Saturday, July 26, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

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

This is an open thread, but I thought I'd offer a conversation starter. In the spirit of the what's wrong with this picture puzzles of old, how many things are wrong with Michael Mahoney's odd anti-HSR op-ed published in Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle?

I'll start:

When the United States created the interstate highway system 50 years ago, the decision was made to run the superhighways into the heart of each city. The freeways smashed through the heart of urban areas, cutting neighborhoods apart, and inflicting noise and air pollution on the citizens. Finally, the citizens rebelled and the highway builders had to retreat.

They're back, now, only they're building a railroad to smash through the heart of the Central Valley's urban areas. By the time the citizens of Merced realize what harm has been done, it will be too late.


Unfortunately for Mahoney's argument, the rails came first. Merced, Modesto, Fresno, Bakersfield - they are ALL railroad towns. They were built around and in some cases because of the railroads. Their original street grids were laid out to match the alignment of the trains, and trains have been a regular feature of life in those cities for well over 100 years. HSR would in fact improve the situation in these cities with retaining walls and grade separations. Fresno is looking to use HSR to join the city's existing rail tracks in a single central corridor, reducing the impact on other neighborhoods. So Mahoney's argument here makes no sense.

There are many other glaring flaws with Mahoney's argument - I'll give you a hint for one of them: look between San Francisco and San José...

26 comments:

Corey said...

I lived in both Tokyo and Osaka for four years and the Shinkansen passing through town isn't just convenient, it's what makes the bloody system work so well!

In Kobe (where I also lived), the Shinkansen stops at Shin-Kobe station which is a few subway stops away from the central stations (Sannomiya or Kobe) and is notoriously inconvenient compared with other, more central, Shinkansen stops.

That argument is patently ridiculous.

Corey said...

Bloody hell. Everything this moron talks about:

- Local HSR being not viable
- Too much noise
- Passengers being "blown" off the platform
- HSR passing through urban areas

Are all things which the Shinkansen faced, and all are not serious problems. In fact the local Shinkansen trains are heavily used, and are a convenient place to use the older rolling stock.

I have also stood in a local station not 5 feet from an express "passing through" with absolutely no problem whatsoever. The noise of these trains in urban areas is also barely noticed.

Maybe instead of the French we should be listening to the Japanese, builders of arguably the best HSR system on the planet. I doubt our Anglo-Saxon arrogance would allow that, but hey, it's a different world these days, and Asia is far ahead already. Europe isn't the only place with a successful HSR model.

Rob Dawg said...

When the United States created the interstate highway system 50 years ago, the decision was made to run the superhighways into the heart of each city. The freeways smashed through the heart of urban areas, cutting neighborhoods apart, and inflicting noise and air pollution on the citizens.

Ummm, no. The IHS was originally designed to explicitly avoid urban cores. After the initial successes the cities insisted upon core access. That access was indeed destructive but only as part of the greater ill conceived wholesale public policies of urban renewal. It should also be noted that the same period saw huge gains lowering air pollution. Way to much cause and effect is contrived in the premises for the conclusions to be viable.

Anonymous said...

Two comments.

First, the Tokaido Skinkansen line runs 500 or so miles between Tokyo and Osaka, with no less than 13 intermediate stops, down a coastline that is much more densely populated area. That line carries more traffic than ALL other HSR lines in the world COMBINED. It is more expensive to do in that kind of area, but the benefits the route 99 communities are clear.

Second, to be contrarian. I live 3 blocks from caltrain lines in San Jose. The existing line most definitely DOES have a negative impact on traffic flow, aesthetics and neighborhood continuity, although to be fair the impact is much less than the maze of freeways and (to a lesser extent) expressways we have around here.

I'll say this though, the areas where its worse are where the grade separations have not been done. I might have an ugly undercrossing down the street, but at least I don't have to wait 3 minutes at a crossing when headed down the street to Target. The important point here is that despite the fact that rail lines split towns in half, separated crossings (the kind that HSR will bring) change the lines from eyesore and nuisance to barely worth a second thought.

Yes, its expensive. But doing these improvements even for an electrified caltrain would be very welcome, especially an area like the peninsula that can absorb the costs.

Anonymous said...

It should also be mentioned that the interstate highway system was never exclusively about civilian transportation but is rather a component of The Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET). Highways are cold war era national security apparatus NOT transportation.

arcady said...

I think France is a much better model than Japan for California's HSR network, for a few reasons. The biggest one is that Japan has an HSR network that is entirely separate from the main railway network, because HSR uses standard gauge, whereas the main Japanese network uses narrow gauge. In France, on the other hand, the TGV system is tightly integrated with the mainline rail network, which makes for a more convenient and cheaper system. More convenient, because it can reach a huge number of destinations away from the HSR line, and cheaper, because in general, the TGVs use existing lines to get into urban centers, avoiding expensive and disruptive construction. Spain, incidentally, has the same problem as Japan, with a mainline network that is not standard gauge, and so they need a combination of more dedicated HSR lines and fancy gauge-changing equipment for their trains.

Matt said...

He loses all credibility when he says that The trains going 230 mph will blow passengers off the platforms 23 ft away. Oh wow.

ModelTrainGuy said...

I agree 100% with Corey.

In addition, HSR would have created thousands of jobs to get such a HSR built across the country. It's a huge LOAD of potential for expansion from "San Diego, CA" to "Portland, ME".

The benefit with HSR is air travel will not be so riddled with crowded runways, crowded skies and delays (such as rough weather)...charged extra for carry-on baggage.

Also, as Corey pointed out for the Bullet Train "...the Japanese, builders of arguably the best HSR system on the planet"; and of what I mentioned of rough weather - heavy rains for example can delay flights.

All heavy rains can do for HSR is reduce train speed but not by much.

Rob Dawg said...

With a trainset passing any one point every 8 minutes 20 hours per day there will be noise. That's engineering we'll fix it. The $1b annual operating costs however for the expected 12 million passenger trips is $80 per ride. That suggests $120 oner way LA-SF and probably nothing less than $40. Double what Southwest is charging next week no strings. $43 billion in the bank at 5% is 18 million round trips on Southwest.

ModelTrainGuy said...

The Bullet Train "blowing people OFF the platforms when speeding through the station"?

HA! Check these out!

A COOL 7 minute video - An early morning run. Sit back! Relax!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiD7QKJKc8Y

Speed through the station...0:38 & 1:29. GUESS what at 2:07?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IJtlkCVkSg&NR=1

OR...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OagSZAR9N1k

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SklCSNaG-0s&feature=related

People blown off the platforms? I think not!

Look at these stupid (but VERY Lucky) people...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALFAZ8aSP48

That above video is what many would use to oppose HSR.

BACK on topic...now that you have seen Bullet trains zip through stations, has anyone been seen being blown off platforms?

Is the French complaining?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLtJz4EFKck

You heard about the NEW world record...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qdrr66ycc-E

From a bridge...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WbP_NJGDT0&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIR3-yN7T2Q&feature=related

No complaints from that one, either.

Lastly, for those of you that missed it...please enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYyxXSJBfsk

The French sure did!

Spokker said...

"Double what Southwest is charging next week no strings. $43 billion in the bank at 5% is 18 million round trips on Southwest."

Those are promotional fares that require advance purchase. What if I want to leave tomorrow? It's $140 one way.

What if I want to leave 5 days from now? Still $140.

I put in August 31st. I get a $69 base fare. With taxes and fees it comes out to 80 bucks.

Yeah, there's no doubt that airlines have discounts and promotions. There's no reason why HSR can't sell excess off-peak capacity at a discount either.

Anonymous said...

> "There are many other glaring flaws with Mahoney's argument - I'll give you a hint for one of them: look between San Francisco and San José..."

An expensive grade separation project with high levels of NIMBY opposition doesn't really make your point here.

My gut instinct is that Mahoney is right, a greenfield I-5 route would be much cheaper and quicker to build. The "urban" route through CV sprawl, which was chosen for political reasons, is going to be a nightmare of delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns.

However this doesn't change my support for the project as a whole.

bikerider said...

That suggests $120 oner way LA-SF and probably nothing less than $40. Double what Southwest is charging next week no strings. $43 billion in the bank at 5% is 18 million round trips on Southwest.

So what is the Southwest fare for SF-Fresno? LA-Merced? [According to Expedia, 1-way fare is $567 for SFO-Fresno.]

Everyone keeps focusing on LA-SF. That is less than 50% of the potential market.

Rafael said...

Note that CHSRA intensively studied various alternatives for getting into/out of the LA basin. It turned out that only two viable alignments existed near the I-5 Grapevine. The western one would have crossed the Garlock fault in a tunnel, the eastern one would have run very close to a wildlife preserve near Lake Castaic. Any significant deviations would result in cost escalation, e.g. due to individual tunnels longer than 6 miles that require separate escape routes.

By contrast, there are many variations for the alignment cutting through Soledad Canyon and across Tehachapi Pass that all allow both the San Andreas and Garlock faults to be crossed at grade. The detour past Palmdale does add 10 minutes to the SF-LA line haul time, but the population in Antelope Valley is growing fast. It is also home to one of two relief airports for LAX. Once Tehachapi was chosen as the crossing point into the Central Valley, running trains up the I-99 corridor was an obvious choice.

Note that these alignments were identified using Quantm optimization software from Australia, which crunched literally millions of alternatives. Of course, its conclusions can only be as good as the input data and, the geologic conditions in the fault zones are not yet precisely known - that's what exploratory drilling is for. In particular, there may be soft or porous layers of rock, small pockets of natural or other gas, small aquifers etc. With so little leeway to either side, CHSRA's consulting engineers felt that an alignment along I-5 would entail greater construction risk.

Also note that the whole point of HSR is that it serves passengers at multiple distance scales. Anyone arguing that it is only supposed to relieve airports serving the the Bay Area-LAX shuttle route is looking at the whole project in very narrow terms. Something this expensive should serve the vast majority of Californians, not just those at either end.

Anonymous said...

@rafael

You wrote and I agree:

"Something this expensive should serve the vast majority of Californians, not just those at either end."

Yet here is a project that is cutting off Sacramento, San Diego, and Oakland, to name just a few and including them only in a second phase, to be built only with profits from the major segment, LA to SF. That's not what I would call serving the vast majority of Californians

Political deals have literally dictated the chosen route.

Robert keeps writing we can't not build this project because of what the future holds. Yet this project does little if anything for congestion relief of the present time.

What I find particularly on point and proves this contention, is the 30 minute delay introduced by CHSRA at San Jose, claiming needed to be to reverse the train, but as you pointed out this delay is un-necessary. Here they are clearly caught "with their pants down".

So here is a project that has been driven by political interests, doesn't have a current business plan, and the voters are to accept on faith the cost estimates and ridership data. All of this after 10 years and $58 million.

No wonder so many media writers are picking on the the "boondoggle" theme.

The only sensible alternative, and the State legislature seldom if ever does anything sensible, would be to pull this from the ballot, pass SB-53, which would transfer the project into different leadership and come back with a really good project.

I know that won't happen, but I can dream can't I?

Luis D. said...

To assume that the highway builders are back in the form of HSR is complete BULL! If that's the argument then HSR is FIGHTING the highways! If only this guy knew that Rail is taking it's spotlight back instead of it being a disguise to highway builders. Rail is the BEST form of transporting people and freight across country and the only reason these towns wich are now city's survived the whole time is because of the rails!

I think most of the opponents of HSR either simply don't like the HSR Authority or they lack common sense!

If the HSR Authority makes it seem like it's focusing on special interests it's only because you CANNOT make everyone happy. Pacheco was selected at the expense of Altamont supporters because that's what it takes to build something this big with a bunch of babies whining about everything. At this point, you gotta' do what you gotta' do to get this thing built even if it looks like it's in favor of big business!

If underestimating the total cost is what it takes to win over the public then go for it. The same thing happened with Japan's system, the French TGV, Spains AVE, etc. They didn't want the system. Pro HSR pushed for it anyway they could and now that it's a big success, nobody can think about living without it! IT HAS TO BE BUILT for the better of our future!!

Anonymous said...

@luis d.

I suggest you read some academic articles by say Levinson for one, and learn the rail is not the solution to these problems.

Now I really suggest all the advocates take out full page ads, especially in the LA Times proclaiming your words.

"If underestimating the total cost is what it takes to win over the public then go for it"

I'm quite sure you will get the project approved under this kind of rhetoric.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 2:42 -

the project started out with the objective of delivering a fast connection between SF and LA. The spurs to Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego were added later to broaden the political appeal of the project, but it has always been CHSRA's assertion that you've got to start somewhere. Every other HSR network began with a starter line, California's will as well.

Quentin Kopp brushed aside a suggestion that the network might not be extended to Sacramento as a "gross canard". Presumably, he would say the same about if a similar suggestion were made about the spur to San Diego. I took that to mean the political intent is definitely there.

Construction of the spurs are to be funded by private bonds against operating profits, which HSR service elsewhere suggests will materialize after a ramp-up period of 4-5 years. Note that California voters should not expect a penny to flow back into the general fund until the complete 800-mile network has been completed.

The legitimate discussion centers on what the starter line should be. During the 10 years of preparation, it has become clear that the complete HSR network can and should achieve more than just link SF to LA. In particular, the ridership study showed strong demand for service between San Diego and LA as well as between Sacramento and the SF peninsula by 2030. In response to the State Senate report, I had suggested that it might be politically astute to begin construction at all four endpoints, with a "golden spike" at Tehachapi Pass. Others commenters insisted that precisely that section of the network is the one needed most urgently.

A lot of additional utility could have been front-loaded by routing trains through both San Jose (or preferably, Santa Clara) and the Altamont Pass. Unfortunately, the decision was in favor of Pacheco, which does offer the fastest SF-LA line haul time. Note that the cost estimates for all Pacheco alternatives did include the ~$2 billion section between Madera and south Stockton to achieve a fair comparison with the Altamont Pass options. In practice, this section will actually be built in the context of the Sacramento spur. However, I encourage you to keep CHSRA honest in its cost estimates - the sum should not be baked into the starter line as a buffer but instead, backed out of its budget.

Was Pacheco a suboptimal, politically motivated choice? I think it almost certainly was, but the question of how to get out of the Bay Area was still a secondary skirmish in the battle to get the first HSR service in the US going at all. Putting a new team in charge to get a better result would lead to severe delays and construction cost inflation. Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good (enough).

Anonymous said...

@rafael

Again, as usual, you put forward an intelligent persuasive post. However,

In an article titled
FasTracks budget off rails
we read about a project in Denver which has become a nightmare mainly because of budgeting problems.

Here the CHSRA as yet to put forward a current business plan and if their projections turn out to be as under-estimated as those in Denver, the huge size of the project will doom it to complete failure.

I again state the project should be pulled from the ballot, and placed under new leadership.

CAL said...

Screw "Pulling the Ballot" BS..
another Repubcon Word twist. Then have Washington pay 20/80 like the freeways!! I am sick and tired of this BS whine about money!! WE JUST spent 900 Billion on WHAT?
Ford Motor lost 38 Billion last Quater!! The google guys this money.AND no unless State or feds give foudation funds ..just like freeways and airports noboday will invest in it.So all legs can and should begin at once.This country HAS THE MONEY!!

Spokker said...

They have a hard time coming up with the 10 billion to build a starter line, and yet you want them to build all spurs at the same time? Come on, that's silly. Like another poster said, they have to start somewhere.

About Altamont vs. Pacheco, personally, I think both should be built. I'm not bothered that Pacheco was chosen. It doesn't preclude that services on the Altamont route can't be improved, either by CA HSR or some other agency.

CA HSR can't be all things to all people. But it can be most things to most people.

BruceMcF said...

How many hours would it be Fresno/SF and Fresno/LA via a 110mph tilt train in the existing right of way?

SF/LA needs the true HSR rolling stock to hit the critical trip time ... but does Merced/SF? LA/Bakersfield? Fresno/SF? Fresno/LA?

Line of sight, the distances are:

100mi. LA/Bakersfield
205mi. LA/Fresno
257mi. LA/Merced

108mi. SF/Merced
158mi. SF/Fresno
247mi. SF/Bakersfield

... so on the face of it, it seems like an obvious route for a tilt-train in existing rail right of way.

Of course, the substantial reduction in capital cost and substantial moving forward of the start date of services depends on running in existing right of way, so the service times depend critically on the actual distances along existing ROW.

MikeOnBike said...

BruceMcF said... "How many hours would it be Fresno/SF and Fresno/LA via a 110mph tilt train in the existing right of way?"

Problem: The existing right-of-way is owned by the freight railroads, UP and BNSF.

California has invested some money (via Props 108/111), paying the freight railroads to upgrade capacity for the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins and Pacific Surfliner.

Even after that investment, the railroads allow just a handful of San Joaquin trains to run between Bakersfield and Oakland. They currently don't allow any passenger trains between Bakersfield and LA.

Also, without in-cab signals for all trains (freight and passenger) the speed limit is 79 MPH.

BruceMcF said...

BruceMcF said... "How many hours would it be Fresno/SF and Fresno/LA via a 110mph tilt train in the existing right of way?"

Problem: The existing right-of-way is owned by the freight railroads, UP and BNSF.


Why, precisely, is that a problem? They own the right of way, and the infrastructure in the right of way, because unlike road and air, rail infrastructure is largely subsidized on the YOYO principle.

California has invested some money (via Props 108/111), paying the freight railroads to upgrade capacity for the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins and Pacific Surfliner.

Even after that investment, the railroads allow just a handful of San Joaquin trains to run between Bakersfield and Oakland.


A fair indication of how miserly the investment was compared to the big outlays on road infrastructure for the road-motor industry and airports for the aviation industry.

They currently don't allow any passenger trains between Bakersfield and LA.

You say that as if there was spare capacity that they were hoarding. We need new freight capacity out of the LA basin as much as we need new passenger rail capacity out of the LA basin. Unless the design of the proposed HSR Palmdale-Bakersfield alignment has been intentionally sabotaged, it surely must include additional regular first grade track as well as HSR track.

Also, without in-cab signals for all trains (freight and passenger) the speed limit is 79 MPH.

Its rail, not road-motor ... all trains on a line of track, not all trains running through a right of way. But of course tilt trains can easily share new infrastructure with high speed container trains ... indeed, in conventional rights of way, it is the passenger trains that are slower than the superfreighters, because passenger trains have to slow down on turns for passenger comfort, while superfreighters do not. Tilt-trains bring passengers trains up to the operating speeds of superfreighters, making for smooth integration between the two.

nikko pigman said...

I'm really enjoying this discussion so far guys :)

@Corey: I read a biography on the guy who was basically the brainchild behind the Shinkansen project (Shinji Sogo). I remember reading in the book their was initial NIMBY-like movements to block the train from entering town, but now the investment has payed off.

High speed trains going through stations at top-speed are not uncommon. It's slightly irritating for people who happen to be next to it (from the noise) but it never hurt anyone unless they like to run across the tracks.

As for the author's comments about the trains switching to regular tracks: I think thats what the trains would do once they enter the peninsula and when they are going into the tracks that lead to the station. That's what they do in France. It makes sense to have the operations combine at the endpoints with local and regional and Amtrak trains for connections.

Like Corey said, they often use older equipment in Japan for more frequent stop services, and the newest equipment for the express services.

Anon 11:32's comments fit into this.

@Anon 1:36: it is well known and accepted that was just a name and a front for this project. In all reality, a super highway doesn't contribute to military mobilization. Hitler built the autobahns on this pretense also but when the time for war actually came, the railways were used for mobilization instead. The IHS was built purely for transportation reasons, and everyone knew that.

On the other hand, an HSR system would more readily contribute to military mobilization, although a California system by itself may not.

@Arcady: you're completely wrong about the gauges. Both the Japanese and Spanish HSR systems are built at standard gauge. Japan built it for speed and safety reasons and Spain built it for compatibility with France's TGV network.

The TGV network is not "tightly integrated with the mainline rail network" in the context you put it. Just like Japan, Spain, and the proposed California system, it has its own seperate high-speed lines with a completely seperated and dedicated system.

The TGV trains don't go beyond the high-speed lines (called LGV) unless LGV lines haven't been built that far yet.

Now as far as entering a city core into existing stations, that may be true, but only for the tracks leading up to the station (so thats less than a mile for every station). And I'm sure they would keep the tracks separate from freight operations for safety reasons. In France, the freight trains can't run through the stations in the city centers.

What CAHSR is planning on doing is building a parallel ROW to the existing tracks leading to the city center.

@rafael: I think that's a good answer to the Tehachapi vs Grapevine question.

@Anon 2:42 - Truth be told, I think you are truly against the fundamentals of HSR and you're just out to destroy it, not 'postpone' it. Postponing is a tactic politicians use to try to kill a project and this project has already been postponed several times. We can't afford to wait any longer.

If you truly think HSR is a good idea, I would refer you to Anon 7:38's post.

@Luis: I think you're misunderstanding this article. The author isn't pegging the HSR project as the reincarnation of the highway builders, its well-known already that HSR is a worthy opponent to highway builders.

I like the go-get it attitude, and its possible that it is responsible to make a smaller wrong for a greater right but I would not entertain that idea so vigorously.

@Bruce -- Its cheaper, but its not effective. The French and the Japanese built a new dedicated line because the old lines couldn't take the capacity of all the exisiting passenger and freight trains. On top of that, its difficult to try to run a new shining transportation system on old infrastructure, suffering from decades of decay. Rebuilding it gets you lest benefit per dollar than a completely new HSR line.

Just as a perfect example, look at England. They tried exactly your idea, and they've gotten nowhere. They have trains capable of 140mph, but they can't go any higher than 80mph (or somewhere around there) because of the old infrastructure. So now, they've made a big booboo and they're pushing for a completely seperate high-speed line.

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