Thursday, April 24, 2008

High Speed Rail Is Simply a Better Way to Travel

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report, a newsletter devoted to renewable automobiles. For Earth Day 2008 he wrote an excellent overview of the California high speed rail project that not only reinforces many of the major points in favor of high speed rail, but does so in a particularly clear and convincing manner.

The article opens with an anecdote about Fiona Ma's trip on board the record-breaking TGV trip in 2007, about how her initial worries were quickly overcome:

Fiona Ma was nervous about getting on a train that was about to set a world speed record. Just before Easter 2007 in the countryside outside Paris, she saw the people lining the green and flowered route. The French were flying flags, waving, and cheering. Less reassuring were those of faith who crossed themselves as the new train accelerated past 200 miles per hour. The people blurred into a collage of spring time colors. The train vibrated much as when a jet plane roars down the runway and starts to ascend. Fiona hoped that this train would not leave the tracks.

At three hundred miles per hour, the train was still on the tracks, accelerating. Out the window, only one image was distinct. A plane that was filming the historic event flew along side the train. Surrealistically, Fiona and the eleven other dignitaries could see what was filmed from the plane on a screen inside the train. Another LCD displayed their world record - 357 miles per hour on a train. Everyone cheered. The train slowed over the next few miles. Fiona took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled; she took part in history.


It's a great framing device for Addison's article, especially as it mirrors some of the initial hesitancy that some Californians have about the project. By now we should be familiar with most of them - it's going to cost too much, Californians won't ride it, the budget deficit means we can't do it, construction will hurt the environment. These are the usual doubts and worries folks have before embarking on a major, transformative project. But once we look at how HSR works in practice - and once we evaluate the specific proposal - it is impossible to avoid having the same feelings of excitement and confidence that Fiona Ma felt on that train in France last year.

Addison goes on to describe the environmental benefits of HSR and the growing demand from Californians for this kind of system. He closes his article with a personal anecdote showing just how useful, efficient, and valuable HSR systems already in place - even quasi-HSR systems like the Acela - are in contrast to our decaying and sclerotic oil-based transportation systems:

As a manager covering several states, I used to travel weekly on airplanes. Point-to-point always required at least four hours to get to the airport, get thru security, taxi in the runway, fly, taxi in the runway, then rent a car. In contrast, when taking a train from Washington D.C. to New York, I found that train travel was faster than airlines and better integrated with public transportation. With high-speed rail, airline travel to cover a few hundred miles would never be a personal option.

Travel between Washington D.C. and Boston is now even faster with speeds of up to 150 miles per hour on Amtrak’s Acela, the only high-speed rail in the United States. Now you can get from the nation’s capital to downtown Manhattan in less than three hours; an impossibility with airline travel and the fastest taxi driver in New York history. Over ten million passengers road this Northeast Corridor in 2007, making it the most popular train route in the U.S. Acela is now profitable.

In 12 years, 32 to 68 million passengers may be riding on an even faster system in California. The high-speed rail will keep California’s economy moving forward, with more jobs, more energy security and far less emissions.


The US Capitol to downtown Manhattan in three hours. Downtown San Francisco to downtown LA in 2.5 hours. These are travel times that airlines simply cannot match - once you factor in total travel time including the trip to and from the airport.

Millions of Californians have stories such as this - whether it's of their travels on the Acela, the Shinkansen, the AVE, or like Fiona Ma, the TGV. While it certainly seems like the major political issues surrounding HSR will be financing and environmental impact, perhaps the most compelling and convincing arguments in its favor are those that come from personal experience. From Californians who know first-hand just how effective and valuable high speed rail really is.

What these personal accounts make clear is that high speed rail is simply a better way to travel. It offers advantages that the airlines cannot, and has a brighter, more affordable future that the airlines cannot hope to offer. HSR isn't a dragon-slayer - it's not going to put the airline industry out of business overnight - and nor is that its goal. Instead it will offer modern transportation that meets our 21st century needs - from cost to economic growth to global warming.

It just makes sense.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The total travel time argument deserves closer scrutiny. First, you have to get to and from train stations as well. Granted, in the major metropolitan areas served you can use regional rail, BART/subway, light rail, a bus, an (electric) bicycle or you can walk there. Getting someone to drop you off and pick you up with a personal car is, of course also an option - especially in suburbia.

However, all of this does take time, just as getting to the airport does. Chances are, actual door-to-door times will be pretty close.

What gives HSR the edge are its many other advantages:

(a) reliability. In countries with modern rail systems, passenger trains run on time - regardless of weather. Long delays are extremely rare. In the US, he Amtrak experience is marred by networks that are largely single track, owned by freight operators and in poor state of repair. HSR is a completely different proposition.

(b) no check-in and security procedures. These not only take time, they also result in a much less pleasurable travel experience. And while HSR could be a terrorist target, the same is true of every other type of infrastructure. Besides, you cannot deliberately crash a train into a high rise building - or a nuclear reactor. None of the countries that have suffered attacks against their rail infrastructure have introduced airport-style security in response.

(c) more space to relax. For the same price, you get the comfort of business class. If you need to stretch your legs or get peckish, there's a cafe car - no attendant will bump you with a cart or block your access to the nearest restroom. Some of the TGV trains in Europe even provide dedicated play areas for kids and enclosed compartments for families.

(d) a better mobile office. Some rows of seats face each other, with a large table in-between. The windows will feature blinds or perhaps, electrochromic dimming. Standard AC outlets can easily be made available. Speeds are low enough to support cell phone service except in tunnels. Broadband internet access incl. VoIP may become possible with 802.16 (WiMax) plus on-board 802.11 (WiFi), though Caltrain did not yet achieve acceptable results in a recent trial.

(e) greater baggage allowance. You can take two bags and, one of those can be a folding bicycle. If it's an electric type - very handy for getting to and from the train station in summer - you can recharge the batteries in transit. For an additional fee, you can take along standard-size bicycles and even scooters. And as long as he's housebroken and you use a muzzle, Fido can come on the train without having to check him as live cargo cooped up in box.

(f) air quality. Since they're electric, high speed trains feature zero tailpipe emissions. Normal braking is recuperative, so except in emergencies, there is no particulate matter from brake linings - nor any from rubber tires. Aircraft cabin pressure is equivalent to that at 8000ft above MSL, i.e. 25% less oxygen per unit volume. Trains are not pressurized and therefore do not need to recirculate cabin air at all. It is merely an option, e.g. when passing downwind of a refinery.

(g) noise & vibrations. On high speed sections, the special tracks required for HSR also minimize contact noise and vibrations. Advanced aerodynamic design reduces wind noise and tunnel boom. Residents close to the line will still be affected, but that is true of freeways and airports as well. Noise and vibration comfort inside the cabin is superior to that in a motor vehicle or aircraft.

(h) energy security. Electricity can be generated using many different energy sources, including domestically produced coal. If the electricity used to run HSR is 100% renewable, there are no fossil carbon emissions - a significant contribution to reducing California's GHG footprint. Construction is also less energy intensive than upgrading the modal alternative would be.

(j) crash safety. Hight speed trains are articulated designs based on Jacob's bogies. These are shared by consecutive short cars, which also allows those cars to be wider - creating more interior space. In the event of a derailment, the articulation greatly reduces the risk of cars tipping over and causing severe injuries or death. Collisions are extremely unlikely because of double-tracking, in-cab signaling and positive train control, strict grade separation and chain-link fences on either side of the line. Also, trains are massive and therefore come to a stop more slowly than cars or planes. There is no need for seat belts - and no clear air turbulence to worry about.

(k) radiation. Flying in the stratosphere exposes passengers and crew to cosmic ionizing radiation. Long-term epidemiological studies of the health effects, particularly on women in their reproductive years, is ongoing. Trains stay on the ground, so even babies in utero are not subjected to additional health risks.

MikeOnBike said...

Anon said "The total travel time argument deserves closer scrutiny. First, you have to get to and from train stations as well."

Yes, but you're likely to be closer to an HSR station than an airport. There will be more HSR stations than airports.

Anonymous said...

@ mikeonbike -

absolutely true, but it doesn't invalidate my statement. For an honest comparison, you have to compare realistic travel scenarios, which include not only the start and end address. You also need to factor in when someone travels, by what means they get to and from the airport or train station, how critical it is that they arrive on time, how much flexibility they need in changing the time of their return trip, if they need to work in transit, their expectations regarding safety, health, environmental impact etc. etc.

One way to gauge how attractive HSR would be in the real world is to go to the airport and survey people waiting in line regarding the details of their trip between the Bay Area and SoCal. Then, in each case, you could figure out if HSR - if it already existed today - would indeed be the better choice for that particular person or group making that particular trip at that particular time.

Given a representative sample of several thousand cases, you could get a sense of the market share HSR could potentially capture and what the customer acceptance hurdles to achieving that would be.

Maybe the folks over at CalPIRG could get their professors to award some academic credits for such a study. Abstract discussion of travel times tend to focus on the mythical travel who is already downtown in one city and needs to be downtown in another. Life is usually messier than that.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Regarding the travel times issue, it's worth noting some key factors:

1. The LA and SF HSR stations will be in the core of the two cities, as opposed to the periphery. Central location makes it easier to travel to the station by any number of means than it is to travel to an airport on the edge of town.

2. The LA, SF, and San Jose HSR stations will be at the hub of extensive public transit systems - whereas SFO, OAK, SJC, and LAX are all on the edges of transit infrastructure.

3. Other HSR stations will also be located more centrally in a given region than the corresponding airports, even though places like Fresno and Anaheim need more public transit options.

I would love to see the kind of study you propose, anonymous. But mikeonbike is right with his short and sweet statement that most Californians will be closer to an HSR station than to an airport. Quantifying that for each station would be great - but the concept seems clear enough for most Californians.