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 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.


Blogger hulananni said...

"...if I only had a brain...".....or rail. Controvery in Hawai'i continues. Former Guv going to run for Mayor ....formerGuv is vociferously against the project.

I wanted to do the same train from Cape Town to Joburg this year (as I did in 2010)....on the Am told the service has deterioriated and agent won't book it. Not keen to pay the price of the Blue Train. We've done that before.

2/10/2012 3:24 PM  
Blogger Chuck Till said...

"Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor (NEC) run only at a maximum speed of 79 MPH." False! Just last week Amtrak trains began running Chicago-Detroit at 110 mph. There are other Amtrak routes in the midwest and California that use FRA Class V or VI track in conjunction with cab signals (the two primary requirements to exceed 79 mph).

You're correct, of course, that the majority of Amtrak long-distance trains run 79 or slower.

By the way, most people would say that Buffalo-Albany-NYC trains are the Empire Corridor instead of the NEC. Empire Corridor trains run faster than 79 in places.

2/19/2012 1:42 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Thank you for the clarification, Chuck. You are exactly right, and that's what I get for over-simplifying. I should have said the "most conventional Amtrak trains" running outside the NEC.

2/19/2012 1:48 PM  

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