American Railroads

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Location: Middleburg (Jacksonville), Florida, United States

Published in Trains magazine, Railfan & Railroad, Passenger Train Journal

Thursday, October 05, 2006

When and where will commuter trains

call on Pawtucket? January, maybe, but…

A commuter rail stop serving Pawtucket and Central Falls could attract 1,100 daily commuters, three-fourths of them new riders not currently serviced elsewhere, an engineering consultant outlined Tuesday in a presentation.

The consultant, David Wilcock, had a rapt audience of more than two-dozen movers and shakers, including Mayor James E. Doyle and planning and other local officials, representatives of the state Department of Transportation and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the developers who own the depot site on Broad Street, and tourism, preservation and affordable housing advocates, among others.

Wilcock, planning and operations manager for transit and rail for Boston-based Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., was summing up the results to date of a $344,000 city-commissioned study on the viability of bringing commuter rail – and a coveted T stop – to the city, the Pawtucket Times reported on Tuesday.

Billed as a “stakeholders” meeting, the presentation, slide show and all, will be repeated for the public on October 24 at 7:00 p.m. in the first floor theater of the downtown Visitors Center building.

Come January, the study’s current outline will take on three dimensions with cost estimates and a comparative ranking of which of two proposed sites would best suit a commuter rail stop to a T: The 3.4 acre depot property on Broad Street or small freight yard adjacent the former Union Wadding mill complex on Goff Avenue.

Both sites, Wilcock said after Tuesday’s two-hour session, have their pluses and minuses and neither could be immediately ruled in or out for a T stop.

He said prior rough estimates by transportation officials that the stop could cost $25 million to $30 million (about a third just for rail improvements) to create were likely in the ballpark, based on similar T stops elsewhere.

Determining factors will include the cost and ability to install adjacent parking, neighboring economic impact or what’s called “transit oriented development,” platform access that at either site would require elevators and stairs to get to and from the below-grade train tracks, the fate of the 90-year-old Beaux Arts depot building itself where, Wilcock said, trains last ran on a regular basis about 20 years ago, and whether the stop would be on a curve or if that would be avoided.

The VHB study has not evaluated the condition of the depot building – the bricks and mortar part – which Wilcock said would come in a later phase if that site was chosen, but an early part of the study released last spring determined the concrete slab on which the building sits to be basically sound, despite some damage from water entering along courses where electric utilities were pulled out.

Wilcock said several cost factors favored the Goff Avenue site, including more land and more level land for construction and parking, but other factors were less in its favor.

“There’s some railroad costs that swing the other way,” he said, including railroad signaling.

“The railroad signal block is a section of track that controls the movement of the trains. There’s a little gray metal building, called a signal bungalow,” now on the west side of the tracks at the Goff Avenue site, readily seen looking east from the Conant Street bridge.

Wilcock said Amtrak requires having at least one “block” - the length of which can vary, according to the length of the trains and the speed they go, from “a few thousand feet to a couple of miles,” for each train.

“Only one train can be in that section of track at one time,” he explained, but the existing signal bungalow straddles right across the border of what would be two delineated blocks for a commuter rail stop. Since “they don’t allow you to put stations on a break (between blocks),” Wilcock said, two consecutive blocks would have to be set aside for safety, and the signal bungalow and all its electronics relocated.

“It’s a safety factor cost,” he said, “and of course with the Goff Avenue site you get the whole issue that the yard has to be relocated.”

Wilcock noted that on another VHB project in the Rutland, Vt., area, visits to 20 sites turned up no alternates that were feasible or would not have faced intense opposition, including from neighborhoods not wanting a new railroad yard in their back yard.

On the other hand, “The depot is on the tightest part of the curve,” although “it doesn’t mean we can’t use that building or use that general area.” A straight stretch of track is preferable, Wilcock said. Numerous stations throughout the Northeast Corridor were built on curves.

The depot building, whose preservation fate has been a two-year source of controversy, may actually offer advantages when it comes to locating the platforms to and from the trains, according to Wilcock.

Sketching the two sites on a pad, he pointed out that the platforms at Goff Avenue could be set directly across from each other, as typically preferred, but going from the far one back to the parking lot would require an elevator (needed also to assure handicap access) and possible connection to the Conant Street bridge, closed about 15 years ago and still waiting to be rebuilt.

The elevator would have to go “outside” the platform structure, subjecting it to weather, and the MBTA prefers not dealing with elevators due to maintenance issues, Wilcock said.

Conversely, the depot’s existing freight elevator shafts could be redeployed, Wilcock said, for passengers.

Although the platforms, if installed at the depot location, would not be directly across from each other, they could be offset and still overlap somewhat. The building itself, which straddles the tracks, could be the pass-through from one platform to the other, “one at the east end of the curve and one at the west end,” Wilcock said.

“The access costs (to get to the trains at the depot site) might be a little higher but it’s not a big cost factor, and it is also ease of use. It depends where the parking is,” Wilcock said, noting also, “These are all considerations that can cut both ways.”

Wilcock made those comments after his presentation. His slide show listed what the study had looked at: Ridership estimates (as high as 1,700 per day 20 years down the line, but about 600 to start), whether the depot slab is solid enough to be built on (yes), the requirement to avoid interfering with Amtrak’s regular and high speed Acela service or Providence & Worcester Railroad freight service, and how many stops per day could be accommodated by working around those restrictions (almost two dozen, including during the morning and afternoon peak commute, under a shortened 10-minute turnaround time).

The passenger “catchment” area or “ridershipshed” would extend up the Blackstone Valley and into North Providence as well as the two host cities.

VHB’s analysis forecasts that 20 to 30 years from now 1,100 commuters [will be] heading north to Boston and returning daily, another 250 to 550 going south to Providence, and 150 to 170 taking the T to T.F. Green Airport.

They would arrive 64 to 74 percent to park their cars, 13 percent by “kiss and ride” drop-off, 11 to 23 percent on foot, and a fraction on public transportation.

“We feel these numbers are fairly conservative” and a sound basis for planning, Wilcock said.

The current VHB study, funded with $100,000 through DOT and $200,000 from the Federal Transit Administration, after input from stakeholders and the public, should wrap up by January with a site recommendation.

City Planner Michael Cassidy said an additional $50,000 grant has been secured to study the transit oriented development impacts for a mile radius from the T stop location.

Jack Mitchell, one of the partners who bought the depot acreage last year, said last week they are moving ahead with a pharmacy planned on the Central Falls side of the property, but will strip off and store the front 18 feet of the depot building to provide traffic flow access, reiterated their desire to bring the T stop to their site.

“We’ve waited for two-and-a-half years. We’ve sat on the property. I don’t know how anyone could even question we want a T stop. We want the train station; we’re hoping we’re the ones they choose. We think our site makes a lot more sense” for its positive impact on those living and working in the nearby area, he said.

Greenbush line foes lose battle

Foes of the Greenbush commuter rail line may have lost their final legal battle.

A federal court judge has ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers properly issued environmental permits for the $500 million project that could be transporting people by this time next year between the Greenbush section of Scituate and South Station in Boston, according to Wednesday’s Patriot Ledger.

The loss is the 12th straight defeat in court for Advocates for Transportation Alternatives, the Hingham-based anti-train group headed by John and Martha Bewick opposing Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority expansion onto a former New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad branch line. It originally was part of the Old Colony Railroad, which merged with the New Haven around the turn of the 19th Century.

The federal lawsuit, which was filed in early 2005, was the last active piece of legal action the group had in state or federal court.

In August, a state superior court judge dismissed a challenge by the group over environmental permits the state had issued.

John Bewick, a former environmental affairs secretary in Massachusetts, said the group is not yet sure whether it will pursue its lawsuits any further.

‘‘We’re evaluating our options with counsel,’’ he said.

Joseph Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said the agency was ‘‘not surprised’’ by the outcome and urged the group to end what has become a constant stream of lawsuits.

‘‘The MBTA has defended the Greenbush project before a court 12 times and all 12 times the MBTA has prevailed,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s time the opponents saw the writing on the wall.’’

Despite the lawsuits, work on the rail line has been progressing in Braintree, Weymouth, Hingham, Cohasset and Scituate. The project is scheduled to be largely finished in three months, with train service expected to start in mid-2007.

It’s an intermodal move:

Howland Hook gets trains again

When the 261,000-pound diesel locomotive clattered over the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge on Wednesday afternoon, it marked the first such trip in 20 years between New Jersey and the ship terminal at Howland Hook in Mariners Harbor, the Staten Island Advance reported today.

The engine’s arrival heralded a fast-approaching transformation in the way the 85,000 freight containers arriving each year on ships from all over the globe – filled with such cargo as shoes, bananas, CD players, pillows, pens and frozen shrimp – will be transported.

In upcoming months, the 400 trucks now leaving the New York Container Terminal at Howland Hook each week, weaving into thick traffic across the Goethals Bridge, will become history.

After a decade of planning and $180 million in city- and Port Authority-funded improvements in the long-dormant rails connecting New Jersey, Arlington Yard and the West Shore, the terminal will now be linked with the railway arteries of North America.

“What’s important is it has been completed; it’s a success; it will alleviate a lot of pollution; it will alleviate a lot of traffic over the Goethals Bridge – and it will happen,” said Borough President James Molinaro.

A staunch proponent of the freight rail project, Molinaro was the locomotive’s sole passenger on its trip from Elizabeth, N.J. “The idea is, rail is coming back,” he said.

Vancouver-based NYCT, Inc. bought the locomotive and will spend its days pulling containers from Howland Hook into Arlington Yard, about a half-mile down the tracks. There, it will assemble the containers onto chains of as many as 150 flatcars stretching as long as 10,000 feet, to be picked up by railroads coming over the bridge from New Jersey.

The rail system was originally slated to be operational by the beginning of 2006, but the improvement project took longer than anticipated.

With the infrastructure complete, only the agreements with CSX Transportation Inc., Norfolk Southern Corp. and other such freight rail companies remain to be completed. The trains could make as many as five trips a day from New Jersey to pick up the loaded flatcars for transport to the rest of the country and to drop off goods at Howland Hook to be shipped out for export.

“We’re just waiting for the paperwork to be complete and all the ‘t’s’ crossed and the ‘i’s’ dotted,” said Molinaro.

The amount of cargo off-loaded at NYCT now accounts for about 10 percent of the region’s port commerce. The former Howland Hook Marine Terminal reopened in 1996.

Business could grow by as much as 55 percent in the next year and a half, as a result of the freight train service and a new, direct rail link established with the Travis location of VanBro Corp. and Pratt Industries (the former Visy Paper company), said John Atkins, the company’s vice president of operations.

“It’s a win-win for us and for the businesses and the motorists of Staten Island,” he said.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Arie Van Tol, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey manager, as he watched the navy-blue and canary-yellow locomotive make its way over the bridge. “We had rail service for so many years since the late 1800s, and the city and the Port Authority have restored it.”

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