Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Union Pacific's HSR Games

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

According to an article the LA Times just put up on their website, Union Pacific Railroad is balking at sharing its right of way with high speed trains. For context, the CHSRA plan has always involved building HSR-specific tracks alongside existing rails currently owned by UP, to minimize environmental impacts and disruption to existing urban development. So this has the potential to be a serious problem:

Officials at Union Pacific railroad recently told the California High Speed Rail Authority that they have safety and operational concerns about running a bullet train close to lumbering freight trains.

"Just look at what happened in L.A. a few years ago," said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific vice president, citing the 2005 crash of a Metrolink passenger train that killed 11 and hampered rail operations.

"Those accidents happen."

This rationale is flatly ridiculous. As UP well knows, the accident referred to is the subject of an ongoing trial of Juan Manuel Alvarez who tried to commit suicide by parking his truck on the Metrolink tracks near Glendale. He did this on an at-grade crossing, which will be eliminated as part of the HSR project. And as is the case around the world, the HSR tracks will be fenced off from the public, making it difficult for a similar accident to occur. In fact, accidents of any kind are very rare on HSR systems, and it is very uncommon for HSR trains to hit passenger vehicles.

Further, I know of no specific problems where HSR trains have ever had an issue sharing tracks with any other trains - and I find it interesting that UP had to cite the 2005 Metrolink crash, since they couldn't come up with any actual issues of HSR and freight running in close proximity. Trains commonly share multiple tracks next to each other without any problems.

So we have to ask what UP is really up to with this statement. I believe they are holding out for more money. They've done it before - several years ago Santa Cruz County resolved to purchase the branch line from Pajaro to Davenport, running through Santa Cruz and paralleling Highway 1, from UP. The negotiations dragged on for years as UP tried to overstate the value of the line and get the county to assume responsibility for all repairs of tracks and bridges - and when the county balked, UP threatened to refuse to sell the line. UP's statement may well be a ploy for more money, some role in operations or profits from HSR, or other assurances from CHSRA and the state.

And of course, UP had no objection to - and has benefited greatly from - government-funded projects such as the Alameda Corridor. For them to turn around and try and screw HSR is inconsistent at best. The state and federal governments should play hardball with UP over this - if they continue to drag their feet on negotiating with CHSRA, then perhaps UP doesn't need the Alameda Corridor East, or the Colton flyover, or continued deregulation of the industry.

Some want to believe this is a crisis for HSR. If UP holds firm in its refusal to share ROW, there's always eminent domain, but that would involve a long and drawn-out court process. If the CHSRA has to abandon the ROW-sharing plan, then they'll need to completely redo the environmental impact reports, which could add 3-5 years to the construction time on the project.

That would be inconvenient, but it is long past time for us to get started on HSR. Gas prices and global warming have finally given urgency to HSR, and that should in turn give the public and their representatives the clarity of vision and sense of purpose to ensure that UP doesn't hijack the project for their own concerns. State and federal political leaders need to ramp up the pressure on UP - and we need to do the same. High speed rail is too important for one company - even Union Pacific - to block. We can find ways to assuage their concerns while staying on track to get the high speed rail system approved and under construction by 2010.


morris brown said...

Whatever the motives are for Union Pacific, the motives of the CHSRA seem clear. Their mission is to get the bond measure approved. Here is a public State agency, deliberately withholding information when AB-3034 is before the State Assembly.

It is truly incredible that the right-of-way agreements have not been concluded after this much time has passed. But knowing this was indeed the situation and not telling our State legislators simply is un-acceptable, and cannot be ignored or condoned.

It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the State Senate is going to be, and for that matter the Governor also.

Anonymous said...

Eminent domain isn't an option. Railroads are regulated by Congress. Eminent domain is a state power.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

it's not as if CHSRA came up with their route in an ivory tower without talking to anyone. UPRR now claims it did not consider CHSRA's safety concept workable two years ago and that the two sides have not talked since. That seems more than bizarre, I'd quite like to hear CHSRA's side of that story.

What has definitely not happened yet is the actual acquisition of UPRR's rights of way, because those cost hundreds of millions that neither the legislature nor voters have approved thus far. The LAO warned two years ago that it was time for the Governor to "bite the bullet" one way or the other. You can hardly blame CHSRA for his dithering.

Before we all now jump to conclusions and level unproven accusations against all and sundry, let's please take a closer look at the LA Times article.

The specific concern UPRR raises is related to operational safety, specifically the risk of severe freight train derailments, e.g. as a result of accidents at level crossing. If a severe derailment were to happen in close proximity to another line, it would block that line. A train approaching the accident site at very high speed on it might not be able to stop in time to avoid a follow-on collision with potentially horrendous loss of life. For reference, a TGV traveling at 186mph has an emergency braking distance of 3300m, roughly 2 miles. At 220mph, it covers that distance in just 32 seconds - not nearly enough to respond if communications depend on human beings.

Fatal accidents do happen in railroading, see the FRA safety statistics for details. It is precisely for that reason that all responsible railroads operate a culture of safety, much like airlines do. It is better to think through accident scenarios ahead of time and structurally avoid them than to hope for the best and act only after lives are lost.

However, in this particular context, UPRR may be overstating the risk, for three reasons:

First, the entire HSR network will be fully grade separated. That's not just common sense, FRA also requires it for sections where passenger trains may run at speeds in excess of 125mph and, those where headways are so short the trains would reduce the capacity of a crossing highway by more than 10%. Both criteria apply in the case of HSR.

Wherever the HSR tracks will be in close proximity to existing freight tracks, common sense should inform the reader that both will be grade separated. You can't build an over- or underpass any other way. Regular speed passenger trains using the freight tracks will also benefit, completely eliminating one cause of derailments.

Second, HSR networks feature sophisticated in-cab signaling and track monitoring infrastructure. High speed trains also feature positive train control (PTC), technology that allows computers and/or remote operators to override the engineer and initiate an emergency brake maneuver. Mostly, this reduces the risk of human error, but it also ensures an immediate response if a hazard is detected well beyond the engineer's limit of perception. For example, an array of trackside sensors are used detect significant earthquakes, which trigger an automated PTC response.

This array could perhaps also detect the vibrations resulting from a freight train derailment on an adjacent track. Indeed, computers at HSR HQ could probably inform the freight operator's HQ of a suspected derailment before their own engineer had time to pick up the horn.

Of course, both this and the even better train-to-track and train-to-train communications require not just hardware but above all, standardized secure communications protocols. For example, European TGV ad Thalys trains are now being fitted with sophisticated reliable broadband internet connectivity. It is primarily offered as a premium service for passengers, but the operators also use it to relay precise GPS location and other telemetry back to HQ.

Unfortunately, UPRR has no first-hand operational experience with any of these active safety systems. Like other US operators, it has not been able and/or willing to invest in such technology, much of which is already standard in many other industrialized countries.

Third, UPRR will be getting a fair chunk of change for its right of way. It's only reasonable and in its own commercial interests that it should put that toward improving the state of good repair of its own tracks - the other main cause of derailments.

Erecting barriers between the tracks would be no more than an ugly, expensive and dare I say it - typically American - approach to safety: brawn before brains. It would be a continuation of the philosophy that led to the SUV arms race on the nation's roads and, to passenger trains that are much heavier than those overseas.

Especially given modern electronics, software and data communications, the money would be far better spent on actively avoiding freight derailments in the first place.

Robert Cruickshank said...

It's difficult to conclude ROW agreements when you don't have guaranteed funding. I'm with rafael, I would very much like to hear CHSRA's side of the story and I find it hard to believe they haven't been in touch with UP all this time. It's not as if the HSR project was a secret, and UP could have raised its concerns at any other time.

The charges of "deliberately withholding information" are baseless but that's never stopped you HSR deniers from making such charges...

Morris Brown said...


Thank you for for again providing pertinent,valuable information.

I am certainly not trying to claim that HSR is not a safe operation, because I believe the safety record of HSR systems in operation in other countries indeed prove they operate safely.

But look at the response in in the LA Times article from Morshed trying to put a spin on the safety issue.

"In areas where the bullet train would run near freight trains, a stout barrier would separate the two sets of tracks, he said, adding that during decades of high-speed rail operations in France and Japan there have been no fatalities."

He doesn't mention the terrible accident in Germany where 100 people lost their lives.

I find it un-excusable that CHSRA, a State funded public authority, whose board is headed by Judge Kopp, a former long time legislator, would withhold such pertinent information from the State assembly last month, when AB-3034 was being heard on the State assembly floor.

Robert Cruickshank said...

One accident in decades of operation is not a sign of an unsafe system - otherwise we'd have closed the airports and freeways long ago.

Do you actually have any evidence that CHSRA knowingly withheld such information or are you just making that up?

Morris Brown said...

@ Robert

The letter from UP was dated May 13th. A later article gives more details.

Now I can only say that CHSRA certainly knew about UP position during time when AB-3034 was on the Assembly floor. Morshed is not claiming otherwise.

However, to fully answer your question to whether I have any information that CHSRA knowingly withheld this information, I can only reply, that if this information which the CHSRA certainly had in hand was disclosed, it certainly was not disclosed to the public in any documents I read.

Again, I am not claiming that HSR systems are un-safe.

I would surely hope that you would agree that disclosure was necessary for the facts that the right-of-way on which CHSRA spent much time and money choosing and on which the EIR was based, might well not be available since UP won't allow that right-of-way to be used.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

did any members of the Assembly's transportation committee ask about the status of the ROW? More to the point, what makes you so sure members of the committee didn't already know the score before the hearing? It's not as if CHSRA had not asked for money to purchase rights of ways for several years in a row.

Wrt the stout barrier, you've got to remember Morshed is a civil engineer: if in doubt, add concrete. A more appropriate solution would be to assemble civil, mechanical, electrical, communications and control systems engineers in a multidisciplinary team. The primary objective should be to prevent derailments and follow-on accidents from happening in the first place.

As for the 1998 Eschede disaster, it had nothing whatsoever to do with freight trains or level crossings. The root cause was a fatally flawed redesign of the wheels, intended to improve ride comfort. For details on what happened there, see here and here.

The Eschede incident has no bearing whatsoever on UPRR's very specific concerns nor on the trains that would run on the California HSR network.

If you spent a little more effort researching your claims, you would have more credibility on this blog.

Rob Dawg said...

Fascinating discussion. Even if California were granted an exception and be allowed to exercise ED the CHSRA budget and timeline does not allow for the expense and delay. Indeed UPRR declining to "participate" is the tip of a much larger iceberg. Cities like Bakersfield were "expected to participate" as well with their own acquisitions and infrastructure expenditures. Seen the economic condition of Bakersfield lately?

Rafael said...

@ rob dawg -

depending on how you look at it, the glass is half full, half empty or twice as big as it needs to be.

If HSR construction gets underway, the good people of Bakersfield will step up to the plate. The Belgian industrial town of Liege recently asked the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to develop plans for a new showcase high speed train station and environs. Where there's a will, there is a way - dare to think positive!

Rafael said...

As a follow-up to my previous post, a small Spanish company called ARS is marketing a cheap, simple and robust system called 3DyFAT for detecting derailments and automatically activating the emergency brake. It was initially developed by FEVE, a narrow gauge rail freight operator in northern Spain and has been in service there for a number of years.

The objective is to minimize the risk of cascade failure if and when a derailment does occur. On a long train, the engineer may not be able to detect a single derailment for quite some time. At the very least, this exacerbates the damage to the track. Worst case, it eventually causes cars to topple and block neighboring tracks - exactly the safety nightmare UPRR considers a showstopper.

Essentially, the system consists of a pair of bucket plates that are attached to each bogie (truck) of the locomotive(s) plus each car in the train. Each set of plates is combined with a pair of switch boxes containing a rod mechanism with stable positions at either extreme of its range of motion. The boxes are attached to the body of the locomotive(s) and cars. The rods are normally in the extended position, which is calibrated to avoid contact between the plate and the rod within the normal range of motion of that type of bogie.

However, if any of these thresholds is exceeded, one of the plates will push against the end of the rod of its switch box and trip the mechanism. This allows pressurized air from a small canister to activate a pneumatic relay attached to the brake line, causing the entire train to immediately and automatically execute an emergency stop.

Perhaps San Jose State University - CHSRA board member Rod Diridon is a professor there - could conduct a technical evaluation of this and competing systems for FRA. If successful, it would then be certified for use by all US freight operators.

Over the course of a decade, UPRR could then gradually install this system on all of the locomotives and freight cars it intends to use on routes where they would come into close proximity with high speed trains. This would not be a substitute for more complex solutions that actively reduce the risk of derailments occurring in the first place, but it would be a valuable first step.

trainmaster611 (Nikko) said...

Ok well first of all, Union Pacific has been infamous for being extremely selfish and unnecessarily conservative resulting in detriments to society. For laymen, that means fighting every proposed passenger rail project that suggests using their property.

Now this is something to be made clear. The freight trains and the passenger trains will not be sharing tracks. I'm not sure if that is the current plan but I can guarantee you, at 220mph, the risks are just too great. In Europe and in Japan, the high-speed trains are run on separate tracks from the rest of the national system, to avoid all the congestion of regular trains, and to increase overall safety.

The videos I've seen depict the HSR tracks running parallel with UP's tracks. That would be the ideal situation. But in urban areas, that will be impossible, there is no room to construct the tracks.

So both for the sake of UP's corporate interests, and valid safety concerns, you cannot share the right of way. Parallel maybe.

I don't see what leverage California has over UP. What can they do? Just from experience, I know UP isn't just bluffing for more money. They're serious, they don't want HSR. So offering more money isn't an answer.

Morris Brown said...

@trainmaster611 (Nikko)

You wrote:

The videos I've seen depict the HSR tracks running parallel with UP's tracks. That would be the ideal situation. But in urban areas, that will be impossible, there is no room to construct the tracks.

Actually the proposal is exactly that -- run parallel tracks along the CalTrain route from SF to San Jose. In most areas CalTrain has 100 feet of right-of-way, and that is supposedly enough. There are a few spots, where they do not have this width, but they intend to acquire the land in those areas.

Rafael said...

@ trainmaster611 -

right of way refers to the land reserved for railroad applications, not a specific set of tracks on that land. UPRR's ROW is wide enough to support four tracks, two of which would be all-new and reserved for HSR. The same is true of the Caltrain corridor in the SF peninsula. The LOSSAN corridor in Orange county is narrow, especially south of Anaheim. Additional land south of there would have to be obtained there via purchases or eminent domain.

It's well known that UPRR and most other rail freight operators consider passenger rail something they would rather just not deal with. It's usually more trouble for them than it's worth in incremental revenue.

The HSR project in particular would force UPRR to cede land it may one day need for capacity expansion and also force it to modify rolling stock, tracks and/or operating procedures to maintain safety. Of course, there are major benefits too, beyond the financial compensation that may be used to perform track maintenance. Grade separation, anti-trespass measures, earthquake detection and derailment mitigation would all help make higher speeds possible, improving the company's competitive edge.


As for leverage, both Congress and individual states do in general have the power of eminent domain. However, in matters related to interstate commerce, Congress wields seniority. Back in the 19th century, it delegated this power to private interstate railroad companies for specific, strictly railroad-related cases, because these companies supposedly serve the greater public good.

In this particular case, however, the argument would be that it is UPRR itself that is obstructing the greater public good, i.e. the construction of the HSR network. Eminent domain proceedings are protracted and highly contentious affairs. This is especially true if the defendant is an interstate railroad company. After all, how can anyone claim it both serves and obstructs the greater public good at the same time?

In essence, Congress would first have to narrow the scope of the eminent domain powers it delegated to the railroad industry over 100 years ago - a very tall order in Washington, where lobbyists wield enormous influence.

Even if the scope of delegation were changed, fair compensation must still be paid whenever eminent domain is exercised. That leads to the next thorny issue: who would determine the value of the unused portion of a railroad right of way, and how would they do it?

For all of these and other reasons, I don't expect eminent domain will be used against UPRR until and unless voters have endorsed the bond measure, federal and private financing is lined up and all attempts to reach a negotiated settlement have failed. It's very much the nuclear option.

無名 - wu ming said...

a bit OT, but i thought you might appreciate this letter by continental airlines to its employees:

We've always said that you deserve open, honest and direct communication. This letter and the attached employee bulletin and Q&A are part of that commitment.

The airline industry is in a crisis. Its business model doesn't work with the current price of fuel and the existing level of capacity in the marketplace. We need to make changes in response.

While there have been several successful fare increases, those increases haven't been sufficient to cover the rising cost of fuel. As fares increase, fewer customers will fly. As fewer customers fly, we will need to reduce our capacity to match the reduced demand. As we reduce our capacity, we will need fewer employees to operate the airline. Although these changes will be painful, we must adapt to the reality of today's market to successfully navigate these difficult times.

game, set, match. sure would be nice to have an alternative when that starts to happen. pity this was delayed as long as it was.

Anonymous said...

All the more reason to build HSR as a bypass line between Santa Clarita and Tracy on I-5 ROW. Already owned by the state and grade separated. Local service would feed on and off using existing tracks.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous -

there were two reasons CHSRA opted for Soledad Canyon + Tehachapi Pass out of the LA Basin:

(a) it provides excellent access to Palmdale airport. This currently serves only the fast-growing Antelope Valley towns but could become an important relief airport for LAX alongside Ontario. Of all Southern California airports, Palmdale is the only one that could easily accommodate an additional runway at some point in the future.

As a fringe benefit, a possible spur from Mojave to Las Vegas would not require an additional mountain crossing out of the LA Basin. The ROW in Cajon Pass is sorely needed for freight traffic to and from the port of LA.

(b) the chosen option permits many variations for crossing both of the fault systems in the area (San Andreas and Garlock) at grade if the maximum gradient capability of high speed trains (3.5%) is exploited. Crossing at grade would greatly simplify emergency services access and passenger evacuation if an earthquake-related derailment were ever to occur.

The I-5 corridor would have cut 10 min off the SF-LA line haul time but proved to be much more constrained, with only two viable variations. The western one would require crossing the Garlock fault in a tunnel. The eastern one could be at grade but there would be severe impact on wildlife habitat near Castaic Lake.


In any case, the EIR/EIS is already at FRA, which must render a positive Decision of Record before the whole project can go ahead. Changing the route out of the LA Basin at this late stage would delay the project.

Rafael said...

Here is Mehdi Morshed's official response to the safety concerns that UPRR has raised. Quote:

"[...] California's high-speed train system [...] will operate completely separate from freight rail on dedicated tracks that bar interference from freight trains [...]"

UPRR did not raise general doubts about the safety of HSR operations.
Rather, its concern very specifically relates to a serious freight train derailment in which one or more cars topple over. If that were to happen in a location where the HSR tracks would necessarily have to be in close proximity, the toppled cars could block that line and conceivably set the scene for a horrendous accident. High speed operation sharply reduces the time available for warning an oncoming train of the new, unforeseen obstacle.

I don't think Morshed is doing himself or the HSR project any favors by brushing this very specific concern aside. In the US, freight derailments do happen all the time and, a small fraction of them do result in cars toppling over.

CHSRA really cannot afford an antagonistic relationship with UPRR. At the very least, this curt press release stating point blank that UPRR is in error on a matter of safety is undiplomatic. It makes CHSRA appear arrogant and perhaps even reckless. In politics, perception is reality.

It would have been far better to highlight that the HSR system includes video surveillance of the entire network to ensure for unforeseen obstacles can be identified and oncoming trains forced to stop in time. A German ICE train recently derailed at 125mph after hitting a herd of sheep that had wandered into a tunnel. While there were no human fatalities, a number of passengers were injured. CHSRA needs to demonstrate that the system it is proposing will be safer than that.

In fairness, it would also be reasonable to insist that UPRR spend the sum it receives for its ROW on solutions that sharply reduce the risk of freight cars ever blocking the HSR line in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Need to partner with UP to get them to be the next FedEx. Get them the concession on premium freight service on board the trains.

Need to partner with the airlines on service and bookings to allow them a piece of the pie.

GM will soon be dead and have little voice in the matter.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment; I do believe that the UP has a legitimate concern, but the way I see it, the issue has more to do with Union Pacific's own safety record than high speed rail iteslf. If an accident were to happen on the UP Railroad parallel to the high-speed rail line, it could easily damage the high speed rail line, despite any barrier that might be constructed between the lines. Not that I am trying to defend the UP railroad, I just worry about their safety record more than high speed rails.

Anonymous said...

Has anybody noticed that Union Pacific was perfectly willing to allow Utah's Frontrunner commuter rail to run 38 miles from Salt Lake City to Ogden paralleling their main line?

Anonymous said...

"CHSRA really cannot afford an antagonistic relationship with UPRR."

I'm sorry, but this is entirely UPRR's fault, and there is really nothing CHSRA can do except start to treat them as the enemies they are.

UPRR is notoriously hostile and antagonistic to passenger rail. It is quite literally objecting to HSR on the grounds that UPRR is incompetent and will cause major freight derailments across the HSR tracks. After all, the HSR project will remove every legitimate reason for such freight derailments, leaving only incompetence on the part of UP.

If true, this is enough evidence for California to wield eminent domain and seize the tracks; the federal courts would most certainly accept that the freight operator's use of its own incompetence as an argument against a railroad structure of public interest (!) was sufficient proof that the railroad was acting against the public interest.


C'mon, all of you!
Face it. Metrolink and all of it's offshoots towards San Diego are abysmal FAILURES!
I love trains, too, but freight is the name of the game, and UP is one of the largest transportation companies in the WORLD!
Give up "eminent domain" and all that comes out of that "Pandora's Box."
Would you rather see a multiple unit container train in action, or an almost empty Metrolink train running "backwards"

sexy said...