HOV Lanes

SNCF's Success

France’s state-owned rail agency is going gangbusters:

[T]he new SNCF chairman sees rail stations, mainly in the regions, becoming new transport (and commercial) hubs not just for trains but for buses and trams – “all those places where people don’t want to bring their cars.”

SNCF executives believe rail can take market leadership from air and road on journeys up to four hours long and point to the success of Eurostar (part owned by the group) in increasing traffic so far this year by around a fifth on the back of shorter journey times between London and Brussels/Paris. You can even get to Marseille from Paris in little more than three hours.

Pepy is, therefore, unfazed by the recent move by Air France-KLM to join forces with French freight operator Veolia and launch its own TGV services to, say, Charles de Gaulle airport. “SNCF is not going to be an airline-style operator as we need to operate regional and local services as well.”

This comes via Savage via AutoblogGreen, who both focus on SNCF’s $1.7B profit in 2007. While that’s certainly encouraging, I’d caution against focusing too much on those numbers. SNCF runs both freight and passenger service in France, as a government monopoly. I’m pretty sure that if the US congress decided to nationalize BNSF, Union Pacific and the rest and roll them up into a huge ball with Amtrak, the resulting agency would be profitable.

Still, it goes to show that if you invest consistently in rail infrastructure, you can expand it pretty rapidly when demand rises. On the other hand, if you let it decay for 40 years and then try to throw a hail mary at the last minute, it’s going to be pretty difficult to achieve anything significant.

Are Freight Companies and Local Governments on a Collision Course?

Around the country, local governments are relying on existing freight tracks to provide commuter rail service quickly and cheaply. In the Puget Sound we have the very popular Sounder running on BNSF tracks, South Florida uses CSX tracks to run Tri-Rail commuter rail, and Utah’s FrontRunner and New Mexico’s Rail Runner operate with similar arrangements.

These services require complicated leasing arranements with the freight companies involved, and service is often limited or delayed because the freight trains have priority on the tracks. This is the major reason Sound Transit hasn’t been able to offer as many round trips as it would like to.

Today I came across not one, but two stories from back East on this issue: one involving Florida and CSX, and the other related to Massachusetts and CSX. Both issues center around liability agreements: CSX is saying to both states, in effect, “sure, you can lease our tracks, but we don’t want to be liable in the event of a passenger train crash, even if it’s caused by our neglegence.

Lawmakers are understandably skeptical about agreeing to such conditions. But what else can they do? We’ve let our passenger rail system atrophy over the last 100 years, and building new rights-of-way is time consuming and expensive. Even Amtrak only owns the Northeast Corridor tracks — their trains run on leased freight rail everywhere else in the country, as far as I know.

Add to this the fact that demand for freight rail is surging in America. You’ve no doubt seen the factoid being pushed by the freight rail industry that it can move one ton of freight 400 miles on a gallon of gas. With business booming, freight companies have little incentive to give up track capacity to passenger rail.

And so we have a bit of a crisis simmering between local goverments and big rail companies, one that could evenutally come to a boil as demand for rail — both for freight and passenger travel — continues to rise. Could we nationalize the freight rail industry like France? I very much doubt our Congress would do something that bold. Yet even if the two sides can come to an agreement on the liability issue, the capacity problem will still be there, and getting worse.

Rails to Trails

The deal is done and the tracks stay where they are… for now.

Eastside Rail

So after all that, the tracks are gonna stay where they are and the Dinner Train is coming back. I sure am glad we’re keeping those awesome tracks in place:

The issue of the rails themselves may be more symbolic than real: A BNSF representative has said their only value is for scrap — Sims said the company is actually adding $2 million to the sales price for the corridor to leave them in place — and the aging, single track would need upgrading or replacement to bring rail transit to the corridor. County officials have said a trail will be costlier to develop with the rails left in place.

Process

The BNSF corridor deal is heading towards the finish line:

Under the deal’s latest iteration, the port would grant King County the right to buy the southern, rail-banked sections before the acquisition closes. King County would contribute $2 million to the purchase price, retain right of first refusal and sponsor the trail, which would be “developed in phases after a regional determination regarding the dual use of the Corridor for transportation/trail,” according to a canceled port presentation.

Yoshitani said he believed a $300,000 Sound Transit and Puget Sound Regional Council study of the rail corridor’s feasibility as a commuter line would include a cost/benefit analysis.

“How that study sorts out is of great importance and relevance to us,” said Yoshitani, who added that the port scheduled the public input process to begin next winter.

That’s as it should be. Let’s have ST and the PSRC do a feasability study and then figure out what the best use is for the corridor with respect to transit. Sound Transit seems much more open to the idea now that Prop 1′s over and done with.

Rails and Trails

The Seattle Times is making sense:

Those pesky rails. Do they stay or go? Did the defeat of Proposition 1, the mondo transportation plan, stir a pulse in Sound Transit to look at the corridor for high-speed transit? All the dismissed questions are in play again.

One element must be unchanged: dual use. Save a rare, north-south route to move people in the future. Protecting transit options does not preclude recreational options.

Eastside Rail-Trail Deal Done

Picture 2.png

King County has approved the deal to let the Port of Seattle buy the eastside rail corridor. The County’s approval was important, since they were the ones who had the first rights to buy it.

While there’s nothing final on Boeing Field, the memorandum does say that the Port and the County “shall develop a consultative process for considering major capital improvements at King County International Airport that would substantially affect the Airport’s regional impact.”

The County’s going to move to buy two segments of the trail, but I’m not clear on which segments those are. The P-I’s (and the Times‘) description would seem to correspond roughly with segments A and D of the PSRC’s study (above). But the memo istelf seems to imply that the “Southern Portion” (A+B) will be converted to a trail, while the “Northern Portion” (C+D) will be retained for freight use.

… And It's Bought

After much wrangling, the Port voted unianimously to buy the Eastside rail corridor. The decision on dual-use has been kicked down the road, but the important thing is that the corridor is now slated to become public property.

Deadline Near on Eastide Rail Deal

The Port and the County have until the end of the year to buy the Eastside rail line from BNSF. Apparently they’re making good enough progress that Ron Sims has backed down on his ultimatum. Either that, or he’s realized he’s run out of cards.

The bottom line is that the Port wants to buy the corridor, and they have the money and the votes to do so. The point of contention among the commissioners is what to do with the tracks. But here’s soemthing that should give everyone pause:

When the three-way agreement among the port, the county and BNSF Railway was made public Nov. 2, the deal’s announcement included the stipulation that BNSF would remove the single track from a little-used section of line between Woodinville and Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in Renton. That section would be leased to the county, which would lay the trail on top of the rail bed after BNSF had cleaned up any contaminated soil.

You can see why Sims doesn’t want to keep the tracks in place. Having the County on the hook for any soil contamination would not be fun for anyone (assuming there is actually contamination). Better to let BNSF clean it up before the public takes ownership, even if that means taking out the tracks.

Finally, I think you have trust the transit agencies here. If they don’t think there’s the ridership to support transit, they’re probably right, and it’s going to be an uphill battle to do it without their support. There are just too many moving parts (literally!). Remember the last time some folks tried to do an end-run around the transit planners?

Update: Link fixed.

Rail Costs

One more thing about the P-I article I referenced earlier. They should not be using quotes like this without context:

It is possible to have passenger trains and pedestrians both use the corridor at a much lower cost, said Bruce Agnew, the director of the Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute, which just commissioned a study that found it would be possible to modernize the 42 miles of track to accommodate small diesel commuter trains for $37 million.

“We need to look very closely and not make hasty decisions, like ripping out 31 miles of perfectly usable track,” Agnew said.

$37M is just the cost of upgrading all the track. You might ask Mr. Agnew why, if the track is “perfectly usable,” it will cost $37M to “modernize” it. And indeed, if you read the Cascadia Center’s report, it advocates “ripping out” nearly all of the track and replacing it:

Costs were preliminarily estimated by Fay as follows: tie and rail replacement, $33.6 million ($800,000 per mile X 42 miles); bridge replacement, $3.42 million(1,140 feet of bridge at $3,000 per foot). Other costs are yet to be determined, including stations; equipment plus storage and repair facilities; project EIS and engineering.

The PSRC estimates it will cost $300M to do a proper rail line, including stations and, you know, actual trains. That’s the number the P-I should be using.