Emissions Testing; another reason to doubt the reports

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one of several buses that emitted clouds of smoke from places other than the tailpipe.  I noted observations about one particular bus and recalled that it was not an isolated occurrence.

In an interesting twist, at a recent MBTA Rider Oversight Committee meeting (which are open to the public), Eugene Benson of TRU-ACE gave a presentation in which he mentioned that the T has published the results of an emissions monitoring program online.  The test results themselves are stale and the most recent is from January 2009.  (Halfway is better than not-at-all, I guess.)  In addition, Eugene didn’t mention it, but in an unexpected twist, the diesel buses rarely fail their tests!  Sparkly clean!  Ten MBTA buses required repairs in the most recent six-month report, and only one diesel bus (#293) made the list.  Only the clean-fuel CNG buses required remedial work.  If you believe the reports, I suppose you might conclude that the clean-fuel buses are nastier than the diesels.  Who would have guessed?!?

But can you believe the reports?  Remember, the reports presumably were generated by the same MBTA mechanical supervisors that recently were dismissed for allegedly fudging their record-keeping.

MBTA emissions testing apparatus that fails to detect emissions from undercarriage  (click to see report)

Well, here’s another reason to doubt.  The MBTA included a diagram in its robust report explaining the emissions methodology.  The report explained that the T uses an elaborate visual detection system that scans the tailpipe on the roof of the bus.  When the emissions come out the tailpipe, the computer analyzes what is left and gives a result.  What happens when emissions come from the undercarriage and not the tailpipe?  Those emissions, dear reader, do not exist.  Poof!

Even the most credulous among us would have to admit that the detection system that is depicted will not determine whether the exhaust system on a bus is compromised and leaking.  And if the exhaust is leaking then the bus will not be flagged as having an emissions problem.  Wow.  That has to be a flaw that even an overworked, ethically flexible MBTA maintenance manager could appreciate.

It’s a leap to wonder whether, at the same time that T maintenance supervisors were revising mileage logs to avoid required servicing, were they also circumventing the emissions testing program by … simply allowing leaking exhaust systems to keep on leaking?  Discuss among yourselves.

Don’t Wait For The Walk Signal

Why would anyone wait for the walk signal at the typical Boston-area crosswalk?  It’s a fair question.  I don’t have a good answer.  The “walk” signals often are elusive and unhelpful.

When the crosswalk button works — and often it does not — the walk signal takes a long time.  Waiting, waiting, all the while wondering when that signal light ever will illuminate, and seeing multiple opportunities to cross safely without it.

At least one intersection in Newton requires three entire light cycles to cross from corner to corner.  Here is a dramitization of the process.  Press a button.  Wait a minute.  Cross.  Stop.  Press another button.  Wait a minute.  Cross.  Stop.  Press a third button.  Wait a minute.  Cross ….  Whew, that was exhausting.  And it was only 150 feet of walking.  That is a walk signal functioning (by some meaning of the word) as designed, and it is not really much of an outlier as crosswalk signals go.  Many other crosswalks require at least two cycles to go from corner to corner.

I figure that after patiently pressing buttons and waiting for that light, a pedestrian ought to get a real prize.  When a driver waits for a green light he gets free passage through the intersection without competing traffic.  The light is green, and cars in other directions stop and wait.

No such luck for a pedestrian.  When a pedestrian waits patiently at the “Do Not Walk” sign, and then crosses with the white “Walk” signal, he is as often as not likely to see more oncoming traffic.  To facilitate traffic flow, many signals don’t actually stop competing cars and trucks, and to the contrary they send them through the crosswalk with the “Walk” signal with no appreciable change in frequency.  When you see a “Walk” signal and look down the crosswalk, just as often there will be a car driving through.

What do you get by pausing for a “Walk” signal?  Too often, not much.

If Roads Were Regulated Like Rails, Everyone Would Drive A Cement Mixer

If highways were regulated like railways, you would drive a vehicle like this.

In the 1970s, the federal government instituted automobile regulations to increase vehicle fuel efficiency — in part by decreasing vehicle weight.  The initiative, called “CAFE” or “Corporate Average Fuel Economy,” has been renewed and enhanced as recently as 2007.  Heavier vehicles tend to be safer vehicles, but Congress and the President have judged that the gain in efficiency at the cost of safety is worthwhile and justified.  The stakes are high; roads are dangerous, automobile accidents are common, and literally thousands of people die each year as a result of the CAFE efficiency standards.  The government made a tough choice and for four decades the decision has withstood constant scrutiny.

At the same time, the government has been encouraging heavier, more polluting, less useful passenger trains.  Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has strongly discouraged lightweight railcars from the national rail network.  Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs?  That’s because generally they aren’t allowed there.  Trolley and subway cars operate only on closed-off portions of the rail network that are physically disconnected from the national rail network.  Passenger trains must be bulked up in weight to be allowed on traditional rail corridors, even where freight traffic is rarely seen.  For example, the Acela Express Amtrak trainset nearly doubled in weight to comply with the regulations, and as a result it developed numerous design and performance problems.

To recap: the feds required passenger trains to get heavier or be banned from the basically safe national network at the same time that other federal regulators have required passenger cars operating on a dangerous road system to shrink in mass.

The two sets of regulations could not have been more different.  Imagine for a moment what the roads would look like if they were operated like the rails.  So much for the freedom of the open road; that would be history.  If you owned a subcompact car– or an SUV for that matter– you would only be able to drive on your driveway, unless you first put up barriers to block off the local road network from the national road network.  To be able to drive on a national highway or Interstate, you would need to buy a vehicle the size of a cement mixer, and fill it with cement.  Everyone would be required to do this, because (in the language of the rail regulators) otherwise the passenger automobiles would be too lightweight to avoid deforming in a head-on collision with the heaviest tractor-trailers on the road.  Vehicle fuel efficiency of these passenger-cement-mixers would be abysmal, people would be forced to pay for excessive vehicles and unwanted tons of cement, and maintenance costs for the vehicles and roads would be much higher.

In effect, rail regulations would convert a useful network of highways into isolated islands of local roads interspersed by connections that are accessible only to impractical overweight passenger vehicles.

No one would seriously suggest that we should have regulations on the highway system like the ones that have been imposed on the rails.  That begs the question why we have such onerous rules for trains.  A passenger train that can survive a high-speed collision with a locomotive may well be safer to its passengers in that respect.  However, the result of the requirement has been a far less connected and useful, and far more expensive, passenger rail system that has forced more and more people into their automobiles.  And automobiles are proven to be far more lethal to passengers than trains, in addition to the deleterious impact of automobiles and asphalt on the environment.

So in its zeal to make passenger trains safer by making sure that no passenger rail car on the national network will deform if was unfortunate enough to collide with a coal freight train (whether or not anyone could remember a coal train operating in that location), the federal government has undermined the competitiveness of rail technology and forced everyone to take much more serious risks on the highways, where the risk of death is many times higher than the rails.  And where no one expects a passenger automobile to bounce back from a head-on collision with a semi-trailer.

Maybe it’s time that regulators considered that heavier passenger trains and a less connected rail system are not actually a safer or more convenient for the public at large.  A lighter passenger train (or trolley service on regular railways) operating on the national rail network might help drivers off of the roads … and that alone would save lives.