Other People's Rail: Amtrak, commuter rail, rapid transit news & views outside New England

DominusNovus

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Could anyone ( @F-Line to Dudley ) give a very quick rundown (or direct me to a post where this has been discussed) as to why the Brightline project in Florida seems to be proceeding so much more smoothly than, well, anything we do up here?

Terrain? Density? Regulations? Privately run? All four? If so, which are the most important?
 

F-Line to Dudley

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Could anyone ( @F-Line to Dudley ) give a very quick rundown (or direct me to a post where this has been discussed) as to why the Brightline project in Florida seems to be proceeding so much more smoothly than, well, anything we do up here?

Terrain? Density? Regulations? Privately run? All four? If so, which are the most important?
All of the above...but mainly because the private entity is Florida East Coast Railway, the largest Class II freight carrier in North America. Class I's being the continental big boys like CSX and Norfolk Southern in our neck of the woods and Union Pacific out west; Class II's being regional biggies like Pan Am. FEC is such a BIG Class II that it nearly does the revenue of a Class I carrier despite having a network size similar to our not-so-lovable losers PAR. FEC thus started out with supremely well-maintained mainline track just begging for a major passenger investment...just about the best in the country. Best-maintained bridges/track to handle their primary profit center of transporting mined Florida limestone rock, invested in the intermodal rail-to-truck revolution way earlier than their peers, ran uniformly beefy power so they could move at Class 4 (60 MPH freight/80 MPH pax) track speeds up the flat grades of the Florida coast with fewer lashed-up locomotives than any of their peers, were the first U.S. installer of Positive Train Control 30 years ago, and pioneered what's called "precision scheduling" where train meets were immaculately well-timed for stretching crews longer-distance on shifts (a somewhat controversial innovation all the Class I's are reorganizing themselves to drink like kool-aid now). Basically, it's the type of supremely well vertically-integrated operation that old-timey private RR's ran so freight profits could pay for public-serving passenger service...but on a RR that didn't financially collapse after WW2 like all the Northeastern Class I's did. Indeed, FEC kept up its local passenger service until 1968...later than most non-NEC member roads...and only ditched when Federal regulators relented on letting everybody trim those loss-leader services without there being a bankruptcy prerequisite like Penn Central up north.

This made the FEC a very easy and ripe target for passenger re-investment, since their physical plant never decayed to the same degree the Northeastern RR's did. So the services currently traced out by Brightline has been a political football in Florida ever since the mid-1980's with the state trying (and mostly failing) to get something done and undertaking umpteen studies. Swingy Florida electoral politics simply never gave anything enough breathing room to take foot, despite several instances where public investment got close to biting. Where the notion of privatizing came in is after the FEC sold itself to Fortress Investments, a major hedge fund, in 2007. FEC had buckets of profits they weren't spending because state-of-repair really wasn't an issue for them, but they liked the margins they were racking up as a Class II too much to go real big and start playing merger/acquisition games with Class I carriers (back when merger mania was running hot amongst Class I's 20 years ago during CSX's & Norfolk Southern's joint buy/dismemberment of Conrail, BNSF's merging of Burlington Northern and Atchinson Topeka & Santa Fe, and Union Pacific's swallow of Southern Pacific). The activist hedge funds got involved with them because in market psychology sitting on too-large piles of cash without doing anything with it is considered a bad thing. So Fortress bought in, did some realigning with its other rail holdings to rebalance its portfolio...and then started wooing the private pax outfit All Aboard Florida to plan out what would become the Brightline network. Since the mainline was in such superb shape and the freight meets were already immaculately-timed in each direction, it wouldn't take a huge investment to get passenger service up and running. They could upgrade their existing Class 4 (80 MPH) track to Class 5 (90 MPH) & Class 6 (110 MPH) without it being killer, and really only need to add as much double-tracking and crossovers as was needed solely by the passenger trains because freight meets were already so set-it-and-forget it. And eventually the A.A.F. coalition got enriched with the Virgin partnership to get them off to the races.

Today...Fortress managed to capitalize its portfolio on the burst of Brightline-related upgrade money to sell the FEC again, this time to the ginormous Grupo México RR/mining/construction conglomerate which owns Mexican Class I freight carrier Ferromex. The new owners are now seeking freight routing synergies across the Gulf between the FEC and already huge Ferromex network where it crosses the U.S. border in Texas, mainly for the Florida intermodal and limestone traffic that fits Grupo México's portfolio. But because the Fortress investors got a quick burst of freight upgrades for their passenger gamble and Brightline itself is well-invested from other sources, they weren't taking on the same liability as carrying a loss-leader passenger program fully on their own ledgers and were able to steam ahead thinking big.


Now...all of that worked out splendidly, but it was extremely unique in time and place to the FEC and doesn't really have an analogue elsewhere in the country. The sprawly national Class I's simply aren't self-contained enough to run such tight ships in every facet on their mainlines as the FEC did, for one. It's not that CSX isn't as well-run up here...it's simply that their scope is so very very different having to run 100K miles of track from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, Mississippi to Atlantic Ocean that any niche routes with fully pre-tightened bolts are sitting and waiting. And the economics of passenger service are way different in most other parts of the country, weighting heavier to daily job-seeking commuter rail as first layer of service...intercity second. Florida having year-round tourism makes the higher profit-margin intercity service denser than an Amtrak Silver Service LD from Washington and sparser than a local commuter run easier to mount without dealing with decades worth of early losses in pursuit of building an audience. Tri-Rail (Miami, 1989) and SunRail (Orlando, 2014) are relatively recent-launch commuter rail services still very limited in scope, growing but not yet nearly as essential as their Northeastern counterparts.

So the timing was also very unique to post-2000 Florida and basically has no analogue elsewhere else in the country with exception of Vegas-L.A. where Virgin is now making hay accumulating funding & permits for Brightline West. So we're not exactly sitting at the tipping point of a new private passenger revolution, as basically the only two tourist-megaheavy corridors that suit that class of travel as first move have been spoken for and everywhere else it's either bootstrapping corridor routes on pretty well-developed local hubs (i.e. better job for Amtrak) or crying more for local-funded fast starts like Denver FasTraks. So it's not like there'll never be new private passenger services to tap. They're just very niche in place and time where they'll take off...and it took an awfully long time to even get that fit with Brightline since the first talk 35 years ago so isn't the sort of insta-proliferating prospect recent developments may make it superficially resemble.
 

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All transit agencies should be doing more to recoup rail costs from the upside of real estate
 

F-Line to Dudley

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All transit agencies should be doing more to recoup rail costs from the upside of real estate
That too. The FEC was absolutely loaded with real estate holdings at would-be TOD sites along Brightline. So part/parcel of Fortess Investments' financing plan was to strip those real estate holdings from the Railroad and bank on the self-profits from aggressive TOD around the new stations. When they repackaged the FEC for sale to Grupo México, Fortress largely kept or self-bartered most of that choice real estate for redev futures to give itself a long and prosperous amortization path in future decades to writing off the Brightline investment.

This is also where the applicability to other areas of the country is limited. When the Northeastern private RR's went splat in bankruptcy, they largely had to ply their choicest real estate away in their bankruptcy reorgs as a matter of survival, so very little TOD'able land was still under lock-and-key when the very notion of "TOD" started to become a viable planning thing by the 80's. The constituent RR's, including lots of the state-buy lines, had been gutted down to their barest ops-essential properties with the only dormant holds being largely industrial and very heavily polluted making quick sell-off a nonstarter. While some transit agencies such as the T do have fairly flush (if unevenly so) real estate portfolios, the remainders in the Northeast are nothing compared to what the more financially stable FEC was able to hold onto through the postwar decline. With Florida being a thoroughly recent boom state, the fact that they were one of the state's largest owners of open land in rapidly densifying areas was one coincidence unique to them that allowed Brightline's financing to be heavily leveraged in real estate futures. Analogues to that pitch-perfect situation are very few and far between elsewhere in the country. So, again...Brightline ended up a creation very much of its time and place, with few easy parallels to the rest of the U.S.
 

DBM

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with exception of Vegas-L.A. where Virgin is now making hay accumulating funding & permits for Brightline West.
Having lived out there (now many years back) and witnessed prior proposals having imploded (whether due to said prior iterations having been "Simpsons 'Monorail'"-style cases of carny hucksterism, I cannot recall), I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see this one is so close to construction. But, sweet Jesus, what a grotesque absurdity that service is set to launch only from Victorville! That's, uh... (checks notes) 80 miles from Downtown LA, via I-15 corridor.

So, even if the train actually does average 200 mph as advertised over the 170-mile route envisioned, for a 50-minute trip from the Victorville station to the LV station that's set to be a bit south of McCarran, when you add 20 minutes of parking/waiting/boarding in Victorville (minimum), 20 minutes of disembarking/getting your Uber at the LV station (minimum), you're up to 90 minutes (minimum, but let's be generous for now).

EDIT: 90 minutes PLUS the time you've already spent driving to the Victorville station, of course. So if you can do that 80 miles from Downtown in 90 minutes (55 mph seems reasonable given the proverbially insane traffic in the LA Basin on I-10 at all times of the day), then your trip is up to 3 hours already.

But would the frequency right from the start be as convenient as hourly, say, from 9 am-9 pm daily? If not, add another strike compounding the preexisting absurdity of service not getting anywhere near to the LA Basin initially. Meanwhile, it's 270 miles from Downtown LA to the Strip via I-15, which can be done in less than 4 hours safely via car (and of course a shorter drive time for the millions of folks in the LA Basin east of Downtown).

I just don't get why they wouldn't delay a little longer to get everything in place for actual service "over the hump" of the Cajon Pass and into the basin. Is working with the preexisting Metrolink rail infrastructure (which I presume would be the tie-in, unless they'd need to build an entirely new set of tracks to handle the requirements for these bullet trains?) that brutal? Regardless, at this point, what on earth is the rush? Get it right from the start by only launching service once there are actually stations in the basin...
 
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F-Line to Dudley

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Brightline West's Victorville terminus isn't set in stone, so there's movement afoot to fix the "middle of nowhere terminus" while they're still moving way faster than CAHSR (who are the ones fully responsible for building the last-mile L.A. connection).

A wad of Measure M funding was allocated by LAMCTA to extend Metrolink's Antelope Valley Line from Palmdale to Victorville. IIRC it's a bunch of old funds from a canceled freeway that has been reallocated to transit. Once Metrolink implants in Victorville there'd be first a slow-speed diesel transfer.

Second...Brightline took out an ROW lease with San Bernardino County Transit Authority to build a direct Rancho Cucamonga spur off the Vegas mainline hitting Metrolink's much busier Inland Empire line. Metrolink would then electrify the Inland Empire so direct run-thru is possible, and do it here on the much busier Inland Empire line instead of the sparse and winding Antelope Valley Line which is longer, slower, and has the lowest CR ridership on the system. That would then be their ticket to L.A. Union until CAHSR rearranges the last-mile blending with more capable infrastructure.

While they still have some work to square with the local authorities on both of these connectivity projects, the wind in the past year has changed to their backside at getting them done. If the service debuts as a stub-out in the desert, that shouldn't remain its default condition for very long until the Metrolink tendrils get implanted.
 

DBM

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Second...Brightline took out an ROW lease with San Bernardino County Transit Authority to build a direct Rancho Cucamonga spur off the Vegas mainline
Thanks as always for your quick and comprehensive replies; it's a mitzvah to this board that you are as well-versed in rail planning/ops beyond New England as you are in our crabby, cramped, and cold NE corner of the lower 48.

Interestingly, I'd assumed that the I-15 corridor through Cajon Pass would have steeper grades than the average 6% slope for 4 miles here at the mountain pass just south of the NV stateline, but, per Wikipedia, the rail-line through there actually achieved much more modest slopes of 2-3%.

But, holy disaster! That still didn't prevent this nightmare of Newtonian physics from taking place in Cajon Pass in 1989, I see. "the steep downhill grade south of the pass was a contributing factor"... in 1989!!

I have to assume, though, with a multi-mile freight train, burdened with dozens of tons of bulk commodities (presumably), the equations involved are so much more fearful in terms of braking failures than with a presumably vastly lighter (and shorter) bullet train being engineered to scale (and descend) those heights...

EDIT: this reminds me of how spectacular the drive is on the Angeles Crest highway from Wrightwood to Pasadena. For all of the sleaze, filth, and tacky vulgarity associated with the LA and LV basins, the terrain out there is breath-taking in so many places.

EDIT2: when that freight train derailed right here in 1989, traveling at 110 mph and weighing 8,900 tons per that Wiki page, and crashed into the houses that used to stand here, it released a force (if my calculations are correct) equivalent to 9.75 gigajoules. That's as if 2.3 TONS of TNT were detonated on that block at the moment of impact. Would it have registered as an earthquake with all the seismometers installed around Cajon Pass for the San Andreas, presumably?
 
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HenryAlan

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I just don't get why they wouldn't delay a little longer to get everything in place for actual service "over the hump" of the Cajon Pass and into the basin. Is working with the preexisting Metrolink rail infrastructure (which I presume would be the tie-in, unless they'd need to build an entirely new set of tracks to handle the requirements for these bullet trains?) that brutal? Regardless, at this point, what on earth is the rush? Get it right from the start by only launching service once there are actually stations in the basin...
As F-Line points out, the Victorville terminus is at most temporary and quite possibly not even going to be. But suppose there is a period when that is where the trains stop. Your scenario regarding travel from DTLA is accurate, but a lot of people live closer to Victorville than that. I'm not sure it kills the concept, particularly if the gaps are going to be filled soon anyway.
 

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As F-Line points out, the Victorville terminus is at most temporary and quite possibly not even going to be. But suppose there is a period when that is where the trains stop. Your scenario regarding travel from DTLA is accurate, but a lot of people live closer to Victorville than that. I'm not sure it kills the concept, particularly if the gaps are going to be filled soon anyway.
Also, keep in mind that Victorville was the original terminus of this project dating back >1 decade and several owners ago, on assumption that CAHSR would be proceeding faster on the L.A. linkup and it wouldn't have to be the Vegas venture's problem. Things are obviously different. HOWEVER, Brightline West was also anticipating that the hardest part of its job was going to be securing permitting TO Victorville from the CA state line. But given the hay they've managed to make in the last 2 years getting all their paperwork in order with a slew of alphabet-soup statewide and local/regional agencies in CA with nary a hiccup, what was expected to be their hardest regulatory hurdle turned out easy. So they were able to go further and start direct-negotiating with the local Metrolink-territorial agencies for sooner bootstraps, and get the homegrown lease on the Rancho Cucamonga spur to cover their bases.

As per last post, if the Opening Day terminus is still Victorville it won't be more than a few years after that before Rancho Cucamonga + 1 electrified Metrolink line give them the full-on one-seat. They have their butts covered. And if/when CAHSR does finally terraform the last-mile linkup, both the Antelope Valley Line extension to Victorville and the Rancho Cucamonga spur to the Inland Empire line assure that there will be 2 lifetime-useful direct Metrolink connections to the service above and beyond the final CAHSR blending segment to L.A. (that hopefully goes a bit faster-than-conventional speed). So overall the project gets very high marks for what it's been able to push in paper in CA in a *very* tough paper-pushing state, and for enriching its fortunes around CAHSR's follies. You are still reliant on CAHSR for Cajon Pass; dealing with Union Pacific there simply craps bigger'n Brightline West operating solo. But the fact that they are able to string together service starts without overtly relying on CAHSR to do it for them sooner means that they've got a leg up on making this work for them right out-of-box.
 
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F-Line to Dudley

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First 4 units of Metro North's +60 (expandable via contract options to +94) M8 EMU supplemental order are en route to New Haven for testing. This is about 2 years tardy from when they were originally expected, as Kawasaki has been backed up to hell with LIRR's M9's and COVID supply-chaining issues.


^--- near Chicago last week.
 

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First test train of Amtrak Midwest Siemens Venture single-levels. We've seen the California ones for the San Joaquins. These are the first new ones for Chicago hub.


Paint job's a spot-on match for the Charger locos. BTW...the Heritage sleeper car in the middle is AMTK Company Car "Pacific Bend", trotted out for special occasions as a crew office car.


EDIT: Sharp-looking train!




And...bygawd...those huge-ass windows. :love:
 
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F-Line to Dudley

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F-Line to Dudley

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I hear Biden is creating death trains to take people to re-education camps where everyone is forced to drink Starbucks.
The way the Ohio State Legislature is stacked to the gills with QAnon locusts, that's probably not far off from what they'd write on the masthead for the show bill banning any kind of state rail funding.:(

These proposals are so eminently logical they should've been enacted 25 years ago right about same time Michigan got religion about building out its Chicago-hub route appendages like its world depended on it. And yet even with a conservative GOP Gov. who's a straight ahead 15-years-ago's-party-maintreamer (i.e. almost literally a RINO by today's standards) supporting the passenger rail buildout it doesn't stand a chance because they're the northeasternmost state to catch a fatal case of insurrectionist swamp fever in the Legislature. Even the one-time shennanigans of the PA Senate during the electoral vote certification pale for what passes as daily rabble in both houses of Columbus. So sadly despite being practical and long overdue, such plans are a total generational mismatch for the makeup of elected State Gov't right now.
 

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The way the Ohio State Legislature is stacked to the gills with QAnon locusts, that's probably not far off from what they'd write on the masthead for the show bill banning any kind of state rail funding.:(

These proposals are so eminently logical they should've been enacted 25 years ago right about same time Michigan got religion about building out its Chicago-hub route appendages like its world depended on it. And yet even with a conservative GOP Gov. who's a straight ahead 15-years-ago's-party-maintreamer (i.e. almost literally a RINO by today's standards) supporting the passenger rail buildout it doesn't stand a chance because they're the northeasternmost state to catch a fatal case of insurrectionist swamp fever in the Legislature. Even the one-time shennanigans of the PA Senate during the electoral vote certification pale for what passes as daily rabble in both houses of Columbus. So sadly despite being practical and long overdue, such plans are a total generational mismatch for the makeup of elected State Gov't right now.
Yup, its nice to look at, but theyre guaranteed to vote against it because if "Amtrak Biden" likes it, it must be bad.

The Trump admin spent 4 years giving blue states jack shit. Something like 95% of the TIGER money went to red states/districts. Time for Ds to repay the favor.

If not, it will be like 2009 all over again. Sending money to Wisconsin/Florida/Ohio and all we got out of it were Talgo train sets that were built and never used.
 

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Could anyone ( @F-Line to Dudley ) give a very quick rundown (or direct me to a post where this has been discussed) as to why the Brightline project in Florida seems to be proceeding so much more smoothly than, well, anything we do up here?

Terrain? Density? Regulations? Privately run? All four? If so, which are the most important?
Dominus -- Everything technical from F-Line is as usual solid and right on target

Two more factors:
Topography -- Florida in case you didn't notice is a flat slab of limestone with a slight tilt from north to south -- the highest point is in the panhandle at 345. Outside of that hill the rest of the state is less than 200 feet above sea level
Greater Boston can vary by nearly 300 feet just going from Cambridge on the Charles to Arlington Heights where there is a neo-classical water tank at 282 ft

Population Density and state of development -- Florida despite being 3rd in population in the US is very sparse outside of a few metro areas [1/2 the 880 people / sq mi average pop density of MA -- but there are several counties with less than 10% the average population density of MA] -- as a result away from the Gulf or the Atlantic coast land is very cheap

Finally -- Florida still has lots of big farms -- enabling easements for a rail line without disturbing houses or factories

Hence you cn almost do in Florida with a railroad -- the Tsar Alexander III Trans-Siberian Railroad thing -- take a map a straight edge and a pencil -- draw a line across 7 time zones -- and then say Here!
 

DominusNovus

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Dominus -- Everything technical from F-Line is as usual solid and right on target

Two more factors:
Topography -- Florida in case you didn't notice is a flat slab of limestone with a slight tilt from north to south -- the highest point is in the panhandle at 345. Outside of that hill the rest of the state is less than 200 feet above sea level
Greater Boston can vary by nearly 300 feet just going from Cambridge on the Charles to Arlington Heights where there is a neo-classical water tank at 282 ft

Population Density and state of development -- Florida despite being 3rd in population in the US is very sparse outside of a few metro areas [1/2 the 880 people / sq mi average pop density of MA -- but there are several counties with less than 10% the average population density of MA] -- as a result away from the Gulf or the Atlantic coast land is very cheap

Finally -- Florida still has lots of big farms -- enabling easements for a rail line without disturbing houses or factories

Hence you cn almost do in Florida with a railroad -- the Tsar Alexander III Trans-Siberian Railroad thing -- take a map a straight edge and a pencil -- draw a line across 7 time zones -- and then say Here!
Yup, thats what I was referring to when I said terrain and density.
 

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