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.

You Can’t Get There From Here

One of the fascinating things about the T is how it shapes riders’ views of the world.  If you rely on the T to get around, you know that many of the stops on the T are places that you can travel without much effort.  And there is a netherworld of gauzy space that is beyond.  Having browsed to this blog, you may be someone who understands what I’m talking about.

Travel times for walking and riding the T

Red is fast; blue is not.

Let’s say you live near Porter Square, Cambridge.  From Porter Square, destinations in Cambridge, Somerville, and downtown Boston are close — less than a half-hour by T. Almost by default, practically speaking that becomes the entirety of your city.  You might plan a shopping trip to Harvard Square, a movie at Kendall or Boylston, or you might schedule a bus out of South Station. You’d think carefully before you would put the time into visiting places like Chestnut Hill, Roxbury, or Mattapan — even if you needed to be there — because those all are basically day-long excursions on the T.  The ride one way on the T is at least an hour, including a bunch of connections.  (By contrast, in an hour of driving in a car, you could be at least a state away.)  And places like most of Needham, Westwood, or parts of Dedham?  Fuhgettaboutit.  Two hours or more, on average.

Well, finally we have an interactive graphical representation of what this looks like, on a map.  Software guru Dan Tillberg has done a fabulous job illustrating the world traveling by T, in color.  Using the T service information database posted by developers at MassDOT (kudos to the government folks for posting the extensive dataset), the map shows in red and yellow the places that are relatively close by T (and walking).  The places that are further away are in greens and blues.  Dan’s map is interactive, and it is pictured above.  Click the image to browse through to his site, and check T connectivity of other locations.

Of course, there are some assumptions behind the map that would change the way it looks depending on, for example how far or fast you were willing to walk, and whether you were willing or able to time your trip precisely to meet a particular bus or train.  Transit diagramming is tricky.  And this map probably is something like a best-average case … the dataset of delayed or dropped MBTA routes isn’t presently available and so Dan was left to assume that, for example, the Number 1 bus midday from Harvard St. was right on time.  Even though we all can guess is was late and overcrowded.  That will be another project ….

When one really is better than two.

The South Coast rail project was discussed in January in the Boston Business Journal.  The Commonwealth is considering reactivating some combination of rail lines from Boston to two cities on the south coast, Fall River and New Bedford.  Some homeowners who live near railroads that potentially will be reactivated would prefer the project die a quiet death.  But the project seems to have a critical mass of support in government.

South Coast Rail Proposals

South Coast Rail Proposals (from EOT)

There are several different alternate proposals for the road to Taunton.  But only one proposal south of that, which is a two-pronged route.  The colored lines on the map represent the different alternatives; the green route is a portion that is common to all of the proposals.  The common portion is a fork-end with one fork serving New Bedford and the other serving Fall River.

The funny thing about this project is that it is being designed as a hub-and-spoke system, with the terminal cities isolated on separate lines and the hub, Boston, forty miles away to the north.  Why not use the opportunity to connect the south coast cities to one another and to their much-nearer neighbor to the west, Providence?

A single line connecting two or three of the cities all together would have the virtues of more frequent service and greater usefulness over shorter distances.  It would be an interstate rail route that would increase the potential for federal and interstate cooperation.  Massachusetts might not need to “go it alone.”

The unified alignment would present construction and placement challenges; right of way would need to be rebuilt or reclaimed in some urban sections, particularly where it is occupied by highways.  But the end result could be a more effective transportation project, serving more and more densely populated areas.  Isn’t that what we’re really after?