Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Sounds of Suction: The Great Train Fantasy (Part 1)

A little more than 2 months ago, we posted  an item about the trains of Brunswick, referring to "the sounds of silence."  You can revisit that post here.  It included a video of the train idling on tracks just behind a house on Bouchard Drive.

Last week, we went further.  We went trackside, just east of Church Road, where the train was idling away, apparently unmanned.  This location is roughly 100 feet from where we had an office for 6 years.

Our visit gave us a chance to enjoy the sensory delights of the Portland to Brunswick train, and based on this experience, we hereby declare that the 'sounds of silence' should more appropriately be called 'the sounds of suction.'  Before we explain, you can watch the video that was taken while we stood there.  Make sure you have your audio turned up high enough to appreciate the full spectrum of sounds.


The sounds of suction we referred to above are these: discretionary funds of area residents being sucked south as the train transports them to more exciting locales; funds being sucked unnoticed from taxpayer pockets to pay for the up-front speculation on train infrastructure and then train operating subsidy in perpetuity; and last, train fumes, vibrations, and sounds being sucked into oral and nasal passages and lungs, and otherwise leaving its mark on the five senses.

We advise you to experience this yourself so you can truly appreciate the objections being raised by residents of affected neighborhoods.  We asked our town councilor, who also happens to be the Council Chair, to join us in doing so, but she wanted no part of the experience, for reasons we can't explain.  We could be wrong, but we're guessing that the town has sunk so much political capital and tax money into the promise of the train that any glimpse into reality would be horrifying, and even worse, embarrassing.  Fantasies and dreams die hard; Santa Claus, in the local imagination, arrives on a train from Portland.

You can find the train by turning east in the driveway with the "Church Road Crossing" sign just south of the track crossing on Church Road.  It's across the street from the BIW office facility.  The train is there from about 12:30 to 5:30 pm, idling away, and making all sorts of curious noises.  There's a chance they may move it a block or two east just to keep things confused, but you should have no trouble finding it.

On our visit, we spent about 5 minutes outside soaking up the experience, and then moved inside to an adjacent office facility, where windows were closed, and we spent another 30 minutes or so.  Within minutes of our visit, and before we headed home, we were tasting and smelling the fumes on our lips, in our throat, and in our nose, and feeling the smog-like effects in our eyes.  Trust us when we tell you that it took 24 hours, including a shower and several teeth-brushings, for the effects to dissipate.

Later in the day, we took Mrs. Poppycock by the location, and she smelled and tasted the fumes immediately.  We have no doubt that the children and staff in the nearby day care center are doing the same, but hey, don't let that bother you.  This is all about the common good and Mainer's concerns for the environment and carbon footprint, right?

There are many aspects to this set of circumstances, and if you'll bear with us, we plan to address several of them.

Government Help: A Solution Looking for a Problem

As President Reagan famously said, 'the scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."'  Simply put, the plan to revive passenger trains as a desirable mode of travel stem from government too big for its britches, wildly printing dollars and borrowing even more, coupled with state and local governments stomping all over each other to grab buckets of 'free money.'  

Virtually everyone involved has no real expertise in business or economics; if they did, it would take all the fun out of political pandering and pork-dispensing.  All of them are aided and abetted by parasitic consulting firms that can 'show you the money' and how to get your hands on it with their help.  They are all too eager to tell you whatever you want to hear as the pretext for getting their fair share.

So in our case, passenger trains and Amtrak are the solution, and at least in the latest version, Portland to Brunswick is the problem they've chosen.  Let's be honest; anyone with a bit of common sense knows that passenger trains went out of business for a very good reason.  They were no longer economically viable.  Why?  Start with personal autos, buses, and airplanes.  And a culture based on mobility and getting your own car in high school.  

Oh sure, some very limited and selective Amtrak corridors experience high passenger volume, like the line running from New York to Washington, DC, which we often rode on business travel ourselves.  We even had Joey "Plugs" Biden on board for one trip.  But best we know, even that route requires federal subsidy.

Freight trains are a different story because of their very nature.  They don't need scheduled operations, and you don't need to build 'stations' with heated ramps, parking lots, and staffed ticket offices.

So our assertion is that underneath it all, running trains from Portland to Brunswick makes no sense at all.  Unless you are the government, because then you don't worry about making sense.  If the underlying premise is flawed, then everything built on that foundation is flawed as well.

NNEPRA's Flawed Premise

We told you earlier that in spite of it's name, The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is a creation of Maine State Government, and is akin to the Maine State Housing Authority, the Maine Turnpike Authority, and MRRA in how it operates and is overseen.

We have a copy of an application that was submitted by NNEPRA in August of last year to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), seeking a Categorical Exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act.  Below are excerpts from the worksheet (emphasis ours.)

Through this project, the NNEPRA seeks to enhance mobility, reduce congestion and improve safety.
Downeaster Portland North Expansion Project – The I-295 corridor has experienced substantial growth in traffic volume since the 1950s, and there is a growing need to reduce congestion and enhance safety in this area.  Chronic congestion and delays occur due to inadequate roadway capacity.  Furthermore, the increase in traffic volume has created an increase in traffic accidents, which creates hazards by temporarily reducing highway capacity and producing lengthy backups.  The growth in traffic volume is projected to increase in the future; approximately 50,000 vehicles per day currently travel north of Portland on I-295, and traffic is expected to increase 20% by 2030.  Further expansion of the I-295 corridor is unlikely due to the extremely high cost and significant environmental impacts including the potential for a large number of displacements of businesses and residences.
Anyone who thinks this train will serve as a legitimate means of traveling to and from work in the Portland area, as an alternative to I-295 travel, needs to rethink that view.  The train makes two stops once leaving Portland: Freeport & Brunswick.  It has limited schedules, terrible options for getting from the station to a work location and vice versa, and simply can't compete with the personal auto on virtually any basis.  Notwithstanding the pronouncements of NNEPRA and their consultants, both of whom make their livings on government largesse, and will craft their story to keep it coming, no matter how unsound the arguments.

We don't know about you, but we've failed to observe 'chronic congestion and delays' due to inadequate capacity.  Further, the statement that 50,000 vehicles per day currently travel north of Portland on I-295 is hopelessly ambiguous; we can think of at least three different ways to interpret it.

So we found an I-295 Corridor Study from 2010.  You can read it here.  The first thing you notice is that travel volume from Portland south is much more of a problem than from Portland north.  Lumping them together is not helpful.  Secondly, if you look at the numbers, you could easily surmise that the bulk of the travelers are coming from and heading back to points north of Brunswick, which makes perfect sense.  

So the train would be of little use to them.  Third, average daily traffic on the stretch from Portland to Brunswick is in the range of 22,000 - 28,000 in each direction, depending on which segment you pick.  And in most cases, you can figure that the same vehicle is counted twice: once heading southbound, and once heading northbound on the reverse leg.

While traffic doesn't distribute itself evenly over the 24 hours in a day, this averages out to about 1,000 per hour, or 16 vehicles per minute.  That's one every 4 seconds or so.  If you think this even comes close to 'congestion' and capacity problems, you've never lived in a metropolitan area with real traffic issues.  When we first moved to Maine, we quickly  noticed that there were no traffic reports on radio or TV; no 'eyes in the sky.'  I never once remember heading to PWM and thinking I better allow an extra 10 or 15 minutes because of traffic.

A Pause in the Story

We are forced to admit that we have lots more to say about this subject, and if we don't post until we're done, the essays will be so long as to annoy our readers, which we're quite adept at.  So in the interest of us both, we've decided to break this treatise into 'parts,' so we can move on in measured steps.

Stay tuned for what follows.

You won't be disappointed.  Unless you believe Santa Claus arrives at 7:30 am on an Amtrak train.


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