Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Passenger Train Lingo Explained,
Part Two

Last week I talked about the two types of intercity passenger trains, regular old Amtrak trains and newfangled high speed rail (called HSR) passenger trains.  In this post I will discuss the types of passenger trains that are used in what's generally called "urban rail transit."

Why the "rail" modifier?  That's to differentiate between everyday rubber-tired city buses that are propelled over concrete and asphalt roadways--buses are the most common type of urban transit vehicles--and steel-wheeled passenger cars (called "vehicles" by transit technocrats) that ride on steel rails (we usually call them "trains"). 

In the world of urban transit, railroads are not called railroads.  They are called a "fixed guideway" mode of transit.  This is because rail passenger cars have to stay on their tracks, unlike buses which can be redirected at will to any halfway decent street or highway.

So what's urban rail transit anyway?  That is, what service need does it fulfill for people who live in cities that provide rail transit?  To understand that, it is useful to consider this chart of the types of local trips we all make every day (with thanks to Reconnecting America):

Keep in mind these are local trips, not trips out of town.  Just the kind of trips we make every day, all day, without much thinking about it.

The first thing I noticed was that only 28% of the trips are for commuting to and from work. That means 72% of our routine trips are not connected to getting to or from our jobs.  It's going to the doctor and dentist and school and shopping and sports events and the grocery store and so on and so forth.  Makes sense when you stop to think about it.

Urban rail transit is divided into two main types, and each type serves a portion of that pie chart of trips we saw above.  One is called Commuter Rail (often abbreviated as "CR"), which mainly provides, as its name implies, a way to get between home and work--the 28% of trips we take every day.  Commuter rail trains usually look a lot like regular old Amtrak trains.

The other is called Light Rail Transit (or "LRT").  LRT serves the 28% of commuter trips as well as the remaining 72% of trips we take.  Light rail takes several forms, but no LRT "mode" (a technocrat's fancy way of saying the type of rail passenger car or train) looks much like a regular old Amtrak train.

Commuter Rail and Light Rail systems complement each other in urban areas large enough and dense enough to support them, with CR handling most of the commuter trips (the 28%) and LRT handling most of the other trips (the 72%).  Both "modes" of urban rail transit are necessary, and both types of rail service must be well-integrated with very frequent and geographically well-distributed bus service that collects and distributes passengers from and to residential areas which are not proximate to CR and LRT stations. 

I mentioned density.  Residential density is important to support an urban rail transit system.  Sprawl = low residential density.  Vast expanses of sprawl around a city are therefore the enemy of successful urban rail transit systems unless the sprawl areas are saturated with well-planned feeder bus service to get passengers to and from stations and unless good park-and-ride lots are provided at both CR and LRT stations. 

However, nosing around the density discussion will soon get you a bloody nose if you aren't careful, because there are lots of nuances. 

Such as a city's geographic distribution of residential areas relative to the location of its urban rail lines.  Even with good feeder bus service serving free shrimp-and-grits and French Champagne on board for breakfast en route to the nearest CR or LRT station, no one is going to travel a big triangular route when they could follow a reasonably straight line by automobile.

Feeder bus service and good park-and-ride lots only work when the urban rail transit system itself is reasonably efficient, i.e., when it takes people from near where they are to near where they need or want to go.

Here are some simple and pretty accurate definitions of CR and LRT adapted from a recent report on transit published by the conservative thinktank, John Locke Foundation:

  • Generally operates on freight rail lines together with freight trains from suburbs to central cities.
  • Is primarily peak period (morning and evening service, with a few midday trains), home-to-work-and-back oriented.
  • Has an average distance between stations of approximately three to five miles and, therefore, tends to have a high speed of operations.
  • Has average passenger trip lengths generally over 20 miles. The Long Island Rail Road and Chicago Metra are examples of commuter rail systems.
  • The specific characteristics of Light Rail Transit (LRT) can vary, but generally operates in short trains, (most commonly, two to three cars) on tracks that may parallel roads, but where rubber tire vehicles (like buses) cannot operate in the same lanes;
  • Have at-grade crossings of streets where the trains, rubber tire vehicles, and pedestrians are separated by signage and signaling;
  • Generally (but not always) are powered by electricity from overhead wires;
  • Have stations at approximately one-mile intervals; and
  • Have speeds and carrying capacities that are lower than that of heavy rail systems (such as the New York City subway system or the Chicago "L," or Washington, DC MetroRail).
  • The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Green Line in Boston, San Francisco Muni Metro, and Charlotte's LYNX are examples of LRT.
  • Streetcars are considered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to be a subset of LRT, with the main physical differences being the sharing of traffic lanes by streetcars and rubber tire vehicles (buses, cars, and trucks).  Consequently, streetcar operating speed is far lower; smaller streetcar vehicles are common and multiple-car trains are uncommon; there tends to be far more stops; and the routes are generally far shorter than modern light rail lines.

To recap, Commuter Rail trains look a lot like conventional Amtrak trains.  Think Virginia Railway Express (VRE) in northern Virginia or Caltrain in the Bay Area.  They mainly serve people commuting to and from work--the 28% of everyday trips.  CR trains and cars are heavy, which is why they look sort of like Amtrak trains (which are also heavy) and why they can operate side-by-side with freight trains safely (freight trains are real heavy, so passengers trains running on the same tracks as freights need to be just as robust). 

CR trains operate at peak morning and afternoon drive times (commute times) when people are going to and from work, with a few trains running around lunchtime.  CR trains do not usually operate all through the day.  CR stations are normally three to five miles apart.  Commuter Rail stations usually have big park-and-ride lots adjacent to them, and they attract high density residential development close by, and even something called "Transit-Oriented Development" (called TOD), which is a whole 'nother subject.

Light Rail Transit cars, on the other hand, are lightweight and therefore are not allowed to operate side-by-side with freight trains on the same tracks, even though LRT cars ride on the same gauge tracks (that is, four feet, eight and one-half inches between the rails).  

LRT can take many forms, from sleek-looking and fast two- to four-car electric trains running in their own dedicated rail "corridors" (meaning LRT tracks are separate from freight rail tracks) to single car streetcars operating together with rubber-tired vehicles on tracks set into city streets. 

LRT, being light and electric-powered, can accelerate fast and stop fast (unlike heavy CR trains which are slow to get up to speed and slow to stop).  Light Rail Transit trains serve mainly the 72% of trips we take every day other than going to and from work, and therefore LRT trains operate at regular intervals all day long, much like buses. 

LRT tends to attract high density residential development along its route, and especially TOD (mentioned above), because people living within walking distance of LRT stations benefit from the convenient, frequent public transit at their doorstep to take them into the city.

If you read last week's blog post and this one, you are now smart as a whip about passenger train types, and you can argue with the best of them about intercity and urban rail modes!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Passenger Train Lingo Explained,
Part One

As co-chair of the Passenger Rail Task Force for the Raleigh (North Carolina) City Council for the past couple of years, I've come to realize that many of us get confused over the terminology used to describe various types of rail passenger service.  It's my intent to blog a bit about rail issues, and it occurred to me that it would be good to get straight on the lingo before getting into the meat of rail issues. 

I am going to keep this as simple and superficial as possible to begin with, starting in this blog post with an explanation of the two main types of "heavy rail" intercity passenger trains.  I will get to urban rail transit passenger train types next time.

Truth is, I've observed that rail is rail is rail to most folks.  By which I mean that all trains look alike in the minds of the average citizen.  Though we know the difference between a pickup truck and a semi, and between a minivan and a sedan, we can't grasp the difference between a regular Amtrak passenger train and the new high speed rail (HSR) passenger trains being planned for many parts of the country. 

Nor do we understand how either of them compares to Commuter Rail (CR) passenger trains and to Light Rail Transit (LRT) passenger trains.  Or how those two urban transit rail types may be different from each other.  It's all kinda sorta the same, right?

Well, no, not really. 

The main similarity among them is that all those trains run on what is called "standard gauge" track, meaning the distance between the rails is the same.  That rail gauge distance, which is four feet, eight and one half inches, was agreed upon in the late 1800s as the standard for U.S. railroads.  That allowed American railroads to freely interchange their passenger and freight cars with each other.  That simple capability led to the great nationwide network of freight railroads we have today in the United States.  It's the envy of the world.  Any freight car can travel anywhere thanks to the standard track gauge (distance between the rails), just like any automobile can operate on any roadway.

The same interchangeability applies to rail passenger cars, but these days there are a lot fewer passenger cars and passenger trains of all sorts than freight cars and freight trains.

Once we get past the track gauge, passenger train types diverge into several groups.  As I said above, I'm going to discuss only the two types of intercity passenger trains in this post and leave urban rail transit trains for next time.

Let's begin with a look at everyday Amtrak passenger trains.  Except for the electrified lines in what is called the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, New York, and Boston, all Amtrak trains are pulled by conventional diesel locomotives which are similar to freight locomotives and built by the same manufacturers.  The primary two differences are: (1) different gearing for higher speeds than freight engines, and (2) something called head-end power (HEP), which means the locos have a generator on board to provide electric power to the passenger cars they are pulling.

The passenger cars on a standard Amtrak train are very robust and capable of running together with freight trains on any freight rail network in the country.  Because they are built like tanks to operate on the same rail corridors as freight trains, they are called "heavy rail" cars to differentiate them from "light rail" cars of urban transit rail systems (which I'll get to in a future post).

Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor (NEC) run only at a maximum speed of 79 MPH.  The locomotives and passenger cars are capable of running much faster, but 79 MPH is the maximum speed currently allowed.  (There are a number of reasons for this maximum speed which I am skipping over.  For the time being, just take my word that 79 MPH is the max speed without worrying about why.)

Of course that is the maximum speed.  Most Amtrak trains average speeds far below 79 due to many reasons, such as low track speeds, sharp curves, frequent stops for passengers, and congestion on the freight rail networks over which they operate. 

One factor that slows all trains, freight and passenger alike, is the great number of at-grade intersections of highways and rail lines in America.  These are typically called "at-grade crossings" or "level crossings."

High Speed Rail, commonly abbreviated as "HSR" in the media, brings to mind the bullet-nosed TGVs in France flying across the countryside at speeds well over 200 MPH.

That's not what American HSR trains are going to be like, at least not when first built.  Think of the old adge "crawl-walk-run," and you've got the picture.  We have to learn to crawl first.  Our HSR trains are initially going to be really just highER speed than regular Amtrak trains, but that will be a big improvement over the pokey pace of today's Amtrak service, slowed as it is for many reasons beyond its control.  

Here are some of the differences between U.S. HSR and HSR elsewhere:  In France and in most countries with true HSR, the trains operate in dedicated high speed rail corridors where no freight train or even other passenger trains will ever run.  Those corridors are built especially to accommodate high speed passenger trains.  They have special tracks and long, gradual curves.  Importantly, they have no at-grade rail-highway crossings because they operate in what is called a "sealed corridor" which guarantees safety and speed.  The vast majority of those HSR services are electrified, too, rather than diesel-powered (electric locomotives are more powerful).  They also use specially-designed "trainsets," meaning the locomotives and cars are all designed as one unit, which makes them fast and efficient.

American HSR trains outside of the Northeast Corridor, on the other hand, will initially utilize standard Amtrak diesel locomotives pulling standard, run-of-the-mill Amtrak passenger cars.  But remember that I said those engnes and cars are capable of much faster speeds than the current 79 MPH maximum. 

What will make American HSR faster than now?  Primarily, two types of improvements:

(1) Trackwork projects, such as adding a second track (called "double track"); more crossover switches to move trains between tracks; better "roadbed" (the tracks, the ties, and the gravel foundation beneath the rails); and better "track geometry" (such things as longer curves and banking curves for higher speeds); and

(2) At-grade crossing projects: Closing or grade-separating (by building bridges or tunnels) every at-grade rail-highway crossing on HSR routes.

Therefore, when the first HSR train runs by your location, don't be disappointed that it looks like conventional Amtrak passenger trains--except running faster.

Now you know the difference between today's Amtrak trains and tomorrow's American high speed rail passenger trains.  Next time I will explain the differences between these intercity services and urban rail transit such as Commuter Rail and Light Rail Transit.