Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This Weeks Rail Thoughts

I have been kind of quiet on the subject lately, but the things that I have been reading in the past week have brought the regional rail idea more to the fore.

First off, the work that R. J. Corman Railroad is doing along side the Rupp parking lot and the intersection of W. Main St and Oliver Lewis Way is progressing smoothly. They have installed a fairly short (and steep) section of track that branches off of the main line just south of its crossing at Second St. This track then runs up a nearly 6% grade until it levels out parallel to the crest of the embankment which overlooks the rail yard.

This clearly has one sole purpose. To display some of the various rail equipment used by the Central Kentucky Lines portion of Corman rail group. They are also almost ready to place the rail under the new bridge now that the drainage and electrical line placements have been resolved. There is a location for a transformer pad and what I'm told will be a “glass house”. I am supposing that this will look similar to the architecture of the aviation facility in Nicholasville and will be used to protect some railcars (and /or people) should they establish a dinner train style operation. A Corman spokesman has continued to say that the railroad has “no formal plans for an excursion train”but all the construction, both here in Lexington and in Midway are some of the many pieces that “need to come together before an excursion train becomes reality.”

In Midway, if you don't know, the track runs right through the middle of Main St. and leaves little room for a long train to stop without blocking one of two city streets. The right of way for the railroad actually is wide enough for two parallel tracks without eliminating traffic or parking. The railroad is working with the City of Midway in building such a parallel track and doing some streetscape improvements.

Neither of these two track work projects are part of the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant recently awarded for track upgrading on several of the Corman lines in a few states. One more piece of the puzzle was the wye that they re-established near Christianburg and provides a beautiful place in which to turn a train.

Corman has nearly quadrupled the amount of rail traffic on the line to Louisville in the 5 or 6 years that he has controlled it and its soon-to-be-completed upgrading will allow more freight traffic just in time for the price of fuel to make long-haul trucking cost prohibitive. The trucking industry has not made their trucks any more fuel efficient than the auto industry has cars. That said, the idea of a regional commuter rail service to Louisville, though interesting, is made just a little bit harder.

I hear of many commuters who travel from Lexington to Frankfort or Louisville daily who say that they are willing to go by rail, but I am not sure that they have thought it completely through. Many of them have found their efficient route via auto, and many of them avoid the normal rush hour snarls of downtown. If they were to go by rail and the station is downtown, then they are now a part of the traffic that they have so far avoided. There is also an added level of commute time involved which needs to be considered. For all of their talk, we are still at least ten years late in beginning to think about commuter rail service.

On the topic of High Speed Rail, it now seem clear that the Republican majority in the House is set on erasing all gains that the present administration has attempted to make. Without requiring vastly more fuel efficiency in autos and trucks and better alternatives to the fossil fuels we currently use, I think that they are wanting the country to live in the status quo. Other countries are not so conservative about it.

We cannot let the market decide about these things. Consider this. Based on extensive research Airbus committed, back in 2000, to build a massive 4 engined aircraft seating 500-800 passengers. The demand would come from the Asian market and a large part of that from China. Boeing, interestingly enough, came to a eerily similar decision. With the emergence of the Chinese market and the need for large numbers of people to travel between China's major cities and internationally, this looked like a sound decision. Now, 11 years later, one and just one southeast Asian airline has taken delivery of any of these super jumbo jets. That is one A380 out of the five ordered. Boeing has sold none of the passenger models but has orders for the freight versions What, pray tell, is the difference in the past 11 years. China's high speed rail.

This decision was basically an economic one. One 16 car-long 300 km/h train set costs roughly $80 million and seats 1050 while one Airbus A380 costs $360 million and seats 650. You can do the math.

Although the A380 is perhaps the most fuel-efficient large airliner in the sky today on a per-seat/km or seat/mile basis, figures from Airbus and Siemens show that at A380 burns nearly six times as much energy per seat/km as a modern high-speed train. The Chinese will buy from the Western world, but not if what they can build is cheaper. The Chinese have built over 6300 miles of high speed rail line in the past 10 years and the Europeans are continuing to expand their high speed routes while we worry about who will or will not benefit from building it. The answer is definitely the Chinese, they win if the build their own and the win if we don't build ours.

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