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Transportation Nation

The Limits Of The NTSB

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

(Washington, DC -- David Schultz, WAMU) The role of the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, is a bit like that of a Greek chorus. The Board comes in after a tragedy has occurred and explains it to the audience - or, in this case, the general public.

That was its role in the case of last year's deadly train crash in Washington D.C.'s Metro, which killed eight passengers and one train operator. After a comprehensive investigation lasting more than a year, the NTSB released its final report on the crash late last month, amid much media attention.

The report laid bare all the factors that contributed to the train crash - not just technical malfunctions, but pervasive systemic mismanagement within Metro. It represented yet another day of negative headlines for Metro after a year of almost nothing but.

The legacy of the train crash hasn't simply been the nine lives it took. The crash ushered in a new era for Metro, in which it's struggled mightily to win back the trust of its riders. And despite the its exhaustive efforts, the NTSB can't offer Metro much help in doing this.

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Transportation Nation

A Tree Snarls in Princeton

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Commuters Jam NY's Penn Station Photo: Collin Campbell

(New York -- Collin Campbell, Transportation Nation)  The "massive" tree, as an Amtrak spokesman described it, couldn't have fallen at worse time or in a worse place.

At around 5 a.m. this morning near Princeton Junction, NJ, a storm of branches and leaves came down on overhead wires and an Amtrak signal box. The result fried fuses and shut down signals on a 20 mile stretch of the Northeast Corridor.

Great, just in time for rush hour on one of the busiest stretches of train track in America.

It's the latest insult and injury to New York and New Jersey commuters, who endured delays and humid, 90+ degree temperatures on the ride home.

In May, NJ Transit raised fares 25 percent and cut way back on service. Then, as the NY Times exposed, trains don't run on time anyway. I n New York, dozens of bus lines were cut and two train lines were scrubbed from the alphabet entirely at the end of June.  Trains are twice as dirty as they used to be. There are delays caused by the punishing heat ... and then came the tree.

NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said he didn't even have time for breakfast. "The phone rang and I went to work," he said.  Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole called it "weird."  "We don’t have any storms or wind,” he said.

Garden State commuters were the hardest hit.  For much of the morning, NJ Transit trains couldn't leave a train yard near Trenton, as switches and signals wouldn't budge, or were limited to helping Amtrak function as it could.

Later, Amtrak workers "walked" trains through miles of track, functioning as traffic cops for miles of signal-less track. Commuters endured delays the reached two hours.  On the way home, express trains were canceled.  The 67-mile ride to Trenton was on crowded, local service.  Amtrak canceled some trains, but had delays under an hour by the end of the day.

Transportation officials saw days like this coming.   Currently, Amtrak workers are using $30 million in federal funds to remove trees close to the track in the Northeast Corridor.  But today, for the boughs of the mighty Princeton Junction tree, it was too late.

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Transportation Nation

Over the river and through the towns: the fight over how to build California high-speed rail

Friday, August 06, 2010

(San Francisco—Casey Miner, KALW News) First things first: the California High-Speed Rail Authority didn't actually decide anything significant at its monthly meeting yesterday. The board voted unanimously to follow its staff's recommendations about two big sections of the project, Fresno-Merced and San Francisco-San Jose. But those recommendations were merely that staff continue to study the available options for building the rail tracks through those areas.

Those options, though, stirred up a whole lot of controversy. Mayors, councilpeople, assemblymen, activists and concerned citizens packed the auditorium to the point where it was standing-room only for most of the meeting, which began at 9am and lasted well into the afternoon.

At issue was the proposed structure of the train down the Peninsula from San Fransisco to San Jose.

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Transportation Nation

Texas Aims to Get State Wide Rail Back on Track

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

(Houston, TX - Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Last January, Texas, America’s second most populous state, failed to secure federal stimulus dollars for its high-speed rail plan. Why?

Because it didn’t have one.

It still doesn’t, by the way.  The Lone Star State is known for being independent, not just for its perpetual resistance to interference by the federal government, but also for its independently-minded politicians and constituents. So instead of having one vision for the state’s rail network, Texas had eight, or nine, or possibly 10.

Hear more:

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Transportation Nation

Senator Coburn Puts Federal Transit Safety Bill On Hold

Thursday, July 29, 2010

(Washington, DC -- David Schultz, WAMU) As a journalist who spends most of his time trying to reach people on the phone, I consider myself to be a connoisseur of hold music - the music played while waiting on hold.

Most hold music is your standard synth-heavy, new age fare. Some places play classical music, which is nice. (Although, listening to "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" while waiting to speak with an unhelpful PR rep can be a little unsettling.) For the most part, hold music is created to be instantly forgotten.

But not in the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). When you call Coburn and get put on hold, you hear good, all-American country music. I called earlier today and got an earful of Trent Willmon's "Broken In," a song about when "your heart's on hold."

Funny that.  Coburn's  a master of the hold - in more ways than one.

Coburn is a frequent user of the Senatorial technique known as "placing a hold." Unlike in the House, the Senate requires unanimous consent to bring a bill to the floor. If a Senator doesn't want a bill to come to the floor, he or she can place a hold on it, single-handedly stopping the bill in its tracks.

Coburn is, without question, the undisputed king of hold placing. At one point in late 2007, he had placed 95 different bills on hold. Coburn has been known to put holds on bills that all 99 other Senators support.

His latest hold is one that could have a big impact on public transportation. According to Democratic staffers in the Senate Majority Leader's office and in the Senate Banking Committee, Coburn has placed a hold on a bill that would give the federal government authority to set safety standards for urban transit systems.

Unlike with nearly every other mode of transportation, transit systems in big cities are not currently subject to federal regulation. And the National Transportation Safety Board said earlier this week (watch their animation here)  that this lack of oversight was one of the factors that led to last year's fatal train crash on D.C.'s Metro, which killed eight passengers and a train operator.

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Transportation Nation

Report: New Jerseyans to Gain $18B in Property Value from New Transit Tunnel

Thursday, July 29, 2010

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation).  A rash of studies (here and here, to list just two) in the last several years keep pointing to the same phenomenon:  homes are worth more near transit.

Now the Regional Plan Association, a New York-New Jersey planning group, has modeled the values of some 45,000 homes and found that New Jerseyans will gain $18 billion in value when the new Trans-Hudson tunnel is complete in 2018.

New Jersey is a transit-rich state, but it's also got the most roads per land mass of any state, and the current Hudson River transit crossings have hit capacity.  The new tunnel will vastly increase transit capacity, enabling huge numbers of New Jerseyans who now drive to take the train.

Plans call for the so-called ARC tunnel -- (short for Access to the Region's Core, very un-catchy) to emerge around Herald Square, near Macy's in Midtown Manhattan. It will be connected via pedestrian-tunnel to Penn Station, and passengers will emerge to a a new river-to-river Bus Rapid Transit line, a bus that will be physically separated from cars.  Under NYC DOT plans, only buses will travel river to river.

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Transportation Nation

NTSB Report Could Prompt Congressional Action, Transit Analyst Says

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

(David Shultz, WAMU), Today, after more than a year of investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board will release its final report on last year's Metro train crash on the red line.The report could be the final word on the official cause of the crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens more.

WAMU's David Schultz spoke with Bill Vantuono, a transportation industry analyst and editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Railway Age. Vantuono says Metro is not legally obligated to follow any recommendations in the NTSB's reports. Listen here.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: NTSB to weigh in on Metro crash, and NY-area commuter rail -- not so on time after all

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The National Transportation Safety Board's announcement on the June 2009 DC Metro crash will come today. And the implications might be national. (Washington Post)

New York City's commuter railroads say 96% of them are on time. Commuters -- and the New York Times -- beg to differ.

The Takeaway wants to know: has BP affected the way we consume gasoline?

Sacramento County may open 20,000 acres of land to future development. The county says it needs the space; detractors say it's transit-unfriendly sprawl. (Sacramento Bee)

Charlotte's city council narrowly approved the construction of its $37 million streetcar line. (Charlotte Observer)

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Transportation Nation

Is public transit really cheaper?

Monday, July 19, 2010

(Secaucus, New Jersey - Matthew Schuerman, WNYC News) One common piece of advice you'll hear for cutting the household budget is to take public transit. Get out of your car and onto the bus. Or the subway. But in some areas, that financial rule doesn't cut it anymore. Because transit authorities are cutting service and raising fares. Here's how riders in New Jersey are coping with the new math.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: Double Decker Trains in NJ, and the High Line is inspiring other cities

Thursday, July 15, 2010

President Obama travels to Michigan today for the groundbreaking of a plant that will make batteries for electric cars (NPR). But don't apply for a job there just yet -- it should take about 18 months before it begins hiring. Which is faster than the impact of the stimulus on the new green economy.

For Vancouver residents, it often makes financial sense to go south of the border to catch a flight. Helllooo Bellingham! (Vancouver Sun)

The success of the High Line has other cities thinking about what to do with their abandoned rail lines. (New York Times)

New Jersey Transit's new budget okays the purchase of 100 new multilevel rail cars. (The Record)

Toyota admits that sticking accelerator pedals and interfering floor mats caused some of the sudden acceleration incidents, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reached "no conclusions" in its own examination. (New York Times)

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rusty signs and heedless drivers at 50 of Chicago's most dangerous rail crossings.  (Chicago Tribune)

Texas gubernatorial candidates asked to lay out transportation plans.  (Dallas Morning News)

Legally blind blogger working to improve pedestrian safety around DC (Wash Post).

NY Times drives the return of the Mercedes gullwing, with a $186,000 price tag.

Raleigh-to-Richmond high-speed rail?  The conversation continues in North Carolina.  (WUNC)

New York's transit cuts reach a museum.  (NY Times)

Will the Giro d'Italia come to DC?  (WAMU News)

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Transportation Nation

California High Speed Rail Authority opts to ignore ridership problems

Friday, July 09, 2010

(Nathanael Johnson, KALW,  San Francisco) The California High Speed Rail Authority met Thursday  to review the findings of an analysis on ridership projections for the $40 billion Los Angeles-San Francisco high speed rail.  But despite serious questions about whether ridership and revenues will meet goals, the members of the authority essentially dismissed these findings as academic quibbling.

These academic quibbles, however, could have big consequences. The consultants who performed the ridership analysis have defended themselves by pointing out that they conformed to industry standards. On this point, the peer reviewers agreed. The problem is that the industry standard is fairly terrible —

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: Transit ridership up, but so are costs, Winnipeg votes yes to light rail but no to BRT

Thursday, July 08, 2010

What a difference a year makes: Ford CEO's success is apparently getting him noticed in DC. (Detroit Free Press)

Yuma County's public transportation gets a financial shot in the arm, but it's still on life support. Legislators cite tension between short-term viability, long-term sustainability. (Yuma Sun)

Chicago, Dallas expected to win big when Ray LaHood announces transit grants winners this morning. UPDATE: They did, as did Cincinnati's streetcar project. Complete list of grantees here.

Local transit agencies are providing more rides to more people -- but that number is outpaced by costs, especially in DC. (Washington Examiner)

Winnipeg says yes to light rail, no to BRT. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Disabled duck boat hits barge in the Delaware River; two passengers are missing. Regulations governing duck boats are characterized as "complex." (Philadelphia Inquirer)

North Charleston mayor gets his way: railroad tracks rerouted, neighborhood preserved...but it all hinges on "several potentially expensive" land acquisitions. (Post & Courier)

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Transportation Nation

Transit Safety Bill Clears U.S. Senate Panel

Thursday, July 01, 2010

(Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation, Washington, DC) Transit systems across the country would have to abide by a common set of safety standards under a bill that cleared a Senate panel this week.

The bill forces public transit systems receiving federal money to adopt new minimum safety standards created at the Department of Transportation. The agency could conduct ad-hoc safety reviews, and it also gets new powers to conduct safety investigations and issue subpoenas after transit accidents.

The bill was approved by the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee earlier this week. It was largely motivated by the last year’s Metro crash in Washington, DC that killed 9 people.

It’s one of several transit safety bills circulating in Congress now. Another beefs up funding and clout at the National Transportation Safety Board.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department is trying to give rail safety a boost. DHS Sec.Janet Napolitano was in New York’s Penn Thursday morning launching a new safety campaign for Amtrak.The campaign is based on the “See Something, Say Something” message familiar to New York City subway riders.

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Transportation Nation

Showdown over DC Metro Funding

Thursday, July 01, 2010

(David Schultz, WAMU)  The Administration of Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell  has threatened to withhold funding from Metro's budget if they don't get more authority over the transit agency's operations. This is a big problem for Metro, because it just signed a multi-billion dollar contract with Kawasaki to purchase new, badly-needed rail cars. If Metro's regional funding agreement is not in place by the contract's deadline, the transit agency could default.

That deadline is tomorrow. Metro needs to have its funding agreement in place with Virginia on board and with the FTA's approval by today so it can tell Kawasaki to move forward with the cars by close-of-business tomorrow.

This morning, in a hastily-called emergency meeting, Metro's Board of Directors approved a final version of the funding agreement after reaching an 11th hour compromise with Virginia.

But...

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Transportation Nation

Legacy of D.C. Metro Crash Could Be Felt Nationwide

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

(David Schultz, WAMU News) Metro, Washington D.C.'s embattled transit authority, has changed drastically in the past 12 months - ever since two of its trains crashed into each other a year ago this week, killing eight passengers and a train operator.

The change felt most viscerally by passengers has to do with how Metro's trains operate. Because its automatic train control system was thought to be at fault, Metro switched its trains to manual control. This has not only hurt the trains' on-time performance, it's made them more herky jerky - especially when coming to a stop at a platform. As a result, motion sickness has become a real hazard for many Metro riders.

But the legacy of the Metro train crash goes beyond some queasy train passengers.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Monday, June 21, 2010

Automakers, airlines among big winners as China lets its currency appreciate (Reuters)

Pew survey finds adult drivers text, talk on phone as much as teens.  (Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project)

Less parking, more parks as Baltimore rewrites zoning for first time since Nixon era.  (WAMU News)

Everything from Governor's future to state's finances ride on Boston commuter rail extension.  (Globe)

New York's MTA considering more cuts to subway, buses even as service cuts come down this week.  (NYTimes)

Lakers victory parade promises traffic nightmare in downtown LA.  Will Angelenos take transit to get there?  (Southern California Public Radio/KPCC)

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama, LaHood to Ohio to mark start of the 10,000th road project launched under recovery act.  (Columbus Dispatch)

Boston commuter rail link to South Coast takes step forward with purchase of frieght tracks.  (Boston Globe)

Toyota resumes building Mississippi facility, promising 2,000 jobs.  UAW accuses company of skirting union shops.  (AP)

Seattle jaywalking spot becomes YouTube sensation, police concern.  (Seattle Times)

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Transportation Nation

JetBlue VP: Airplanes No Good For New York-Boston (AUDIO)

Monday, June 14, 2010

(New York, NY - Collin Campbell, Transportation Nation)  Jet Blue Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Maruster has a refreshingly comprehensive view of transportation.  "I may be shooting ourselves in the foot here, with five daily flights from JFK to Boston.  But it just may not make that much sense for an airplane on a 150-mile route to fly over 300 air miles to get there.  Maybe there's a different mode of transportation that may be better to carry those customers from point A to point B," Maruster said today.

He was speaking at a forum on the future of airports and air traffic control.  It was an event filled with charts and maps that drove home how overwhelmed and outdated current air traffic control technology is.  One solution Maruster said was obvious is taking airline passengers off some routes, like New York to Boston. 

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Transportation Nation

Passenger Rail Is Booming In Virginia

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

(David Schultz, WAMU) Late last year, Amtrak began running trains daily between Washington D.C. and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley - the locale of cities and towns like Lynchburg, Culpeper and Charlottesville, home to the venerable University of Virginia.

This new train service was meant to be a pilot program, funded by Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT). It estimated that - eventually, with a slow and steady growth - ridership might reach levels that could make this service viable.

They were right, except for that "slow and steady" part. Ridership on the Virginia-to-D.C. line has grown exponentially since it began.

VDOT estimated the new rail service would eventually carry 51,000 riders a month. In little more than half a year, monthly ridership has grown to 55,000 per month and it shows no signs of leveling off. This new service has been so successful, Amtrak may actually make a profit off it.

Now plans to expand passenger rail service elsewhere in Virginia are moving forward.

For more on those plans, and to hear from a rider who uses the new train service, check out this story from WAMU in Washington.

(Hat tip to The Hook in Charlottesville)

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