Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Open-Access Model

It's a tired old truism today that the United States is better at freight rail, while Europe is better at passenger rail. Yet this was not always historically so. Until WWII, European and American companies were equally good at both types of services, and in the first postwar generation both saw equally precipitous declines in freight transport, as highways and truck transport took over less-than-carload and time-sensitive shipments. By the mid-1970s, railroads on both side of the Atlantic were functionally bankrupt vis-a-vis freight; the catastrophic meltdowns of the Penn Central and Milwaukee Road were merely the most visible effect of a way of doing business that had ceased to be solvent.

In Europe, nationalization of the rail networks, and the national carriers' passenger focus, helped hide this. European freight services were often loss-leaders, competing head-to-head against trucking.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a move was made to transport bulk goods, and transport them effectively. The advent of containerization allowed general freight to be shipped cross-country as bulk loads, originating in Los Angeles and terminating in New York. Coal unit trains, trundling between mine and power plant, often never need classification. Nationalization of passenger service, relaxation of shipping-rate regulations, and consolidation in the railroad sector -- a process that had begun during the Long Depression, but stalled in the cabal era before it began again apace postwar -- all had a hand to play in this process, and today the United States is often cited as the most efficient freight railroad network in the world, its companies posting record profits.

Contrast this with Europe. The development of high-speed rail has opened more space on the classic lines, but often freight operators -- usually the national rail companies' red-headed step-children -- have failed to take advantage of the improvements. Part of this is, of course, historical. Sealanes have historically controlled Europe's bulk-shipment sector, and until the end of the Cold War, most of the overland bulk routes would have run through Warsaw Pact territory. But the Cold War is twenty years over, and most of the countries along the best bulk routes have been integrated into the European Union, with accession work being done for the remainder (most importantly here: Serbia).

Actually, the biggest structural problem Europe now has is the legacy of rail nationalization. Picture, for a moment, if you will, an alternate United States where every individual state nationalized its internal railroad network. Today, a container bound from Los Angeles to New York requires all of one interchange*, but over its journey it'll cross through eleven states**. If all of those states had their own rail networks, this same shipment would have had to interchange no fewer than ten times, and most likely have to be reclassified multiple times, despite intermodal trains' crack nature.

That is the structural problem, the reason why European freight rail is less efficient and less profitable than American freight rail. Only in a small handful of corridors where reclassification needs are limited (if not outright nonexistent) -- say Calais-Marseille, entirely in SNCF territory, or Rotterdam-Genoa via the Gotthard Pass or Hamburg-Trieste via the Brenner Pass (three countries each) -- can bulk freight begin to become possible. And while each of these routes offers a significant advantage to running around the Bay of Biscay and through the Strait of Gibraltar -- Trieste most of all, as ships would also have to head around the boot of Italy and up the Adriatic Sea -- greater advantages accrue the further east you go, as the maritime detours become longer.

Rotterdam-Istanbul, as an intermodal-freight mainline, makes all kinds of sense. The overland route is around 2.5 times shorter than the maritime one***, most of the mainline (by and large, the old Orient Express route -- yes, that Orient Express) lies in EU member states' territories, and Istanbul's historic and modern role as global entrepot makes it an obvious terminal for Suezmax container ships from China -- a much shorter journey than going all the way around Africa! -- as well as the principal port-of-call for Turkish manufacturing. Rotterdam is, obviously, Western Europe's Port of New York.

But the problem is that -- to get from Istanbul to Rotterdam -- you have to go through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands -- seven countries in all! All of which have their own national rail networks! And so even a crack express intermodal is stalled by interchange after interchange after interchange before it gets where it needs to go. The enormous efficiencies of Europe's mainline rail network -- large-scale mainline electrification, for example -- are completely gobbled up and wasted despite rail's natural geographical advantage.

Potential Solutions

There are a few ways to solve this problem. One possible solution would be a return to the common-carrier model, where a given railroad is expected to offer equal passenger and freight service. For example, Britain's London Northeastern Railway (LNER) made most of its money -- about two-thirds of it -- shipping coal. In a common-carrier scenario, railroads would privatize, and then begin the consolidation process into common-carrier systems.

The problem with this is, of course, that the common-carrier model failed. The developed world's highly unbalanced railroad networks, favoring freight in North America and passenger in Europe, are an artifact of this failure, one which occurred because common-carrier railroads, in practice, used profits from freight operations to cross-subsidize passenger operations, a practice which remained effective only as long as railroads held a monopoly on overland travel.

The other possible solution, which began to be experimented with in British Rail's privatization, is the open-access model. Unlike under the common-carrier model, in which a railroad is responsible for both the infrastructure and services offered on that infrastructure, in an open-access model, one entity is responsible for the infrastructure -- the train tracks, bridges, tunnels, cuts and embankments, electrification, signalling, dispatch, etc. -- and it sells slots, or time windows for operations, to various service providers (what are, in the UK, called "train operating companies" or TOCs). In a way, the open-access model functions not unlike a toll road: you pay to access and use the infrastructure provider's network.

The problem with is is that -- as with many forms of for-profit infrastructure -- profit comes from not providing quite what you said you would provide. This is the issue with American healthcare Obamacare set out to remedy, why Enron was able to deliberately underpower Southern California to jack up rates ... and why, less than a decade after British Rail's privatization, the for-profit infrastructure provider Railtrack was partially renationalized as the nonprofit Network Rail.^

When tracks are owned, and services provided, by the same entity, the pressure to skimp on maintenance is moderated by a need to avoid accidents and deliver to the customer exactly what one said one would -- because, if you don't, you lose your customers and hence your revenue. Nevertheless, American mainline railroad maintenance (never mind branch lines!) is inferior -- by an order of magnitude -- to its European counterparts, lagging behind not just in obvious things like electrification but less obvious things like signalling. American trains are exceptionally heavy, and seem to have spent the past thirty years adding more and more weight in an effort to increase long-haul tractive power at speed at the cost of acceleration: trains so heavy rail spreading is a surprisingly common occurrence, as are the derailments it causes.

(Nevertheless, the partially-private (it is publicly-traded but majority-owned by the Canton of Bern) BLS Railway is making a game attempt to revive the common-carrier model in Europe.)

The British experience shows that the actual provision of rail infrastructure most certainly is in the public interest -- not just because rail disasters tend to be low-frequency high-impact events, but also because the frequency of rail accidents (and hence disasters) is, for obvious reasons, negatively correlated to increased infrastructure spending. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the organization or agency charged with delivering rail infrastructure must be nonprofit but also must be removed from the public sector enough to not be interrupted by meddling politicians looking for pork for their constituents over that of the state's needs (in this, Network Rail's increasingly cozy relationship with its "public" side is worrisome).

But even if you accept the British model -- of a nonprofit infrastructure provider selling slots to TOCs -- as the closest thing we have to an "open access" paradigm, and seek to implement it across Europe, you've set up a situation where bulk freight can work: schedule a cascade of freight slots for your trains up and down the line. But it's a fragile system. What happens if your train runs late (say because of transshipment irregularities at the port)? If you miss your slot, that's it, somebody else's got the next slot, and either you've got to pay a hell of a premium to schedule the next empty slot (assuming it exists) or wait for the next one you've scheduled, which means you've also got to run two trains through one slot, which may or may not be possible, depending on train length and slot density. And all this time your supposedly crack intermodal train is waiting in an interchange yard in Bumfuck Szeged, Hungary, leading to cascading delays down the line and late shipments and irate customers ...

Clearly, no matter how you structure it, you have to decrease the count of infrastructure providers as much as possible. Thirty different providers in Europe is just as bad as fifty different ones in the United States would be. If every state in the Northeast provided its own rail infrastructure, every single Acela run would have to involve the successful cascade of nine service slots (DC, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts). The same would hold true for an express freight route. Indeed, the unwieldy nature of such a construction was recognized so early that the Pennsylvanian, Delawarean, and Marylander companies allied with each other to construct a Philadelphia-Baltimore railroad had already merged together by 1840.

For the sake of all users, it turns out that, when providing moderate- to long-distance freight and passenger rail^^, political borders are sort of a mirage. Far more effective, for our intermodal railroader, would be a infrastructure provider that sells a single slot all the way from Istanbul to Rotterdam (or from LA to New York, for that matter). But at the same time, that is far less effective for passenger services, which, it seems, generally need a relatively compact infrastructure operator responsive to their needs.

And suddenly we run into a strange optimization quandry. Infrastructure providers at the state level^^^ are generally better for passenger rail, save in places like the Northeast where the conurbation has gobbled a bunch of states up, while those at the level of large regions favor freight rail. It is telling there are only seven Class I railroads in the US: two serving the West, two the East, two Canada (both with significant US holdings), and ... the Kansas City Southern. Contrast this to the height of the common-carrier era, when there were around a hundred distinct Class I railroads*^. Even today, providing rail infrastructure at the regional, rather than the state level, makes more sense; the Class I's were all large regional carriers, serving multiple distinct regions: the Northeast and Midwest, for example, or California and the Far West.

But if you broke the United States' rail infrastructure up into its natural provision regions -- the Northeast, Midwest, South, Greater Texas, Interior West, California, and the Cascades -- you suddenly have the problem of an increased interchange count and hence an increased fragility w/r/t slot timing for transcontinental bulk shipments. This is less of a problem in Europe, where regional providers would remove some of the interchanges and hence headache, especially in the Balkans.

No matter how you slice it, though, it is clear the open-access model has both advantages and disadvantages. Already, DB Schenker has acquired half of Western Europe's freight providers, locking down all the ones east of the French border between the North and Adriatic seas. The stirrings of transcontinental-scale freight rail are beginning again in the EU, just as surely as the stirrings for better passenger rail are beginning again in the United States.

The only real questions are: Who will own and maintain the physical infrastructure? And will their control over it be a help or hindrance?
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* It is fair to point out that early intermodal services from the Port of San Francisco to New York via the Alphabet Route would have required up to six interchanges (e.g. WP-D&RGW-CBQ-NKP-WM-RDG-CNJ), but the vast majority of transcontinental American shipments have never required more than one interchange (usually in Chicago) ... except to/from San Francisco, which until very recently would have required two interchanges west of the Mississippi.

** Say, via the BNSF to NS: California - Arizona - New Mexico - Colorado/Oklahoma (forget which, it's in the damn corner) - Kansas - Missouri - Illinois - Indiana - Ohio - Pennsylvania - New Jersey.

*** And, for those of you who want to point out you can run a barge up the Rhine and down the Danube instead, bulk rail tends to compete toe-to-toe with river shipments. If that weren't the case, the Illinois Central Gulf, whose mainline duplicates the Mississippi, wouldn't have been so profitable the Canadian National bought it!

Incidentally, the land route between Los Angeles and New York is only about twice as long as the sea route via the Panama Canal.

^ A less conscientious observer might point out that an awful lot of this sounds a lot like fraud.

^^ And rail service of any sort, really.

^^^ I've been using the term "state" with the tacit understanding that, for the purposes of this discussion, an EU member "state" is only moderately more sovereign than a US "state". Or, not to put too fine a point on it, at the transcontinental level, for infrastructural purposes, EU member states and US states are more alike than they are not.

*^ That said, many of the Class I's of the era wouldn't count today. None of the New England railroads then would have had the inflation-adjusted income figures (just as they don't today), for example; trying to figure out which 1950s Class I railroads would still count as such in 2010 would be a tedious and largely pointless process. But, no matter how many would get kicked down to Class II status, it is clear that there were an order of magnitude more then than there are today.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Protected Bike Lanes ... Everywhere!

Kinzie St protected bike lane, Chicago
Protected bike lanes are a long time coming in Philadelphia. Five years ago, we were among the country's leaders in bike infrastructure -- back when buffered bike lanes were the big new thing -- but while other cities, such as New York, D.C., and Chicago, rolled out ever-more-extensive bike infrastructure, we ... regressed. Pointless "super-sharrows", an infrastructural solution now a decade out of date, were installed instead on Samson Street.

Even so, a cadre of geeks have been beating the drum to improve the buffered bike lanes we already have and install new protected cycle lanes. And it looks like we have some headway: Ryan Avenue linking Mayfair to the Boulevard in the Northeast is due to receive the city's first protected bike lane, and the Bike Coalition's now beating a drum for the installation of one on Chestnut Street in West Philly -- which yours truly first conceived of some three years ago now, back when the buffered bike lane on Walnut was installed.

This, as Tom Beck reports for Citified.

Part of the issue is spatial. Philadelphia's major core streets just don't have a lot of space, and in fact a lot of our bike-friendliness is because of that. It's not particularly suicidal to ride down, say, 6th Street in South Philly, where you have to be a douchy driver indeed to exceed bike speed. (Though we do have more than our fair share of douchy drivers.) It's much more difficult to ride along wider, overstriped streets with more traffic lanes than they really need. Sometimes, as is the case with 22nd Street in Fairmount, the extra space exists without the taking of a traffic lane -- but the political will does not. And Center City's principal buffered lanes, the ones put in before Ariel Ben-Amos moved over to the Water Department, all involved the taking of a parking lane to be put in, in the first place.

That said, there are definitely avenues in the city fit for protected bike lanes. Lots of them. In general, if there's a flush median a.k.a. a center turning lane a.k.a. a suicide lane, there's space for bike lanes on either side. And if both bike lanes and a center turning lane exist, there's space to make them protected. Here are more than a few examples.* And, though the old core might be largely bereft of places to put protected bike lanes, as you head out into the Northeast, there is plenty of underutilized space on streets such as Frankford, Castor, or Tyson avenues, space currently given over to passing lanes that makes crossing streets harder than it need be.

It might be all politics in the end, though. Bike commuting is concentrated around Center City, and most of the Bike Coalition's protected cycle tracks abet that. Despite the prevalence of striped lanes in the Northeast, it's still perceived as a place where one drives. And our 2.4% commute mode share is, in absolute terms ... not a lot. It'll take a commute mode share closer to 20% before bike commuting is thought of as something other than a "hipster thing" short of massive Millennial political coalition-building.
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* The one caveat we must observe is that major mass transit infrastructure, such as a busway or light rail line, has a natural priority over bike infrastructure. Indeed, this is the main difficulty with installing bike infrastructure on Girard Avenue. This is also what makes Erie the most difficult of the Bike Coalition's recommendations: the 56 uses the old trolley median (closed to traffic) as an impromptu busway. And, seeing as the route is one of the city's busiest, improving mass transit capacity along Erie takes precedence over improving bike infrastructure.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Good Problem for the El

The Market-Frankford Line has a capacity issue. It's crowded during rush hour. And its crowding isn't just in Center City, it's end-to-end. Many people use the el to connect to the NHSL, 101 and 102 trolleys, and buses points west at 69th St., and buses points northeast at Frankford and Arrot terminals transportation centers. And with a ridership of just over 190,000 ppd, it is by far SEPTA's single busiest route, one that sees a surprising 60% more riders than the Broad Street Line.

Crowding indicates the el needs more space. As heavy rail -- infrastructurally, by far the highest-capacity of all modes -- any further capacity increases must come with relatively incremental improvements to the current physical plant. Some improvements are cheaper than others. A couple can be implemented immediately; others may take a little while longer. From cheapest to most expensive, we can:

- Use longitudinal seating. This one is by far the cheapest way to increase capacity, requiring nothing more than a refurbishment of the el cars' interiors, one which (they are halfway through their design lives) they are due for soon. It's also used in several other American subways -- notably, Boston and New York. Longitudinal seating decreases seating capacity, but it makes up for it by increasing standing capacity; it's also important to notice that in the current setup, the worst crowding occurs around the doors; longitudinal seating can help alleviate that.

- Convert to automatic train control (ATC). The el, like New York's 7 and L trains, is a single line with no branching. While no US transit agency has demonstrated the expertise to more than ~25 tph with human-driven subways (the MTA tried once and it failed miserably), ATC allows trains to be programmed to run at any frequency so desired. Increasing the frequency increases the runs a given trainset can make, which in turn increases overall line capacity. Indeed, when the 7's ATC installation is finished later this year, the line's peak frequency will be 28 or 29 tph -- just shy of one every other minute.

- Use full vestibules. There's a lot of unused space between the el's train cars. Use of full vestibules -- essentially, an articulating chamber between the cars (much like the one on articulated buses) -- would add a lot of usable space within the boundaries of the train. 10% more, in fact. Fun fact: full vestibules are now found on metros in every single country that uses them ... except the US.

The problem with this is that the current equipment is halfway through its life cycle and full vestibules would have to be a design requirement for their replacements. It would also require a rethink of el trains from a triplet of married pairs back-to-back-to-back to a single six-car unit. Indeed, thinking of trains as assemblages of cars rather than unitary bodies in their own right is often cited as the main reason why the US (whose railroad engineering expertise stalled in the 1950s) doesn't use full vestibules.

One can also argue that a full-vestibuled trainset naturally locks train length in for the duration of its life cycle. But that is only an issue if we are actively pursuing infrastructure for longer trains.

- Lengthen the platforms. Another way to increase the el's train capacity is, naturally, to use longer trains! But train length is currently proscribed by the length of the system's shortest platforms: therefore, it makes sense to increase platform lengths if we want to, well, platform longer trains. This is particularly problematic on the West Philadelphia elevated, whose platforms should have been extended to handle seven- or possibly eight-car trains in the recent rebuilding; the 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 11th St el stops, which can can only platform six cars and require tunneling to increase platform lengths; and the 69th St Terminal Transportation Center, where the track design of both platform approaches may well actually preclude any lengthening. Easier are the Frankford el's shorter platforms, which are now more than 20 years old and can conceivably be rebuilt to handle longer trains during a modernization program in the not-too-distant future.

The downside of this is that, if you're already using full vestibules, the benefits of lengthening the platforms comes not when you've lengthened the shortest platform, but rather once you've replaced the trainsets with ones that take full advantage of the longer platforms. Of course, this can be spun: Great! Our new self-driving, longitudinal-seating full-vestibuled trains increase capacity by some 25%! Now we have some thirty-forty years to lengthen all the platforms so that we can run longer trains and further alleviate crowding now that the easy stuff's done!

- Build an express track. This is perhaps the most difficult of the incremental investments. While the original plan for the el was for it to run express through Center City, and the trolleys local -- the trolley tunnel from 15th to 32nd being therefore incorporatable into an express line -- PRT, the el's original builder, was never able to finish the scheme, having run out of money by the time the line reached City Hall and only able to raise enough to build half of the system for the last (and most expensive) mile. As a result, the West Philadelphia and Frankford els were never designed to incorporate an express track, and there's a fair possibility the latter may not be able to, either. (Market Street is much wider, so you've got more room to work with.)

All that said, the fact that el crowding doesn't drop off as you head further out, but is rather end-to-end, makes it useful to look at an express track (perhaps as a couple of short segments of timed overtakes?) Such a track would offer a useful second service for passengers heading to 69th St or Frankford and thereby free up local capacity for interstitial stations.

- Build an interceptor line. Not remotely incremental, this -- by far the most expensive solution of all -- builds a new line that siphons off some of the el's traffic at its source. Built as planned, a Boulevard subway would function as this: it would intercept most of the traffic on the 14 bus and near the Boulevard, as well as (assuming a convenient transfer) buses on Bustleton, Oxford, and Castor avenues, leaving primarily the 66 feeding into the el.

Interceptors would also have to function as lines in their own right. This is either a feature or a bug: by intercepting most passengers taking the train to Frankford, you've opened up a lot of capacity. Capacity that can get filled up. In fact, the Media/Elwyn and Paoli/Thorndale Lines are both arguably interceptors for the el (via the 101 and 102 for the former, and the NHSL and 105 for the latter) ... and are themselves heavily used. Essentially, patronage has expanded not just to fill the core line but the lines built to alleviate capacity by intercepting it.

The Boulevard subway was last projected to have the same passenger counts the el today "enjoys", a fair percentage being intercepted el passengers. But it's more than likely that that capacity would quickly get filled up, and the el run at capacity again.

So it's good to think of new lines, and think of new lines not just in their own right, but how they would fit into the network; but to propose a new line solely to alleviate the capacity problems of another is not so good an idea. Induced demand is just as true for mass transit as it is for cars and bikes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Minneapolis Councilwoman's Land-Use Masterstroke

Saw this quote in this article:
The Minneapolis policy, proposed by Council Member Lisa Bender, would eliminate all parking requirements for new residential units built within 350 feet, or about a block, of bus or rail service offering frequent, all-day service (every 15 minutes at midday). Within a quarter-mile of frequent bus service and a half-mile of frequent rail service, the policy change would eliminate all requirements for buildings with 50 or fewer housing units, and reduce them to one space per two units for projects larger than that. For developments within 350 feet of infrequent bus service—coming only 30 minutes at midday—the policy would reduce current parking requirements by 10 percent.
Mrs. Bender is truly brilliant. Not only is she proposing what is perhaps the most progressive parking reform in the country, she is doing so in such a way that ties parking to mass transit accessibility. IOW, the closer you are to mass transit, the less parking you need.

She isn't just proposing a law, she's proposing a template of a law. One that can easily be replicated anywhere with a good mass transit core.

For instance, if you applied a similar requirement here in Philadelphia, the scale of our core network is such that parking requirements would be waived entirely for the overwhelming majority of the inner city. It would look not dissimilar to Yonah Freemark's map of Chicago parking requirements.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Success ... by a hair's breadth?

As if in a coda to my post the other day, Plan Philly brings news of the apartment project at 43rd and Baltimore -- across the street from Clark Park. It went before the Zoning Board seeking variances, doing so after:

  • Extensive community input shaping the development vision
  • Jannie Blackwell rejecting spot-zoning proposal
By the time it got to the ZBA, the project had racked up letters of support or nonopposition from every single involved party. Yet there were, in the meeting, two dissenters:
At a hearing in April, the developers sought variances for height, 35 feet more than the underlying zoning allows, and commercial space. It was supported by local civic groups and Councilwoman Blackwell’s office, but opposed vociferously by two neighborhood residents who live a few blocks from the property. 
Mary McGettigan and Larry Caputo, the opponents of the project, noted that the project didn’t conform to either the existing or proposed zoning of the property. They argued that the developers hadn’t made their case that the zoning designation represented a hardship on the property.
The ZBA voted to support this project. But it only did so by a 3-2 margin. This, despite the fact that the developers had gone above and beyond in incorporating the community voice in their design. It's fairly clear that -- had there been no dissenters who showed up at the meeting -- the project would have sailed through the ZBA.

Two dissenters.

That's all it took to nearly derail a small apartment building that is in scale with a number of similar buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood.

As if you needed any more evidence modern zoning is excessively restrictive!