BNSF Construction Updates – August 2009

BNSF in the snow by Brian Bundridge

BNSF in the snow by Brian Bundridge

It’s been a while since I have posted one of these so lets get right to it! This will cover all passenger carrying rail lines.

Transport Canada has finished up an aggressive maintenance blitz for BNSF and CN rails. Most of the jointed/bolted rail has been replaced with Continuous Welded Rail or CWR for short. This will greatly improve the ride quality on the Amtrak Cascades trains. An increase of speed is currently in discussion with Transport Canada on what is viable and what is not viable, including a discussion to honor the tilting capability of the Amtrak Cascades trains.

Construction has finished for the new Blaine Customs Facility which will allow more Amtrak Cascades trains in the future and increase freight capacity as well. This project involved moving the main line over slightly to build a new main. The old main was then converted into a second siding. This will allow for multiple trains to be inspected without one holding on the main line, which in turn, delayed Amtrak trains greatly (at times, upwards of 1 to 3 hours)

The Mt. Vernon siding expansion is still on hold as BNSF continues to seek additional funding for the project. It is expected to start construction in 2010 now.

Construction on Stanwood siding has begun rehabilitation with new 50mph (from 15mph) switches and installing concrete ties and new CWR on both the siding and the main line. An extension of the siding will begin in September. This project will increase freight and passenger capacity and will reduce wait times of over an hour for opposing traffic. Currently the station is on track for a November completion and service by Christmas 2009.

Construction at BNSF’s Delta Yard and Curve Realignment has also began construction with grading and bringing in fill dirt. This project will add several new yard tracks and provide grading for future expansions. This will also include a new bypass track for through-freight. This bypass will increase the speed from the 10-35mph to 35-70mph. This project is scheduled to be completed in Spring 2010 and its completion will allow for a third Seattle – Vancouver BC Amtrak Cascades round trip to begin.

Construction is currently on hold for Edmonds and Mukilteo (second platform) along with the 4 cross overs between Richmond Beach and Everett Jct.

BNSF Commuter Construction crews continue to make way at the Interbay rail yard in Magnolia. This expansion will add double tracking between Galar Street and W Emerson Pl along with a reconfiguration of the main line and yard tracks. Once completed later this year, this will improve passenger and freight movements out of the busy yard and will increase speeds by 10mph for freight, 15mph for standard passenger equipment (Superliner, Horizon, Amfleet for Amtrak and Sounder) 20mph for the Amtrak Cascades. This project should be completed entirely in November/December 2009.

As Ben reported earlierDo It Right Tacoma is protesting the berm that Sound Transit has selected for the construction of D Street to M Street. They currently have a petition running to force Sound Transit to change this to a post and beam model instead, which will delay the project and add several million dollars to the project overall, potentially losing federal grants, including the chance of receiving stimulus funding. Until this is resolved, expanding Sounder to Lakewood and Amtrak bypassing Point Defiance will not go on schedule.

I have not heard much on other major projects, including Vancouver but from pictures I have seen, there is work still being done there.

WSDOT has submitted their Track 1 application (45kb pdf) for ARRA stimulus funding. This funding will cover minor improvements that will increase Amtrak Cascades service, improve on-time performance, and much more. WSDOT will submit Track 2 in October.

That’s all for now!

A Quick Comment on Batteries and Cars

Reuters has a short piece today about something I mentioned at the end of an earlier post – while we’re seeing more and more hybrid and electric cars, they’re not going to get significantly more affordable, in fact, they’re likely to get more expensive. This all comes down to the rare earth metals necessary to make batteries: We’re sucking up these and other uncommon elements to build our batteries, and the costs are ever increasing as a result. Energy storage technology isn’t getting better fast – and the better technologies are more expensive, not less, intended to fit niche markets for rapid charge and discharge, not raw energy per unit of mass.

Sunday Open Thread

This has nothing to do with anything, but will appreciated by anyone who’s sat through public comment periods at any agency meeting.

Chart of the Day

Over the years, transit advocates have written tens of thousands of words on why America is so far behind on high-speed rail, has so much sprawl and pedestrian-hostile development, an obesity crisis, etc.

You could read all those words, or you could just look at The Economist‘s chart below.  This is one of those political science puzzles where the correct policy option is self-evident, but that solution is so unpopular that we construct crazy government schemes to try to achieve half as much at much higher cost.

Meanwhile in somewhat poorer countries like China and Indonesia, they’re actually directly subsidizing gasoline, so I suppose it could be worse.  Here in America, we at least have the decency to keep our subsidies nice and hidden.

Sorry the chart is measured in “euro cents per litre”.  That’s what I get for reading commie European publications.

Click to see original

Columbia River Crossing in Brief

Columbia River Crossing : Alternatives from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Sound familiar? While I know that most of us at the blog literally spend all of our waking hours reading and writing about transportation there are only so many multi-billion dollar projects one can keep track of. So in that sprit here is very well produced and interesting video about the Columbia River Crossing. I can’t vouch for some of the statements but it certainly sounds like a Viaduct/SR-520/I-90 Express Lanes hybrid to me. Watch this video for a more general introduction.

I can vouch for this video that Nick Falbo also made about induced and latent demand and the affects of significant network changes on travel behavior.

H/T to bikeportland for linking to the videos.

Why no Council challengers?

Anyone want their job?

Anyone want their jobs?

One thing that hasn’t received a lot of attention in this election season are the races for King County Council.  That’s mostly because four of the five incumbents up for reelection are running unopposed.  The fifth, Reagan Dunn (Newcastle, Covington, points East) won 73% of the primary vote, so I’m not sure he had serious opposition.

The four others, running unopposed, are Bob Ferguson (Lake City/Shoreline), Kathy Lambert (Redmond/Issaquah/points East), Julia Patterson (Seatac/Kent), and Pete von Reichbauer (Federal Way/Auburn).  I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the performance any of them (Patterson, in particular, has been very good), but doesn’t anybody want this job?

When compared to the overloaded fields for certain City Council seats, I find the difference mystifying.  Consider:

  • The King County government is the closest thing we have to a Metropolitan government, and many of our issues are metropolitan in scope.  It is the most important level of government for transit issues.  It is also responsible for tons of other stuff.
  • Although City Councils can enable the density that reduces demand for sprawl, the other part of that equation is legislation to control sprawl, which generally falls under the responsibility of the County.
  • County districts are actually smaller that the City of Seattle, where all City Council members must run at-large.  As a result, County Council runs are, if anything, cheaper than City Council runs.
  • The County’s fiscal situation is generally understood to be more dire than Seattle’s, providing more rhetorical ammunition to potential challengers.
  • Seattle races tend to take place in a very small ideological continuum, whereas County races have large ideological consequences that mirror the nation at large.

To aspiring politicians out there: rather than jump into a six-way knife fight for city council, save money and improve your chances by running for King County Council.  You can make just as much of a difference if you win, and simply by running you’ll at least provide a useful check on people in power.

Not Enough Density

MacDonald in his asphalt-pouring days (WSDOT)

MacDonald in his asphalt-pouring days (WSDOT)

Doug MacDonald’s most recent piece in Crosscut really just confuses me.  It’s in human nature to find arguments that support our existing biases, but does he really see how little sense his argument makes?

The numbers speak and they must be listened to. Once again they raise big doubts about whether Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 strategic plan for plotting regional growth in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties is uncoupled from what’s actually happening in the real world.

OK, Mr. MacDonald, I’ll take your word for it that we’re falling short on density, since you didn’t bother to link to the report.  He writes several hundred words about numbers that hint at the problem, rather than the numbers that would show there is a problem.  Rather than citing individual cities, why not just say “here’s how much the urban centers are supposed to take, and here’s how many they’ve taken?”   But let’s take it as a given that we’re not doing well.

So, our bus- and highway-centric transportation system has failed to produce the density we need.  So what’s the solution?  Perhaps a new transportation mode?  This is Crosscut: of course not!

So far all we know about the full expanse of the Sound Transit plans is that their (unfunded) cost would be on the order of $25 billion, before taking account of cost growth from inflation. If they were all carried out, their contribution to benefit by 2040 would be about 60,000 new boardings a day on rail transit systems on top of the 150,000 the rail systems would then carry in any case. In the picture of all transit that’s rail carrying about 20 percent out of almost 1 million daily transit boardings predicted for 2040 — including riders on new buses that we also don’t know how to pay for. That 1 million on transit compares to an expected total of about 19 million trips people would take every day on transportation facilities of all kinds, including streets and highways, that we also don’t have many good, or at least popular, ideas about how to pay for. That will be up from about 14 million daily trips now, according to PSRC.

So we have three basic transportation modes here to solve the puzzle of limiting sprawl.  Buses are cheap (in capital costs), but apparently are limited in encouraging compact living.  Trains are expensive, but have a great track record in doing the same.  Highways are also enormously expensive, and encourage sprawl.  So which is the problem here?  In former State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald’s world, it’s obviously the trains.

The Triplett Metro Plan (VI): Conclusions

Photo by Oran

Photo by Oran

This is the sixth and final installment of my series on County Executive Kurt Triplett’s plan to solve a Metro budget crisis that now amounts to $501m over four years.  The plan, when finalized in September, will serve as the basis of the budget the Council actually adopts in November, to be implemented beginning with the February 2010 service change.

The installments of the series were:

Some thoughts on this plan are below the jump.

[Read more...]

Metro Bans Portable Electronic Devices

wikimedia

wikimedia

In news that will thrill sometime STB troll Sam, Metro is immediately banning use of all portable electronic devices while operating vehicles.  This includes all Sound Transit service operated by Metro, such as certain ST Express routes and Central Link.

All such devices must be turned off and stowed off the person of the operator while the vehicle is in motion, and when the operator reports for work.  The device can be turned on and used during breaks.

Penalties include a minimum suspension and termination.  Now if only they could do something about riders yelling into their mobile phones!

Full text of the notice to operators after the jump.

[Read more...]

Capitol Hill Tunnel Bid 12% Under Estimates

Today Sound Transit released the bids for the twin tunnels connecting the future Capitol Hill station with Central Link. The lowest bid is $153.6 million, $20.7 million or 12% under Sound Transit’s estimate of $174.3 million. These are much shorter than the tunnels that will connect the UW with Capitol Hill station.

This is good news, of course, but I want to talk about what’s going on here a little more. These estimates are generally quite accurate when they’re made – but most of these costs fluctuate with the construction market, as costs for materials like steel and concrete change over time.

There’s no way for Sound Transit to know what’s going to happen to these costs – if there were, they’d be the most effective commodities traders in the world! But this goes both ways. At the beginning of Sound Move, for instance, most materials and real estate were much less expensive than they are now – but during the late 90s and early 2000s, construction cost inflation was far higher than the consumer price index, the number we normally associate with inflation. Today’s estimates were largely made at the peak of the real estate boom, but as the markets have been rebounding, future contracts may not see double digit percentage savings.

I’m not sure of the timeline for the larger tunnel bids, I’d just caution that they may not see these savings. Regardless, this is great news.

New Link Ridership Numbers

Photo by Oran

Photo by Oran

Ben has editorialized before that ridership numbers at this point, even if accurate, aren’t much to get excited about one way or the other.   And as Scott Gutierrez reports, they’ve recently had some technical problems with retrieving data from automatic passenger counters (though the counters themselves are still counting).  Furthermore, these numbers are crippled by suffering from a small sample size.  Lastly, when trying to compare this to any other transportation line, you have to strip out seasonal variations for things like special events downtown and school being in or out of session.

All that said, I can’t help myself but to watch these numbers, which must be reported monthly to the FTA (with a two-m0nth time lag):

July:

Mean Weekday: 12,357

Mean Saturday: 31,861 (obviously distorted by opening day)

Mean Sunday: 28,015

August:

Mean Weekday: 14,437

Mean Saturday: 15,089

Mean Sunday: 11,620

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick tells me the August numbers are likely to be revised, and that given the technical issues we’re not going to get reports quite as frequently in future.

To help make these numbers meaningful, Link trains make about 248 one-way trips a day, about 48 in the peak direction during peak hours, and there are 148 seats per 2-car train.  You can do the division.

Switch Heaters for Link

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Link Switch at Night (by the author)

Last year’s Snowpocalypse introduced a problem that the Seattle area hasn’t had to deal with in a long time – frozen switches.

As temperature decreases, even rail can be affected. While trains themselves aren’t typically blocked by as little snow as we had, the switches that allow trains to change tracks can eventually freeze – keeping trains from switching direction or coming into and out of service at a maintenance facility.

The best way to avoid this is with switch heaters that melt snow and ice, keeping switches operational. They can come in a few different configurations – where there’s space, you can pull up a trailer to blow hot air on a switch, but in the city, or on an elevated trackway like Link, heaters need to be permanently installed. Link was built without switch heaters – they’re normally not required for our climate, but last winter indicates they may be necessary in the future, so Sound Transit intends to install them sooner rather than later.

The first delivery of University Link light rail vehicles is expected to be in October of 2010, and before that, the Operations and Maintenance Facility yard must be expanded to support the new trains. This expansion is planned already in a contract with Railworks (PDF). Our sources tell us that this contract may be amended to add switch heater installation in the key places Link would need it to continue operation during a major snowstorm – in the base, mainly, and at Airport Station. The switch in the stub tunnel north of Westlake is protected from the elements.

Keep in mind that last year’s snowstorm was a 20-year event. This winter is expected to be mild in comparison – and these switch heaters would be installed before October 2010.

The Triplett Metro Plan (V): Service Suspensions

hours

Click to enlarge

The final $90m of the $501m, four-year Metro budget hole is covered by a 9% route-by-route service suspension.  As we reported yesterday, any potential savings discovered by the ongoing audit are likely to reduce this figure to as low as 4%.

The first important point is that since these reductions are “suspensions” rather than “cuts,” restoring them when revenue recovers will not be subject to the 40/40/20 rule, thus allowing relatively quick restoration of the status quo.

Here some details on the suspensions from interviews with both Kurt Triplett and Metro GM Kevin Desmond, after the jump: [Read more...]

Talgo USA Revamped

With the recent news of Wisconsin approval of 2 new Talgo train sets with an option of 2 more and Oregon also looking at purchasing 2 additional train sets, Talgo USA has updated their website with information on what is available for the U.S. market.

Check it out! It’ll make you drool, I promise

http://talgousa.com/

News Roundup: Oyster Sleeves

This is an open thread.

The Triplett Metro Plan (IV): Fare Increases, Audits

Photo by Oran

Photo by Oran

Part III of this series is here.

Over the past week we’ve plugged $357m out of Metro’s $501m budget hole in County Executive Kurt Triplett’s Metro budget plan, which will serve as the basis for what the Council decides in November.   Now comes the part that’s more painful to riders.

But first, those famed audit results.  Aside from a $105m surplus in the fleet replacement fund, no findings have been announced prior to the September 1 release date.  Unlike the Council and Phillips plans, Triplett has not included a guess on the savings in his plan.  That is, any audit savings in excess of the fleet surplus can be used to offset some of the other sacrifices in the budget, presumably by bringing service suspensions from 9% to about the 5% range.

The other big revenue raiser is a 25 cent fare increase.  Due to prior Council action, the fares are scheduled to go up in January 2010 to $2.75 two-zone peak, $2.25 one-zone peak, $2.00 off-peak, and 75 cents for youth, seniors, and the disabled.  (This would mean that only the youth fare was unchanged.)  Triplett is proposing an additional across the board 25 cent increase in 2011, bringing fares to $3.00, $2.50, $2.25, and $1.00 respectively.  This will generate $12m a year, and $36m over the next four due to the delayed implementation.  More below the jump. [Read more...]

Erica Barnett on the 7

Photo by Oran

Photo by Oran

I was tempted to write a detailed takedown of Philip Lucas’s absurd and condescending Route 7 travelogue (on the front page!) of the Times, but haven’t had a spare moment at work.  And anyway, I’ve resolved to stop whining about the Times’s project to seek out each and every Rainier Valley resident who isn’t riding light rail.

Thankfully, Erica C. Barnett at Publicola has written the definitive rebuke.

The only thing I’d add to Ms. Barnett’s list of reasons people still ride the bus is that Link can be hard to figure out.  If you’re not the kind of person that relishes figuring out complexity, especially if you don’t have strong English skills, sticking with what you do have figured out has very strong appeal.

On a related note, I’ll be interested to see how ridership changes when Metro becomes as expensive or more expensive than Link, which will happen for working-age adults starting in January.

The Triplett Metro Plan (III): Tax Shifts and Financial Engineering

Out of Service, by Atomic Taco

"Out of Service", by Atomic Taco

Click here for Part IV.

In Part II of this report I covered $146m of the four-year plan to cover Metro’s $501m budget gap.  Today, I’ll briefly go over some financial pieces of the puzzle before discussing the tax element, all below the jump.

[Read more...]

Sunday Open Thread

Sound Transit Express bus in LEGO form. h/t Randay206

Sound Transit Express bus in LEGO form. h/t Randay206

What Worries Me

I-90 Crossing (Sound Transit)

[UPDATE: See excerpt of Board selection rules at the bottom.]

In our Greg Nickels endorsement, we alluded to the possibility of some sort of Sound Transit crisis in the future, the idea being that we would have wanted Nickels in a position of power should that happen.  Now, with Nickels out and either McGinn or Mallahan receiving an automatic virtually assured seat on the Sound Transit board when they take office, it’s important to recognize why establishment support for ST is necessary.

Although it’s the opinion of this blog that Sound Transit is a very well-run public agency, there are three basic things that could cause serious problems for the buildout:

  1. The Economy. Sound Transit got a AAA credit rating by being conservative about allocating its revenue streams.  That said, a weak recovery in sales tax revenue would put further pressure on the agency’s budget, and Japan-style stagnation could make it very hard to achieve all the Sound Transit 2 objectives.
  2. Tunneling. Sound Transit’s sole tunneling experience — through Beacon Hill — was not a happy one.  They were on schedule, barely, despite a huge amount of padding in the plan.  It may have been a problem with that particular contractor, but it bears watching as they begin a much larger tunneling project to Roosevelt, and possibly under Bellevue.
  3. Political Risk. We’ve covered this a lot before, but there are still powerful interests not at all pleased with having to give up the express lanes on I-90, or that seek to extract transit funding for use on state road projects.  Moreover, there are still plenty of people who self-identify as transit advocates who think that reorganizing transit agencies is a good idea.  This kind of maneuver, which has support in the legislature, would wreak havoc on ongoing projects.

There’s no reason to be overly alarmed about any of these potential problems, because they haven’t yet materialized.  And, of course, all large infrastructure projects have risk.  Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that we can doze off until 2016 without making sure that the right leadership and the right politicians are in place.

Because there’s some confusion on this in the comments, the relevant Sound Transit Board selection policies are below the jump. [Read more...]