Higher Speed Rail

It is stunning how much slower Amtrak trains are south of Washington as opposed to north. Washington to New York is a trip that can be made in two and a half hours. Washington to Raleigh, at approximately the same distance, takes 6-7 hours, and the journey is far less predictable. Poorer trackage and the need to share the rails with freight trains explains most of the difference.

So it’s fantastic to see Virginia making efforts to improve the rail corridor between Washington and Richmond. Hopefully the efforts will continue, and improvements will work their way ever southward. Also notable is the price tag–$13 million. Practically nothing transport oriented can be done for that amount, and yet the potential gains from such a small expenditure are significant.

It’s worth pointing out how big an interest the state has in improving these rail connections. The economy in Northern Virginia is lightyears ahead of anything anywhere else in the state. Improving connections between other metropolitan areas and the Washington juggernaut will only increase the market potential of those other areas.

Comments

  1. BruceMcF says:

    Note that its not strictly speaking the sharing of lines with freight that is the problem, but rather the sharing of lines with much slower trains.

    If the lines were shared with a large number of local trains with local platforms on the main lines, there would be similar delays, while if it was shared with container superfreighters running at 110mph, it would be the Amtrak slowing down the superfreighters.

    Mixing substantially different speeds is the problem … in the long period of ultra-cheap oil, the main competitive advantage of rail was in slow bulk freight and time-insensitive containers.

    Protect our ability to ship freight coast to coast from Peak Oil is best done by electrifying our strategic rail grid … and setting it up to take over more time-sensitive freight tasks will also directly make it more suitable for Express and High Speed interurban passenger rail.

  2. rg says:

    I agree that the upgrade is fantastic news. However, it says a lot about how far we have to go in this country when spending $13 million on a rail upgrade is greeted as big news.

    Ditto the previous comment on electrification. Electrifying our railroads would have a huge impact and it’s a crime that we have not begun doing so.

    For anyone interested in seeing how our nation has neglected our infrastructure, take a walk or a bike ride along M Street/Water Street SE on the west bank of the Anacostia River in DC. After the 11th Street Bridges, M/Water Street runs right next to the CSX railroad tracks. An observant person will notice that much of the infrastructure we associate with electric railroads remains: the poles to hold the wires, the substation, etc. Indeed, everything except the actual wires. They were removed sometime in the late 70s or early 80s when the railroad abandoned electric locomotives and went all-diesel. I think this happened about the same time France was preparing to open the first TGV line between Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

  3. Nanonymous says:

    The electrification south of Union Station only extended as far as Potomac Yard in Alexandria. It was basically an appendage of the electrified DC-Philly-NYC system, and when Conrail handed that over to Amtrak in 1976, it lost a lot of its raison d’etre. As traffic grew on the NEC, Conrail shifted the bulk of its freight traffic inland to the old Reading main, and it got rid of the electric engines because 1) they were old and filled with PCBs and 2) they had a limited utility. Diesel engines could run through from Chicago to DC, and the electrics were limited by the extent of the catenary; eliminating them reduced not only the expense associated with maintenance of the electrical system, it eliminated the need for a distinct set of spare parts and a need for an engine change at Harrisburg. There was never any question; it made economic sense.

    Main line electrification in the US is famously an idea that’s always coming. It worked in three places: the aforementioned Pennsylvania main line, the New Haven between New York and New Haven, and the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension. A lot of the Pennsy operation was financed with RFC money during the Depression; the other two operations both went bankrupt shortly after completion. Electrification works only when government money underpins the project; otherwise, the rate of return is too low, and you have to wipe out the stockholders’ equity once or twice to cover the costs.

    And this is not simply an American phenomenon; SNCF reports “profits,” but the French system shovels the debt and capital expenses into the operating company, RFF. RFF loses enormous sums of money, and the French government makes up the difference – and then RFF transfers a “management fee” directly to SNCF. And that fee just happens to be larger than SNCF’s reported profit.

  4. Nanonymous says:

    BTW, the Amtrak reauthorization passed the Senate last night.

  5. rg says:

    I understand why Conrail abandoned electric locomotives and I know that electrification extended only to Potomac Yards. My goal was not to give a lecture about railroad history. Profitability should not be the driving force when making transportation decisions. Indeed, a focus on profitability has led to the sorry state of our nation’s rail infrastructure. The abandoned infrastructure I mentioned is just symbolic. My point was simply that our nation has failed to invest, both publicly and privately, in transportation infrastructure. Yes, SNCF loses money. But the French have a fast and convenient travel option. And, as oil prices continue to skyrocket, they have another option, albeit a subsidized one, for moving goods and people.

  6. Nanonymous says:

    “Profitability should not be the driving force when making transportation decisions. Indeed, a focus on profitability has led to the sorry state of our nation’s rail infrastructure.”

    Nonsense. The North American rail network (and that includes Canada, which is functionally identical) is the best in the world. The simple fact is that it’s optimized for moving freight, rather than people. By every reasonable measure of efficiency, the North American rail network is the most efficient in the world. Even if you include Amtrak in the mix, UIC data suggests it still generates fifteen times the ton mileage of the rest of the G-7, with the exception of Canada (which generates ten times the ton-mileage of the others). And at the end of the day, that freight system generates a financial surplus that’s about five or six times the total cost to the Canadian and American governments of VIA and Amtrak. There’s not a rail system in the G-7 of which the same can be said. And they’re going to feel it as aging populations reduce the tax base and increase the size of transfer payments.

    Profitability and classical measures of efficiency are really the way a system is judged (the European systems certainly are – that’s why they go to such lengths to hide the real costs). They underpin decisionmaking because money isn’t free; if you fail to understand why those things are important, you’re never going to understand why electrification is so uncommon here, and you certainly won’t be able to imagine an alternative that stands a ghost of a chance of being, y’know, implemented.

    There’s something else electrification advocates often miss, so pardon me if I heave myself up onto the soapbox here: a modern diesel engine IS an electric engine. It just carries its generators in the carbody. it does have some inherent disadvantages (e.g., no regenerative braking), but the fact of the matter is that the mechanical advantage an electric engine enjoys over a diesel engine is real, but it’s small. The electric engines were really at an advantage when the competition was steam, which required an enormous infrastructure of water towers, coal towers, shop facilities, a large fleet, and a huge maintenance force. Diesels did away with all of that, just like electrics did, but they did it without a need for an enormous electrical infrastructure.

  7. rg says:

    That’s great, but this PERSON wants to move.

  8. Nanonymous says:

    Well, sure. We all do. But however you look at it, personal travel is just one part of the economy. The fact that your Chinese-made I-pod can be loaded on a Z-train in LA and traverse the continent with a bazillion other Ipods at 60 mph makes a big difference to its availability and affordability – and by extension, your lifestyle.

  9. rg says:

    I don’t want to get into an argument of electric versus diesel. I’m sure people much smarter than I could spend hours debating the merits of each form of locomotion. I just want a decent passenger rail system. And, as a lay person, all of the decent passenger rail systems I have ridden are electric.

    Plus, bully for the freight railroads making so much money while efficiently moving goods. That’s great for their shareholders, for companies shipping things and for the people buying those things. None of that gets Ryan to Raleigh in a reasonable amount of time, which was the original point. Indeed, a lot of that efficiency and profitability is exactly what stops Ryan from getting to Raleigh in a reasonable amount of time.

    BTW — I may not be an engineer, but I’m not that dumb. I was already aware that diesel engines are electric engines — which adds all of the weight of the generators to the locomotive, requiring extra effort and energy to move the locomotive much the less rest of the train (and making a hell of a lot of noise in the process). Electric might not be great for freight, but it does wonders for a passenger train trying to keep a schedule.

  10. Nanonymous says:

    The real reason Amtrak trains run at 79 mph has nothing to do with engine power. A GE P-42 is geared for 110 mph. Trains are generally kept to 79 mph because the Federal Railway Administration doesn’t permit operation over that speed without a cab signal system (basically, an onboard reception unit that repeats lineside signal indications). With one exception, the FRA doesn’t permit operation above 110 mph without a positive train control system (of the kind potentially mandated by last night’s safety legislation). Now, for the DC-Raleigh trip, the total rail distance is 306 miles. A 110 mph service on that route could be pretty competitive, if it was properly dispatched.

    Of course, the real issue is less one of speed than it is number of stops. The difference between 150 mph service (Acela) and 186 mph service on the TGV isn’t all that big, timewise – if you could do a pure end-to-end service. It’s the stops in the middle that kill your average speed.

    Actually, those diesels and generators aren’t just deadweight. A lot of electrics carry slab metal ballast to add weight, because you need to have sufficient weight on the wheels to get a decent factor of adhesion. You can have all the power you want, but you have to increase the weight proportionally (the ideal factor is right around 4), or you’ll wind up sitting still with spinning wheels.

  11. Alex B. says:

    Pure electric locos can still accelerate faster as they can spin up the necessary juice easier than the Diesel can.

    The arguments for electrification of the national rail system (or at least the main trunk lines) are not purely about rail operations, they’re about speed, energy, and a host of other issues. Diesel locos may well indeed be very efficient, but they still use petroleum. Unlike, say, trying to convert everyone to electric cars, converting trains to electricity is really quite easy. It’s a low-hanging fruit, and if done right could also offer a huge advantage to passenger rail in the US as well.

    A guy over at The Oil Drum made the case for this a couple of months ago:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4301

  12. BruceMcF says:

    The North American rail network (and that includes Canada, which is functionally identical) is the best in the world. The simple fact is that it’s optimized for moving freight, rather than people. By every reasonable measure of efficiency, the North American rail network is the most efficient in the world.

    Of course the North American rail system is extraordinarily “efficient” on most commercial measures … the substantial sacrifices in capabilities over the past five decades have almost always been in service of increased cost-efficiency in carrying time-insensitive and heavy bulk cargoes.

    However, the rail system has had to be commercially efficient in the transport tasks it takes on in the face of a much smaller share of total transport costs being externalized than truck transport … trucking has been far more successful on the back of far less economic efficiency as a consequence of being much more effective at externalizing cost.

    The result is gross energy inefficiency in our transport system and massive exposure to interruption and price shocks in crude oil. The electrification of STRACNET and establishment of inter-regional HVDC electric trunk is not only an investment in a substantially more energy efficient freight transport system, but also in a transport system far less exposed to external energy supply shocks.

  13. Nanonymous says:

    Well, let’s take these as they come.

    To start with, I await with interest the results of a computation of the actual emissions results from an electrified system that’s powered by the existing electrical infrastructure. If you use nuclear power, then electrified system emissions will be lower than dieselized system emissions. If you use coal, well – I’ll accept a sophisticated calculation, but I’m not holding my breath, is all I’m saying. I don’t think it’s a wash, and I don’t think you’ll get to lower emissions levels using electricity, unless you can use hydroelectric power (and good luck getting around NEPA for THOSE projects) or nuclear power. Windmills and solar panels aren’t going to generate the electricity to power a modern high-speed rail operation.

    Electrification is, I would add, a strikingly bad idea for something like “STRACNET.” For one thing, it concentrates vulnerability, which is the last thing we want in a system that’s militarily significant.

    Where there have been “sacrifices in capabilities,” those sacrifices have generally entailed a reduction in excess capacity. And that’s not a bad thing; why pay for three tracks when two will do the job?

    As far as the externalization of costs goes, you’re right, but it’s also irrelevant. The infrastructure repair bill is simply too big; even if we stop building highways, there’s not going to be much extra money to go around. The budget crunch that’s coming is too big. The likely result is not that we’re suddenly going to build enormously expensive HSR projects, but that we are going to take on selected capacity-enhancment projects on the railroads, which will be much cheaper, and will be able to leverage government involvement to obtain additional capacity for Amtrak and commuter operations. All in all, it’s still a win-win proposition, it’s just not grandiose. But it will work.

  14. Alex B. says:

    Um, the idea of electrifying isn’t really about emissions at all, it’s about using something that’s not oil. Reduce oil dependence via the lowest hanging fruit – a fruit that just so happens to have a lot of ancillary benefits, too.

    Also, from a strategic standpoint, there’s nothing that prevents diesel locomotives from operating on electrified tracks.

    As far as “why pay for three tracks when two will do the job?” Well, we should pay for three tracks because the job has changed, and two tracks are insufficient. The narrowly tailored view of what rail’s role is needs to change.

  15. Nanonymous says:

    But it’s not low-hanging fruit if the generating capacity isn’t there – and right now, given the open hostility to coal-fired plants, hydroelectric plants, and nuclear plants, to say nothing of the condition of the power grid, I have a hard time seeing where we’re going to suddenly get the electric power to run a national railroad system on. It’s easy to say “well, raise the generating capacity,” but then you add an enormous additional cost to a project that’s already prohibitively expensive, and you wind up with, well, nothing.

    Capital drought is the key problem that the railroad network faces. Revenue adequacy is already low; the freights manage an ROI of about 10% in a record year, and they plow more than 15% of their earnings back into their infrastructure and equipment. So you really can’t just hand-wave the idea that they’re going to take on another enormous capital expense and make it work. It won’t happen. If it was financially advantageous, it would have happened already. This is the point I made above: whatever the unsourced claims about efficiency and capacity claims, the fact of the matter is that electrification has been tried and rejected, because the projected gains have not translated into real economic gains; the projects don’t pay for themselves. It’s nice to say we should chose other measures than purely economic ones, but those are always stacked decks; they’re chosen explicitly because they favor one course of action or another.

    This is why I made that comment about three tracks versus two; where it makes sense to relay them, that’s exactly what companies (often with government support) are doing. But there’s only so much money to do that, and the safety bill that was just passed the other day slapped another enormous capital requirement on the railroads, since everyone’s now going to have to install PTC.

  16. Alex B. says:

    1. That Oil Drum link I posted earlier makes some preliminary calculations on the additional generating capacity needed. This is not going to be a major hurdle.

    2. Capital is indeed an issue, but I think everyone here who’s been advocating for increased rail investment has been doing so with the idea that government would be the one providing that funding. That’s what government can do – bridge those capital costs that would otherwise be prohibitive because of the long term benefits they bring.

    Yes, we should favor one course of action explicitly over another – mostly because we need to catch up after years of doing exactly that – favoring autos over all else.

    The point about three tracks versus two is that the companies should not be the ones deciding if it makes sense. They divested themselves of passenger obligations, thus they are not taking that kind of data into account when making those decisions.

  17. BruceMcF says:

    But it’s not low-hanging fruit if the generating capacity isn’t there – and right now, given the open hostility to coal-fired plants, hydroelectric plants, and nuclear plants, to say nothing of the condition of the power grid, I have a hard time seeing where we’re going to suddenly get the electric power to run a national railroad system on. It’s easy to say “well, raise the generating capacity,” but then you add an enormous additional cost to a project that’s already prohibitively expensive, and you wind up with, well, nothing.

    The HVDC trunk system eliminating stranded wind in the high plains and allowing existing generating capacity to be pooled across much wider areas provides for substantially more new capacity than the electrification of STRACNET requires.

    Capital drought is the key problem that the railroad network faces.

    The Strategic National Highway System was never put at the mercy of private capital markets, there’s no reason to persist with an obsolete national freight transport system because of the problems with private capital markets.

    Indeed, increasing national productivity, reducing risk exposure to adverse shocks against national productivity, and at the same time providing economic stimulus to shorten the period of the employment-recession that has hung on long after the last two GDP-recessions passed are all moves that will help private capital markets.