High Speed Rail Is Killing Us

November 30, 2010 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Ever since the Obama Administration took office, public transit enthusiasts have been gushing over its support for high speed rail. “Isn’t it wonderful?” they ask. “Soon we’ll have TGVs and Skinkansens and ICEs just like first world countries do.”

Sorry, kids. We won’t. What the administration’s enthusiasm for high speed rail is actually doing is kicking the props out from under normal passenger trains.

The call for high speed rail and a fair amount of public support for it have inadvertently given the anti-rail crowd a new weapon. They now oppose any passenger rail project that isn’t high speed. They say to the public, “We want high speed rail, and only high speed rail.” The kinds of trains we used to have aren’t good enough. If that is all we’re being offered, we don’t want passenger trains at all.” The Republican governors-elect in both Ohio and Wisconsin are using this line, as is Congressman Mica, the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

They can do so secure in the knowledge that high speed rail is not likely to happen here. By international standards, high speed rail requires top speeds of at least 150 m.p.h. Amtrak’s Acela hits that speed –   – for all of twelve miles in its whole run from Washington to Boston. Only one other true high speed rail planned in this country has close to full funding, an 84-mile line between Orlando and Tampa in Florida. Such a short line may not be viable, and in any case is not comparable to what the rest of the world calls high speed rail. It is more like an interurban.

No more true high speed rail is likely to be built, pie-in-the-sky plans and promises notwithstanding. Both the federal government and state governments are broke.

What is possible, and needed, is regular passenger trains –   – more of them, on more routes. To call Amtrak’s current system skeletal is being kind.

Top speed matters little to rail passengers, beyond the initial “wow” factor. In terms of schedules, what passengers care about is how much time their journey takes and whether the train arrives when it is supposed to. To be competitive, the train need only take less time (or at least not more time) than driving. Cars, not airplanes, are the real competition.

Both of those goals can be met far more cheaply by focusing on things other than top speed. In most cases, the 79 m.p.h. speed limit set by the FRA on lines without cab signaling is sufficient to compete with the car. Raising top speed to the next FRA limit, 110 m.p.h., can be done fairly economically. But anything beyond that quickly becomes enormously expensive, tens of billions of dollars for a line long enough to matter. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Instead of focusing on raising top speeds, what we need to do is enable passenger trains to run at either 79 or 110 m.p.h. for as much of the total length of their journey as possible. This is usually affordable. It requires some upgrading of main line track and signaling, plus in some cases adding more passenger sidings or even double-tracking. Similarly, creating conditions where passenger trains can run to schedule usually requires adding capacity to existing lines, not building new ones.

If the hoped-for billions for high speed rail were used instead to make these kinds of improvements to existing rail lines and buy equipment to put passenger trains on them, we would do far more to create a viable, usable and attractive passenger train network than would a mere appetizer of high speed rail.

Passenger train advocates need to stop letting the best be an enemy of the good and so putting a new weapon in the arsenals of people who oppose all passenger rail. Those countries around the world which have built serious high speed rail networks already had excellent, effective networks of regular passenger trains. America doesn’t. We need to bake the cake before we worry about icing it.

It Shouldn’t Be Rocket Science

November 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

On Monday, November 8, I went downtown to have lunch with Joe Calabrese, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. As usual, I took the Rapid. Unlike any other rail transit system I have ridden, before I could board my train, the Cleveland Rapid required me to run through a maze.

The maze was provided by ACS Affiliated Computer Services, the makers of Cleveland’s new farecard machines. I have never had a more difficult time getting a simple transit ticket. Two lines of instructions were written across the top of the machine, in a process that suggested the launch sequence for an ICBM. It baffled me for 15 minutes; I had already decided that if my train came before I could figure it out, I would give up and drive. Finally, by randomly pushing buttons as fast as I could while yelling uncomplimentary words at the d—- thing – at one point it told me to “move cursor,” whatever a cursor is, beyond myself at that point – I got a three dollar one-way ticket. The fare is supposed to be $2.25.

That is not the end of the story. When I tried to exit at the Terminal Tower, it would not let me through. It seems that I had inadvertently purchased a “disabled/senior citizen” ticket (that’s supposed to be $1), and had been traveling illegally. The Zuschlag (additional charge) was $1.25; later an RTA employee told me, “oh, yea, it defaults to the disabled/senior citizen fare.” Huh?

Needless to say, I unloaded on poor Joe over lunch (he has done a brilliant job keeping RTA running as its revenues collapsed during the Great Recession). Joe replied, “Yep, I know all about it.” To its credit, RTTA is withholding payment for the system until ACS renders it usable by ordinary people, as opposed to engineers, “techies,” and extraterrestrials.

I wish I could say the problem was restricted to Cleveland, ACS or fare machines generally. Regrettably, it runs through transit and many other aspects of our society where ordinary people come face-to-face with technology, especially electronics. The problem is that engineers and other technologists design systems for themselves, not for everyone.

The assumption, it seems, is that “everyone” now has or at least uses a computer, plays video games, and has a house full of complex electronics. At least in Cleveland, that assumption is wrong. Most Clevelanders are like me. We’re up in years, the technologies we understand (if any) are mechanical or electrical, not electronic, we neither have nor use a computer, and we don’t always have a grandson along to show us how some complicated “system” works. Give me a steam engine and I’ll soon have it running. Tell me to “move cursor” and I will be looking for a big hammer.

Using public transit shouldn’t be rocket science. In most of the world, it isn’t. I’ve ridden systems all over Europe and seldom had much trouble paying my fare. For more than a century, paying your fare was no problem in America. An operator or conductor took your money (and made change!). There might be a turnstile in stations into which you put tokens, purchased from a real, live human being at a small window. Why have we forgotten how to do so many things that were once easy?

The answer, I know, in this case at least, is that labor is the greatest cost of any transit system. Farecard machines eliminate station attendants, and thus save money on labor.

But it’s not that simple. As is often true, efficiency and effectiveness are in tension. It is more efficient to have complex fare machines instead of an employee, but it is far less effective. Rather than face that farecard machine again, I may just drive downtown. If I do, transit loses. It can similarly be more efficient to run fewer and shorter trains, packing in riders a lá Tokyo, but again it is less effective, because it drives away riders from choice. The most self-damaging decision the transit industry ever made was a poor efficiency/effectiveness trade-off: substituting buses for electric railways.

I’m sure ACS will eventually re-work Cleveland’s fare machine so that ordinary people can figure them out; it does want to get paid. Cubic, whose farecard machines are relatively user-friendly, apparently will not bid on small jobs like Cleveland’s; perhaps the FTA could have a word with Cubic on that score.

But the larger points will remain, for all transit systems. Using the system should not be rocket science. And efficiency/effectiveness trade-offs should be considered with great care, because from the transit rider’s perspective, effectiveness is more important. When you lose effectiveness to boost efficiency, you will also lose riders from choice. Ironically, fewer riders also mean a less efficient transit operation, because fixed costs are spread over a smaller base. Lose/lose propositions are seldom a good bargain.

Potsdam On Three Euros A Day

November 11, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

This past summer I spent two pleasant weeks in Potsdam, Germany, just outside Berlin. Potsdam was the spiritual heart of the old Prussian monarchy (the loss of which cultural conservatives much regret), and it is rich in history and good architecture. Thanks to the fact that it was in the former East Germany, Potsdam is also something of a public transportation paradise.

Not many East Germans had cars, and East Germany lacked the money to replace tram systems with buses. As a result, even though Potsdam is a small city, it has an extensive streetcar system. With an all-day transit pass costing just over three Euros, it was easy to ride the whole system, which I did.

Service is frequent and well-patronized, even though most people now own an automobile. As so often in Europe, we see that having a car does not automatically mean using the car. Many trips are made on foot, on bicycle or on transit while the car sits at home. Not surprisingly, I found the trams generally better patronized than the buses, especially outside rush hour.

Every major tram stop, where routes exchange passengers, has an electronic sign board telling riders when the next trams will arrive on all routes.

Tatra KT4D
A patron waits under the electronic information sign board for
the next tram, in this case, an articulated Tatra KT4D

I found that not merely informative but also mentally reassuring. Like most people, I do not like uncertainty, especially when traveling. A wait always seems shorter when you know up front when it will end.

At no time in Potsdam did I want a car. Between walking (Germans walk a lot, which is why you see fewer walruses than here), cycling (I rented a bike for a week), the streetcars, and the frequent S-bahn and Regionalbahn train services into Berlin, public transit fitted every bill. That was true even beyond Berlin. Wanting to make a day trip to the current German-Polish border, I asked at the main railway station when trains ran to Frankfurt-am-Oder. The answer was every half hour all day in both directions – this to a small city beyond normal commuting range of Berlin.

A word about bicycles: Germany is a cyclist’s paradise. Riding on the sidewalk is legal, sidewalks on most major streets have designated bike lanes with their own signals, the countryside is criss-crossed with bike trails and lanes and cars always yield the right-of-way. If bicycles are reincarnated, they all pray to come back German. Not surprisingly, bike traffic was dense in town, with people of every age and income class (many lady riders were very well dressed) riding to work, school, shopping, etc. The bike I rented gave me good mobility not only in town but well out into the countryside.

If Potsdam’s tram system has a problem, it is modernization. I don’t mean the lack of it; quite the contrary. Modernizing Potsdam’s trams has brought some good, including track upgrading and line extensions. Regrettably, it has also brought Siemens’ Combino trams instead of Tatra KT4Ds, which were built in Czechoslovakia under Communism. In fact, the Tatras are superior to their very expensive replacements.

Potsdam’s tram system currently operates both types, so I rode both. A passenger immediately notices that in comparison to the Tatras, the Combinos have a much noisier interior. The noise is sufficient to make riding them unpleasant.

Watching both types of service, it was clear that the Combinos, like many modern tram designs, are too big and too massively styled for the streetscape. They dominate the street, which is undesirable. The photos taken in Potsdam and displayed below show the difference. Which do you think fits best?

Siemens Combino
The Siemens Combino Articulated Tram

Tatra KT4D Articulated
The Tatra KT4D Articulated Tram

At the end of one tram line, as I waited for the car to begin the run back into town, I talked with the operator. I asked him which type he preferred, the Tatras or the Combinos? He said the Tatras, and added that most other operators feel the same way.

Here we see in action one of the Center’s major themes: spending money does not always improve public transit. “Newer,” “bigger,” and “high tech” are as often synonyms for “worse” as for “better.” From what the operator told me, the Tatras are in good shape and have many years of life left in them. Their replacement seems driven more by fashion (especially the fashion for low-floor cars, which I call macaroni) and the abundance of Westgeld than by wisdom or prudence. The old Prussian kings, most of whom were noted for their Sparsamkeit [thrifty ways], would not have approved. (When Kaiser Wilhelm I wanted to go someplace, he went to the train station and bought a ticket. He also once said, “Sometimes it is a hard thing, being Kaiser under Bismarck.”)

Tatra KT4D Central
A linked pair of Tatra KT4Ds negotiate central Potsdam on its own reserved right-of-way

Combinos aside, the Potsdam tram system shows the merit in genuine conservatism, which existed even under the East German Communists. That conservatism clings to the old and proven and looks with suspicion on innovations, like replacing streetcars with “modern” buses. With the Spanish, it prays, “Let no new thing arise.” Had America been more conservative, our cities, like Potsdam, would still have their extensive streetcar systems that allowed visitors and natives alike to be completely and comfortably mobile without an automobile.