Author Archives: jw
Proposing a service for New Mexico regional Rail that’s already part of transit systems just about everywhere else.Continue reading
Comparing the fuel / energy economy of various modes of transportation.Continue reading
As you may have heard, the present alignment of the SW Chief is not assured beyond the next couple of years. At risk is the segment that runs from Newton, KS to Lamy, NM (636 track miles). The BNSF Railway, which owns these tracks, does not need to operate on this route (when they do at all) faster than 45 mph. This means they don’t have to keep the tracks up to the 80+ mph standard desired by Amtrak for passenger trains. Which in turn means that the SW Chief is slowly getting slower and slower.
Somebody needs to come up with about $ 100 million to restore the track to 80 mph (“Class 4”)standards and a few more million a year to keep them that way. I say a few more because rails last a lot longer and require much less repair than do roads and highways.
Since this track segment is presently used for very little besides two SW Chief trains a day, a lot of sensible people (and their political leaders) might reasonably wonder, why the hell spend this kind of money just to keep two trains a day running —- especially since an alternate route through Wichita, Northwest Oklahoma, Amarillo, Eastern NM and Belen will be available for rerouting the Chief should the need arise.
Besides the fact that the Chief is an all-important transportation resource to the three states in question, Rails Inc feels that those tracks are a very attractive resource for anybody — private or public — who owns and is willing to upgrade them and who can imagine more than a couple of years (or an election cycle) into the future.
Here’s what we mean:
(Adapted From the Rail Users’ Network National Newsletter, Spring 2012):
Several cities and towns along the (Newton KS-Lamy NM) route have passed and are passing resolutions supporting their desire to keep the Chief running where it is, citing the many benefits the train confers on their communities. A New Mexico branch of the SW Chief Coalition (based in La Junta CO) is putting itself together. The purchase by the State of New Mexico from the BNSF of the Raton Pass-Lamy track segment is still in limbo, where it has resided since the Martinez administration took over.
While we don’t believe the tracks are in danger of being torn up and scrapped (although this is a possibility), Rails Inc feels that to save the Chief we need to save the tracks, and to save the tracks we need to demonstrate what a great asset they are. So “with a little help from our friends”, we’ve compiled a list of uses for these tracks — beyond the important function of hosting two Amtrak trains a day.
Those two daily SW Chief trains by themselves justify the existence and improvement these tracks are in need of, but they certainly don’t constitute full and efficient use of the route. We think it will be hard to secure the future of this route without convincing potential funders and owners—private or public—that these tracks could (and should) be busy more or less full-time.
So What Are Those Tracks Good For?
1) Hosting the SW Chief, of course.
2) Hosting future Amtrak Superliner (or similar) service from El Paso to Denver and points North, via Albuquerque, Raton and Pueblo (see our “Rocky Mountain Flyer” material at www.nmrails.org or Rail magazine, #25).
3) Establishment or expansion of commuter and regional Rail in the three affected states.
4) Restoration of rail freight and express. The costs of fuel, tires and asphalt are not dropping. Private haulers, short lines and entrepreneurs might find this an acceptable risk if they don’t have to buy and own the tracks. Truckers don’t have to own the roads they run on.
5) Excursion trains, both modern and vintage. Besides their educational and cultural value, they can make pretty good money.
6) Hosting the field testing of new Rail safety components and other Rail products.
7) Hosting BNSF trains again, if anything happens to the Transcon.
8) Not to forget: Promoting the increased economic development, core-city renewal and tourism (with their considerable employment and tax revenues) that improved Rail transportation always pulls in.
It has also been suggested to us that advocates should compile a list of potential users of these tracks (towns, cities, schools, ranches, tourist attractions, transportation companies, excursion trains, etc) and ask them how permanent and reliable access to said tracks might improve or expand their operations. From this, revenue estimates might be put together to increase the attractiveness of the segment to either private or public potential ownership.
In the short haul, like seeds and range land, we need to “bank” these tracks till we can put them to the full use they deserve. If we’re short-sighted enough to let them go, it’ll be like the late 40’s all over again. Conventional, High Speed or Mag Lev, the future of this right of way should always be Rail.
The Albuquerque Journal published an op ed on December 26, by our JW, related to the redevelopment of the Rail Yards and the role of Rail transit in this process. In said article we propose a modern Rail shuttle between the Alvarado Center (First and Central) and the old Blacksmith Building in the Yards. We’re calling it the “Yard Bird”. The Blacksmith shop looks like a future Union Station if we ever saw one.
The sets of tracks leading North toward Downtown from this building and the rest of the Rail Yard have deteriorated and several rails are missing, but they are still more or less there. One old diagonal used to connect several spurs Northbound from the Rail Yard to a point near First Street and the Coal Ave bridge. This looks like a promising route, but we’ve got much more to learn.
Consult The Albuquerque Rail Yards.
Besides our little Bird, there’s another modern Rail possibility for the Yards: City Councilor Benton has recommended putting the Rail Runner maintenance facility in the Yards, making said Yards serve in a small way the function they filled in the old days. Another of the above-mentioned track sets might well serve this purpose. As above, we have a lot to learn about this, and are planning meetings with appropriate experts.
Old Fashioned Civics Lesson: Get active. If you like what we’re trying to do (hell, even if you don’t), contact your friends and various associates and your local and national political leaders. They do pay attention if they hear from enough people for long enough. If you are connected with any of the “social networks”, please spread the word through these. We can compose the messages, or you can. Passenger Rail is a big issue, in part because it fortifies so many others.
If you’re interested in Rail Yard matters, or want to weigh in on Rail transit in connection with this, contact Petra Morris at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a new group forming, concentrating on urban Rail (transit) for Albuquerque. We like the idea of more than one independent outfit working more or less together, like a team of cats. Contact Herschel Wilson at: email@example.com.
The Southwest Chief And Its Tracks:
We secured a proclamation of support last October from the Albuquerque City Council supporting Amtrak’s Southwest Chief (signed by all nine Councilors). More recently, a “resolution” to this effect passed by the same margin at the City Council (a resolution ranks higher than a proclamation). And on March 12, the Bernalillo County Commission issued a “Certificate Of Recognition” supporting the Chief, complete with a pat on the back for Rails Inc.
Our thanks to Councilor Benton and Commissioner Hart-Stebbins.
For those of you handy with math, this will be easy. For those who are not, it’ll still be easy:
*** Upgrade the tracks from Newton KS to Lamy NM: $100 million (over 10 years)
*** Track maintenance to 80 mph standards, per year: $ 10 million (per year)
*** All costs to be shared by New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Amtrak and the BNSF Railway.
Doing said math, Preserving and upgrading this 636-mile right of way would cost each of the five “stakeholders” approximately $4 million per year. Seen in the multi-billion dollar context of highway and airport investment, this looks like a pretty good deal. It’s an even better deal when you consider all the other potential uses of these tracks.
Consult: https://nmrails.org , the third article under “Hot Topics”.
Late Breaking News (Relatively):
During the last part of February, two pieces of legislation (“memorials”) related to the SW Chief made it through the NM House of Representatives.
One, under the auspices of the New Mexico branch of the SW Chief Coalition (NM-SWCC), is a basic statement of support for the Chief, with many good reasons why. This memorial has passed unanimously in both the NM House and the NM Senate.
The Other, instigated by us, tries to take this several steps further by calling for a study or market research program toward developing revenue uses for the tracks themselves—-uses beyond the important one of hosting the Chief twice a day. We want to see those tracks put to work full-time. We did not expect unanimity, or even an easy passage, but—-we cleared the House Business and Industry Committee 8-3 and the full House 45-22 (including 10 Republicans). We’re happy, but this is just a beginning. We did not have time to work the Senate.
All this good news is of course contingent on the resolution of the long-standing track ownership impasse between the BNSF Railway and the Martinez administration.
The Rail Users Network, a smart and honest national passenger Rail group (our JW is a recently-elected board member) is holding a conference in Chicago on April 26-27. If you’re there, or care to be, this might be most interesting. For more information, contact:
http://www.railusers.net OR 1-207-776-4961.
Regional Transportation Planning Meetings
The Mid Region Council Of Governments (MRCOG) is putting together the latest of their Transportation Improvement Plans (TIP). There will be a series of public meetings in connection with this. The good news is that they’ve figured out that transportation goes way beyond cars cars cars, roads roads roads. the other good news is that they’re acting like the Rail Runner is here to stay. The bad news is that they are not looking at any other Rail transit for the region. Just more and better busses.
This is better than nothing, but not enough. For more information and for meeting dates / places;
consult: http://www.mrcog-nm.gov/transportation, or write: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: If you want to be on our e-mail list instead of our p-mail list, let us know.
Our Traveling Show
We have put together a presentation “to go”, complete with computer slides (Mac). If anybody is putting up a meeting and would like a speaker with illustrative material, we’re available.
Our position on three hot topics – Albuquerque Rapid Transit, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train, the Heartland Flyer ExtensionContinue reading
(Published in Rail magazine # 25, Spring 2010)
The Three-Legged Stool
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, our entire commercial air fleet was grounded for several days, leaving us almost entirely auto-dependent for our transportation needs, and adding to the war-trauma of the attacks themselves. During subsequent hearings, a passenger rail advocate told Congress that a good national transportation system should be like a “three-legged stool”, with Road, Rail and Air being the legs. He stated, and we agree, that in America, one of the legs is missing, although perhaps it’s more of a stump. To further abuse the analogy, make that a series of stumps.
We Americans abandoned Rail as our primary passenger-carrying mode of transportation less than 70 years ago, and we’re in serious trouble as a result.
Rail is safe. Rail is remarkably efficient in land, fuel, materials and maintenance. Rail is environmentally friendly. Rail promotes renewable energy and reinvestment in our city centers and first-ring suburbs. Rail is a natural partner to walking and biking. And people just plain like trains. And with high retail fuel prices (they’ll be back up soon enough) coupled with our considerable air-travel headaches, people will be liking them all the more. Look at Amtrak’s startling ridership increases over the last few years, increases all the more remarkable given Amtrak’s skimpy and historically under-fed status.
So how do we resurrect and nurture passenger rail in America? So how did we nail its coffin shut to begin with? Simple. We built an interstate highway system connecting all major, and most “minor”, American destinations. Although this system requires continual high-priced maintenance and is starting to come apart, it facilitated our present automotive dominance, and is sometimes still pretty fun and convenient. Our “rail-roads” need the same kind of medicine we give our highways.
Connecting The Dots (and DOT’s?)
If you compare a map of the Interstate highway system with one of Amtrak, our supposed rail equivalent (see left map below), you’ll notice that if the former were anything like the latter, we’d be missing, among other routes, all of I-25 and much of I-35. There is almost no North-South service between the Mississippi drainage and the West Coast.These gaps need filling, and they need it bad.
For twelve years, Rails Inc has called for North-South passenger rail serving the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions. Several years ago, we proposed what we call the Rocky Mountain Flyer (RMF); an Amtrak Superliner or equivalent rail service running from El Paso to (probably) Shelby, Montana, via Albuquerque, Denver, Cheyenne and points in between (see right map above). Besides conferring the many benefits of modern rail service on this region, including those listed above, the RMF would connect Amtrak’s four principal East-West routes west of the Mississippi, plus the cities and highways along its route.
Much discussion exists about Amtrak’s aging rolling stock. While this problem is serious, we think the shortage of practical routes to run it on is much more so. We need a rail network at least as developed as that of our highways.
Obstacles are ,of course, considerable; ranging from torn-up and built-over tracks to heavy (and necessary) freight traffic. New track must be built. Advanced signaling, train control and turnouts must be installed. An almost unheard of level of cooperation must occur among the federal government, governors, legislators, DOT’s, advocates and the freight railroads, coupled with an exciting and thorough public information campaign.
We must also abandon our destructive and nearsighted antipathy to all federal and state investment in our infrastructure—also known as Taxation. This blind aversion is not “Conservative”—-it’s insane. But that’s another article.
The Bigger Picture
Since we dreamed up the RMF, we’ve become aware of other worthy efforts to serve our rail Empty Quarters; efforts like the Western High Speed Rail Alliance, the “Steel Interstate” and the movement to extend the Heartland Flyer to Kansas City. The fact that these trains exist only as fantasies illustrates just how grossly incomplete our rail “Interstate” is.
As to rail priorities, we think that a conprehensive rail network that actually goes most places, even one of modest speed capability (70-90 mph), should take precedence over a series of High Speed Rail segments scattered around the country. We further think that this “Rail Interstate” must be publicly owned like our Concrete Interstate. Having said that, we see plenty of room, on this public utility, for multiple carriers both public and private. Public right of way, public and private rolling stock: doesn’t sound all that radical to us. Sounds like our highways and airports.
We at Rails Inc would love to see all kinds of rail everywhere; super-fast rail “liners”, traditional Mag-Lev, Urban Mag Lev, the whole shot. But we think that a full-fledged national rail network, at least as fast and convenient as the Interstates on a good day, will attract the levels of public participation and excitement required to restore rail to its former prominence. And a well-conceived non-partisan education campaign will convince us, the general public, just what a breathtaking bargain Rail transportation is.
The January 2005 commuter rail disaster in Southern California (train hit an SUV, 25 dead) points up a serious passenger rail safety problem; one we think can be greatly reduced without much trouble or cost:
To save time and space, many commuter trains operating back and forth along linear routes run forward one direction, backward the other. The way it works is that the last car is equipped with a cubicle and controls so that during each return trip the engineer controls the engine from this cubicle, driving the train “backwards”. This is a good practice, as it saves the hassle of moving the engine from one end of the train to the other twice every round trip and eliminates the need for huge turn-around track loops. But it makes the train more vulnerable to derailment in the “push” mode. When the train is running in the “pull” mode (engine first), the weight and shape of the engine tend to push obstructions out of the way.
Most death, injury and property damage resulting from auto-train collisions (at least to the train) can be avoided if the train does not leave the tracks. This can be accomplished by shielding the train and its wheels from the debris that gets under same and causes derailments. Hence the “CarCatcher”.
The vulnerability of an unprotected leading passenger rail car is illustrated thus:
When a train running in “push mode” hits an automobile, the latter or its debris tends to roll under the exposed train wheels, lifting them from the track:
(Once a set of train wheels leaves the track, it rarely returns to same).
To minimize the event of derailment in train-car or other track-obstruction accidents, we propose the CarCatcher, a device that might look a little like this, or a lot prettier:
The CarCatcher would attach to the rear of each train, using the regular coupling supplemented by a horizontal brace or shock absorber assembly. We picture a kind of cross between an old-fashioned cow catcher and a snow plow. The device could be painted to suit its train, and could be designed in several styles to match or complement the design of the train—-modern, retro, etc. As illustrated below, the device would push the obstruction and its larger pieces of debris off the tracks, helping to keep the train on the rails.
The potential market for the CarCatcher consists of every train in the world that operates in the push-pull mode.
Cost would of course be variable, since we envision several sizes. The design and shape of the CarCatcher will have to allow for train size and weight, the engineer’s clear view of the tracks ahead, and perhaps to which side one might wish to shove the obstruction. We think the most expensive model we can imagine might cost less than some pickup trucks. Being a New Mexico group, of course we would like to see the CarCatcher designed and built in New Mexico for sale here and everywhere else.
In summary, this thing is not likely to do much good if a semi or another train gets stuck on the tracks, but many rail-auto accidents are caused by an inattentive or suicidal driver driving something small enough to be diverted by one size or another of CarCatcher. This device might even improve the outcome for the affected auto and occupants. We think that the potential savings in lives, limbs and property promised by the CarCatcher more than justifies its cost and possibly strange appearance.
PO Box 4268
Albuquerque, NM 87196