Monday, June 9, 2008

Fresno Bee Slams Union Pacific

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

In their Saturday editions the Fresno Bee ran an editorial criticizing Union Pacific's efforts to block high speed rail. They didn't pull any punches:

There are several possible explanations for the railroad's move:

Union Pacific is positioning itself for negotiations on any future sale of right of way to the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Union Pacific, in the historically civic-minded nature of railroads in California, is genuinely concerned about the safety of rail passengers.

Union Pacific doesn't know what it's talking about.

The high-speed rail authority has never considered buying existing Union Pacific right of way. Instead, the proposed route would carry trains near the existing tracks in some areas -- not on them. High-speed rail requires dedicated tracks, with grade separations and barriers that keep the trains away from all other trains, as well as other vehicles and pedestrians.


Ouch. Personally I doubt the UP is being civic-minded - it's not really in their nature - but I understand where the Bee is going with this formulation. The editorial also makes a crucial point - we're not talking about putting HSR right next to freight trains, at least not on the sections UP owns.

Union Pacific is correct to preserve its ability to expand. Increased rail freight capacity is as important to California and the nation as building high-speed passenger lines. With the cost of diesel fuel soaring even higher than gasoline, and considering the tremendous pollution that diesel engines cause, we're all better off when freight moves by rail rather than by truck.

But Union Pacific's "safety concerns" might be more usefully focused on the dangers its trains and tracks pose in the neighborhoods they travel through, here in Fresno and elsewhere.


The Bee is right to point to freight rail's importance to our economy. I agree that UP ought to be able to expand - and the Bee is right that HSR doesn't impede that ability.

I also think we should keep in mind the relationship of the UP and the public. They were the original public-private partnership - we gave them huge land grant subsidies in exchange for building the transcontinental rail infrastructure that we realized was needed for the economic growth of the West Coast. Since then government has given them numerous subsidies and perks, such as protection from certain kind of state regulation, their own police force, deregulation of labor rules in recent years, and massive publicly-funded construction projects like the Alameda Corridor.

We need to keep in mind that UP isn't any random private company, but a company created specifically to serve the public interest. There is nothing wrong with insisting they not impede the public, and reminding them of that obligation is a good idea right about now. Political leadership, especially from our Congressional delegation, would help UP understand this - and that if they want to expand their freight operations, they should help us expand our passenger rail services.

15 comments:

Harold said...

I would expect nothing less from the paper in the City which is going to be the recipient of such a gift to their community. As Lee Harrington said on KCBS, the HSR project really puts Fresno at the center of California.

The comment from Keith McDonald in the comments section to the editorial is really right on target.

Robert Cruickshank said...

You mean this comment from Keith McDonald?

"But it will only provide a service to a SMALL rail clientele. Its not worth it to the much larger population that would never use it. It would not reduce the need for more and better maintained high speed highways!"

Hah. I needed an evening laugh.

As to Fresno, can you actually criticize the Bee's arguments? Just because a city might benefit from a project - and there is nothing wrong with Fresno benefiting from this - doesn't mean their arguments are wrong. Criticize the claims, not those who make them.

Harold said...

These comments from Keith McDonald's comments are more to the point:

"HS Rail might provide an initial employment potential but would be of short duration except for highly skilled and trained personnel. But it will only provide a service to a SMALL rail clientele. Its not worth it to the much larger population that would never use it. It would not reduce the need for more and better maintained high speed highways! Therefore it would not ever end the necessary pollution caused by that highway traffic. And with population growth in the future, HS Rail would only become less and less helpful and more expensive in a futile attempt to solve demograghic problems.

Rafael said...

UPRR specifically cited safety and operational concerns, highlighting the scenario of a seriously derailed freight train fouling the adjacent HSR track - conceivably leading to great loss of life. A railroad operator must develop accident scenarios and take measures that eliminate or mitigate the hazard they represent.

However, virtually no-one in the US has any hands-on experience with very high speed trains. It therefore strikes me as perfectly reasonable for UPRR to demand an engineering relationship with CHSRA in which such scenarios can be thought through ahead of time - specifically, well before even considering entering into negotiations on a land sale.

An emergency brake maneuver to bring a TGV traveling at 220mph to a full stop at constant deceleration requires about 92 seconds, during which time the train covers around 2.8 miles. A train engineer cannot possibly see that far ahead, so he/she has to rely on systems that monitor the HSR track ahead for unexpected obstacles and immediately relay warnings into his cab, possibly even initiate an emergency brake maneuver automatically. Otherwise, the train will cover those 2.8 miles in just 45 seconds.

There really is very little time to avoid an major accident if a freight derailment happens just a few miles ahead of an HSR train approaching on an adjacent track. Such events have to be reliably and automatically identified and instantly communicated between the operators' computer systems. If a person has to pick up a telephone, it's already too late. That level of IT integration would represent a quantum leap in US railroad operations practice.

In addition to the humanitarian tragedy of fatalities, there is also the legal issue of liability if an HSR train crashes as a result of hitting a derailed freight train that has fouled its tracks. California is chock-full of ambulance chasers and UPRR understandably doesn't want to sell any of its land to CHSRA if doing so will lead to greater exposure.

The liability issue actually cuts both ways. If a high speed passenger train passes an oncoming freight train at a relative speed of say, 280mph, there will be an aerodynamic interaction - especially if the tracks are fairly close to one another. Given the poor state of good repair of US freight tracks relative to those in Europe and Japan, that interaction could conceivably cause the freight train to become dynamically unstable and possibly derail as a result. Again, a highly unlikely scenario but worth thinking through.

I'm sure there are many other scenarios that need to be discussed before UPRR operations staff can express a level of confidence that CHSRA's proposal can be made to work. It's unlikely that UPRR management would proceed with negotiations against the advice of its operations management.

I'm not sure if CHSRA really understands that planning a railroad implies not just selecting a route but also laying the groundwork for how it will co-operate with existing railroads as a good neighbor. Given that UPRR has been in business for 146 years - compared to zero for CHSRA - I for one would have liked Morshed to respond with more tact and professional courtesy than he has.

It's one thing for a member of the chattering classes to suggest that UPRR may not know what it's talking about. It's quite another for CHSRA to do so.

Rafael said...

@ harold -

in every country that has developed an HSR system, ridership has been high. That applies especially wherever bullet trains run mostly on dedicated tracks, e.g. Japan, France and Spain.

SNCF in France increased ridership on its TGVs by 12% when it reduced selected second-class fares to as little as e.g. $30 one-way for Paris-Marseille (~466 miles). Even a first class ticket on that route costs just $150.

Volume pricing was instrumental to delivering 1.2 billion passenger trips on its TGV network over the past 25 years - 100 million in 2005 alone. In February 2007, SNCF operated a fleet of 430 TGVs and had another 45 double-decker trainsets (500 seats each) on order.

California's population is smaller and its public transportation infrastructure is much less developed. CHSRA projects ridership of ~95 million in 2030, some 12 years after the starter line is due to open. That's aggressive but quite possible if the price of gasoline and kerosene is high enough.

HSR would actually be an excellent complement to the emerging electric bicycle and car options, because high battery capacity (= high range) will always be fairly expensive.

Note also that Amtrak's slow, infrequent diesel trains with their poor on-time record now attract 5 million passengers a year in California.

Thanks to short travel times, volume pricing and excellent punctuality, all-electric HSR would revolutionize public attitudes toward intercity passenger rail in the state. There is no reason to assume that passenger rail clientele would remain small.

無名 - wu ming said...

add to that a scenario where airlines are severely cutting back on short distance routes, and with gas somewhere between 7 and 8 dollars a gallon, and people will jump at the chance to use HSR.

what's a bigger problem is how we cope with those things happening while we're still building the HSR network, because people delayed the starting date for so long. the coast starlight's already full these days, i cannot imagine what higher gas and airline prices will do to their already overstressed system.

good to see the bee standing up. lord knows it'll benefit fresno a tremendous amount.

bikerider said...

An emergency brake maneuver to bring a TGV traveling at 220mph to a full stop at constant deceleration requires about 92 seconds, during which time the train covers around 2.8 miles.

I don't know of any location where a HSR would be traveling that fast so close alongside freight. Areas with restricted ROW also happen to be in urban zones, where trains would be limited to 125mph anyway.

I think what is really going on here is that UP does not want to be put in the position of having to fulfill its common-carrier obligations at some point down the line when HSR trains are going to want to share tracks. Of course, BART had a unique solution to that problem...

Rafael said...

@ bikerider -

it's true that in the most constrained sections speeds will be lower, e.g. in the 125-150mph range you indicated. However, just a few weeks ago, a first-generation German ICE running t 125mph derailed after hitting a flock of sheep that had somehow managed to wander onto the tracks. There were a few injuries and no fatalities, but that's partly because the accident happened at a tunnel entrance. It may have been a very unusual incident, but only the tunnel walls kept the derailed train cars from toppling over in the half mile of travel needed to come to a full stop. The outcome could have been worse.

Note that CHSRA is planning to run trains at over 200mph between Stockton and Bakersfield. It's not clear from the documentation provided how far the HSR tracks would be removed from UPRR's freight tracks in that corridor - 10 feet, 20, 50?

Also note that unlike Amtrak's Acela Express plying the North East Corridor, California's HSR trains are never going to run on the same tracks as the much slower freight trains. Even so, FRA will need to issue a waiver so CHSRA can purchase lightweight off-the-shelf trainset technology from Europe, Japan, Korea, China or one of the other countries adhering to international crash safety standards.

The reason the tab is $40 billion is precisely that the project calls for 700 miles of brand-new, dedicated, fully grade separated, very high quality dual track plus overhead catenary, anti-trespass measures, track video surveillance, advanced signaling, positive train control, articulated trainsets plus fancy stations, feeder services and more. Sure, it's expensive but you also get a lot for your money.

HSR goes well beyond BART in every way.

Morris Brown said...

But we know quite well that the $40 billion dollar price tag is not even in the ballpark.

Two statements from the leaders of CHSRA and just a little arithmetic bear this out.

1. Kopp states that 50 to 60 percent of the cost of the project is for ROW or land acquisition costs.

2. Morshed says they will build 600 grade crossings.

Now grade crossings we know will cost around 100 million dollars each. (CalTrain projects in the bay area give costs for these). Six hundred grade crossings are alone going to cost 60 billion dollars.

CalTrain cost estimate to electrify from SF to San Jose is 600 million dollars. The cost to electrify the whole 700 miles of HSR must be at the very lest 5 times that much; so 3 billion for the grid etc.

The cost for land and ROW will be $20 billion. In additions you need to build stations, buy rolling stock, lots more studies etc.

The $40 billion is nonsense. Even at $100 billion you wonder if it can be built.

There have been several comments made that BART cost estimates for extending at around $385 million per mile were bogus. They certainly seem more realistic then the low ball numbers CHSRA has been giving out.

Its time for CHSRA to give us a real cost estimate, not an estimate made to allure the voters to approve the fall 2008 ballot measure.

Remember this is earthquake country. Construction costs are just sky high.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

over- and underpasses are indeed very expensive in built-up urban and suburban areas, especially if construction must not interfere with the operations of an active railroad. However, they are much less expensive in rural areas. I haven't seen a breakdown of how many level crossings are located where and which of them will simply be closed permanently. Without that information, it strikes me as inappropriate to assert that grade separation will cost $60 billion.

The cost of land acquisition is high and cannot really be nailed down until negotiations actually begin. UPRR aside, some landowners in critical sections will no doubt drive very hard bargains. A few may even face eminent domain proceedings. There are substantial risks of cost overruns and delays in land acquisition, one reason the State Senate recommended narrowing the scope of Phase 1.1 to relatively short sections at the very ends of the proposed starter line.

As for earthquake risks, those are indeed significant in large parts of the state - including especially the planned mountain crossings. That means tunnels, retaining walls and aerial structures must be stronger than they would have to be in most other part of the country. However, it's worth remembering that much of the Central Valley is at much lower risk than either the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

Michael said...

I am researching EIR/EIS for a project on development associated with the high-speed rail line, and time and time again have come across acknowledgments of opposition from UPRR in these documents. It is quite surprising and upsetting that the media and nay-sayers are portraying this right-of-way issue as a deal killer when the CHSRA is already aware of these obstacles and trying to address them.

The CHSRA is not as of yet absolutely counting on using the freight rights of way. They acknowledge that doing so will minimize impacts and probably reduce, but according to the Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS, they are not planning to try to seek agreements until the high-speed rail project has been given a go ahead by the state and the voters.

Doesn't this make sense? Why would we have this state agency make agreements that it can't back up? Hopefully there will be a successful negotiation between UPRR and CHSRA, but if not there is nowhere in the studies that indicated this will irrevocably hamper the project.

I am worried that the media's interpretation of the UPRR letter is going to do significant damage to the popular support for the project. Hopefully, some sort of unbiased third party can get a message out countering this article before it is too late.

bikerider said...

just a few weeks ago, a first-generation German ICE running t 125mph derailed after hitting a flock of sheep that had somehow managed to wander onto the tracks. There were a few injuries and no fatalities, but that's partly because the accident happened at a tunnel entrance. It may have been a very unusual incident, but only the tunnel walls kept the derailed train cars from toppling over in the half mile of travel needed to come to a full stop.

There have been several TGV derailments, including one at 186mph. The articulated design of the TGV kept the train (mostly) upright and there were no serious injury or fatalities in these incidents.

Note that CHSRA is planning to run trains at over 200mph between Stockton and Bakersfield. It's not clear from the documentation provided how far the HSR tracks would be removed from UPRR's freight tracks in that corridor - 10 feet, 20, 50?

Pick a number, any number. It doesn't matter since that section is relatively straightforward. To put in perspective: the entire central valley segment is $8 billion, vs $12-$16 just for the Bay Area section.

Also note that unlike Amtrak's Acela Express plying the North East Corridor, California's HSR trains are never going to run on the same tracks as the much slower freight trains. Even so, FRA will need to issue a waiver so CHSRA can purchase lightweight off-the-shelf trainset technology from Europe, Japan, Korea, China or one of the other countries adhering to international crash safety standards.

If California wants a real HSR network, then it will have to revisit the issue of freight rail access. It is quite infeasible (from an economic standpoint) to build a 100% segregated system. In France, only half the TGV mileage is on dedicated track. In Germany, the vast majority of ICE is on conventional lines.

Yes, the FRA rarely permits this, but that is going to have to change once gas gets over $8/gallon. Note that in every other country that has implemented HSR, that was only possible with major rewriting of the safety regulations.

Anonymous said...

This is how freight access will work:

(1) California (or someone) will build a completely segregated system.

(2) The freight haulers will start petitioning for access to it.

At that point, the FRA will finally get around to modernizing its grossly obsolete rules.

Marla said...

First things first.

Cover-Up Behind ADA Violations

Fresno: Massive Cover-Up - Story of the Century!

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