Posts Tagged Amtrak

Amtrak Philadelphia crash, Positive Train Control, and the tech zeitgeist

NJ Transit commuter trainAfter the horrific Amtrak crash in Philadelphia earlier this week that killed eight people, it’s natural for railroad officials, regulators, and the public to reflexively search for something to do.

Tragedies like this shouldn’t happen, and it’s natural to want to respond with some sort of action that ensures they don’t.

A lot of discussion in that regard seems to focus on the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that’s designed to slow or stop trains when crews ignore signals and speed limits, and that railroads are already mandated to start using soon.

The general consensus is that a functioning PTC system would have stopped Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 from entering a 50 mph curve at the 100 mph investigations indicate it was traveling at.

That seems fairly definitive, but the discussion shouldn’t end there. Today we’re used to jumping to the conclusion that technology is the only answer, but perhaps as much because of its flashiness as its superiority.

PTC uses sensors, wireless, signals, and control computers to determine a train’s position and speed, decide whether said train is operating within acceptable parameters (i.e., obeying speed limits and signals), and can slow or stop a train if necessary.

The Federal government requires all major railroads to put PTC systems into operation by December 31, although the industry has repeatedly said that deadline is unrealistic. Legislation has been introduced to extend the deadline by varying amounts.

Congress passed the mandate as part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, and it’s been vigorously debated by politicians and industry personalities since then. But it’s only recently been brought to the attention of the broader public by the Amtrak crash, as well as another deadly crash back in December on the New York-area Metro North Railroad.

That’s led to headlines like “Could technology have prevented the crash?” (CNN) and “Speed control technology could have stopped Amtrak derailment (NPR), which appear to frame the debate purely in terms of why a life-saving technology wasn’t available.

In an age where we look to Apple and Google to save the world, and our phones, tablets, smartwatches, and other digital ephemera to run our lives, that’s a comfortable perspective. But it’s also problematic.

Because while Congress requires railroads to deploy PTC, the regulations don’t comprise a technical standard. PTC systems exist–Amtrak already uses it on the Northeast Corridor where the crash occurred–but none that have proven to be interoperable across all railroads and all pieces of rolling stock.

In 2013, former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman remarked that it took NASA less time to land a man on the moon than it’s taken railroads to implement PTC.

At that’s despite the major freight railroads spending over $5 billion to date on PTC. Amtrak and state and local government-operated passenger carriers are getting massive infusions of cash as well.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation tentatively approved a $976 million loan to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to cover PTC installation on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, according to Trains magazine.

Over the past few years, Congress has shown consistent hostility when it comes to merely approving a budget for Amtrak. PTC will likely require additional infusions of cash into railroad infrastructure; will it really show enthusiasm for that?

But there is an alternative to the technical and financial challenges of PTC.

The crashes that sparked interest in PTC all have one thing in common: lone engineers in the cabs of speeding trains who all got distracted or otherwise incapacitated. So why not just put a second person in the cab?

Like a copilot in an airliner cockpit, a second crew member in a locomotive cab could act as a backup. And unlike PTC computers, railroads already have a pretty good idea of how to train humans for this job.

But adding ensuring that there are two people in the cab of every train will still cost money, and like most other businesses, railroads don’t generally like to hire more people than they feel they need. Two-person crews are still required for freight trains, but there’s already talk of eliminating that requirement when PTC goes live.

So in a way, PTC and expanded crews sit in opposition to each other. Regulations and the constant search for costs to cut mean the public could have to pick one or the other. And even though it’s the simpler solution, expanding crews will likely lose out to PTC.

Positive Train Control is simply the more dramatic solution. It makes for a better story, fits in with the current technological zeitgeist, and catches the public’s attention. Simply hiring more people isn’t very dramatic, or disruptive, or any other Silicon Valley buzzwords, even if it might be the better solution.

We’ll probably never know. Congress has already committed to a PTC mandate, and railroads have already spent billions of dollars on it. It’s also much easier to sell the public on a magic technology than the competence and effectiveness of multiple human beings working together.


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Revenge of the Air Line

Amtrak Acela 2009

An Amtrak Acela cruises through Old Syabrook, Ct. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This isn’t a story about boarding passes and mediocre food. It’s about connecting two of America’s busiest cities with a ribbon of steel, and how there is nothing new under the Sun.

Federal officials have a new proposal for a high-speed rail line across Connecticut connecting New York and Boston. Amtrak’s intercity Acela trains currently use the former New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad “Shore Line,” (a.k.a. Metro North New Haven Line) which shadows Long Island Sound.

However, that is not the fastest way from one end of Connecticut to the other.

Most people who need to get from New York to Boston via car take Interstate 84, which cuts diagonally across the Nutmeg State like a hypotenuse. That is what federal officials are proposing: a new line that eschews the Shore Line for a route through the state capital, Hartford.

What Amtrak may not realize is that this idea has been tried before. In 1868, construction began on a railroad that would connect Boston and New York. The line would diverge from the modern day Shore Line at New Haven, then head northeast via Middletown and Willimantic. It became known as the Boston-New York Air Line Railroad.

In an era that predated human powered flight by about 30 years, “Air Line” referred to any railroad that chose a shorter route over an easier one.

The builders of the Air Line had the right idea, they justdidn’t take it far enough. High-speed trains in Europe and Asia run on dedicated, arrow-straight rights of way, but engineers also made sure those lines lacked significant grades. That’s why trains like the TGV and Eurostar spend most of their time in trenches (“cuts” in railroad speak) or tunnels.

Amtrak’s Acela is a very fast train, but it’s speed is limited by the fact that it runs on a route designed for much slower trains. Consequently, the Acela can only reach its top speed of 150 mph briefly.

So a high-speed rail line needs to be relatively curve free, like the Air Line, but also free of other obstructions, including slower trains. To run wide open, modern trains will need a route that traces the Air Line.

The only problem is that the Air Line was a commercial failure. Connecticut has many rivers that run north-south, which means it has many steep hills and valleys to impede a railroad running east-west. Consequently, the Air Line was very expensive to build, and its owners never had the cash to take it all the way to Boston.

That’s why, today, the Air Line is almost completely gone. A section between Middletown and Portland is still operated by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, the rest is abandoned or part of the Air Line State Park trails.

In fact, the Shore Line is the only successful railroad ever built across Connecticut, due to its flat, southerly route. Amtrak wants to take its high-speed line through Danbury, which would parallel the route of the Air Line’s successor, the New York and New England. The New Haven Railroad bought that company began abandoning the tracks in 1937; by 1948 all of the trackage west of Waterbury was gone.

Other casualties included the Central New England, which ran from Hartford to Poughkeepsie, New York and the Meriden, Waterbury & Connecticut River, which connected Waterbury with Cromwell.Connecticut high-speed rail map

Any new high-speed line will face the same problem as its forebears: a difficult route and competition for a limited amount of traffic with another line.

However, we have a few advantages in the 21st century that didn’t exist in the 19th. Amtrak is a government operation, so if the political will to build this line exists, a steady flow of cash will see it through to its completion.

Modern railroaders also have the technology to take full advantage of a direct route. Trains like the Acela are faster and can sustain those high speeds much longer than any 1800s steam engine. Advances in signal and communications technology also mean that more trains can run on a given route.

Maybe the Air Line’s time has finally come.

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Wisconsin Talgo a no-go

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Sorry for the week of no posts; even lazy bloggers need a vacation sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about mass transit and mentioned Wisconsin’s high speed Talgo trains. Two trains were about to enter testing, so it seemed like Wisconsin had the right idea. Apparently, they don’t.

Wisconsin’s two Talgos will still be tested, but then the 14-car trains will probably be put into storage. According to Trains magazine, the state reneged on a 20-year maintenance contract for the trains, which involved the construction of a maintenance facility and employing Talgo workers to repair the sets. The state doesn’t want to spend the money, so those workers will be laid off and passengers will continue riding 25-year-old coaches on the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

Before the 2010 elections, Democratic governor Jim Doyle secured $810 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to upgrade tracks and build new trains. When Republican Scott Walker took over, he decided that improved rail service and potential jobs at Talgo’s Milwaukee facility were not worth the cost. He returned the federal money, and his administration says the state is saving $10 million by not running the trains.

I’m not an economist, or a governor, but this still doesn’t make sense. Republicans hate to see the government spend money, but what are they saving it for? The economy is supposed to be the nation’s primary political concern, yet Talgo is laying off workers because the Wisconsin GOP will not follow through on a predetermined contract. The state may be saving $10 million, but it has already wasted $70 million on two trains that will do nothing but gather dust.

The Talgo project should have been a no-brainer. The trains, which can tilt to take corners at high speeds, have proven popular on Amtrak’s Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest, and Talgo went to great lengths to bring them into compliance with current Federal Railroad Administration crash standards. Wisconsin needed new trains, and Talgo need customers. What went wrong?

Republicans like to think that completely eliminating government spending will solve America’s problems, but Walker’s actions show that frivolous spending cuts can actually make things worse. Who benefits from Wisconsin’s reneging? Is it the people stuck on worn-out trains, or the people without jobs?

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Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.

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