The Cascades Context: The Absolute Mess That Is Modern American Passenger Railroading.

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September 26, 2012 by seradt

This blog, dedicated as it is to passenger railways, cities and politics, is particularly intent on covering the transformation of the emerging Cascades Corridor into a world class, profit generating passenger operation. Similar to an increasing number of intercity corridors that are experiencing an unprecedented resurgence in passenger railway traffic, the corridor is primed to capture much of the air and car market between the cities of Seattle and Portland if, and only if, significant improvements in trip frequency, speed and on-time reliability are achieved. With 847,709 riders in fiscal year 2011, the corridor service, despite traveling at slower-than-automobile average speeds and a trip reliability stagnating at just above 70%, has attained a remarkable number of riders in the period since its inception in 1994. The climb in ridership is especially noteworthy after the service was branded Cascades and provided sleek, new Talgo equipment in January 1999, building the foundation that allowed for the service’s doubling of ridership since that time. Considering the alternatives beyond confronting traffic congestion on the I-5 corridor, drivers are instead hanging their keys, taking cabs to the station and reclining in their seats. Even with current service pitfalls, the region has clearly begun to discover the benefits of having such a system.

There is a limit to this growth, however—a plateau. To truly break free of the confines of being only a marginally important regional transportation option, the trains need to achieve time parity with automobile travel at just under 3 hours (instead of the present scheduled 3.5), or go much faster, and do so reliably with a dramatically increased number of departures. Additionally, the swifter the travel commences and terminates, the more fliers are captured from the airline shuttle market that clog PDX and SEA airports (a review of Alaska Airlines alone has 20 round trips), a horribly inefficient waste of plane slots and fuel, as well as being a major polluter of Pacific Northwest skies (It is important to note that such shuttle markets are established in the absence of high and higher speed rail lines, and are a prime indicator of the worthiness of an enhanced-speed, high-capacity passenger railway corridor). With swift gate-to-gate flight times of about 45 minutes and factoring an hour for household door-to-airport gate trip time in each city, the quick flight rapidly becomes less competitive to a train that produces a high average speed.

Achieving such critical improvements in service are continually frustrated, though. Establishing a passenger rail system has never been as easy as merely procuring equipment and subsequently running a train back and forth, but as both current and eventual rail operators are finding out, American political history has stacked the cards against them. Truth be written, the establishment of a modern passenger railway network for the 21st century is prevented by a slew of unnecessary regulations. While developed nations across the globe are improving upon progressive operations practices and equipment invented right here in this country, moving their populace swiftly and cleanly and connecting major urban markets in the process, American passenger rail providers are strangled by preposterous safety requirements, expensive and unfunded Congressional mandates, skeptical freight railway company executives and a hostile, road-friendly public. Despite the enormous potential to garner profits and achieve success, endearing the public to the potential of passenger rail, rail providers from Amtrak to commuter rail operators are sometimes wholly unable to get a promising service off project boards and onto the rails whatsoever. Indeed, the barriers are simply stacked too high, too concretely.

It was not always this way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American railroading was the world’s premier mover of people and goods by rail, pioneering safe and efficient operating practices, mass producing brilliantly engineered locomotives and rolling stock, and revolutionizing infrastructure systems that transformed the steel wheel on steel rail industry. Taking the Brit-invented railway concept and dashing away with it, American railroad ingenuity irreversibly altered the landscape of a great continent and planted the seeds that cultivated the futures of the great cities of the interior and west. Railway corporations became the mightiest of corporations in the world as they transported the goods that fed the stubbornly bullish American economy, the most notable being the Pennsylvania Railroad, and terrific investments in railway infrastructure shrank once unfathomable distances into mere hours or a couple of days away. Express freights were overtaken by much higher speed express passenger trains, and slower, heavier freights were routed on other main lines in a 250,000 mile, densely tangled network of steel that gave host to a capacity that supported the growth of an industrious United States.

In the Midwest, the marvelous prototypes of modern lightweight passenger trains raced through prairies in excess of 100 miles an hour between the core of Chicago and other major regional centers. The CB&Q’s Zephyr train sets in particular, notable for their aerodynamic and streamlined Art Deco appearance in the steam engine era—a design that is still remarkably timeless—broke all the records with lightning quick top speeds of 112 miles an hour. More astonishing, the Zephyrs maintained average speeds of over 75 miles an hour on their trips to Kansas City, Denver, Minneapolis and Chicago, equally as fast as the prestige Amtrak train of today, the Acela Express. On well engineered track with high-powered, light locomotives, articulated coaches of pre-fabricated, durable materials, and improved suspension systems that ensured passenger comfort, the services offered during this time represented a stunning technological leap in passenger train capability. In some portions of the CHI-MSP Zephyr route, a scheduled speed of 84 miles an hour would be maintained, likely the highest in the world when service was inaugurated in the 1930s, and likely for long period afterward. Even today, over eighty years later, that would be the speediest revenue service anywhere on this side of the Atlantic.

Local, intercity and express trains darted past slower freights and regularly tested the capacity of trunk lines and the incredible prowess of their signaling systems. Fast overnight “hotel” trains experimented with operational services that set world standards. Railways routinely re-engineered original segments of their lines to improve track speed and reliability, as well as to quicken overall travel times. Some lines even dabbled in, if not fully implemented, electrification systems that dramatically reduced noise, greatly improved the efficiency of operations and collapsed fuel costs, establishing a critical precedent for modern high speed trains. Grand terminals punctuated the end of an expeditious journey, and was where one could pick up rail based intracity transit that would bring you to anywhere you wanted to go in a respective metropolitan area. Upgrades and improvements in technology were commonplace, suggesting the future was bright for fast trains.  Pre-automobile and rail-based United States, a nation that in 1920 saw 98% of its intercity travel and 77% of its freight shipments conducted by train, dazzled the globe in its role as the preeminent archetype for railway transportation efficiency and service.

To be fair, that very same maturing nation, host to so many millions of train movements every year, also bore witness to some of the most spectacular and tragic derailments in railroading. The horrific 1946 rear-end collision of two passenger trains in Naperville, Illinois, is especially relevant to this post. Making an unscheduled stop to have bearings inspected while enroute from Chicago to Omaha, the Advance Flyer of the CB&Q railroad was rammed violently by the California-bound Exposition Flyer of the same railroad, with the latter train operated by an engineer who disregarded the first-and-only early warning signal caused by the emergency stopping of the Advance. Such warning signals were common and frequently run by engineers closely following other scheduled trains, and is the likely cause for the signal’s dismissal. When the engineer rounded the final bend, however, and noticed the stalled train and the red block signal immediately preceding it, he put the train brakes in emergency. Brakes squealing heinously, the distance between the block signal and the stopped Advance Flyer was never going to be adequate to halt the 85 mile an hour speeds of the Exposition in time. Inevitably, with both trains carrying upwards of 200 people each, the Exposition violently collided into the final car of the Advance, a coach packed with military families and their soldiers returning home from WWII duties.  The Exposition’s incoming diesel locomotive crushed 47 passengers to death between rows of seating as it sheared through the Advanced’s older passenger cars at 60 miles an hour.

This single event shocked Capitol Hill into political action. Previously the sole responsibility of the railways, the Interstate Commerce Commission intervened and instituted one of the first policies that regulated passenger train operations for safety reasons; the speed limitation. The ICC mandated in 1947 that (as reiterated in current Federal Railroad Administration law), “where any train is permitted to operate at a speed of 80 or more miles per hour, an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop, or automatic train control system complying with provisions shall be installed”. Effective in 1951, this unfunded federal mandate required private railroads to pay for and install expensive, technologically advanced systems that would overrule engineers should they fail to stop for a block signal. As such systems only needed to be installed in lines that allowed for speeds in excess of 80 miles an hour, railroads responded by dramatically decreasing the speeds of their prestige passenger trains to 79 miles an hour, a limit that is still nearly universally adhered to for American passenger rail operations. The most irksome component of the mandate was that: while Congress was lavishing the toll-free Interstate Highway System in billions of dollars; while Congress was enshrining automobile addiction and parasitic sprawl infrastructure through suburbs-focused VA and FHA home loans, and; while Congress was busy funding fabulously modern airports and their traffic control systems, that same Congress determined that the private railroads, which were providing a public service as beneficial as any airline or trucking company, would have to fund these pricey installations themselves.

Congress had gone crazy for the future, and by 1951 the future of American intercity transport was not the train, but the glamor of the skies and the freedom of the un-tolled roadway. Perhaps it was because of the incredible history of the railroads and their former political power, with all its corruption, bribery and misgivings. Or maybe it was the spirit of the times, a spirit that bellowed loud and clear that train travel was now old hat, the technology dated and dead, nothing more than a relic of the 1800s. Whatever it was, the railroads would now be burdened with the financing for improvements the government deemed necessary should it wish to invest in higher speed rail transport, transport that inherently benefits passenger train operation, all-the-while bankrolling other more inefficient modes of transportation infrastructure. The Naperville accident and its consequences could not have happened at a worse time for the country’s railroad system. With local train traffic being eviscerated by the deep pockets of American taxpayers and their love of the car and the road, and long-distance trips being pummeled and slashed due to jetliner competition, the new speed limit instantly halted the railway speed race that could have been passenger rail’s saving grace had it the opportunity to continue to progress. Compounded by regressive tax laws where any improvement in track infrastructure resulted in increased land value, ultimately leading to a higher tax penalty, the consequences were damning; with profit margins thin to non-existent, passenger train traffic now eradicated and costs rising on networks of huge capacity that now host too few trains, private railroads began the race to the bottom. Shaving costs wherever they could, railroads hurriedly merged to become financially stabile (and then often soon bankrupted), removed second main lines on double track lines (if not much more), deferred maintenance to lower tax burdens, ripped up electrification systems, expended freight costs onto passenger services to make them appear unsustainable, and blatantly desecrated the quality of their prestige passenger trains. That last point, surprising as it is, is explained away by the truth that the ICC was mandating that railroads continue operating passenger services on their lines, despite the plethora of unfair financial and legal reasons that would have encouraged any sensible business to do just the opposite. The consequential impact was that railroad companies tried their damnedest to make such services look appallingly unprofitable and wasteful. The passenger era, therefore, particularly in the opinion of railway executives and the general public, was over and never to return.

The ICC and its railroad safety concerned step-child/successor, the 1966 established FRA, would continue to make matters worse for American passenger railroading—and still does. Amongst other frivolous safety rules it enshrined into law that remain impediments to modern passenger train service are: safety rules that prescribe platform heights; safety rules that dictate freight train and passenger train route track sharing; safety rules that limit the superelevation and unbalanced elevation of track in a curve, severely inhibiting travel speed despite well tested international best practices that should disprove any perception of danger; the safety requirement to blow a horn at every crossing, ensuring communities all across America hate trains and the idea of local service, and; most egregiously, the buff strength safety rule, based off 1940’s specifications, which requires every passenger train operating on a route shared with freight trains, or even merely connected to the general rail network, to be built to specifications similar to that of an armored tank. In case of a collision, the FRA maintains that passenger trains need to be able to withstand the force of a 100 ton coal train without deforming, a ludicrously high bar. Akin to asking Boeing to manufacture a plane that can nosedive into the ground and remain intact, or requiring that a Geo Metro be able to resist an eighteen wheeler semi as it crashes into it, the rule is preposterous for an organization that purports to be safety focused. Actually, the FRA as it currently exists does more to harm Americans than protect them, ensuring that more people drive to their destinations while it prohibits the start-up of passenger rail operations that otherwise would have carried them; indeed, passenger trains are the safest mode of transit around while cars remain an order of magnitude more dangerous. The FRA focuses on regulating for the survivability of a major accident as opposed to the actual prevention of it, a boneheaded and backwards methodology, especially in the face of the incredibly advanced signaling systems now installed across Europe and Asia.

By making trains too expensive to buy, build and operate, too pricey to maintain, too slow to compete, too noisy for liking, too regulated for streamlined use, and all-the-while roadways, airports and bankrupt airlines remain largely funded through the congressional general fund at an accelerated pace, the FRA does more damage than any freight railroad to the success of a passenger train start-up or operation. It has proven to be, in fact, an enemy of it. The cherry on top of all this absurdity is the truth that many of these regulations were enacted based on operations practices that were commonplace back in the early 20th century and are no longer pertinent to modern day practices. The safety rule regarding the (unbalanced) superelevation of track curves, for example, was based on a faulty experiment in the 1950s with old passenger coaches employing a by-then dated suspension system, in which passengers were uncomfortable rounding a curve after so much unbalanced superelevation was experienced. That is, the train traveled the corner too fast for the banking of the track to balance out the acceleration forces, consequently subjecting passengers to too much centrifugal force, or so it was determined. Again, the passengers were merely uncomfortable, yet their discomfort was enshrined into an FRA safety law that now affect all passenger train operations in the United States to this day. That dysfunctional experiment is not at all applicable to modern railroading or any modern equipment, with all their myriad of advances since that time, and yet it continues to negatively affect services like that of the Cascades. These trains are running nowhere near the speeds that could be achieved if its coaches were allowed to run at the best of their technical capabilities. These regulations, amongst many others, demand elaboration, and future posts in the blog will be dedicated to exploring how the FRA actively denigrates the dream of an American intercity rail network.

The consequence of all these factors—the regulations, the limits, the car and the plane, the deferred maintenance, the scuttling of passenger services—was that while the American railway network fractured and had its route miles nearly halved from a peak 250,000 to today’s 140,000 miles; while its prestige passenger trains unglamorously died along with their persistent technological leaps; while Americans built their kingdoms for cars only to irreparably scar their cities and rural lands with strip malls, parking lots, congestion and pollution; while polluting shuttle flights replaced fast train service in major corridors and caused routine delays for long distance jets, and; while governments of all sizes ripped up or neglected the transit systems that were the foundation for the nation’s urbanized economy, places like Japan and France took the antithetical approach. The center of the passenger railroad manufacturing industry shifted overseas when Japan developed its intercity bullet train system in the 1960’s, filling a transportation niche that was left vacant even with jetliner and auto service. The Japanese discovered that trains that are as quick as a flight (when comparing door-to-door times, if not quicker), and which are more frequent and of a higher capacity than planes, and that are much faster and more convenient than driving, receive a tremendous amount of ridership in highly populated corridors. France, attempting to overcome its own issues with decreased railway patronage in the face of airline and roadway competition, jumped on the bandwagon soon afterward in the 1970’s, developing the first high speed line of the incipient TGV between Paris and Lyon. These two nations were at the forefront of another great technological leap in railway infrastructure and equipment manufacturing, inducing a global sequence of massive investments in intercity rail that are linking world cities with ever greater efficiency, speed and ease. Now high speed rail systems have become a precision engineered symbol of highly developed societies.

These international developments are all the more stirring because many of the technologies that Japan and France employed to design their respective systems were invented right here in the United States. Tragically, this country relegated the train to the dustbins of history as France and Japan took our knowledge, refined it, perfected it and built marvels that continue to move whole nations. In many respects, the TGVs and Shinkansens are not so different from the pioneering, metallic Zephyrs of the thirties that blitzed across the fields of Nebraska and Iowa on their race to Chicago. As progressive countries reintroduced rail travel to their populace in the jet age in the 60’s and 70’s, and it worked, the U.S. stood aside in wonderment. Ever since, high speed projects have been proposed and then promptly abandoned. Perhaps the only constant in terms of rail transit since has been the presence of Amtrak, the tepid 1971 response to passenger rail growth abroad and an acknowledgement, at least by some members of the Nixon Administration, that maybe there is a need for rail services here at home. In contrast to France and Japan, however, instead of properly investing in a national network and complementary high speed service, the United States gave passenger rail only CPR, and Amtrak has been dying for oxygen ever since. With old to antique equipment, no annual guarantee of funding, little passenger dedicated track (and what little dedicated track there is being mostly powered by 80 years young catenary), politicized routes, and even a politicized existence, Amtrak is the railroad equivalent to an old man having just suffered a stroke. As Amtrak now tries to get on its feet in an environment that is more and more favoring trains over other modes of transit, and indeed desiring to run services at world class standards, it is finding out that it is nearly impossible to recover from a stroke and subsequently run marathons.

That is position the United States finds itself. It has urgent mobility needs, but has kneecapped its once high-capacity railway system. Profits on corridor service could be earned if only we did not legislate them away. Passenger routes tease with enormous potential to transform lives and economies, but there lacks the political will to fund them. It will be tough to reverse decades of disinvestment and public disillusionment and cynicism, and it has proven to be so already. The payoff, however, would be remarkably rewarding, and the fruits of such effort can be previewed the world over, from The Netherlands to China.

Bringing this lengthy post to an end, this is the context in which the Cascades Corridor service exists. We should be especially grateful, though, that the corridor resides in a democratic, rail friendly state (WSDOT), and is owned by a cooperative, well maintained freight railroad (BNSF) whose corporate leaders understand that it has a civic responsibility to provide such a public service because, after all, its predecessor railroads were the recipients of the land grants that not so long ago helped build the profit generating lines in the first place. The public now just wants to share those same lines—this time for a fair price—and that is a price we should all be willing to pay in return for a needed service of which we can be proud.


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