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Category — rail

Travels with our toddler

We recently took Matthew on his first overnight train trip; regular viewers of the Matthew Picture of the Day can expect a couple of shots from on board. We took the Capitol Limited all the way to and from Chicago, in a bedroom in a sleeping car. As national network trains go, this is quite a convenient one–although it takes 17 hours to travel the 780 rail miles, via Pittsburgh and Cleveland, most of that is at night, and once you factor in time to eat dinner and breakfast and time to get ready for bed and to get dressed, there’s not that much idle time left. Matthew did well, and the train again proved to be a civilized and relaxing way to travel. He’s old enough to get some fascination from looking out the train window, which is quite an improvement from his previous trip, when he was one, when we went to New York to buy my Brompton. So all total, Matthew now has 2012 Amtrak miles.

Matthew, though, has logged more mileage in the air than by any other means: to date, 29063 miles in 26 segments. Most of this has gone well. We’ve always bought him a seat, even when he was young enough to travel as a “lap child.” In the past, it was common to travel with a young child as a “lap child” and then use an empty seat for him while aboard the airplane, but in recent years, there is no such thing as an empty seat, and lap children must almost always actually be carried on a grown-up’s lap for the whole flight. My advice, then, is not to count on there being an empty seat, but rather, to count on there not being an empty seat, and if you can at all afford it, buy the seat for the child.

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January 24, 2010   No Comments

Bringing streetcars back to DC, part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at the public side of the DC Alternatives Analysis process that took place between 2002 and 2005. Several newsletters were published, public meetings were held, and the study team met with civic groups and maintained a presence at various community events. The widely distributed documents only tell a small fraction of the story, and if one wants to understand why the final report had such disappointing recommendations, one needs to delve into the more technical study documents, which weren’t widely distributed. The contrast between that which was published publicly and the technical documents kept internally is instructive for anyone following a similar engineering study of similar scale.

Broadly speaking, these technical documents attempt to quantify the decision-making process in order that every subsequent decision have justification. The process obscures the study biases by shifting them into the methods of quantification, and ultimately confuses quantifiability with importance.

Setting the Stage

The formal program of the study was documented in the Project Work Plan, in January 2003. One of the first of the study documents was the short Quality Assurance Program, an eight-pager released in November 2003. It establishes the tedious tone in which all further study documents will be written with empty management-speak such as “All DMJM Harris staff performing tasks on the project will utilize the appropriate implementing procedure for the work being performed.”

Two reports were finished in August 2004: The Needs Assessment and the Evaluation Framework. These followed the extensive series of community meetings in late 2003. The Needs Assessment was the only technical document that was published on the (now-defunct) study website. It examined population, employment, and overall destination patterns across the city in relation to existing transit service. The Evaluation Framework brought together all the input–from DC agencies and from the community–about routes and goals and needs and defines what sort of analysis is to be done. A structure of seven routes is proposed, two of which have alternative routings, but the stops along those routes are not defined yet. The project goals are laid out, and the measures and criteria used to evaluate choices in terms of those goals are defined. The general work plan for several documents that follow is laid out.

Route and Mode evaluation:

Screen 1, released September 2004, evaluates seven potential transit modes (streetcars, “bus rapid transit,” light rail transit, diesel multiple units, automated guideway transit, monorail, and heavy rail), and ends up recommending only streetcars and “bus rapid transit” for further evaluation.

The Definition of Alternatives, released in November 2004, analyzed the routes given in the Evaluation Framework for the two chosen modes. Station locations were assigned and propulsion technologies are considered. For each route, a “service plan” was developed, including the headways between successive runs and calculations for route travel times. Although there are separate calculations for streetcars and for “bus rapid transit,” no details are given about the assumptions that went into the calculation of the travel times.

Screen 2, released March 2005, takes the service plans and route structure from the Definition of Alternatives and tries to evaluate how well each would fulfill the project goals by applying a set of “Measures of Effectiveness,” which are defined in the Evaluation Framework. Claiming that “the operational characteristics of BRT and Streetcar are similar at the level of detail” under study, it lumps both into a “premium transit service option” to decide whether a particular corridor should have “premium transit,” or whether it should only receive some bus service enhancements. Corridors were ranked (high, medium or low) based on a few criteria for each of the four project goals, leading to a composite score. Further analysis on meeting corridor deficiencies and operational considerations, and concluded by recommending some routes for “premium transit” and relegating some to get only “local bus enhancements.”

Screen 3, released May 2005, takes the “premium transit” corridors of Screen 2 and applies further “Measures of Effectiveness” to determine whether each corridor should be Streetcars or  ”bus rapid transit.” Each corridor is broken into segements, and the effectiveness criteria are applied to the segments individually. Where applicable–which isn’t as frequently as one might think–Streetcars and “bus rapid transit” are evaluated separately. The scores from these evaluations are totaled, to come up with proposals for streetcar routes, “bus rapid transit” routes, and “rapid bus” routes.

And onwards

Further study documents, released May–September 2005, looked at the finances of the proposed system and put forward the timetable. All the study findings were summarized in a final report, published in October 2005. Future posts in this series will look in detail at some of these technical reports.

December 15, 2008   No Comments

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 2

Part 1 of this series looked at the beginnings of the DC government’s effort to expand the transit network. We left off in the Spring of 2005, having been to several meetings and having received several newsletters.

The study finishes

The final project newsletter, Fall 2005, and an “Executive Summary“ of the whole project were presented to the public at a final meeting, held September 29, 2005. For transit enthusiasts following the project, the end results were disappointing and frustrating. Instead of a visionary transformation of mobility in the District, the final recommendations proposed a meager streetcar buildout that, despite its modest size, would take 25 years to build. The report was frustrating because it relied on tortured reasoning that bordered on downright dishonesty, it used self-contradictory and mutually inconsistent reasoning, and offered little more than poorly-defined chimeras wrapped up in wishful thinking.

Added to the project was “Rapid Bus,” as a lower-class technology mode, joining streetcars and “bus rapid transit.” Modes were assigned to routes. The newsletter used separate streetcar and “bus rapid transit” assignments, while the executive summary lumped these together as “premium transit.” In the newsletter, streetcars got a handful of routes: the crosstown Georgtown to Minnesota Avenue route; the north-south Georgia Avenue route, which would end at K street; a Union Station to Anacostia via Eastern Market route; an M Street SE/SW route, and a short Bolling AFB–Pennsylvania Ave route. A bit of “bus rapid transit” was added: mainly Woodley Park to Eastern Market via Florida Avenue, while the rest of the 50-mile route structure developed over the course of the study was designated “rapid bus.”

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November 9, 2008   1 Comment

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 1


Bringing a 50-mile streetcar network to Washington DC is the top priority for the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club. I have been following this issue with the Sierra Club since 2002, and it was recently suggested to me that I write down a brief history of the effort, to provide context for those new to the subject. Current progress on the issue is blogged at

The DC Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis gets underway.

The last time streetcars ran in DC was the early morning of January 28th, 1962, after which all lines were converted to buses. Such was the state of public transit in the District until March 27, 1976, when Metrorail opened. Metrorail, of course, has been a tremendous success, but it does not serve all areas of DC, and was designed primarily to move suburban commuters to their jobs in downtown DC.

The District government has, in principle, been planning to bring streetcars back to DC for some time now. My involvement began in September 2002, when I testified on behalf of the  at a joint oversight hearing of the DC City Council. A relatively small, two-year study had recently been completed (DC Transit Development Study), and then-DDOT director Dan Tangherlini, and then-DDOT Mass Transit Administrator Alex Eckmann went before the council (read their presentation) to ask that a more expansive study be funded. Plans to expand transit in the District stretch back further than that, and are generally said to have begun with the Barry-era DC Vision Study of 1997, itself 2 years in the making. And after more than ten years of talk and study, there are still no streetcars.

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October 29, 2008   2 Comments

Outside Lies Magic

In response to my post about following railroad tracks, commenter Richard Layman suggested I borrow his copy of John Stilgoe‘s Outside Lies Magic. I did (lending to him A Pattern Language and David Owen’s Sheetrock and Shellac), and tore through it in a few days. It’s a slim volume, less than 200 pages of generous type, about explorations of the built environment. Reading it gave me the rare experience of coming across words that gave voice to a bundle of thoughts and feelings that had long been stewing in my mind but which I could never quite articulate. (In this sense, it was much like reading James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.)

Stilgoe exhorts us to explore: to walk and cycle, to observe, to look for “history and awareness” in “the best-kept secret around–the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer.” The book is partly a narration of the observations that “the explorer” would make, mixed with history that can, in part, be inferred from these observations. The first explorations revolve around a discussion of wires–power and telegraph and telephone–and rail, networks that grew up with one another. A sample:

[T]he walker emerges thoughtfully from the woods or fields and finds a tiny industrial park of grain elevators, machinery dealers, warehouses, wood-frame or redbrick factories, every structure marked by that certain sign of railroad influence, the walled-up loading door four feet above grade level, too high for trucks but the perfect height for boxcar floors. [p.46]

We go on to learn about mail, about paths and roads and highways, and about fences–apparently, in the North, livestock were fenced in, but in the South, crops were fenced to keep otherwise free-running livestock out. It wasn’t until cars started colliding with farm animals in large numbers that laws requiring the fencing-in of livestock were enacted all across the country. There is no way, of course, for any explorer to infer this entirely from his observations, but it is the sort of knowledge that  the explorer can use to understand and connect what he is seeing.

The text meanders in much the same way that an explorer would. One chapter begins with (a dubious) discussion of motel siting, and of the design of motel sites, which leads to a discussion of vacancy: not only at the motel, but what it means for a field or lot to be vacant. And what it means, then, to be a field, and how big our fields are, and how we measure how big they are, and how the weights and measures in use here are the result of some compromise between the populist- and dozenal-leaning Adams and the decimal-leaning Jefferson. Our currency (unlike, say, Britan’s) has always been decimal, but we buy eggs by the dozen, which can be evenly split in more ways than ten can, giving greater flexibility for people to pool their resources when money is tight. More significant was the continued use of the mile: a square mile is 640 acres, which is 16 times 40 acres, the canonical size for a family farm. So the use of the mile facilitated the sub-division of land, because the square mile can be nicely divided into appropriate-sized lots.

The motel siting discussion says that eight hours from a major metropolitan area would be a good place for motels: I have no doubt that it would be, but my own experience tells me that motels are much more closely spaced than every 500 miles. There are other instances that strike me as similarly dubious: the optimistic claim that railroads are “rediscovering the profitability of carrying passengers.” [p. 52] If only that were true! Passenger rail has been expanding, slowly, but as a matter of civic investment, not private profit. So I’m left with a sort of skepticism about the specific claims, but this doesn’t dampen my enthusiams for the book: it is not supposed to be a definitive treatment of anything, but an inspiration to explore and discover.

The book ends with a discussion of the “magic” of exploration, the fulfillment that comes with the discoveries and connections and the accumulation of a personal world-view. This discussion begins by noting the skepticism that explorers might encounter, from people who want to know why they want to go someplace or take a picture of something. In recent years, we have seen episodes of absurd harassment (one example in the Washington area, and proper responses.) The exploration that Stilgoe describes is very fundamentally an expression of our freedom, to go and do as we wish. The contemporary reader can appreciate the truly tragic irony in which the increased scrutiny to which an explorer is subjected comes in the name of protecting our freedom.

September 13, 2008   1 Comment

tracking the abandoned

There is, presently, one railroad line through Ithaca, New York. Freight trains still use this line, taking coal to the Milliken power plant along Cayuga lake and hauling salt from the Cargill salt mine. There were, decades ago, several additional railroad lines which have long since been abandoned. In my last year or so of graduate school, my friends and I took several hikes along these lines, which we were able to find with the help of Hardy and Rossiter’s A History of Railroads in Tompkins County. The tracks on these abandoned lines have been removed, presumably to be sold for scrap, but occasional relics from the railroading era–wooden ties, for example–remained.

An article in this week’s Washington Post magazine, chronicling the quest of Bill Thomas and his friend A. L. Freed to follow old railroad tracks all across the country, brought back memories of our hikes. To cover the long distances over which railroads naturally extended, they take one-way rental cars. This article focuses on a particular expedition in Texas, during which they encounter–as I’m sure they encounter all throughout the country on these trips–the ruins of the railroading past, and also meet a handful of others who share an enthusiasm for trains. 

My friends and I were fortunate, I believe, that the old lines along which we hiked had not (yet?) been converted into multi-purpose recreational trails. Instead, they had decayed in place, offering what is an increasingly rare opportunity to explore something that’s been forgotten, something that isn’t managed by a humorless committee and burdened by rules born from a hypersensitive fear of the word “liability.” The hikes gave us a small chance to discover, to find something that wasn’t calling out to be found. Perhaps someday the state will more formally take over the land, clear out the brush, send to the dump any crossties and other remnants of actual railroading, throw down some crushed gravel, put up wayfinding signs, and then list the trails in any number of Finger Lakes recreation guides. But at least when I was there, none of that had been done. One didn’t need to rely on a commemorative plaque to understand that real trains used to run there; plenty of evidence was still in place.

One particularly striking realization was the degree to which the railroads graded the land to make the path of the trains as level as possible–not an easy feat in the hilly Southern Tier of New York, especially in the era before bulldozers and backhoes and other earthmoving equipment. (And this grading is in part what makes the abandoned lines such attractive candidates for conversion to recreational trails.) If you know what you’re looking for, even the abandoned tracks are clear on topographic maps: compare this turn of the century map, showing the railroad lines (in particular, the two parallel lines heading to the southeast):

1895 map of Ithaca showing railroad lines

with this section of (substantially zoomed in) contemporary topo map:

Section of topo map near Ithaca, NY

the Southern of the two parallel lines is marked on the map, but the Northern one, although not explicitely marked, is clear. Just north of the “Besemer” label the relatively flat graded railroad bed stands out. 

Trails, I suppose, are in general good things–although as someone who hopes for a renaissance of rail travel in this country, I wonder if some of those abandoned lines would be best returned to rail service, and whether trail conversion would make this harder, because nobody would want to lose a trail, or easier, because the route is kept contiguous. But while we still can find the remnants of railroads around, we should find and explore them.

April 27, 2008   5 Comments


I was 34 years old when my son was born; my father was only 29 when I was born. Yet despite the fact that more time will have elapsed between my childhood and my son’s than between my father’s and mine, my perception is that while the world in which I grew up was fundamentally different than that in which my father grew up, my son is growing up in a world that is a slow, gradual evolution of the world of my childhood. Perhaps it’s because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve self-identified more as an adult instead of as a young person, and have wanted to categorize more years of advancements as belonging to my youth than I would acknowledge belonging to my father’s youth. I don’t really know what the right comparison to make is–Matthew is several years away from an age against which I can compare any real memories. And when he’s old enough to think about it, I could imagine Matthew reasoning that the lack of digital photography, a ubiquitous internet, and the need to buy music on physical media all as evidence that my youth was stone-age by comparison. We don’t really know what the world will look like when Matthew is old enough to remember it, but we can make some comparisons about the years in which we were born.

First, transportation. Amtrak was formed in 1971: passenger rail when Matthew was born is roughly the same as when I was born, and completely different from when my father was born. At some point before I was born, the passenger-miles of the airlines overtook that of the railroads. The present Interstate Highway system, begun in 1956, is similar to when I was born.  

Figure 1943 1973 2007
Population (M) 137 212 303
Cars (M) 26 124 232
Cars per capita 0.19 0.59 0.76
Interstate Miles 0 35461 46837


So I think its fair to say that the transportation world in which I was born was fundamentally different than that in which my father was born, but Matthew’s transportation world is similar to mine.

For sports, my dad grew up in the era of the original 6 NHL teams, and before interleague play in Major League Baseball, but looking at the figures per 100 Million population is interesting:   

Figure 1943 1973 2007
NHL teams 6 16 30
NHL teams per 100M 4.4 7.6 9.9
NFL teams 10 26 32
NFL teams per 100M 7.3 12.3 10.6
MLB teams 16 24 30
MLB teams per 100M 11.7 11.3 9.9


So while the NHL has definitely grown in each era, there was more football per capita when I was born than either now or when my dad was born. Most significantly, there was more baseball per capita when my dad was born than either now or when I was born. Sort of makes me wonder about all the hand-wringing that goes on about how baseball expansion is supposed to have diluted the available pitching talent.

One other facet that I thought was different about my dad’s youth, but isn’t really, is candy. I remember my dad telling me about ads for Clark bars when he was a kid–even though they’re still available, they really aren’t heavily advertised, nor were they when I was young. But according to this timeline of American candy bars, it looks like the golden age of candy bar inventions were the 1920s and 1930s; pretty much the same selection had been available for my dad as for me, and Matthew benefits from the rather small handful of candies (Whatchamacallit, Twix, Skittles) that were introduced during my youth.

January 22, 2008   2 Comments

small pleasures

I’m not, by any stretch, a serious railfan. No vacations centered around sites to watch trains, no vest or baseball cap studded with rail-themed collectors’ pins, no log of serial numbers of cars I’ve seen, or even ridden, nor even a mileage log of my own. But I have enjoyed watching trains for as long as I can remember, and I’m told that when I was very young I’d make my parents stop the car to watch a passing train. If my son asks, in a few years, to stop and watch a train go by, I’ll happily agree.

One of the bonus features, then, of living in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington DC is that the Metro tracks parallel the Amtrak tracks on the way to Brookland leaving Union Station, so when I’m riding the Metro to or from home I have a few minutes view of some busy rail lines.

One sees lots of MARC trains, especially during commuter hours; they’re not so interesting. There are usually random pieces of Amtrak equipment in the yards, locomotives and switchers and the like. It’s a good day when I see a revenue service Amtrak train moving, especially an Acela Express, or the Capitol Limited. Once I saw the American Orient Express. In the late mornings, when most of the VRE  trains have arrived and are waiting for their evening departures, there’s a particularly nice view of 4 or 5 of them on different tracks but lined up: a nice illustration, I think, of the Zen View from A Pattern Language.

I of course prepare for this brief trip through the railyard, by trying to get a window seat on the appropriate side of the train: right side when going in the direction of Glenmont, left side when traveling in the direction of Shady Grove. In morning rush hour, it’s rare that any seat is available, but in the evening enough people get off at Gallery Place-Chinatown, with some more getting off at Union Station, so that there’s a reasonable of a window seat opening up. When one does, and especially if I get to see some trains, it’s a small but welcome pleasure in my day.

November 28, 2007   3 Comments