Saturday, December 24, 2011

Avoiding Delusions and Deception in Public Infrastructure Costs

The basic reason to restore rail passenger service to the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line is to provide a transportation alternative to highway and air. Restored rail passenger service means a lessening of a virtual reliance upon the highway. Restored rail passenger service will lessen highway congestion. Restored rail passenger service will create an alternative to air service.

What has been described implements established engineering and technology. There is nothing innovative in what is proposed.

But, restoring Pittsburgh to Harrisburg rail passenger service should not be confused with the infamy of cost overruns of megaprojects.

Here is an interesting summary of notorious infrastructure cost overruns. The article, from the Atlantic Magazine helpfully makes recommendations for avoiding delusions and deceptions in planning and funding large infrastructure projects.

The Delusion and Deception in Megaproject Cost Estimates

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Current Alignment Pittsburgh to Harrisburg Best Schedule

I was able in February of 2010 to have a member of the Talgo organization’s engineering staff review a copy of the Norfolk Southern’s track charts for the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line.

Talgo is a firm with decades of experience with pendular suspended rail passenger equipment that makes it possible to operate rail passenger service at higher speeds than normal passenger equipment not using pendular suspension. Talgo has built equipment for American service. Currently, Talgo has provided equipment being used between  Seattle, OR to Vancouver, BC and Seattle, WA to Portland to Eugene, OR.

The Talgo staffer  made a calculation  westbound, mile for mile, of the speeds that could be maintianed on the existing alignment and super elevation of the outside rail on curves. It was assumed that signal spacing and road crossing protection would be adapted as required for the higher speeds. There appeared to be no problem with current signal spacing. Road grade crossings posed another problem. There are about 30 public crossings. Half the public crossings have active protection. Active protection means flashing signals and / or lowered crossing barriers. Also between the two cities are 40 private road crossings. Private crossings do not have active protection.

The distance between the Pittsburgh Amtrak station and the Harrisburg Amtrak station is 254 miles. However, the actual average mile is 5194.5 feet. This average length computation results from the fact that actual distances between mile posts range from 3947 feet to as long as 6451 feet. This lack of a uniform length per mile results from 157 years of engineering and maintenance history. So, the actual distance in 5280 foot miles is 249.9 miles.

An average potential speed for each mile was created. To do so, the speed leaving a prior mile with the maximum permitted in the next mile was compared. Track geometry and the capability of Talgo equipment were considered in context. If the new mile’s speed was higher than the entry speed a table developed by Talgo was used to determine how much available acceleration could be able to increase the speed in the time and distance available. A braking rate of 3 mph a second was assumed. ROugh approximations of where speed changes would begin and end were made. A weighted average of the entry and exit speeds were used to calculate the time needed to cover each mile assuming a 5194.5 foot mile.

Talgo could lessen the current 5 hour 30 minute schedule to 4 hours 10 minutes. The 4 hour 10 minute schedule retains the current schedule cushion of 34 minutes.

The rough estimate for Talgo equipment and the required maintenance facility would be about $40 million.

To upgrade the crossings for higher speed operations would be in the neighborhood of $15 million.

The Talgo staffer made some assumptions as to the probable fare for the Pittsburgh to HArrisburg line. Acela service on the North East corridor is the fastest service. Acela passengers pay a fare premium for the faster service. If that fare premium assumption were applied at 50% of what it is for Acela to Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line, a remarkable payback is possible.

Now, if there were a dedicated passenger track were the length of the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line, the 34 minute schedule pad could be eliminated. A 3 hour 36 minute schedule is within the  realm of possibility with Talgo.

Google Maps computes a 3 hour 45 schedule time for the trip from the Pittsburgh Amtrak station to the Harrisburg Amtrak station using the Parkway East out of Pittsburgh to the Turnpike at Monroeville. After driving the Turnpike across the Alleghenies, Google Maps has the motorist leave the Turnpike at Harrisburg West exit using Route 581 into Harrisburg. The assumption made by Google Maps to declare a 3 hour 45 driving time is to assume satisfactory conditions for the time assumed.

The reality is that there will be a delay at the Squirrel Hill tunnel. There will be another delay at the Monroeville interchange. The unrelieved excitement of driving over the Alleghenies will often as not be accompanied with bad weather, truck congestion and the pleasure of driving over stretches of unaltered alignments from original construction in 1940. Admittedly the stretch past Donegal was rebuilt. The road was widened a few miles on either side of Somerset. The Allegheny Tunnel had an additional two lanes added with a new approach from the east that’s a tribute to highway engineering in the 1960‘s. That interchange at Bedford is the same alignment today as the day it was opened in 1940. Entering the road eastbound from Bedford now has the added excitement of enormous traffic volume bearing down upon a functionally obsolete, too short entry ramp. The road was rebuilt east of Bedford over Sidling Hill and Rays Hill but once over that, it is 1940 the whole way to Harrisburg West. It might be a better experience in a 1940 Packard.?!? East of Rays Hill to and  through Tuscarora, Kittatinny and Blue Mountain tunnels, the only difference is that the tunnels are now 4 lanes rather than th original 2 lanes. Otherwise, its 1940 for most of the trip to Harrisburg West interchange. Once off at Harrisburg West driving to Route 581, there is a strong likelihood for a delay.
The point of this is that a 3 hour 45 driving time is a possible time, not a probable time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Let's Get Back to Pittsburgh to Harrisburg

Pittsburgh is part of the Great Lakes megaregion ( some 54 million census),  being at its southeastern end.

Harrisburg is part of the North East megaregion ( some 50 million census),  being at its western end.

Connecting the two megaregions with improved and restored rail passenger service will provide for anticipated economic growth. For all essential purposes, highway and air modes are today saturated or nearly saturated.

When Jean Gottman in 1961 published the book, Megalopolis, he described the continuous city from Washington, DC to Philadelphia to New York to Boston. He described the phenomenon of a continuous band of light that could be observed from the air at night created by a megalopolis, a chain of roughly adjacent metropolitan areas.The the description  of a megalopolis was unique then to the North East. Today that is no longer the case. The USA has 11 megaregions.  (See: )

The importance to restoring passenger rail service to Pittsburgh to Harrisburg is that it is is a first step in connecting the Great Lakes megaregion with the North East megaregion with an alternative to highway and air.

Probably, Pittsburgh has more need for restored passenger rail service from Cleveland to Youngstown to  New Brighton to Pittsburgh to Greensburg to Latrobe and Johnstown. Certainly, the Great Lakes megaregion extends through Pittsburgh to Greensburg.  On the east, the probable most immediate need for restored rail passenger service is Huntingdon to Lewistown to Harrisburg. Rail service from Huntingdon to Lewistown to Harrisburg would support the transient student population at the State College. Huntingdon and Lewistown are the closest points to State College on the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line.

In order to attain Cleveland to Youngstown to New Brighton to Pittsburgh, an interstate effort is required. Accomplishing Pittsburgh to Harrisburg restoration is  intrastate and simpler. However, what is needed is restored passenger rail service that is interstate from the east coast to the midwest. By restoring passenger rail service rail service from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, a significant part of restoring rail passenger service from the east coast to the midwest will be accomplished.

Long distance passenger trains have a certain passenger load that travels the length of the trains route.
A substantial portion of the fares are for intermediate travel along a long distance train's route. The existence of a long distance train will create demand in unexpected ways for intermediate travel.

The emphasis for this blog has been Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.  But Pittsburgh is closer to the Washington, DC and Baltimore sections of the North East megaregion via the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line now owned by CSX than via the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line. Restoring rail passenger service to that line would be a significant transport asset for Pittsburgh. As in restoring rail passenger service to Cleveland, the problem is that it is interstate.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Creative Way to Pay for Non-Oil Based Transportation - Electrification

"World trade Organization (WTO) rules allow a nation with a long term structural trade deficit (And the United States certainly qualifies!) to place unilateral tariff on all "non-essential" imports so long as the proceeds from the tariff are used exclusively to reduce the structural trade deficit and there is no preferential treatment in the application of the tariff.'

'Oil imports are a major part of the "long term structural trade deficit" of the United States of America. This plan, railroad electrification, will reduce US imports by substantial amounts. Therefore, a substantial fraction of the government costs to implement this plan could be financed by a 1% to 2% tariff on a broad range of imports.'

'The initial reaction from foreign governments may not be positive, but our diplomats can assure them that this new tariff:

      1. is according to WTO rules. In fact, this is precisely why the exemption exists.
      2. will be effective in reducing US competition for available oil exports, which is very much in        
          the self interest of oil importers and even oil exporters.
      3. will be effective in reducing US carbon emissions, which is everyone's interest.'

'And furthermore, it is the only politically possible way that the US will do anything meaningful about either oil consumption or Climate Change. Thus, it is in their enlightened self interest to not object to the US financing part of the program with a broad but small tariff on imports. And if the tariff is implemented according to WTO rules, they have no other recourse under international law."

See: "An American Citizen's Guide to an Oil-Free Economy. A How-to Manual for Ending Oil Dependency with Valuable Bonus Information on Saving Our Economy, Our Planet and Strengthening Our National Security," by Alan S. Drake: