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Mass Transit Musings (2016-17)

Grinding Away: An article in The Old Motor demonstrates that gas-electric hybrid vehicles are nothing new.

Photographed in May of 1940, this Rail Grinder was used to smooth imperfections in trolley car rails by the Philadelphia Transportation Co. The machine is moved by an electric car-truck with wheels and motor; the rubber covered steel wheels, powered by a gasoline engine, are used to move the machine out of the way of oncoming trolleys. Note the ... (more >>>)


Taxis & Trolleys: A 1939 Washington, D.C. photo posted by Ol' Remus at The Woodpile Report is captioned: "The intersection of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue." Note the trio of '39 Plymouth taxicabs waiting for fares.

Three of Capital Transit Company's PCC streetcars are also operating along the street. CTC purchased its first streamlined PCC cars in 1937. No overhead trolley wires are visible because an 1893 Congressional law prohibited the use of overhead wiring of any kind in downtown Washington for aesthetic reasons.

Power for the streetcars was provided by a below-ground power accessed via a slot between the trolley rails. A pickup shoe (called a 'plow' by CTC employees) ran in a slot to access the underground conduit. In suburban portions of the CTC system, conventional overhead wires and trolley poles were used.

The last D.C. trolley lines closed in 1962. (posted 10/2/17, permalink)


Goldilocks Transit: Portland's TriMet Max light rail system can't handle heat. Whenever the temperature reaches 90 degrees, the trains slow down.

TriMet claims it's a "normal safety precaution." The light-rail system was built to run "in a mild climate with an average high of 55 degrees." When things get hot in the summer (Portland routinely experiences temperatures in the 90s every year), riders "should expect delays as TriMet reduces train speeds by 10 mph for all areas with a speed limit above 35 mph."

"TriMet is worried about copper overhead wires sagging. Since copper expands more than steel, the Max system incorporates pulleys with counterweights that tug on the wires to keep them tight. Sometimes, TriMet engineers say, things get so hot that the counterweights touch the ground and the wire starts to sag anyway." Who designed this thing anyway - the guy who did the specs for Galloping Gertie, the infamous bridge in Tacoma?

I have a book about the streamlined PCC trolley systems of yore. Titled 'PCC From Coast To Coast', it was published in 1983 and included trolley lines in such hot spots as Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Birmingham, San Diego, Los Angeles and Mexico City. All of these transit systems easily handled hot weather conditions.

1957 photo shows a streamlined PCC-type trolley car in downtown Philadelphia. Philly experienced triple-digit temperatures in the summer from time to time. And temperatures in the mid-90s were a common summer event.

The book also had chapters on such chilly spots as Toronto, Montreal, Boston and Minneapolis. I mention these cities because TriMet's Max lines also shut down whenever there's a little ice. They haven't figured out how to keep overhead lines ice-free and deal with frozen switches. Working on the railroad, my dad dealt with frozen switches all the time. His crew simply poured kerosene on them and started a fire. Ice melted; problem solved.

TriMet is the Goldilocks of public transit. It only works if it's not too hot or not to cold - everything must be "just right." Whoever designed the Max system should have his/her engineering license revoked and be sued for malpractice. The government officials who approved the system should be charged with malfeasance. (posted 8/3/17, permalink)


In Philadelphia, The Liberty Bell Isn't The Only Thing That's Cracked: Service on Philly commuter trains has been interrupted due to serious defects found in Silverliner V cars, which are less than six years old. The cars were built by Hyundai, which had never built railcars for an American transit line before, and make up 30% of Philadelphia's commuter-rail fleet.

"Recently, a SEPTA worker noticed one of the cars was leaning to one side. A close look revealed a 10-inch crack in one of the car's wheel sets. Further inspection discovered similar cracks in 95% of the cars made by Hyundai. These have all been taken out of service, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has urged commuters to find another mode of travel for the foreseeable future."

While the sign shows the old Pennsylvania Railroad logo, all the commuter trains at center city's Suburban Station are now operated by the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, a metro public transportation colossus. I was a frequent rider on the old PRR MP-54, owl-eyes commuter coaches - which ran out of Suburban Station - during my student years at Villanova University. Many of these old MP-54 coaches were built before 1920 and were still operational in 1980. Photo from our June 2011 Philadelphia visit; the train at right is a Silverliner IV.

On the Pennsylvania Railroad's Paoli Local, I used to ride the original Silverliner I cars, which were made by Budd Co. in the Philadelphia suburb of Red Lion, PA. Introduced in 1960, they worked just fine for many years.

"This isn't the first problem SEPTA has had with the cars and their manufacturer, Hyundai. Among other things, many of the cars were delivered late, the car exteriors had visibly "shoddy welds" and other evidence of poor workmanship, some of the motors refused to start up after being idle for 15 minutes or more, and some of the doors stopped working in cold weather.

Hyundai had seriously underbid its competition in order to get the order for the cars, and SEPTA awarded it the contract despite staff warnings about the company's inexperience. This led Kawasaki to sue, saying that Hyundai should have been disqualified because it didn't have a proven track record. Kawasaki won, the order was rebid - and Kawasaki didn't bid - so Hyundai got the order anyway." (posted 8/2/16, permalink)


auto blogBackward Thinking: According to Randall O'Toole, if you're looking for "a magic formula for fixing congestion and other transportation problems, then Portland is the wrong place to look. The Portland area has already spent well over $4 billion on a light-rail system, yet as of 2014 light rail carried only 1% of the region's motorized passenger travel and no freight. Despite this, the region's leaders now want to spend $2 billion more on another 11-mile line."

Light rail, which when it was cheaper and privately owned used to be called trolley cars or interurbans. But light rail represents the past; trolley patronage peaked in the 1920s and has been on a downhill slope ever since the early 1950s. Self-driving cars represent the future (for those who aren't automotive enthusiasts). Self-drivers will render most mass transit obsolete.

But that's government - whether it's teaching methods, or transportation - looking backward, instead of forward. (posted 6/13/16, permalink)


Your Tax Dollars At Waste: Tri-Met, the transit agency for the Portland Oregon metro area, wants to build yet another light rail line, according to transportation expert Randal O'Toole.

Of course they do - most of the cost is reimbursed by federal funds, so it's like ... free money! Wheeeeee!

"A state auditor says TriMet, Portend's transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet's general manager says that the agency's pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70% by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn't have on another low-capacity rail line." Sounds like today's DC Metro lines.

This one will run from Portland to its south suburb, Sherwood. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile.

One commenter wrote, "Why are they doing this? The clear answer is to keep their jobs and benefits flowing. "… the agency's pension and health-care obligations are so great …"

By adding more projects and spending other people's money, they pay themselves more and increase their future pensions and benefits.

All the talk about caring about commuters and transit is just cover for scamming the funds." Amen. (posted 4/11/16, permalink)


The Universal Problem With Mass Transit: James Lileks wrote that "while driving around downtown I found myself not driving at all, because the lights prohibited forward motion when the light rail was in the neighborhood. One train was going west; the other, a few minutes later, was going east. The tracks pierce the intersection at an odd angle. No car moved for about five minutes.

Six light-rail cars, three per direction, trundled past. I counted 14 occupants."

When watching transit buses go by in Clark County Washington, I used to see full-size buses with only 6 or 7 passengers onboard. Then C-Tran got clever and tinted the windows to much darker shade than is legal for passenger vehicles. Now I can't see anything. (posted 2/3/16, permalink)


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copyright 2016-17 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


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The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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