Thursday, June 19, 2008

"A New Manhattan Project"

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

A Georgia oil company executive, Tex Pitfield (really, with a name like that, how do you NOT go into the oil business?!), has an op-ed in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution calling for a massive national investment in alternatives to oil. And of course, high speed rail figures centrally in his argument:

History provides wonderful insight. Could we possibly reinvent the Eisenhower interstate system in the form of a nationwide high-speed rail system like they have in Europe? Needless to say, it would be powered by electricity or hydrogen, fossil fuel being a thing of the past. Not only do we create a huge beneficial infrastructure, but we put likely hundreds of thousands of people to work. The economy desperately needs jobs and a base to support them.

Way too many Californians have forgotten the role of massive infrastructure investment in the prosperity we enjoy today. Without the bay bridges built during the Depression, the State Water Project that was approved during a budget crisis in 1960, Eisenhower's foresighted (if ultimately flawed) Interstate Highway System, the construction of and paying the operating costs for schools and colleges - all those were acts of government that without which California would never have enjoyed the prosperity it did.

But those investments either need to be renewed, or in the case of transportation, remade. The era of cheap oil is over and instead of wasting money on trying to prolong our oil dependency - at a huge cost to our environment and therefore to our lives - why not do what our predecessors did, and invest in our future?

Those who attack the high speed rail project, those who say we should not build it, are saying we should do nothing at all to plan for our future. They offer no solution to high gas prices. No solution to the airline crisis. They have no plan for addressing climate change. They believe, against all evidence, that the status quo can continue indefinitely.

We need a new investment in our nation's infrastructure - to build a sustainable America. It begins here in California. We can show the rest of the country the way forward - or we can stick our heads in the sand and deny reality. The choice is ours and ours alone - if we don't make the right one this year, we're not going to get another chance to put it right. We've already squandered too many of those opportunities.


Rafael said...

Clearly, some oil executives are more enlightened than others. However, switching wholesale from oil to hydrogen would be a huge mistake. Hydrogen has to be produced at great expense, either by steam reforming natural gas or, by electrolysis of fresh water.

Both processes require a lot of water, which is scarce virtually everywhere in the southern half of the continental United States. Steam reforming releases more CO2 per mile driven than running on gasoline. Electrolysis using renewable energy is prohibitively expensive, the alternative are coal (CO2 intensive) and nuclear, which even with a reprocessing chain produces highly radioactive toxic waste. No-one wants that in their back yard, which is why Yucca Mountain is still not operational.

In addition, hydrogen will embrittle normal ferritic steels and many other materials, so you have to use more exotic alloys for everything that is supposed to contain it. And, while hydrogen gas has the highest possible energy density by weight, it has one of the lowest by volume.

To get useful range out of a hydrogen-powered car, you have to compress it to 700 atmospheres, an energetically expensive process. The container has to be made from advanced composites using e.g. carbon fibers, whose production is also very energetically expensive. Recycling these materials is virtually impossible, you have to burn the spent parts.

The alternative is to chill the hydrogen down to 20 Kelvin, at which point it becomes liquid. This extreme refrigeration requires even more energy. To maintain the low temperature in the cryotank, fuel is continuously boiled off - even while the vehicle is parked. There are legitimate applications for this technology in rocketry and perhaps even for niche aviation applications.

However, running a train on hydrogen - a concept referred to as Hydrail - is IMHO completely nuts.

On lightly trafficked rights of way, cleaning up diesel exhaust is usually the best option - which is why the SMART project up in Marin/Sonoma calls for just that. Those trains will run on the same ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) already used for on-road trucks. Biodiesel blends of up to 20% can usually be tolerated without adverse technical effects - it's really just a question of economics. Note that biodiesel from soy beans is a fairly marginal proposition, in the context of an "energy Manhattan project" the feedstock should be switched to single-celled algae, preferably grown in salt water.

In a select few locations around the world, e.g. Iran, it may make sense to forgo the high capital investment in overhead catenaries and operate LNG trains instead, at least initially. The cryotechnology is similar to that for hydrogen but at over five times the absolute temperature, i.e. much cheaper. In addition, natural gas is a primary energy source rather than an energy carrier. In addition to fossil sources, there is renewable biomethane - essentially scrubbed biogas - which farmers in the EU are permitted to feed into the gas distribution grid. Natural gas burns very cleanly in modified diesel engines. However, LNG tanks do pose a greater safety hazard in an accident than diesel tanks do and there is still the issue of continuous boil-off.

For the more heavily trafficked alignments used in HSR, commuter rail and certain freight rail applications, electrification is far and away the best solution. The overhead catenaries do cost almost as much to construct as the tracks and, they can be a bit of an eyesore. However, in an age of ever-higher energy prices, it's better to bite the bullet up front than to accept high inflation on operating expenses.

Electrification also increases acceleration performance, because electric motors are lighter per unit of horsepower and, you don't have to lug a large fuel tank around. In addition to shorter line haul times for semi-express and local trains, electrification also increases line capacity and creates completely new routing options involving long tunnels.

For example, the California HSR project calls for a total of 80 lane-miles of tunnels, none longer than 6 miles. Thanks to the high power-to-weight ratio of off-the-shelf high speed train designs, gradients of up to 3.5% can be negotiated - compared to just 1% for freight tracks.

Anonymous said...

An ariticle in the Visalia Times has the headline "Bill could create rail department" and notes that as just amended "SB 53 would make the high-speed agency a division of the proposed new department."

SB-53 was lying around for over 9 months and just became active a few days ago on a motion by Torrico. How is this going to affect the bond measure and the CHSRA?

Rafael said...

@anonymous @ 9:20 -

my reading of the tea leaves is that voters will like the idea of having CHSRA transition from a fairly independent planning body to one that is integrated with the state government. It will let them vote in favor of HSR with greater confidence.

Private investors, too, should be reassured by the prospect of increases supervision - though they may insist on a seat at the supervising table. They don't want the cash-strapped California state government to divert their investment into project that are only vaguely tied to HSR, just because they would otherwise go unfunded.

In the context of the state budget, $10 billion is serious money, There has to be due process in how big-ticket contracts are awarded and their implementation monitored. That's not a suggestion that CHSRA cannot be trusted but rather, one that a quality assurance process is valuable.

There will be specific issues with local authorities, e.g. on which grade crossings will be separated and which closed, on noise abatement, on disruption during construction etc. A department of the state of California is probably in a better position to handle those that than a small, independent planning body.

Finesse will be required in dealing with other rail operators, especially UPRR - especially since buying land from them in spite of their reluctance to sell is still worth pursuing. The alternative is a flurry of small land deals, a few of which could require exercising eminent domain - always a sensitive subject.

Also, freight rail operators are having to deal with ever more passenger rail operators, which complicates their own operations. A new department may be in a position to establish some standards for e.g. non-Amtrak trackage fees, priority handling etc.

Creating a formal body at the state level that will be staffed by bureaucrats with detailed knowledge of the legal, engineering and operational issues associated with rail services will be very valuable going forward. My guess is that no other state has anything comparable at the present time, their DOTs are very highway-centric.

My only suggestion is that the new body should be set up as a properly funded division of CalTrans rather than as a competitor to it. One reason is that certain rail projects require construction in the medians of existing freeways, e.g. the Marsh AB-Miramar section of the HSR network. Another is the many grade separation works required for HSR. There has to be co-ordination between the road and rail divisions on the impact HSR construction will have on nearby road traffic.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks for that tip, anon. It's the first I've heard of the idea, and it's intriguing. A Department of Rail might be able to better coordinate passenger rail in California - the Caltrans Division of Rail has done great work, especially under Will Bronte, so perhaps a specific Department might be able to provide more services, more accountability, and have a stronger political position in Sacramento.

At the same time, it also runs the risk of ghettoizing rail funding and weakening rail's voice in Sacramento by cutting it out of the politically powerful Caltrans.

So, it's an idea worth considering, at the least. And I see now rafael has a comment on this, and I agree with his insightful-as-usual points in whole.

As to its impact on HSR or AB 3034 or even its political viability, I don't yet know, but I'll find out about that.

Rafael said...

It might also be a good idea to ask FRA to send a liasion of their own to Sacramento. He/she should be integrated into the daily operations of the California state body tasked with implementing HSR.

Considering the scale of the project, it might be wise to create an interdisciplinary team within CalTrans, they already appear to have a matrix organization anyhow. However, it's important that HSR not be pressed entirely into the traditional public works mold - completion depends heavily on attracting private investment.

Morris Brown said...

To those interested:

I have just received word that the Tuesday June 24th, meeting of the State Senate T&H committee will not hear AB-3034.

It will be reset -- word is that it will probably be on Thursday the 26th.

Brian Goldner said...

i overheard someone on the lightrail in sacramento today. He said he worked for a company who partners with Caltrans, and that they were planning on designating the LA-SF a "corridor" much like the 3 other train corridors that Caltrans currently manages. It's not HSR, but that'd certainly be a step up, has anyone heard that too?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Brian, you sure that's not a reference to the Coast Daylight - the Caltrans-funded train that will run once a day from LA to SF (and vice versa)?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Should add that the Coast Daylight service is going to follow the coast route - via Salinas, SLO, and Santa Barbara.

Rafael said...

The History Channel produced an episode of their "Mega Disasters" on the possibility of what they call an Oil Apocalypse.

Granted, they paint the absolute worst case scenario - structural global demand for oil actually outstripping supply as soon as 2012, leading to a global depression, long lines at the pumps (cp. 1973 and 1979) etc. While reality may well turn out to be more benign, the program highlights the value of investing in transportation systems powered by renewable electricity.

California's HSR is a candidate at the intercity scale. The risk of having California's transportation sector and economy continue to depend almost entirely on oil may well be greater than the risk of cost overruns in the implementation of the HSR project.

Anonymous said...


I was taken aback by your statement that construction for catenaries is almost as expensive as the tracks themselves.

CalTrain proposes to electrify their system for $600 million. This would be without HSR as I understand. If the catenaries are that expensive, it looks like a gross under estimation of the costs. What I don't know is that perhaps HSR catenaries may well be much more expensive than that for non-high speed rail.

Also, you comment that HSR requires 4 tracks at stations where express and local service are to be accommodated. In the CalTrain corridor, that would require then 6 tracks minimum, since CalTrain would still need its 2 tracks. At a talk the other day, a rail guy talked about HSR being able to use the CalTrain tracks for HSR at those points, but again that doesn't seem at all possible, especially with the UPRR putting up safety concerns about running freight near HSR much less on the same tracks.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous -

perhaps I should clarify: afaik, electrification costs about the same as laying regular speed tracks at grade without grade separation against motor vehcles. It's quite possible the ratio is different for a high speed line, depending on what you count toward track construction. I was really just trying to express that electrification is seriously expensive - please don't take my ballpark estimate as gospel.

Also, keep in mind that Caltrain's catenaries will be over adjacent tracks and only suitable for speeds up to 90mph, with an option to support 125mph. The two operators will probably share masts and the connection to the utility grid, but we are talking about the electrification for four tracks in this ROW, not two. I'm not sure exactly how these separate electrification projects will be co-ordinated or funded. All I know is that CHSRA will have to pay Caltrain for the ROW, including use of the tunnel to Transbay Terminal.

As for tracks at the stations, Caltrain currently runs both local and "baby bullet" express trains. The latter don't travel any faster, they just bypass many of the smaller stations. HSR is planning to run express, semi-express and perhaps local trains of its own, though the semantics are different:

- HSR express trains would stop only at SF Transbay Terminal and San Jose Diridon.

- presumably, some HSR semi-express trains would also stop at Millbrae/SFO and others at Palo Alto/Redwood City. CHSRA still hasn't finalized where the south San Mateo county station will be, I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because of space constraints at University Avenue in Palo Alto.

- HSR local trains would presumably stop at both Millbrae/SFO and Redwood City/Palo Alto.

Neither CHSRA nor Caltrain have published details on how the two services will co-exist along the peninsula. It's conceivable that the Caltrain's "baby bullet" will be canceled and that HSR local service will not be offered in the SF peninsula, but that's just speculation on my part. My understanding is that only the outer tracks will feature platforms at the stations, so four tracks is all that will be needed. I've not heard anybody suggest that there will be six adjacent tracks anywhere along the SF peninsula.

One issue that has been discussed is FRA approval. CHSRA is planning to use off-the-shelf lightweight high speed trainsets. These conform to international crash safety standards, which also call for advanced signaling, positive train control and other modern active safety systems that reinforce oen another.

By contrast, freight-centric thinking at FRA emphasizes passive safety, i.e. surviving a moderate-speed collision between two trains or a train and a heavy duty truck. As a result, FRA-compliant US passenger trains are essentially short freight trains - the freight in question being people. This approach wastes a lot of fuel and greatly increases wear-and-tear on both rolling stock and tracks, relative to the optimum for passenger service. For example, FRA mandated changes to the design of the Acela Express trainsets that led to a doubling of the weight. The upside is that that passenger train can be operated on tracks shared with mile-long freight trains without any changes to freight equipment or infrastructure.

Partly to support very high speeds and partly to avoid a repeat of the Acela Express fiasco, California's HSR trains would run on separate tracks virtually everywhere. Therefore, FRA is expected to grant CHSRA's waiver request for the use of non-compliant rolling stock (BART already has such a waiver).

Caltrain is now anxiously waiting for the outcome of the November election, because its own plans call for an important decision by the end of this year:

a) option A is to stick with FRA-compliant running gear, just electric rather than diesel. This could be used south of San Jose, where Caltrain rents tracks from UPRR. However, FRA would then demand strict time separation between high speed trains and Caltrain's own on at the stations. This could constrain traffic into Transbay Terminal as well as at Millbrae/SFO and Redwood City/Palo Alto.

b) option B is to choose off-the-shelf European electric multiple unit equipment (EMU) that complies with EN 12663/15227 rather than FRA rules. EMUs would be compatible with HSR trains on the same tracks. The company owns the San Jose to San Francisco portion of the ROW but under the terms of a mutual agreement, UPRR still runs the occasional freight train up to San Francisco.

To address that, Caltrain has already performed a number of computer simulations (see Appendix C) to prove to FRA that modern EMUs actually perform as well or better in FRA's standardized crash tests than FRA-compliant equipment. However, it's unclear if FRA will ease its rules on mixed traffic without any expensive real-world crash tests, if only because its decision will set a precedent commuter rail operators all over the country will refer to.

Depending on how FRA rules on its own waiver application, Caltrain might have to continue using FRA-complaint south of San Jose if it chooses option b.

pat moore said...

@rafael --

Re: FRA -- a couple of years ago, Caltrain made the initial contact with the FRA about a waiver. Caltrain wants to run EMUs not locomotive-power trains. What they found was that rather than have to educate the FRA about this issue, they found the FRA quite willing to grant such a waiver.

You should check to see the current state of things but I would not assume that the FRA is causing (would cause) a problem. The waiver may simply be "in process" and not experiencing any hang ups.