Monday, June 1, 2009

HSR Stimulus and Project Timetables

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

The CHSRA's recent application to the US Department of Transportation for federal HSR stimulus money may wind up causing construction on the HSR project to begin not in the Central Valley as was originally planned, but in the Bay Area and Southern California, as this article from the Valley Voice explains. Keep in mind though that this doesn't mean the Central Valley is being left behind, but only that construction will commence slightly later, and that the Valley is still the key to the whole system:

High Speed Rail Authority spokesperson Kris Deutschman said it is true that both the northern and southern segments of the rail system are further along in the planning stage than the Central Valley, but what actually gets built first is yet to be determined. At one time, it was believed the Valley segment would be one of the first constructed.

However, earlier this month, the Authority approved a list of shovel-ready construction projects likely to qualify for $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high speed trains.

According to the Authority, one of the project elements selected was the entire Los Angeles-to-Anaheim and San Francisco-to-San Jose corridors, where the Authority is expected to have completed the project level environmental documents this year and qualified and selected design build teams to begin construction of the sections by the 2012 deadline.

The Authority also selected a second stimulus project that would be the identification, selection and negotiation of right-of-way acquisition in the Merced-to-Bakersfield section, including the system's planned maintenance facility, but not the rail system.

That Merced-to-Bakersfield ROW is key because that's where the all-important train testing will occur:

Georgiana Vivian, with the Authority, told members of the Tulare Sunrise Rotary Club that because of the federal stimulus funding, the projects first considered “shovel ready” must be built first. Right now, the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment is by far the farthest along, with the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment second.

Vivian said construction on the Central Valley segment may not begin for another seven years, but Deutschman said that does not mean that portions of the Valley line could not be built sooner and there is a key reason at least a portion of the Valley line is important.

“We need to test trains on long stretches of flat land and the Valley would be best for that,” she said. Vivian said the timetable is to begin testing trains by 2015 and that the Authority must test the trains and tracks for three years before passengers can be carried. That means the earliest riders will be able to get aboard the high speed rail is 2018.

I think what Vivian meant to say was that construction on the full buildout of the Valley segment might not happen until 2015 or 2016, but that a test track will be built much sooner. As I understand it, that's about the same as what occurred with BART, where an East Bay test track was built in the late '60s even though the first segments of the system did not open until 1972, with the full buildout (as of the 1970s) not occurring until 1974.

The article also examines the status of a Visalia-Hanford station (the CHSRA is studying it but isn't committing to anything yet) and notes that Castle Airport near Merced is likely to be the location of the primary maintenance hub, with two smaller maintenance facilities "at either end" of the line (i.e. somewhere in the Bay Area and somewhere in SoCal). As to what we can expect from the stimulus:

Deutschman said the Authority should hear by the end of June if it is going to get any stimulus money, but it is confident some will come. When asked how many dollars the high speed rail might get, she replied, “All I'm hearing are billions.”

That sounds about right, given what we've heard from Ray LaHood. Just how many "billions" it'll be is an open question. I'd like to see something in the vicinity of $3 to $4 billion.


Rob Dawg said...

That Merced-to-Bakersfield ROW is key because that's where the all-important train testing will occur:Only if you assume Merced is the master service node.

Everything involves "Bakersfield." Start there and build north and worry about the "split" later. Rails in the ground and a test track and everyone already agrees on this portion of alignments.

caltrain rider said...

Hmm.. going ahead with building - without the testing.. and so what's the testing for?

Joseph Eisenberg said...

Caltrain rider:
I believe the testing is necessary to prove that the system is "safe" for the feds to sign off. Even though the same trains will have run just fine in Europe or Japan for a decade. Sigh.

Rafael said...

@ Joseph Eisenberg -

the FRA doesn't have any rules for letting trains run at 220mph. At all. That means the top speed HSR can currently run at anywhere in the nation is 150mph.

In addition, CHSRA needs FRA to sign off on mixed traffic in the Fullerton-Anaheim section and the final approach to the new SF Transbay Terminal.

The Obama administration is much keener on HSR than its predecessors, but even so, FRA will insist on covering its bureaucratic behind before signing off on commercial operation of the California network. One huge benefit of choosing steel wheels over maglev technology is that FRA will be able to crib heavily from the Japanese and the Europeans on many issues.

Without a domestic passenger train industry to protect, there's a chance they'll apply common sense and avoid creating a special standard just for the US. On the other hand, bureaucrats are always interested in justifying the existence of their fiefdom, cp. the Acela Express fiasco.

CHSRA's entire business plan hinges on FRA permission to use lightweight, proven, off-the-shelf trainset technology. An ornery FRA could torpedo the project's financial viability by imposing sky-high maintenance and electricity costs for no good reason.

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

I know we already knew the timeline, but sill it is hard to see it again...
7 years before the central valley is ready!?
Did all the Palo Alto nimbys move out and become farmers? :-)

The time it takes to do anything in this country is insane.

Tony D. said...

So let's see: major stimulus cash for the SF-SJ line, nearly 10 years of studying/debate of Bay Area/Central Valley routing, passage of Nov08 Prop. 1A with the knowledge of Pacheco Pass primary routing and FUTURE Altamont Pass HSR overlay. Looks as if that NIMBY/"I wanted Altamont!" frivolous lawsuit will be DOA soon. I know, I know, it wasn't dismissed and will be heard, bla bla bla. But I'm confident that whatever judge hears this crap will have a spine/brain and realize the aformentioned in making a decision.

Imagine this headline: "California lost out in nearly $4 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds because a small group of NIMBY's/those not satisfied with the choice of routing got their way in court. This despite the fact that high-speed rail was supported by a majority of California voters and the primary routing into the Bay Area was the result of nearly a decade of study/debate."


Morris Brown said...

The joint Assembly/Senate audit committee has passed on a bill to do a full audit of the Authority, which will start Sept 1, and will take 4 to 5 months and involve 1900 man hours from the audit office.

The audit will cover the full time frame that the Authority has been in existence, over 10 years.

Clem said...

Sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that 4 or 5 months and 1900 labor hours is two to three people.

Aaron said...

@Morris: From the ominous tone, one would think that we should be prepared to learn that the HSRA is actually simply a wing of the North Korean military or something.

"Ooh, an audit... we should all run for the hills before the spectre of true evil is raised!"

Maybe we can figure out where all of those missing paperclips went. ;p Personally, I can never find my paperclips...

Alex said...


Is it really just a matter of only having a few people working on it?

Well, wouldn't hiring more people to hurry things up qualify as stimulus?

Aaron said...

@Alex: I don't think the audit has a bearing on stimulus funding - it's kind of a sideshow.

jim said...

Well it does make sense to get the urban ends done first for the simple matter that they will be the most complicated from the perspective of squeezing the train through congested areas, grade crossings etc. The valley will be a much easier stretch to catch up on later. No one expected to be riding trains before 2020 anyway.

jim said...

Also the dtx and tbt construction is scheduled to be completed at the same time (construction 2012 thru 2019) Do the LA ANA and SF SJ and the yard at merced with test track. then while testing the trains, work on the northern and southern tunnel crossings. It could all come together nicely. That's if all goes well. i mean that is still a pretty tight timeline.

Anonymous said...

Rrrgh. The crucial portion is Bakersfield-LA. How's *that* going? It's got every possible complication, including urban construction and the LA station.

jim said...

Spain gives U.S. official peek at high-speed train system
ASTA SMARTBRIEF | 06/01/2009
Ray Lahood, U.S. secretary of transportation, and Jose Blanco, development minister for Spain, boarded a train in Madrid for a first-hand look at the Spanish high-speed rail system. President Barack Obama has hailed Spain's network as a model for the U.S. Lahood also rode one of France's TGV bullet trains and attended a conference on transportation in Germany. USA TODAY (05/29)

jim said...

Isnt the LA palmdale section following the metrolink route? In any case it doesn't matter because the whole thing needs to be connected and tested before any one is taking any trips. How many years is the tunneling going to take? anyone know?

BruceMcF said...

Thing about tunneling is sometimes it can throw up unpleasant surprises.

One contingency to cover an unpleasant financial surprise is to open some services on a portion of the route, to get the basis for issuing revenue bonds.

caltrain rider said...

Morris - THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Apparently there are some grownups in Sacramento afterall.

Rafael: "CHSRA's entire business plan hinges on FRA permission to use lightweight, proven, off-the-shelf trainset technology."

Exactly. And so the TESTING is about FRA sign off on the technology. So BUILDING significantly costly portions (ie: Peninsula) BEFORE the signoff on the technology... Isn't that sort of like building your remodel before you get permits? The ultimate in stupidity I'd say.

They better test first, then design and build around the FRA signed off technology. Really, how much money do we really have to waste? I'd like to see some high speed trains in my lifetime. This is just gigantic Diridon ego at work. Its time for the HSR Supporters to drive Diridon out of town - what a liability!

Anonymous said...

@caltrain rider: If anybody does manage to "drive Diridon out of town" he'll make sure HSR never gets built out of spite. Whatever his problems, surely it's better to have him on your side?

Starting with SF-SJ and LA-Anaheim makes sense because, regardless of what happens with the rest of HSR, Caltrain and Metrolink will still benefit.

Eric M said...

I think a lot of people might be panicing because the unmentioned segments (tunnels, etc), which are not going to be submitted for the first round of stimulous, are segments not scheduled to start by 2012. That doesn't mean the project will fall behind. It might just mean that some of these segments will be ready to turn durt in 2013. Remember, the project is scheduled to open by 2018.

Right now, the hard core engineering is taking place and this will take some time. This is the same with any construction project. It seems like forever for dirt to be turned, but is will happen soon enough.

BruceMcF said...

caltrain rider said...
"Exactly. And so the TESTING is about FRA sign off on the technology. So BUILDING significantly costly portions (ie: Peninsula) BEFORE the signoff on the technology... Isn't that sort of like building your remodel before you get permits?"

Heck, you'd think the USG would insist that any such corridor be of use even if the HSR system does not go ahead.

What's that? Huh? They do?

Oh. Never mind.

Aaron said...

Not to state the obvious, but the Obama administration (who supervises the FRA) would not be cheerleading CAHSR if they thought that FRA problems would sink the ship.

Having said that, it's premature to expect the FRA to magically adapt Japan's safety rules in full. But if there were any expectation that FRA regulations would prevent CAHSR from going forward, you would not be seeing this level of unity at the Federal level.

Politically, I'm concerned about doing those segments first because you create a scenario whereby we could stop halfway through and just have expensive improvements to Metrolink and Caltrain. That's suboptimal. But on the other hand, if we jump on those segments first because we can get Federal dollars to build them, I think that overrides any concern about getting mired in the muck a couple years from now.

Rafael said...

@ caltrain rider -

my objective was to explain why CHSRA wants to give the Central Valley section between Merced and Bakersfield higher priority than Bay Area and SoCal politicians do. There are technical (vendor selection) and regulatory (FRA, CPUC) reasons for that.

I did not mean to imply that there is a high risk FRA will refuse to issue the requisite "rule of special applicability", though it cannot be ruled out. The agency had already begun to draft just such a rule for Florida HSR when voters there shelved that project.

Rather, engaging with FRA early on by way of a test track will give investors, both public and private, greater confidence that appropriate rules will have been drafted long before the California network is completed.

Those rules will have to cover not only the mixed traffic issues in OC and near SF, but also the basic nuts and bolts of express HSR: geometry tolerances and their maintenance, overhead catenaries at 25kV, in-cab signaling (esp. if wireless), lateral stability of trains running past one another at 440mph etc etc.

They will also have to address issues specific to the US or California: heavy freight trains on clapped-out but adjacent tracks, fencing in agricultural and wilderness areas, subsidence due to excessive exploitation of aquifers etc etc.

All of that is going to take time, so building a test track early makes sense. However, once the ROW is acquired and the issue of separation vs. closure of (private) grade crossings are resolved, the actual construction of the tracks should proceed much faster than in the Bay Area or SoCal.

Postponing the planning processes already underway for the tail sections of the route would lead to more significant cost escalations than in the CV. Tunneling, too, will have to begin fairly early on because its such a slow process.

Anonymous said...

NO caltrain rider ..whats at "work" is giant NIMBYS at work

Alon Levy said...

Test tracks are also necessary for deciding which company's rolling stock to use. CAHSR will likely run one trainset from each bidder on the tracks, and then make a decision based on experience rather than marketing.

jim said...

I don't think there is much to worry about. This project will get done. There are far too many big players who have too much to gain with it. It's not as if the central valley is going to let the system not be completed once the the urban ends are done. It will in fact create even more pressure to connect the missing link. This project, has so many benefits, more benefits than anything else we could do right now in california short of nuclear power plant program, to not get done. The timing is perfect as well as we can expect the system to be in place and running right about hte same time we should be entering another economic boom in california. ( it will take 5 years for the economy to grow slowly back to normal and the 5 years after that we will see the next big "dot com" style boom, possibly bio or some other tech) I think all the hand wringing we wil do over the next ten years will turn out to have been unnecessary.

Laurence E. Blow said...

@ Rafael,

Just for information, since this is a rail blog, I just want to point out that when you say, "...One huge benefit of choosing steel wheels over maglev technology is that FRA will be able to crib heavily from the Japanese and the Europeans on many issues," FRA has spent several years -- most heavily in the late 1980s and early 1990s, responding to one of Florida's HSR spasms -- and millions of federal dollars investigating Germany's Transrapid and its potential environmental and safety characteristics. They even went as far as to set up an information exchange between FRA and the German federal rail authority (Eisenbahn-Bundesamt, or EBA) which continued until about 2005, as I recall.

Since the Volpe Center was heavily involved all along in creating the technical documents that outlined the parameters for potential high-speed maglev routes, maglev is not really as far from being endorsed by the FRA as one might think, if and when a project seeks a Rule of Particular Applicability.

observer said...

Morris Brown - you said "passed on a bill to do a full audit..."

What do you mean "passed on"?

Has the bill been passed? Did the committee pass it on to the next step (ie: legislature for a full vote?) Or did they "pass" on it (as in, they ignored it)

Where can we get more information about that bill and its status?

Rob Dawg said...

3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build.

Excellent. Anyone want to guarantee similar prices here? Anyone? [crickets]