Sunday, November 23, 2008

False Dichotomies

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

In the dustup over the ridiculous Ben Adler article and the even more inane TAPPED post about Adler's article, a couple of very good points have been made about how we talk about transportation and the need to avoid reinforcing false dichotomies that undermine our goals.

One of the primary things this blog was founded to accomplish is to provide the accurate information about high speed rail that is so sorely lacking in this state. I've had the benefit of attracting some brilliant commenters like Rafael who know the technical aspects of this inside and out. The quality of the discussions here helps all of us promote and support HSR. It's the kind of info that The Overhead Wire explains is fundamental to successful transit advocacy. Especially from the news media, we get buried under an avalanche of misinformation and opinions based on incorrect facts.

We scored a major victory over those tactics by getting Prop 1A passed. There really is a huge reservoir of support in California for mass transit and passenger rail in particular. The idiotic 2/3 rule aside, 67% of voters in LA County, Santa Clara County, and the North Bay - three of the most populated parts of the state - voted for local rail service. If we are to sustain that energy and turn it into steel in the ground, into actual passenger trains, we need to continue working on pushing out the right information so that Californians and their leaders will implement the solutions we voted for on November 4.

We also need to make sure we don't fall into traps. Ben Adler did that by setting mass transit up against itself. Bruce McF offered an excellent comment on this subject:

It is not unreasonable to ask the question of spending priority, but it is always unreasonable to ask the questions in terms of setting priorities between different transport modes that happen to use the same technology.

That is, the following system makes no sense at all:
1. $X set aside for rail. Allocate between light rail, mass transit, regional passenger rail, and freight rail.
2. $Y set aside for roads. Allocate between city streets, industrial parks, state highways, federal highways, freeways.

And in perpetuating that process of proposing to establish a priority rankings within pools based on technology instead of based on transport task, that is precisely what Ben Adler is supporting.

When divided up by transport task, the money required for the HSR line is substantially less than the money required for the available alternatives ... road and air.

HSR's rivals aren't BART, Caltrain, Metro Rail, or local buses. Those services are our allies and for HSR to be successful, they must be successful. No, the real problem is a political system that continues to favor sprawl and cars even though long-term oil price increases remain likely.

HSR is a solution to failed priorities and a failed developmental model. HSR is a cost-effective solution to the problem of how to move millions of Californians around the state. Let's make sure that message, and the other reasons for HSR, get a wider airing over the coming months.


Rubber Toe said...

"Let's make sure that message, and the other reasons for HSR, get a wider airing over the coming months..."

Robert, I couldn't agree more. When I was looking through the revised business plan, I saw something that jumped out at me. They said that when the HSR system is complete, that it will save 10,000 lives per year due to the automobile accidents that would have otherwise happened!

This statistic, which should be looked at more closely and verified, is probably correct as traffic deaths are directly correlated to traffic volume.

In an era when any risk at all causes people to run for the exits, this should resonate pretty well. If 10,000 people per year were dying from a preventable disease, you can bet the politicians would be falling over each other shoveling money at the problem.

The other good thing about the "saving lives" talking point is that there is almost no counter-argument to shoot holes in it. X amount of traffic equals Y number of deaths. HSR safety records in France and Japan are so clean I believe that to this day no one has ever died on a high speed train in either of those countries.


Spokker said...

"HSR's rivals aren't BART, Caltrain, Metro Rail, or local buses. Those services are our allies and for HSR to be successful, they must be successful."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I wrote a paper on transportation this year for some class (yeah, I know, I'm a big homo).

Anyway, one of my arguments was that high speed rail would not be the success it is in some countries if not for the local bus or the subway line that connects to it.

In South Korea roughly 40 percent of high speed rail passengers come from the subway. That was staggering to me.

Yeah, we supporters do tend to sound gung-ho over HSR, but I'm for the bus, the light rail, the subway, planes, ferries, bikes, whatever, and yes, even cars have a place.

It's all part of weaving a cohesive, robust, and efficient transportation network with a variety of choices about how to get where you need or want to go.

I'm reading a book at the moment that claims 40 million Americans (not including children) are unable to drive. I'm sure more don't want to drive even if they can. To basically say you don't deserve good mobility simply because you can't afford a car or physically can't drive one is BS.

yeson1a said...

I cant remember how many times I have seen Caltrain delayed due to somebody trying to cross against the gates and getting killed.
Hard to believe that some people dont want underpasses and safe crossings because they dont "Look nice"

BruceMcF said...

That BruceMcF comment must be a case of even a stopped clock being right twice a day.

My favorite BruceMcF comment in that TAPPED article thread, though, was (with some errata corrections that have been cleared with the author) ...

Posted by: Amanda in the South Bay | November 22, 2008 2:57 PM: "Just because you don't agree with a blog post doesn't mean its fundamentally flawed and a disgrace to progressive blogs everywhere."

I support the most cost effective inter-regional rail system for an area precisely because I argue that it is complementary with local public transport and because it is more economical than endless expansion of highways and airports.

I would disagree with Ben Adler if he argued the opposite sides of both of those (unless, of course, he convinced me ... [that I] was wrong). But as long as he faced up to the main issues and had evidence in support of his argument, that would be a disagreement.

By contrast, Ben Adler's piece misinforms the reader, telling the reader things that are simply untrue ... surely, that is a fundamental flaw.

And his argument assumes that spending a dollar on HSR takes a dollar away from local transport ... which is begging the question. Just assuming a point which is, in fact, a key point in the debate, is a fundamental flaw.

So the piece is fundamentally flawed because ... [of its collection of fundamental flaws].

Matthew Fedder said...

One off-topic comment: I hope when the site is redesigned, the Comments link will link into a discussion forum, which can promote longer-duration discussions on topics. Blog + comments favors only the most recent post(s).

Reading back through the older posts, there are some excellent posts that deserve to be read and discussed.... but since they came long after the parent post was superseded, they will never be seen by most visitors.

Just a thought.

Rafael said...

I agree with Spokker, the last paragraph of Robert Cruickshank's post appears to single out HSR over other modes of transit. That probably wasn't his intention, since he sings the praises of integrating it with local and regional transit just a paragraph earlier.

Of course, where possible, scarce rail ROWs in built-up areas should be used such that they can support both regional and long-distance transit. That's exactly what will happen in the SF peninsula, which HSR and Caltrain will share. It's also true between Lancaster and Anaheim, where HSR will share most of the ROW (not tracks) with Metrolink.

Unfortunately, the same is not true throughout the Central Valley right now: Amtrak San Joaquin trains run on the BNSF track between south Stockton and south Fresno. HSR will run close to UPRR along hwy 99 several miles further west to reach the downtown areas of Modesto, Merced and Fresno.

Figuring out a way to let the San Joaquins and HSR run in the same ROW all the way up the CV ought to be a high priority for both Amtrak California and CHSRA - especially since it will be quite a while before that HSR spur up to Sacramento is built.

Moving Amtrak service would mean building temporary stations for Amtrak in Lathrop (shared with ACE) Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Turlock, Livingston, Atwater, Merced, Chowchilla and Madera. It will also mean bypass tracks at all of those stations because UPRR will not be prepared to slow down its freight trains one iota just to accommodate Amtrak service. Besides, it would make sense to have any given San Joaquin train stop at only a subset of all these stations (cp. Caltrain "baby bullet" schedule)

However, these bypass tracks would have to be constructed such that both freight trains and HSR can proceed without having to slow down. That may require broadening the ROW in the station areas of these small towns, which may well impact road traffic there. It's best to bite that bullet before those towns grow into cities.

The HSR stations in Fresno and Bakersfield will be permanent and should be designed to support Amtrak service as well. Folks in small towns up and down the CV should be able to reach the nearest HSR stations using slower regional trains. If that is not offered, there may well be vociferous protest against high speed trains running through their downtown areas at 220mph, potentially causing expensive delays in the construction schedule to redo portions of the EIR/EIS and/or compromise cruising speeds.

For those concerned that all this will promote sprawl, population growth in the Central Valley is fine, even desirable, especially where potable water can be supplied at low cost. The only condition should be that it occurs in a string of relatively small railroad towns. Eventually, there would be no little or open space along this corridor but plenty to either side of it. Making this happen requires a paradigm shift: CV towns will need fiscal incentives to resist growth beyond a certain size.

Eventually, there should be enough ridership on the San Joaquins to justify gradual electrification of the non-HSR tracks.


There might be a case for a separate locally funded loop service for Tulare, Visalia, Hanford and Corcoran if CHSRA decides that would generate enough ridership justify an HSR station in Hanford.

There should also be a good case for constructing a standard gauge station and turnaround loop at North Concord, right next to the BART station but inside the former Naval Weapons Center. The San Joaquins terminating in Oakland could then take a short detour to serve the North Concord station.

If combined with new turn-offs in south Stockton, in Clyde/Port Chicago and in Martinez, there could be additional regional rail services between downtown Stockton-Oakley-Antioch-Pittsburg-North Concord, Tracy-Brentwood-Antioch-Pittsburg-North Concord and North Concord-Fairfield-American Junction-Napa/Vallejo. All of these would have to be funded at the county level. One day, there may also be passenger rail service from Novato to Sonoma-American Junction-Napa/Vallejo to complement SMART.

Sacramento-Fairfield-North Concord would arguably be an expansion of service along existing Amtrak corridors, so that should be funded at the state level. If it becomes possible, there may also be demand for direct passenger rail service between Novato and Sacramento/North Concord/Oakland/San Jose.

political_i said...

Would it be possible to develop DMUs or EMUs that are FRA compliant to run those regional trains to connect to the HSR instead of the California cars and perhaps provide better service? I think that would be the best option since you would want to have service in between the local suburbs but not to overserve, just have connecting trains with the HSR. Now if only the FRA would see the lights from Europe or better yet, go away all together.

Ben said...

That is exactly what caltrain is trying to do. According to caltrain, they believe that there is a 90% likelyhood that they can convince the FRA to allow their EMUs to share tracks with Diesel. (I am not sure if that means they can share it with their own FRA diesel trainsets, or if they can also share it with freight)

Part one of their recent meetings is online:

Robert Cruickshank said...

In my last paragraph I was merely bringing it back home, so to speak, on HSR. My focus there wasn't intended to contradict my earlier point that HSR and other modes of transit need each other. This blog will continue to have a primary focus on the HSR project, but certainly we need to make sure it is effectively integrated with other forms of transit.

Matthew, that's one idea that we've kicked around for a redesigned website. It would be good to have a specific place for some of the deeper discussions that we have - instead of being spread out over dozens of separate posts.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Obama and the Congressional Dems are considering a truly massive $700 billion stimulus package for January after this interregnum ends. Chuck Schumer said "It's a little like having a new New Deal, but you have to do it before the Depression. Not after."

Now they're getting it. This bodes well for the nation, but particularly for HSR. John Kerry's HSR bill may well get enfolded within this larger stimulus plan.

arcady said...

As far as I understand it, Caltrain's first aim is to get the trains certified as safe for grade crossings. The next goal will be to get the FRA to let them mix with regular FRA-compliant passenger trains (presumably with some sort of PTC system), and though they're not saying it right now, I suspect that they'd try to allow freight trains to operate in mixed traffic as well, so long as they're equipped with the appropriate PTC system.

political_i said...

Just as a side note, the 2008 Biz plan source documents are now available with all the meaty details.

Americans would praise $700 billion for infrastructure. I hear we have already wasted $350 billion on the banks alone which have produced squat and their stocks continue to decline. We need to turn things around as soon as possible and January 20th cannot come any sooner.

Cal said...

And money spent on large infrastructure rail projects lasts for decades..not 4 years. That "package" Bush put out last year was 160billion direct to consumers.. all most people did was pay bills with it.With about 250-300 billion we could have all the proprosed 110mph lines built plus CA HST. Really just about 6-8 months cost of this war for something that would go for jobs and something the American people could enjoy. We have had MORE than enough money to do this when I see what is spent elsewhere for far less benefit

James said...

@Robert Cruickshank

One way to host more in-depth discussion is by way of a discussion forum. The blog authors would continue their writing here in parallel with the more extensive and on-going forum discussions. This way the Blog author's news research, comments and editorials are kept separate form the general discussion. Leader can be assigned responsibility for parts of the forum so the Blog authors do not have to spend *all* their time caring and feeding the blog and forum.

There are many such forums. One example I have participated in is a forum for discussing airline transportation called


The forum starts with an entry portal. To see the discussion you have to enter the forum. To browse you can sign in as a guest. There are links to lists of topics which then open up the discussions.

The forum is based on software by
Invision Power. Fleetbuzz is free but you can also set it up for user support.

The forum can be moderated to keep it on topic. Discussions are by category and users can post and comment. Topics are covered in greater detail and eventually become archived.

It would be interesting to get into the HSR details over a period of days or weeks and not have them rush by twice a day. Topics could be launched by copying some of the great posts to this blog.

If you have questions contact the hosts at Fleetbuzz and they can tell you their experience.

yeson1a said...

AS long as its about HSR and not about how to run IE a debate class

SantaTeresaHills said...

At least for Fresno, HSR rail may actually cause Fresno to be more centered around downtown. When I lived in Fresno 50 to 30 years ago, Fresno has hardly grown west and south from downtown. All of the growth has happened northwest, north, northeast, and to a lesser extent east.

James said...

yeson1a said...
AS long as its about HSR and not about how to run IE a debate class

Fleetbuzz has been able to keep the discussion on topic and civilized. Other forums have not. And the news groups can be a free-for-all and a lord of the flies. Based on the track record of comments to this blog, CHSRBlog already has a dedicated group interested in discussing the issues in a respectable way. I enjoy reading and learning from posts to this blog.

yeson1a said...

@James..Good then We have another brother for our project

Spokker said...

James, plane nuts can be more insane than train nuts, but that's beside the point.

A think a forum dedicated to California HSR would be good. Of course, I'd have my own opinions on how to run it and I'd take a soft approach to moderation. I find that there's too much damn moderation on these forums already and the slightest hint of off-topic discussion gets a thread closed by draconian, power-tripping moderators.

Let the conversation go where it may, I say. Let people mix it up a little. Let people joke around. Make it a place where conversational discussion is welcome, as if it were a pub and we're just shooting the shit with the occasional Powerpoint presentation from Rafael. As long as members aren't going to each other's houses and killing each other over Altamont vs. Pacheco, it's all good.

Far too often these train forums are filled with stuff like, "Ah, Mr. Johnson, I do believe the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago runs so and so generation cars assigned numbers 123 through" who gives a goddamn.

Another thing I find interesting is that there isn't much interest in high speed rail on the usual railroad forums. I think a lot of the Amtrak fans see HSR as a threat, unless it's run by Amtrak of course, and that it doesn't hinder their long-distance trains.

I even heard at a transit advocacy group meeting that these Coast Daylight supporters opposed high speed rail in California. What a load of rubbish.

There's a lot of these dudes who are into trains for purposes of nostalgia, you know the stereotypical engineer in overalls and that silly hat. They count their miles and have penis waving contests about how many routes they've covered. Not that they are actually going anywhere!

Which is fine, you know, we all have stupid hobbies, but I'd like to see a train forum where mobility is the focus, and little emphasis on memorizing worthless crap like the numbers assigned to rail cars.

Anonymous said...

arcady said...
As far as I understand it, Caltrain's first aim is to get the trains certified as safe for grade crossings. The next goal will be to get the FRA to let them mix with regular FRA-compliant passenger trains (presumably with some sort of PTC system), and though they're not saying it right now, I suspect that they'd try to allow freight trains to operate in mixed traffic as well, so long as they're equipped with the appropriate PTC system.

My understanding is slightly different. In order for Caltrain to be able to do an incremental upgrade to an electrified system, there are 3 things they need from the FRA:
1) Be able to run EMUs across grade crossings. This means they can start running ASAP, long before HSR has fully grade separated the tracks. Caltrain has done some crossing studies that show that European-certified equipment is actually safer during a grade-crossing collision than FRA-certified equipment.
2) Be able to run EMUs on the same tracks and at the same time as the current diesel passenger trains. This allows them to slowly add new EMUs (probably as baby bullets) while phasing out the existing units, so capitol expenses can be spaced over multiple years. This would require some sort of PTC (positive train control) system to prevent the possibility of a collision between the two types.
3) Slightly differently, be able to run the EMUs on the same tracks but at different times than non-PTC'd freight. If freight was always physically separated (different lines or simply no freight), they could basically do whatever they want. Currently only passenger diesel runs during the day and only freight runs at night, but there is nothing special required since both are fully FRA compliant. That would continue to be the plan, but the FRA wants some sort of system that guarantees a standard freight train without PTC can never accidentally get onto the tracks while a non-FRA compliant EMU is on them.

Work on the first two is very much in progress, and according to the youtube video posted of a Caltrain board meeting, the FRA seems inclined to accept the studies. An Interm Report on Mixed Traffic was released a few months ago by Caltrain detailing their progress. As for the third, that's basically just a formality and any sane systems should be trivially approved after the first two.


Anonymous said...

As we're talking about improvements that can be made to the site / community, I think a very useful tool would be a wiki. That way we could put up an FAQ everyone could edit and add to. Things like Rafael's long post in the previous thread, questions about the general route/plan, my previous post about Caltrain/FRA interaction, etc could all go there.

Just a thought,

Rafael said...

I agree, a reference site that people can refer to in their comments would be a good way complement this blog, which serves as a daily discussion forum. Critically, Robert maintains traffic by putting up a new post on 5-7 days of each week. This encourages the cross-links that drive up the blog's ratings in Google's page rank algorithm.

Robert already maintains a growing list of links to older posts, but there's currently nowhere for him or any other moderator to summarize important points made in the comments, or even just to link directly to the most useful comments.

I'll contact the Google guys and ask if they intend to add a feature to Blogger that will facilitate references to specific comments on the same or other Blogger blogs. They already have a feature on Google maps that allows users to export their links, though they don't yet leverage tinyurl or offer a comparable service.

Rafael said...

@ political_i, arcady,
anon @ 11:25 -

afaik, Colorado Railcar is currently the only manufacturer that offer recent-vintage FRA-compliant DMU rolling stock. The single-level model looks substantially better than the bi-level design, but the latter has more seat capacity per unit of train weight and length. See their DMU brochure for claims regarding the economic benefits.

Diesel locomotives generally feature a serial hybrid transmission, i.e. a generator, power electronics and electric traction motor(s). These DMUs use a purely mechanical hydrodynamic transmission instead. This is more efficient and possible only because DMU trains are relatively light. The integrated retarder is used to dissipate energy to assist braking and especially on hill descents, saving wear and tear on the brakes. The Detroit Diesel engine used does not appear to feature exhaust gas aftertreatment devices, but then again this brochure is from 2005 when these were not yet available.

To reduce toxic emissions as well as fuel consumption related to frequent stops, MTU Tognum recently introduced a prototype parallel electric hybrid underfloor module with integrated energy storage, presumably batteries. Its diesel engine features a complete exhaust gas aftertreatment system an d would therefore need both the more expensive ULSD fuel and a supply of AdBlue urea solution.


If there is demand for them, Colorado Railcar products could probably be delivered in FRA-compliant EMU versions equipped with pantographs, power electronics and traction motors.

Caltrain wants to use off-the-shelf European EMUs instead. These are much lighter still because they are not built to FRA standards. Caltrain hopes to obtain the waiver needed to operate them, given that it runs on UPRR tracks between Santa Clara and Gilroy. Each week, UPRR also runs a few freight trains up to San Francisco on the Caltrain-owned tracks.

Note that Caltrain will still need to operate legacy FRA-compliant diesel equipment for the limited service down to Gilroy even after the core SF-SJ section has been electrified. It's not yet clear if this will now be deferred until after grade separation has been completed.

The SJ-Gilroy section will be electrified only in the second phase of the project, if at all. The HSR tracks will be electrified throughout but that does not mean the ones Caltrain and UPRR use will be as well.

Ben said...

For your site:

If you are worried about the pagerank, unfortunately there aren't too many things that you can do to move your site.

HTTP/301 Forwarding is one way, and I believe that Google will use that as the new site (but i am not sure that they carry over the PR). They suggest that you move things incrementally, but for a site like this i don't see how that is possible.... also I doubt blogger will allow you to do 301 forwarding.

Rafael said...

@ Ben -

I don't see why there can't be a reference site alongside this blog, with links in either direction.

Blogger is a great service, but it is not designed to do everything.

Ben said...

Oh got ya, I was under the impression that he wanted to move away from blogger completely.

Anyways I spend all day programming web applications, so if you need any help feel free to ask.

Anonymous said...

If a wiki is on the table, is a free wiki service that seems very useful and usable. I have not used it personally.