I saw something come up yesterday on the Railway Gazette which intrigued me. It seems that there is a proposed streetcar line that will run fron Union Station in Dallas to Oak Cliff that will require the rolling stock to be self powered for part of its route. This is due to it having to cross the Houston Street Viaduct, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and so would not be permitted to have the OHLE installed. So, DART have ordered a small fleet of vehicles from the Brookville Equipment Corporation that will be fitted with storage batteries that will power the vehicle when it comes off the wires, principally when it is on the viaduct. This got me to thinking. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the electrification of the Great Western Main Line, not least because of the large number of listed structures along the route. This has especially caused debate on the route through the centre of Bath, which is a World Heritage Site. There are concerns that stringing wires up on the viaducts that carry the line through the city centre would damage the appearance of the city, and has even led to the suggestion that the electrification could be achieved by laying third rail (which frankly isn’t an option). So, would it be possible therefore to fit some kind of energy storage, be it batteries, or flywheel, to allow the planned IEP units to make their way through Bath if it turns out there’s too many objections to the wires? Probably not, but hey, I’m just doing some blue sky thinking here.
I saw a story come through yesterday on the Railway Gazette feed in regards to the procurement of new high speed trains that Amtrak announced back in December. You may recall that Amtrak plan to replace the existing Acela Express fleet with new, purpose built units that will go together with the planned infrastructure improvements intended to increase speeds on the Northeast Corridor. Well, Amtrak have made further announcements in regards to this that make a little more sense – first of all is that the procurement wil be in two parts, with the first tranche of twelve trains intended to be used alongside the existing fleet, thus increasing the capacity available for the service; a second order “in the early 2020s” would then replace the current Acela fleet. But it is the second element of the announcement that is more interesting. Amtrak has joined together with CHSR to develop a “US standard” specification for high speed trains in the United States, which makes sense in cost terms as it means each organisation (and any subsequent one, such as XpressWest) won’t have to spend a fortune developing their own spec for their trains. Additionally, by banding together it provides an impetus to potentially allow international companies to introduce domestic supply chains in the US to allow these products to be built and assembled domestically. There was though something of additional interest that I made note of – one of Amtrak’s requirements is for their trains to be able to operate successfully both at 350km/h on any potential new build line, and 240km/h on existing upgraded infrastructure. The current Acela fleet can operate at these speeds due to the fact that they can tilt, which suggests that this would be included in any new specification, given that, no matter what upgrades may be done to the existing route, it will still follow pretty much the same path, and if they need tilting trains now, they’ll still need them in ten years time. This got me thinking that HS2 Ltd should perhaps keep an eye on this process and, if successful, think about taking elements of whatever the US spec is and adapting them for use here when the time comes to procure the fleet of trains intended for use on both High Speed 2 and the existing network, which, given that it will operate on the northern half of the West Coast Main Line, will need to tilt if it is to retain the current available speeds and make the most of the new infrastructure in bringing down journey times to those destinations that won’t be served by the initial route.
While it may be true that, with the current incumbent of the White House as a relatively vocal advocate, the advancement of passenger rail in the United States is growing, there is no doubt still a long way to go. A major example of this is the continuing disconnection of the city of Las Vegas - a city of half a million people (with close to 2 million living in the urban area), in which the only rail service is the 4 mile long Las Vegas Monorail that connects a number of major hotels along The Strip. While there is a plan to extend this to serve McCarran International Airport, this means that it will still primarily be for customers coming into the city to get to one of the hotels. Of course, this is not such a bad thing, as this is one of the major elements of the city’s economy. But, it still means that it relies on air travel to get people to the city in the first place, no matter where they originate from.
Las Vegas is around 270 miles from Los Angeles, which in flying time is probably about an hour, while driving takes anything up to four hours. In terms of distance within the United States as a whole, this is not huge, but it is still a massive inconvenience to have to drive all that way and for that long (even if the American roads system is supposed to be one of the great adventures one can have without fear of being shot), while we are all aware of the disadvantages of short haul flying. Which is why not one, but two groups have come up with plans for passenger rail services to Sin City, which would be the first since Amtrak withdrew the Desert Wind in 1997. DesertXpress (since renamed as XpressWest) originated as a privately funded plan to link the city with Southern California using a new build high speed line – initially intended to terminate at Victorville, later proposals were for the terminus to be extended to Palmdale to interchange directly with the California High Speed Rail network, making DesertXpress almost an appendix to the publically funded high speed network in the Golden State. This proposal has been expanded further (causing the the rebranding) to take in a number of other states in the west of the country. The core element though remains the route to Las Vegas, which would be around 90 minutes from Victorville (and probably a little under two hours from Palmdale). Palmdale would, once the CHSR is constructed, be less than an hour from Union Station in Los Angeles, making a journey time of approaching an hour less than driving (even with an interchange). Of course, that is for the future, with XpressWest not expected to start running trains until 2016, and CHSR not expected until the late 2020s. Which is where Las Vegas Railway Express has been able to step in – planning a service it calls X-Train, this will run on conventional track through an agreement with Union Pacific. Starting from Fullerton, where it will interchange with Metrolink, it will terminate at the Plaza Hotel, which is the former location of Las Vegas Union Pacific Station. It is estimated that the new service, intended to launch in January 2014, will take around 5 hours end to end, a result of the poor state of trackage and the way the network is owned and administered. The intention though is to provide a much better level of service than is experienced either on Amtrak trains or airlines, which presumably is intended to make up for the timetable. Of course, it would be better if the length of time taken for the journey was less, but if people decide to take the train to Las Vegas, and find that they like it enough that they don’t notice the time, then it’s possible, just possible that when XpressWest gets going, it will start with a bang.
It looks like the Americans might be getting the idea about high speed railways – not just that they are actually supposed to be “high speed” (which in anyone’s language should be faster than 110mph), but that it actually requires investment. The most recent story is that Amtrak have decided that, rather than procure a total of 40 additional cars to lengthen their Acela Express trains, which was announced as part of an overall fleet renewal package in 2010, they have decided to purchase a brand new fleet of trains to operate on the Northeast Corridor. Obviously, these will have to be of a similar specification to the existing units as the NEC is an ordinary route rather than a genuine high-speed one, so new trains will have to tilt as the existing ones do. But the fact that Amtrak have seen that this route, which is the most heavily used passenger rail corridor in the country, needs both fast and frequent services, which means improved infrastructure and more trains, is a step forward. Presumably this procurement will be in tandem with rebuilding the route itself to allow these new thoroughbreds to run at higher speeds for longer, thus making using the train even more competitive against flying.
But what of the existing fleet? The current units are just over ten years old. Unlike other high speed trains around the world (perhaps most notably the Shinkansen types) they are not heavily used, virtual commuter trains in need of replacing after just twenty years of service, and so are very far from being life expired. Even when a prospective new fleet enters service you would expect them to be able to operate effectively for a considerable time. So, in order to expand the reach of high speed rail in the US, and to encourage more people to use the train than other means of transport, the idea could be mooted for some other region to take them on to provide faster rail services, in return for which the infrastructure for them to operate faster is put in place. The Northeast Regional for example is a service that runs along the NEC connecting Massachusetts and Virginia – the Acela Express runs along the section north of Washington DC that is electrified, but the southern portion remains unelectrified. If agreement could be reached between the Federal Government, Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern (who own much of the infrastructure) to electrify the route south of Washington so that these trains could run through to the southern termini of the NE Regional service, at a stroke areas of southern Virginia would be that much closer not just to the capital, but potentially other major metropolitan areas further north. Alternatively, infrastructure could be upgraded to allow these trains to be used on the routes run by Amtrak California, which could also be useful in showing the citizens of the Golden State the benefits of faster trains, given the continuing battle over the construction of the genuine high speed rail network. Of course, it’s dependent on money and whether the people that make the decisions have the inclination to go ahead. One would hope though that even Americans could see the benefits of keeping existing resources rather than simply discarding them when you have something new.
The residents of London are notorious for moaning when it comes to any kind of disruption to the transport system. For example, this week was published the programme of work that will be involved in the upgrade of London Bridge as part of the Thameslink Programme, a task that is planned to take five years all told, because the station has to remain open (obviously). The rebuild will allow more trains through, and will reduce the serious bottleneck it has become. But still (as I’ve often said) people moan about the amount of time it will take and the disruption it will cause. Case in point – I read a letter in the Evening Standard this week by someone helpfully pointing out that after an earthquake, a hole in the one of the highways in Los Angeles was repaired within 9 days, so why was it taking five years to rebuild London Bridge? While “leaves on the line” or “the wrong type of snow” are causes for general bluster about how shit the service provided is, they are genuine problems that people don’t seem to understand (I hasten to add that when the “wrong type of snow” line first wormed its way into the public conciousness, it wasn’t British Rail that said it. As usual, it was a pithy newspaper headline). So, what might the reaction have been if London had had to face the situation that New York has just gone through? The merger of Hurricane Sandy with a pair of low pressure systems over the eastern United States and southern Canada led to it becoming an “extratropical cyclone” and making landfall much further north than it otherwise might have, as well as increasing its violence to the extent that, amongst other measures, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shut down virtually the entire transport system of New York City – reportedly seven tunnels used by the Subway were flooded, as was one used by the Long Island Rail Road, while parts of the Metro-North Railroad lost power, Amtrak’s services were not calling at New York, and the PATH was completely suspended. Essentially, in terms of rail travel, New York City was cut off for two days and is only just now slowly getting back to normal. It will probably take a lot of time and money to repair the damage (total cost of all the damage to the region is estimated to be around $20bn), and will doubtless cause a lot of disruption, which is added to the two major Subway projects and one on the LIRR that are in progress. I wonder how much the good burghers of the city that never sleeps will moan about all that?
“Give us bread and circuses” is the cry, or so it seems. In last week’s Sunday Express was a poll suggesting a large majority of the public now want to see the railways re-nationalised, something that must be music to the ears of Spud and his cronies. Not only this, but it also seems that the Labour Party is considering making this official policy for the next election. So this of course should be enough to warn people off it anyway. But there are lots of things that I do think people should consider when it comes to the idea of nationalisation that it feels like aren’t out there. Like first of all the fact that there are European regulations on the liberalisation of rail transport to consider. Were the railways jusr simply nationalised, how would that impact on open access operators? But that’s by the wayside.
One of the major moans that the unions have is the fact that the franchise system in the UK allows what they describe as the “nationalised railway companies” in other European companies to procure UK franchises, while rail operations are “closed” to British operators. First of all, I’m sure Deutsche Bahn would object to being called a nationalised railway company, as it isn’t. It is an Aktiengesellschaft, which in Germany is the general equivilent of a plc, a company whose shares can be publically traded on a stock market. So even though the German government owns 100% of the shares, it can at any time sell any amount of the company’s shares. But also is the claim that operators in other countries have monopolies over their networks, when again that isn’t true. It is certainly the case in some countries that operations across all sectors are run by nationalised organs, with the one that I most often think of now being Iarnród Éireann. IÉ is a subsidiary whose shares are 100% owned by a statutory corporation, and is thus a truly nationalised operator. And those of you that are regular readers will know how I feel about the way IÉ runs its operations. Having no competition means that they are essentially free to do what they want, and if it means they have no desire to run a route any longer, they can simply reduce the service level to a point where no one wants to use the train any more, and then claim that the service is unporfitable and withdraw it. Which is what British Rail did with any number of significant routes, not least of which was the eventual closure of the line into London Broad Street (which, I’m sure you have all noticed, has now reopened).
While the big and flashy main line operations, especially the high speed networks, tend to be run by those companies that were formed out of the old nationalised railways, the local operations, the ones that we would think of as commuter, or suburban, or rural, are controlled locally, by French départements or German länder, who tender out the operation of services commercially, in much the same way as TfL and Merseytravel do. And there is the interesting thing. Because both London Overground and Merseyrail are, to all intents and purposes, nationalised rail companies, as all the important decisions in regards to management and investment are taken by the PTEs, with the actual operation of services and revenue collection contracted out to private companies. As a consequence that the PTE takes the risk, the PTE keeps the bulk of the revenue. Similar to this are virtually all of the light rail operations around the country, with only Blackpool and Tramlink owned and operated by the municipal body. This method of doing things has been adopted by some of the newer commuter rail operators in the United States – both the Coaster and Sprinter operations of the North County Transit District in San Diego are run this way, with the actual operations contracted out. So, there is the possibility, as suggested in the newspaper article that accompanied the poll, that people might be prepared to accept this type of arrangement, in ensuring that a public body retains control, but contracts out its operations. Nationalisation? No. Concession? Maybe.
Further to my previous post, there was something else that occured to me. In the episode of The Big Bang Theory that I described, called The Terminator Decoupling, Sheldon and his friends Leonard, Howard and Raj take the Coast Starlight from Pasadena to San Francisco. The thing is that there is no railway station in Pasadena, and so the guys would have had to use the Gold Line to get to Union Station in Los Angeles to catch the train, while to actually get to San Francisco, the boys would have had to go to Oakland before boarding the Thruway Motorcoach to get into the city. What surprises me, given Sheldon’s eidetic memory, is that he didn’t mention either the beginning or the end of the journey. However, I have no doubt that anyone reading this will probably have little to no interest in any of this. Oh well. BAZINGA!!
One of the good things about coming late to a TV show is that you get to see loads and loads of the show that is totally brand new. So it is for me with The Big Bang Theory. The synopsis of the show is unimportant. The part that is important is the presence in it of what has come to be seen as the “breakout character”, a theoretical physicist named Sheldon Cooper. Undeniably the funniest character, Sheldon has an incomporable lack of empathy or humility, a distinct lack of social skills, and a minimal grasp of irony or sarcasm. Being a nerd among nerds, as with his peer group, he enjoys science fiction, fantasy, online games, comic books, and all the other things that “nerds” enjoy. In addition to which he is a fan of trains. Of course, it’s cool that there is a character in a hit television show who is a gricer. But it is unfortunate for us all that the character is who he is, as it perhaps reinforces the stereotype of railfans as total geeks with limited social skills. Speaking personally, I’m not a total geek. Merely a partial one. I will admit that I love large parts of science fiction – Star Trek is my great love, while superheroes are damned cool. But I am not a scientist (in fact, I have a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in information services management), and video games are as dull as ditchwater. I also like to think that I can hold my own in most social situations.
There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory that I have just seen; one that must be significant as it is one of the few that has its own page on Wikipedia, called The Terminator Decoupling, in which Sheldon and his three friends travel to a conference in San Francisco, and, rather than flying (which the others want to do), take the train from Pasadena. I know that most people reading this will be fans of travelling by train, and so the idea of travelling from Pasadena to San Francisco, long though it may be, is not one to fill me with dread certainly. Indeed, a friend of mine recently took a trip first to Edinburgh, where she spent a few days, and from there to Aberdeen, by train, and she told me that the experience was not totally heinous. And yet the other three main characters (those with somewhat better social skills) moan that they aren’t flying. Thus purpetuating the idea that travelling by train is “geeky”. Oh well. Fundamentally, who gives a crap in this day and age about what people like. I’m relatively sure the fact that it’s the geeks and nerds in life who are the ones that make the fortunes and get the girls. And no doubt there are some people who have made feckin fortunes and have hot wives and girlfriends that love trains. Bazinga.