Monday, April 13, 2009

Ray LaHood: HSR To Be "Obama's Legacy"

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

NBC News interviewed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently, and he gave a very good set of statements about high speed rail and the reasons to invest in the system:

Of course his statements also suggest we here in California are well positioned to get some of the $8 billion in HSR stimulus. Later this week President Obama will announce his plans for HSR including criteria by which the USDOT will allocate the $8 billion in HSR stimulus. As the Sacramento Bee reported over the weekend Mehdi Morshed of the CHSRA believes that California can get as much as $4 billion of that money, although the Bee did not list any specifics.

Instead of providing details on what the $4 billion would buy, the Bee decided to give space to one of the main HSR deniers, Joseph Vranich, to spout his usual nonsense:

Critics also contend that California's proposed system is riddled with greatly inflated ridership estimates and greatly understated cost projections.

"The California authority has ignored the lessons of Florida and Texas, and has repeated all the mistakes," said Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak official and former president of the High Speed Rail Association. "It hasn't produced a single number or report or prediction that is true."

For example, Vranich argues, California should be disqualified from receiving federal rail aid because its environmental impact statements are outdated and inaccurate.

Morshed, who denied the state's project lacks accurate EIS documents, said a bigger fear is that federal transportation officials will adhere to political expediency and disburse the money in widespread, but tiny, amounts.

This is some rather poor reporting from the SacBee. They set up Vranich, whose hatred of passenger rail projects has been the subject of several exposés on this blog, as some kind of expert. I guess all you have to do is have a title that makes you sound like a rail expert to dupe credulous journalists into repeating your claims without question - and in fact using those claims to put Mehdi Morshed on the defensive when the charge, that the EIS documents are inaccurate, is complete nonsense and lacks a factual basis.

The ABC News article linked above on Obama's forthcoming announcement falls into a similar trap - except this time it's the other big HSR denier, the Cato Institute, that gets the ink:

"You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles," [Daniel] Mitchell added. "That's probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail."

Riiiiight. Because god forbid we try to get America off oil, reduce carbon emissions, provide jobs and economic growth. Oh wait, Cato Institute doesn't believe it's government's role to provide any of those things. Sorry that our national priorities and the public will conflict with your nutty ideology.

It's a shame that the media sees its job as providing "he said, she said" stenography and passing it off as objective journalism, instead of actually drilling down to the truth of the matter. Still, with President Obama's extremely strong support for HSR, we have some powerful allies to help push back against this nonsense. Obama spoke highly of HSR on his recent swing through Europe:

"I am always jealous about European trains," Obama said April 3 in Strasbourg, France. "And I said to myself, 'why can't we have high-speed rail?' And so, we're investing in that as well."

I look forward to hearing the details of that investment later this week.


Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

@ The Media.

in good night and good luck, (and possibly in real life) edward r murrow says that he "refuses to accept that there are always two equal and opposite sides to every story"

they really must stop amplifying the spokespeople who speak for so few of the people.

(oops, second part was to a different post, reposted on the right post.)

Alon Levy said...

We'll see. Even a starter HSR line like California's requires about $10 billion in federal money, which will have to be matched by 2-3 times that amount in federal money for other rail projects. The true cost of nationwide HSR will be well into the hundreds of billions - at $30 million/mile, the 10,000-mile network envisioned on The Transport Politic will cost $300 billion. I just don't see Obama spend all his political capital on that.

Rubber Toe said...

This is great news. I know that the federal decision was something on the horizon but it is good to see this coming out in any case.

Any money that the fed puts into the California HSR system up front will decrease the amount that will need to be spent later. It is all "water under the bridge". As one or more of the projects here in California that this will fund come to pass, there will be visual evidence that the system is starting to come together. Especially when the first spade of dirt is turned. Even if that spade of dirt is just for the TBT groundbreaking.


Joe Sez said...

The Cato Institute is in the heart of WA DC.

Do you think it's their policy to fire for cause any employee caught freeloading to work on the awful big-gubberment-rail boondoggle also known as the Metro?

I hope they provide ample SUV parking.

Rob Dawg said...

Okay, we have $9b of the first $43.5b. How much of the $8b Federal money can we expect? We were counting on $16-20b of that $8b. And the local contributions? Now that 1A has passed I thought the commitments were only a formality.

It is no longer enough to say the rest will come.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Did I ever say or imply "the rest will come" as if it were a natural force? We're going to have to fight for that money year after year.

That being said, having President Obama in office sure as hell helps that process along. His announcement this week will help clarify exactly what the process will be to obtain federal money.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I do not support a national HSR network! I definately support networks that work... smaller ones providing regions with high frequency regularly scheduled service and enabling quick trips for 100-400 mile distances.

HSR across middle America definately would be a waste... too few people. I cannot imagine at all a service running across the plains or Dakota's... I sure hope no one else does too.

Granted, the East Coast is so dense that a feasible network stretching from Boston down to Atlanta... and westward through the larger cities ending at Dallas or Houston or San Antonio/Austin may be practical. But, I would not envision such a system being design for the long trips that woudl be possible... but for the 100-400 mile trippers.

Shati said...

The interstate highway system was not all funded on day one.

Perspective please.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
why build this albatross said...

The interstate highway program from its inception committed the Feds to spend over $25 billion. That's is when you could buy an ice cream cone for about fifteen cents.

This initial commitment here isn't even in the same league as that grand vision.

Why in the world we would want to go back to passenger traffic by train, when we have the infra structure in place with highways and air lanes is crazy.

Of course, as we see Obama making mistake after mistake, he will be gone in 4 years for sure.

There are only a few places in the country where the density supports a program like this.

In any case in a few days, we shall see if Mid-westerner Obama is going to give California 4 billions of the 8 billions. I suspect we will get 1 billion, which is what the normal distribution based on revenues and population would dictate.

MarkB said...

Reading the comments to the Sac Bee story (and other articles that have been linked from this blog) it seems that absolutely no one in CA voted for the the HSR bonds. Well, maybe one or two people did, but all the other "yes" votes must have come from graveyard voters.

Spokker said...

"The vast majority of website operators don't have the guts to allow this post"

Thanks for the email forward, grandpa.

MickyP said...

Well, if we have to fight politically for a federal funding allotment every year, then I see dark clouds on the horizon. If a [federal] political decision is made with broad political support to make HSR a long-term priority and invest serious amounts of money and if a rational, meritocratic, competent and (mostly) non-political process within the USDOT or elsewhere is set up to allocate the money to corridors/projects then I'd agree with you.

However, I see problems (or at least have a nasty gut feeling) regarding not just those two premises.

So what can kill HSR?

1) Lingering, fickle political support. There are such things as 4-year terms and term limits. Who knows what the politcal problems and priorities of tomorrow will be? Who knows what Congress will look like in 2010?

2) #1 segues right into another problem. The long-standing budget saga in CA and insufficient commitment have left a serious gap of 'Know How'. The CAHSRA is IMHO underfinanced, understaffed, undernourished and maybe therefore underqualified. They are expected to outsource everything, even when the customer side of contracting i.e. the state needs to have engineering expertise just to know what it's doing. And God forbid that it can maintain adequate control over the design/building process. Nobody in North America has ever done anything like this before. Yet we expect the CAHSRA to pull this off in ten years, within budget and schedule, and with less than twenty staff members!? There is simply a lack of political and technical know how. Eventually, there will be some private sector involvement (when private capital comes in) and some necessary outside help (the French, Spanish, Japanese, Germans etc.) but how late will it be? Too late?

3) Local and political ricochets. I think the drama surrounding the peninsula cities is just a taste of what's to come. Expect NIMBY opposition in virtually every section of the line. The wheels of the courts and the bureaucracy tend to grind very slowly. There are stories of how it took longer to fight the political/legal battles of a high-speed line than to build it (e.g. almost every German high-speed route, even when it was just an upgrade). Also, expect the antipode of NIMBYism, i.e. every little settlement in the vicinity of the corridor will want a stop even if they have only 10,000 residents.

4) Technical problems. Although HSR is a mature technology, the landscape where it's built can be a bitch. A flat, uninhabited countryside is of course ideal but when do we have that (hmmm, Texas)? In CA there is the challenge of getting out of the SoCal basin, bridging geological faultlines, building tunnels and bridges and making everything earthquake-safe. Risks inevitably include schedule and cost overruns.

Throw everything together and you have a fine three-dimensional chessgame.

So that's my two cents worth. Anything I have missed?

Rafael said...

The comment by anon @ 9:57pm was removed because it was abusive, disruptive and not pertinent to the topic of this post or even HSR in general. Hopefully I won't need to do this again.


A Lynch said...

If you want to help secure funding year after year, here's what you need to do. Get the boots on the ground. At all possible speed get the workers started building this line and then you have something tangible. The CA congressional delegation can say, 'we need this money or else x number of people will lose their jobs.'

Alon Levy said...

Rob: the budgeted cost for phase 1 is $30 billion, which means the actual cost will be anything between 25 and 120. (For the record, the Interstate system had a factor-of-4 cost overrun.)

Brandon: national doesn't have to mean coast-to-coast. I'd be perfectly happy with a system consisting of mainlines like Boston to DC, DC to Atlanta, New York to Pittsburgh to Chicago, etc., which interlock and have through-running trains, on the model of the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen. The system doesn't really have to be continuous from NY to LA until trains can do Chicago-Denver and LA-Denver in under 4:30 each.

Rafael said...

@ Alon Levy -

the budgeted cost for SF-LA is $30 billion. For LA-Anaheim, figure more like $33 billion.

A factor 4 cost overrun seems unlikely, as does coming in below cost.

Chicago-LA in 9 hours would imply an average speed of ~220mph. That's not likely to happen anytime soon, for distances over 600 miles flying will remain the most economical alternative for a long time to come - especially west of the Mississippi.

YesonHSR said...

I really hope that in the next year or two a real bill will be brought forward to ensure long term
funding for these projects Hopefully at the news conference something along those lines will be proposed

HSR Done Right said...

Good news for true high speed rail supporters. I hadn't realized that the Chicago area is bidding for the 2016 Olympics, which dovetails nicely with high speed rail funding.

Contrast this to the mess that is California's financial future:

Add that to the Legislative Analysts Office Report on March 17th to the California legislature (about poor CHSR business plan, lack of accountability measures, and much more),

Not to mention the fact that the cities along the route are factioned in their support, the route itself is suspiciously inappropriate choice, and in fact there is no design or environmental review even yet completed for the route (in other words claims of being close to shovel ready are a load of crap)...

The Obama Administration would be extremely foolish to throw good money after bad in California at this time. If they do, the democrats in power will find themselves holding AIG-esque hearings a few years from now, and all those democrats will be faced with a monsterous scandal right at about election time.

tie the federal high speed rail funding to a small regional line, focused in Chicago area, (where Obama can keep a personal eye on it), and tie it to the high profile Olympic bid - and everyone comes out smellnig like roses by 2016. (Uh, except Kopp and Diridon, but theres virtually no hope for covering up the stench of the CHSRA even WITH 4B dollars.)

Andrew Bogan said...

@HSR Done Right

Let me guess, Chicago is not in your backyard. It is interesting that the opponents of HSR are now claiming to support the project in concept, but want it built in some other state, like Illinois. If the NIMBY obstructionist position on HSR in California had all the popular support they like to claim, why are they organizing around monikers like "HSR Done Right" instead of "HSR done somewhere else that is far, far away from my home, my backyard, and my selfish interests"?

Alon Levy said...

Rafael: I know it's unlikely. Basically, it requires sustained top speeds in the 420-450 km/h area, up from today's 350.

Bianca said...

I don't think that a "National HSR Network" meant a literal coast-to-coast connect reminiscent of the Interstate Highway System. I think it means a collection of regional HSR corridors in the places where it makes sense. Getting from Denver to points west on HSR just doesn't make sense- tunneling through the Rockies would cost an incomprehensible amount of money, and those distances aren't time-competitive with air travel anyway.

I think that much of the areas referred to as "flyover country" are indeed best suited to flying, rather than HSR. The eastern seaboard, the Texas Triangle, perhaps Chicago as a hub with a bunch of spokes radiating out of it, those absolutely make sense. And of course, California!

arcady said...

Remember, the US isn't europe. Our distances are much larger, and our trains will have to be designed to deal with those distances. We're going to need high speed, or maybe just normal speed, sleeper trains. A sleeper train has a major advantage over flying: you can arrive in the morning, well rested and ready to start the day. The time you spend sleeping isn't useful time anyway, so an 8 hour sleeper train takes up zero of your useful time. And at Normal Speed Rail speeds, New York to Atlanta could be done in some 12 hours, which is already competitive with airplanes in some cases.

無名 - wu ming said...

two points:

1. anyone who thinks that CA doesn't have flat open spaces hasn't been east of the coastal range. it's called the central valley, people; our only elevation gain out here is on highway overpasses.

2. high speed rail, in the terminology of the US gov, isn't necessarily bullet trains. it includes california's project as well as far slower (but still faster than now) rapid rail, which would in fact work very well for the midwest and west. people aren't clear on what's being said by either lahood or obama here.

that being said, china's building actual bullet train lines over an area equivalent to the US east of the mississippi, so "we can't do it" seems a bit stretched. we probably won't, but we could if we decided it was worth the effort. that is, until oil peaks and airplanes cease to be effective non-elite peoplemovers. then, it'll be more of the tired old "whocoodanode?!" BS.

minden-deutz said...

Echoing Arcady and Wu Ming's comments about HSR sleeper trains, they could be viable on routes of up to say 1000 miles. With a 100mph average speed, a departure at 10pm could get you to your destination by 8am. China already has such trains operating (CRH2), which are based on Kawasaki Heavy Industries E2 type shinkansen:

Rafael said...

@ wu-ming, minden-deutz -

I'm all for sleeper trains, even on the California HSR system. At moderate speeds, SF/Sacramento-San Diego could be an eight-hour overnighter.

However, sleeper trains - or auto trains, for that matter - are niche applications. They alone cannot justify upgrades from regular to rapid rail.

Alon Levy said...

Overnighters are bad at serving business travelers, who are the core constituency for HSR. With business travel, it really does boil down to line haul time and only line haul time.

arcady said...

Alon Levy: overnighters are EXCELLENT at serving business travellers. Suppose you're in City A and you have a 9 am meeting in City B. Now, you could try catching a morning flight, which probably means the 6 am one, which means you have to leave home around 3:30 or 4 am. Or you could fly out the night before and stay overnight in a hotel. You probably need a flight getting there around 9 pm, so you'd have to leave home at 6 pm, or more likely, just head straight to the airport from work, maybe stopping for dinner along the way. Meanwhile on an overnight train, you can catch the 11 pm departure from A Union Station, arriving in B Central Station at 8 am, and you have time to go home and have dinner with your family, and don't have to wake up at an unreasonable hour. So sleeper trains are potentially very competitive in certain situations on trips of 8-9 hours.

Sleeper trains are a niche in Europe, because historically, cross-border connections were relatively poor, and European countries are generally too small for sleeper trains to really make sense. The US doesn't have that problem. Does it make sense to put in a major infrastructure investment just for sleeper trains? Probably not. But in many places, you can string together enough local corridors into a line long enough for a sleeper train to get pretty far. In the Northeast, you can get reasonable sleeper train time from New York to Charlotte, Toronto, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and others, if you assume a 60 mph average speed.

K,T. said...


It would be nice to have a sleeper train option available, but I'm kind of afraid that it may bring up potential conflict with the regular track maintenance schedule within the high-speed rail corridor.

We'll see how the Chinese one works...

Rafael said...

@ KT -

if CHSRA's consultants do a good job, they will include cross-overs every so often in the dual-track alignment so service in any given stretch can continue on at least one track if the other is unavailable for any reason.

Since the number of sleeper trains per night would be small and their schedule quite slack, a short single-track section here or there would not pose a problem for them.

Anonymous said...

Sleeper train on the CAHSR corridor in particular would probably run within the normal service hours anyway, either at the very beginning or very end of the service day. Also, if the line doesn't have crossovers, the people who designed it are morons and have no business working anywhere near a railroad.

Adirondacker said...

You do mean napping cars. Sleeping car service is for trips where you can get a full nights sleep on the train. Two hours and 42 minutes SF to LA means you get a long nap.