Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Do You Want in 10 Years: Oil Rigs or HSR?

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

The news cycle today is heavy on the Bush-McCain plan to lift the moratorium on offshore oil drilling. It's a junkie's fix of an idea - even though cheap oil is vanishing for good, let's risk major environmental and economic damage so we can have another few years of oil, and maybe bring the price of oil down by a couple bucks per barrel!

Along with that objection, the oil from these offshore sources won't even reach consumers for ten years, according to a recent US Energy Department study. "Production would not begin until 2017," the study says of offshore oil specifically. All while global demand continues to rise and production from major fields such as Mexico's Gulf fields and the North Sea drops dramatically. To visualize the impact of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil, for example, on supply:

By 2017, however, at least a few segments of high speed rail will be open. And if the politicians can keep their act together and ensure that LA-SF remains a focus of the HSR project, Californians will be able to take the train between those two cities soon after 2017.

So what option makes sense for California in ten years' time? Extracting a relatively small amount of oil off the coast which will not provide much if any cost savings at a major financial risk (from oil spills), or building a high speed rail system that runs on sustainable energy thereby liberating Californians traveling within their state from dependence on oil?

I don't see how there can be any debate on this.

PS: Matthew James Melzer of the NARP was on Warren Olney's Which Way LA? show tonight to discuss high speed rail, along with Quentin Kopp and Stuart Flashman. Although it's impossible to drink Warren's milkshake Kopp did a good job shooting down the "Union Pacific objections will screw with the HSR system" by pointing out that UP ROW was never going to be relied on - we're going to use their corridor, which is of course not the ROW. Flashman ridiculously argued that HSR can't be so close to freight rail incase of derailment, which as Kopp pointed out is not a problem in Europe.

Melzer nailed the case for HSR - shifting the discussion back to the big picture and reminding people that the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Melzer said that these kinds of conflicts - that over UP, over AB 3034 - are common to large public works projects and that they'll be worked through. We need to attend to the details, but not let the details distract us from the bigger picture. Well done.


無名 - wu ming said...

that's a fantastic graphic.

Michael said...

Thank you, Kopp, for bringing up your own EIR/EIS findings about the usage of right-of-way! This is the first time I have heard a realistic defense against the UPRR, yet it has been completely adequately addressed in their own studies! Why can't we have more positive press or defense like that which Kopp gave here circulating through the media? We need an organized campaign to bring this effort to the public and the media. Someone needs to counter the negatives that the media loves to jump on brought about those who want to derail this project.

Rafael said...

The oil industry, the airline industry, the road construction industry and the auto industry all have business models that are threatened by high oil prices and responses to them, such as the Amtrak re-authorization bill.

The California HSR bond measure is motivated primarily by the expense and physical constraints associated with the modal alternative. Improvements in energy security, criteria emissions and CO2 emissions are all very valuable fringe benefits of HSR.

However, it will take a long time for HSR to get built and even then, it will only serve people in California. HSR projects elsewhere in the country lag far behind, in many cases they haven't even started on an EIR/EIS process. Even then, many parts of the country will never get HSR because their population density is too low to justify the investment. That means most Americans will continue to be highly dependent on hydrocarbon fuels for their transportation needs for the next decade and beyond.

Realistically, commercial aviation cannot switch to electricity nor to gaseous fuels. (Plug-in hybrid) electric cars may become a reality that the general population can afford in the 2011-2016 time frame, but it will still take at least 10 additional years before they represent a significant portion of the motor vehicle fleet.

Given half a century of auto-centric suburban sprawl, high summertime temperatures plus uneven terrain, regular bicycles will never represent a significant means of regular transport for the adult population in most of the country.

However, electric bicycles are a different proposition and can be used to reduce the annual mileage on gasoline-powered legacy vehicles. One reason the technology has not taken off yet is that bicycle path networks are rare and typically, small and incomplete. This, of course, is due to the usual chicken-and-egg dilemma, it will take a long time to make cycling as commonplace in suitable parts of the US as it is in Holland or Denmark - if ever. Traffic planners are loath to cede motor vehicle lanes to cyclists. A big reason for that is that bicycles are essentially fair-weather vehicles. In winter or when it rains, people switch back to cars, so that's what they need to plan for.

High cost is another challenge for electric bicylces, but anything made in volume eventually becomes cheap. Note that folding electric bicycles are a perfect complement to riding trains, because they provide personal mobility to and from train stations, independent of connecting local transit service. Some local governments may prefer one-time investments in bicycle lanes to the recurring cost of subsidizing local transit operations.

Summing up: even if both rail and electric bicycles become more popular and systems such as California HSR are built, there is a need to enhance the hydrocarbon supply security for the US economy.

Of course, hydrocarbons do not have to be distilled from crude oil - they can also come from active biological systems. Their direct economic cost is much higher, but biofuel production also creates jobs and some reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. Naturally very low in sulfur, biofuels are potentially more compatible with modern exhaust gas treatment systems for internal combustion engines, reducing ageing effects and therefore, demand for the precious metals used to produce those systems.

First-generation corn ethanol does not yield a significant net reduction in CO2 emissions, but sugar cane ethanol and second-generation cellulosic ethanol do. So do biomenthane, algal biodiesel and designer fuels from genetically engineered single-cell organisms. These areas of active R&D are already generating a lot of new intellectual property for the US and represent potential future export industries.

However, the US oil industry is still much more set in its ways than its European counterparts. That is basically because the US still has substantial untapped fossil oil reserves. Even today, there's nothing more valuable than a hole in the ground.

Still, giving in to the urge to drill in Alaska and off the California and Florida coasts would be a mistake IMHO. The first response to oil supply security concerns needs to be a reduction in demand, not an increase in domestic supply. Only then will renewable hydrocarbons ever meet at least a significant fraction of total demand.

Rafael said...

Wrt to the radio program:

I did like James Melzer's points, especially the one about the cost of not building HSR. However, his $150 billion dollar figure came out of nowhere.


Quentin Kopp helpfully drew attention to the distinction between a narrow rights of way - i.e. land owned by some railroad company - and the broader transportation corridors, which are relevant to assess impacts on communities and wildlife.

He also clarified that the UPRR spat is old news, though the fact that only a select few knew about that company's position regarding HSR does suggest CHSRA's PR on the matter has been lousy over the past 12 months.

Moreover, I felt Kopp did gloss over the very real difficulties of acquiring land outside of but still near an existing ROW - especially in built-up areas.

His weakest point related to the safety issue posed by a freight derailment in those locations where HSR tracks will necessarily have to be in relatively close physical proximity to existing freight tracks, such as downtown stations and the approaches to them.

The general condition of tracks and freight rolling stock is much better in Spain than in the US, because that country - like virtually all other developed nations - has invested in active safety measures instead of relying primarily on passive safety measures that make collisions more survivable. Passive measures are cheaper for freight but much more expensive for passenger applications. This is why current FRA regulations are a real obstacle to expanding passenger rail service in the US.

Also, just because the scenario painted by UPRR hasn't occurred in Spain in the past does not mean there is no risk of it occurring at some point in the future - there or in California.

Indeed, minor freight derailments are alarmingly common in the US and often require adjacent tracks - if any - to be temporarily closed to traffic for safety reasons. This is true even if the derailed rolling stock has not toppled over or jack-knifed.

Naturally, UPRR does not want to sell any of its land if doing so would force it to make massive investments in its own tracks and rolling stock - at its own expense - just to avoid moral and legal liability for a potential catastrophic accident involving massive loss of life. Even the legal liability for causing delays as a result of a derailment without follow-on accident could prove expensive.


In the end, the cheapest option may prove to be paying freight operators a king's ransom for their land. This would allow the billions spent on HSR grade separation works constructed to also protect freight and commuter/regional rail tracks.

A condition of such land deals should be that the sellers submit to negotiated timetables for bringing their own tracks up to a specified level of good repair in the vicinity of HSR tracks and, for installing reliable automatic derailment detection and emergency braking equipment on the locomotives and rolling stock they intend to use in the vicinity of HSR tracks.

They would have to fund a fraction of these mutually beneficial improvements themselves. If and when the freight operators decide they need to expand capacity, they can do so by upgrading signaling and brakes. Of course, commuter/regional passenger rail operators that buy trackage rights from them would have to adapt accordingly. FRA rulemaking regarding crash safety for such upgraded rights of way will be critical.

Freight companies would receive a portion of the money on the land deals up front and the balance when they prove they have complied with the conditions, with penalties for late compliance.

Conversely, HSR should be obliged to install track monitoring systems and anti-trespass measures to keep pedestrians, livestock and large game off the tracks. Where required, noise abatement walls can double as ant-trespass measures - though solutions that minimize wheel-rail and aerodynamic noise generation at source should be preferred.

This is anyhow standard practice for new, dedicated HSR alignments. However, in this context, noise abatement and anti-trespass infrastructure should of course be placed such that they extend protection to adjacent freight and commuter/regional rail tracks.

Note that this April, an ICE derailed in Germany after hitting a large flock of sheep that had wandered onto tracks near a tunnel entrance. There were no human fatalities and just a few injuries, but that's mostly because the tunnel walls kept the cars from toppling over and jack-knifing, as they had done during the Eschede disaster in 1998 that cost 101 lives. The latter was caused by a flawed design for a wheel retrofit that has since been banned for high speed trains, but the damage was done by the behavior of the trainset after the initial derailment.

French TGVs and Spanish Talgos rely on articulated trainset design as a passive safety measure against cars toppling over or jack-knifing after a derailment, whatever its cause.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I looked into an electric bicycle a few months back but decided to brave the San Francisco-style hill up to my apartment the old-fashioned way. My legs have never been so strong.

Your underlying point is a great one - that we need to invest in alternatives to oil that can be quickly brought to the masses, as well as the long-term infrastructure projects such as HSR. I just thought it interesting that drilling offshore wouldn't produce new oil until about the time that HSR will open.

As to freight, your points are great ones as always. The way I heard Flashman, though, he didn't believe there was any way whatsoever that HSR could be anywhere near freight tracks, and I think you've shown how that's not true - it's a matter of safety practices, rules, and tech. Kopp's strongest moment was when he went after Flashman for his ongoing obstruction of an HSR project he claims to support.

Rafael said...

@ robert cruickshank -

speaking of running interference: I double-checked my own beef with Altamont vs. Pacheco. My comments regarding travel times still stand, PB grossly overstated the advantage afforded by Pacheco.

However, on close examination it turns out the cost estimates for Pacheco Pass actually already include the ~$2 billion section from Madera to south Stockton via the BNSF alignment, which was favored at the time. I had overlooked that, my bad. The cost of using another alignment between these points instead is roughly comparable.

That means total network construction cost estimates are virtually identical for Altamont only vs. Pacheco only.

However, building Pacheco means there will be pressure to build the overlay network at an addional cost of $5.7 billion if only San Jose is included and, $8 billion if tracks run north as far West Oakland BART.

With Altamont-only, there is no need for an overlay if different semi-express trains stop at different secondary stations. There might be value in reviving the Monterey-SJ Del Monte run, though, as a feeder service.

Anonymous said...

I just listened to the KCRW program. For those of us concerned about the cost of this project, not a single word. Nothing about ridership projections. Amazing.

What was mentioned was the savings that HSR would afford since 80 - 150 billions of highways and airport expansions would not be needed. What a lie. At best HSR in their over-bloated projections talk about taking 50% of air traffic from LA to SFO and 6% of auto traffic from LA to SF areaa.

WOW!! 6% less auto traffic. That's going to keep us from having to build any more new highways? No airport expansion needed? Who are you kidding. You are still gong to have to expand the airports, even with HSR bloated projections.

Next Tuesday is a crucial day. The senate T&H committee will amend AB-3034 or kill it. Their report was so highly critical that they will certainly do one of the other.

Michael said...


6% may not sound like a lot of traffic, but do you understand how many vehicle miles are traveled in this state each year? This 6% (I had always heard 7-12%) is going to be mainly intercity travel, where it will make a much larger dent in the amount of traffic (I do not have a specific percentage). Most miles traveled in this state are intracity, for which high speed may help with higher density living and improved public transportation, but the system is designed to go after intercity travel, whether freeway or air.

Of course our state will need to continue to invest in airports and highways to maintain a viable economy. But to build highways an airports to support this 6% of our travel needs will cost $80 billion at least. So we have an option - to satisfy a rather large chunk of travel in the state, do we build 3,000 miles of highway and 5 new runways, or do we at half the cost build an extremely safe, reliable, environmentally friendly and faster alternative form of transportation? I don't know why that is a question.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous @ 9:50 -

to give you a frame of reference: SNCF, the state-owned railway operator in France, delivered 100 million passenger trips on its TGV network alone in 2006. The country has approx. 55 million inhabitants.

California's population is currently around 37 million and growing at roughly 250,000 a year. On present trends, it will be up to 42-43 million by 2030. With a low fare policy similar to SNCF's, designed to maximize ridership, CHSRA projects 65 million passenger trips by 2030.

That was based on an extrapolation of fuel cost increases between 2000 and 2005. The study suggested that if fuel prices were to rise by an additional 50% in real terms over-and-above the base assumption, then 2030 ridership might be as high as 95 million. That would amount to 10-12% of total intercity trips over 100 miles.

Predictions are always fraught with uncertainty, especially about those regarding the distant future. IMHO, the ridership projections for the California system look ambitious but feasible - especially now that oil is expensive and likely to stay that way.

Of course, there is an unspoken assumption that the project will be completed more or less on time and more or less on budget, otherwise the low-fare policy will be hard to implement. So there is that risk and, the Senate reports suggests addressing it by setting up a supervision/quality assurance business process for CHSRA.

The HSR project is particularly popular with the younger demographic. Many have very different attitudes toward energy use and global warming, at least in intent, than their parents' generation. The second underlying assumption is that today's youth will really use the system once it is built. The third is that they will approve future county-level bond measures and/or sales tax hikes to ensure the connecting local transit/bicycle infrastructure is up to the job.


Wrt road traffic, no-one ever said everyone is going to ride high speed trains all the time. They are a proposed element of the future transportation mix.

Let's look at an example of a route where HSR ridership faces tough competition from cars. A trip from Sacramento to San Francisco via Altamont Pass and San Jose would take a hassle-free 1:23 (CHSRA numbers for this are inflated) and cost around $35 one-way in 2008 dollars. Add another $5 to that for transit at either end. On the plus side, train passengers will most likely be offered wireless broadband internet access en route, so expect many to bring a laptop - or whatever it is kids will be using by then.

The 87-mile drive only takes a few minutes longer - unless you hit traffic. On the other hand, the car is faster around town than transit to and from the train station, so total trip time depends heavily on your exact origin and destination. With a car that gets 35mpg highway, fuel cost would be around $20 one-way at today's fuel prices. Conservatively assume a 50% increase in real terms by 2030 and the cost of fuel + bridge toll + parking becomes comparable - but you can't get any work done or catch up on personal email while you drive.

Via Altamont and San Jose, HSR might capture perhaps 20% market share on that route, projected to total ~187,000 passenger trips per day in 2030.

Using Pacheco, the train trip takes 30 minutes longer and the ticket costs ~$10 more. As a consequence, CHSRA pessimistically projects a market share of just 5% between these two cities - but that's assuming moderate gasoline prices in 2030.


As for air travel, HSR has led to sharp drops in air traffic volume on selected European short-hop routes, e.g. Paris-Lyon, London-Paris, London-Brussels and many others.

Madrid-Barcelona air traffic volume is down 18.4% since that line was finally completed in March. If experience elsewhere is any indication, the ratio will stabilize at 3:1 or better in favor of the train in a few years. The Spanish and French HSR systems are due to be linked in 2010, construction is underway.

While there is transitional pain for those working in the airline industry, in the long run this reduces pressure to add runways and allows large carriers to concentrate on the more profitable long-haul end of their business.

Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Turkey, Argentina, Morocco et al. - these countries are investing in HSR because it gives residents, business travelers and tourists clean, efficient mobility. After an initial ramp-up phase, it's profitable and can cross-subsidize slower regional services.

Even so, SNCF will hand over EUR 131 million in dividends to the French finance ministry this year.

Rafael said...

Back to the oil rigs issue. NYT reports that four Western oil companies will be invited back to Iraq on no-bid contracts to repair and upgrade that country's oil production infrastructure.

< darksarcasm>

Kids, have you been afraid yet today? Because, you know, Iraq is about all those scary WMDs that dastardly evildoer Saddam was this close to having. Oh, and about sovereignty and bringing democracy to the Middle East and all that good stuff. Just keep repeating all that until it's true. FOX News does, works for them.

Those Western oil giants, heck, they're just there to extend a caring, helping hand. Secret meetings with Dick Cheney before the invasion? Nonsense, they will be greeted as liberators of the Iraqi economy for sure!

If you're a California voter, you too can show your patriotism:

- vote for more raping and pillaging of countries with our oil under their sand, especially if they have the chutzpah not to swear allegiance to the POTUS

- vote for drilling in ANWR and off the coasts of California and Florida (plus more raping and pillaging abroad, of course - the US economy depends on it)


- drive less, buy an electric bicycle and vote for high speed trains that can run on frickin' sunshine!

Hmmmm. Tough one.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Um, the reason nobody discussed ridership is because there's nothing to discuss. There can be no doubt that HSR ridership will be high - certainly enough to pay back the original investment and ongoing operating costs. Anyone who thinks that won't happen isn't paying attention to the world around them - a world where gas prices are driving Californians to trains in record numbers, a world where ALL HSR systems have met or exceeded ridership projections and are fiscally sound, a world where even the quasi-HSR Acela has 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor.

I'll let the statisticians and transit planners quibble over whether we're going to see 90 million or 100 million annual riders - the fact is that HSR will have no trouble getting a high ridership.

As to finances, it WAS discussed. Matthew James Melzer mentioned it several times - noting that HSR is cheaper than expanding freeways and airports, and is likely cheaper than "the cost of doing nothing."

(I have to say it warms my heart to see that concept spreading around the transit world.)

Anonymous said...


You write:

Um, the reason nobody discussed ridership is because there's nothing to discuss. There can be no doubt that HSR ridership will be high - certainly enough to pay back the original investment and ongoing operating costs.

Please show me where the CHSRA even mentions that the original investment will be paid back from profits. That's not in their plan.

Listen to Diridon on KCBS again, he clearly talks about surpluses to used to expand the system.

The ridership numbers are ridiculous and this project just like VTA in San Jose and Bart extension to the airport will be under utilized and never reach the economic numbers predicted.

So maybe you think there is nothing to discuss here, apparently along with not worrying about how much this is going to cost to build, but many taxpayers certainly will worry and they will vote their feelings.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Explain how the ridership numbers are "ridiculous." Your entire claim turns on that. So let's hear it. Explain to us why California's HSR will be unique in the entire world as having an underused HSR system even with sky-high gas prices.

We're waiting.

Michael said...

And Anonymous,

The San Jose VTA may be an example of a poorly executed light-rail project, but who is doubting the necessity and success of the Milbrae/SFO BART extension? The entire BART system is nearing capacity for much of the day, and I can tell you as a Caltrain rider that without the Milbrae connection to BART Bay Area transit would be a much more disjointed nightmare.

But this is besides the point - how can you compare intra-city public transit to an intercity transportation alternative? We are talking about entirely different needs, demands, and markets here.

bikerider said...

who is doubting the necessity and success of the Milbrae/SFO BART extension?

Anyone with half a brain, that's who.

Whereas the BART-SFO EIR projected 70,000 riders by 2010, it is barely over 20,000.

But this is besides the point - how can you compare intra-city public transit to an intercity transportation alternative?

Because the exact same numbskulls who computed the BART-SFO "projections" are now applying their expertise to HSR numbers. The issue isn't inter vs. intra, but one of credibility.

I'll let the statisticians and transit planners quibble over whether we're going to see 90 million or 100 million annual riders - the fact is that HSR will have no trouble getting a high ridership.

10% is not a quibble. It could be the difference between an operating profit or deficit.

How disappointing this blog has become, it is all politics and no solid engineering.

Anonymous said...

What has no credibility is the projected ridership numbers. CHSRA not happy with original numbers, has Cambridge do another; wave the magic wand and voila double the number of passengers.

Studies by Levinson and others project much lower numbers. The true number is around 35,000,000 and not 89,000,000 or 117,000,000.

How can you compare California with its much lower population density than Japan, as well as lower gas prices, as well as having built up a transportation model based on the automobile with good highways etc., and expect HSR here to have similar numbers to Japan.

Why can't the CHSRA just be honest and give the voters honest numbers? The project which will cost $100 billions should be promoted as such. We don't need another Bay bridge or Boston Big Dig or Bart extension to the airport with their huge over runs in cost.

Now Robert, I'm still wating for the evidence that CHSRA says the original $30 billion for the initial segment (their cost estimate) is going to be repair from surpluses.

morris brown said...


You wrote
"Um, the reason nobody discussed ridership is because there's nothing to discuss. There can be no doubt that HSR ridership will be high - certainly enough to pay back the original investment and ongoing operating costs."

We just posted a paper Titled "We Can't Afford High-Speed Rail" by Jack Ringham, which was sent to the senate T&H committee. Page 3 of that paper goes into great detail on Ridership Forecasts, and contradicts your assertion that "no doubt the HSR ridership will be high ..."

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

you rightly point out that CHSRA has acted as an advocate for its HSR project. It was set up that way because the politicians that created it wanted to see a network built. Don't blame the Authority for doing its job just because you disagree with the job description.

Your arguments on construction cost overruns merit consideration. While there is no guarantee that HSR will go over budget, there is indeed none that it will be on budget, either. There is most definitely significant cost escalation risk.

Flyvbjerg et al. actually identify project scale, duration and supervision as the three leading indicators of cost escalation risk. You cite BART and the new east span of the Bay Bridge as specific examples of California projects that have gone badly over budget. However, you fail to mention projects such as the Metro Gold Line in LA that did come in on budget.

Instead of advocating a constructive strategy that would apply the lessons learned to minimize cost escalation risk, your polemic focuses on the worst case scenario because you want to see the project canceled - conveniently ignoring the costs and cost escalation risks associated with the modal alternative to HSR.

At the heart of your opposition to HSR is that you cannot imagine Californians making an average of two intercity trips per year by rail, even in the 2020s. Respectfully, perhaps you are not representative of the state's population at that time.

You assert that comparisons with ridership on Japan's shinkansen are invalid because of profound geographical, cultural and economic differences related to individual mobility via the motor car. In particular, you argue that fuel prices were much higher in Japan in 2007 and, that Californians will not change the habit of two generations.

You go on to observe that trip distances in Japan are generally shorter and assert that these are more conducive to train travel at 186mph. The implication is that Californians will continue to choose to travel in much slower cars because that mode of transportation is somehow better suited for the longer trips the state's geography requires.

To my mind, that is a complete non sequitur. Ask anyone who has no choice but to drive on I-5 or I-99 on a regular basis just how much they enjoy that.

Other than sheer force of habit, California's love affair with the car depends heavily on the availability of cheap fuel and/or high fuel efficiency technology. The former is now gone and, there is currently no reason to believe that we shall see a return to gasoline prices of $2 - or even $3 - per gallon in the foreseeable future. The latter is available, but many average earners are struggling to pay their mortgage. They simply cannot afford to sell their trucks and SUVs at knock-down prices and switch to an imported compact car, even if they want to.

Indeed, while politicians and the natural gas and nuclear lobbies continue to push for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the market is already trending toward a future of pure battery electric cars. These can be equivalent, even superior to gasoline-powered vehicles in every way - except for the ratio of purchase cost to operating range between fill-ups. Plug-in hybrids are supposed to bridge that gap, but they are widely perceived as a technological stepping stone, albeit one that may be around for a decade or two.

High speed rail is actually an excellent complement to limited range on batteries alone. While there are undeniable risks associated with its construction cost and revenue forecasts, the project as a whole actually acts as a hedge against a much greater risk to the state's economy: the loss of medium-distance mobility due to exorbitant oil prices. Perhaps you should consider that when you call for an "Economic Impact Report".

In essence, then, your case rests on the assumptions that HSR could not achieve high ridership in today's California and, that California will not change between now and the 2020s. The former is questionable, considering strong demand growth for California's existing - very much inferior - passenger rail services in response to rising gasoline prices and air fares. The latter is just patently absurd.

Equally absurd is your assumption that passengers will refuse to ride on high speed trains if and when airport-style security measures are deemed necessary. Indeed, many countries do not, because terrorist attacks against intercity trains have historically been rare. They simply refuse to buy into President Bush's incessant fearmongering, a largely polemic device used to justify directing literally hundreds of billions of US taxpayer money a year toward special interests in the defense and surveillance industries.

The UK does require airport-style security checks, yet Eurostar ridership to Paris and Brussels has increased sharply since the new St. Pancras International station opened last November. Quite simply, even with security measures, many travelers still prefer the superior comfort and convenience of riding a train to flying to Paris or Brussels. Eurostar will become even more popular once it offers broadband internet connections throughout the journey, as both TGV Est and Thalys already do and Caltrain has successfully trialled.

mmelzer said...

@ rafael:

CAHSRA's own figure for the opportunity cost of no build is $80-160 billion. That doesn't take into account the social costs of pollution or other environmental degradation, the personal costs of continuing to be dependent on oil-based transportation and sprawling development, or the harm to the economy of not having our major population centers linked by amazingly fast transportation.

I know you're a good advocate for the project and wouldn't want you to think I'm pulling figures out of the sky. :-)

Rafael said...

@ mmelzer -

the low end of that opportunity cost range I had heard before, just not the high end. Do you have a specific reference for it?

I just want to make sure we don't devalue 10 years' worth of CHSRA research by falling into the trap of inflating numbers without research to back that up. Doing so would blunt our arguments against HSR opponents' FUD on cost escalation and ridership numbers, both of which are based on statistics drawn from unrelated projects.


As for indirect social and monetary impact, we also have to be careful. HSR and highway/runway construction both have unavoidable impacts that depend critically on exactly how projects are implemented. It's hard to quantify these indirect costs at the present level of preliminary engineering and even harder to compare them to a modal alternative that hasn't been developed in much detail at all.

All you can say with any certainty is that the impacts would be different and on different sets of people. On the whole, CHSRA has sought to minimize impacts by sticking to established rail and highway corridors as much as possible. Most already carry substantial freight traffic, so the impact delta from HSR will be limited.

However, there are some places - e.g. tony Menlo Park and Atherton in the SF peninsula - where the combined impact of retained fill, overhead catenaries, increased commuter rail traffic plus heavy HSR traffic will severely reduce the quality of life of residents living in close proximity to the tracks.

Legally, that's more or less a case of caveat emptor - a railroad ROW is a railroad ROW. However, because they are neither members of a recognized minority group nor low income earners, virtually none of these residents will be able to file environmental justice claims.

Many will end up installing double or triple glazing at their own expense and grow tall hedges, they may even get someone to erect noise abatement walls. Nevertheless, their properties and communities will lose much of their bucholic charm once HSR construction begins and, I think it's important that we be sensitive to that.

pat moore said...

@rafael --

The oil industry, the airline industry, the road construction industry and the auto industry all have business models that are threatened by high oil prices and responses to them, such as the Amtrak re-authorization bill.


Yes, existing players with existing business models are threatened. Ford is having big problems keeping the Ford Focus in stock - 10 day supply. Ford is running the Focus plant over time at the same time they are shutting down light truck plants. Honda Fit - also a home run - can't keep them in stock. Toyota Prius is on dealer floor an average of 4 days.

So yes the plummet in SUV sales are hurting Detroit, but not the auto industry as a whole - just the stupid American manufacturers.
As someone who was born and raised in Michigan - I will be the first to say the U.S. auto manufacturers are stupid and deserve to go out of business. The handwriting was on the wall 30 years ago.

W.r.t to airline industry, also no. Airlines have the infrastructure, knowledge and ability to run the HSR trains. Substitute train engineers for pilots and essentially running a train is the same concept as flying a plane - just different technology. If airlines get a chance to run the trains they would love. The alternative isn't pleasant.

Road building industry -- err.. no. The U.S. has built so many roads that just repairing the existing roads is going to be a huge source of revenue. So unless you see huge lane abandonments in the future, the road-builders will become road-repairers and still met their numbers.

Oil industry -- maybe -- but there is still enough oil in the ground to make tidy sums of money for at least the next 15 years. No obit yet.

pat moore said...

@micheal --

Actually, everyone in San Mateo County doubts the "success" of BART2SFO. So much that it has been a political stone draped around the necks of all the original supporters. Ask Mike Nevin how great pushing BART2SFO has been for his political career. San Mateo County had to give up serious state dollars to BART just to get out of the obligation of the BART extension. San Mateo has had to cut bus service to pay for the BART2SFO boondoggle.

Here's an article I co-authored about this. Hopes it helps clear up this misconception.

pat moore said...

@morris brown --

Let be honest here -- the only real reason to oppose HSR is because:

Martin Engel lives [BATN: adjacent to rail line the HSRA is proposing to share with Caltrain] on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park

Rafael said...

@ pat moore -

BART started out as a SF-Oakland subway and has expanded without changing the technology. There are no bypass lanes, no side spurs to permit shorter lines. For example, it is not possible to run trains just within San Francisco without crossing the Bay tube or, to terminate mid-day trains at McArthur or Oakland Coliseum. They have to run all the way out to Richmond, Pittsburg, Dublin/Pleasanton or Fremont.

I'm not privy to all the reasons VTA felt a subway is needed in San Jose, but a look at the map will tell you that neither ACE nor Amtrak Capitol Corridor will deliver passengers to downtown San Jose.

IMHO BART is the wrong operator to consider for an SJ subway. Expeierence elsewhere in the world suggests that lines should be relatively short and rolling stock off-the-shelf. That keeps operating costs down so you can more easily afford to run trains on a 3 minute headway during rush hour. At those kind of frequencies, ridership is substantially higher - people really hate waiting around.

Fremont Warm Springs to Santa Clara/SJC would be quite long enough and could be operated by VTA itself or else by Caltrain. BART passengers would have to change trains. However, with some lateral thinking, that would amount to no more than crossing a shared platform.

As an added bonus, Santa Clara county would avoid the funding primacy enjoyed by the voracious octopus that BART has become.


In some cases, bus rapid transit is an alternative to light rail, even heavy rail. Capacity per vehicle is just a fraction of that of a subway train, so you have to employ more drivers to compensate. However, the up-front infrastructure costs are massively lower, which means lower debt service. In the South Bay, BRT could be relevant for relieving rush hour congestion not just on I-880 south of Fremont but also on the Dumbarton bridge, perhaps even highway 17.

For example, the Dutch Phileas system combines long, articulated buses featuring a clean, efficient drivetrain with dedicated concrete traffic lanes featuring embedded guidance magnets.

Germany's Fraunhofer institute has developed a similar concept called AutoTram. It relies on all-wheel steering to negotiate tight corners, GPS and visual guidance to stay within its lane and, offers a wide range of propulsion options.

Bombardier developed a earlier version of this guided light transit concept using an single embedded rail and single overhead catenary.

There have been many variations of these concept since, some of which had to overcome significant teething troubles.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Again, people, the notion that HSR will not have a high level of ridership is unrealistic. To believe it means believing that gas prices will significantly retreat from their current highs and that airports will be expanded to meet the resulting demand.

In other words, those who criticize the ridership stats assume we still live in the 1990s. We don't. Every HSR system in the world has met its ridership goals. CA's will as well.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Morris, that paper is ridiculous. Any discussion of ridership that is silent on fuel prices is not credible. I will have more to say about it today in a blog post, but suffice it to say if that's the best you guys can come up with, then we really don't have anything to fear from you folks at all.

pat moore said...

@rafael --

I want to say I do agree with a lot of your points. You are dead-on about the ridership numbers and what HSR will do to airline travel within California. We are seeing that between NYC and Harrisburg. The new 110mph Amtrak service is killing that airline route.

However, I also got to respond to some errors that you have made.

You presented some interesting facts about the origins of BART. But those points are completely irrelevant to the reasons why BART2SFO is a disaster. Rather than fill up this comment with those reasons. I listed them here.

W.r.t to BART2SJ -- who cares about going to downtown SJ? Look at the MTC data. The 'hot' area is the "Golden triangle" which is the area bound by the 237, 880, and 101. Capitol Corridor and ACE trains go right through the center of the triangle. BART2SJ avoids this job center entirely. The Great America station ridership numbers for both trains clearly demonstrate that. Downtown San Jose is not a big job center!

W.r.t to SF-Sacramento HSR times -- use the Dumbarton Bridge option then the times are less than an hour. That will really grab market share (even from cars)

Also stop believe the bogus $2 billion dollar Dumbarton crossing number. Unless you want to believe that building a bridge that:
* doesn't have to be high enough for ocean-going vessels to get under.
* doesn't have to care heavy truck traffic
* isn't over deep water
* isn't over a busy shipping channel
* is shorter than the eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

costs $600 million more than the the Bay Bridge!

Rafael said...

@pat moore -

I'm quite aware of the fact that the cost/benefit relationship for the SJ subway (BART extension) is a marginal proposition. A number of alternatives were proposed, from BRT to express light rail along the unused portion of the SP Milpitas Line to Caltrain Metro East.

However, someone at VTA has a bee under their bonnet about running heavy rail past SJSU and the Civic Center. Perhaps they are hoping that will encourage businesses to seek real estate in that area rather than in the Golden Triangle, I don't know. In any case, HSR would not be a replacement for quality local transit in the city.

As for the Dumbarton bridge, cost isn't even the real issue - though seismic code would make building a new one more expensive than SamTrans originally expected. Building a low bridge isn't an option unless a judge with a brain closes the shipping lane. Caltrain suggested using a bascule bridge but that was considered inappropriate for HSR service. Also, high energy prices and massive demand for cement and steel from China have led to several years of higher than average cost inflation in the construction industry.

Officially, the core issue with building a new Dumbarton rail bridge is all the mercury-laden sediment that construction would stir up at the edge of a National Wildlife Refuge. But even that is probably just smoke and mirrors: neither San Francisco nor San Jose were prepared to accept a solution that would have reduced HSR service frequency to their cities. Rolling out the welcome mat for commuters from the East Bay and Central Valley was not a priority.

I also suspect that BART does not want Caltrain running trains in the East Bay - even on routes the octopus doesn't serve itself.