Wednesday, August 18, 2004

 

"Can you spare some change for a peasant?" "No, I'm saving it all for the aristocracy"

Before digging into today's epistle, did you read the BBC's article on the charges against the terror suspects recently apprehended? Other than scaring the living crap out of any person who works in a major financial services environment, there is one tiny bit of humor to be found in this. Dig this charge leveled against Abdul, Mohammed and the rest of the boys:
Conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by the use of radioactive materials, toxic gases, chemicals and or explosives.
You can't help but love British understatement. Propers to the gang at Little Green Footballs for the lead. And for whatever its worth,in what is surely one of the wildest coincidences possible, note that there isn't an Isadore, Sven or Mary among them...

My driving and rail adventures, along with this article on a frustrated British commuter taking matters into his own hands were the inspiration for this rant. As anyone who's driven I-95 anywhere between Richmond, Virginia and Kittery, Maine can tell you, our interstate road network has long since passed its design capacity and in many cases is nearing (or at) the end of its useful life. Infrastructure projects have been woefully underfunded for decades, a combination of NIMBYism, fear of Robert Moses-style mayhem, and creative accounting so as to pay for vote-garnering expenditures (little things like quote unquote entitlements). The results of deferred maintenance and static capacity are biting us as we speak, with miles-long traffic jams, increasing driver fatigue and anger, and worsening air quality making driving absolutely miserable.

That's not to say that rail travel is any huge panacea. The Northeast Corridor has its own bottlenecks and speed restrictions, and for some reason the use of the express trackage is managed very inefficiently (consider a ride through New Jersey on the corridor, Amtrak will often as not be put on a local track behind a New Jersey Transit local commuter train due to some perpetual trackwork that no one can actually commit to finishing; likewise north and east of the city). In fact, in some cases, tracks are being removed (downsizing say from four to three tracks on the Hell Gate Bridge for example, two of which are used by Amtrak and the third for freight) in order to cut down on rail maintenance expenditures. Then, there's electrification. For some reason, many communities in Connecticut were and are dead-set against electrification of railroads. There was a big stink a few years back when the catenary went in east of New Haven, fears that boating-happy communities would be impacted by additional trains running on Amtrak (the compromise was that several railroad drawbridges would be kept open and only closed when a train passes). A branch line that was formerly electrified cannot have the catenary restored (even though it desperately needs it to improve service) because of NIMBYism from the very wealthy communities it services (a recent article that looked at upgrades for this branch was talking about $1 billion being needed for both the electrification and a potential double-tracking).

The branch I just mentioned which was de-electrified for the most mercenary of reasons. Since the New Haven Railroad at that time (late 1950s) was in receivership, they pulled the catenary down for the copper salvage; likewise, the New Haven pulled the wire down on its freight route which extended from the Hell Gate Bridge down to the car floats in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a much faster and less roundabout way to move freight than schlepping it across the Poughkeepsie Bridge to Maybrook. The New Haven actually had to put wire back up briefly on the Bay Ridge line because they got an incredible deal on electric freight locomotives from the Virginian Railroad, but then pulled it down again as the Penn Central merger made that trackage less important. (Moral - there is no such thing as a merger; there are only takeovers. Someone always loses in the name of synergies and cost savings)

If you look at the New York metropolitan area, there are several factors impacting both road and rail traffic that have conspired to make getting around the area an exercise in frustration. First, consider the accident of geography that has pretty much forced all freight traffic to terminate in New Jersey. While as I previously noted, there was carfloat service across the harbor at one point, that service all but died at the time of the Penn Central's bankruptcy, forcing an interesting traffic matrix that thoroughly congests the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, as well as the George Washington and Goethals Bridges. There is no railroad bridge across the Hudson River south of Selkirk (necessitating a 240 mile detour to cross the Hudson; the Poughkeepsie Bridge has been thoroughly damaged by fire and decades of neglect, and is impassible), therefore rail delivery of goods into the city proper from the west is impractical, unless it comes by way of the old Water Level Route. There are only two tracks into Penn Station from New Jersey, both of which are tightly scheduled, and because of clearance and safety reasons are impractical to use for rail freight (although assuming the clearance and safety issues could be worked out, bringing freight through to a terminal colocated with the Sunnyside Yards might be an effective solution for distribution within the city. There is indeed a freight line that goes into Staten Island, however, its history is most puzzling. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad built a new lift bridge adjacent and parallel to the Goethals Bridge in 1959 to replace the previous low-level span, however, the lift bridge (which set a record for the longest such span) was always very lightly used, only seeing traffic to and from a powerplant and a Proctor and Gamble facility. Both industries have long since been decommissioned, and the bridge has basically sat idle for the last 20 years or so. The lift mechanism has been vandalized, and the bridge remains stuck in the open position. There's an interesting detailed discussion in this document about various alternatives to alleviate the traffic crunch in the city caused by trucks bringing freight in from New Jersey.

However, the problem that any transportation planner faces is what happens when the traffic matrix becomes more diverse, as opposed to the normal model bringing large amounts of traffic into a central location whence it will disperse locally (e.g. the normal commuting into Penn Station or Grand Central, thence walking to the office). In some cases a reverse commute model works (e.g. Grand Central to Stamford, Philly 69th Street to Villanova / Bryn Mawr) but there is a dependency on local transit or paratransit for destinations not within walking distance of the rail station. In many cases, there is no reasonably close rail station to a densely office campus setting (think of the many office parks populating the Route 1 corridor in New Jersey that are far from either the New Brunswick or Princeton train stations, or the large office complexes out in the Basking Ridge area) that would make paratransit a difficult option for getting people to and from the train station to meet schedules. Train scheduling is of course a huge issue, as the British gentleman in the article mentioned at the top of this missive found out. Most train schedules are fairly dense from about 4:45 to 6:30, give or take a few minutes, but there's a rapid fall-off at seven PM that makes life difficult for folks who traditionally have to work a bit later than that (think financial services types). Worse of course is the reverse commute pattern in the evening, where someone who lives in the city finds inbound trips on an hourly schedule at best.

The next question is of course reliability, as capital investment in railroad equipment is an expensive proposition that needs funding by expensive bond issues, and as such equipment is pushed far beyond its useful life. Even when the equipment is relatively new, it is plagued with problems. Consider Metro-North's aging fleet of FL-9 diesel-electric locomotives, which were originally acquired by the New Haven Railroad back in the late 50s. The management of the New Haven was in quite a financial pickle, and bought the FL-9s to facilitate removal of the electric catenary east of Stamford (as part of the same program I mentioned earlier), and to eliminate engine changes in New Haven for through trains to Boston. The FL-9s unfortunately proved supremely under-designed to meet their task, being astonishingly unreliable and with a nasty penchant for catching fire when powered by the third rail, yet they far outlived their normal EMD F-unit brethren, a few are still in service to this day on Metro North. However, Metro North, faced with the reality that these locomotives were running far longer than any other diesels do (most diesel locomotives seem to have about a 15-20 year lifespan, occasionally they'll be resold to smaller railroads for light duty work), and bought P32 "Genesis" locomotives similar to those that Amtrak uses for long-haul traffic (although with third rail equipment to take advantage of the third rail in and around NYC), however, the Genesis locomotives are finicky beasts (the trainmen tell me they're miserable on hills) , their head-end power units fail almost as often as the FL-9s did, and there are the occasional spectacular fires just like the FL-9s.

Long missive today. Let's pick this one up again tomorrow.....



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