Category Archives: trains

View from the Train

St Pancras from wikimedia commons

Arnhem-2013 09 20 at 09 26 01

Copenhagen backside

Train stations are marketed as important to the “Image of the City“, and that we need a grand gateway to attract or welcome visitors. Yet think about this. If you are already on a train arriving in the city, you don’t need to be attracted. And your welcome is not the building’s front edifice, but instead its unseemly backside. As you approach the station you are inevitably passing through the lower rent industrial areas of of the city (what else would be near the nuisance of train tracks without the benefits of accessibility), areas which are often strewn with litter and festooned with graffiti on concrete walls.

If you really want to welcome visitors, you would not restore the head house, but instead the arrival path. The head house may send visitors on a magnificent farewell, but is no place for a grand arrival, all arrivers want to leave the train station as fast as possible after arriving.

Automatic Train Operation

In the wake of this summer’s on-again, off-again BART strike, some of us wonder why a transit union can shut down what ought to be an automated train. Why can’t management “operate” (perhaps at a reduced schedule) the vehicles, as happens in many other organizations on strike? It is surprising that, in 2013, modern, grade-separated rail systems don’t all have automatic train operation (ATO). While there are a number of ATO systems internationally, it is rare in the US. At least part of the problem is lack of trust (deserved or otherwise). There have been at least two notable crashes of test-trains using automatic operation.

Fremont Flyer crash (October 2, 1972) – a train under testing with automatic control overshot the end of the track (link). 8143196966 cbee24a4ef b
A Precariously Positioned DLR Train On (March 10, 1987) DLR-overhang

However in one case (BART), drivers were re-inserted into the system (perhaps enabling this summer’s strikes), in the other (DLR), driverless trains remained standard (and safe).

The 2009 Washington Metro train collision was also attributed to failures in a track circuit part of the Automatic Train Control systems, and since the collision ATO has been disabled.

It should in principle be far easier to automate trains (which run on fixed guideways) than cars, which have to track many more moving parts in their environment. The technologies are very different, since the trains are centrally controlled, while any successful automated vehicles will be autonomous. The issue of course is not only design, but implementation, and robustness to faulty designs.

Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump | Grand Forks Herald | Grand Forks, North Dakota

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Pat Doyle of the Star Tribune for an article on High Speed Rail. For some reason, I don’t see it there, (and I don’t get the paper), but it did show up in the Grand Forks Herald: Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump

MINNEAPOLIS – Prospects for a high-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the foreseeable future have disappeared, the casualty of funding shortfalls and political priorities.
The refusal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to accept federal money to build a link in the line “does kill it … at least for the short term,” said Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. “We could be talking 10 to 15 years.”
But transportation officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the federal government are continuing to work on proposals for a high-speed line, committing $1.2 million to plan possible routes in case prospects improve over the next few years.
While Minnesota says a system could be running by 2017, there is no indication that enough federal or state money will be available to make it happen.
After 15 years of pursuing high-speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, advocates are focusing immediate attention on simply upgrading existing Amtrak service by adding a daily train or nudging up speeds.
The dashed prospects for high speed come as President Obama vowed in last month’s State of the Union address to make it available to 80 percent of Americans by 2035.
Obama dedicated $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed — defined as 110 miles per hour or faster. But Walker’s decision to reject $810 million of it to build a link between Milwaukee and Madison resulted in those funds being re-routed to other projects. Walker said the line would have cost Wisconsin millions to operate.
“It pretty much kills it until he’s no longer governor, for starters,” said David Levinson, a professor with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. “Even if he’s no longer governor, the federal government might not be interested in funding high-speed rail at that point. … I don’t know if that window will ever come back.”
Advocates aren’t giving up.
“We’re not dead,” said Dan Krom, who directs Minnesota’s passenger rail program and has worked for more than a decade on high-speed rail. Wisconsin’s rejection of federal money “doesn’t stop our work in getting to Chicago.”
It takes several years to select a route and complete engineering work, he said, and “administrations can change.”
Others moving ahead
While the Twin Cities-to-Chicago project has stalled, other regions are moving ahead. Illinois is using $1.1 billion in federal money to begin building high-speed from Chicago to St. Louis. California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance a San Diego-to-Sacramento line.
America 2050, a coalition of regional planners and academics supported by foundations, last month ranked urban corridors on their suitability for high-speed trains. It considered population, employment, transit ridership, air ridership and highway congestion in scoring the corridors.
The Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked fourth in the Great Lakes Region, behind Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Indianapolis and Chicago-Detroit, but ahead of the Chicago-St. Louis line under construction.
“The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor may have the edge, because of the larger air market and the strength of ridership on the Milwaukee-Chicago section of the corridor,” the study said.
Nationwide, the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked 23rd out of 86 corridors, outscored by many routes in the northeast and in California.
In an effort to gauge business support for high-speed rail, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked members if they supported the Milwaukee-to-Madison link as part of a system “connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities.” They split, 214-214, on the question.
“There was no solid way to push,” said Timothy Sheehy, president of the association.
Cost concerns
“We vehemently oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison line,” said Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie. While not commenting on whether the governor might ever support a Twin Cities-Chicago line, Werwie said, “We cannot saddle our taxpayers with another ongoing operating-subsidy cost.”
Krom acknowledges that operating costs are a challenge, with gasoline taxes designated for highways. “They don’t have a sustainable funding source,” he said of high-speed lines.
Wisconsin already faces a projected $3.6 billion budget gap and Minnesota faces a $6.2 billion deficit.
A line between Chicago and the Twin Cities running at speeds of 110 miles per hour could cost $1 billion to $4 billion to build. But a 200 mph system that would be an alternative to air travel could cost $25 billion to $30 billion.
“Nobody wants to spend money because of the deficit, … and these services don’t pay for themselves, unfortunately,” the U’s Levinson said.
But Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, says high-speed transportation will save energy and serve “a more mobile workforce … making cities and regions more attractive to young people.
“These are long-term, expensive projects that do require a far-reaching vision about what we want to be.”
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.