Wednesday, August 31, 2005


As are most of you, I am preoccupied with the tragedy that unfolds along the Gulf Coast. Michelle Malkin has the best overall coverage of anyone. Go there to read the many accounts of that terrible storm as well as the sometimes heroic but more often horrific happenings now that the wind and rain are over.

Friday, August 26, 2005

USA Today on the Powder River Basin

An article in yesterday's USA Today (August 25, 2005) has a lot to say about the relationship between railroads, coal mines, and utilities. Interesting tidbits include the fact that this railroad is the most heavily traveled track in the world, and the fact that 40% of all coal supply in the US comes fromthe Powder River Coal Mines. But the biggest reason for the story is the disruption of rail traffic due to recent derailments.

If you have ever witnessed the never ending onslaught of coal trains that make their way south from Bill, Wyoming or north into Gillette, you know that this trackage is the epicenter of the world's heavy haul railroad experience. Nothing anywhere can compare with the intense, never-ending, and very hard work that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) do hour after hour, day after day to move these trains from mine to utility. Originally built as one track about twenty-five years ago, the joint trackage is now three tracks in many places. Even with three tracks, the pounding of coal trains that go by on fifteen minute headway creates a frightening amount of wear and tear on rail, ties, bridges, and ballast.

The wear and tear on railroad personnel is significant, too. People rotate in and out of jobs in the Basin regularly.

Both the BNSF and the UPRR have learned a great deal about maintaining this trackage, and have made many, many improvements to their infrastructure over the years. The article point this out. But are these improvements enough? Railroads have had to evolve from a management that rationalized and removed fixed plant to a management that has had to invest in new and better facilities. The evolution has not always been easy.

If the BNSF and the UPRR cannot prevent the disruptions that recently occurred, others are beginning to offer alternatives, including the construction of electrical generating plants in the Powder River Basin, thereby allowing electrical transmission lines to replace railroad tracks to ultimately distribute electrical power. Another option, one clandestinely but continually fought by both the BNSF and the UPRR, is to allow the Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern Railroad (DM&E) access to the Powder River mines.

The whole situation is interesting. You will realize that after you read the article.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Thoughts From "Anonymous"

As an answer to my post concerning the upcoming Ripper Awards, which were subsequently given out, Anonymous had a very interesting idea. Anonymous claims that Agencies might consider creating a list of Contractors as a way to eliminate some of the prevailing attitude that many Contractors, including reputable and ethical ones, are guilty until proven innocent.

Anonymous had two Agencies to be considered for Rippers, too.

Anonymous (another sibling?) offers another insight concerning the lack of training and experience of people who are now in positions of authority, in response to one of my earlier posts.

These are the very sorts of things I wanted to see and read when I started Rip Track. Thanks to Anonymous, and believe me I am fully sympathetic to any desires to keep any author's anonimity.

Your thoughts?

Monday, August 22, 2005

New AREMA Seminar: Similating the Movement of People in Transit Facilities

Just received word that AREMA is hosting a seminar concerning the simulation of the movement of people at transit facilities, to be held 28 September in Chicago. The Seminar is entitled, "Evacuation and Pedestrian Flow Modeling". It is being led by Mr. Don Plotkin, so content should be excellent.

Congrats to AREMA and Mr. Plotkin for providing this very timely educational opportunity at the very time that the importance of this issue is being elevated.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Wondering How Gas Prices Are Affecting Ridership?

Read Dan Zukowski's most recent posting. You will be surprised.

I was especially interested in his experience on Amtrak's Surfliner trains, between San Diego and Los Angeles. Everytime I have ridden a Surfliner, it has been barely one-third full. Quite a change now!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Even Heavier Freight Cars!

Interesting article in this month's Railway Age, discussing the difference in car components wear when car weight is increased from 263,000 lbs to 286,000 lbs. Emphasis is on the car itself, but other research has been done by the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. in Pueblo, Colorado as to what these heavier cars do to track, too.

My question is, has there been any thinking as to how to rerail these megacars when they go on the ground? If you have ever tried to rerail today's rolling stock, and it seems like all you have is some old lumber, a little rope, and a bumper jack, the question might cross your mind when you realize that tomorrow's cars are 10% heavier!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Specifications: Some Preliminary Thoughts

No posts have been made for over a week. I have no explanation for that, except to say that I have been dealing with Project Specifications for upcoming work, and have been possessed with the effort. But that very effort leads me to the following thoughts on Specifications.

Why Agency-Owners do not comprehend, or choose to ignore, the impact that their Specs have on the prices they ultimately pay contractors or suppliers is beyond me. It is also beyond me as to how much this lack of comprehension surprises me over and over again.

When I worked for various Consulting Engineers, almost invariably there was concern by the CE that Specs would "scare the bid". We all wanted to avoid specs that were more restrictive than needed, that asked for more testing than was needed, or that asked for more documentation than was needed. Such a spec would probably result in more project cost than was desired! As CE's, we felt compelled to provide our customer with a spec that provided precisely what was wanted at the very lowest cost.

That doesn't seem to be a goal today. I don't know if Agency-Owners can tell if their CE's are providing them with these bid scaring specs, but these specs are being approved somewhere within their organization.

Why don't today's CE's worry about "scaring the bid"? Some do, but it seems to be more common to mazimize billable hours than minimize project costs. Maybe it's because Agency-Owners can be led to believe that a more restrictive and demanding spec is a better spec. Maybe, there are legal concerns. Whatever. The results are the same.

And, unfortunately, there is no really good way for the taxpayers who live in the districts of these Agency-Owners to correct the situation.

So how would you scare a bid? One way is to ignore some basic concepts, such as the difference between a "Material" spec versus a "Performance" spec. The Federal Railway Administration understands that difference. When the FRA published their Track Safety Standards, they were based on performance. If you could meet the performance requirements to allow train speeds of 80 mph with a built-up cardboard rail, then have at it! Of course, you never would be able to do such a thing, but that is exactly what the writers of the standards understood when the required level of performance was determined. Likewise, these same writers did not specify platinum rails when steel would do very nicely.

There are other examples to note, but these will have to wait for another day. For now, just know that I have recently looked at, among others, two Project Specifications. One requires extensive testing, reporting, and approval cycles for their specified material. The other requires a level of performance, but does not mandate unreasonable qualifications. Both Projects will get the EXACT same material. Guess which Project will get the better price?

And, unfortunately, only one set of taxpayers wins.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Transit Security and Fourth Amendment Rights

I have had some time to let several thoughts and considerations to ferment, and have come up with a concoction that I hope anyone who visits the Flex Your Rights website, or in any other way subscribes to the thinking of the ACLU in this matter, will partake of before adapting their ideas.

And let me say at the outset, I am VERY sensitive to the erosion of ANY of the personal rights and liberty as defined in the Bill of Rights. All of those in government who think they know what is good for us, and think they can make better decisions for us than we can ourselves, and will stop at nothing to force an improvement in our quality of life as they define it, seem to be having their way lately. The recent Supreme Court Decision regarding eminent domain as it relates to private property is a perfect example of some really scary stuff going on.

But these people who are claiming that Fourth Amendment Rights are under attack when someone inspects their person or their personal belongings before boarding a transit vehicle are just flat out wrong. There is no threat here. There is no erosion of rights.

Consider that the United States Constitution was adapted in the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. People traveled at that time in the same manner as the Romans did under the rule of Julius Caesar. The Founding Fathers had no idea that three hundred people would be able to travel on one transportation vehicle. But they were wise enough to provide for unforeseen future changes. They knew that interpretation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would have to be done. So they worded the Fourth Amendment, in part, "The Right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, . . . ." Key word: UNREASONABLE.

Here is where the interpretation occurs. When three hundred people jam into a Subway Car, does a search of these same people for weapons and bombs become unreasonable? The Declaration of Independence, a document which defined our Individual Rights (rights that the Constitution protects with the creation of The United States and its government) clearly states "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life (!) . . ." Interpretation must be made when balancing my Right to Life against someone else's Right for Regulation of Search and Seizure.

Notice that the very Title of the Fourth Amendment is, "Right of Search and Seizure Regulated". It certainly does not say, search and seizure is eliminated, only those searches and seizures which are unreasonable.

People are searched before going into a Courtroom. Horror of horrors, people are searched before getting on an Airplane! Likewise, searches might be necessary before people get on a Transit Vehicle.

Various Transit Agencies have made attempts at providing security. Virginia, Connecticut and Metro North, and even the Alaska Railroad (!) have made attempts. SEPTA in Philadelphia has an answer that appears to be political rather than practical. The Transit Union New York is hiring a Terrorist Expert from Israel (requires subscription).

Without going into the obvious reasons here, a terrorist attack has a greater probability of happening in New York City than, say, Billings, Montana. Consequently, any Agency that provides Transit in NYC has its work cut out. So what are they going to do, in addition to what the others above are doing?

Please don't listen to Senators like Durbin or Biden who are trying to make political points by saying that more money is the answer. Better points are made here and here that explain why money is not the complete answer. Maybe in the future there will be enough trained personnel, or new technologies, or whatever that will eliminate the need for searches. How about right now? Those things don't appear to be available.

So in light of all considerations, I like the idea that searches in New York are being done. Others agree with me.

It should not be long before we know whether our Fourth Amendment Rights will be defined as extending to Transit Security Searches or not. The NYCLU has filed a lawsuit. We all will be watching. But if I'm a Transit Patron in New York, I am hoping the Court finds in favor of the Agencies who do the searches.

* * *

Reaction to Random Searches on Transit
Transit Security: NOW I AM SCARED
U. S. Transit Security begins with US!
Cell Phone Usage on Transit, although some other considerations may change my thinking.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

WMATA Advisory Group Forming

According to Oh Metro, a Citizen's Advisory Group is forming. Good luck to them, it would be wonderful if they could help get WMATA off the "Worst Agency" list.

* * *

The 2005 "Rippers" for Worst Agency

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

David Gunn to AREMA: No Confirmation

At least as of today, Mr. David Gunn has not confirmed his appearance as the Keynote Speaker at AREMA's Annual Chairmans' Luncheon on Tuesday, September 27th, according to AREMA's website.

See also this.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Trouble with Amtrak

My copy of Trains Magazine came in today's mail. On page 44 of the September 2005 edition is a very revealing table. If we are to believe these figures, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, it verifies the hypocritic stance of the Feds, both the Administration and Congress, both Democrats and Republicans.

The figures show that from 1982 to 2005, the Federal Budget for Transit Funding increased 105%, from $3.7B to $7.6B estimated. From 1982 to 2005, Federal Funding for Highways increased 108%, from $16.7B to $34.7B. From 1982 to 2005, Federal Funding for Aviation increased an amazing 142%, from $5.7B to $13.8B!

Amtrak? From 1982 to 2005, the Federal Level of Funding DECREASED 29%! Amtrak would be better off today under the '85 Budget, when it received $1.7B; in '05, Amtrak is looking at $1.2B!

What's wrong with Amtrak? Norman Mineta is right, Amtrak is dying. But now we know, death is not due to natural causes, it is due to Government Starvation. Any idiot can see that.

Imagine what a fine system of intercity passenger service might have been in the United States if Amtrak's budget had kept pace with other funding, to ultimately reach a level of, say, $3.4B in '05! I know, that is still less than one half of Transit Funding, one quarter of Aviation Funding, and ten percent of Highway Funding! I bet Amtrak would have been something worth bragging about rather than the crippled excuse for transportation that it is now.

One more thing, can we give up the notion that other forms of transportation are not subsidized? Please!