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July 25, 2010

The AC - DC Railroad

A few weekends ago, service on Metro-North and Amtrak was thrown into chaos when two trains ripped down portions of the overhead caternary (power line). Trains were cancelled, weekend riders stranded.

Metro-North’s service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate. Ours is the only commuter railroad in the U.S. that operates on three modes of power… AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries. Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the pantographs are lowered and the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third-rail power for the rest of the trip into New York. Even diesel engines must convert to third-rail, as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors. That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car. While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, the dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut will cost considerably more.

So, some folks are asking… “Why not just use one power source? Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.” Simple, yes. Smart, no. And here’s why.

 There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way. All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened. Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired. Cost? Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

 Even with third-rail, the CDOT would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak. That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost. We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with third-rail?

 Third-rail AC power requires power substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate. The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

 DC-powered third rail is less efficient. Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world… the TGV, Shinkansen, etc. On third-rail speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour vs. 90 mph under the wire. That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

 Third-rail ices up in bad weather and can get buried in snow, causing short circuits. Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

 Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.
The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980’s by consultants to CDOT. They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail. This time, the engineers at CDOT got it right.

Not satisfied, some of the third-rail fans tried pushing bills through the Legislature in 2005 to study the replacement scheme yet again. More studies would have meant years of delay in ordering already overdue car replacements. Fortunately, the Legislature dispensed with these nuisance proposals quickly.

Doubtless, we’ll have further “wires down” problems in the years to come. Ironically, Metro-North’s 97% on-time record has made us come to expect stellar service, despite our ancient infrastructure. But in the long run, service will be faster and even more reliable by sticking with our dual-mode system.

July 12, 2010

Paying for Transportation: Let's Not Be Fuelish

My father taught me that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. I’m trying to teach my daughter that there’s no such thing as a free ride.

With a newly minted driver’s license, she’s found new freedom behind the wheel… until I ask her to fill the gas tank. Now, as we drive past local gas stations, she’s taken new interest in comparison pricing.

A large part of the cost of gas is taxes that subsidize our transportation system. That’s why gas is so much cheaper in New Jersey (no taxes)… but also why they have expensive tolls on their highways. Remember… “no free ride”.

But as I have written about for five years now, gasoline prices in this country are still too low because they don’t ask us to pay for the true costs associated with driving.

How much would gasoline cost if the pump price included the billions we spend each day fighting to keep access to Middle East oil? Or, what if drivers were asked to repay the 40% of all police costs associated with patrolling the roads? Or how about asking motorists to pay at the pump for the land lost to taxation by turning it into highways?

But it gets worse.

In Connecticut we are facing a major funding crisis in transportation because of our over-reliance on the gas tax.

Not even the relatively expensive fares on Metro-North reflect the true cost of running that service, hence the operating subsidy by the state from the Special Transportation Fund (STF). Created in 1984, the STF was to be a “lock box” of money to invest in our state’s transportation infrastructure and help cover the cost of transit operations.

But 40% of the STF comes from gasoline taxes. So in 1997 when Governor John Rowland got the legislature to cut the gas tax from 39 cents to 25 cents a gallon, he doomed the fare-paying bus and rail passengers in our state.

Every penny of gas tax raises $15 million in annual revenue. So Rowland’s tax-cutting stunt cost the STF $210 million a year, or almost $3 billion to date. That’s money that wasn’t available to be used to repair our roads, buy new rail cars or buses or keep fares affordable.

And going forward, with automobiles becoming more fuel efficient (i.e. using less gas) and eventually becoming all-electric (using no gas), the STF will have even less funding to maintain the highways and keep mass transit affordable.

And that’s not even considering the legislature’s recent diversion of $10 million from the STF into the general fund to balance the budget. So much for “lock boxes.”

What’s the alternative?

Well, tolls would be a good start. But the state’s Transportation Strategy Board spent a million dollars to study tolling, only to reject eleven options cited by the consultants. And there are precious few lawmakers in Hartford or Washington willing to suggest tolling our “free-ways”, especially in an election year.

Or how about using a VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) tax? Motorists would pay for the number of miles they drive: a highway use fee. Of course, the use of GPS to track their travel patterns and charge by time-of-day and congestion probably leaves the libertarians shaking… as if Big Brother doesn’t know your every move already by tracking your cell phone.

Or how about what they’ve done in Portland Oregon, a payroll tax of .07% with proceeds going directly to the transit system, by-passing sticky-fingered legislators.

Someone, somehow is going to pay for our roads and rails. If not in a gas tax, then in some other revenue raising-mechanism. Because, as we must all understand, there is no free ride.