Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ways to improve passenger rail travel in US (wired)

From Wired

It's stunning to see how fast trains travel in European countries, not the ICE, the TGV, or the AVE, but the normal intercity trains. Currently, a trip on an intercity Corail train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne is an hour faster than by car. The 420 km trip can be done in three hours, an average speed of 140 km/hour, or roughly 86 mph. In the United States, the Acela Express, supposedly what Amtrak calls "high speed rail" only averages 72 mph for its entire length from Boston to Washington, DC. Speeding up the conventional rail system has become popular on routes where funds are not yet available to build a full scale, state-of-the-art high speed rail line. Europe and Asia are models for the United States, where normal trains can travel faster than cars. Here are six steps on improving America's rail system.

The photo shows a Corail train at Paris Nord. Corail rail cars can travel up to 125 mph. Photo user by Fickr user thecsman.

Step 1:
Eliminate redundant stops and introduce skip stop trains. Referring once again to the Clermont Ferrand-Paris line, a local train will take four hours, skip-stop trains usually take three. One effective implementation plan that many of the world's rail systems has used is to have trains run local to a certain transfer point and then run express to the final destination. A second train would run express to the same transfer point and then run local for the rest of the journey. Having a timed transfer will allow passengers to travel quickly between the two extremities of the line, but trains still provide service for all stations.
Price: Cheap to reduce stops, more expensive to add trains.

Step 2:
Implement reserved seating plan. In 2003, the SNCF introduced the Corail Téoz, a new form of a conventional intercity train where reserved seating is required (the train's interiors also changed). Reserved seats mean that passengers can align themselves on the platform to board, instead of crowding around certain sections of the train. Trains should stop for no more than three minutes in a station.
Price: Cheap, but organization is key.

Step 3:
Eliminate grade level crossings and/or upgrade tracks (and overhead wires) to accommodate faster trains. Trains traveling at 85 mph will be sufficient and will provide a savings over the highway. China has upgraded tracks on several major corridors to allow trains to attain speeds up to 200 km/h. Eliminating ground level crossings with overpasses and underpasses will allow trains to travel at faster speeds, as potential contact with cars would be reduced.
Price: Expensive, but if the track needs replacement, then why not upgrade the tracks and wires at the same time?

Step 4:
Use lighter, swifter trains. Most of the regular intercity rail cars in Europe have maximum speeds ranging from 160 to 200 km/h (100 mph to 124 mph). Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Regional trains use rail cars that weigh 116,000 pounds each, while many European train cars weigh 42 metric tons, or about 92,500 pounds. A lighter train will provide faster accelerations and a greater energy efficiency.
Price: Expensive. Amtrak's Amfleet cars are getting old, but there is no mention in replacements yet.

Step 5:
Advertise about the faster service. Prove to the public that the train can travel faster than cars and that there are no hassles with airport security lines or check-ins. Promote special prices and deals. Amtrak needs to regain the confidence of the Americans before attracting riders.
Price: Depends on the advertising method.

Step 6:
Designate important, heavily used corridors for high speed rail system. Build a dedicated trackway for only high speed trains. There should be no grade level crossings, sharp turns, or steep climbs. Connecting the high speed rail tracks to the current network will allow bullet trains to continue on local tracks to serve more destinations. ICE lines tend to branch off the main high speed line, slow down, and then stop at smaller cities. TGV also continues journeys on local tracks to provide direct service to and from Paris. Spain, however, does not have the option to run AVE trains on local tracks since the track gauges are different.
Price: Extremely expensive with attaining right of ways, constructing elevated and tunneled structures, buying new vehicles and building new stations.

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