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Breakfast links: On time, over budget

Photo by John H Gray on Flickr.
Trains run on time: VRE achieved its best on-time performance ever, with 92.9% of trains on time in 2011. Ridership was also strong. (Examiner)

With more cars: VRE will buy eight Japanese railcars for $23.1 million to meet new demand and replace old equipment. The price was higher than expected as there was only 1 bidder. (Post)

Alexandria approves waterfront plan: Alexandria passed the city's waterfront development plan which aims to bring parks, hotels, and shops to the area. (NBC4)

DC leads in LEED: DC has more than 11 times the LEED certified space per capita than any state in the country, thanks to its density as well as leadership from both the federal and local government. (MyFoxDC)

Garvey wins nomination: Libby Garvey won the Democratic nomination for Arlington County Board. She defeated 4 other candidates, including Melissa Bondi. (Patch)

Convince drivers to pay more: Getting people to support anything that makes driving more expensive, like increasing the gas tax or congestion charges, takes education. The Council of Governments is working on a strategy to do just that. (City Paper)

Takoma gets TOD: Takoma Park is starting to see some transit-oriented development in the 2-phase Takoma Central project. The hope is this will bridge the gap between the Takoma Metro station and Carroll Ave. (DCmud)

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Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University. He currently lives in Southwest DC.  


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There are three interesting assertions in the examiner article on VRE:

1. Ridership grew in 2006 after service was improved: Is that the case, or did it had more to do with an increase in gas prices

2. The cut in transit benefits willl have no affect on future ridership

3. It seems, unlike WMATA, the ridership growth is not correlated to how bad the economy is doing.

by charlie on Jan 23, 2012 9:20 am • linkreport

In the same manner that we should look beyond vehicle throughput (to things such as passenger-miles) to assess road network efficiency, shouldn't we be looking at better metrics than train on-time performance to assess transit efficiency? I want to know things like percentages of passengers arriving on-time and average passenger delays. Seems to me that those are the kind of metrics that can help drive better service decisions.

by Nate on Jan 23, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

Even though Bondi was endorsed by GGW, I didn't vote for her. While there may be perfectly legitimate answers to the tax/lien questions surrounding her, I've lived close enough to the District for long enough to learn that where there is ethics smoke, there is usually ethics fire. She (and certainly the people endorsing her) should have known better than to go into the fray without having already researched and been able to respond quickly and with certainty to the issues.

by ksu499 on Jan 23, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

I'm also a bit surprised that VRE can't find a better deal on the railcars. They should submit a new request for bids, and shop around for a better deal for such a small order.

MARC will be piggybacking on an order by NJTransit, and I believe that there are quite a few agencies around the country (and Canada) that are placing orders for equipment that should meet VRE's requirements. These new orders should also result in a number of older railcars becoming available on the secondhand market, which VRE may want to consider, as there seem to be questions about the stability of the service's ridership levels.

MARC's shared order with NJT and AMT (Montreal) will also result in a huge number of NJT's BiLevel coaches being in operation all along the east coast (about 650). Down the road, this will presumably offer some considerable advantages for maintenance, operation, refurbishment, and sharing/swapping equipment as necessary.

Purchasing 8 fairly unique railcars from a vendor without a big presence in the US simply doesn't sound like a great strategy. They'll be very expensive to maintain, potentially tricky to operate, and difficult to sell later on.

Elsewhere in the industry, there also seems to be a big push for standardization and homogenous fleets.

  • Amtrak's placing a huge new order for locomotives to pull the Northeast Regional trains, replacing a mixture of new and old locomotives currently in service. Some of the locomotives being replaced are only 10 years old.
  • NYCT are aggressively replacing their (very diverse) older subway fleet with a small handful of very similar car types (R142/R160).
  • Even though their tunnel project was cancelled, NJT continue to expand their MultiLevel coach fleet, and are simplifying their locomotive roster. Their large fleet of 'Comet' coaches have proven to be very reliable, easy to maintain, and eventually became very popular with other agencies.
  • WMATA are replacing the 1000-series, and equipping the Silver Line in one fell swoop. The 2000 and 3000-series were refurbished to be functionally identical. The small 4000-series fleet has recently become problematic, by virtue of using older/different technologies than the rest of WMATA's equipment. The current plan is to refurbish them to be virtually identical to the 7000-series, assuming that such a plan proves to be cost-effective. Issues with the 5000-series seem to have also made the agency apprehensive about trying new designs or technologies. For a "completely-new" design, the 7000-series is pretty conservative.

Amtrak are an interesting exception here. Although they've placed huge orders for new locomotives, as well as a big order to replace some of the most ridiculously-old equipment (ie. 1950s-vintage) in operation, they're also expressing a long-term desire to begin refurbishing/replacing/expanding their fleet on a rolling basis, with small numbers of new coaches being commissioned each year.

The hope is that this fleet management strategy will allow the American manufacturing industry to step up, and begin producing and manufacturing railcars on a continuous basis, as the current strategy of placing massive orders makes it impossible for new firms to enter the market, and even more difficult for them to stay in business between orders.

Establishing a domestic industry is a good idea for some fairly obvious reasons (jobs; GDP; shipping costs), but also important, because we currently pay huge premiums for "custom" railcars that meet US safety restrictions. The US cannot currently buy trains "off of the shelf" from any major manufacturer, with the possible sole exception of the aforementioned Bombardier MultiLevel coaches being purchased by MARC, NJT, and AMT. There is currently no manufacturer willing to produce Diesel Multiple-Unit trains that meet US standards.

Amtrak have proposed designing a standardized "base" railcar that would retain compatibility and simplify maintenance, but also allow for incremental technological improvements, competition between bidders, and slightly reduce the barriers to entry for new manufacturers. There's some precedent here with the PCC streetcar, which was standardized, hugely successful, and still in use almost 90 years later.

Sorry for the long and off-topic rant....

by andrew on Jan 23, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport


There are two issues - one is the FRA, which limits the universe of potential bidders to only those that have North American specialization. Given the relatively small market for railcars in the US, that's not a huge market to start with, since these cars are far too heavy to be used anywhere else.

The other part is on VRE. They can't really buy used cars, since the ones they're replacing are ex-Metra cars from Chicago. The other thing is their standard - I believe they want Gallery cars, not just Bi-Levels.

What they should do is switch away from old railroad style ticketing and move to a proof of payment system, which could reduce labor costs and remove the reason for gallery cars (to reduce workload for conductors checking tickets).

Either way, there's no comprehensive thinking on the subject. VRE is simply responding to the incentives they face, and the result is a substandard product and service.

by Alex B. on Jan 23, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

On the VRE Piece:

I too am confused by VRE's special "specifications". Aren't they just like any other commuter railroad in the US? At least they don't have to contend with low tunnels as NJ Transit and LIRR have to. Piggybacking off another agency's order seems most prudent and I suspect their hesitance has to do with the ticket collection system (which is identical to NJ Transit, which has full bi-level coaches).

I believe Amtrak is purchasing the new locomotives primarily to replace their HHP-8 fleet, which has been riddled with technical problems since delivery.

Ideally, there should be new standard vehicles for a variety of transit systems: commuter, subway, light rail, trolley, etc. The design for each would be open-source (or licensed) and any manufacturing company could compete for bids to build, which would reduce design and other costs. This would be a similar arrangement as the SOAC rapid transit vehicles, Canada's ICTS and the PCC Streetcars of yesteryear.

by John Marzabadi on Jan 23, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

@John Marzabadi:
Standardization is already happening. Many light rail systems now use very similar (or the same) rollingstock. Commuter rail is like that, too.

But the systems often have very divergent needs, too.

Take for example MARC and NJ Transit, which have recently ordered a bunch of multi-levels. These cars allow for boarding at either high- or low-platform stations. And that means that the boarding is done at the mid-level, about 5 steps above the ground when the steps are down.

But VRE doesn't have a single high-level platform. And so they use stock that is only a few shallow steps above the ground. It's much easier for people to board from the ground level that way. And they would get no benefit from high-level cars.

Now, there are plenty of systems that also use cars like that (Salt Lake, Minneapolis, San Fran, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle... I could go on. Anyway, as Alex B mentioned above, VRE's ticket collection system is predicated on use of the gallery cars.

There are valid reasons for agencies to require their own designs. There's also plenty of room for standardization.

I think the best bet in this case is for VRE to do what Alex B suggested: Stop insisting on using the gallery cars. Just move to a low-level boarding bi-level, like those used by TRE, Caltrain, Go Transit, and others. (But not a high-level car like used by MARC and NJ Transit.)

by Matt Johnson on Jan 23, 2012 7:40 pm • linkreport

You can persuade drivers to pay more, but you usually cannot convince them that the additional amount won't hurt them.

by The Civic Center on Jan 23, 2012 7:44 pm • linkreport

Better example:
In order to persuade drivers to pay more, you must convince them that the additional amount won't hurt them.

by The Civic Center on Jan 23, 2012 11:58 pm • linkreport

How does VRE accomodate wheelchair access if they don't have any high-level platforms?

by andrew on Jan 24, 2012 12:05 am • linkreport


VRE cars have lifts.

by Alex B. on Jan 24, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport

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