What do we get in return for ultra-strict train safety regulations?

Transit projects in the United States are known for being unreasonably expensive compared to their European and Asian counterparts, but the reasons for the discrepancy are far from clear.

As this Bloomberg article notes, some of this may be due to poor incentives and little transparency for private contractors, conflicts of interest between engineers and builders, and legal roadblocks. Over at Systemic Failure, they dug up some recent press release quotes from the San Diego-area transit district to make the case for one more cause behind those exorbitant costs: incredibly redundant and over-the-top safety regulations.



Case in point: The North County Transit District needs to replace the brakes on a bunch of their trains (they had worn out much more quickly than expected), and this is how they plan to do it:

The next step is for us along with our contractors, Veolia and Bombardier, to determine the proper procedure for the installation of the new 100g split disc rotors. Together we will take all safety factors into consideration. Once all parties approve this process, we will begin the installation of the new rotors onto the Sprinter test vehicle. FRA and CPUC officials will observe the installation. We have invited representatives from Siemens (the Sprinter manufacturer) and certified California engineers to observe the installation and the testing and to review the data.

So not only are the contractors joining up with the transit agency to replace the brakes, they're also going to be "observed" by two additional government agencies, one federal and one state-level. And they're bringing in a third corporation as well engineers from the area to "observe" even more. One has to wonder if they might also need to rent some stadium seating to ensure that all these men and women are able to see over each others' heads.

He also notes that "testing is expected to go on for months," presumably with representatives from these myriad institutions all hanging around getting paid to watch trains roll by over and over, sagely nodding their heads at each pass. According to the NCTD's own web site, the current round of testing is only the beginning. Not until late April do they expect to start the real testing, which will take another 24 days. And just to prove they're serious, even though no one appears to have ever been in danger due to the accelerated wear on the old brakes, these tests are going to "go above and beyond the testing of the original brakes required by the state." What additional gains in safety will result from this over-achievement are unclear. What is made clear, however, is that the trains might not be back in action for upwards of four months.

The one thing they've done that seems to be reasonable was to take the trains out of service when they discovered the unexpected wear-and-tear on the brakes in late February. Safety is the highest priority from a public service perspective, and although no cracks or other dangerous circumstances seem to have resulted, it was probably correct not to take any chances. The trains were shut down on March 9th though, so perhaps a full month wasn't needed just to get started on the replacement testing...

All sarcasm aside, this is insane. While this is an example of operations being catastrophically disrupted by an overbearing regulatory environment, Systemic Failure has frequently documented exactly the same type of hyperventilatingleading to vastly-increased capital costs.

What's behind these regulations? Is there an epidemic of passenger train-related deaths sweeping across the country? Not even close. From 1999-2008 about five passengers have been killed in trains for every ten billion miles traveled [PDF, page 144]. This, compared to 72 per ten billion miles traveled by car and truck, a rate that is more than 14 times higher and a total fatality count that is almost 2,400 times larger. (Yes, twenty-four hundred.) The vast majority of people killed by trains are pedestrians, about 70-85% of them trespassers, and an estimated 20-50% of the total number (including trespassers) are suicides, not the result of an accidental collision.

From the National Safety Council's report, Injury Facts, 2011 edition.

From the National Safety Council's report, Injury Facts, 2011 edition.

Despite this reality, the vast majority of safety regulation, and therefore cost, seems to be centered around preventing the 5-10 train passenger deaths that occur every year. Compare this to the 600+ pedestrians struck and killed by trains and the thousands more injured. (The number of pedestrian deaths has been on a slow decline from over 1,200 per year in the early 90s.) Requiring reinforced, super-heavy train cars certainly isn't doing anything to solve that problem.

The financial burden of these cumbersome, ill-targeted regulations very likely reaches into the billions of dollars. Imagine how many more lives could be saved and injuries prevented if that money was reinvested into improving passenger rail service--rather than turning our trains into tanks we could recognize and celebrate the fact that they're already the safest way to travel and commute regionally, and then redirect our efforts into making them a viable, convenient option for a greater number of people.

What should light rail to northwest Seattle look like?

(An article about the merits of a streetcar to Fremont as a complement to light rail to Ballard was recently posted on Seattle Transit Blog, and I wanted to share it in addition to/as an alternative to my own thoughts below. Find it here.)

Before attending this week's Sound Transit/City of Seattle joint open house on high capacity transit to Ballard, I hadn't thought much about the route it might take to get there. I knew I supported it, and given the failings of the Downtown-to-Ballard Rapid Ride line, it was clear to me that it would need to be grade separated, but beyond that I was fairly unconcerned with the specific route it might take to get from A to B. There was a great interactive exhibit at the event that got me actually thinking more critically about this, and I've realized that it's actually a fairly difficult question to answer.

So let's take a look.

The exhibit was actually slightly different from the image below (this one is just more clear), but they used the same map and asked that you draw the path you'd like high capacity transit to take from Ballard to Downtown. This one, by comparison, asked people to put a green sticker where a frequent trip they take starts, and a red sticker where it ends. As you can see, downtown is by far the most popular destination, at least among those in attendance:

Trip start/finish map - green is start, red is end; image from Ballard News-Tribune.

Trip start/finish map - green is start, red is end; image from Ballard News-Tribune.

The routes people drew on the other map included 1) following 15th Ave NW to Elliott Ave then downtown, 2) traveling through Fremont then down Westlake to get downtown, and 3) everything in between.

The key concern for me (and one that seemed to be overlooked by most open house attendees) was that Ballard, Fremont, and Queen Anne all have very similar current populations and population projections over the next few decades--serving one or two of these neighborhoods with light rail while failing to serve any of the others would be unjustifiable.

Most people seemed to prefer a straight path along 15th Ave NW unfortunately, which is the Interbay "neighborhood," if you could even call it that, which has very little population and no plans for growth according to city estimates. Hopefully this just reflected the fact that many probably think an at-grade streetcar alignment is likely, and this would be the path of least resistance. I suspect many of those who supported this alignment would change their minds if they were told that a subway was the most likely option (here's hoping), making traffic and the paths of existing roads irrelevant to subway route considerations.

Working from the assumption that a line would need to serve each of these neighborhoods, drawing a single route to cover all three becomes pretty difficult. In the time I had to think about it at the open house, I ultimately went with the path below:

My first idea for a subway route, which I've since disavowed and am slightly embarrassed to have ever considered.

My first idea for a subway route, which I've since disavowed and am slightly embarrassed to have ever considered.

As you can see, the route is very indirect, traveling through the center of Queen Anne, northwest to Ballard (under Ship Canal), then looping back along Market, 8th Ave NW, and Leary to Fremont. I imagined one station at each of these neighborhoods plus maybe one in Belltown and another around Mercer St. and Queen Anne Ave (more than this many stations seems unlikely, given that even Capitol Hill only got one station).

At the time I liked this route because it allowed for an extension of the line to Stone Way, up to 45th St., then east all the way to the station that's planned at 45th and Brooklyn in the University District, all without transfers. Admittedly, I have a strong personal bias against transfers, and much of that is due to the relatively low frequency of most Seattle buses. A 10-minute-or-less light rail headway would make transfers much more bearable. To mollify the Fremont travelers I thought perhaps there could be some kind of dedicated line, either bus or streetcar, between the Queen Anne and Fremont stations. In retrospect I came to the conclusion that this is a mess and have since discarded this idea.

Seattle Subway, the group I think was primarily responsible for getting the planning for this line pushed onto a faster timeline, has another vision:

Cropped from Seattle Subway image.

Cropped from Seattle Subway image.

I appreciate the ambition of this proposal, but not the actual outcome. For one, if these were both subways the cost would be prohibitive for a single ballot measure with other parts of Seattle wanting their part of the action. I could get over that though. More importantly, the two alignments seem to be along 15th Ave NW through Interbay to Ballard, and along Westlake Ave to Fremont. I don't see many prospects for significant development along either of those corridors (nor do they, it would seem, for Westlake--they don't put a station along any part of it). I'm pretty sure this is just a concept on Seattle Subway's part, so I don't want to give the impression that this is their preferred solution or that they should be criticized for it. It's just one possibility for the purpose of illustration.

There might be a case to make for two separate lines to Ballard and Fremont, but I don't think it's a strong one on the merits and I think it'd be nearly impossible politically unless we were doing another line to West Seattle at the same time. Two lines for northwest Seattle while West Seattle remains stuck with Rapid Ride probably would not go over well.

Assuming we can only afford one subway line to the area in this time frame, I don't see much harm in detouring a bit from east to west to capture the largest population centers, and I do like the idea of including South Lake Union. SLU is already served by the streetcar, and a light rail station would make it largely obsolete, but ultimately this region is going to be a big part of the city both residentially and commercially and people will need/want to get to it without having to travel downtown, leave the station, and wait for a streetcar to take them the last mile. The streetcar is a local transportation solution whereas light rail is more regional--currently there are no great regional connections to or from South Lake Union.

Unfortunately, with one line you'd have a very difficult time including stations in Belltown, SLU, and  Lower Queen Anne. I'm going to illustrate a possible route in which Belltown is bypassed in favor of SLU, but I realize that that's a debate worth having in detail at some point. With that in mind, here's my current thinking on the best route for light rail to Ballard:

Red line represents subway route, black circles represent station locations.

Red line represents subway route, black circles represent station locations.

First, I'm no transit engineer so I have no idea what kind of turning radius these train cars can handle, but I tried to give the route fairly smooth turns--maybe they need to be even less acute, maybe not. Also, this is clearly not the most direct route to Ballard, but the benefits of capturing additional ridership along the way far outweigh the cost of several extra minutes' travel--remember, there's no traffic congestion underground. Beyond that, I'll break things down station by station:

  • South Lake Union: I chose the Thomas & Westlake location mostly for the sake of visibility. Thomas & Terry might actually be a little more functional due to the connection to the northbound SLU trolley, but I think locating on the arterial where more people are walking trumps that concern. It's also a bit easier to turn the tunnel toward Lower Queen Anne from this more western station location.
  • Lower Queen Anne: This station seems pretty self-explanatory at Mercer St and Queen Anne Ave. Everything is pretty accessible from here; plenty of bus routes travel through somewhat frequently, too. For those interested in getting from a more southerly location on the Link line out to the Interbay area or to north Ballard, they can transfer to the D line here. It might be nice to send the D line along Elliott Avenue--bypassing Queen Anne to speed it up--since light rail will have that area covered, but that ship may have sailed with the infrastructure that's already been put in place along 1st Ave and Queen Anne Ave.
  • Queen Anne: I'm least confident in this location since I know very little about the area. I just guessed at what I thought was probably one of the more densely populated parts of the hill, as that should obviously be one of the main considerations. Because of the size of the hill, station location will also probably be determined by what's technically feasible in terms of station depth, route grade, etc.
  • Fremont: I think the best location for this would be on the north side of 36th St, west of Fremont Ave. Fremont Ave isn't a very pleasant road to be a pedestrian or bicyclist on with its complicated intersections and relatively heavy traffic, so steering clear of it is probably a good idea. This station would be the place to transfer onto an eastbound train through Wallingford along 45th St toward the University District. (Hopefully that east-west route will end up on the next ballot with the Downtown-Ballard route so all of this can be implemented together.)
  • Ballard: Ballard Ave and Market St is probably pretty widely agreed upon as the core of the Ballard neighborhood, but I'm pretty ambivalent about this location. A few blocks to the east might actually be a better solution to serve the many people that live east of 15th Ave NW, but this general area gets the point across. There's a ton of development taking place along Market, and arterials that branch from it have seen quite a few new residential units as well. This growth is sure to continue whether light rail comes to Ballard or not, but as the population grows the case for high-capacity rail transit only gets stronger.

One key thing that was preventing me from seeing this as a viable option was the worry that, when leaving from Downtown, some trains would be branching off to the west toward Ballard from Fremont, while others would be headed east to Wallingford. If you showed up to a Downtown station at a random time, you'd have a 50% (i.e., random) chance of having to transfer in Fremont depending on your destination, and this would be pretty irritating to have to deal with on a daily basis.

The solution, I think, is that all trains to Downtown or from Ballard would only travel this route (the one pictured above), never branching at Fremont. This makes sense heading from Ballard in light of the fact that so many trips are to Downtown; headed north from Downtown it's a bit tougher to make the case decisively, but the greater population density of Ballard wins out for me, and helps to convey Downtown-Ballard as the north-south line and Fremont-University District as the east-west. 

I do foresee some problems this layout might cause for further expansion of the rail network northward, so I'd be interested to hear peoples' input. The Downtown-to-Ballard routing could potentially be abandoned later on if an extension was made northward from the Fremont station, effectively turning Downtown-to-Shoreline into the north-south route and extending the east-west route out to Ballard. By this point more trains would be running due to higher regional ridership, so transfers would be less of a concern.

You'll also notice that I've only marked one station for every neighborhood, and maybe more are justified. None of these neighborhoods really compare in population or density to Capitol Hill though, which only got one station, so I think it's unlikely. The Seattle Subway map in particular, with 5 stations between Wallingford and Ballard, plus another in Fremont, seems unrealistic even under the best circumstances.

I'm really interested to hear what people think of this plan, and especially what they might prefer instead. This is intended as a conversation starter, bringing up some of the salient issues so that we at least know where to start. Sound Transit and the City of Seattle are going to be planning this over the next few years, and if we want to contribute meaningfully to the process we should do our best to understand and consider all the possibilities, challenges, and trade-offs inherent in this type of project. Let me know what you'd like to see!

Why would we want to privatize the one profitable Amtrak service?

There's been a lot of news about the GOP's most recent attacks on Amtrak, and my post is largely motivated by this post at Streetsblog, titled "Reminder: Amtrak Subsidies Pale in Comparison to Highway Subsidies". This is an important point and one that most people are probably unaware of, but the quote that really got me in this article was the following:

Amtrak’s subsidies by and large support the long-distance routes, which Congress mandates as a public service. It can’t very well require Amtrak to run these money-losing (but important) long-distance routes and then cut the money to run them – yet that’s what Mica proposes to do. Outsourcing wouldn’t work because no private company would want to take on routes that are proven to lose money. Maybe that’s why Mica’s privatization plan centers on the lucrative Northeast Corridor – the one place Amtrak does make money.

Read the link in that quote too, it's a good one. What interested me about this was why House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica would want to privatize the one Amtrak operation that is running profitably. If the issue is that Amtrak is being run irresponsibly and costing taxpayers a lot of money, shouldn't we want the private sector to take over the lines that are actually losing money? But, as noted above, these subsidies are required because the long-distance routes were formed by mandate of Congress, not because they were expected to be profitable. I'm happy to have a debate about whether these long-distances lines should be operating at all, but that's not what's happening. Instead we're forcing Amtrak to operate unpopular lines and then blaming their inability to turn a profit on incompetence. It's a despicable practice, especially from someone who knows better like Mica.

I was interested in actually finding out where Amtrak is making and losing it's money and I found this FY2012 budget from their site. If you skip to the very last page you can see everything broken down by individual route, and also grouped into three categories: NEC Spine, State Supported Routes, and Long Distance Routes. I've included an image of part of that page below.

As we can clearly see the NEC Spine earns a profit of approximately $230 million a year with 11.2 million riders, almost all of which is thanks to the $50-per-ticket profit on their Acela line, the only high speed rail line in the country. I can understand why Mica wouldn't want to draw attention to that though, given the GOP's visceral opposition to high speed rail and their assertion that it can't be profitable. Looking at State Supported Routes we see a loss of about $160 million a year with 15.4 million riders, although there are a few bright spots (e.g., Washington-Lynchburg, New York-Newport News) where we see decent profits. Then we get to the Dread Long Distance Routes. 4.7 million riders, operating loss of $530 million, a whopping $111.47 loss per rider. Ouch. The best line here loses $60.72 per rider, and the worst, Sunset Limited, loses an astronomical $373.34. So if we take the NEC Spine away from Amtrak and leave it all the losers, how is the taxpayer better off? Without the NEC, we'd have paid out $690 million instead of $466 million.

If anything, this sounds like a great reason to invest more in the NEC corridor. It's the only transportation mode that's making any money, after all. Not only would it improve the quality of service there, getting people between D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Boston faster and more comfortably, it'd also attract more riders away from money-losing aviation (government subsidy of $4.28 per ticket), intercity buses ($0.10), and cars (unknown, but certainly subsidized). That sounds like a pretty smart move for anyone who cares about saving taxpayers money, and it has the added benefit of being more environmentally friendly and reducing road and air congestion.

As it stands, Mica seems more interested in privatizing profits and socializing losses than actually improving Amtrak operations.