainsets and import best practices in railway design and signalling from Europe and Japan. Then both commuter rail agencies and Amtrak must work together to achieve the most efficient use of their existing resources. Finally, Amtrak can work on incremental upgrades that are cost-effective and will add up to big time savings for a much more reasonable cost.


  1. I'm not entirely convinced about using I-95 as a bypass route, at least in urban areas where the rail line would have to stick fairly closely to the road. For one thing, it will involve a lot of expensive rebuilding of the highway to make the connections, and for another, highways tend to have alignments designed for highway speeds: 65 mph, which is not exactly fast even by Metro North standards. That said, pretty much any alignment would be better than the current one in New London, so at least there's that.

    1. It would be a really big project and I tossed it in as an example of a potential future idea. I actually really like the Shore Line Road even though it is slow and will always be. Just run along it with the map and compare it to I-95... even though the highway is a bit curvy, it's nothing compared to the Shore Line.

      Upgrades, replacement and repair to existing HSR-capable infrastructure should be the focus, after fixing organization and electronics of course.