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Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Back in the 29 Nov 2009 Sunday Train, Frequency and Waiting on a Train, I reacted to a point made in John McCommon's book, Waiting on a Train:

"Once those intermodal trains can go through Stampede Pass, it will take some traffic off the main line and free up more room for additional passenger trains," said Uznanski.

By bringing the number of trains up to eight a day between Vancouver and Portland, ridership and ticket revenue will increase significantly. Currently ticket sales - what is known as farebox - cover 43% of the Amtrak Cascades' operating expenses; the state subsidizes the remainder. Run eight trains daily, however, the farebox recovery goes up to 70%.

It's all about frequency. When trains are frequency and convenient, ridership - particularly business travel - grows dramatically, said Uznanski.

It was a mantra I was to hear from experts all across the country - frequency builds ridership and only frequency significantly builds farebox recovery. Sure its great to have trains running more than 100mph in a corridor, but if there are only a couple of trains a day, they just aren't convenient enough to move people off the highway or away from the airport.
- John McCommons, Waiting on a Train, Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont, p. 51

This came back to mind when I was thinking last week about the "Cornhusker Rocket" proposal to reintroduce regular corridor service between Omaha and Chicago via Des Moines, Iowa City and the Quad Cities. Often times, a substantial benefit in getting train speeds up is that ability to operate more services per day with the same number of trains.

The Cornhusker Express

Last week the Sunday Train visited the proposed extension of the Chicago to Quad Cities service to operate through to Iowa City and Des Moines to Omaha, Nebraska.

The report recently concluded and now open for its second round of public comment is the stage in the process that selected that route for the service. The next stage will be the top level Environmental Impact Report. Once that has been completed, and has stood up to any legal challenges launched against it, then at that point it can be considered to be "shovel ready". It will still be necessary to complete Environmental Impact Reports for the individual stages of the project, but the main outlines of the project will be filled in when the EIR has been concluded.

It is the EIR that will model the different timetables for the service in detail, as the first step to performing a ridership estimate. However, the selection of Alignment Alternatives gives a rough idea of the time involved, when it estimated the travel time between Omaha and Chicago as around 8hrs and 30mins by car, and stated that the trip times of the various alternatives considered ranged from 9hrs to 7hrs 30mins.

I've drawn up a notional timetable on the basis of a lower speed project operating at 8hrs 30mins Omaha to Chicago, with 30 minute turn-arounds. I assume that the Chicago to Quad Cities route is 3hrs, so I assume that the Quad Cities to Omaha is 5hrs 30min.

The timetable is drawn up on the basis of a four train service, with morning service starting in Chicago Westbound, Omaha Eastbound, and the Quad Cities both Westbound and Eastbound. Note that the Quad Cities Westbound start is not provided on the assumption that there is a strong morning Quad Cities to Omaha end to end market, but rather to fill in Quad Cities / Iowa City, Quad Cities / Des Moines, Iowa City / Des Moines and Des Moines / Omaha morning services which would otherwise wait quite a while until the Chicago westbound train arrived. In addition to the four trains there is the California Zephyr long distance sleeper, to and from San Francisco, which is labeled "LD" for Long Distance.

Out of four trains, we get three (3) full trips each way, because the total transit is 18hrs. Add the Long Distance (LD) California Zephyr, and the partial runs terminating at the Quad Cities, and we get four (4) services Omaha to Chicago, and five (5) Omaha/Quad Cities and Quad Cities / Chicago.

Note that with this long route, fine tuning an arrival or departure schedule at one location requires introducing an extra wait in the turnaround, and that undermines frequency and/or pushes the final night train arrival even further into the wee hours of the morning. So the only fine tuning that is done here is to aim the first Quad City City Rocket to arrive in Chicago Union State before 9am. Other than that the first train leaves at 5am, in order to allow schedules to finish between 10pm and midnight.

Train# Omaha Quad Cities Chicago
(#1) -- 5:30am 8:30am
(LD) 5am 10:30am 1:30pm
(#2) 6:30am 12pm 3pm
(#3) 11am 4:30pm 7:30pm
(#4) 2pm 7:30pm 10:30pm
(#1) 6pm 11:30pm --
Train# Chicago Quad Cities Omaha
(#3) -- 5am 10:30am
(#4) 5am 8am  1:30pm
(#1) 9am 12pm  5:30pm
(LD) 2:30pm 5:30pm 11pm
(#2) 3:30pm 6:30pm 12am
(#3) 8pm 11pm --
NB: (#1) Start Quad City, end Quad City; (#2) Start Omaha, End Omaha; (#3) Start Quad City, end Quad City; (#4) Start Chicago End Chicago


Increasing Frequency with the Cornhusker Rocket

Now, lets suppose that upgrading the Chicago to Quad Cities to 110mph with additional improvements reduces the trip time to 2hrs 30 min., and upgrading the Rock Island Line alignment from Rock Island Illinois through to Omaha via Des Moines to 90mph results in Quad Cities to Omaha in 5hrs, resuling in a Chicago/Omaha trip time of 7hrs, 30mins.

The notional timetable below is draw up in the same way as the first, but the result is five services each way between Omaha and Chicago.

You'll likely notice that one of the trains is a wee hours of the morning arrival from Omaha to the Quad Cities, but this allows trains to be operated in a cycle that passes terminates in Chicago every four days for major maintenance ~ (#4) to (#3) to (#2) to (#1), without requiring regular deadhead running between Chicago and Omaha.

Train# Omaha Quad Cities Chicago
(#1)   -- 6am 8:30am
(LD) 5am 10am 12:30pm
(#2) 6am 11am 1:30pm
(#3) 9:30am 2:30pm 5pm
(#4) 2pm 7pm 9:30pm
(#1) 5pm 10pm 12:30am
(#2) 10pm 2am --
Train# Chicago Quad Cities Omaha
(#3)   -- 5am 9am
(#4) 6am 8:30am 1:30pm
(#1) 9am 11:30am 4:30pm
(#2) 2pm 4:30pm 9:30pm
(LD) 3:30pm 6pm 11pm
(#3) 5:30pm 8pm 1am
(#4) 9:30pm 12am --
NB: (#1) Start Quad City, End Chicago, (#2) Start Omaha, End Quad City, (#3) Start Quad City, end Omaha, (#4) Start Chicago End Quad City.


REALLY Increasing Frequency with the Cornhusker Electric Rocket

The ultimate step in Rapid Passenger Rail is the 125mph "Regional HSR" corridor. This would be a corridor with substantial investment in grade separation and "impenetrable" rail crossings. For the 125mph to be of use along a conventional rail corridor, it would likely have to be an electric active-tilt train. I discuss more about the effect of tilt-train technology on transit speed here (Sunday Train: 16 Jan 2011), and about some of the benefits of rail electrificiation here (Sunday Train: 6 Sep 2009).

Suppose that we could get the Quad City to Chicago transit time down to 2hrs, and the Quad City to Omaha transit time down to 4hrs. Lets see what our four 125mph electric tilt-trains can do when they replace our four 110mph diesel intercity trains (don't worry that we'll have to junk our 110mph diesel intercity trains ~ if we get this kind of upgrade on the Quad City to Omaha line, there'll be placed that can put those diesel trains to good use). There are six main services Omaha to Chicago, and a red eye service each way, primarily to pass trains through Chicago for regular overnight servicing but also as a red eye service allowing business traveller along the entire line to arrive in Chicago at the start of the business day and/or to depart for Chicago after the end of the business day.

Train# Omaha Quad Cities Chicago
(#1) 4:30am 6:30am 8:30am
(LD) 5am 9am 11am
(#2) 6am 10am 12pm  
(#3) 9:30am 1:30pm 3:30pm
(#4) 12:30pm 4:30pm 6:30pm
(#1) 3:30pm 7:30pm 9:30pm
(#2) 7pm 11pm 1am
(#4) -- 9:30pm 11:30pm  
Train# Chicago Quad Cities Omaha
(#3) -- 5am 9am
(#4) 6am 8am 12pm Oma  
(#1) 9am 11am 3pm Oma  
(#2) 12:30pm 2:30pm 6:30pm
(#3) 4pm 6pm 10pm
(LD) 5pm 7pm 11pm
(#4) 7pm 9pm --
(#1) 10pm 12am --
NB: (#1) Chicago to Quad Cities, (#2) Omaha to Chicago, (#3) Quad Cities to Omaha, (#4) Chicago to Chicago.


The 2C to 3C Strategy

Incremental speed upgrades have similar benefits along shorter corridors. The example I'm going to look at here is my "2C to 3C" proposal for the Ohio Hub.

As discussed in a November 2010 "Night Train" edition of the Sunday Train, the election of Governor Kasich in Ohio implied the rejection of the $400m awarded to Ohio for the "Quickstart" first stage of the Ohio Hub 3C corridor. The Quickstart strategy was based on the fact that Ohio would be unlikely to gain the $1b in funding required to construct a 110mph Rapid Passenger Rail corridor from Cleveland to Cincinnati, and so the idea was to put in the track required, but not the upgraded signaling and level crossings, and launch a conventional rail 3C service.

In the meritocratic atmosphere of transport planning, this may have seemed a sensible plan. After all, if Columbus was a 1m+ city in the early 1970's when Amtrak was formed, the conventional rail 3C service would never have been abandoned in the first place. By the 1970's, the 3C had slowed down to nearly  6 hours Cleveland to Cincinnati, which cannot compete with Interstate 71. However, nearly 3 hours to Cleveland or Cincinnati from Columbus allows passenger rail to compete for day trips, and while it would not be the dominant choice in any transport market, it would have been sufficient patronage to keep running.

Once the conventional rail Quickstart was in place, that would both building up patronage for and firm up the ridership estimates for the Rapid Rail 3C. And the acceleration of the route could proceed in stages, with ongoing level crossing upgrades along a stretch of corridor and the a project to upgrade the signaling along that stretch to allow 110mph passenger rail operation.

However, all of this is predicated on getting the Quickstart up and running. The Republican opposition ran an effective campaign to blame the Strickland administration for Ohio suffering from the 2007-2009 recession, and despite a weak candidate was able to win a modest victory. One small part of the Republican partisan strategy was to smear the Quickstart proposal to deny Strickland the opportunity to run on the success of landing a $400m unmatched capital grant to restore rail service to the 3C corridor, and the consequence of the smear campaign was, of course, to force Kasich to kill the project.

My 2C to 3C strategy was based on the experience of that smear campaign. The 2C to 3C strategy is aimed at gaining the maximum political benefit from the initial work, to maximize the chance of getting the project up and running. The package involves:

  • A 90mph Cleveland to Columbus corridor;
  • An 80mph Pittsburgh to Cleveland corridor along the Youngstown Ohio Hub alignment;
  • restoration of the Toledo to Western Detroit rail corridor
  • Establishment of a Dayton to Cincinnati commuter rail service

The "to 3C' part of the corridor then involves completing a 90mph corridor Columbus / Dayton, to establish 3C service, and then incremental upgrades of the "T" Cleveland hub to 110mph.

I am going to focus on the Columbus/Cleveland link here. I will assume that the Columbus/Cleveland time begins at about 2hr, 20min. The current Pittsburgh / Cleveland train is about 3hrs, so I am going to assume that the Youngstown / Cleveland line, including additional stops, will be 1hr, 50 minutes. This suggests a three train service: one train beginning the day in Columbus heading north to reach Cleveland by 8:40am, one train beginning the day in Cleveland to reach Columbus at 8:40am, and one train beginning the day in Youngstown to reach Cleveland at 8:40am. My strategy in timetabling this is to have the Columbus northbound and Youngstown southbound run the full route back and forth, while the Cleveland southbound primarily shuttles between Cleveland and Columbus.

I'm also going to assume that the State of Ohio subsidizes the operation of the train that arrives in Detroit as the Wolverine at about 3pm to run through Cleveland and Youngstown to Pittsburgh, and then to return the next day to provide the train that leaves Michigan after 5pm. I call this train the "West Erie Limited", or "EL". I assume a 10min turnaround time throughout the day.

The result is seven trains per day Columbus / Cleveland, and 5 trains per day Cleveland Youngstown:

Northbound / Eastbound

Train # DET COL CLE YNG PIT
(#1) -- 6:20am 8:40am 10:30am --
(#2) -- 8:50am 11:10am -- --
(#3) -- 11:10am 1:30am 3:20pm --
(#2) -- 1:50pm 3:10pm -- --
(#1) -- 3:30pm 5:20pm 7:30pm --
(EL) 3:10pm -- 6:10 pm 8:00pm 9:50pm
(#2) -- 5:50pm 8:10 pm -- --
(#3) -- 7:50pm 10:10pm 12:00pm X --
Southbound / Westbound
Train # PIT YNG CLE COL DET
(#2) -- -- 6:20am 8:40am --
(#3) -- 6:50am 8:40am 11:00am --
(#2) -- -- 11:20am 1:40pm --
(#1) -- 10:50am 12:40pm 2:30pm --
(EL) 10:50am 12:40pm 2:30pm -- 5:30pm
(#2) -- -- 3:20pm 5:40pm --
(#3) -- 3:30pm 5:20pm 7:40pm --
(#2) -- -- 8:20pm 10:40pm X --
(#1) -- 7:40pm 9:30pm X -- --
NB. (#1) Start COL, End CLE; (#2) Start CLE, End COL; (#3) Start YNG, End YNG.


Faster 2C Travel Time Yields Increased Frequency

Now, I assume that the Cleveland/Columbus corridor is upgraded to 110mph and the Cleveland/Youngstown to 90mph, and that this allows the trip times to be reduced to 1hr 50 min. between Columbus and Cleveland, and 1hr 20min. between Cleveland and Youngstown. With the reduced trip time, the Columbus / Cleveland shuttle becomes a third train running the full route, and both the Columbus / Cleveland route and the Cleveland / Youngstown route extends to 8 service per day.

Northbound / Eastbound

Train # DET COL CLE YNG PIT
(#1) -- 6:50am 8:40am 10:00am --
(#2) -- 8:50am 10:40am 12:00pm --
(#3) -- 10:40am 12:30am 1:50pm --
(#1) -- 1:50pm 3:40pm 5:00pm --
(#L) 3:10pm -- 6:10 pm 7:30pm 9:20pm
(#2) -- 3:30pm 5:20 pm 6:40pm --
(#3) -- 5:20pm 7:10pm 8:20pm --
(#1) -- 8:30pm 10:20pm 11:40pm X --
(#2) -- 10:10pm 12:00 pm X -- --
Southbound / Westbound
Train # PIT YNG CLE COL DET
(#2) -- -- 6:50am 8:40am --
(#3) -- 7:20am 8:40am 10:30am --
(#2) -- 12:10pm 1:30am 3:20am --
(#1) -- 10:10am 11:30pm 1:20pm --
(EL) 11:20am 1:10pm 2:30pm -- 5:30pm
(#3) -- 2:00pm 3:20pm 5:10pm --
(#1) -- 5:10pm 6:30pm 8:20pm --
(#2) -- 6:50pm 8:10pm 10:00pm --
(#3) -- 8:30pm 9:50pm 11:40pm X --
NB. (#1) Start COL, End YNG; (#2) Start CLE, End CLE; (#3) Start YNG, End COL.


Conclusions

I want to stress that the focus here has been on drawing up schedules with the same basic design philosophy, and looking at what benefits we get from incremental improvements in conventional rail corridors to raise speeds to 90mph, 110mph, or even 125mph. So these schedules are not being presented as representing some form of "ideal" schedule for either of these corridors.

So, for example, the Cornhusker schedule looks different if you pursue a three tier schedule, from Chicago to the Quad Cities, Des Moines, and Omaha. And, indeed, whether a schedule is pursued that increases frequency Des Moines / Chicago at the expense of one less frequency Omaha / Chicago would depend in large part on the potential ridership is of each route, since a key objective is to operate services that can hit break-even on their operating expenses.

Indeed, that is the pragmatic answer to the question of, "how 'Rapid" is 'Rapid Passenger Rail'?" Rapid enough to hit operating break even is rapid enough to establish the service without fighting the difficult political fight for permanent transport subsidies which, however well justified by the economic benefits provided, are always vulnerable to being clawed back in political game playing in state legislatures.

However, the faster you can get the train to its destination, and the faster you can turn it around to head the other way (which doesn't, I will stress, mean actually turning it around, it means the train driver moving from the driving cab at one end to the driving cab at the other), the more services you can get from each train.

Indeed, what the Rapid Rail Incremental Upgrade Strategy aims to do is to take the process of decline of passenger rail in this country, and run the movie in reverse. As track quality declined and as more priority was given to freight running through than passenger trains, schedules had to be adjusted for longer trip times. As schedules were adjusted, the same fleet of passenger trains were not able to run as many service. As frequency dropped, demand for rail trips dropped, which led to passenger rail services losing money. As freight rail companies applied for relief from the requirement to run a passenger service given limited passenger demand, the importance of maintaining express rail paths for passenger services declined ... and now we are back at the beginning of the downward spiral, with track quality declining and more priority being given to freight running through than to passenger trains.

The Incremental Upgrade strategy aims to establish a passenger operation on a stable footing, and then pursue upgrades to the corridor to run the process as an upward spiral. Track improvements allow improved schedules with shorter trip times and more services per day. That attracts more passengers, so that a larger number of people experience the benefit of having a broader range of transport alternatives available.

Anyway, as always, the Conclusions section is not the final word, but the start of the conversation. If you have any issue you wish to raise about sustainable transport, whether or not it touches on the specific issues raised in today's Sunday Train, please feel free to raise it in the comment.

And now it is time to bring the opening act to a close, and welcome the headliners. Please, a big round of applause for Midnight Oil!


Midnight Oil ~ Kosciusko

Originally posted to Sunday Train on Sun May 13, 2012 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks.

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