Northstar Commuter Rail

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 28th, 2015, 2:43 pm

People are already making trips in this corridor, Do we require a "who is using this" justification for road expansion? A lot of DMUs in Britain are literally bus chassis dropped on top of a train carriage (the Pacer*). Jefferson Lines already runs three buses a day in this corridor (two leaving Minneapolis in the AM, one leaving St Cloud. in late afternoon/early evening). There's a fourth that stops in St Cloud West because I guess they're too lazy to drive into St Cloud proper and just dump you off at a truck stop on the way in from Fargo. So what if those 4 buses ran on rails instead of buses. Because that's basically exactly what's happening in Britain right now. I realize it's not that simple, as those routes continue onto Fargo or Grand Forks. But anyway, the point is, that a "train" to somewhere doesn't necessarily have to mean a locomotive hauling 5 or 6 passenger cars with all the attendants and fuel and maintenance that entails. In a slightly more sane world a "train" can be little more than a bus on rails. I'm not saying let's go out and start jamming shovels in the dirt tomorrow, just that maybe we should think about it with a little more nuance towards what could be rather than what currently is. Hauling a Northstar consist to St Cloud and back 8 times a day is probably a bad idea for the forseable future. But that doesn't have to be the only option.

Now maybe just maybe there's a really good reason we can't adopt better signalling, allowing for lighter passenger trains, rather than hauling around tanks on the rails everywhere. I've never read a defense of current buff strength requirements vs better signalling (though perhaps the way the Class Is are dragging their feet on upgrading signals, there is a good argument in there).

*Please dear God don't actually any advocate for putting a bus chassis on a train carriage, the Pacers are apparently awful
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby Mdcastle » December 28th, 2015, 2:57 pm

But urban bus routes provide an obvious societal good (and aren't nearly as empty as these trains would be).

I don't think that anybody has really explained what the real value of providing a service like this is. Is it so that it's easier for people to live in Stearns County and work in Minneapolis? I keep hearing about the mythical St. Cloud State student who wants to go home and visit their parents on the weekend -- and while that's nice, there are more effective ways to provide that service.
Based on my observations when my sister was at Northwestern, if the students actually wanted to go home for a weekend (as opposed to studying, socializing, or just enjoying time away from the parents) and didn't have a car, two or three of them would pile into the car of someone going to the same city, and generally any free space in the car would be packed to beyond bursting with bags of laundry to do, books, stuff in general going to and from the dorm. I'm not sure how carrying two trash bags full of laundry would work on a train. I didn't here a lot of "I'd go home every weekend if only they ran train service to my hometown".

I get that "People that want to live in St Cloud because home prices are less" or "People that don't want to sell their firstborn in order to afford a Delta flight out of a minor airport" aren't as sexy as "College students that want to play Trivial Pursuit with Mom and Dad (provided their stuff can fit on the train), or "Families that want to spend a day on the Duluth Lakefront (while totally skipping Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and beyone). But let's be realistic about who the main market is.
Last edited by Mdcastle on December 28th, 2015, 3:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby Silophant » December 28th, 2015, 3:13 pm

I personally know an SCSU student who fairly frequently (1-2x/month) takes the Northstar Link and Northstar to visit home. I'm obviously not saying that it would be enough of a market on its own to justify finishing Northstar, but it would provide some ridership, especially if it included some form of all day (but not hourly, unless demand actually called for it) service.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby MNdible » December 28th, 2015, 3:47 pm

No doubt there are some people who would use it -- I would likely use the Duluth service with some regularity, but again, what does society really gain by letting me hang out in the bar car? Does society really care whether I take a train, or instead take the Jefferson Line, or heaven forbid if I were to drive my own car?

Part of the issue with a service like this (as opposed to bus or LRT) is that the ongoing operating costs are really expensive, and they only start to become rational if you can put a lot of people on these big trains. I'm not going to dip my toe into the DMU debate -- there's probably a way to bring down these costs, but until we do, we can't just ignore them.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 28th, 2015, 4:03 pm

Finally, I'll respond to the unwritten subtext of "what about that smart guy?" Basically, you have little to no idea what you're talking about. If you had any interest at all in cost effective rail operations in America, rather than just trying to score cheap points, you'd have at least a basic understanding of FRA buff strength requirements and what they do to our domestic passenger rail ecosystem.
If this was targeted at me, you're reading way too much into my question. I was confused by your statement and was seeking clarification (it would have been clearer if you wrote "DMUs that are illegal..." instead of "DMUs which are illegal..."). I'm aware that the US requires heavier trains than Europe does on track that is shared with freight (which unless things have changed recently Austin's line does, with temporal separation, and yes, IIRC a waiver was involved). I was not trying to point to Austin's line as an example of what should be done (if anything the opposite, given the note about it also having very high operating subsidies).
It was, and an apology is in order. I read far more into your message than was actually there.

Any way. The Stadtler GTW would be illegal on the mainline without an FRA waiver. It was probably pretty easy to get a waiver for Austin considering that the transportation authority owns the tracks and leases access to a freight railroad, rather than the other way around, which is what's more common most everywhere, and especially in the Twin Cities to St Cloud corridor. I did a bunch of digging and scribbling, and the Austin cars weigh 72 tons for 134 feet, or .53 tons per foot. I've found two numbers for the weight of the Nippon Sharyo trains, either 52.6 tons (which I found on a railfan forum) or 67 tons (which I found on a pretension in someone's google drive that was apparently given by Nippon Sharyo as a sales pitch for their train. So it's either .61 tons per foot, or .79 tons per foot (I'm inclined to believe the heavier weight from the Nippon Sharyo document). A British Class 172, which looks to be the latest DMU in operation, built by Bombadier in 2010-2011, is 77.5 feet long and 41.6 tons, or .53 ton per foot (the same as the Stadtler). The Class 170, more common but a little heavier, is about 45 tons, for a ratio of .58 tons per foot.

I took so long typing that all up I forgot the point. I also discovered near the end that I was using the metric ton (tonne) so you're welcome for my mixing of imperial and standard units. But yeah, light trains.
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 28th, 2015, 4:06 pm

No doubt there are some people who would use it -- I would likely use the Duluth service with some regularity, but again, what does society really gain by letting me hang out in the bar car? Does society really care whether I take a train, or instead take the Jefferson Line, or heaven forbid if I were to drive my own car?

Part of the issue with a service like this (as opposed to bus or LRT) is that the ongoing operating costs are really expensive, and they only start to become rational if you can put a lot of people on these big trains. I'm not going to dip my toe into the DMU debate -- there's probably a way to bring down these costs, but until we do, we can't just ignore them.
If a train allows some people to ditch their car (granted, I'm sure the number of people holding onto their car so they can drive to St Cloud can probably be counted on one hand), or for the trip to made with fewer CO2 emissions than a bus or private car, then yes, absolutely, society has an interest in it. That doesn't mean at any cost, but there's certainly an interest there.

I mean, I guess I could say, what's the societal interest in an interstate to Duluth? Freight rail can ship goods out of the port of Duluth, and you can ride your horse all the way up there, what's the societal good to the interstate?
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby MNdible » December 28th, 2015, 4:48 pm

If a train allows some people to ditch their car (granted, I'm sure the number of people holding onto their car so they can drive to St Cloud can probably be counted on one hand), or for the trip to made with fewer CO2 emissions than a bus or private car...
Does anybody have any real data on this? For example, how many buses could we run for the CO2 a Northstar locomotive produces? I know trains can be super-efficient, but efficiency doesn't matter if the cars being hauled don't have passengers in them.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 28th, 2015, 4:59 pm

That sounds like a fun topic for you to research yourself.
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby MNdible » December 28th, 2015, 5:28 pm

It was fun! Sort of.

Anyway, per this post from the ICCT, buses actually appear to be much better than trains, even without taking into consideration that the Northstar trains may be mostly empty.

Image

Surprised me.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby RailBaronYarr » December 29th, 2015, 11:23 am

Some other data points. I tried to do it in CO2 per passenger mile rather than a gallon-equivalent based on BTUs.

http://www.aef.org.uk/downloads/Grams_C ... odesUK.pdf
Image

http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/fil ... report.pdf
Image

http://jamesrivertrans.com/wp-content/u ... Energy.pdf
Image

https://www.iru.org/cms-filesystem-acti ... onment.pdf
Image

Reason (....) also compares other pollution beyond CO2: http://reason.org/files/comparing_buses_amtrak.pdf
Image
Image

tl;dr
Yes, motor coach buses do seem to be better for the environment per passenger mile than a diesel train, by a small to pretty decent margin depending on the source (and how they calculated emissions, I'm way too lazy to dig into the methodologies).

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby LakeCharles » December 29th, 2015, 12:58 pm

If people were inclined to ride them at the same rates. If the options were A) a super efficient bus no one rides because ew buses and so everyone drives their car and B) a train that everyone rode because cool trains and there were no cars driving between msp and Duluth than B seems like the superior choice even though buses are technically more efficient. Obviously that's a stupid oversimplification but the main point needs to be incorporated into an environmental argument, no?

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby Silophant » December 29th, 2015, 1:24 pm

Right. Another wrinkle is that (for now, at least), its much more feasible to electrify trains than long-haul buses, though flow batteries and the like may very well moot that argument in 10-20 years.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby MNdible » December 29th, 2015, 3:36 pm

If people were inclined to ride them at the same rates. If the options were A) a super efficient bus no one rides because ew buses and so everyone drives their car and B) a train that everyone rode because cool trains and there were no cars driving between msp and Duluth than B seems like the superior choice even though buses are technically more efficient. Obviously that's a stupid oversimplification but the main point needs to be incorporated into an environmental argument, no?
But, it's much simpler to "right size" coach service than it is train service. If you have 100 passengers, you can run two coaches (increased frequency!), or you can run a Northstar locomotive pulling a single passenger car.

SW Transit doesn't seem to have had much trouble attracting people to its coach buses. Lesson 1: Run service where lots of people want to go.

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 30th, 2015, 4:14 pm

So it kinda occurred me, the 5 train sets sit in Minneapolis all day waiting to go back to Big Lake at night. One of them makes the reverse trip, but it still comes back and waits downtown. What do those train crews do all day between the morning runs and the evening runs? Are they getting paid? I can't imagine anyone who lives around Big Lake wants a split shift that sticks you in Downtown Minneapolis during the day, right?
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby MNdible » December 30th, 2015, 4:39 pm


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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby mulad » December 31st, 2015, 6:40 pm

The midday layover period is something that has always annoyed me about Northstar -- how much is the cost per trip inflated because of idle equipment and employees? The same thing happens for many commuter buses in the Twin Cities, but they often run off to some random parking lot for their layover so people usually don't notice. Getting a full day's use out of the equipment and employees rather than the average of just about 2 hours per day has to bring some cost efficiency.

I believe that Northstar has some structural financial problem that makes it look significantly worse than it needs to be. When I wrote up this concept for intercity rail earlier this year, I found that it cost $4,590 per train hour to run, or $1,179 per car hour -- a high outlier when compared to other commuter rail systems across the country. The national average is about half that amount and some services are significantly less. In particular, one example from Amtrak that happened to be in the National Transit Database: The Downeaster between Boston and Portland (Maine) came in at $1,004 per train hour, or $219 per car hour.

I'm not sure why Northstar is so expensive, but if it was simply brought in line with the national standard, the subsidy per passenger would be roughly halved as well.

Writing that article also made me less enthusiastic about DMU vehicles in the U.S., but only temporarily. Most DMUs are pretty expensive, particularly when looking at how much they cost per seat. The great thing about Northstar equipment is that each car has about 145 seats, and each car can have a ton of standees. One of the first Twins games ever served by Northstar had a train come in with more than 2,000 passengers onboard -- it was a 5-car train, and it had been pushed well past the official crush capacity of the Bombardier BiLevels. I think Metro Transit ended up running some extra buses to pick up stragglers, but that event probably turned a lot of people off the idea of ever using the train again (Metro Transit later experimented with longer trains, but they exceeded the length of the platforms, which must have led to operational issues, and it seems that crowds tapered off pretty quickly to meet the capacity that Northstar could actually provide).

Anyway, on a per-seat basis, a Northstar-style train is pretty cheap to buy even if it doesn't have great fuel efficiency or other operational characteristics. As cheaper DMUs become more common here, things will change, but as of now, I think it's perfectly legitimate to run Northstar-style trains on an hourly basis (or more often during rush hours).

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 31st, 2015, 7:08 pm

I feel like capital money is easier to get than operating expenses, at least if you're building something that they'll pay for 50% of. But the FRA screws us again. Not only are they heavier so they're more expensive to run (but not by a really huge amount) but they're far more expensive as well. They're heavier, but also there just aren't the economies of scale to drive the price down. Just as the first result I found on Googling, but ScotRail ordered 27 cars for 32 million pounds, or $1.7 million (US Dollars) per car. Compare that to the 6 or 7 million for the Nippon Sharyu DMU.

And while it's a waste of the capital expense of the equipment (which isn't really all that high in the end) to let it sit, it's not for the labor, as they only get paid when they're moving. Though I have to wonder the logic of paying by distance traveled rather than time spent, especially for something so regularly scheduled. While the split schedule worked for a couple of the staff based on that article, the less noticeable part is that some people are paying for hotels downtown to sleep. While they've managed to find enough people that don't mind those really long days, I'd bet you could find plenty of people that would like to start in Big Lake (or Minneapolis), work for 7-9 hours, and then be back where they started. Also on the paying by the mile, it kind of makes high speed operation more difficult. If the average speed is doubled so that you can run twice as much service in the same amount of time, you're also doubling the labor cost without any more time spent working. Granted a train that averages 60 MPH is going to need a little more skill and experience than one that runs at 30 MPH, and a conductor would have more tickets to check, I'm not sure it justifies an effective doubling of the wage.
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby mulad » December 31st, 2015, 7:20 pm

I think you're misinterpreting what I wrote in the article about employee costs vs. train speeds (unless I wrote it wrong or you're talking about something else). If a train runs twice as fast, the employees can serve twice as many trips in the same amount of time. Half as many employees (or half as many employee-hours) and half the equipment can provide the same level of service (at least if the service level is high enough to begin with).

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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby FISHMANPET » December 31st, 2015, 7:38 pm

Per that article MNdible shared about what staff do during their layover, it says that they get paid by the mile. So if they're not moving, they're not getting paid. So good for labor in this instance, but if suddenly the the train runs twice as fast, yeah, you can do it with as many physical people as you've got, but since each person is going twice as far, they're getting paid twice as much.

Kinda hidden, about halfway through the article:
Like the other Northstar engineers and conductors, Lippman is paid by the mile, not the hour, said Amy McBeth, a Burlington Northern spokesperson. That means they're on their own, unpaid time each day between runs.
Unless that's changed in the 5 years, but I doubt it. If they're railroad employees and not MetroTransit employees, they're gonna get paid like railroad employees.
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Re: Northstar Commuter Rail

Postby mulad » December 31st, 2015, 8:14 pm

Ah, gotcha. I'm curious how their pay ultimately stacks up. There isn't any mention of other jobs in that article, so I'm not sure if they work elsewhere (either for the for the freight side of the railroad or other companies entirely), if they are "overpaid" for the number of hours/miles that they put in, or if they simply accept a lower amount of take-home pay. (Or any combination of those options.)

Anyway, Northstar trains aren't likely to change speed significantly, so let's not worry about that particular issue. However, we've been talking about changing hours of service and the overall amount of train mileage. If the train crew is being paid an outsized amount for the amount of work they do today, then that will need to be renegotiated for the new schedule. If they've been accepting small paychecks, then go ahead and just pay them for more miles.

I keep figuring that there must be some large fixed costs for Northstar that explain why it's so expensive compared to other services around the country, though I don't really know what it is.


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