Post Wreck Thoughts on 501, PTC, US Liability, and America’s Failing Transportation

I’m already looking forward to healing, obviously, and getting back on the bike. I look forward to riding back to King Street Station, getting on the train and handing off my bike for a station hand to rack on the train. Then rolling, minus a derailment, onward toward Portland to spend time with family and friends biking around town and enjoying one of the greatest, more human, pedestrian friendly, and foodie cities in this great nation. I don’t fear, fate has its hand in what it will hand me, but I can’t live with fear and worry, uncertainty, and doubt. I look forward and am beyond just thankful that I will live to ride this trip again.

In the meantime; Amtrak, Sound TransitWashington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and Oregon Department of Transportation get y’alls asses in gear and get that PTC working, ensure those engineers really, truly, 100% know that line and please get this service running back at 100%! It’s too important to thousands of people to let falter!

New Information, Thoughts on PTC

As I should have expected, BNSF actually has the PTC up and running on their lines. Amtrak trains don’t have PTC on in cabs as far as I’ve learned. If anybody has more information about this please let me know, I’d love to get more details on the matter. I’ve started researching more about PTC too and trying to determine what exactly is the issue and complexity of the system beyond merely the cost. I know that’s as much a red herring as it is a legitimate excuse. PTC is in place in so many places on so many lines that there’s not a lot of functional excuse, except I bet there’s a lot of bullshit regulation and related bureaucratic mess in the way of the railroads getting this implemented.

The money, also something put totally on the backs of the railroads, hasn’t exactly been easy to invest in as they do have to stay sustainable (the freight railroads). Meanwhile, Amtrak which like all modes of transportation (cars, buses, places, etc) is entirely not sustainable from its current state of legislative ecosystem (meaning the way it must account for costs, revenue, systemic matters of stations, debt, etc).

Health Insurance, America Fails Americans Miserably

Another major issue here, that slams all transportation modes, is in insurance claim scenarios like this an incident is liable to entirely destroy a company that operates passenger service. In European countries people that are injured are covered under national health care policies and plans, and lawsuits and liability insurance help to rebuild and make the railroad (or airline, ship, or roadway) better after an incident. Instead in the United States, except for the cap placed by Congress in 1997, Amtrak has its budget wrecked by lawsuits and the need to cover people’s medical costs. Airlines suffer a similar fate if not careful. The problem is, there’s always accidents, but a passenger system shouldn’t be destroyed by lawsuits because of a singular accident, it should be fixed and rebuilt better, safer, and stronger.

In America, we simply do not do this anymore. Our actions instead tend toward destroying a large singular entity with litigation; such as Amtrak, an airline, or bus carrier, while with distributed incidents like the almost 40,000 deaths per year in automobiles, we simple push the cost back onto insurance and individual owners and purchasers. The latter works to perpetuate the most deadly of transportation modes (automobiles) while it defers, damages, and arguably makes the safer modes (buses, trains, planes, shits, etc) harder to operate, manage, and make safe. It’s a perverse and backwards effect that we get, but something that could be remedied with a simple fix.

Instate some form of national health insurance that would easily handle this versus a company or organization be decimated that is trying to build good, reliable, and safe way to travel. The fact we don’t have something in place for just basic, simple, and honest health and welfare in this nation is disheartening and decrease entrepreneurial activities of all sorts. The data shows this too, in tight correlation with actions in developed nations. We do better, have better business, able to build better systems (transportation and otherwise), and more if we had just the most basic of fundamental elements to fall back on in society. Simple single payer and a minor unemployment or injury welfare system would work seamlessly for this. Our current system however is 2x the cost and doesn’t do the job, but we have examples (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, France, Germany, Japan, and many others) of how to do these two specific things at 1/2 the cost we currently do and actually having them be functional. Maybe we’ll get there one day, but unfortunately I’ve no hope of us succeeding in my lifetime.

On The Topic of Amtrak Safety

Amtrak has been notorious for unsafe activities along its lines. Much of that is conflict between Amtrak non-union and union employees. There has been cases where the union has even, or well individuals of the union, have even attacked prospective contractors that were going to provide service. There has been situations where the leadership has completely screwed over people in the union. I’ve studied the history and kept up with so many actions within the organization, that it’s hard to see which side would be the higher integrity side.

This of course conflicts with my own experience, as I know people in union and not in union at Amtrak that are top notch people. They work hard, they’re studious and have attention to detail. They’re safe and they work safe. But I also realize I have the viewpoint of operations in the northwest, which are very different than back east, and also different then down in California or the southeastern United States. Amtrak isn’t merely one big organization of singular work cultures. It is instead a giant Governmental quasi-corporation run around a faux demand for profits while working as a Government mandated transportation service that is built of what was many different corporate cultures. Why you may ask? It’s easier than one might at first see, but if we look at the history we know Amtrak came from the many railroads that used to run America’s massive, extensive, world class, and top tier passenger services around the country. Those cultures still eek through just a little in each geographic area and for respective trains along the lines.

How does one fix this? The NTSB issued some reports and Amtrak is slowly but steadily working on implementation. It’s important to note, like all transportation modes in America Amtrak is underfunded heavily for what it actually must do and how it must operate. Whatever the specific fixes are, the overall fix is that the non-union and union Amtrak staff must start working together to better focus on safety and ensure it’s actually part of the day to day operations. Instead, it’s currently something that is disregarded or ignored and this leads to these incidents. Nobody wants to incidents to happen, but they happen when this is how operations work. It must change.

America is Failing

We used to have the fastest trains, the best passenger service, at some reasonably good prices, in nice expedited fashion, that was routinely right on time.

Now, Amtrak barely putter along half the time. They’ve improved dramatically, but by comparison to European systems, even the one’s that aren’t top tier, like England’s or Italy’s rail systems, Amtrak trails far behind them in safety, quality of service, equipment, timeliness and related metrics. This comes from chronic under-funding from Congress and a blatant discrimination against rail service from mostly Republicans while Democrats fumble through managing Amtrak and fumbling through reasoning why Amtrak should have right of refusal over almost all of passenger service in America.

In Close…

That’s it for thoughts on the matter at the moment. In a future post I’ll talk a bit about the slim chance America has for improved service in the next 10-20 years. For now, I’m off to get some other things done, enjoy some Christmas time festivities, and simply be thankful that I’m alive today. Cheers, and merry Christmas, or happy holidays, to all.

If you’d like to learn more about Amtrak, and the convoluted insanity that is Government manipulated transportation in America, here’s a few starting points.

Passenger and Related Transportation Law, History & Info in America

Getting to Krakow from Portland, Oregon

I arrived in Poland yesterday via Lufthansa (per United by Expedia purchase). The flights were good, the experience however has been a little lacking from the coordination perspective. Expedia has again sold me tickets where it is obvious they bulk purchase these and I’m on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to seat priority. Beyond that United has been pretty decent, albeit they have done the following for better or worse over the last 36 hours of traveling.

  • First report via Expdia via United was that the first plane was 2 hours late that would take me to Chicago.
  • Being proactive I was at the airport 5+ hours early (also eating breakfast because Portland’s airport actually kicks ass and has decent food, prices, and service) and I decided to go see if there was any other way to Chicago.
  • United was kind enough to get me a seat on an American Airlines flight to Chicago, which left and arrived at almost the same time as the original United/Lufthansa flight.
  • Once rescheduled I received a 3 hour and 40 minutes late notice from Expedia/United.
  • Then I received a flight cancelled notification.
  • Then while in Chicago waiting to board the lufthansa flight to Frankfurt I got a 2 hours + late notification.
  • During this time the United staff also mentioned that my luggage would follow me on the American Airlines flight.

So by the end of that mess I was thoroughly confused about whether the flight had gone anywhere. But none the less I didn’t really care since I’d been able to mitigate the problem.

In Chicago I also went to board and had a minor heart attack. When I swiped my ticket I got a “Deny Boarding” message. I then went and checked with the counter staff and they scanned my passport again and I was able to board. I guess they just needed re-confirmation even though they also had staff on hand to verify that people had their passports on them.

That flight was on a 747-8 via Lufthansa. Excellent flight overall, with a good hot dinner and a simple breakfast served. The staff were great and were on the spot. I really enjoyed this flight, in spite of all the other mess that was happening.

When I arrived in Frankfurt I then went through passport control and got my Frankfurt stamp. It took about 2 seconds as there were no lines to even mention. Once I found the gate I had about an hour and half wait.

The crew then had us board the plane, which was an interesting logistical situation. We all exited the gate onto two 60 foot buses. The buses then drove all of us out to the plane that was about 400 meters from the actual gate. It was just sitting parked out on the tarmac. We all exited the buses and went up the steps to the plane.

Once onboard the flight was only about an hour. Nothing of any significance occurred during the flight. We came in over Krakow and got a perfect view of the downtown center, then landed at the airport. Upon landing we were all bused again, via two 60 foot buses, from the airplane to the airport inbound terminal. Which appears to be an under construction building seperate from the main airport. It also seemed odd they bused us barely 100 meters.

Once off the plane all the passengers waited for our luggage to leave through the customs control. After about 30 minutes they finally offloaded the luggage and behold, my luggage didn’t arrive. All I could think was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I had multiple hour transfers, the flight legs were basically the same as originally planned, and somehow they’ve completely screwed up and misplaced my luggage. On top of all this I’ve no idea if it was United, American Airlines, or Lufthansa. I’ve got a tracking slip now and can only hope that they’ll manage to find it.

I’m also pondering how I should have bought insurance, because I just did the math and realized I had about $4k worth of things packed in there. A laptop, a stand alone bluetooth speaker, Missions Workshop bike cloths which are NOT cheap, and a host of other moderately expensive plugs, adapters, and other things for the computers.

Fortunately I’m generally prepared for entities to royally screw up like this, so I’ve at least got one change of cloths and my main laptops with me. So here I sit, thoroughly enjoying Krakow at this point, and just waiting for my luggage.

Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, What Was First?

Portland was first, again, as usual it seems. What was it first for? Well, the list isn’t short, but what I’m talking about today is the MAX connection from downtown to the airport. I just read a summary of news tidbits on The Source titled Transportation Headlines for Wednesday, November 27th. The segment that caught my attention was the Denver East Corridor Rail line to the airport that pointed to the Streetsblog Article complaining about LA’s airport connector that is under construction.

Portland’s MAX Red Line

MAX Red Line, Click for Trimet's Page on the Red Line.

MAX Red Line, Click for Trimet’s Page on the Red Line.

In Portland the MAX Red Line opened in 2001 on the very unfortunate date of September 10th. The next day being September 11th 2001 really put the airport out of commission. For weeks after the opening date the line barely carried a soul to the airport, for obvious reasons. The entire place was closed after the world trade center twin towers came down in New York City. The world mourned the event and the Red Line suffered because of it, just as we all did.

However, as the city, the country and people got back to the business of day to day activities and the airport re-opened the line bustled with riders. Between 1990 and 2008 the airport had gone from six million passengers through the airport (flying) to over 13 million. 2020 projects are that it will easily surpass that, likely in the 20+ million range. The four stops of the Red Line however do not serve just the airport, and the length of the route serves many other stops with a huge number of riders. For those stops it doubles the service along the Banfield Corridor with the Blue Line all the way out to Beaverton. There is even talk of enabling it to double service even further out toward the edge of Beaverton or even going a little ways into Hillsboro. Time will tell for those changes though.

Why do I bring that up? Because the Red Line serves far more than just the airport, and even a bulk of the ridership isn’t even airport bound. The ridership for the two stops before the airport stop have boomed as retail has exploded around them. An Ikea opened, and along with a number of other retail options. These options benefit from a number of things including Oregon’s lack of a sales tax, creating a situation of thousands of Washington residents driving across the I-205 bridge to shop there. Many of these people drive across that same bridge in the morning commute and board the Red Line at the Parkrose/Sumner Transit Center stop. Some even sneak in and park at the Cascades stop (even though that’s retail parking for the businesses there, we know motorists rarely care nor know they’re not supposed to do that). Overall, all those stops in between the airport and where the line resumes service with the Blue Line (and now the Green Line too matter of fact) on the Banfield Corridor are hugely important.

Time for Some Data!

In 2010 I found some data Michael Anderson had gotten from Trimet for ons and offs. This is the counter data that all MAX trains have that count boardings and detrainings from the MAX Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) at each stop. Remember this is 2010, ridership is up over 10% since 2010. So even correcting for the +-1% for data reading mistakes or anything like that, this data is a conservative look into what ridership is today in 2013.

Airport Station
Stop ID: 10579 On 1694 Off 1635

Mt Hood Avenue MAX Station
Stop ID: 10576 On 50 Off 253
Stop ID: 10577 On 252 Off 54

Cascades MAX Station has about 450 on and 450 off. Keep in mind, this was in 2010 when most of the retail wasn’t even open yet.
Stop ID: 10575 On 402 Off 46
Stop ID: 10574 On 43 Off 411

Parkrose/Sumner TC MAX Station, MAX Rides on and off only. There’s over a thousand on and a thousand leaving the station everyday, just on the Red Line.
Stop ID: 10572 On 113 Off 926
Stop ID: 10573 On 962 Off 134

The line is technically 5.5 miles long. This accounts for the Red Line segment that is entirely new, between Gateway TC and the PDX Airport. It was finished and opened for public ridership on September 10th, 2001. Here’s a map of the line, running from the airport to Beaverton today. When it originally opened it terminated downtown on the turnaround from the original Blue line that ran from Gresham to Portland. Now the turnaround isn’t used as an active turnaround, but as an area for train extras. The terminus is now on the middle track at Beaverton Transit Center.

The Trimet Rail System. Click for a larger image.

The Trimet Rail System. Click for a larger image.

Here’s some other stats of significance. The Red Line was the first train to plane service on the west coast. It was built through a public-private partnership, nothing seen like this for many decades (think pre-1950 when most transportation was nationalized). The funding split was Trimet general fund at 36%, Bechtel/Cascade Station Development Company, LLC at 23%, Port of Portland (for the airport) at 23% and the City of Portland at 18%. No federal dollars or new local taxes were used. This is of significant note, as with Federal dollars it would have likely taken 5-10 years longer to build, if it was even able to be completed then. Federal involvement always makes things dramatically more difficult to get shovels in the ground.

Why Mention This?

Well it seems, since the line was opened Seattle has open their Link Light Rail service from downtown Seattle to the airport. It serves about 22k people per day last I checked, which I’m betting it is up to about 28-32k per day now. It’s been a while since I checked. Los Angeles and Denver are about to join the ranks of cities in the United States west of the Mississippi to offer train to plane service. There has been some debate whether LA’s connector will be worth the investment and if Denver’s isn’t’ a better example.

My Bets for Denver

What I’m betting, contrary to the article fussing for a direct connection to downtown Los Angeles, is that most of the ridership for the Denver line will not actually originate at the airport. Almost all of the ridership I bet ends up being commuters in and out of the city from the 5 intermediary stops along the line. In addition, if empirical data is any proof, then most of the airport ridership will actually be local workers at the airport and not travelers going to flights. However, I counter that to some degree. So here’s my bullet point bets for the Denver line. This bet I’m making based on assumptions of what service will be and what ridership will be from 2016 when it opens until about 2020. After that, all bets are off.  😉

  1. Most of the riders will be commuters riding from the 5 intermediary stops into and out of Denver. More precisely riders originating from and to the 5 intermediary stops of: 38th and Blake, 40th and Colorado, Central Park, Peoria and Airport (rd/dr) and 40th will exceed 51% of all riders.
  2. A large percentage of the riders for the airport (into the actual final stop of the airport, not the Airport St & 40th stop) will be airport workers. I’ll estimate that at least ~12%. I wouldn’t bet against someone betting on 30-40% of the riders being workers at the airport. Ideally of course, only about 2-5% of the riders would be airport workers, as one would hope the rider count on the train will be very high.
  3. It will for the first 10 years be a significantly higher cost per ride then the light rail or bus service in the area. Over the 20-30 year period it will drop below thanks to inflationary cost changes and over a 30+ year it will drop below or be maintained at about the cost per ride of light rail and bus service. Pending of course we still even get around this way in 10-30 years from now. We might just use transporters and aircraft may be irrelevant.  😉

References:

Surly Cross Check

As one may know that reads my blog. I bike, a lot. Even by Portland standards I ride regularly. By the regular lazy American’s standards I probably seem obsessed. Well today I just stepped up the ante again. I purchased a Surly Cross Check from Clever Cycles on Hawthorne here in Portland. Great shop, great service. My Giant will become my “secondary” and “loaner” bike when riding with people in from out of town.

Surly Cross Check in Black

Surly Cross Check in Black

So the Surly Cross Check has some awesome Portland features. What do I mean by Portland Features? Read on and I’ll explain.

1. First off, the bike is a great road bike. With 100% Surly proprietary 4130 CroMoly tubing. TIG welded. Double butted main triangle it’s a brutally strong bike. It’s got more in common with my Redline freestyle bike than my other bikes. But that’s a good thing, ya see, I’m not a soft rider. I ride hard, brutally hard sometimes, and sometimes have a tendency to break really strong bikes. That’s one of the first things I’m stoked about, strength is important.

2. The bike fits (and this is one of those Portland Features) on the bike racks on Trimet Buses really well, and easily comes on and off with a single hand. I don’t have to balance it or hold the bike with both hands, making the movement to hook the front wheel much easier.

3. The bike is much lighter than my current main bike. Making it even easier to mount on a rack on the MAX or mount on the WES racks. Another Portland Feature! This of course also makes it easy to mount up on the racks on the LINK in Seattle and other cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.

4. The bike rides with much less resistance than my current ride. It also has a multi-positional handelbar setup. The setup includes the Cane Creek 40, Salsa Bell Lap, Tektro Cantilever Brakes connected to Tektro Brak Levers. Topping all this off with Shimano SL-BS77s. This makes riding for hours or days possible, without me ending up a bent mess of a human being!

So I’m setup, ready for a long ride. I think I might pull off one of those tonight. Anybody in Portland up for a few dozen miles?  🙂

Cheers!

My Rides… (AKA How I Get Around)

Primary Mode:  The Boots (AKA My Two Feet)

Most of my activities center around walking a little bit. It doesn’t take a lot, but I’d suspect I walk 2 or 3x as much as the average American. This aspect of getting around however is more important than any of the others. I’m extremely thankful everyday that I wake up and get to walk somewhere.

Secondary Mode:  Giant Seek Series Bike

My commute, for entertainment, for exercise, and more all comes down to my bike. I have a ~5ish mile commute, which I can accomplish in about 30 minutes with a slow ride, and a 24 minutes with a fast ride. Bus takes 18 minutes early, driving takes 24-45 minutes (depending on traffic), so it works really well for my commute. In insure, with whatever I do or where I live I stay in logical distances of the things I need; grocery store, movies, bars, work (which is often difficult), and all that jazz.  🙂

Tertiary Mode:  King County Transit, Sound Transit, and Amtrak

For a lot of my commuting, I have used the King County Metro System. For the first year I was in Seattle, that’s all I really used, with a few walks to work. Originally my commute was less than a mile to work, now it is about 5. I ride the #44 and #18 a lot to different tech events and other things downtown and in the U-District. I’ve even taken more than a few rides out of downtown on the Sound Transit Light Rail and Sounder Commuter Rail for events, meetings, and other such things.

For holidays, conferences, and other special events in Portland, I frequently ride the Amtrak Cascades. This is a spectacular way to travel between cities, and of course if you control your life and don’t let your schedule do that, the train is easily the most luxurious and relaxing way between these cities.

Last Resort:  ZipCar and Airlines

Sometimes I have to have some sort of car, which is extremely rare. Sometimes I want to go out of the country, or far far away (like the east coast)

So what are your modes of transport that you generally rely upon? Are you walking only, bike only, a heavy transit user and still own a car?

A No Ride List Like The No Fly List

Seriously? I read this thread over on Progressive Railroading and it caught my attention. The write of the poll starts off with,

As I voted on the recent poll, should Amtrak start using a “no ride” list like the airlines “no fly” list, I was suprised to find that better than 10% of those who voted as of today voted no. No meaning they don’t think we need the same security and peace of mind on a train as we have on a plane. I find that very interesting.

Are you kidding me? I’m usually not aggressive about my retorts, but this guy has misplaced several KEY realities within the first three sentences of his query.

Let me explain something bout idiots first. Yes, I may sound like a completely mean, impolite person for saying it this way, but it needs written. Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, no matter how smart is a complete tool and idiot if for one minute they think the “no fly” list or the TSA keep us safe and secure. You are a complete FOOL if you have some peace of mind about flying because of THESE reasons. See further explanation below of why you should feel safe flying.

To people that think we need a no fly list or a no ride list you’re blurring the line between a criminal and a citizen or any developed country having simple civil rights to be able to move between lands, cities, and places of interest. Should a private railroad be allowed to do this? Yes. Should Amtrak? No. It isn’t private. To pretend it is completely ignores the reality of its operation.

The reason above why I said you should feel safe flying is simple. The whole idea of terrorism has killed a negligible amount of people worldwide. Terrorists (whatever this ideal actually means is something held by the perpetrators of such ideas), have been amazingly inefficient at getting their points across or being effective in their murderous attempts at garnering attention. The statistics are in your favor, you ARE safe when you fly.

The other simple fact is that flying is the safest for of transportion on earth. I’d be hard pressed to say that walking is even safer, because it probably isn’t. Several thousand people per year die walking.

So when you fly, or think about curtailing the ability for certain people to fly based on an arbitrary and fuzy notion of “no ride” or “no fly” lists, think about the REAL reasons we’re safe. Not the stupid, inane nonsense that follows the hyperbole of the media and idiocy of our leaders. Fear sells, fear limits our lives, and fear is almost always completely unfounded.

Live life. See the world. Stop worrying about oppressing others.