The National Corridors Initiative, Inc.

A Weekly North American Transportation Update

For transportation advocates and professionals, journalists,
and elected or appointed officials at all levels of government

Publisher: James P. RePass      E-Zine Editor: Molly McKay
Foreign Editor: David Beale      Webmaster: Dennis Kirkpatrick

Contribute To NCI

March 8, 2010
Vol. 11 No. 11

Copyright © 2010
NCI Inc., All Rights Reserved
Our 11th Newsletter Year

This E-Zine is best viewed at
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IN THIS EDITION...   In This Edition...

  News Items…
Senators Hope To Hit Pay Dirt With Carbon ‘Fee’
   On Transportation Fuels
Short-Term Extension Approved For Transit
   And Highway Programs
  News From Amtrak…
Wireless Internet Launches On Acela Express
   And In Select Stations
  Policy Lines…
Michigan Central Station, On The Edge
  Commuter Lines…
New Jersey Transit Riders Face Service Cuts
   And Massive Fare Increases
  Selected Rail Stocks…
  Across The Pond…
Berlin S-Bahn Management Faces Major Restructuring
Criminal Corner-Cutting On Nürnberg – Ingolstadt High-Speed Line?
Britain Proposes Upgrades To Rail Network In Midlands Region
Why Americans Have Had Short Shrift in Rail Service
High-Speed Rail In America: The Promised Ride To Nowhere
Detroit’s Derelict Train Station Is An Icon Of America’s
   Failed Transportation Policy
  Publication Notes …

NEWS OF THE WEEK... News Items...  

Senators Hope To Hit Pay Dirt With
Carbon ‘Fee’ On Transportation Fuels

How does cap-and-trade work?

The scheme’s governing body begins by setting a cap on allowable emissions. It then distributes or auctions off emissions allowances that total the cap. Member firms that do not have enough allowances to cover their emissions must either make reductions or buy another firm’s spare credits. Members with extra allowances can sell them or bank them for future use. Cap-and-trade schemes can be either mandatory or voluntary.

A successful cap-and-trade scheme relies on a strict but feasible cap that decreases emissions over time. If the cap is set too high, an excess of emissions will enter the atmosphere and the scheme will have no effect on the environment. A high cap can also drive down the value of allowances, causing losses in firms that have reduced their emissions and banked credits. If the cap is set too low, allowances are scarce and overpriced. Some cap-and-trade schemes have safety valves to keep the value of allowances within a certain range. If the price of allowances gets too high, the scheme’s governing body will release additional credits to stabilize the price. The price of allowances is usually a function of supply and demand.

Credits are similar to carbon offsets except that they’re often used in conjunction with cap-and-trade schemes. Firms that wish to reduce below target may fund pre-approved emissions reduction projects at other sites or even in other countries.

How carbon offsets work

Carbon offsets are a form of trade. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The projects might restore forests, update power plants and factories or increase the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation. Carbon offsets let you pay to reduce the global GHG total instead of making radical or impossible reductions of your own. GHG emissions mix quickly with the air and, unlike other pollutants, spread around the entire planet. Because of this, it doesn’t really matter where GHG reductions take place if fewer emissions enter the atmosphere.

For more info see:

From Sierra Club Transportation E-News, Internet Sources And
Darren Samuelsohn, E&E Senior Reporter

WASHINGTON, DC, MARCH 3 -- Key senators are crafting a strategy to deal with climate change legislation that appeals to Big Oil and could help garner votes for the bill --- that is, levy a carbon fee on the industry rather than force them into an upstream cap-and-trade system that covers emissions not only from the products the industry sells but also from the refining process itself.

US Senators John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Mary Landrieu, (D-Louisiana), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) have been discussing this approach for months and feel that it could help get enough votes in the Senate to pass a climate bill. The proposal would be to set up a “linked-carbon fee” on transportation fuels, with revenues raised going back to consumers to help them deal with higher gas prices.

The cap-and-trade plan would “increase gas prices dramatically more than consumers can bear,” said Graham. “The goal is to price carbon on the transportation side in a way that would allow alternative vehicles to become more attractive to the consumer, and to manufacturers.”

The House-passed climate bill, which is based on cap-and-trade, is not attractive to the oil industry whose top executives feel that under such a system they would be short-changed on allowances compared to what other industries, such as coal and manufacturing, would get.

The carbon fee approach is supported, in fact, was proposed by ConocoPhillips, BP America and Exxon Mobil Corp.

Graham also mentions how cap-and-trade would “destroy that part of the economy,” namely Big Oil, but a carbon fee gives you a “solution to the carbon problem” that is palatable to the oil industry. “Once you have oil people saying, ‘We can live with this, this was our idea,’ then hopefully everybody else begins to look at this thing anew.”

No decisions have been made, but the senators are considering separating the oil industry from a cap-and-trade plan that covers electric utilities and manufacturers. Instead, transportation fuels would face a carbon fee, with the price linked to the compliance requirements for other industries. New revenue would be geared toward transportation projects, reducing fuel consumption and lowering domestic reliance on foreign oil. The Highway Trust Fund is also a potential recipient of the carbon tax revenue.

“The whole concept is transportation money goes back into transportation projects,” said a Senate aide close to the process.

Senator Kerry plans to release details in the coming days to senators and interest groups on the overall energy and climate plan -- an approach that appears to have some support from oil-state Democrats like Alaska’s Senator Mark Begich and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin from Illinois.

“The issue about equalizing the costs of people who put emissions in the air is what the game plan should be,” said Begich.

“Maybe the sector approach is the right start,” said Durbin. “I’m open to anything that moves us toward pricing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute said that the carbon fee approach would yield net environmental benefits, while showing consumers what the costs are from the program. Oil companies would pass those costs on to consumers and put signs at the gas pump letting people know they’re paying more because of U.S. efforts to deal with climate change.

“The effect is you alter consumer behavior,” Gerard said. “If consumers know they have choices between buying a more efficient car, riding a bike or buying an SUV, now they’re making an informed choice.”

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Short-Term Extension Approved For Transit
And Highway Programs

From APTA [American Public Transportation Association]
Reprinted With Permission

The U.S. Senate last Tuesday night approved H.R. 4691, the “Temporary Extension Act of 2010,” and President Obama signed the bill into law later in the evening. The law provides an extension of authorizing law for federal transit and highway programs until March 28. The Federal Transit Administration program can immediately resume processing grants, and employees of the Federal Highway Administration can return to work.

The Senate approved the temporary extension by a vote of 78 to 19 after Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) agreed to end his objection to the bill in exchange for a vote on an amendment to offset spending under the temporary measure by reducing other government spending. The vote on that amendment failed 53 to 43.

With a temporary extension enacted, Congress can begin working again to complete an extension of transportation programs through December 31. The House and Senate are expected to modify the extension contained in the Senate-passed jobs bill (HIRE Act, Senate amendment to H.R. 2847) in order to enact a compromise between House and Senate leaders related to the distribution of discretionary highway funds under the extension and to possibly address offsets for non-transportation spending. A modified jobs bill could be considered by the House and Senate in the coming days or the transportation extension could be added to another legislative package. The Senate this week will be debating a package of House-passed tax credit extensions which includes the alternative fuel tax credit for transit systems.

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NEWS FROM AMTRAK... News From Amtrak...  

Wireless Internet Launches On Acela Express
And In Select Stations


Passengers on Acela Express and those traveling through select stations in the Northeast can now stay connected thanks to AmtrakConnect (SM), the company’s wireless Internet solution, which officially launched today.

“This is a major service upgrade,” said Matt Hardison, chief, Sales Distribution and Customer Service. “We expect this offering to translate directly to higher satisfaction and therefore, higher ridership and ticket revenue.”

Following two years of development and extensive testing, passengers now have a 3G connection for wireless devices such as laptops and netbooks. Marketing and Product Management worked closely with teams from Mechanical, Transportation, Engineering, Real Estate and Information Technology to implement the highest level of system performance possible.

“We’ve taken another step toward delivering the best possible travel experience to our customers and we will be expanding our on-board technology even further in the coming years,” said Senior Director, On-Board Systems, Lenetta McCampbell.

In the past, passengers were only able to access the Internet using a cellular air card or smart telephone with Web capabilities. However, these options are not ideal because users must rely on one carrier’s coverage along the route, and they must be able to receive a consistent cellular signal inside the train. The new on-board system delivers a more consistent experience by pulling a signal from multiple sources and delivering the bandwidth through a single, full train network.

Stations that now feature AmtrakConnect in gate areas are Boston’s Route 128 Station, Providence Station, New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th St. Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station. The service will be available in Wilmington, Del., once the current station renovation is complete. Amtrak already has free wireless Internet in all Club Acela locations as well as the Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station.

Other routes offering some type of on-board wireless Internet service are the Pacific Surfliner and Downeaster. The company hopes to extend AmtrakConnect to additional routes, but no timeline has yet been set.

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POLICY LINES... Policy Lines...  

Detroit Seeks A Way To Salvage A Building From Its Mighty Past:


Michigan Central Station, On The Edge

From The New York Times

DETROIT --- “The last train pulled away more than 20 years ago from Michigan Central Station, one of thousands of ‘see-through’ buildings here, empty shells from more auspicious times. Many of the blighted buildings stay up simply because they are too expensive to tear down. Yet Michigan Central is in a class of its own. Some city officials consider it among the ugliest behemoths to pockmark Detroit and have ordered its demolition, but others see it as the industrial age’s most gracious relic, a Beaux Arts gem turned gothic from neglect but steeped in haunting beauty.”

So opens Susan Saulny’s magisterial story in The New York Times of March 5, 2010, about the magnificent and completely derelict Michigan Central Station that once served as a hub of that city, and now, a few decades and a million fewer residents later, sits empty. “Detroit has become embroiled in an urgent debate over how to save what is perhaps its most iconic ruin — and in the process, some insist, give the demoralized city a much needed boost. ‘People compare it to Roman ruins,’ said Karen Nagher, the executive director of Preservation Wayne, an organization that seeks to protect architecture and neighborhoods around Detroit. ‘Some people just want it left alone. But I’d love to see that building with windows in and lights on again,’” writes Saulny, whose reporting and writing skills show again why The New York Times, and its depth and eloquence, is and should be an essential part of 21st Century American democracy.

“Since the City Council voted last year to demolish the depot, the building has been granted a reprieve of sorts thanks to more urgent issues confronting the city, including a $400 million budget deficit and a lawsuit to halt the tear down (citing the station’s historic landmark status). Further, several council members, elected since the vote, do not share the previous Council’s enthusiasm for land clearing. ‘I don’t want to bulldoze it, then find out later there could have been a viable use for it,’ said Charles Pugh, a newly elected member who took over as Council president in January,” writes Saulny.

“Now preservationists, business owners, state leaders and community activists are taking what feels like a last stab at saving the 97-year-old building before it goes the way of New York’s Pennsylvania Station or, more locally, Tiger Stadium and countless other pieces of old Detroit that have fallen to the wrecking ball in recent years” she writes. “Among the recent proposals have been to turn the cavernous brick, steel and stone facade into an extreme sports castle; a casino; a hotel and office park; a fish hatchery and aquarium; an amphitheater; or a railway station again, with high-speed trains. Or just clean and secure it, and leave it the way it is as an attraction for tourists. ‘It’s the quintessential example of urban decay in Detroit,’ said John Mohyi, a Wayne State University student and founder of the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society, a nonprofit group formed to save the building. ‘To see redevelopment of that station would have a major impact on morale.’”

For the complete story go to or directly at

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COMMUTER LINES... Commuter Lines...  

New Jersey Transit Riders Face Service Cuts
And Massive Fare Increases

Fares To Rise By 47% For Rail Riders Outside Of Peak Commuting Hours

By David Peter Alan

New Jersey Transit has announced plans for fare increases and service cuts that will spell double trouble for transit riders in the Garden State. The plan, which is set to go into effect on May 1st, will raise most fares by 25%. The local bus fare will increase from $1.35 to $1.70 (extra zones and transfers cost more), and most rail fares in effect at peak commuting hours will rise accordingly. For example, the one-way fare from Chatham to Penn Station, New York will increase from $8.00 to $10.00. Commuters will keep the same discount they now have, as the price of a monthly commutation ticket will remain at 28 base fares, with transfer privileges to local bus and light rail lines. Local rail fares will rise from $1.75 to $2.25.

The projected fare increase of 25% is the largest since New Jersey’s motor fuels user fee was set at its present level in 1988. Governor Chris Christie has said that many state agencies must cut costs and raise fees to help balance the state budget. Most user fees for automobiles and trucks are exempt from this policy. Christie has refused to raise either the user fee on motor fuels or tolls on the state’s toll highways. So far, only transit riders will be required to make a greater cash contribution toward the cost of mobility in the Garden State.

Riders who take trains outside of commuting hours will be hit hardest. Under the NJT fare proposal, they will be whacked with a fare increase averaging 47%, although NJT does not directly acknowledge the magnitude of these percentage increases. The current “off-peak round trip” between Chatham and New York, for example, will rise from the current $13.75 to $20.00; the same price that single-trip riders will pay during peak commuting hours. Short-distance rail riders will be hit even harder. The current fare for an “off-peak” round trip for a local train ride is $2.75, while the new fare would be $4.50; an increase of 64%.

There will also be service cuts, although the cuts on the rail side will be relatively mild. One exception is the Montclair-Boonton Line, where some mid-day service was added west of Montclair State University in 2002. Those trains would be eliminated, limiting service in the area to peak commuting hours only. Service reductions on the Newark Light Rail and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit Line will be more severe, with weekend service between Penn Station and Broad Street Station in Newark reduced to every 30 minutes; more time than required to walk the length of the line. Hoboken service on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit Line will also be reduced on weekends. In addition, several bus routes would be eliminated, and bus service on many lines would be reduced.

Rail advocates quickly condemned the proposed sharp rise in transit fares, in contrast to the Governor’s refusal to raise highway tolls or user fees on gasoline and other motor fuels. They pointed out the discriminatory nature of the treatment meted out to transit riders, as opposed to that enjoyed by motorists and truckers. Several rider advocates said that the policy at issue has a disproportionately adverse effect on people who depend on transit for their basic mobility, including senior citizens, persons with disabilities and people who cannot afford an automobile. They also said that the policy will discourage people who voluntarily go “car-free” or limit automobile use to keep their towns more livable and improve the environment.

The advocates were most incensed about the proposal to single out off-peak rail riders for the largest fare increases. Joseph M. Clift, an advocate who is active with the Lackawanna Coalition and the Regional Rail Working Group, said that charging high fares to off-peak rail riders is counterproductive. He recounted that, when he was Director of Planning for the Long Island Rail Road, he proposed giving a larger discount to off-peak riders. He said that the lower off-peak fares actually increased revenue by encouraging discretionary riders to take the train, and by shifting some riders from peak to off-peak trains (also a benefit because there is more capacity for these riders outside peak hours). Keeping off-peak fares constant when peak-hour fares went up resulted in more off-peak revenue than the railroad would have made if off-peak fares had also been increased.

Clift and other advocates expressed their concern that a steep increase in off-peak rail fares will be followed by severe service cuts, as off-peak ridership declines as a result. In 2005, NJT raised off-peak fares by 25%, when peak-hour fares were hiked by only 10% and some commutation fares were actually reduced. In 2006 and 2008, NJT subjected the Morris & Essex rail line to severe off-peak service reductions, claiming decreasing ridership. Rail advocates fear that off-peak rail service will be reduced even more severely this time, due to the proposed 47% (or more) fare increase. The Lackawanna Coalition recommends the opposite of the NJT proposal; that peak-hour and commutation fare increases should exceed off-peak increases, so off-peak riders will be encouraged to continue to ride at those hours.

The Coalition and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) also suggested that the gasoline user fee be raised to cover the alleged shortfall in NJT’s budget, which Executive Director James Weinstein said will be about $300 million during the next fiscal year. Rail advocates note that each penny per gallon in user fees yields about $50 million in revenue, so an increase of six cents would enable NJT to maintain current levels of service without raising fares.

NJ-ARP Director Albert L. Papp, Jr. leveled his criticism directly at Gov. Christie: “Governor, you’ve let New Jersey’s motorists off the hook. They’ve been sheltered from the pain transit riders have absorbed in the last two decades. And it this outrageous NJT proposal is implemented, it will ‘drive’ more transit riders onto the roads, out of their homes and eventually out of the state.” Papp also criticized Christie for “unfairly targeting” persons who depend on transit, as well as those who freely choose to use transit as an alternative to the rapacious, land-consuming and congestion-inducing auto-centric culture.”

Other rail advocates were less blunt, but equally critical of NJT’s plan to spend billions of dollars to build a deep-cavern, dead-end terminal 175 feet below 34th Street in Manhattan. Advocates representing several organizations in New Jersey and New York have claimed for several years that any new tunnels and tracks should be brought into the existing Penn Station instead. They claim that this move would save at least $3 billion, while providing a safer and more convenient station for riders, especially now that the Moynihan Station plan has been awarded a TIGER (Transportation Improvements Generating Economic Recovery) grant for $83 million (see the last two issues of D:F for stories).

Hearings on the proposal are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, March 25th and 26th, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm at eight locations throughout New Jersey. It is expected that the Thursday session at NJT Headquarters in Newark will be the most heavily attended. There will also be “information sessions” (no transcript taken) on Saturday from 1:00 to 4:00 at two other New Jersey locations and on Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.

Rail advocates are deeply concerned that the combination of service cuts and fare increases, especially the 47% increase in off-peak rail fares, will force many discretionary riders off the trains and buses, and onto the roads and highways. NJT’s slogan is “The Way to Go”; but advocates for NJT’s rail riders wonder if Gov. Christie is actually telling New Jerseyans that the automobile is really the way to go.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, which opposes the proposed fare increases and service cuts. Information about the NJT proposal came from their web site,

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STOCKS...  Selected Rail Stocks...


Week (*)
Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNI)



Canadian National (CNI)56.2552.66
Canadian Pacific (CP) 55.0448.18
CSX (CSX)48.9747.46
Genessee & Wyoming (GWR)33.2031.85
Kansas City Southern (KSU)35.4534.30
Norfolk Southern (NSC)52.9751.43
Providence & Worcester(PWX)12.3512.07
Union Pacific (UNP)69.1367.37
** - Burlington Northern Sante Fe has been purchased by the Berkshire Hathaway Corporation.
       BNI closed in final sale at 100.21 and will no longer be reported here.

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ACROSS THE POND... Across The Pond...  

By David Beale
NCI Foreign Editor


Berlin S-Bahn Management Faces
Major Restructuring

More consequences come after investigative report concludes “systematic mismanagement at cost to safety”

Via “Die Welt” Newspaper

BERLIN – According to reports published by the German daily newspaper “Die Welt”, Deutsche Bahn is poised to make massive management changes and restructuring of its subsidiary company Berliner S-Bahn. S-Bahn Berlin is the operator of the extensive commuter rail system in the German capital and its inner suburbs, which operates a fleet of hundreds of DC third-rail powered EMU passenger trains on a rail network that functions roughly similar to the regional rail division of SEPTA in Philadelphia, Long Island Railroad or BART in the San Francisco / Oakland region.

“Die Welt” reported that Deutsche Bahn chief Dr, Rüdiger Grube and the board of directors of DBAG have concluded to make massive management and organizational changes after the past 8 months or more of a series of problems and service reductions suffered by the huge commuter rail operation due to short cuts and deferments of routine maintenance dating back to 2002. The move is a response to an audit made by KPMG and a Berlin law firm into management practices of Berliner S-Bahn over the past decade. The report concluded that management of Berliner S-Bahn (much of whom has already resigned or been fired in the last six months) had “systematically mismanaged the rail network over many years at the direct cost to safety”.

Deutsche Bahn had already admitted in the past few months that its S-Bahn Berlin division had intentionally delayed routine maintenance and safety inspections of the rolling stock in order to save costs. The EBA, the federal rail safety authority in Germany, has ordered the parking of many hundreds of rail vehicles in the Berlin S-Bahn fleet several times in the past eight months due to safety related defects with wheels and brakes found during investigative inspections kicked-off by a low-speed derailment of an Berlin S-Bahn train in May 2009 after one of its wheels split apart. The top officer of the EBA remarked earlier that a case of negligence and mismanagement of this magnitude had never been observed before in Germany in recent memory.

The City of Berlin has been engaged in a tense war of words and threats with DBAG’s S-Bahn Berlin division since the initial service disruptions began in July 2009, when nearly two-thirds of the rolling stock was withdrawn from service for wheel inspections and replacements. Since then portions of the fleet have been grounded for other safety related findings and maintenance problems, some as recently as last month. Many in the city government would like to terminate the concession granted to DBAG for operation of the S-Bahn network in Berlin and place it up for bid in a new Request For Proposal (RFP) tender process.

Some critics noted that the city helped generate the crisis in Berlin S-Bahn when the city government in 2004 unilaterally decided to pay EUR 80 cents less per train- kilometer than before, thus resulting in an approximate EUR 23 million annual cost savings to the city and a corresponding loss in revenue for S-Bahn Berlin. The company responded in 2005 with a program called “Optimization S-Bahn” which reduced the fleet size from 703 to 637 train sets and reduced the maintenance budget for the ET 481 series EMU fleet, the workhorse of the system, by nearly 30 percent.

The ET 481 series of EMU trains in Berlin, Germany

Photo: Deutsche Bahn AG.

Center of the Storm – The ET 481 series of EMU trains has been the focus of several of the safety “groundings” in the past months in Berlin. Photo is of an ET 481 train set in central Berlin (Alexanderplatz) on a sunny but cold day back in March 2006 on the S9 route to Schönefeld Airport in the southeastern suburbs of Berlin.

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Criminal Corner-Cutting On Nürnberg – Ingolstadt High-Speed Line?

Company implicated in subway construction related collapse of Cologne’s archive building
now under investigation for flaws in Bavarian high-speed rail line

Via N-TV News

Nürnberg – The company that is the subject of an investigation of a building collapse in Cologne (Köln) due to an adjacent tunnel construction project for the city’s light rail network, (D:F Vol. 11 Number 8), is now the focus of deterioration of the track bed on the new Nürnberg – Ingolstadt high-speed rail corridor that is hundreds of km away from Cologne. Maintenance personnel observed cracking in the slab-track of the rail line in mid February 2010, this leading Deutsche Bahn to impose a 160 km/h speed restriction on the otherwise 320 km/h capable line.

A little over a week ago the district prosecutor in Cologne had the offices of several construction companies raided and searched for evidence of fraud in the case of the building collapse in Cologne. During interrogations a number of employees of Bilfinger Berger indicated that the company may have also mishandled the installation of steel reinforcement rods and anchors in the concrete construction along the high-speed line.

In a separate incident this past week, police and other investigators are examining the site of a construction accident on the Erfurt-Leipzig/Halle high speed rail corridor, planned to become operational in 2017 and linked to the Nürnberg – Ingolstadt high speed line in order to form a new Munich – Berlin high speed rail corridor. ´The accident occurred where an elevated causeway over wetlands is under construction southwest of Halle. A portion of the rail causeway / bridge collapsed, thus injuring approximately 20 construction workers, some seriously. It is not yet know what effect the rail bridge collapse will have on the planned December 2017 opening date of the high speed corridor.

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Britain Proposes Upgrades To Rail Network
In Midlands Region

Electrification, longer intercity trains, bypass routes for freights on the agenda

Via Lok Report And Wirtschaftswoche

LONDON – Network Rail, the government-owned rail network company in the U.K., issued a strategy plan to increase rail operations and infrastructure in the British Midlands region, a large area of central England including the cities of Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Peterborough, Lincoln, Derby and Nottingham.

The plan calls for full electrification of the “Midland Main Line” from London all the way to Sheffield (already electrified from London to Bedford), renovations to various stations to permit 12-car long regional express trains to operate, a freight train bypass around Bedford, construction of a grade separation / overpass for several rail lines in Newark and increased operations of regional passenger trains throughout the entire region. The plan foresees completion by 2014 of most of the goals.

Map Of Rail Lines In The Midlands Region Of Great Britain.

Image By Network

Map Of Rail Lines In The “Midlands” Region Of Great Britain.

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COMMENTARY... Commentary...


Why Americans Have Had Short Shrift In Rail Service
And What Can Be Done About It Now

By James Churchill

As we work for expanded and better rail transportation, many of us, if not already so inclined, have discovered the ancillary benefits of the rail mode in more efficient energy use and positive environmental aspects.

While significant benefits accrue with diesel-powered trains as compared with the highway and air modes, the real potential is in electrification. Throughout the world where trains have been allowed to properly develop, such propulsion is well-proven to travel at speeds in the 200 mph range, with unprecedented safety and, in some cases, powered by electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. Conventional trains move at more conventional speeds, but on-time, all-weather (well, maybe not quite all) and with safety.

In the U.S., however, rail has languished from non-investment, non-research and our peculiar history of the ownership of rights-of-way and private-public separation of modes. A few results of this are clear:

  1.  An over reliance on oil from sources unfriendly to freedom and our way of life.
  2.  A drain of our resources, military and financial, and a transfer of wealth from our economy.
  3.  An assault on our environment at great expense to our health and financial expense toclean the air.
  4.  Highway and air congestion cause great expense, both financial and in wasted time.
  5.  Highway deaths and injuries cause great expense in pain and suffering.
  6.  Sprawl and inefficient use of land has made many families and individual Americans totally reliant on highways.
  7.  Neglect of efficient cities, small towns and villages some isolated even form bus service.

A few thoughts:

  1.  Because of the entrenched nature of our transportation and energy history, stepping forward will be incremental.
  2.  Recent steps toward rail investment are heading us in the right direction with incremental investment in existing speeds, frequencies and, more rarely, new routes.
  3.  The nation’s electrical grid needs expansion and modernization.
  4.  Because of the abundance of U.S. coal, we generate the vast majority of our power with it.
  5.  Because of 2 notable failures of nuclear plants, atomic power has also languished.
  6.  Only when oil hit high price levels did movement start toward wind power, electric vehicles and serious consideration of alternative power sources take root.

Because of the need for an incremental approach to these overlapping problems, might we consider some intermediate steps?

  1.  Continue to expand and improve our existing rail systems, freight and passenger,
  2.  Find ways to do this without negative effects on the privately-owned freight rail systems where we will have to share some portion of rights-of-way even when separate 175 mph+ trains come about.
  3.  Develop ways for public funding to assist the freights where there is a clear public benefit.
  4.  Coordinate our need for a changed and expanded electrical grid to include rail electrification (and maybe even coordinated interface with electric cars through charging facilities at train stations as well as connecting light rail and commuter services).
  5.  Since coal is abundant and its use is not going away soon, encourage a special, perhaps dubbed “charmed” coal earmarked specifically for rail transportation (and electric cars). This “charmed” coal would be more expensive than that for export or other uses, but the tradeoff for the interim would be reduced need for fossil fuels in the congested highway and air modes. The higher cost would be the reflection of the equally necessary effort to develop the cleanest way of handling this “charmed” coal with less negative environmental impact.

Jim Churchill is a member of Virginia Association of Railroad Passengers and National Association of Railroad Passengers. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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OPINION... Opinion...  

High-Speed Rail In America:
The Promised Ride To Nowhere

By David Peter Alan

For the past five weeks, I have commented on the recently-announced set of High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) grants awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration. Two of them, comprising almost 45% of the total funding, are for projects that look like they could develop into true HSR. The others are not, although they will help to develop conventional rail corridors, which would be far more useful.

This piece is different. It is specifically labeled as an “opinion” piece rather than a “commentary;” the style will be different, too. Some readers will not like what I have to say, so I will start with the disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessary represent those of NCI, the Lackawaanna Coalition, New Jersey Transit, NARP, RUN or anybody else.

On October 19, 2009 in this publication, I raised the question of whether or not America is ready for high-speed rail. In this column, I answer the question with a resounding NO. Developments during the past few months clearly demonstrate that there are more important priorities for transportation in America. Millions of Americans, mostly in cities, face a mobility crisis worse than anything experienced in the past eighty years. The transit systems they ride urgently need help.

There is nothing new about visionaries proposing new transportation machines or systems. Leonardo da Vinci had some futuristic ideas about how people would get around, including a helicopter. Jules Verne wrote about submarines and rocket ships. A 1930 film entitled Just Imagine predicted that everybody would travel in small private airplanes that could take off and land vertically by 1980. The real world of 1980, at least in America, contained only a few helicopters and private planes, millions and millions of automobiles and lots of highways, few trains and very little transit. Not all fantasies come true, although some of Jules Verne’s and Leonardo’s eventually did.

The latest transportation fantasy is high-speed rail for America. Please do not misconstrue what I say. High-speed rail is alive and well in Europe and Asia. It is a great idea. It provides an efficient, convenient and environmentally-friendly alternative to short-haul airline service, where it operates. Eventually, it should be part of the transportation system in this country, too. Unfortunately, this country is not ready for it, and is actually taking more steps backward than forward in developing a useful and convenient rail-based transportation system.

Today, America is not like Europe, China or Japan. It was not like those places fifty years ago either. In the 1950s, Europe and Japan were rebuilding infrastructure, including rail infrastructure, that had been destroyed by war. America contributed significant funding to these projects. At the same time, America was busy dismantling its own rail infrastructure, which has never recovered. As Japan built high-speed rail , starting in the 1960s, America was building as many interstate highways as possible and getting rid of (conventional) passenger trains as quickly as possible.

Europe, China and Japan are not like America. Those places have well-developed rail transportation systems that include conventional long-distance trains, rail corridors, commuter rail and local transit within metropolitan areas. These are integrated transportation systems, capped off by high-speed trains. America has only a skeletal network of long-distance trains to connect our corridors, and Amtrak appears disinclined to expand that network. There has been some growth in rail corridors, but not if they must venture through several states. New light rail starts have improved transit in some cities over the past two decades, but few American cities have strong transit systems today.

Worse yet, transit is in trouble nearly everywhere in the nation. Last fall, I reported on presentations from HSR visionaries delivered at a conference of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (see D:F, October 19, 2009). The meeting was held in St. Louis, where bus stop signs throughout the city were covered with stickers that announced the demise of the bus lines that had previously served those stops.

I appreciate the enthusiasm of the HSR visionaries, but the nation is in a crisis. With all due respect to Rick Harnish and his plans for a two-hour running time from St. Louis to Chicago, it seems to me that such a plan does little good for St. Louisians who no longer even have a bus to take them to the train station. At least the current plan to develop the existing rail corridor for a four-hour running time is feasible, affordable and enjoys strong political support in Illinois.

Two FRA grants will fund proposals that look like true high-speed rail; one in Florida and the other in California. The one in Florida would build 84 miles of rail line between Orlando and Tampa, with no mention of future expansion to the populated areas on South Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, etc.) or to Jacksonville. Today, one Amtrak train makes the trip between Orlando and Tampa, and that trip is scheduled to take 111 minutes. “Incremental” upgrading of the line might get that schedule down to 90 minutes, but this is an investment that would only be worthwhile if the line were operated as a corridor.

Spending $1.25 billion for a separate line that would whisk people from Tampa (and essentially nowhere else) to Orlando, or even Disney World, in 45 minutes just does not seem to be a cost-effective way to use up that much money. The reality of today’s rail scene in Florida is grim. Tri-rail (commuter rail between Miami and West Palm Beach) is in trouble. The proposed SunRail commuter service in the Orlando area is controversial, although signs point to its eventual operation. Whether or not it would actually connect to the proposed high-speed line to Tampa is unclear.

Until a few years ago, there were three Amtrak trains between New York and Florida that arrived at different times of the day. One is now gone, and the remaining two are scheduled to arrive in Miami only 45 minutes apart. There has been talk for the past ten years about running an Amtrak train on the Florida East Coast Railway south of Jacksonville, which has not seen a scheduled passenger train since 1968. There is still talk, and there is still no train. Against this backdrop of reality, the proposed HSR line would be a joke, if it did not squander more than a billion dollars that could otherwise build a first-rate rail system for the Sunshine State.

The proposed California HSR line is also losing its luster as reality sets in. Last year, HSR proponent Rod Diridon painted a rosy picture of private financing, fares much lower than the airlines would charge and significant diversion from air to HSR for many city pairs in the Golden State. Now the bloom is off the rose, as plans now call for significantly higher fares and private investment becomes harder to find in our rapidly-contracting economy. The Transit Coalition in Los Angeles has reported that San Francisco International Airport management projects a loss of 4% of its business, if the projected HSR line is built. This hardly represents a modal shift away from the airlines, despite the $40 to $50 billion price tag for the entire HSR project. The Transit Coalition expressed doubt that the $12 billion in private financing required under the current financial plan could be found, and Executive Director Bart Reed called the plan “magical thinking.”

Meanwhile, the rail picture is not pretty in the Golden State, either. Local transit providers in California (and their riders) are still feeling the pain from the refusal of the State to properly fund transit (see series on Shaw v. Chiang in July, 2009 editions of D:F). Nonetheless, regional rail corridors in California can be considered one of the great rail success stories of recent decades. Managers like Gene Skoropowski on the Capitol Corridor improved service, added frequencies, and attracted riders. If the Hollywoodian allure of the proposed HSR line sucks up capital funds that would otherwise go for further improvements in the already-successful conventional rail corridors, this process will stop and the corridors will go into decline.

Last week’s edition of this publication reported on a plan to build a new station in Chicago for proposed HSR service several blocks from the existing Union Station. Many rail managers and advocates, and even more Chicagoans, know that Union Station has problems. Maybe the 1991 redesign of the station created more problems than it solved, but this situation can be corrected far more easily and at less expense than building a new, disconnected facility. A new facility for high-speed trains, separate from the one that would still be used for conventional trains, might appear glamorous and contribute to developers’ fantasies, but it will not help riders change from one train to another. A separate HSR system, distinct form conventional rail, looks sexy on paper, but its net effect is to make mobility more difficult for the people who would actually use the trains. This nation and its cities need an integrated rail system, not architectural fantasies.

President Obama deserves credit for promoting expansion of passenger rail in America. Unfortunately, his insistence on using the phrase “high-speed rail” has turned it into a buzzword that has lost its original meaning. The nation needs improvements in our rail system, but we must all agree on what the phrase “high-speed rail” really means. Philadelphians still call the heavy rail transit line between their city and South Jersey (now operated by PATCO) the “Hi-Speed Line”; its original nickname. Kansas City rail advocate David Peironnet, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad during its last days of passenger service, said “High-speed rail is the schedule that the Santa Fe maintained for its passenger trains in 1967.” Most Americans have not experienced true HSR in Europe or Asia, so a well-run passenger train that moves at a steady pace of 110 or even 90 miles per hour may be fast enough. It is certainly faster than our trains, including the Acela, go now and it is faster than taking an automobile out on the “Interstate” highway.

It appears that the time-honored advice “you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run” applies to the present issue. High-speed rail in Europe and Asia stands at the pinnacle of extensive and integrated rail networks in those places. Even if enough money to build HSR lines of that style could be found in this country, these lines would be about as useful as a house built on sand. There is simply no foundation for them; that foundation is the extensive system of conventional trains and metropolitan transit that moves millions of European, Chinese and Japanese people every day. This country has nothing of the sort.

Transit in America has slowed from a walk to a crawl. It seems to be in trouble virtually everywhere. Chicago is facing service cuts, and the crisis in the New York metropolitan area is acute. Andrew Albert, chair of the MTA Transit Riders’ Council and Vice-chair of the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) said that the current situation is the worst he has seen in the thirty years he has been monitoring transit in New York. On the other side of the river, New Jersey Transit has just announced its plan for service cuts, along with fare increases ranging from 25% to 64% (see article in this issue). Meanwhile, the gasoline user fee in New Jersey remains so low that the State’s Transportation Trust Fund will soon run out of money, and there is no plan to increase it.

The truth is unpleasant, but we all need to face it. A nation that spends nearly all of its transportation money on highways and airlines, while neglecting rail and local transit, cannot afford a rail fantasy. The private sector does not appear to have the money to back “true” HSR projects, and the public sector certainly does not. It would be unfair and discriminatory to spend billions of dollars on pie-in-the-sky projects in the current economic and structural climate. Our existing rail and transit infrastructure is neglected, and there is so little operating funding available for Amtrak and local transit that riders are faced with the prospect of paying sharply higher fares for less mobility than they have today.

I am certain that there will come a time when America will enjoy the sort of high-speed trains that Europe, China and Japan have now. I am also an “official” senior citizen (at least by New Jersey Transit standards), so I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime. In the meantime, America must prepare for a true HSR network, which requires an about-face in transportation policy. That means a moratorium on highway and airport construction. It also means sharp increases in highway and gasoline user fees, which would be used to build and operate a strong rail and transit network. That includes the restoration of Federal operating support for transit, which we had in the 1970s but was removed during the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. It also requires a change of attitude on the part of Americans. The new attitude must be that more livable towns and cities, a cleaner environment and less dependence on the whims of oil-rich political tyrants abroad are benefits worth the price of using and financially supporting trains and transit.

New Jersey’s rail riders who use trains outside of peak commuting hours will be forced to pay 47% more for their ride two months from now than the pay today if New Jersey Transit implements its plan. If gasoline now costs $2.50 per gallon, a 47% increase would bring the price to $3.68 per gallon. The price was higher than that less than two years ago. Yet, if $1.18 for each gallon of gasoline purchased were collected by the Federal government and used to develop rail and transit, that money would provide a start toward the rebuilding of our neglected transit infrastructure and support for operations.

An even better solution would be to set gasoline user fees, along with other user fees for automobiles, at a level that supports appropriate capital improvements and operations for rail and transit. The rail and transit system should be sufficiently comprehensive to allow many people to live car-free or operate a one-car household. America had transit like that until 60 or 70 years ago, and could have transit like that again. In America, general revenue supports highways while user fees are kept low. We have few trains, and transit is dying. In Europe, automobile user fees (including for fuel) help fund a strong transit network. That is part of the reason why Europeans enjoy an integrated transportation network capped off by true high-speed trains. Maybe when this country wakes up, we will be ready for true high-speed trains, too.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessary represent those of any other individual or organization. Comments by The Transit Coalition can be found in the Coalition’s Weekly Transit Newsletter from March 2, 2010.

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EDITORIAL... Editorial...  

Detroit’s Derelict Train Station Is An Icon
Of America’s Failed Transportation Policy

The New York Times’ recent article on Detroit’s once --- and perhaps future --- architecturally grand Michigan Central Station, by reporter Susan Saulny, recounts eloquently the status of this once-Grande Dame of American architecture, one of many such Beaux Arts buildings, some still standing, some destroyed by the developer’s wrecking ball.

These buildings for more than a century anchored the centers of countless American cities and towns, sometimes on a grand scale, but also writ beautifully small in town after heartland town, however otherwise humble.

This was in an era when important buildings were funded not just by public-spirited robber barons --- like Andrew Carnegie, who built a thousand libraries --- but also by private and less exalted interests, like the railroads, who nevertheless understood the physical importance as well as the semiotic value of the constituent elements of the public square --- including their train stations, upon which they lavished money as an advertisement for their own success.

Understanding what happened to that last element – the public square --- is essential to understanding what happened to Detroit, and, until very recently, to the centers of scores of American cities, which are now beginning to recover due to increased investment in fixed-rail public transit.

The story is made all the more ironic because the product of Detroit --- that iconic American thing, the automobile – is of course at the epicenter of what happened to not only to that particular city, and its train station, and its downtown, but to the downtowns of scores, if not hundreds of American cities large and small in the 20th century. Understanding that as well as understanding what we might do about it, is essential to understanding what we must do as a people to not only regain the vibrancy, and intelligence, and joyous creativity of the American City, but to saving this Republic.

For more than three generations, that is, for most of the Twentieth Century, the way in which America has funded transportation has been dictated by the petroleum lobby. That is and should be obvious to most Americans by now, but the lobby’s money-driven ability to magnify its message has succeeded in downing out other voices, and continues to do so.

But the gist is this: the Congress has a system of funding transportation that shovels 90 per cent of the public money, or more, to building roads, and only roads; this bias of course skews state and local spending in the same direction. There is, and there has been for more than a half a century, a Highway Trust Fund, whose replenishment lately has been Page One news since Congress has seen fit not to increase its actual revenue base for nearly 20 years, even as more and more highway projects have been announced.

The Highway Trust Fund’s mono-modal claim on gasoline tax revenues, unlike Europe’s more intelligent “transportation tax” has ensured that Interstates and other highways --- and until recently literally nothing else --- have been built. This transportation policy, which is in actuality a land-use policy, emptied the cities of their middle and upper classes, who fled the all too obvious problems of the cities for the safety of a quarter-acre a few miles – and then a few more, and then a few more --- out of town.

Detroit is not a failure, and its train station is not empty because of some flaw in Detroit’s character, or even in the automobile. The failure is in our continued inability to create transportation as systems, rather than simply competing modes, and out continued stupidity in having a [broke] Highway Trust Fund. We need to change completely the nature of that fund, and make it accessible to any transportation mode, even as we reform Congress’ mode-oriented Committee/subcommittee system.

If we don’t do that, Detroit’s train station will become yet another headstone in the graveyard of American cities, instead of what it should be: a centerpiece of its renaissance.

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END NOTES...  Publication Notes...

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