Archive for May, 2009

The French: masters of the train

Cable Car at Doha International Airport (planned)Switching Modes has launched a new website that explores how each era of the railway began in France, not as a new technology, but as a movement. This new website looks at the history of steam engines, the creation of the Paris Métro and the subsequent creation of the RER. Then the website looks into the introduction of the TGV and the next-generation of high-speed rail, the AGV. For each of these technologies the website discusses who made it, and why. Then it refers to the historical context of the trains in France. Finally, the website reveals how each era of the railway in France has become a model for other rail systems around the world.

The French history of rail is explicative of more than a chronological history – it shows that these projects take a national commitment. I encourage anyone who feels that the rail system in America is lacking to read on about French rail as a model for the world >>>.

© Brian A. Tyler and Switching Modes, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Oakland Airport Connector: Bringing cable cars back to the Bay Area! (maybe)

Cable Car at Doha International Airport (planned)Despite all the controversy, the BART Oakland Airport Connector project in the San Francisco Bay Area is an exciting project. This is because BART, the agency in charge of building the project, is using an open bidding process that allows for anything from maglev trains to cable cars to be used. So, does this mean that BART, ‘the most advanced system in the world’ (at the time it was built) might actually build a cable car? Yep! And this website thinks that’s a good thing. DDC – Doppelmayr Cable Cars, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group (a company that primarily makes chairlifts and gondolas) makes just the right kind of train for this project.

DCC Cable Car at Birmingham International AirportThere are several advantages to this technology. First of all it is simple, even simpler than the cable cars in San Francisco. That’s because the cables are fixed to the cars. So there is no wear and tear on the cable, or jerky motion, when the cable car needs to stop and go. Because the technology is so simple it’s quick and easy to construct. It is also very reliable and it is affordable too.

One of the biggest advantages of this technology is that the train cars are so light weight because the engine is located at the station rather than in the car itself. This means that the guideway doesn’t require as much concrete reinforcement and is much cheaper to build. The light weight also reduces wear and tear on the cars and the tracks which reduces maintenance costs.

DCC Cable Car at Birmingham International AirportThis technology would require just one or two trains. Because the length of the railway needs to be over three miles, two trains would probably be best for this project in order to decrease headway times (the time interval between trains). This doesn’t mean that two tracks need to be built though – just one track would suffice, except for a short distance to allow the trains to pass halfway between the airport and the Coliseum BART Station. (Although two tracks could be built to make the system even more reliable).

Cable Car at AirportThe trains used in these systems are completely automated, which further reduces operational costs. Additionally, because only one car would pull into either terminus station at one time, it is possible to build very simple, low cost stations. Furthermore, passengers can board and exit the train from both sides, which reduces dwell time (how long the station spends at a station) and lowers headway time.

MGM Cable Car in Las Vegas

© Brian A. Tyler and Switching Modes, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Capital Costs vs. Operational Costs: the general state of misdirected anger

Oakland Airport ConnectorRail projects are expensive. Take, for example, the San Francisco Bay Area: Despite the fact that BART is having budget difficulties they moving ahead with a $500 million 3.2-mile Oakland Airport connector, a $3.4 billion rail car fleet replacement and a $6 billion extension to Silicon Valley. MUNI, which is also in the midst of a budget crisis, is moving ahead with $1.58 billion 1.7-mile surface/subway expansion program. It should be no surprise then that the amount general outrage directed at this apparent disparity between these ‘elitist’ projects and the service cuts faced by the same agencies seeking these glamorous expansions is growing.

What is lacking in this debate however is that these rail projects have lower operating costs than the services they are meant to replace. For example BART has one of the highest fair box recovery ratios of transit system in the country! Furthermore these projects increase transit capacity, speed and reliability and thus are able to entice more people to switch modes.

Making a statement with transit

These projects also make a statement – they’re massive monuments to transportation. They’re immovable and permanent. This is important because people who are willing to give up their car need some reassurance that transit is there for them. Switching modes is perhaps one of the hardest and most life altering changes that a person can make; the automobile is almost an extension of a person. To give up one’s car, for many people, is to give up a part of oneself – a part of one’s identity. That void needs to be filled, and a bumpy, impermanent bus route just won’t do it – not even if you label it BRT.

Rail. It WorksNow, I know that there are people out there outraged that I am concerned about people who have cars when there are people out there who barely have access to, or who may no longer be able to afford the bus. There is no excuse for the transit services to be cut, especially when ridership is at such high levels and global warming is peaking its’ ugly head. Everyone should be outraged by this! However, the solution is not to attack the projects that put transit on the right track for the future. These projects will allow buses to be replaced by trains that cost less to operate and simultaneously allow for increased reliability and capacity. These projects are the way forward. We should support them.

No Good.

IMAGE CREDIT: BART; BART; Flickr by ‘Will aims to rage’ and ‘pbo31’; Charles Cushman

© Brian A. Tyler and Switching Modes, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Berkeley Professor says HOT lanes will lose money and infuriate drivers, but he overlooks his own findings

Pravin VariyaPravin Varaiya of UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department claims that HOT lanes will loose money and infuriate drivers by making traffic worse. This is a blow to the San Francisco Bay Area MTC and this website which has vehemently supported the HOT lane proposal.

Yet, Varaiya’s assessment of HOT lanes is flawed. The East Bay Express says that,

He concludes that the new toll lanes will lose money for two main reasons. In less-congested areas, not enough people will use them. And on the Bay Area’s more-congested freeways, heavy demand from carpoolers won’t leave enough room for those single-occupancy vehicles that would pay the new toll.

The first flaw with this argument is that in less congested areas he is using current data, not future growth trends. Furthermore he completely neglects that these same areas generally do not have carpool lanes already in place. As such, they are part of the second phase of the HOT lane proposal that will build new lanes, but not for about a decade. The levels of congestion will almost certainly change by then.

The second flaw in Varaiya’s critique of HOT lanes is that he neglects to take into account that adjustments can be made. He says that in the areas were congestion is a problem carpool lanes require just two people in a car to use a carpool lane which makes them just about as congested as any other lane. He then points out that because of this there is limited space for toll paying single occupancy vehicles without causing congestion in the HOT lanes themselves. He neglects to mention that in this scenario the MTC will almost certainly change the requirement to three people per car to qualify as a carpool. This would reduce congestion in the HOT lane and simultaneously increase congestion on the other lanes, thus making the HOT lanes appealing to toll paying passengers.

It should be noted that Varaiya is basing his assessment of HOT lanes from previous studies that show carpool lanes are ineffective in reducing traffic and encouraging people to carpool. From these studies he also found that there is unused roadway capacity in many carpool lanes that could be used to reduce congestion on some freeways if these lanes were converted to ordinary freeway lanes (mixed flow lanes). In all probability Varaiya is right on this issue. Yet, this only supports the case for HOT lanes. Rather than simply granting the extra capacity over to all freeway users, why not sell it? This achieves a better result than simply turning the lane over to mixed flow use because when needed a HOT lane raises the toll to discourage drivers from using the HOT lane. Thus, a HOT lane is impervious to congestion. Because a lane that is full, but not congested, moves far more people then a congested roadway this means that since people using the HOT lane are taken from the mixed flow lanes, more people are taken out of the mixed flow lanes if a HOT lane is used than if that lane is simply converted over to a mixed flow lane.

So what alternative does Varaiya propose to ease congestion? He proposes signaling, specifically like that used on the Bay Bridge. However, the Bay Bridge signaling works because it can signal all drivers across the entire freeway, but this is not possible on most freeways. For a similar plan to be effective throughout the Bay Area every freeway would need signals on each freeway entrance and everywhere a freeway merges with another freeway. However, if signals where installed wherever freeways merge, this would create a backup on the freeway people are merging from – such a signaling system would not work. Yet, without this type of signaling system it is impossible to control the traffic flow on an interconnected freeway network. That is why signaling used only at on ramps does not eliminate freeway congestion, despite its’ extensive use in places such as LA.

Given the facts that Varaiya lays out, his assessment of the HOT lane proposal may be correct. However, he does not address the the fact that things can change. This makes his assessment of the HOT Lane proposal wrong. Furthermore, he completely neglects to mention how freeway lanes that do not become congested, such as HOT lanes, benefit transit and encourage people to switch modes.

New BART cars: demo model by 2014

New BART carsBART is moving forward with its’ fleet replacement. The full roll out is expected to take 20 years and cost $3.2 billion. The new trains will feature more doors, smaller seats, and more standing area. BART board members will meet this Thursday to discuss how to begin moving forward with the plan.

Demo units are should be rolling by 2014 if BART plans go to plan (they very often don’t). A fleet of 20 cars could be rolling by 2017. By 2028 BART plans to have all the new cars on the tracks.

New BART cars

The fleet replacement is likely to bring out some interesting designs because BART trains are longer, wider and faster than any other metro system in the world. For these reasons the fleet replacement will also be more expensive than other fleet replacements because the new cars will have to be designed from scratch. Some elements from the original design may be used, but because BART used new technology in the original train design the technology has some flaws. Now will be the chance to work those flaws out – the new cars won’t just be cosmetically different.

Innovative designs by Kistel

Here are list of some of the changes that can be expected with the new cars:


  • Independent axles: this should help eliminate screetching sounds around corners and reduce maintenance.
  • More doors: this should reduce dwell times at stations by getting passengers in and out faster.
  • Smaller seats: BART uses larger seats than other metro systems. Reducing the seat size will allow more passengers to board the train.
  • More standing space: In addition to smaller seats, there may be fewer seats so that more passengers can stand.
  • Improved ATC (automated train control systems): this could allow for driverless operation and lower headway times. This means lower operational costs and more trains. It also means more space for passengers on the trains.
  • Visual Displays: passengers have complained about not being able to see what station they are at. New display boards would display station names, time and other relevant information. These displays may be flat panel TV screens that allow other information to be shown, possibly advertisements and news.
  • New look: BART prides itself in its’ image. The new trains will probably look sleek.
  • Wireless Connectivity: BART has already began rolling out a WiFi system. They have also been aggressive in providing coverage for cell phone carriers. The new trains may improve connectivity options.
  • Plastic Seats: the comfortable cushioned BART seats are expensive to maintain and hard to clean. Plastic seats can solve these problems and make the cars lighter.
  • Articulated cars: the new cars may be linked together without the door between cars. This requires putting the train axles at the joint of the cars, but allows passengers to move more freely between cars and increases space for passengers.
  • Lighter weight: although BART used advanced technology when the trains were built, new materials and design technologies may allow the cars to be lighter. This would reduce maintenance costs on both the cars and the tracks.
  • Green technology: there is likely to be some element to the new cars that is ‘green’.

UPDATE 5-7-2009: Check out the link to the BART’s New Rail Cars page.

UPDATE 5-8-2009: Take a look at what the next generation of BART cars might look like in this video (July 17th, 2008).

IMAGE CREDIT: Top right, BART; middle left, CBS news

New York transit rescued at last

Paying More For This?The New York MTA has been facing the possibility of large fare increases and deep service cuts, but a funding agreement has finally been reached. The main source of revenue? Payroll taxes (34 cents per $100). Fares will also go up by 25 cents. A taxi surcharge of 50 cents, increased car rental fees, diver’s license fees, and vehicle registration fees will also help fund the cash strapped agency.

This is an important development because $1.53 billion will come from the payroll tax alone. This is a stable funding source whereas sales taxes, the more common method of covering transportation costs, are not. However, there are still problems ahead for the agency. The budget plan will not help cover the capital costs to complete certain projects and because the tax is not fixed to any price index, inflation and rising costs will effectively lower the tax year after year. This means that in just two years the agency may need more money to cover operating costs.

Another problem with this plan is the specific type of tax that will be levied. Finding new funding mechanisms is good, but a lot of people, especially a lot of rich people, don’t earn their money from pay roll taxes. Another problem is that this tax is a flat tax which means even the poorest of the poor will have to pay the same rate as the rich.

Nevertheless, this plan is pretty good. The trains and buses keep coming and a new source – a better source – of revenue has just been created for the New York MTA. Perhaps this will spur a new trend around the country.

© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.

SF transit fares rise to $2: roadways remain free

Paying More For This?Following the lead of transit agencies around the country the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA), the agency that operates Muni, will raise fares by fifty cents and cut some services beginning July 1st. The new fare will be $2 and there will also be an increase in the price of a Fast Pass, the transit agency’s monthly pass. Like other transit agencies around the country the SFMTA is faced with falling government subsidies in the wake of the economic crisis and needs to increase fares to cover operating costs.

The problem is not that $2 is too high for transit. The problem is that driving a personal vehicle is too cheap. Despite what many people think, using public roads and freeways is not a right – it’s a luxury. The government doesn’t provide limitless free TV, it doesn’t guarantee that anyone can have a good job, a college degree, or for that matter free health care. Why should limitless roads and freeways be viewed as a right when these other services are not?

It’s true that the private sector would not build a system of roads and freeways the way the government has and there are some fees for using roadways (such as the gas tax and vehicle registration fees). However, it’s a mistake to assume that simply because a service is public, that it should remain essentially free- It’s OK for the government to make money, or at least receive some revenue for a service, especially if it can send a price signal for people to use a good or service in an efficient quantity.

The problem with the SFMTA announcement is that it sends the wrong price signal. Raising fares to cover transit operating costs is something that needs to be done, and that’s OK. However, fare hikes need to be complemented by increased transit assistance for the needy, markedly improved transit services, and above all by roadway toll fees – toll fees that are something close to the true cost of using the private automobile on a roadway. If such a toll were charged people would make efficient decisions about which mode of transportation to use and transit would be relatively more attractive. But, raising fares on transit without simultaneously raising fees for the automobile only makes the car ever more attractive. This is the wrong direction for San Francisco and America.

There is hope on the horizon: keep your eye out for the vehicle-miles tax (VMT). It’s what transit needs to be competitive.

IMAGE CREDIT: Source Flickr, by Steve Rhode.

© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



© Brian A. Tyler and SwitchingModes.com, 2009.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and/or concepts without express and written permission from this websites’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Tyler and SwitchingModes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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