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On Friday, the business section of the Arizona Daily Star published an article on a high-speed solar train, proposed as Tucson-Phoenix connection by Solar Bullet LLC, a two-man outfit in Tucson
Judging by the comments, this idea has been floated before but somehow never died. This is remarkable/suspicious given that the estimated price tag for the first segment of approx. 115 miles is a whopping $27 billion!
The solar panels above the tracks would not come cheap, especially given their proximity to the overhead wires and exposure to aerodynamic forces plus vibration every time a train runs past. However, the artist's rendering also shows an aerial structure with a wide gravel bed at grade. It's possible the artists was clueless, cp. the short length of the train, but a picture does say more than 1000 words. There are few major roads between the metro areas, so why not use the gravel as ballast and switch to aerial alignments only within the relatively populated regions.
Proponents are touting quad tracks so express trains can operate at 220mph, which requires 25kV AC. Note that the artist's rendering is plain mendacious in that it shows just a single track. No speed was given for the local trains, but with just six intermediate stations 150mph peak should be entirely feasible. Apparently, no-one considered if overall train frequency would justify even sidings at the intermediate stations, never mind dedicated super-express tracks.
Back in 2000, the Tucson metro area has 843,746, while Phoenix counted 3,251,786. The metro area added around one million residents before the real estate bubble burst and is now in modest decline.
The problem for any HSR project is that both cities have little or no connecting public transit. The sprawling metropolis of Phoenix has a grand total of one light rail line and has to resort to an artificial Copper Square umbrella brand for a $3 billion development effort aimed at creating a mixed use neighborhood that is intended to give the city a recognizable downtown area.
Downtown Tucson is also a branding effort rather than the result of decades of planning designed to create a shaded, walkable urban core. Tellingly, the site provides not a map of downtown but of its parking amenities, including numerous multi-story car parks where commercial or residential real estate could have been if public transport had been a priority. It was only in 2006 that residents decided to tax themselves to get streetcar service. Senator McCain's principled stance against earmarks may be laudable, but in times like these, it could also prove a liability: his fourth term is up in 2010.
HSR between Tucson and Phoenix could perhaps make sense, but perhaps only as a dual-track rapid rail proposition with tracks mostly at grade and in combination with projects to expand local light rail and/or BRT routes, all at a far lower capital investment than is being touted. I'm not sure if it's the dry desert heat, but there are actually other projects that are partially disconnected from reality. For example, DesertXPress will apparently use a near-invisible overhead wire that needs neither catenaries nor poles. The roof panels above an air-conditioned 21-mile bike path in Qatar are held up by a tangle of pipes carrying expensively refrigerated cold water, presumably to keep cyclists from suffering heat stroke. Note that the artist for this project also forgot support columns.
While I'm all for greener forms of transportation, especially electric trains and (electric) bikes, the Arizona Solar Bullet project in particular does the cause of getting HSR off the ground in the US no favors at all. In spite of criticism of the way certain CHSRA board members and staff have led the California HSR project in recent weeks and months, it is undeniable that the 10+ years spent on environmental and technical studies was not wasted. Not only do none of its renderings defy the laws of physics, the per-mile construction cost forecasts in e.g. the Central Valley are also an order of magnitude lower than the $237 million advanced by Solar Bullet LLC for the Arizona corridor. Indeed, the average for the entire 450 mile starter line from SF to LA and Anaheim, including several expensive mountain and fault crossings plus busy rail traffic at either end, is currently estimated at $73.3 million per mile.
There are good reasons why Secr. of Transportation Ray LaHood thinks California is far ahead of every other HSR project in the country, perhaps even including the still-stalled effort in Florida. Plus, CHSRA has decided it wants the high-speed network in California to run exclusively on renewable power, i.e. a reliable combination of wind, solar and geothermal, possibly assisted by hydro and biogas. However, the Authority has wisely left the implementation details to the experts in the utility sector.