Sunday Train

A column of essays about Sustainable Energy & Transport, Transport for Economic Opportunity, and the Climate Catastrophe which our nation and the globe is plummeting toward, aided and abetted by vested interests and staunch defenders of the status quo. After a corridor realignment, Sunday Train has been running out of Voices on the Square as its origin Station since July 2012. BruceMcF is the lead author, and accepts submissions. Frequency is mostly weekly, normally sometime Sunday evening, except when life happens in such a way that it isn't.

Sunday Train: Cuomo Backs the Worst Air Train to LaGuardia

Back in January, Yonah Freemark covered the news that Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a genuine clunk of an Air Train to La Guardia airport. The proposal was, as Yonah Freemark put it, "an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time."

Yonah Freemark was not the only transit blogger to give this proposal the thumbs down. Benjamin Kabak writing at 2nd Avenue Sagas pointed out in On the flawed LaGuardia AirTrain proposal and Astoria’s N train that a superior subway connection from LGA to Manhattan had been proposed by Rudy Guliani in the late 90s, but abandoned due to NIMBY opposition.

Benjamin Kabak points to Cap'n Transit Rides Again and the post from May, It's time to extend the N train to LaGuardia, where Cap'n Transit points out that the main "leaders" who fought against the N extension to LaGuardia have now passed from the scene, and now may be the time to test the waters again with the original N-train to LaGuardia plan.

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Sunday Train: The New Gulf Wind, NOLA to Orlando

In this September's Trains magazine{+}, Bob Johnston looks at the history and current state of play of the eastern section of the Sunset Limited route, running from New Orleans through to, most of the time, Orlando Florida. This is a live topic since both houses have passed Amtrak funding bills, which are currently awaiting reconciliation, and both include language setting up a group to study re-establishing intercity rail service on the Gulf Coast.

This also ties into three issues previously examined on the Sunday Train. The Orlando terminus offers the possibility of connecting rail services, which include the Carolina services, some of which extend through to Florida, and also the planned Rapid Rail All Aboard Florida hourly daytime passenger services between Orlando and Miami. And the western connection ties this into the previous Congress-mandated study of upgrades to the existing Sunset Limited, which proposed to replace the current route by extending the Texas Eagle through to Los Angeles, connecting to a New Orleans corridor service at San Antonio.

{+: Note that online access to Trains! magazine is mostly paywalled for subscribers to the print edition.}

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Sunday Train: Making An Energy Revolution

Writing for Politico, "Energy Visionary" Vaclav Smil writes in Revolution? More like a crawl:

Undoubtedly, the U.S. is experiencing two notable energy transitions, from coal to natural gas and from fossil fuels to new renewables in electricity generation. These shifts are welcome because they promise to bring cleaner and less carbon-intensive supplies. But they cannot be rapid, and they bring their own technical, economic and social challenges. Energy infrastructure is the world’s most elaborate and expensive, and the longevity and inertia of many large energy enterprises make it impossible for any large, complex national system (to say nothing of the global level) to reconfigure itself even in three or four decades.

And the statement is, on its own terms, quite certainly correct. Yet I support calls for a "pedal to the metal" transition to low and no carbon, sustainable energy as a policy approach that we shall have to be pursuing in order to achieve what must be done. So, what gives? Is Vaclav Smil correct? And if he is, in what sense is he correct?

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Sunday Train: In Worrying News, Non-Petroleum in Transport Hits 60-year High

The US Energy Information Administration released a story last week which sounded like good news: Nonpetroleum Share of Transportation Energy at Highest Level Since 1954. "Since 1954" means, since before I was born or, as hard as it is to wrap my brain around, a period spanning six decades.

So, surely this is good news? Well, if you have glanced at their accompanying chart, no, not so much. A more descriptive headline would be, "US transport continues to be addicted to petroleum as its primary energy source". And digging into the US EIA numbers reveals that the situation is even more grave than the chart to the right would make you think.

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Sunday Train: Benefits of the Maryland Red and Purple Lines

Just as national attention has been focused on the sections of Baltimore that have been largely locked out of the revival of economic activity in downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, the new Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is considering whether to proceed with the construction of the Red Line in Baltimore, as well as the Purple Line in the Maryland DC suburbs.

As discussed in StreetsblogUSA back in January, "Considering to proceed", here, means:

Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were "worth considering."

Now Transport for American (t4america.com) has weighed in, producing a report that argues that the benefits of the lines make them well worth their cost.

Indeed, part of their case may well help explain why Gov. Hogan is "deciding" when originally Candidate Hogan sounded like he had already made up his mind. For the Transport for America case for these lines, join me below the fold.

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Sunday Train: Variable Renewables and Dispatchable Demand

CAISO renewable energy late April 2015

Much of the focus on the Sunday Train is on electrification of transport, ranging from 2,000 mile hauls of electrified freight through to hopping on an e-bike to pick up some groceries. And spending this school year mostly living and working in Beijing brings many of the possibilities to life ... from riding the subway to get to the Sanlitun district for Texas BBQ, to seeing an electric freight train passing on a line overhead as the bus we were riding for our school spring outing last Saturday was bogged down in Beijing traffic, to seeing the electric delivery tricycle used by the pizza delivery from Woudaokou for the neighbor down the haul who seems to live in delivered pizza and Indian food.

But the efficiency gains of electric traction are only half of the story for sustainable transport, since its not fully sustainable unless that electricity is generated in a sustainable way.

And when following online discussion of renewable energy at the Energy Collective, which attracts both advocates for and detractors of investment in renewable energy resources, a perennial source of ammunition for attacks on renewable energy are the challenges of meeting demand for electricity with the harvest of a variable source of energy that is available on its own schedule, and not ours.

This is a topic I have touched on before (cf , ), Inspired by the article at the Energy Collective: Will Natural Gas Peaker Plants Become Obsolete?, I am coming back to today. What I want to focus on today is the opportunities offered by dispatchable demand for better integration of variable renewable energy. And I would be happy if you would join me to discuss this topic (or any other topic involving sustainable transport), below the fold.

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Sunday Train: A Steel Interstate for the Keystone West Corridor


In the last Sunday Train, I talked about the study on Keystone West improvements commissioned by the PennDOT. This study finds that upgrades are expensive, and benefits are modest, in terms of allowing for one or two additional services per day, but at a substantially higher subsidy per passenger mile.

However, this study had a quite peculiar "hole" in the range of options: even though the Keystone East is a Rapid Passenger Rail corridor, electrified and upgraded to 110mph to allow the successful upgrade in frequency and transit speed of the Keystone service between Harrisburg and NYC via Philadelphia ... Rapid Passenger Rail was completely ignored as an option.

This meant that the only speed upgrade that was considered was an Express HSR corridor that was "designed to fail" under the designated criteria, since it would be on a different alignment, and so not pass through the communities between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh currently served by the Keystone West.

While "back of the envelope" calculations suggested that filling in this hole would offer some advantages, it would still give an intercity service requiring operating subsidized for a decade or more.

However, this was all under "status quo" assumptions. What I look at this week is what changes for the Keystone West if we were able to start building out a Steel Interstate system for this country, to shift some of the petroleum-dependent, carbon-emitting pavement-destroying heavy diesel truck long-hail freight onto sustainable powered electrified Rapid Rail Freight. Join me for this much more promising future ... below the fold.

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Sunday Train: The Hole in the PA Keystone West Feasibility Study

One of the things I was waiting on last year was delivery of Pennsylvania's feasibility study for improvements on the "Keystone West" corridor. The "Keystone East" corridor connecting Harrisburg and Philadelphia was upgraded in 2006, with an electrified corridor with speeds of up to 110mph providing travel times competitive with driving, especially in the suburban Philadelphia area. So when a "Keystone West" feasibility study was announced, there were high hopes in some quarters that some substantial improvements might be made on the "Keystone West" corridor, connecting Pittsburgh with Harrisburg, currently hosting only the Pennsylvanian between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

The feasibility study is was originally promised for substantially earlier, with a final draft completed in May 2013 but the trip from final draft to final report took more than a year, being finally published in August of last year (pdf).

A quick review of the Executive Summary reveals that a range of things can be done to improve the Keystone West, which could trim something less than an hour from the current five and a half hour trip to Harrisburg (with a further hour and a half to Philadelphia). It also takes a look at, and quickly dismisses an Express HSR corridor.

But for some reason ... while it considers an option to add a third passenger-only track on the Keystone West, it completely ignores the option of a Rapid Rail speed upgrade on that track ... despite the fact that a Rapid Rail speed upgrade was part of what made the Keystone East project successful. So I'll take a look at this curious hole in the feasibility study, below the fold.

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Sunday Train: Five Levels of US Intercity Rail Policy

In Sunday Train last week, I referred to the Bipartisan Majority to Authorize the funding of Amtrak as "Good News". One commentator in the discussion in one of the crossposts pointed out that the news wasn't all that particularly good, since continued funding on this basis over the indefinite future will spell serious trouble for the system as a whole.

Now, as I suggested more than once, the "good news" last week certainly was not unqualified good news ... that is, to say it was "qualified" good news was already taking on board the bad electoral news for Amtrak in the continued Republican House Majority combined with a new Republican Senate Majority, which opened the door to some of the deep, slashing cuts to Amtrak that some on the Republican side have long hoped to make. So the "qualified good news" was that in going for a total defunding of Amtrak, the radical reactionary wing of the Republican party overplayed its hand, opening the way for a majority of House Republicans, along with basically the entire Democratic caucus, to authorize the continued funding of Amtrak at just about the levels that have been in place over the past four years.

But that was set against the bad news of the INDOT refusing to continue the Hoosier State service on the ground of basically not being allowed to have its cake and eat it too ... insisting on acting like the organization putting together a passenger rail service, without being treated as a passenger railway. And so I started thinking about the Hoosier State / Cardinal corridor in the context of, on one hand, the very low bar for "good news" in transport funding with this Congress, versus the tremendous need we have for a massive wave of investment in transport that can be powered by sustainable, renewable energy. And to organize my thinking, I started to sort it out into five levels:

  • Level 0: "Very Much Worse";
  • Level 1: "Barely Scraping By";
  • Level 2: "A Basic Skeleton Service Done Right"
  • Level 3: "Incremental Growth"
  • Level 4: "Aggressive Growth"

More about the five levels ... below the fold.

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Sunday Train: On Amtrak, I've got some good news, and some bad news.

This last week, there was the surprising start to a headline in the Washington Post that began, "GOP House and White House agree on something" ... and that something was: Amtrak funding (and pets on a train).

From NPR:

The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act passed on a vote of 316-101 (132 Republicans joined 184 Democrats in voting for the bill; 101 Republicans voted against). It keeps spending for Amtrak at nearly current levels — about $1.4 billion a year — for the next four years, and includes other reforms aimed at improving the railroad's fiscal performance.

... so that is a majority of the Republican majority voting for a bill that both Heritage Action and Club for Growth were scoring, looking for a "No" vote to gain their approval, and which the White House gave qualified approval to (though perhaps it helped some of those Republicans that they can point to parts of the bill that the White House did not approve of). And so the Northeast Corridor trains and long haul trains, alongside most of the state approved corridor services under 750 miles in length, can continue running.

But this was not an entirely "good news" week, since we also heard that Indiana DOT scuttles Amtrak Hoosier State. The Hoosier State is the "companion" train to the three-times-a-week Cardinal, and together the two provide for a daily connection from Indianapolis in the early hours of the morning, scheduled to arrive in Chicago in mid-morning. The Indiana DOT has declared its refusal to continue the service unless it gets to put the service together on its own terms, only using Amtrak for the elements of the service where Amtrak gets a better price than a private operator. And so customers of the Hoosier State service will be getting a special "April Fool's" gift in the form of a drop down from daily to three times a week rail access to Chicago.

More about the qualified good news and unqualified bad news, below the fold.

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