Getting It Right

July 31, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I was in Palm Beach in February escaping the vagaries of winter n Cleveland – – for us, February is a surplus month – – and I read a story in the February 26 Palm Beach Post that is good news for friends of passenger train. All Aboard Florida, a project of the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), plans to run a privately-funded, unsubsidized higher speed rail passenger service from Miami to Orlando. That includes building a new line from the FEC main to Orlando and buying new equipment for 32 passenger trains a day.

The return of privately-operated passenger trains is something devoutly to be wished. I’ve taken Amtrak coast-to-coast this winter, as Cleveland to Florida. The trains were good, mostly on time, and a far nicer way to travel than what the airlines now hand us. But Amtrak’s network is so sparse much of the country has no service, and when Amtrak does serve a city or town, it is usually with only one train a day. Had I wanted to go from Florida to New Orleans, I would have been required to do so via Chicago! We need the private sector to get back into passenger trains if we are to get enough trains, running to enough places, to make rail travel convenient again.

So All Aboard Florida is good news. Unfortunately, it has generated a lot of opposition along much of the proposed route corridor. Part of this is uninformed Nimbyism, much of it reflecting fear of 32 trains in 24 hours. In the old days, many railroads ran a lot more trains than that, without any consequences.

But part of the opposition has come from a blunder made by All Aboard Florida. From the beginning, they have insisted that they would have stops only in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. That has meant much of the Florida coast would just have to watch the trains go whizzing through, unable to ride the. Not surprisingly, when people receive no benefit from something, they are inclined to oppose it.

The good news in the Palm Beach Post is that All Aboard Florida is now re-thinking that position. The paper wrote in its lead story,

All Aboard Florida is signaling its willingness to build additional stations between West Palm Beach and Orland, offering to initiate ridership and environmental studies for communities that identify possible locations.

This is smart for two reasons. First, by offering the possibility of service to more communities, it will undercut the NIMBYs. Second, if the new trains are to make money, they will need to serve as many communities as possible. Most train riders are not end-point to end-point. Non-stop trains have usually failed financially. Amtrak tried running non-stop Washington to New York and soon gave it up because those trains carried too few people. All Aboard Florida’s plan does include Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, but even so most of the route would have no service. This is not likely to work.

What drove All Aboard Florida to plan only two intermediate stops was a requirement to schedule Miami-Orlando in less than three hours. But there is an old, tried-and-proven way to do that and still serve more intermediate points: run both express and locals. With 32 trains a day, that should not be difficult.

Florida East Coast Railway has been a pioneer and an innovator since the days of Henry Flagler and his railroad to the sea. By bring back the privately-operated passenger train, FEC is again innovating, in a way that would make Mr. Flagler proud.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Destination: San Diego

February 20, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I recently fled the Cleveland winter for the happier climate of San Diego traveling as God intended by train. The trip was enjoyable, as trips by air are not. Even off-season the sleeping cars were largely full, a sign others are seeking alternatives to airlines that spit in their customers’ faces. All the crews were very good, a change from Amtrak experiences past. Westbound everything was late, the Southwest Chief by nine hours into LA. But sudden attention by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to the problem of freight interference seems to have thrown the fear of Mammon into the railroads, as the return trip both the Chief and the Lake Shore Limited ran early. It will be interesting to see if that continues.

The future of the Southwest Chief lies on a knife’s edge because BNSF runs little freight over the old Santa Fe main line. I don’t know why, because their new main line through Texas is congested. In any case, BNSF wants Amtrak to kick in money for track maintenance, which Amtrak doesn’t have, meaning it has turned to the states for help. All have agreed except New Mexico, but if it does not come on board the whole project collapses and the Chief dies. Riding the route both directions shows the heavy dependence of communities along the line on the train, as without it they have no connection to the outside world but driving vast distances, sometimes under dangerously bad weather conditions. Pray that New Mexico comes through.

I cannot pass over the one stupid blunder by Amtrak that is reminiscent of its worst old days. One of my sleepers had just been reconditioned, and idiotically they eliminated the volume control on the speaker in the bedroom as part of the rebuild. What were they thinking? I was almost asleep when “Conductor to the dining car” blasted me awake. Almost asleep again when “announcements” started, again at deafening volume. Could someone kindly inform whoever is in charge of sleeping car rebuilds that we buy sleeper space to sleep, not to listen to a loud squawk box that suggests we are traveling in North Korea?

I finally arrived in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley is one of that city’s amenities and I made good use of it. I bought a three-day pass, once I found the downtown office, which was not easy because signs put it a long way from where it is actually located. I had ridden the Blue and Orange lines before, so I focused on the new (to me) Green Line. The concierge of my very nice Gaslamp District (and restaurant district) hotel, The Horton Grand, told me See’s Candies had closed their downtown store (why?) but that I could easily get to another of their outlets by taking the Green Line to Fashion Valley Mall. She was right, and I made the trip by trolley on and on foot more easily than I could have driven and parked. If friends or family know of See’s, don’t plan on coming home without some.
A three car train (typical consist on the system) pulls into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (William S. Lind Photo)

I then took the Orange Line to La Mesa and looped back on the new-construction segment of the Green Line. The engineering and the ride are spectacular, reminding me of Italian highways through the Alps. So was the price tag for its construction. It is built to heavy rail, not light rail standards. Was that made necessary by the terrain? I do not know the area well enough to judge. Has it priced itself out of the market, in terms of more extensions? I would not be surprised, although an extension has recently been approved (the 11 mile project, dubbed the Mid-Coast extension, extends the Blue Line to the University City area north of San Diego). The higher construction cost per mile, the fewer miles we can build. It seems the philosophy behind San Diego’s first line to the Mexican border has been forgotten.

My Green Line train had mechanical problems which brought periodic emergency stops – – the doors seemed to be the difficulty – – and it was taken out of service at the Santa Fe depot. All the trains I saw had two new low-floor Siemens cars fore and aft sandwiching an older high-floor Siemens/Duewag, an obvious U-2 descendent. The new cars rode well and have a classic Railfan seat where you can see forward, but the high-floor cars had more leg room and more comfortable seats. Why does transit equipment design so often take two steps forward and one back? Americans are not getting smaller. If you give them transit equipment that is not comfortable, they will drive.

A three car train with an older U-2 (Siemens-Duewag) LRV sandwiched between two brand new S70 Siemens LRV’s on a Green Line viaduct in San Diego’s Mission Valley (William S. Lind Photo)

When it was time to head home to Cleveland and snow, I was easily able to walk the short way to the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and take the trolley to the Santa Fe depot. That saved me a taxi fare and reminded me why cities with good public transit are more pleasant to visit than those without.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Making Streetcars Real

October 28, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing.  New streetcar lines have brought development, increased use of public transport by the middle and upper-middle classes and new attention to the rise of inner cities.

If those of us who welcome streetcar and want to see their presence spread and  move forward, we must do more than cheerlead.  We must also look at what still needs to be done to return streetcars to the central role they once played in cities.

An article by Eric Jaffe, “Overall, U. S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” published by Citylab on September 3, 2014, addresses some of the actions that need to be taken to make streetcars real transit.  Mr. Jaffe identifies three shortcomings:  the short length of streetcar lines, their slow speed – a function of the fact that most run in mixed traffic – and insufficiently frequent service.  I think he is right on all counts.

As Jaffe notes, frequent service could help mitigate the problems of slow speeds or short lines.  Both of those problems require long-term, expensive fixes.  Running frequent service is not all that expensive.  New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line can afford to do it:  it offers a car every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes at night, according to Jaffe’s article.  I have ridden that line a number of times and it almost exemplifies the old slogan of many streetcar systems, “Always a car in sight.” That slogan sets the standard modern streetcar lines should aim for.

But as Jaffe notes, looking at streetcar systems opened since 2000,

“few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go service that eliminates the need to check a schedule.  Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Tampa) never hit that mark.  Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of three travel periods.  The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that’s the minimum standard.  Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 0r 12 minutes, five or six times an hour.  Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark.”

In all fairness, Little Rock and Tampa are clearly tourist-oriented services, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House streetcar has been up and running for less than a year and Dallas was originally an all-volunteer operation that has just recently grown into a significant downtown circulator.  Portland and Seattle should increase frequencies as those systems continue to expand and ridership grows.

For the reintroduction of streetcars to be a long-term success, they must once again perform the large role they had in our cities 100 years ago.  That role is central to bringing the cities themselves back.  If we content ourselves with lines a mile or so long, running infrequent service and running no faster than urban street traffic, streetcars will be nice to have but not all that important.  So here’s what we need to do in order of priority (and difficulty):

  • Running streetcars at 10 minute intervals, at most; the goal should be “always a car in sight.”  That may require buying more streetcars, which are not all that expensive, and adding more passing loops, which cost a good deal more.  But streetcars will not play the role in restoring our cites we want them to play if people can walk the line faster (including wait time) than they can ride it.
  • Give streetcars traffic light pre-emption.  This too does not cost much, but it significantly raises line speed. Ideally streetcars should get more right-of-way where they do not have to compete with cars; making downtown streets with streetcars in conjunction with pedestrianization can also spur retail sales and spur development.
  • Once a successful starter line has shown the community what streetcars bring, start to build a system.  A system has many lines, service all the important parts of the city.  That costs a lot of money, but if FTA were to get serious about reducing construction costs if could cost less that it does now.  If streetcars are to be more than a “ride,” we need streetcars systems, not just streetcar lines.

I can and do endlessly lament the wonderful streetcar systems our cities had and threw away.  We did not know it at the time, but we were also throwing away our cities.  Their return must also be in tandem, because cities need streetcars.  Cars are inimical to the city, and no one wants to ride a bus. For those of us who know what streetcars can do and once did, it’s time to think big.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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