Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Feedback to CHSRA

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

Many thanks to all those who contributed to the post Suggestions for the CHSRA Web Site over the Easter weekend. Below is my summary of the feedback, plus some suggestions of my own. An unsolicited copy has been sent to CHSRA.

  1. The Authority should think of its web site as the primary means of detailed communication with the general public. Print, radio and TV media appearances should be used to plug the URL and increase traffic.
  2. In its current form, the site does little to support the current phase of the project, i.e. securing funding while implementing multiple simultaneous project-level EIR/EIS processes. The Authority needs to move beyond advocacy of the general idea of HSR to documentation of specific business processes.
  3. Overall project status: milestones achieved, upcoming milestones, timeline (at high level). Special focus on funding, including e.g. list of components expected to be eligible for federal stimulus funding.
  4. Count-down to start of construction and start of operations. Count-up of miles of tracks laid, funding secured and dollars spent to date.
  5. Revamp of library section: much smaller documents (= faster downloads) with embedded hyperlinks/references. Design for web, not hardcopy. Slice and dice existing PDF tomes to support project-level EIR/EIS and fundraising. Relegate versions that include discussions of options already discarded to an archive.
  6. Each project-level EIR/EIS process should have its own section on the web site. Desired resources are:

    • info on consulting firm hired for the segment
    • process status: milestones achieved, upcoming milestones, timeline (at segment level)
    • timely announcements of scoping meetings
    • explanation of project-level EIR/EIS process in general (link)
    • CHSRA's obligations regarding comments received (link)
    • options for how to comment (link unless segment-specific)
    • summary of reasons why segment is part of the preferred route
    • geographic scope of the segment
    • description of right of way ownership & easements (+ link to docs)
    • description of other rail services in or near ROW, associated constraints
    • description and scale drawings (cross-section + elevation with human figures/other structures for reference) of implementation used for cost estimation
    • summary of reasons for choosing that implementation as a starting point
    • electronic copies of comments already received during the comment period

  7. Glossary explaining technical terms like "retained fill", "embankment", "cut and fill", "aerial" etc. to the layman using drawings (cross-sections, elevations with human figure for scale reference). General discussion of pros and cons during and after construction (esp. underground options). Cost per mile for relevant precedents.
  8. Scientific sound recordings of actual HSR trains at various distances (up to 1/2 mile) and speeds (up to 200mph), for various track elevations, in open countryside vs. urban area, with and without noise mitigation etc.
  9. Addition of realistic soundscapes (incl. other sources like road traffic) to NC3D animations
  10. Reference material on/links to: grade crossing safety, hardened vs. separated grade crossings, bells & horns, diesel locomotive emissions, overhead catenary system parameters and safety, relevant noise & vibration metrics
  11. Reference material on the concepts of eminent domain, reverse condemnation. Articulation of CHSRA policy incl. stage/conditions in project-level EIR/EIS process that will prompt a decision on this.
  12. Summary of project history to date, archive of superseded documents (clearly marked as such on background of each page)
  13. Avoid the use of HTML frames and Javascript links to ensure all documents, videos etc. can be referenced via an easily obtained permanent URL. Put link to Google Map of route at top of routes page, enable references that preserve pan and zoom values.
  14. Consider using Google Sketchup for 3D sketches of possible implementations. Publish recurring model elements (tracks, trains, OCS, earthworks/concrete structures, generic houses, generic cars & trucks, generic trees, surface textures incl. climbing plants etc.)


Alon Levy said...

Noise levels on a computer depend on the volume your sound system is set to. Is there a way to calibrate, i.e. a uniform volume the site can tell people to set their computers to?

Rafael said...

@ Alon Levy -

I'd suggest contrasting train noise to road noise recorded under identical calibration conditions. That way, the effect of the gain setting on the playback system is largely eliminated.

David said...

This is a great list. If the authority doesn't do this, somebody else should at least do a large chunk of it.

Robert said...

I agree with David, this is great stuff, but CHSRA is already underfunded, they won't be able to do this stuff. Maybe they would accept volunteer labor? Easy for me to suggest, I have no web abilities at all.

Clem said...

The scary thing about CHSRA being underfunded is not the state of their website. It is the potential for engineering consultants running the show even more than they otherwise would.

jim said...

add some simulations of the on board experience too. and the station service areas and first class lounges.

Rafael said...

@ Robert -

there's actually up to $900 million in prop 1A for strictly HSR-related activities such as planning and preliminary engineering. It's just that the state hasn't floated any of these bonds yet.

Meanwhile, CHSRA recently got $29.1 million to tide it over through June, by which time voters will have had their say on the ballot initiatives needed to finalize the budget. In addition, CHSRA may by then have received federal stimulus funds and the bond markets may have thawed a little.

Accurate and convenient communication with the general public is especially important in this project-level EIR/EIS phase. It is between now and 2011 that the actual costs of the project will largely be determined. The best chance of minimizing them is to educate the public by providing some hard data to cut through the hyperbole of NIMBYs and other opponents looking to exploit the concerns of tentative supporters.

A drawing, a sound snippet, a 3D sketch are each worth many thousands of words. Producing and presenting them ought to be a priority for CHSRA at this juncture.

leaking the news said...

Well a leak from the Feds, indicates that tomorrow Calfiornia will get $950 million from the stimulus package. Much less than Kopp and others were counting on.

What did they expect with the center of power in the Mid-West

Spokker said...

I think that when the Obama administration says high speed rail, they mean American standards for high speed rail. An incremental upgrade of our nation's rail network isn't a bad thing.

Even if high speed rail fails to get off the ground an incremental upgrade to 110 or 125 MPH is an incredible improvement. It's not only about increasing top speeds, but average speeds as well.

observing said...

Rafael writes:

A drawing, a sound snippet, a 3D sketch are each worth many thousands of words. Producing and presenting them ought to be a priority for CHSRA at this juncture."

Considering the incompetence of the Authority thus far, how can you even hope Rafael that such action from the Authority is even possible.

From what I now gather, Sacramento is going to push this group out by summer's end. Good riddance. At least 3 and as many as 5 bills already in the mill to accomplish this goal.

Andrew Bogan said...


I'd suggest contrasting train noise to road noise recorded under identical calibration conditions. That way, the effect of the gain setting on the playback system is largely eliminated.The comparison to road traffic is a good idea, but it's a Pandora's box to imply that any recorded sound played on a volume-controlled computer speaker represents anything but the quality of the actual sound produced. It is just about impossible to accurately represent the actual sound and its real volume without a carefully calibrated 7.1 sound system.

Here is a good study of sound production from various European HSR train sets. They are quite loud at 220 mph, less so at 125 mph.

In addition, CHSRA may by then have received federal stimulus funds and the bond markets may have thawed a little.Bond markets for California municipal bonds have already thawed considerably. The State recently sold $6.5 billion worth of general obligation bonds for the first time in 9 months in late March. The offering was intended to be $4 billion and was massively over subscribed despite California having the worst credit rating of any state in the Union. Another bond offering is being underwritten now.

Rafael said...

@ Andrew Bogan -

well, for anyone who wants to know exactly what it's going to sound like, CHSRA's consultants can set up a calibrated 7.1 sound system at the scoping meetings.

For everyone else, a relative comparison will have to do. At the very least, they will get a sense of psychoacoustic parameters like harshness.

Andrew Bogan said...


well, for anyone who wants to know exactly what it's going to sound like, CHSRA's consultants can set up a calibrated 7.1 sound system at the scoping meetings.I had not thought of that, but I like the sound of it.

Also, I agree that the psychoacoustic parameters like harshness can be quite accurately reproduced, as can the duration of the peak noise, which is very important to human perception of the sound level (and mercifully short for a fast train). My concern was over the people who play a sound file on their PC and then complain that it was a "fraud" and the real sound is louder.

I definitely share your enthusiasm for CHSRA clearly communicating to the public exactly how loud these HSR train sets are under various realistic conditions (sound wall/no sound wall, 220 mph/125 mph, etc.). With or without audio files, presenting this data in some clear format will be important in achieving an appropriate level of transparency and accuracy in the EIR/EIS.

Rafael said...

@ Andrew Bogan -

easy enough: publish only sound snippets that include both rail and road noise recorded under reproducible conditions, one after the other with a narrator giving a concise description for each recording, e.g. "Train at 125mph, at grade, in open terrain, distance 50ft" or some such, followed by "Busy four-lane freeway, speed limit 65mph, at grade, in open terrain, distance to nearest vehicle 50ft".

Throw in a reference document with tables and graphs to visualize relevant objective sound metrics (dB(A), SEL, sone etc.) related to the recordings.

There could be a techie tidbit section to help those with fancy 7.1 sound to calibrate their gain level for speakers or headphones. A warning regarding the risk of damaging the speakers and/or eardrums shouldn't be necessary but this being California, some CYA is better than none.

resident said...

Bogan and Rafael - you appear to totally miss the realstic issues related to the noise impact.

First, the relevent noise impact is not on a one train 'snipet' basis. The full impact of the noise comes from frequency of combination of all train volumes in the future, versus train volume today (aka no build). It is not comparable to freeway noise - there is no freeway noise here today. Well, let me rephrase that - to make the second point.

There is no freeway noise at a particular point (ie: at address X) however, there may be freeway noise at the next point down the line (address Y). Every point along the track is different for noise impact. If you are doing a study at address Y, then the sound measurement must include the combination of proposed train noise PLUS that freeway noise ~together~, because that would be the proposed future.

There will also be different elevations proposed at different points along the route, there will be different speeds of train (for slowing down on curves, for stopping and starting at stations, for fast sections, slow sections, etc.,) there will also be different landscape and building structures (effecting noise) at differen points (some industrial areas, some schools, some backyards, some smalltown pedestrian oriented down towns, etc. There's a difference between indoor and outdoor noise. There will also be different noise effects within 10 feet of tracks, 50 feet of tracks, 1000 feet of tracks, etc.

The noise impact study will be required to go much deeper and much more complex than a few simple recordings. Any neighbor anywhwere in effected towns need to be able to access a before and after noise impact relative to their location of interest (whether it be an effected home, school or business), and they need to be able to compare that to todays noise levels in that location.

But even more than the community needs to compare - the CHSRA needs to study those compares and prove their impact assumptions, and prove out their mitigation strategies.

By the way, what you have today from the Caltrain row is long stretches of complete silence, an infrequent short passing train, some infrequent crossing bell noise the rare 3am freight train. But that all differs by the time of day...

In fact, the noise study needs to be a comparison of total noise generated on the line over a 24 hour period, compared to a 24 hour period under the no build scenario.

Since few people would sit and listen for 24 hours, the data could be available in audio snippets (different times of day), but also represented in numerical/data format.

A benchmark of other noisy things -like freeways or ocean waves can be provided, but we all know that that a constant low level noise (like ocean waves) fades away for residents because its a constant. There is no piercing of the conscience.

(Annecdotally; My mother in law's property literally backs to 280 - there is a perception of virtually no noise whatsoever there. When they moved there, the inlaws joking referred to it as the ocean - sure enough, the freeway noise if you even even notice it is no more disturbing than the sound of the ocean. (There are no traffic jams there, there are significant sound walls and very high large vegitation screens there that are mitigating factors).

As opposed to living with trains - where there is a noticable change in noise level each and every time a train comes through - frequency and persistence of the noise event matters.

Rafael said...

@ resident -

please look up "sound exposure level". No-one is suggesting that a few sound recordings would be all that is required for a proper EIR/EIS study - noise analysis ought to be a significant chapter in that.

The suggestion related only to materials made available on the CHSRA web site, so the layman can get a better sense of the noise quality and relative level. Right now, none of the animations feature any sound at all, which means an important dimension is missing.