Sunday, September 30, 2012

New old trains coming to Amtrak's San Joaquin

Thanks in part to some of the stimulus money of 2010, Amtrak California will be receiving 42 new rail-cars to service the three in-state routes it runs. Sadly, that process is slow, and the builder of those trains has only just been announced, with deliveries not set to begin until 2015.

With rail ridership on a non-stop upwards trend now, what can the state rail agency do to increase capacity in the short term?

The answer lies in buying used.

Or in this case, VERY used.

California earlier this year made a subdued announcement about the work they're doing to bring new train cars to the valley. I haven't seen the media report on this, but there was a presentation a few weeks ago that shed light on the work.

Amtrak has purchased 14 rail-cars from New Jersey Transit and will rebuild them to be suitable for use on longer distance routes. That is, the interior will change, the exterior, not so much. That means the San Joaquin will be going from the bi-level coaches we love to older single level (and high floor!) models.

So, why did NJT sell these trains? Well, they're not the newest chickens in the coop...

Coaches were built as Arrow I EMUs in 1968-1969 and were overhauled into push/pull coaches in 1987-1988
In other words, these train cars were built before Amtrak even existed (Amtrak started in 1971).

The cars will be complemented with the addition of  existing single level Amtrak diners and baggage cars. Basically, there are going to be three new trains. 14 coach cars will be divided as two 5 car trains and one 4 car train. Each train will have a diner and a baggage car.

That means, the San Joaquin is going to get much longer to handle the same type of capacity per train. Current trains look like this:

Engine-Coach-Coach-Diner-Coach     with some trains having an additional coach at the end, so 5-6 long.

The new trains will probably look like this:

Engine-Coach-Coach-Diner-Coach-Coach-Coach-Baggage   with one train having one less coach car, so 7-8 long.

So what do these things look like?

Outside, they look like this:

The insides currently look like this:

That's not what we'll be riding. The cars are being rebuilt to resemble the interior of modern Amtrak California cars. That means 4 seats per row instead of five, folding tables at every seat, with shared tables in the middle, room for baggage and large restrooms. Also, a bike rack. Oh, and MUCH more leg room.

Photobucket Photobucket
Besides the tables, standard Amtrak ameneties like power outlets and free wi-fi will be included. Naturally, the entire interior will look brand new (as it will be) instead of 40 years old.

So basically, this:


Getting new trains is good news, as it means more flexibility. Three more trains make it easier to add a 7th and 8th daily train on the San Joaquin, or, elsewhere. By placing the trains in the valley, they could keep current schedules and have three bi-levels be made available on the other routes.

And that is the downside to this. The three trains are destined to the valley, and while the insides will be new, they do come with one significant downside.

They're high floor models, while the current stations are designed for the low floor trains. That means, to get on and off, there will be stairs. The doors are also narrower than what we're used to, because they were designed for commuters and not travelers with bags. They will also be manual instead of automatic doors.

Today, it is very easy to stroll onboard.


 The Comet?

Not so much.


All this means that the stops are going to take MUCH longer, especially if you consider the number of elderly passengers riding. And while the trains are accessible to the disabled, those in wheelchairs will have to wait for a staff member to get and operate a lift. Potentially, this could mean over 15 minutes added to the run times of the route.

If the new trains mean that they can finally add the long promised 7th daily train,  then this is a welcome inconvenience. However, if the new trains are simply a way to whisk away the more attractive bi-levels to the other two California routes while lowering the quality of service in the valley? That would be a bad way to reward the San Joaquin passengers who have been riding the train in greater numbers every month.

As of now, Amtrak has not released their plans for these new trains, except for stating they won't be ready to roll for at least another six months. I'm crossing my fingers that the announcement will come with improved service. Perhaps it would be best if local politicians and media push for that?

Pictures are a mix of my own and Amtraks. The presentation where they came from, with a few other details, can be found here (PDF).

Also: The new blogger interface has been pushed upon me. It's terrible. Why do web companies feel that the best way to grow their company is to inconvenience their users? I don't get the business model at all, and I hate having to deal with it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bee actually mentions "unmarked crosswalk" in report

The Fresno Bee ran a sad story today about a mother and her daughter being hit by a motorist driving a pickup truck while crossing the road on the way to school. A vehicle in one lane had stopped to let the two cross and the other driver decided to ignore that and continue past the stopped vehicle, hitting them. The daughter is ok, the mother is in the hospital.

Many things can be said about the story, but this is what caught my eye:

The driver was eastbound on Clinton Avenue as the woman and the girl were in an unmarked crosswalk walking to the north side of the street.

Read more here:
I don't know if it was the reporter, Jim Guy who noted this, or if it was brought to his attention by Police Sgt. Anthony Dewall who was interviewed for the article but....

Well done.

Not enough people understand that in California, an unmarked crosswalk exists at every single intersection and has the same legal standing as a marked one. That is, the pedestrian has the right of way, and the vehicles must stop.

Noting the law doesn't change the unfortunate collision, but it DOES affect perception.  And that actually means a lot.

When a pedestrian is hit, and an article is published, it seems like there exists a rule which demands that crosswalk status be mentioned. Driver speed? Who cares. Road design? Not relevant. Motorists being distracted? Not news. But were the pedestrians inside the magical crosswalk? That is key. No pedestrian injury story can be written without including a line about the crosswalk.

It's like how every bike collision story MUST include reference to a helmet (or lack of).

Personally, I don't get it. In many ways, focusing on helmets and crosswalks but not things like speed and driver distraction simply helps to toss blame towards the victim. It doesn't matter if it's not the intention of the reporter, it's the result.

Take the following example.

1) "A mother and child were hit by a pickup truck today. They were not in the crosswalk"
Reaction: It's all their fault! How dare they! Idiots! They had it coming!
Once that's put in the story, it's like it becomes the only variable. Does it matter if the motorist was speeding? No. Does it matter that in California, if the closest intersection is unsignalized, a pedestrian may cross at any point? No. The victims must be blamed. If only they'd been inside the magical unmarked crosswalk, only then would everything be ok.

2) "A mother and child were hit by a pickup truck today. It was unclear if they were in a crosswalk"
Reaction: They probably were jaywalking! I see it all the time! They had it coming!
Just by implying that they MAY have been breaking the law, blame is placed on them, even though the motorist may have actually been breaking the law by speeding or doing something else.

3) "A mother and child were hit by a pickup truck today. They were in the crosswalk"
Reaction: Motorists need to me more careful!

In this case, by stating the facts as 3, instead of what they usually do as in 2, makes a huge difference in how the case is perceived.

So that is good to see.

Of course, imagine if newspapers used the same "question" technique on motorists that they do usually with pedestrians:

4) "A mother and child were hit by a pickup truck today. They were in the crosswalk. It was unclear if the motorist had been speeding recklessly or texting at the time"
Reaction: Lynch him now! Death is not good enough for this criminal!

Like questioning the status of the crosswalk, questioning the drivers' actions isn't actually blaming him for that stuff, but implying it may have happened is strong enough.

It's also good to see the police acknowledge it was the motorist who should get the blame. many times, you see "the victims should have been paying more attention!"

Police Sgt. Anthony Dewall said the driver, who has not been identified, could have avoided running into the woman had he been more attentive.
"When another vehicle is stopped, it should bring some attention to you as to why the other vehicle is stopped," he said.
Dewall said the driver would be cited for not stopping as well as being unlicensed. His truck will also be impounded.

Read more here:

Read more here:

Friday, September 21, 2012

Time running out to enjoy farmer's markets

As summer comes to a close, one of the best parts about living in Fresno goes into retirement for 8 months....the farmer's market.

I was foolish enough to spend over two years in Fresno without enjoying one of the many local farmer's markets. Last year, when I finally got around to seeking out the time and location of them, I discovered that by October, most had closed, and I had missed out for the season. Earlier this year, I made it a point to visit early in the summer. Since then, I have visited many local farmer's markets, and purchased many delicious fruits and other goods. Not all the farmer's markets close for winter, but the biggest certainly do.

Tonight for example, is your second to last chance to enjoy the Clovis Old Town Farmer's Market.

The Clovis one is special in a few different ways. For one, as far as I know, it's the only one in Clovis. More important than that is that it's an evening market. While most are closed by noon, the Clovis one operates Fridays from 5:30pm until 9pm. I believe only the River Park market also operates after work hours. Besides operating at a reasonable hour, the market is large and also offers many stands besides the traditional farm produce. There is entertainment as well....and puppies. Yes, an adoption stand filled with puppies for you to play with.

If you're not sure you're interested in shopping for produce, I suggest visiting anyway. You'll probably be surprised by the crowds, which more resemble what you'd find on big hat days rather than what you might expect from a fruit market. They're enjoying not just the fruit but also the music and many food stands. There are also many (many!) free samples, and that's always a great reason to go out.

Last time I visited, a grape sample convinced me to purchase 5 types of grapes (more than I knew existed). I was given a free sample of freshly squeezed juice, and while the price was high, I was convinced by how much better it was than Tropicana and have been a repeat customer since. Been to the tropics? You've probably had sugar cane juice, something you may not expect in Clovis. If you've never had it....try the free sample! Other samples include almonds, honey, cheese and more.

If the delicious produce doesn't convince you, the market has a large section of food stands, including Filipino egg rolls, Brazilian Pao de Queijo, Mexican Tamales, Wood Oven Pizza and more - not exactly what you might have expected before stopping by.

Oddly enough, I don't appear to have any pictures on hand that I've taken of the market, but the website has a decent video showing you some of the variety. You can watch it here.

The market sets up tonight, on Pollasky from 5th to 3rd.  Sadly, there's no bus transit to get you there (thanks Clovis City Council!) as FAX does not serve this part of Clovis and the Clovis bus system is not worth mentioning. That means if you want to get there without a car, your best bet is my bike. Ibikefresno sets up a free bike valet, so you don't have to worry about locks, your accessories etc. Just hand it over and you're good to go. If you want to drive, there's free surface parking everywhere surrounding the market area.

If tonight is too short notice, then it's worth going next week, for the pistachio party which closes the market for the year.

This is what the Fresno Bee wrote last year about the evening:
On Friday, organizers of the Old Town farmers market will salute the beloved pistachio with cooking demonstrations, free samples and lots of pistachio-flavored foods for sale – think pistachio pesto pizza, pistachio sweet tamales and pistachio ice cream.
Fresno Bee

Read more here:
 I'd assume this year will be similar.

Extra: The one picture I can find of the market....which doesn't even show the market!  I took this when the market hosted a pole vaulting championship a couple of months ago.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Boston's Hubway bike system finally nears 100 stations

The Boston area bicycle share system, officially called "New Balance Hubway", faced a rocky start as it saw multiple delays and many missed expectations. Fortunately, the system is finally getting its act together and has been marching towards adding its 100th station. This summer, the system began expanding into neighboring cities, and new stations are being added every week.

2011: 57 stations
Spring 2012: 61 stations
End Summer 2012 (current): 95 stations

An additional batch of stations is expected this month, taking the system over 100. While it may not have the expansion goals of Mexico City, the system is finally covering a respectable geographic area.

Announced in 2009, Hubway was supposed to hit the streets in the spring of 2010. Behind the scene delays pushed that back to spring 2011, and then further troubles meant the system didn't launch until July 28 2011. While original plans called for over 100 stations in the first year, the system supposedly launched with 61 stations.....but no more than 57 were ever installed during the first year, contrary to all the official literature.

As Hubway is a seasonal system, it was packed up just four months later, but 2012 was supposed to come with many new locations. Although an early March relaunch was announced, the system wasn't really available until almost April. This time around, all 61 stations were installed, and expansion was supposed to follow quickly

MAPC “hopes to launch in spring with at least twenty stations” in Cambridge, and additional stations in Brookline and Somerville soon after.

Spring came and went with no expansion, and now expectations were set for July. It took until this August, but stations have finally been rolling out in Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville and additional spots in Boston.

From 61 stations in mid July, Hubway now has 95 stations today, and an additional ten or so are expected over the next two weeks.

Let's take a look at what the system looks like today and how expansion has rolled out.

Green = Stations in place since April
Aqua: Stations installed during July and August
Gold: Stations installed in September


Hubway hasn't done a great job at advertising their new stations, so if you're in the Boston area and reading this....surprise! It's also unclear what the timeline is for the next batch of stations. We might get four new ones tomorrow, or none until have to check the map on the Hubway website to spot any new arrivals. Note that the gold stations are "new" within the last 30 days, so you have to compare with this map to see what really is new.

I wish Hubway was a little more open with their timelines and such, and put more effort into announcing new stations. However, it is good to see expansion is finally underway. It will be interesting to see what number they reach before they start having to remove stations for the winter....and then if we get more next year.

Monday, September 10, 2012

An analysis of Fresno/Clovis rail-trail (2): Gettysburg to Old Town

This is the second part of a series of posts touring and analyzing the Fresno-Clovis Rail Trail.

Part one, South of Shaw can be found by clicking that link.

Today I start where we left off last time (Gettysburg) and continue north across Shaw towards Old Town Clovis.

This section of the trail sees some improvements (more amenities) but many of the same failing as before, such as terrible road crossings. This area also introduces tunnels.

Fortunately, the many drawbacks of the trail could be easily fixed. The trail itself is not terrible - it's wide, well maintained and feels safe and welcoming. Most of the problems I will point out are missed opportunities that a little bit of attention and investment could fix.

Here is the section I will visit today


Green = Path, from bottom to top.
Red = Tunnels
Blue = Gazebo/rest stops

We start at the southern end (where we left off) and go north. I begin a little bit south of Shaw, by Sierra Vista Mall, at Gettysburg.

As I pointed out last time, the crosswalks in this section are all partially blocked.


As we move north, we keep finding more and more amenities.


The path is right next to a recently built hotel, but there's absolutely no interaction. Trail-side dining? No, not even a path.



We approach the next intersection (and if you recall from last time, outside of signalized intersections, there are zero entrances/exits from the path)


Naturally, I want to go straight, but noooo


Yup, yet another corner where the buttons were installed incorrectly, and the only way to get the walking man is to push them.


Even though a gap in the median exists, trail users are sent as close to the 50mph Clovis traffic as possible to cross.


Like all the other crossings, the city doesn't want us to cross Clovis, but the curb ramp is oriented that way.


More benches.


Target and Sierra Vista Mall (and the abandoned movie theater) is directly to our right


Up ahead there IS actually a direct connection between the path and the stores, and a cute little gazebo.

Problem is, the path is tiny. If anyone actually is sitting here, youd hit their legs when biking through.



Slightly north of this entrance (towards Shaw) is an obvious demand-trail, where people coming from Shaw choose to walk because the official path is hidden from view and this seems like the most direct entrance (the first time i came I thought this was the only way in!)



We now approach Shaw. There's a nice sign making the trail visible.



This landing area was just rebuilt this summer....exactly as it was before, with a ramp pointed into high speed traffic. I was excited when they dug the whole thing up, but then they put exactly what there was before. I do believe this intersection does NOT require pushing the button to get the walking man though. The signal is one of the only ones fully ADA accessible (can be heard by the blind) and has a countdown.


This portion was not rebuilt. The pedestrian refuge/crosswalk is abysmal. How is putting a pole in the middle of your crosswalk logical in any way?


This picture shows how the ramp orients you the wrong way


Tiny crossing.


Looking across Clovis Ave while I wait. Possibly even worse.


There are always people crossing here. Always.


One of the biggest dangers of this crossing is that Clovis does not indicate that this is a busy crossing, and the city refuses to install advance stop bars. See that white car? Imagine it's an SUV. Now someone speeding into the right turn lane WILL (they always do) race far into the crosswalk before stopping so they can glance left and turn right.

If the vehicle in the next lane is tall, as it usually is, the driver racing illegally into the crosswalk cannot see the cyclists crossing.

Indeed, last year a police officer hit a kid here trying that same dangerous maneuver. No changes were made to the crossing. The grey vehicle should be where all cars are required to stop.


This was just rebuilt, but the ramp is not aligned with the trail. There's a pole in the way.


North of Shaw, the trail gets more investment. Some art...and finally, lights!



Sadly, the lights are placed at car-distances, and not bike distances, so the path is still dark. Much better than nothing though.

Another rest stop.


This one is actually wide.


We also being approaching one of many tunnels on the path.

The tunnels remove all conflicts with cars, which is nice. For example, you dont have to worry about those dangerous right turns on red.

But there's a really big downside....they take a perfectly flat path and add some pretty steep hills. This specific tunnel serves only a driveway into Lowe's. That's right, not a street, a simple driveway.




It may not look steep, but it does take some work to get back up the other side.

And if you're traveling with kids on those small trikes? Impossible. They'll have to get off and walk. Not exactly fun.


Back entrance to Lowe's


....and we're already at another tunnel. This one for San Jose, a tiny two lane road.




Just north of the tunnel, we see something that was missing from the entire southern entrance to the path from a local street!


But that's a one-off thing. This picture came out badly, but you can see it's an intersection with no trail access.


We approach Barstow and that's it for today.


Like every other intersection, trail users are sent diagonally into the intersection.


I'll try and have the next section up this weekend. We will look at the core of old town, which should be the best portion of the trail but in my opinion is the worst section.

Hope you're enjoying the tour.