Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Biden Calls for Rail Investment

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

At today's National Governor's Association meeting Joe Biden took the chance to call for investment in high speed rail as both economic stimulus and environmental action. Video thanks to Matt Yglesias and Think Progress:

There’s a reason when you turned on the olympics to watch them this past summer, you saw mag-lev trains going over 200 miles an hour in supposedly a third world country [i.e., China] in terms of its economy, blowing into town, dealing with environmental problems they have as well as transporting people in a way that we don’t even come close to being able to do. And as Barack has pointed out, and Jon Corzine knows, I may have a bit of a pro-rail bias. I think think of the jobs we can create in both construction and innovation if we make similarly bold investments here in the United States as well as the environmental payoff that flows from that kind of investment.

We should fast-track funding for the thousands of ready-to-go projects across the country that can quickly put people back to work and lay the foundation for long-term growth.

In the longer term, we are calling for the creation of a new National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will help us make the investments we need to build a 21st century transportation system – while creating jobs and taking the politics out of infrastructure spending. And it has the added benefit of making American business more competitive in the world.

Biden - or Vice President for SUPERTRAIN as Atrios calls him - is playing exactly the role we expected he would, an influential voice for high speed rail projects. Even though he does not have a formal policy role he has an important role in shaping the debate over the place of rail in our country's economic and transportation policy. Biden's remarks were carried live by CNN and are getting a lot of interest on the blogs, which can drive more coverage.

It would be wonderful if Biden had some influence over Obama's transportation appointments. But what's even more likely is Biden playing a major role in shepherding Obama's stimulus package through the Senate, which will hopefully include "fast track funding" for rail projects of the kind Biden described.

In any case, the Obama/Biden administration is already looking great for high speed rail. It's going to be up to us to make sure Congress comes through in 2009.

PS: BruceMcF has a great post at Daily Kos about coast to coast electric rail, riffing off of Rafael's Rapid Rail post from the weekend and Biden's comments today. Bruce's post is not about HSR per se - that's coming in a future article - but it is a good overview of how a tiered and electrified rail system could be rolled out on a nationwide basis. Worth the read.

UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor has some more details on the NGA meeting and high speed rail:

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) noted that his state already pledged $42 billion of state money in 2006 to rebuild roads, bridges, and highways, as well as to build a high-speed rail system.

"We hope that is an inspiration to the federal government and the Obama administration to do the same thing nationwide," he said. The California Legislature "also [just] approved an additional $10 million in high-speed rail, which I think is another important thing, because I think there's no reason we in America should be traveling at the same speed as we did 100 years ago."

Obviously the "$10 million" figure is either a misquote or a flub from the Governator. Of far more significance was Chief of Staff-to-be Rahm Emanuel's comments on HSR and infrastructure spending:

In talking with reporters after the meeting, Obama's pick for chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, noted that some of the infrastructure projects under discuss involve advances in technology. "Some [governors] talked about what I would call the infrastructure for a 21st-century economy: medical [information technology], broadband. A lot of the infrastructure was around green technology, some on ... high-speed rail [and] mass transit," Mr. Emanuel said, according to a pool report.

Of course, Emanuel did not explicitly commit to helping fund HSR. But he clearly understands that it's high on the agenda and its inclusion in his list along with other goals Obama has already committed to is a very positive sign.


BruceMcF said...

Wow, came to drop a backlink in Rafeal's post, and its a "great read".

Of course, only the luck of the draw can get a piece up on the wrecklist at Agent Orange, but its also up at three smaller community blogs where its easier to get a post up on the recommended diary list ... Progressive Blue, Docudharma, and My Left Wing.

Rafael said...

Well, here's to hoping that Pres-elect Obama will make Joe Biden Secretary of Transportation. Idle hands make for the devil's work and all that. Afaik, every other developed nation assigns the role of emergency succession to a cabinet member, typically the foreign minister.

Too bad the veep-elect had to mention Shanghai maglev, which was a pure prestige project that is now losing money. There are no plans to expand maglev service in China.

The new steel wheels line between Beijing and Tianjin is much more in line with current policy in China. The train shown in the video is an older model based on a Japanese design.

For the Olympics, express service based on the CRH 3 variant of the Siemens Velaro trains was introduced. The main difference is that the Chinese version features five seats abreast, for a total of 600 seats per trainset. The Chinese actually run it at up to 350 km/h (217 mph).

Siemens will be manufacturing the first 60 trainsets in Germany, but only 5 were ready in time for the Olympics. Beyond that first batch, trainsets will be built under license by a joint venture in China.

This is much more in line with present policy in China and frankly, a better model for building up a trainset manufacturing base as well. It's no use beating around the bush, the US is currently a third world country when it comes to passenger rail, so it should swallow its pride and follow in the footsteps of Korea, China and others.

Siemens already has a light rail plant in Sacramento, they could probably ramp up HSR assembly fairly quickly. Other vendors would almost certainly be prepared to set up shop in California/the US as well if that was a requirement for winning a substantial order.

The key is to stick with the UIC-compliant designs and not add a lot of weight to comply with outdated FRA crash safety rules.

@ BruceMcF -

thanks for the shout-out and the cross-posts. What I had in mind with the term "rapid rail" is subtly different from what you wrote up, but that's not so important. The main thing is that people get the notion that in some contexts - especially within metropolitian statistical areas like Northern and Southern California - there is a case for a service level in-between the FRA-mandated false dichotomy of freight vs. HSR on any given set of tracks.

Rafael said...

In the interest of fairness, here is some info on products that compete with the Siemens Velaro:

- Alstom AGV featuring articulated frame design (crash safety feature as proven on Dec 21, 1993)

- the Taiwan HSR 700T (in Japanese with English subtitles)

- PDF on the Talgo 350. The company's claim to fame is that it makes do with just one axle in-between the unpowered cars, so it is lightweight. It also has the world's only proven passive tilt system.

BruceMcF said...

@ rafael: "What I had in mind with the term "rapid rail" is subtly different from what you wrote up, but that's not so important."

Aside from the FRA, a key challenge is to have it set up so that its an issue of freight railroads opting in with equipment to take advantage of market opportunities, without tying their hands in existing operations on existing track.

And of course an $80b/year bonding authority over six years is a little more ambitious than any state level program can be ... even for California.

Part I may be recruiting for Part II, so that Part II might end up with more prominence. I did oversimplify a bit, in writing about "Rapid Rail track", where with the track quality and signaling infrastructure in place, a Rapid Rail path could well included a time-segregated sharing of track.

So while the image is built around the CSX proposal for its main North-South trunk between DC and Florida, of a double tracked "mainline" and a segregated Express line that is either double tracked or single tracked with passing loops, its quite possible to imagine, for example, double track with both central passing loops and sidings being double track Rapid Rail during one part of the day, with heavy freight occupying sidings, and single track Rapid Rail and single track heavy freight in another part of the day.

Rafael said...

@ BruceMcF -

hmmm, I'd still rather see a solution that just double-tracks major lines within MSAs and allows heavy freight and passenger service on those lines using an appropriate mix of legacy FRA-compliant and new UIC-compliant equipment. I was was thinking of rapid rail zones within e.g. Florida and the NEC, not all the way up the East Coast. None of this rigid time segregation and single tracking business.

It should not be necessary to lay all new track for rapid rail, just in some bypass/detour sections that make sense for passenger and rapid freight applications. If it's done right, this should not tie heavy freight operators' hands.

I'm not sure where the $80b/yr figure came from, but it's less than the US spends in Iraq and just a fifth of the regular Pentagon budget - which is substantially larger than the defense budgets of all other nations combined. Perhaps a change of priorities is in order.

BruceMcF said...

@ rafeal ... the new capacity is needed if 66%-plus of existing road freight ton-miles are to be shifted over to rail. Which, of course, hinges in electrification and oil price spikes. The oil price spikes will happen if the economy ever recovers, so it really hinges on rail electrification.

CSX's proposal was double track freight and double tracked passenger down from DC into, AFAIR, North Carolina, and then double track freight and single tracked passenger from there to Florida. Add electrification and when the next oil price spike hits, they'd be happy to have access to run high speed freight on what they had originally proposed as a passenger-only line.

Alex said...

Rafael - Because you seem to know the most about California's HSR project, which train do you think the CHSRA will choose for the route?
-Alstom AGV
-Siemens Velaro
-Bombardier Zefiro

All are expected to run at the 220 mph quoted by the CHSRA. Do you think the history of Alstom and the AGV put it at the front of the line? By the time the tracks are laid here, the AGV will already be in service in Italy and France. The Siemens Velaro is already in service in Spain so that is also proven. The Bombardier Zefiro sounds the least likely because it is quoted as only running in the 300 km/h range but may run faster once in service with ICE. What do you think, I'm interested in the topic. All of these trains look really cool, any of them hurtling down California would be great.

Rafael said...

@ Alex -

one of the reasons CHSRA wants to build the Merced-Bakersfield stretch first is to create a test section for pre-qualifying trainset products from multiple vendors.

Don't forget the Spanish Talgo 350 and the Asian manufacturers: Kawasaki/Hitachi 700T in service in Taiwan, the Siemens-derived CRH 3 in service in China, the Hyundai Rotem HSR-350x developed in South Korea and, the Fastech 360 S under development for JR East. Note the retractable emergency air brakes, which have earned the design the nickname "nekomimi shinkansen" (cat-eared bullet train).

Every one of these can sustain cruise speeds well above 200 mph, tracks permitting.

My hope and expectation is that CHSRA will whittle the list down to two, max. 3 vendors. Technical criteria will be safety (articulated frames offered by Alstom and Talgo are preferable), maintenance overheads (articulated frames require special lifting apparatus) and track record.

Bombardier has been party to a number of JVs and already in the US market via the Acela Express. However, they are hamstrung by a lack of commitment to HSR in Canada, even if that is part of NAFTA. There's been talk of HSR between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and between Calgary and Edmonton, but so far, it's just talk. The Bombardier concept of a high speed jet train (i.e. one powered by a gas turbine running on jet fuel) is interesting, but not appropriate for California. The idea is to get off oil and use renewable electricity, even if that means shelling out for electrification of the line.

CHSRA will most likely expect vendors on the shortlist to invest in kind, i.e. they lease the trains and assume some ridership risk. That's the model for Acela Express and also the HSR line in Argentina. One of the reasons CHSRA ruled out maglev early on is that Transrapid had only done one commercial project in Shanghai and they had not put "skin in the game" for that one.

Beyond pre-qualification and investment in kind, the vendor choice really depends on who will operate trains on the network. Will there be a monopoly franchisee? Will there be competing vendors who bid at annual auctions for slots on a timetable managed by a monopoly franchisee operating just the infrastructure? Afaik, no decision has yet been made on how the system will be operated.

Alex said...

@ Rafael -

So the plan is for the longest straightest bit of track to me built from Merced to Bakerfield first then presumably the CHSRA will put out a call to all of the big HST builders and get quotes from them? Following this they would narrow the list down and get some trains from each of these (lets say 3) companies and put them all on the test track and just run them continually until they are happy with a particular train? Sounds expensive and time consuming to me but I guess if you are going to run trains on the tracks for approval purposes anyways, you might as well test multiple trains. I just hope they don't pick the Talgo, I don't think it fits the picture of fast sexy transportation, looks funky.

Rafael said...

@ Alex -

I expect that actual price quotes will not happen until much later, because it's not yet clear who would be buying or leasing the trains. Perhaps a ballpark estimate will be used to weed out any vendors whose prices appear way too high or suspiciously low, relative to the competition. Of more interest to CHSRA will be the financing model. Since California will be the first such system in North America, they're probably hoping that vendors will see it as a loss leader for other HSR systems to follow.

Otherwise, the first order of business is getting the FRA to draft new rules that make HSR operations possible at all in the US. That's what that test track is primarily for. Only once the regulatory framework is set up - leaning heavily on the expertise of foreign vendors, operators and government agencies - can the technical evaluation phase begin. It's possible that FRA will demand some design changes just because they can, Bureaucrats love to throw their weight around.

Those vendors whose financing proposal, products and associated services are deemed up to snuff will then be on the shortlist.

As for the Talgo 350 "pato" (i.e. duck), it's fugly but it seems to work well in areas with high cross-winds. At the end of the day, safety and utility ought to trump aesthetic considerations. Note that it is a single-level design with power cars at either ends. It manages 350 km/h on the level just fine, but the terrain in California requires serious hill climbing. Other EMUs (Velaro, AGV, some Japanese designs) have electric motors in the cars in-between as well. This gives them greater power reserves while limiting axle loads - critical for fast cornering.