Thursday, March 30, 2006

Fantasy Rail

What routes would you like to see?

We're not talking here about routes that are possible, or even likely. What would you like to see? Some pretty outrageous passenger routes have even become reality, so put your mind to it and let us know.

When this writer was a kid, our fantasy passenger route went right through the back yard. It was a branch off the Burlington Route line that passed through Clyde, the large yard in Cicero, Illinois, along the three-track Chicago-Aurora speedway. Going west, the yard started at Cicero Avenue and ended right about Ridgeland Avenue. Today, much of the yard has been converted to intermodal transfer and there is almost nothing left of the steam ready tracks and the hump bowl that existed when we were kids. In the early 1950s, the yard was also crossed by the Laramie Avenue bridge that used salvaged trusses from a Mississippi River bridge that had been loaded on railcars and moved wholesale to the Cicero site.

A fantasy branch would have left the main line from Chicago just past Cicero Avenue, passed under Laramie Avenue, and proceed due west along 27th Street. This alignment would not only take it right past my boyhood home, with a station stop at 27th Street and Harvey Avenue in Berwyn, but would also allow the line to skirt Salt Creek further west (who cared about the environment when your were 10) and enter Oakbrook, an affluent suburban area sorely devoid of train service. So there could have been some practicality to my fantasy.

Throttling west, the fantasy line could eventually connect to the Chicago Aurora & Elgin in Warrenville, IL. (The latter railroad lasted only until 1957 as a passenger carrier.) In alternate format, the branch would be electrified with third rail or overhead and become a part of the CA&E going the other way, with a change of trains at Cicero Avenue or - more fantasy - an overhead wire strung all the way into Union Station. Our fantasy: Ride a local from my home station into Union Station, Chicago, or go west and change trains for an electric ride into Aurora instead of walking the 8 blocks or so to the nearest station on the Q.

Another boyhood fantasy involved the Douglas Park line of the Chicago L taking off from its right-of-way in the alley north of Cermak Road and running south through our back alley. Of course, there would be a station stop serving both lines right in our house. Probably a car service yard for the electric trains, too. (The Douglas Park line cut back to 54th Avenue in February 1952, two months before this writer turned 5 years old. Before that, it did run to Oak Park Avenue and crossed Harvey Avenue north of Cermak Road. Because our maternal aunt had an apartment on Cermak with a back porch above the L tracks, which ran at grade through the alley easement, we still remember it.)

Imagine how noisy our home would have been!

More about fantasy passenger rail routes another day. What about telling us some of yours for a future blog?

© 2006 C. A. Turek -

Monday, March 27, 2006

Consider A Two-Seat Ride

For some rail commuters, there has never been a one-seat ride into central Manhatten. New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) has many routes or combinations of routes that require a change at Secaucus or Hoboken. Some riders have no choice but to make a change, while others do have a choice of a one-seat ride. NJ Transit has recently considered proposals to add another tunnel under the Hudson so that one or more lines may be re-routed onto the island. The cost is astronomical and so is the lead time.

There is no realistic way to predict traffic patterns far enough in advance to know that the right decision has been made. Commuters now needing to get to offices on Wall Street may need to get from Metuchen to New Providence ten years from now. We just can't tell.

Step downwards in system size to New Mexico Rail Runner. It seems that absolutely the only routing to Santa Fe being considered is a one-seat ride from Albuquerque that will require enormous investments in right-of-way, grading, and track engineering. It may even require tunnels! Again, the cost is astronomical and so is the lead time. Even though Gov. Bill Richardson has been able to push through a project in record time, any remaining routes will have to stand for themselves whether Rail Runner in its current form stands or falls.

Why not a two-seat ride into The City Different. (For non-New Mexicans, this appellation seems either complimentary or derrogatory depending on which color of the political spectrum you sit. For New Mexicans, the term is accepted as truth.) The state is going to buy the old AT&SF line, so getting to either Kennedy (a railroad place, not a town, near milepost 844) or Lamy is a relatively easy proposition. The two points are separated by about 5 miles along the line, with the latter more distant from Albuquerque.

There are two existing rights of way into Santa Fe. The first is an existing roadbed from the defunct New Mexico Central with an easy grade into Santa Fe. If it were not for the fact that the final four miles or so have been obliterated by development, this would be a no brainer. But with the current property values in Santa Fe, astronomical doesn't even begin to describe the cost of land acquisition. (Some of the right of way goes near the current state government complex, and the promise of a station stop there makes this one politically correct.)

The second is the current Santa Fe Southern, which is the original AT&SF branch, the one the railroad built when it became apparent that it was too costly to run the main line through its namesake city. It is not a low grade line and has way too many degrees of curvature for a train the likes of Rail Runner.


A. It is owned by the state. B. It has track and is operational. C. It ends in downtown Santa Fe. D. Traffic on the line is minimal. E. It also goes through the government complex, so the rest of us will have to stop there just because the politicians want it to stop there. (And don't tell me we will stop giving government cars to the state employees who already have them. I won't believe you.)

Here's how the two-seat ride would work on Santa Fe Southern: Rail Runner either buys light, high tractive effort self-propelled railcars or buys light, high tractive effort electric railcars and builds overhead wire. Passengers going to Santa Fe ride the diesel powered Rail Runner to Lamy and transfer to the light railcars. The light cars run singly or in two-unit sets and negotiate both the grade and the curves expeditiously. The taxpayers save a lot of money by not having to pay for new track and grade. Maybe we can kick in for a nice transfer station at Lamy, which is still also an Amtrak stop as long as the Southwest Chief exists.

Don't worry if Gene Hackman or Shirley MacLaine don't care to change trains, they will keep using their limos and their BMWs. This is way good enough for the rest of us.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Now We Trust You

But we would still prefer you don't stand too close to the tracks.

The State of New Mexico has wired $45 million into BNSF Railway's bank account. What did we, the taxpayers, get for our dollars?

First, we bought a right-of-way. Hmm. Let's think about that. Fifty miles of right of way with an average width, according to actual maps, of about 60 feet. That's about 15,840,000 square feet. At my current assessment and tax rate for unimproved land, that's property taxes of $6,019,200. Lucky for BNSF Railway they won't have to pay that any more. Factoid: Nobody will pay it! It is now state land and the state doesn't tax itself, nor can any local municipalities through which it passes tax it.

Next, we bought tracks and switches and signals. A regular railroad infrastructure. A little research also tells us that the average cost for maintaining track, signals and grade crossings (not buildings) on a comparably sized railroad is $25,000 per mile per year. That's $12.5 million per year.

Hmm, again. We've got $18,519,200 per year. So far. And something tells us the right-of-way is wider than 60 feet in some spots. Also more valuable than a dollar a foot.

Next, we bought prestige. New Mexico is no longer one of the few states with no commuter railroads. Don't pull the tourism ads yet. We don't believe many will visit New Mexico just to ride these 50 miles of track.

We have also purchased a place to run our trains, which are costing us a bundle just to keep them idle. We wish we all had a place to run our trains.

And finally, we bought permission. BNSF Railway wasn't about to let us on the tracks until we ponied up the money and put up the bond to protect them from our own stupidity. But don't stand too close to the tracks with those nice commuter trains. BNSF still has to run some freights up and down to help us pay for the $63 million plus that we have to find in the piggy bank for the first year, before we even begin to have operating costs or revenue from Rail Runner.

Yes, Jose and Juanita, don't stand too close to the tracks. You get too close, you might just see how much it all costs.

(The author of this blog is based in Albuquerque, NM.)

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, March 20, 2006

Congratulations Metra

Now there's a commuter railroad that does things right.

This January, Metra, Chicago's commuter rail agency, expanded service on three corridors. This included new stations in, among other communities, Grayslake, La Fox, and Schiller Park.

This writer finds the La Fox extension particularly interesting. Ten years ago, when we moved away from the Chicago area into the dark railroad void of New Mexico, La Fox was a developing suburb well beyond the end of the North Western (now UP) West Line. The area has become frighteningly developed in those ten years. But what is more remarkable is the ability of Metra to work with Union Pacific to build a coach yard at Elburn (click La Fox, above, to see map) to replace the previous facility on the west side of West Chicago and just beyond the UP crossing with Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, aka Turner Junction.

The line through La Fox and Elburn is Union Pacific's transcon and the reason they bought the North Western in the first place. It's busy, and even busier now with trains going all the way out to Elburn. (The end of the line had been pushed well beyond West Chicago for a long time, most recently to Geneva on the Fox River.)

Metra, with 52 new trains and seven new stations, and the entire Chicago Area, we applaud your investment and initiative in passenger rail.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Amtrak Near Death But Not Suicidal

Perhaps the Amtrak board has collectively consumed enough Prozac to keep them irrationally optimistic about Amtrak's future. (Consumer Warning: The link above does not necessarily take you to a site created by the manufacturer of Prozac, a product and registered trademark of Eli Lilly and Company.)

Perhaps the Amtrak board has collectively smoked enough New Mexico desert vegetation to take them to the same place. If they got it from somewhere near Trinity Site, there is a new movie out last week that will suggest reasons to stop smoking it. (None of the vegetation is registered or copyrighted. Side effects may be similar.)

But I digress.

Our point is this: Amtrak has recently undertaken two projects that suggest that Amtrak will continue to exist, and this is despite the fact that all Amtrak board members have their noses firmly planted in George Bush's butt crack.

We know that the trend these days is to put a bunch of money into projects just before a corporation goes bankrupt or sells out. It's only to reduce the value of the whole property enough to squeeze as much as possible out of the creditors.

Those of us who are optimistic about passenger rail would like to think that the rebuilding of the Thames River bridge in Connecticut and the opening of a boutique hotel in the Amtrak-owned station in Baltimore, MD, are both subtle indications that the board thinks Amtrak will be around in a few years when the projects are finished.

The first of these projects, the bridge, requires Amtrak to commit to service adjustments for the duration of the project. The other, the hotel, requires Amtrak to work with developers and sign a long-term lease for the property. In the end, both require a suspension of disbelief similar to what one has to have when viewing a movie to keep from saying, "It's only a movie."

In the case of Amtrak, we have to stop ourselves from saying, "It's only Amtrak." The whole country, including Congress and (yes - count 'em) seven administrations, has been saying that for years. If we would all get our collective heads out of our butts (and the Amtrak board's out of the president's), maybe we could be saying, "It's Amtrak! Ain't it a great railroad!"

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, March 13, 2006

Green Passenger Rail

Former Amtrak head David Gunn has been widely quoted as critical of the unwise course that the U. S. is taking in its heavily petroleum-dependent transportation policy. He has wisely criticized all modes in this way. To criticize only rail transportation would be like blaming a high birth rate in Rhode Island for a worldwide population explosion. (There isn't and I'm not.)

The heaviest user of petroleum per ton-mile is air transport, followed by highway and then rail. Here are the statistics: Air transport=60 to 65 gross ton-miles per gallon. Truck=120 to 200 gross ton miles per gallon. Train=750 gross ton-miles per gallon.

It seems natural, if not politically correct (see: State of the Union, Jan. 2006), to shift as much freight as possible to rail.

We were curious about passenger rail, as Mr. Gunn was recently the ill-fated head of Amtrak. A check of similar postings of statistics suggests that passsenger rail is, indeed, greener than either of airlines, buses, or personal automobiles, either cars or SUVs. Commuter passenger rail is better than long distance (read Amtrak), but Amtrak is still better than the airlines. Imagine that!

Bush Administration Monologue

Breath No. 1: "No money for Amtrak in its present configuration."

Breath No. 2: "We must end our addiction to oil."

What would a greener Amtrak look like? Apparently David Gunn didn't know, because there is nothing we can find to indicate that Amtrak was anywhere close to ending its use of petroleum products. Amtrak already uses electrified right of way where it is already installed, which allows it to buy power produced from fuels other than oil and from solar or wind power when available. Commuter rail in many parts of the country does the same.

While the current issue of Trains highlights Union Pacific's purchase of green diesel switchers, use of such switchers by Amtrak would be limited to areas where Amtrak actually does its own switching with its own engines. We know of no effort to produce a green or hybrid Amtrak locomotive. (The dual power engines on the New York corridor don't count, because when they are in diesel mode they run like a diesel locomotive.)

For those of you under 25, we might note that it has not been long since Amtrak and many commuter passenger rail operations switched over to head-end power. The power situation for passenger cars before that was more of a hybrid situation. Into the Amtrak era, some trains carried gensets, or diesel power plants, to light and heat the cars. Going back to the heavyweights of the early 1900s, the cars were powered by steam from the engines and by generators or alternators belt-driven from the axles and feeding banks of batteries, effectively making the locomotive and power system a genset charging batteries that powered things much like today's hybrids. The big difference is that we now have computers to control the process. ("Genset" is a relatively new term defining an internal combustion engine and electric generator on one platform that can be moved, changed out, or added to in a hurry.)

So if we are serious about ending dependence on petroleum for transport, here are our suggestions:
1. Start moving freight and passenger transport to rail and invest heavily in rail infrastructure and electrification in areas where non-petroleum power generation is most feasible.
2. Start developing more high-speed rail. The ton-miles per gallon go up as the speed goes up.
3. Start developing hybrid road locomotives.
4. Start converting away from head-end power.
5. Now that computer control has advanced into reliable, practical and cheap applications, consider coal as a fuel again. Another era of steam locomotives? Perhaps another ACE 3000?

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Another Effort Up In Political Smoke - n' Mirrors

Several news organizations are reporting on the Virginia House of Delegates and their underhanded move to stop the effort to get a state transportation authority off the ground.

The aim of the bill's sponsor, formerly ineffective presidential candidate John Edwards, was to get rolling on planning for passenger rail to relieve the state's growing transportation difficulties. The authority wasn't even going to have bonding authority. But many in Virginia already knew that they needed this.

If not the states, then who? If not now, then when?

And On Another Topic
Readers may have noticed that we have allowed Google to place adverts at the top of our blog. It's a fact of life, and we don't get free blogs without it. And some of the revenue may support the continuation of this blogging effort in the future. If we get popular enough, we may get to contribute to some rail advocacy groups that can do some good.

Also, our apologies for using links that require you to register. Again, we see no problem with free enterprise and the need to somehow support the costs of maintaining all these free sites on the Internet. If we link to such a site, please use your own judgment as to whether you should register. We think you should never pay for these sites. Please report to us any sites that ask you to pay to see the article. Registration is one thing, because it helps to support the advertising base of the site, but paying for articles is taboo, as far as we are concerned.

And Yet Another
If and when the New Mexico Rail Runner ever gets to Santa Fe, the city fathers have pledged that it will go all the way to the old rail yard and not just to a station in the state government complex about a mile south of the yard. This area used to be the place where the AT&SF spur from Lamy met the D&RG narrow gauge line and another short narrow gauge, the Texas and Santa Fe Northern, that connected to northerly sections of the state.

(Interestingly, the TSFN was built because Denver & Rio Grande couldn't build into the town because of an agreement with the old AT&SF. Eventually, nobody cared about the agreement any more.)

The old New Mexico Central up from Torrance, NM, on the old El Paso and Rock Island (later Southern Pacific) made it to the rail yard for a time. The yard is currently served by the Santa Fe Southwestern, owned by the State of New Mexico. The rail yard is a short walk from the Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors, we believe the oldest continuously occupied government building in North America.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Back to New Mexico

Can't help going back to the subject of New Mexico's experiment in commuter rail. If you haven't read about it before, check my archives or go to New Mexico Rail Runner and read up.

Though the project is now about five months behind the original schedule proposed by NM Gov. Bill Richardson, and likely to be eight months behind before reaching fruition, it is still getting on line faster, from concept to first train out of the station, than any other similar project anywhere in the country. (Readers please challenge me on this if you can find one faster. I can't.)

NM Attorney General Patricia Madrid, as reported in the Albuquerque Journal has given her seal of approval to the legality of the contract to buy the rail line from Belen, NM, to Raton, NM. She just wants BNSF Railway to keep the portion up to Trinidad, CO, and everything is hunky dory, legally. She is not endorsing the concept or saying that she thinks it will be successful. She is running against Rep. Heather Wilson this year and needs all the votes she can get, and this whole Rail Runner thing could be a big flop by then.

Yes, Virginia, it will be a sure flop if it is over a year behind schedule, and it may be a flop if it starts running in June and we know how much money we are losing by November.

I don't want it to be a flop. (If you do, chime in with your two cents on the comments.) So if I sound too downbeat, please ignore it. I can't help thinking that the rail line is a pig in a poke and that the state would be better off without it. I don't see how the state will ever run a commuter train from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, NM. A more reasonable bet would be one from Albuquerque to Las Cruces and/or El Paso, TX. With Truth or Consequences (perhaps by then back to Hot Springs) as a tourist destination and three larger centers of population along it, Albuquerque to El Paso makes much more sense.

So why are we buying the line in the other direction?

I would love to have an explanation other than "Gov. Bill couldn't get his trains running in time for the 2008 Presidential Primaries if he didn't buy it." What a primary contest! Bill Richardson playing with trains and Hillary playing with . . . , oh, never mind.

Passenger Rail and politics are inseparably linked.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

This Sums It Up

We ran across this article from the Sacramento Bee. Author Chris Ott is right on the money. We have been saying this all along, and saying it repeatedly. Politicians giving lip service to energy conservation fail to see the energy efficiency of a national passenger network. Those giving lip service to national security fail to see the need for all options for transportation to remain open.

Those seeking change for the better have failed to see Amtrak's steady growth and improved service in the face of tight budgets in anything other than a negative light. And those seeking political advantage have failed to see that using Amtrak budgets as a way to get more pork in the barrel doesn't really help home constituencies.

There's not a whole lot more to say, because Mr. Ott eloquently sums it up.

To Mr. Ott: Bravo!

To the rest of you: Write your Congressman

(Yes, I think Congressman is the proper form and is not misogynist. Even Congressman Heather Wilson from my district says this is OK.)

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -