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.

The Keystone West Feasibility Study Results

The Keystone West feasibility study looks at four alternatives to the status quo. The "No Build" option is the status quo, in feasibility study speak. Alternative One is primarily focused on curve modifications that can be done within the current right of way. Alternative Two extends Alternative One to include curve straightening and right of way adjustments at specific bottleneck locations. Alternative Three extends Alternative Two to include a third passenger-only track, where the majority of the corridor is a two-track corridor. Alternative Four is an electrified, two track, passenger-only High Speed Rail corridor on a southerly alignment similar to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

As interpreted by the feasibility study, the objectives of the feasibility study are a guarantee that the High Speed Rail alternative would not be selected. These objectives are described at a high level in the executive summary as:

  • Extend higher speed rail service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh
  • Increase Ridership on the Keystone West
  • Stimulate Regional Economic Development

It is the third objective which is the killer for Alternative Four. From page 30 of the feasibility study:

... Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 would also support sound land use practices and encourage value-added development around existing stations, which Alternative 4, due to being on new alignment, would not. Therefore, Alternative 4 was ranked lower for establishing effective institutional partnerships compared to the other build alternatives.

Similarly, because Alternative 4 is on new alignment and would move the Keystone West corridor out of the communities that currently depend upon passenger rail service, it was ranked lower for stimulating economic development.

When combined with financial feasibility criteria for a $38.2b corridor, the High Speed Rail corridor was rated last, below even the No-Build option, and so filtered out of more detailed consideration.

From the preceding discussion on page 25, it appears that the more fundamental analysis was that Express HSR should be put into the "too hard" basket:

... Although no formal weighting of the metrics was employed, emphasis was placed on feasibility as a means of prioritizing feasible study outcomes rather than otherwise attractive alternatives that had little probability of being implemented.

While a true high speed rail line traversing the Commonwealth would position Pennsylvania as an integral link in a potential regional/national high speed rail network and would likely create significant mobility and economic benefits over the long term, past experience has demonstrated that the probability of implementation of this most ambitious approach can be low. Several states including California, Florida and Texas have attempted to launch major high speed rail projects, only to have most of them falter for lack of adequate institutional support and financing. Pennsylvania attempted to launch a true high speed rail initiative between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the 1980s, but that effort also was aborted with no resulting improvements in rail infrastructure service.

This filtering left the three levels of improvement on the existing Keystone West corridor, owned by Norfolk Southern:

  • Alternative One, savings of 9 minutes westbound, under 5 minutes eastbound, $1.5b in construction cost, $0.4m in ROW costs
  • Alternative Two, savings of 35+ minutes westbound, 29+ minutest eastbound, $9.9b on construction costs, $14m in ROW costs
  • Alternative Three, savings of 35+ minutes westbound, 29+ minutes eastbound, $13.1b on construction costs, $16m in ROW costs

The feasibility study then proceeds to consider possible ridership impacts of Alternative Two. While the demand analysis consider both twice a day and three times a day service, the following financial analysis focuses on twice a day service, since at this level of planning it could not be confirmed whether the Alternative 2 improvements would provide sufficient new capacity to support three services per day on a four and a half hour timetable between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

From the 2012 ridership of 107,420 on the once a day Keystone West portion of the Pennsylvanian, the 2020 ridership estimates 3.5% higher, at 111.220, with no improvements. Compared to the "No Build" alternative, ridership is estimated to increase:

  • By 46.1% in Alternative 2 without supporting bus services, to 162,502
  • Or by 58.1% in Alternative 2 with supporting bus services, to 169,910

The projected "No Build" growth in ridership by 2035 is 9.7%, to 117,870. Compared to that 2035 level, ridership is expected to increase:

  • By 67.7% in Alternative 2 without supporting bus services, to 197,675
  • Or by 75.5% in Alternative 2 with supporting bus services, to 206,815

Since the increase in demand when a second service is provided is less than 100%, this increase in service would be expected to require an increase in subsidy, and that is what the financial analysis of the feasibility study found, on page 103, with required subsidy increasing from $4.8m annually for a single service to $15.2m in 2020, dropping to $12.8m in 2035 due to the projected increase in ridership.

The Mysterious Delay ... Sticker-Shock?

It seems that the cost of even the "low cost" alternative 1, coming in at about $1.5b to gain less than 10 minutes in speed either way may have caused more than a little bit of sticker shock at the PennDOT, since the final chapter, "Next Steps and Improvement Options", pp. 141-159, concludes with five pages devoted to a $500m "Lower Cost Option A", which is introduced with the statement:

Following completion of this Feasibility Report / Preliminary Service Development Plan (FR/PSDP), it was decided that it was necessary to develop an improvement option with a cost of less than $500M. The option proposed herein is not a preferred alternative nor a suggestion on what should be built first. The option was developed simply as one of multiple options to a systematic approach at corridor improvements and, predominately, to provide an option costing less than $500M.

In February 2014, reportedly due to the cost of the alternatives analyzed in the report (p. 155), a "Menu of Options" document was developed, listing individual projects with separate utility and need, and it was this Menu of Options which was used to develop a "Low Cost Alternative A", which includes all of the platform and station improvements of Alternative 3, the supporting complementary bus services, and a selection of capacity and speed upgrades from Alternative 2.

Digging into the Demand analysis chapter (pp. 85-96), imagine the surprise at the PennDOT when they look at "Alternative 2A", which is:

Although Alternative 2 infrastructure improvements were used as the primary basis for the demand analysis, two other alternatives were also tested. Alternative 2A, consisting of constructing only the platform and station improvements at Lewistown, Huntingdon, Tyrone, and Altoona, was tested as a low-cost, early-action alternative. Alternative 2C is characterized by the same infrastructure and trip times as Alternative 2, but with the addition of a third daily round trip to the schedule.

... and then considered that with reference to the headline "bang for the buck" comparison of Alternative Two and Alternative One:

  • Alternative One, savings of 9 minutes westbound, under 5 minutes eastbound, $1.5b in construction cost, $0.4m in ROW costs
  • Alternative Two, savings of 35+ minutes westbound, 29+ minutest eastbound, $9.9b on construction costs, $14m in ROW costs
  • Alternative 2A: savings of 22 minutes westbound, 16 minutes eastbound, $14.3million in construction costs, $0 in ROW costs

I can imagine somebody from PennDOT raising the same question that this brought to my mind: "If we can get better than 15 minutes cut from the timetable for under $15m, why in the Sam Hill does the "low cost" alternative cost $1.5b and slice less than 10 minutes off of the timetable?"

And we can basically hear the consultant's answer to that question in their explanation for why they tacked the "Low Cost Alternative A" as a final five pages onto the end of a 150pp+ study (not counting appendices), instead of working that out up front:

At the onset of the Feasibility Study, the Project Team was tasked with developing and evaluating the feasibility of a range of conceptual alternatives that would reduce travel times and allow for increased trip frequency on the Keystone West. No dollar amount was set that constituted what defined a “lower cost” option and the overall intent of the study was to determine the feasibility of various means to reduce travel times and increase service frequency; therefore, alternatives were developed with the primary goal of reducing travel times and adding additional frequencies. Costs were a factor but not the driving force behind alternative development. ... (p.

... or, to translate from consultant-speak, "you never said that a low cost alternative had to be below $1b!".

And therefore, the "Menu of Alternatives" (picking up in the paragraph where the previous blockquote left off):

... Because the resulting alternatives (Alternatives 1, 2, 3, and 4) were quite costly, the Menu of Options (February 2014) document was developed. The Menu provides the means of grouping individual improvements in almost any manner to meet available funding levels, including completing improvements as individual projects. The Menu of Options (February 2014) provides information on numerous small scale improvements with independent utility and separate purpose and need. Any of these small scale improvements would individually and collectively (in many conceivable combinations) contribute to the larger goal of improving the Keystone Corridor West.

... and given that the Menu of Alternatives was produced in February 2014, well after the "final draft" was completed in May 2013, that helps to explain why publication of the report occurred over a year after completion of the final draft.

Note that the basis for this very-low-capital-cost Alternative 2A is squirreled away Appendix D and discussed under the Heading of "Analysis of Alternative Equipment Types" (pp.72-74) in the "Rail Operations" chapter. It is based on including the station and platform improvements required to upgrade to two trains per day, and relying on Talgo tilt-train rolling stock. It is the Talgo tilt-trains that provide most of the speed improvement in Alternative 2A

What this does not explain is the mystery of the missing Rapid Passenger Rail alternative. However, regarding the missing alternative, it does suggest that if the PennDOT had insisted on there being a Rapid Passenger Rail alternative, in the way that it seems that they insisted on there being an "actual low cost" alternative rather than the $1.5b Alternative One ... there likely would at least have been a cursory consideration of one added.

The Missing Rapid Passenger Rail Alternative

While Alternative One raises a question ... how could you get 4-9 minutes of speed improvement out of $1.9b in work? ... the answer seems fairly clear in the cursory examination of a Low Cost Alternative A ... by looking for all of the available capacity and speed improvements of a specific pre-defined type, without expending the least effort in doing any cost-optimization.

Alternative Three raises a different question. We see in the description of the speed improvements from adding a third track:

In addition to all of the improvements associated with Alternative 2, the Alternative 3 improvement program proposes additional tracks and passing sidings that in effect would create a continuous third track throughout the entire line. These additional improvements cannot be evaluated by TPC methods since only a single unimpeded train is considered in isolation, and none of the incremental Alternative 3 improvements would directly result in higher speeds. Rather, the primary benefit of the incremental Alternative 3 improvements would be increased capacity, which would provide more operating flexibility and reliability.

... and the question it raises is ... why not design this to directly result in higher speeds? If the new track was Class 5 track, it would allow passenger rail a top speed of 90mph. If it was Class 6, it would allow passenger rail a top speed of 110mph.

Now, the passenger trains would not be able to maintain these speeds throughout, due to curves, but with a dedicated Rapid Rail track, it would be possible to improve the elevation through the curve by more than possible with heavy freight trains (at least, more than is possible without substantial increases in maintenance costs).

As far as what Norfolk Southern thinks about faster passenger trains operating on their corridor, they are not keen on the idea. Of the six "expectations" that Norfolk Southern expressed to the authors of the feasibility study, the sixth was:

  • Provision of separate tracks for passenger trains operating in excess of 79 mph, and separate right-of-way for passenger trains in excess of 90 mph.

While this may explain why the feasibility study does not include a 110mph speed limit Class 6 track alternative ... given the much higher costs and much slower corridor development process for an all-new ROW ... it does not explain the absence of a 90mph speed limit Class 5 track.

Now, it is possible that the extra cost is not worthwhile ... but the way to determine that would be to determine the cost, determine the speed benefit, and consider whether it offers reasonable bang for the buck. And there is reason to believe that the incremental cost would not be a substantial amount in addition to the current Alternative Three estimate.

Much of the extra cost for a Rapid Passenger Rail corridor on a heavily used two track freight corridor is the provision of a third track ... which is already included in the cost of Alternative Three. An additional cost would be any required improvements in level crossings, but this would not be a substantial cost driver in a $13b project, primarily through rural terrain.

At one time a substantial cost driver for a third track at 90mph rather than 79mph would have been the requirement to provide a Positive Train Control (PTC) system for speeds of 80mph and above, but with the pending requirement to have PTC on all corridors used for intercity passenger rail service, the cost of PTC is part of the baseline cost for the current one-train-per-day service.

Now, the "elasticities" use in the feasibility study demand analysis are (-1.2) for a "low" estimate and (-1.4) for a "high" estimate, which says that for each 1% reduction in travel time, there is from a 1.2% to 1.4% increase in ridership. So, everything else equal, an additional 15 minute time savings on a four and a half hour schedule would be predicted 6.6% to 7.7% increase in ridership, on top of the ridership gains from the speed improvements and second daily train in Alternative Two, so would push the ridership gain in 2020 from about 59% to about 70%, and in 2035 from 76% to about 88%. A half hour time savings wold push the ridership gain up to about 80% in 2020, and 100% in 2035.

So it is not clear why the authors looked at adding a third track to the Keystone West and refused to consider a Rapid Passenger Rail speed upgrade. It could be that they simply didn't want to do the extra work and didn't think that PennDOT, their customer, would insist on it. It could be that they were given to understand that offering a report that would give a flattering picture of a Rapid Passenger Rail upgrade would not be looked kindly on by their customer.

But it seems as if we can infer that the PennDOT was not upset by this fairly obvious omission. After all, we have the evidence of the $1.5b "low cost" Alternative One, where it seems reasonably clear that the PennDOT insisted on a closer look at what a real "low cost" alternative would look like.

By contrast, for the jump from 79mph maximum, to faster than 125mph, there is nothing to indicate that anything in between is remotely possible. There is no evidence of the consultants giving any consideration at all of either a 110mph alternative, the same speed limit as the Keystone East upgrade, or a 90mph alternative, the maximum speed that Norfolk Southern indicated it was willing to host on a separate track on its ROW with its freight trains. And, though the only evidence is "the dog that did not bark", it would seem that the PennDOT was perfectly happy to accept a feasibility study with such a glaring hole in its consideration of alternatives.

Conclusions and Conversations

So, what do you reckon is up? And what do you reckon can be done about it?

If there was a steady funding source for Rapid Passenger Rail upgrades, would the PennDOT have been more eager for the feasibility study to include Rapid Passenger Rail?

If there was already an established freight market for Rapid Freight Rail at Harrisburg to points South, do you think that would sway Norfolk Southern's opposition to having over 90mph traffic on its ROW?

And where would you put a Rapid Passenger Rail service if you had your way? Certainly if there was a Rapid Passenger Rail service at Pittsburgh through to Chicago via either Columbus or Cleveland (both contemplated in the Ohio Hub extension of the Midwest Hub system), it seems like there would be more political clamor to fill the gap between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.





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