Sunday, October 28, 2007

May Not Get There From Here

At least not for a long, long time.

There's a right way and a wrong way to finance new commuter rail. We may be seeing the wrong way with New Mexico Rail Runner. . . . meep! meep!

The communities of the Middle Rio Grande, from Santa Fe (which technically is not ON the Rio Grande) to Belen, constitute the only major coagulation of population in New Mexico. Even then, the total population does not exceed the number of souls that had to be evacuated from Southern California because of the recent wildfires.

The communities of the Middle Rio Grande enjoy clear air and clear water because of their unique location and BECAUSE of the low population density. Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are currently struggling with polution problems just BECAUSE the population has been growing and sprawling.

With the sprawl comes the need for more roads and more lanes on the ones that exist. In this case, the latter are Interstates 40 and 25. (New Mexico doesn't have any three-digit Interstates.)

Along comes Presidential Candidate and Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. He literally invented the Rail Runner project from whole cloth after his first election as governor, and he used lots of local political capital to bludgeon local politicians to go along with it.

Hey, it wasn't a bad idea, but it's time probably hadn't come yet. (Former Governor Toney Anaya has been pushing for a bullet train for New Mexico since his administration - and that time hasn't come yet either.)

So the MRGCOG raided the highway funds with the approval of the governor and the legislature and we now have service from Albuquerque (the Q - as "green" Mayor Martin Chavez wants it) to Belen on the south and to Bernalillo on the north. The highway funds will no longer support the expansion of service to Santa Fe (a must) and the Feds probably won't be kicking in. To make matters worse, the wool-pulled-over-eyes politicians are suddenly finding out what Mister Trains has said all along: That it will cost alot of tax dollars to subsidize this service over the coming years. More so if it never gets to Santa Fe.

Worse still, the highway funds are so low that the state can't fund any highway expansion without more taxes. Adding fifteen to fifty cents a gallon to the price of gasoline in the state that already pays the highest per-gallon price in the lower 48 has been discussed.

While commuter rail is usually a "green" solution, this certainly is not what is happening. While we wrangle about higher gas taxes or higher any taxes, those stuck commuters will spend more time on the freeways with their engines running and waisting fuel and adding to the air quality problems. The sprawl of The Q (thanks Mayor Marty) will see to that.

Oh, woe. We guess we will just have to pony up at the pump and hope. Because if Rail Runner falls on its fat fanny, we won't see communter rail in New Mexico again for lots of years.

Mister Trains is getting to the point where you won't see Mister Trains in New Mexico for long if this keeps up.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Risk Averse Society Bad for Railroad Development

We have been reading Jill Jonnes' excellent history of the buiding of New York's Penn Station and its tunnels called Conquering Gotham. In its time, this project was compared to completing the first transcontinental railroad and to building of the great pyramid.

We have been trying to think of railroad projects of the past fifty or so years that could compare with it in sheer size, technical innovation, risk, and usefulness of the end result. Of course, if you go back to 1957, sixty percent of the time was one of decline for the railroads. Also of course, the railroads were disinclined to do anything comparable.

For size, the New York terminal project, begun principally (in planning) in 1902, also included the twin tunnels under the Hudson River (North River), the yards that were built where most of the Tenderloin once lay, the quad tunnels under the East River, the connection with the LIRR, and the Sunnyside Yard complex. For innovation, nobody had ever tunneled under glacial silt and a swift-flowing tidal riverbed, and the electrical motive power system for the traction-powered trains had to be built from scratch. For risk, not only did the PRR have to pay for all of this itself (with private investment), but it had to assume the risk of dangerous political upheaval from the then-entrenched Tammany Tiger of New York City politics. And for usefulness, the tunnels and much of the subterranean station are still in use by Amtrak and New York commuter rail systems. (The above-ground portion of the station was demolished before the historic preservation movement took hold - for the construction of a "modern" building.)

So we started trying to think of railroad projects for the future. Projects that could compare with Penn Station. None exist. Why?

It comes down to risk. As a people and as corporate stockholders, citizens of these United States are no longer willing to accept risk. We will not do great deeds because we cannot think great thoughts. We cannot think great thoughts because all great and grand designs for future enterprise are fraught with risk.

God forbid that a man die digging a tunnel today. The lawyers and the insurance companies will put the company for which that man worked out of business with their claims and lawsuits. Private capital wants and needs government support to take a risk. It wants and needs absolution for any sins before going in. Call before digging. Somebody else must pay if we are at fault.

And that costs money.

We have dragged the rest of the world up with us, and the United States has now gotten cold feet. We progress in ever more measured steps and become, like the Europe of old, more interested in furthering our political position with the world than in furthering the domestic progress of our citizens. And those at the back of the line being dragged, with the progress of the front of the line slowing noticeably, are more than happy to step all over us to get to the front. By any means possible. Even by taking RISKS!

How pathetic.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Additions to the List

We have been absent for awhile attributable to vacation. (We don't get much vacation, and self-imposed deadlines readily fall against the prospect of real relaxation time.)

Vacation was, in part, a driving trip. Some of the trip was along the old Frisco route from St. Louis to Springfield, MO. (Interstate 44) Got us thinkin' about the possibility of Passenger Rail on this route. There is, at least, a spoken committment by MODOT to get this up and running.

Lots and lots of the route that is visible from the Interstate has many degrees of curvature and is built either on fill or in deep cuts. We do not know the profile, but it would be a fair guess that it is from moderately to extremely hilly.

Then we thought about the list we put on this blog awhile back about what a new generation of passenger rail should look like.

We didn't think of this one, but it has got to be useful.

This route through MO seems like a mighty nice scenic route, but we wonder if it is useful in that the track speeds for passenger service have certain got to be restrictive. This route is as best, perhaps, utilitarian. Every year the traffic on I-44 gets worse, and at one point (about 20 mile east of Lebanon) it is the only railroad (that ever was) for at least 50 miles in all directions. People in these areas might ride it no matter what the schedule. So it could be utilitarian, but not really useful.

Much of the US rail network was built to engineering standards that are long outmoded. And we are still using these lines except where freight traffic increases have justified heavy investments in building to twenty-first century standards. (Before you comment, we think that the NE Corridor is just barely making it into this century.)

We know that eventually MODOT or USDOT will pay for revamping the Springfield - St. Louis line. And it will then be a mighty nice scenic line with slightly better track speeds and scheduling. It won't be high-speed rail.

When - oh, my darling when - are we in this otherwise blessed country going to be blessed with the brains to realize that our transportation systems have gone to pot in a big way.

Revamp nothing! Let's get politics out of our national security by getting everybody to pay $40 a year (and we mean no exceptions - kids break those piggybanks and smoker's and drinkers you know this isn't big bucks compared to what you burn and guzzle) toward the war against Islamic Terror, and then let's start using some of those highway trust funds (and highway taxes paid by the biggest users of them) to build transportation systems that are faster, easier and more fun.

Flying ain't no fun, the bus ain't no fun, and we can truly say after this trip that driving ain't no fun.

Passenger Rail is the only existing people transport system that qualifies for all three criteria - fast, easy, fun! Let's do it. Politicians hear this, the public will love ya for it!

©2007 - C. A. Turek -