BrightLine test

Last week was surprisingly interesting for passenger rail news.  Alon Levy writes that the Federal Railroad Administration has finally published its new rules for train procurement, allowing US transit agencies to buy lighter, cheaper, European-style train sets for operation on American freight railways.

Long-time readers will know we got excited when these rules were first proposed nearly five years ago, and then we got excited again two years ago when it looked the rules were actually going to happen and now we’re excited a third time that they’ve finally been published.  Future Sounder and Amtrak Cascades trains could take advantage of these new regs next time rolling stock needs to be ordered.

Meanwhile, the private company that runs Florida’s Brightline and the LA-Vegas announced that it will be operating as “Virgin Trains US” and is planning an initial public offering.  These two services are likely to be the first privately-run high speed rail in the US.

Sandy Johnston summarized the interesting nuggets from the IPO prospectus on Twitter.  The company expects that the Virgin brand will help it offer tourist packages on both routes (a planned stop at Disneyworld will certainly help), suggesting a different and less price-sensitive potential passenger base than other domestic rail systems.

While Virgin Trains says it won’t compete with any intercity Amtrak service in the US, could we speculate that they might someday bid to take over the Cascades contract from Amtrak? If the goal is to serve the tourist market, perhaps a station at Smith Cove or Broad street to facilitate cruise ship transfers?

On a less speculative note, if you are interested in the future of intercity rail, consider taking WSDOT’s recent survey.

Brightline Test from BBT609 on Flickr

46 Replies to “What the Latest Passenger Rail News Could Mean for Cascadia”

  1. “These two services are likely to be the first high speed rail in the US”

    Not really. Last I checked Brightline is limited to 80mph average speed limit do to route limitations. I’ve also read that in order to cheaply implement in Nevada they will lower the speed from what Xpresswest had originally planned.

    I think Texas and part of California’s new system will be the first true “High Speed Rail” systems.

    1. A small correction: Brightline cruises at 89mph a the current line (Miami – West Palm Beach) line due to surface crossings. The line to Orlando will be ~125mph (IIRC). I have not heard numbers on the Tampa – Orlando line – it was originally planned to be ~200mph line — but again — maybe it will be lower. ExpressWest was planned to be again ~200mph line. I would not be surprised if Virgin/Brighline built both lines to spec of some speed between 125 – 220 mph – i.e. less than the “all out” high speed rail of TexasCentral and CAHSR, but it will still be High speed rail .

      Sometimes the cost of going from ~150mph to 220mph is huge and not worth it. TexasCentral does not care, because they are going in straight line over flat rural land. California does not care because they have a mandate to build a world-beating line … but others .. including whatever happens in Cascadia — they will likely care and that is OK

      1. 125mph is all we need and can ever hope for between PDX and SEA. I’d be fine with a 2-hour trip between the two cities.

  2. “bid to take over the Cascades contract from Amtrak” I doubt it.

    The thing that will make Brightline profitable is its ownership of the train-stations which double as shopping centers (Japanese model). I don’t see cities like Portland and Seattle selling their stations and letting them be turned into shopping centers. ST can’t even get a decent latte stand in King.

    1. “train-stations which double as shopping centers”

      You mean what we should be doing anyway? What struck me most in Düsseldorf, Cologe, and Liège was how the train stations are the center of town, and Düsseldorf at least has a supermarket right in the station so you can shop for groceries on your way home. I haven’t seen the Japanese shopping centers — I imagine department stores — but it makes perfect sense. Not doing it is really underutilizing the transportation asset. We have gas station mini-marts at freeway exits; isn’t that the same concept?

      1. SF and Denver got the right idea. Denver is currently generating significant revenue to pay off its loans and SF will follow. I wish ST, WSDOT and Constantine had a clue.

      2. Main stations in Japanese cities include malls and restaurants with department stores (possibly next door) at larger stations. Stations are heavily interconnected with pedestrian passageways to adjacent buildings to avoid congestion with bus and taxi traffic to the station. This makes it hard to determine if a store is part of a station or part of another building.

        Sapporo’s main station (and many Tokyo stations) connect to blocks of underground passageway which is especially useful in the snowy winter months.

      3. Does Japan have park n rides or structured parking garages? If so, where, who owns them, and how much do the cost relatively? Who drives in Japan and where do they park?

      4. “Tokushima Station is a highway bus terminus for buses to various destinations in Shikoku and beyond.”

        “The area in and around Tokushima Station is a major shopping and entertainment district. The station building itself houses the Clement Plaza with numerous stores, the Hotel Clement, ”

        Interesting pics here of a bus, taxi park area and what looks like city parking.
        https://www.japanvisitor.com/japan-stations/tokushima

      5. I haven’t lived away from Tokyo but Generally Japanese commuter walks or ride a bike to train station and there’s pay parking for bike for around Seattle. Yes people pay to park bike. If there’s any parking spot for car is usually part of department store structure and it’s pay parking

      6. It is the same in the Netherlands. The stations itself and surroundings (offices etc.) generate income for the train company. The company that runs most of the trains, the NS, is a private company publicly owned and has turned a profit for some time now.

    2. The Texas HSR project is also largely a real estate play. This has been true of most private transportation projects, such as Seattle’s own streetcar suburbs.

    3. Not just the Japanese model. The big train station in Rome, Termini, is 3-4 floors of mall; Buenos Aires, Constitution, same thing. Constitution even has a car dealership in it. Many of the Paris subway stations have at least a small set of stores. Lisbon’s the only subway that doesn’t have a lot in their stations, and those stations are pretty small.

  3. Sam was busy advising NATO on the Ukranian bridge crisis so he asked me to pass this along:

    Do you also get excited five days before Christmas, three days before Christmas, and when you get to open presents? Oh yes, you do, I’ve seen the light rail advent calendars counting the days until an extension opens for a whole year.

    1. Well I mean, it’s one of those calendars that has little pieces of light-rail-themed chocolate behind every door.

  4. Took the survey. Their hypothetical prices are way too high for this cost-sensitive traveler, and they don’t address the last-mile problem to McMinnville Wine Country, Columbia River Gorge, and other actual attractions. Downtown Portland really isn’t that great. Neither is downtown Seattle. I am usually traveling to escape shopping destinations, other Americans, and traffic nightmares. Take me to the forest.

    As a former business traveler to Vancouver WA (2x per week), there is definite value in getting this up and running. That was a nightmare from hell, and I would have just expensed the train travel. It just isn’t for me for my personal life. I am sure that there’s a segment of the tourist market that would value this, and I personally would support the state of Washington getting this up and running.

  5. The biggest obstacle to getting a “privately run” passenger rail service anywhere is the tax subsidy required.

    The current 38 mile 80 mph Brightline service was given over $1.2 billion in tax subsidies for construction. This is on an existing line where the freight railroad was friendly to passenger operations.

    No matter if it is a private operation or public operation, the obstacle of getting the necessary tax subsidies in place to improve Cascades service will remain an obstacle.

    1. Fortunately this is not true. Brightline used financing ‘Private Activity Bonds’ provided by the US DOT to fund their first (and upcoming second) phases. While these bonds are in effect a small subsidy (due to advantages), the subsidy is nowhere near $1.2B

      1. In 2015 the state issued $1.75 billion in tax exempt private activity bonds.

        The whole project would not exist if the freight railroad (Florida East Coast) were not friendly to passenger trains, and their financial backing also provided significant construction subsidy. This would not be the case anywhere on the Cascades corridor, as neither BNSF or UP would be willing to provide that portion of capital.

        Construction of Orlando’s train station – even though it doesn’t have Brightline passenger trains running to it yet, cost $211 million from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

        I really don’t see any of this ever passing muster in either Oregon or Washington. There’s already a huge outcry about overspending on stations at SoundTransit for Link. Imagine if someone tried to build a $211 million station for hourly Sounder service in Aberdeen, even though Sounder doesn’t go there yet and a route to go there hasn’t even gotten through all the lawsuit yet.

        It would be great if we could have an entirely privately funded passenger rail system here, but with significant tax subsidies going to aviation and highways this just isn’t going to be financially possible in virtually any market in the USA. The only reason this worked in Florida is because Florida East Coast wanted to increase the amount of traffic on its railroad, and since they are at the end of a very large peninsula the freight options are limited for them to do so.

    2. One thing that has stood out to me is how Gov. Rich Scott (invested a few million of his own money) , Sen Rubio and their buddies kept it afloat on the backs of taxpayers with 0% interest free government bonds that no one would buy. It was only because Toyko-based SoftBank Group Corp followed by Virgin stepped in to bail them out has it made it this far. From here on out I think it will succeed thanks to this foreign intervention. It’s too bad Texas and California don’t get Republican political support in bad bonds and pray foreigners bail them out too.

      It sucks that Scott and his cronies made out like bandits and yet left Florida stuck with a slow speed rail system. I guess it is better than nothing.

      1. In a nut shell, we need Inslee to apply for one of these bonds, throw a few million at, build the damn thing, and then let foreign interest take over. We get a system, Inslee gets rich off the IPO and everybody is happy.

      2. As a private citizen, let alone a public servant, I wish I could get access to 0% bonds, loans, grants or whatever you want to call them. To know there is no consequence if they are not bought and the risk is all on the taxpayer.

      3. It’s amazing what you can get away with if your in the right party.

        These bonds were for highways or HSR which Brighline is clearly neither.

        “The U.S. Department of Transportation has argued that Brightline is eligible because six years ago, the Florida East Coast Railway — the corridor on which Brightline operates — received federal assistance under Title 23 for federal highways, making Brightline an eligible “highway” project.”

      4. A: These are not “0% bonds” and there is no taxpayer risk. A private activity bond is tax-exempt, but private investors assume 100% of the risk, hence the name.

        B: You should look at Title 23 before deeming this some sort of loophole. There’s a whole section dedicated to project financing of all sorts of transportation projects, not just highways. Congress pretty clearly intended projects that qualified under these programs to qualify to issue PABs. You’re inventing this “highways or HSR” requirement.

  6. I think that the application of HSR in the Northwest will be more of a track availability issue than a technology issue. We just don’t have lots of underutilized tracks in corridors that make sense for the technology.

    The most logical alternative option is proabably to use the I-5 right-of-way. However, that right-of-way is already being pursued for HOV and HOT projects, other road widenings, Link extensions and multi-use trails.

    The legislature needs step back and develop strategic priorities about how this “free” land gets allocated for multiple purposes or things like HSR will be an overly-expensive pipe dream no matter what FRA does.

    1. I agree that the future of Sounder and Cascades through the Seattle metro is a brand new track in the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Everett (with a diversion to directly serve Sea-Tac airport)

      1. The hill beside Southcenter and the one down into Everett are waaaaaaaaay too steep for heavy rail.

        Plus, the Ship Canal Bridge probably couldn’t support Sounder trains.

      2. With a connection at SeaTac my dream is for Cascades to someday codeshare with Alaska, like the SNCF does with Air France.

    2. Glenn, how about we put top speed between Lakewood at 30mph, close every grade crossing north of the Duwamish River, and rebuild a curve that requires dropping speed from 80 mph to 30 before we let a track maintenance car go through?

      And forbid anybody in the driver’s seat whose own Automatic Train Control is anyplace but between their ears. And give ourselves at least five more December 18ths before we again let ourselves use the “R” again, let alone the “H” or the “S”.

      Just a thought.

      Mark

  7. By far the most important part of this is going to be how it impacts Sounder.

    Such “light rail” cars as Siemens S70 are approved for operation on main lines in Europe. With this change, it should now be possible to get light weight DMUs similar to light rail cars in operation on lesser demand Sounder runs. It should now be possible to get equipment for Sounder that has platform level boarding at all locations, so that at some point the raised wheelchair platform segments can be demolished and a more normal platform to train boarding process used.

    Don’t expect things to be too much less expensive. The problem is that each agency hires a consultant to make a bunch of recommendations about the equipment purchased, and the ensuing process eventually results in near one of a kind equipment being required. As an example, some consultants are now suggesting that electrical equipment used have insulation ratings vastly higher than what is possible to find off the shelf. In fact, the formula currently being suggested by one consultant results in equipment with 480 volt power have insulation rated at 5,000 volts, but the electrical wire that is legal to use in railroad passenger cars in the USA is only available up to 2,000 volts, unless you order one of a kind special runs. Agencies that have an engineering staff with experience (NYCTA, Amtrak, other larger agencies) will likely adapt the recommendations to suit what manufacturers are actually making and base this on several decades of what has always been used in the industry. Smaller agencies without in-house experience will take the consultants suggestions at face value and pay a lot more for what they get.

    Things like thermal insulation (required to keep the passengers comfortable when riding in a metal box) are somewhat different from the USA to Europe. I only know of one company that makes thermal insulation that completely meets the USA requirements. Another company makes a “railway approved” insulation that meets the European requirements, but it fails the tests if used in thicknesses above 1/2 inch thick so for most car body situations you are left with the product made by one company. That company generally does not sell its railway approved products in Europe as what they have meets different standards.

    So, we will still be faced with the same situation we are faced with now: someone develops a specification for a piece of equipment for what they think meets the needs of the service they want. The equipment manufacturer then has to comb through every bit of this specification to see if what they are currently making meets this specification (it never does – there are always little differences between what is actually being offered and what the agency consultant decided they need) as well as sending the specification out to all of the equipment vendors who will also spend quite a number of hours combing through the specification to see if their equipment meets the requirements as well. Then, they all have to decide how much of an increase in price over the standard equipment they need to factor in. Sometimes there are big increases in prices due to business and financing requirements that have nothing to do with the actual equipment. For example, suppose an agency asks for a 10 year warranty on all equipment? Except, the manufacturer isn’t the one responsible for regular maintenance and that impacts how often parts need to be replaced. So, factor in a bit of extra cost for things like providing replacement door operating mechanisms that weren’t maintained properly.

    Don’t get me wrong: this is a huge improvement over what we had. However, we still can’t just buy off the self European equipment and operate it here. There are still a bunch of different details that work to make equipment more expensive in the USA vs. anywhere else. The vastly different structural requirements are a huge obstacle to see dropped. However, we still have a long way to go before many operators in the USA get to the point where they are buying off the self equipment that meets their requirements, rather than treating every equipment purchase as if it were a one of a kind custom order.

    1. You see a very similar process in the marine industry. It is very common to see seemingly minor requirements from the specification document snowballing into major design changes.

      To go through a hypothetical: if you are talking about something like wire insulation ratings changing from 2000V to 5000V. Maybe that increases the diameter of the wire. That wire needs to route through a hole in the structure and now it doesn’t fit. So you need to make the hole bigger, which means that the structure doesn’t meet the strength requirements. So you need to make the structure larger which means that you need to move the passenger seating. Now the seats are closer together, so you don’t meet ADA requirements, so you have to remove a column of seats (say 5 seats across to 4). And with a specification change of one character you have now caused a 20% decrease in passenger carrying capacity.

      Now, this is a pretty extreme example, but things like this happen all the time.

  8. The WSDOT survey doesn’t qualify if you enter Tacoma and Seattle trip pairs. I think they should study the effect of having regional commuters on a HSR line as well. A HSR local line can stop in Olympia, Tacoma, SeaTac airport, and Seattle. A super-express would go straight from Portland – Seatac – Seattle – Bellingham – Vancouver BC. It’d be a missed opportunity considering the hour+ taking sounder or Link from the south end to Seattle is still quite long compared to driving. It’d give more options for people around the entire area. I’m sad regional commuters can’t participate in the survey.

    1. It also doesn’t qualify for Seattle – Salem or Seattle – Vancouver BC (wouldn’t even ask me about my Seattle – Portland trips). It seems very much like a survey designed to get whatever answers they want. Not very transparent, and very frustrating.

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