Tagfreight

Thursday is a big day for high-speed rail in America

UPDATE 2: The Transport Politic has the most detailed and comprehensive information on high-speed rail project/corridor funding, a better looking map than Ray LaHood’s map on LaHood’s blog. The White House Press Office posted separate press releases for each project here.

UPDATE: Chicago Business (Crain’s) says Illinois to get $1.2 billion for high-speed rail projects, including money to build the Englewood Flyover connection (Project P1, see map), a major CREATE component (read more: PDF). CREATE is a multi-agency program to reduce the bottlenecks caused by mixing passenger and freight trains and at-grade road crossings.

Tomorrow, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Tampa, Florida, to announce the thirteen corridors winning a portion of $8 billion in funding for high-speed passenger rail projects.

Infrastructurist predicts four winners.

An Amtrak train heads south from Chicago Union Station. If Illinois receives stimulus funding for high-speed rail, we may see some faster locomotives and some new track emerging from the Chicago South Loop train yards.

Vice President Biden, President Obama, and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (from Peoria, Illinois), announced the high-speed passenger rail plan for the United States in Washington, D.C., in April 2009. Photo by Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, Illinois.

One of the winners Infrastructurist predicts is the State of Illinois on behalf of a project to upgrade the tracks and rolling stock for the Amtrak lines Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle that run from Chicago to St. Louis. This is by far the state’s most prosperous route. The Illinois DOT has increased the subsidy to this route, increasing the frequency of service. In response, ridership has grown year over year over year (although the gain from 2008 to 2009 was only 6 percent).

Will Americans soon travel with more convenience in the coming decade?

Boeing plane spotting in Marana, Arizona

A lot of people got really excited when the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft took off from their testing airfield outside Seattle, Washington, on December 15, 2009.

I found the videos mildly interesting (it shows the “Delay Liner” lifting off and landing). It seemed like the top topic on Twitter that day.

But traveling to Tucson, Arizona, 11 days later (December 26), I spotted the Dreamlifter, or Boeing’s modified 747-400 large cargo lifter. It looks like a 747 (the largest passenger plane until the Airbus A380 came along) with a hunchback (or broad shoulders). I didn’t see it flying, but I saw it a couple miles away from a highway while it sat and waited for something at the Pinal Airpark. Pinal Airpark hosts a boneyard for unneeded airplanes; Northwest Airlines keeps many planes there (see photo at end).

The plane is unmistakable, even from a distance. Measuring perpendicularly from I-10 (going southeast), the runway is 2.6 miles from the road. I believe this plane sat about .2 miles closer, on the maintenance tarmac.

However, it’s more likely the Dreamlifter is waiting for a fixup at the on-site Evergreen Aircraft Maintenance Center. Evergreen International Airlines (unrelated to the Evergreen Group of shipping companies in China) operates the Large Cargo Lifters for Boeing. The Dreamlifter is named such because it typically carries parts from suppliers around the world to the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, Washington.

And not to be outdone, Airbus has a funnier looking plane called the Beluga.

A satellite photo from July 2, 2005, shows the many Northwest Airlines planes parked at the Pinal Airpark boneyard. Their red livery gives them away.

Why Amtrak’s not on time

“Over the last 12 months, Amtrak operations and equipment contributed between 11 and 18 percent of the total delay.  Likewise, “third party” causes of delay, such as inclement weather and police activity, contributed only between 6 and 8 percent of the total.  The delay that Amtrak ascribes to the “host” railroad, on the other hand, averaged 79 percent of total monthly delay.”*

Amtrak operates some commuter trains in California.

Breaking down delays attributable to the host railroads (across the national system):*

  • Freight train interference (25 percent)
  • Passenger train interference (this really means other Amtrak trains)
  • Commuter train interference
  • Slow orders not related to weather (“likely in response to track conditions”)
  • Signal delays

And the reason Amtrak can’t report: Continued underfunding at a time when ridership is increasing. Congress makes yearly allocations to Amtrak and without an expectation for stable long-term funding, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation can’t make long-term investment plans or seek alternate, additional funding (like bonds). Recently received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding gives Amtrak a necessary booster shot to clear out a backlog of maintenance. But this doesn’t solve the year-to-year fight for dollars.

An Amtrak train emerging from Chicago Union Station (CUS).

State of Illinois-supported routes (from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) show a 20% increase since 2007. The Illinois Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade track, crossings, and signals to improve travel times. You can see the effect on ridership when you improve service. I think this makes Illinois a strong contender for high-speed rail stimulus money not yet awarded.

*Delay information comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2009 Freight Snapshot draft report.

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