Monday, July 31, 2006

Hiatus Announcement

We will be on hiatus starting today. Our next post will be Monday, August 7, 2006. Our apologies and best wishes to all.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

A Warning For Denver - Don't Do It Underground!

Denver has grand plans. Why not? It's a grand old city the the gem of the Rocky Mountains.

Sometimes grand plans get too grand.

Case in point: The plans to renovate, rehabilitate, and in general revamp the Denver Union Station area. Twenty years and a prayer that the guys that built the Big Dig in Boston don't get anywhere near this one, and - the plan says - most of the transportation infrastructure will be underground.

When Chicago and the owning railroads decided that the air rights directly over the station concourse of Union Station were too valuable for just a beautiful, skylighted building, they demolished it and left travelers with catacombs that are the envy of any Vatican monk. The (then) Marsh and McLennan building was a stink bomb that had so much asbestos insulation in it . . . well that's another story. Even a more recent revamp of the catacombs has not really left us with a better station, just a slightly better effort at thinking about how to decorate catacombs.

When New York and the railroads decided that the air rights directly over Penn Station were too valuable for just a beautiful skylighted building, they demolished it and . . . same picture, same result, renovations and all. Madison Square Garden is just as much of a stink bomb, too.

Denver, we pray you come to your senses before the project is overdone, overbudget, and underground. It's nice to see the light sometimes.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Maine Plans Far, Far Ahead

Give the people in the lakes region near Portland, ME, some credit. They are thinking and talking about Passenger Rail.

This link is to an article that describes the kind of thinking that has been going on since 2001. The most ambitious plans would include revival of the entire old Mountain Divison into New Hampshire and eventual connection with White River Junction, VT.

The area is growing and luring more tourists, and Passenger Rail would be no worse an idea in a relatively sparse population than it is in New Mexico. (The jury is still out on Rail Runner ridership - we haven't seen any real statistics and the ride is still truncated and free.) But in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, it is much further in the future.

The article rightly points out that government policy has hamstrung the area as far as transportation options. Right now it's "highway or nothing." Expand the scope of this statement and it applies to many, many parts of the United States, both populated and not. Whole segments of the country are "highway or nothing" for passenger travel. Thank God for short lines, or this would be more true for freight/cargo as well.

An aside: We refer to freight railroading. But freight railroads carry cargo. Freight is what you pay to move cargo. Nonetheless, the terms are used more or less interchangably. This writer is an old cargo surveyor. That's a professional who determines suitability for transit in terms of risk of loss or damage, and also who determines damage in the event of accidental loss. We never surveyed freight, only cargo.

In our opinion, shifting us into options where Passenger Rail becomes the primary carrier of surface passengers would be tax dollars well-spent. The people of southwestern Maine are thinking ahead. We have only two words of advice: Revamp nothing! Build for Next Generation Rail!

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, July 24, 2006

NGR II - Train Control

There are two aspects to Train Control.

The first aspect involves how one goes about getting the train in the right place at the right time without having it get tangled with any other trains, all of which have to also get in the right place at the right time. The second aspect is how one goes about getting and keeping the controller (in most current rail transport modes in the United States, this is the "engineer" or "operator") in control of the train while complying with all the requirements of the first aspect.

For literary convenience, we will refer to the current state of railroading as the Current Mode or CM. Next Generation Rail is NGR.

In CM, the two aspects of train control are not fully integrated, and the stumbling block to full integration is human. In CM, all of the data that is produced and constitutes the first aspect must pass through the human engineer to get to the second aspect. For example, a train order, schedule and/or signal must be obeyed. The engineer, assimilating all the data, must run the train to the best of his ability by manipulating the throttle, automatic brake, dynamic brake and/or engine brake in such a way as to accomplish the task of the first aspect - keep the train in the right place at the right time.

Though there are a few technologies in CM that bypass or at least ignore the human interface - automatic train stop, positive train control, automatic train separation, etc. - none seek to put the needs of the first aspect directly to work on the second aspect.

This part will anger the operating unions: NGR should not need an engineer as a train operator. The only need for an on-board engineer should be to monitor on-board systems and keep the machinery running. The on-board engineer in NGR should be approximately what the fireman was to the steam locomotive, only with a broader knowledge of systems and computers to match NGR's complex locomotives.

Before we talk about the out-there systems that will keep the trains in the right places at the right times, we would like to say a bit about the on-board control systems for NGR.

With today's state of computer science, interoperability of computer components, information technology, communications and micro-electronic control, and with the anticipated future state of these disciplines . . . THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON WHY OPERATING A REAL TRAIN SHOULD BE ANY MORE DIFFICULT THAN THE DCC CONTROL OF A RUNNING MODEL TRAIN. It is simply the entrenchment of the current state of control systems that keeps them en vogue, and the reluctance of manufacturers to take a cutting edge and attempt to slice into sales of CM technology. In a nutshell, NGR technology for the on-board portion of train control already exists.

He's NUTS! No such thing exists!

Yes it does! It exists in many current components and hardware that, if properly brought together can make such a system without any great leaps in hardware or software technology. It also exists on so many drawing boards and in the minds of so many designers. Any one of you who has comprehended what we have said so far and gotten to this argument in this post knows this. Also, think of the current state of remote control locomotives. Though the system is still too complex and adapts to CM instead of offering simplified systems and data, this is a very viable first step.

So the CM aspect of train control that now includes all on-board control systems and the operating engineer will, in NGR, be nothing more than the process of adjusting a DCC control (For the unitiated, this is computerized, digitized model railroading at its current state of the art.) to move the train to where it should be when it should be. But for NGR to work, we've got to get the first aspect of train control, keeping trains where they should be, to interface with the second aspect.

More about NGR and the first aspect of train control in a future blog.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Amtrak and Car Supply

Chuck Merckel writes, "Dining car service was usually good until the late 1980's when budget cuts produced meals on paper plates with plastic utensils. We now see a return to pre-prepared food in order to cut costs. While I have not seen too many adverse reviews of the "simplified dining car service", I wonder exactly what Amtrak intends to do with all their long distance equipment. From what I have read, it seems that Amtrak wants to consolidate all; food service operations into one car per train unless holiday travel warrants two cars. Thus the sightseer lounge car no longer serves as a sightseeing snack car independent from the dining car. If this is the intended arrangement, the possibility exists that the system could expand without the expense of additional lounge and dining cars. Please give me your views."

Our view of all Amtrak car operations is that it is a miracle that they have any operable cars at all. By some accounts, 66 of 479 Superliner cars (13%) are either scrapped or wrecked. There are no plans (read no money) to replace any of them. Diners and lounges have fared better. 14 of 119 are gone. (11%) There have been cars available when states want new routes. However, most of the initial new state routes will probably be sans diners and food service will either be on a snack bar basis or crammed into a corner on coach lower levels.

On Track On Line provides a fine listing of all Amtrak passenger equipment. Superliner I cars have been rebuilt and refurbished (revamped if you will). Stranger things have happened. REVAMP NOTHING!

We know Amtrak continues to this day to look forward and try to visualize a future. If you can't visualize your future, you should not be in the railroad biz. There are always experimental car designs on the table (David Gunn) or under it (when the Bush Admin is not looking). Whether Amtrak ever will have enough money to just buy new cars on a large scale basis is arguable. There will always be money for routes where the money flows (read Northeast Corridor), and there will be less for the long distance routes where a moon rocket is closer to a service center (in terms of time and money) than an Amtrak passenger car. The cars for those long distance routes have to be engineered better (read more money) than Acela trainsets, because once they are out on the rails, there is nobody to fix what goes wrong until they turn around the whole route. We don't see Amtrak building any other shops to supplement Beech Grove.

Chuck, in our opinion, simply throwing another set of cars that happen to be surplus out on the rails is no way to start up additional routes. If that is the only way, then more power to the powers at Amtrak, because we will applaud any (ANY) new passenger routings. We don't know - perhaps some readers do - but we would bet that the first diners or lounges to be withdrawn in the interest of cutting back on dining service were also the oldest, most beaten and dismal examples of what happens to a passenger car when it is run two decades past its reasonable service life. (Again a NASA analogy vis a vis Space Shuttle.) We would hate to think that potential new riders would have to form their opinion of Amtrak travel based on the worst of the worst.

Unlike this writer, most potential Amtrak passengers have no recollection of what it was like to ride a long-distance passenger train before 1971. Oddly enough, we just received advertising from Walthers, a renowned manufacturer and seller of model railroad equipment. This was a blurb, also available on the Internet, for a model of the 1955 Empire Builder trainset. (See also this link.) We witnessed this train's daily summary departure from Chicago along the Burlington Route's rails on more than one occasion. Waiting at LaVergne station about 9 miles out from Chicago Union Station through the interminable advance timed grade-crossing gates that allowed this beautiful train to zip through the suburbs at 60+ miles per and then watching all 14 of its perfectly matched cars pass on the middle track and fade off into the west as the CTC signals flipped their gels to red behind it - this was a rolling incentive to ride the train.

Compare what we just described to the last Amtrak train you watched going past. Is the incentive comparable? Is it even close?

Please, though it would do our hearts good to see new Passenger Rail routes, let's not encourage the management to re-use the diners and lounges. They will hurt themselves (and us) trying.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Rail Runner Starts Up

We had planned a blog about Amtrak and car supply that was triggered by an email from blog reader Chuck Merckel of Livonia, MI. Rest assured, we will post our comments about Amtrak's car supply with a coming post.

Today, we have to announce our thrill that Rail Runner, the commuter rail service for New Mexico and particularly Albuquerque and (eventually) Santa Fe has started up. The Friday, July 14 start was about nine months later than the originally planned October 2005 startup, but was also only two years after the idea was first put before the public by Gov. Bill Richardson and the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments. That's a quick startup by any measure, and a commendable one.

Never mind that the train is only running from Albuquerque to Bernalillo (NM 550) and back, and never mind that it will run for free for three months. Local newspapers and television stations report that riders loved it.

As there are so many adults who were born post-Amtrak Day and who never had a chance to ride on short, inter-city hops such as Albuquerque to Las Cruces or El Paso and/or Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the education of these riders is going to require some love of the train ride.

By the way, we just returned from a weekend and Las Cruces, NM, and we took a few pics of the old Santa Fe depot there. This is where the doodlebugs from Albuquerque would have stopped. It is nicely restored and we will post one of the pics on the blog.

Also, glad to see that some of our readers are starting to read with enough interest to start disagreeing with us. (See comments on recent post about the budget and politics.) Please disagree all you want. We will let you know if we disagree with your disagreement. If you really want to argue, give us specifics and references or links to references. We will push back other subjects to clarify any topic, if there is enough interest. Please don't start with liberal political talking points, however. We can get enough of that in the Old Media. So we hope that Anonymous wasn't just trying to let our readers know that he/she thinks Mr. Bush is doing something unconstitutional.

Happy train riding!

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mineta Legacy - Must We Go On?

We are still praying for a Secretary of Transportation with a railroad background. We have received several suggestions that David Gunn would make the best choice. We agree that he would be a good choice for those of us who advocate a strong Passenger Rail system. We do not agree that he would be a good political choice.

Why play politics? The answer should be clear to any voter. Politics drives the engine that gets public money into transportation projects.

David Gunn, though an extremely confident administrator, railroader, and executive, does not have the political confidence of anybody inside the Beltway. He is damaged goods, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. (It took Bill Richardson getting elected NM Governor twice to quench the taint - blow off the stink, if you will - of what happened in the national labs during his tenure as Bill Clinton's Secretary of Energy. And believe us when we say that all the stink ain't gone yet.)

The next Transportation Secretary probably will be in the position for less than 3 years, potentially much less if he doesn't play by the rules of the Bush Admin. Cabinet posts rarely carry over from one admin to the next. (Proof.) He/she will have to deal with the Mineta Legacy before ever moving forward with public projects that make sense.

What is the Mineta Legacy in transportation? First and foremost, it is a shortsighted view of how the various modes of transportation fit into the larger picture. Mr. Mineta's tendency to favor road projects over all others suggest this if nothing else does. Second, it is the old song of politics as usual with respect to Amtrak in particular and railroading (including freight) in general. It is an inability to factor in the ways in which spending money on certain modes may yield greater public good than on others. Dollars spent on rail transport, for instance, versus equal dollars spent on trying to maintain the Antique Interstates. Or dollars spent on bolstering the (almost equally antique) airlines that have instead stifled innovation that could, perhaps, still save the airlines.

Must we go on? If any of our readers have other suggestions for The Mineta Legacy, please comment and we will be glad to post a longer list.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Rockford Files - Illinois' Winning Hand

In a fit of uncharacteristic foresight, Amtrak is reported by the Chicago Tribune to be in agreement with the Illinois DOT on the re-establishment of rail service between Chicago and Rockford. Rockford is the largest small city in Northern Illinois that is not a suburb of Chicago. It lost passenger service in 1981, so we refuse to call this 25-year suspension of service a hiatus. Perhaps we should not even call it re-establishment. (See our blog entry about MoDOT's hopes for rail service.) Hopefully, it will not be a revamp of what used to exist either pre-Amtrak or at the time it was suspended.

Chicago's Metra already makes it beyond Elgin, to a decidedly non-railroad place name called Big Timber. We say non-railroad because, as far as we know, it never appeared on any railroad timetable before Metra. The contemporary station was just named for Big Timber Road. The point is that the most likely starting point is as an extension of this Metra line.

We are sure that Illinois and Amtrak will work out the details over the coming months. Illinois will have to pay to build some track connections, if the routing is going to be efficient. We would like to see the trains get right into Rockford's old downtown, and hope that the long-standing theory that says it's OK if the route just makes it to another travel connection (like an airport) doesn't prevail.

But it is noteworthy that Illinois has made a committment to Passenger Rail and recognizes that this is one of those high-benefit routes that can take a lot of passenger car traffic off the highways. In this case, the benefitting highway would be the Northwest Tollway (Interstate 90). This brings to mind other questions, such as how can a state that hopes to sell its tollway system to private enterprise justify using state money to take traffic off the tollway system? But we digress.

This is yet another route we would like to ride, because we never had a chance when it was either an Amtrak route or the old CNW Blackhawk service. Not quite as scenic as MoDOT's St. Louis-Springfield, this route would be a fun ride nonetheless; particularly the whole shebang from downtown Chicago (Union Station) to Rockford. Highlights would be the old Bensenville Yard of Milwaukee Road fame, crossing the Fox River at Elgin, the northern rolling farmlands of Winnebago County, Belvedere and Rockford (another river town: Rock Ford on the Rock River).

Kudos to Illinois DOT and the paying citizens of that great state.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Thursday, July 06, 2006

How About A Next Generation Rail Transport System

Revamp Nothing!

Simply explained, the philosophy of this blog is that you cannot achieve a true breakthrough in Passenger Rail transport by upgrading The Old on a limited budget. For instance, VIA Rail chose to revamp cars originally built for Chunnel service. They are nice cars and are being used on the service to the Maritimes. But with European buff strength (below North American standards) and with only moderately appealing amenities, they are nothing more than revamped Chunnel cars.

So how are we going to get to a Next Generation Rail (NGR) transport system?

Like the advent of rail transportation itself, NGR must be such a forward step in surface transportation that it outdoes anything else. Yet we at Passenger Rail believe that NGR, while it must be a forward step, cannot be a quantum leap. Neither can it be a revamp of current equipment.

In the 1830s, a quantum leap would have been going from horses pulling carts on rutted roads to internal combustion rail travel all in one step. None of the theory was unknown in the 1830s, but the technology was too complicated to be practical. In the 2000s, maglev comes to mind as a quantum leap.

So what can we do? Well, first we must realize that some of the boldest steps forward are based on simple engineering. We tend to throw technology at problems these days, and the end result isn't always well thought out. High speed rail is a good idea only if we do it simply. NGR will have to be steel wheel on steel rail. The concept of fixed guideways routing vehicles where needed with minimal friction/drag and with a minimum of computer intervention AND the possibility of falling back to the "all mechanical" mode when things fail - this concept cannot be beat. We dare you to try.

Second, we must also realize that the mingling of passenger and freight is a bad idea - an idea whose time has come and gone. We are not saying that they cannot share the same right-of-way, just that they cannot share the same track. Not even for a few hundred yards.

What we envision is similar to the concept of the limited access superhighway, a concept that, for road transport, is past its prime. It is a concept that hasn't yet been tried in any robust form for rail. Passenger Rail has only to reach passenger stations, while freight must reach customers where and when they are. So we can see a system with high-speed Passenger Rail on the inside of a wide easement, and freight rail on the outside. No crossovers touch Passenger Rails. It's either over or under to get to the other side, and in heavy traffic areas it could be double decked with passenger on top. (Remembering a freeway in Oakland and a bad earthquake, we hasten to add that proper structural safeguards must be installed.)

Revamp nothing: These should be new routes with newly laid track and contemporary engineering that uses all the advances that materials engineering has to offer. We allow for reuse of rights-of-way and easements, but don't just plop the passenger lines in the middle of old freight rails that were laid during the Truman Administration.

In future blogs: NGR as it applies to signals and control systems, passenger cars, and motive power.

We will soon have some thoughts about Positive Train Control posted on our sister blog, The Railroad.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -

Monday, July 03, 2006

What Part Our Budget Don't You Understand?

We will never understand the political process. Or perhaps, we understand it too well.

We understand what it says in The Constitution without too much difficulty. Even though it was written over 200 years ago, it is clear and concise, and you get a real feel for what The Founding Fathers were thinking. The Supreme Court should be a real easy job. Just read The Constitution.

But we still don't understand the political process. When Amtrak says it needs $X for the next year's budget, Congress always gives it a number $Y that is $X minus $A, where $A is an arbitrary number. There also seems to be some rule that says when a Republican administration is in office, $A has to be more than 50% of $X.

We suppose it is because the Constitution doesn't really account for government subsidy of Passenger Rail. Viable railroads were nearly a half century in the future for The Framers. In those days, it was hard to imagine a private enterprise that would one day be so important to the National Welfare that government would consider a subsidy to establish, advance and run it. About as close as it comes would be the need, recognized in The Constitution, for Federal Government to support and maintain a standing army. That was about as large as enterprises had grown, and the first large railroad corporations were patterned along military lines.

It's too bad that The Constitution doesn't say, "In recognition of the Fact that Anything Worth Doing By Government is Worth Doing Well, it shall be the Duty of Congress to fully fund all Government Enterprise." We would also like it to say, under a chapter titled "Waste and Deception," that, "All government waste and deception discovered by audit or other devise shall be subject to a rebate in taxes to all payers equal to twice the amount of deception or waste."

Back to Amtrak budgets.

We run about waving our hands and yelling that Congress is intentionally trying to bankrupt Amtrak and it will have to be liquidated. (There are times when we see this as a good thing.) Nonetheless, we have to recognize that this is more likely, absent Constitutional clauses to the contrary, politics as usual. Congress doesn't want to bankrupt Amtrak any more than it wants to push elderly ladies into the Potomac. It just wasn't given any specific directions to the contrary.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -