Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Adios 2008, Welcome 2009

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

And so we come to the end of 2008, one of the more eventful and tumultuous years I can recall (although my memory doesn't really go further back than 1985, so perhaps my perspective isn't that long). In the midst of economic crisis and political upheaval, Californians ought to look back on 2008 as the year we made a long overdue commitment to sustainable transportation. It's not going to be easy to implement, but if I may paraphrase JFK, we choose to build high speed rail and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

California voters approved Proposition 1A which, combined with federal funding and private contributions (which will materialize; the credit crunch won't last forever) will build a high speed train connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley that will transform transportation and land use in California, along with providing short-term economic stimulus and long-term economic growth.

Californians also voted to massively expand passenger rail in Los Angeles County, including the Subway to the Sea; to build a passenger train along the NWP corridor in Sonoma and Marin Counties (although the collapse of Colorado Railcar is an obstacle for SMART to overcome); and to commit more money to the BART to San José project.

Those votes are but the first step in a long process of building the kind of sustainable transportation that California must have to maintain prosperity in the 21st century. The HSR deniers haven't fully gone away, and the New Hoovers are gathering to fight government spending on infrastructure, including rail. Our work is still cut out for us.

But 2008 showed us what we can accomplish when we give Californians a choice - the failed status quo, or a high speed rail future. The end of 2008 gives us one last chance to reflect on those victories and accomplishments - because once 2009 starts, seven hours from now, we're going to have to get to work on the state and federal level to ensure that the HSR project is funded and supported.

Happy new year, everyone.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why We Need A Greener Stimulus

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

The Merced Sun-Star editorialized today for a greener, more sustainable economic stimulus, offering some excellent reasons for using this economic crisis as an opportunity to finally move beyond the now-failed policies of automobile dependence:

Environmentalists must understand that roads, bridges and highways are going to be an important part of our transportation infrastructure for a long time to come. We have neglected that infrastructure to the point of real danger, and that must be urgently addressed.

But proponents of the conventional wisdom in transportation must also recognize that we cannot build our way out of congestion and air quality problems by simply adding more freeway lanes.

That contributes to urban sprawl, with its attendant environmental damage, and does nothing to reduce our dependence on imports of foreign oil. Also, transit and rail systems are often less expensive to build than more highways to carry similar capacity.

One thing is clear: The time has passed for the heavy emphasis on roads and highway now enshrined in federal policy.

That dependence on foreign oil, the legacy of the decision to rely on cars alone as the means to provide mobility in America rather than a balanced approach of cars, trains, buses, bikes and feet, is a major reason for our economic crisis. If Barack Obama, Congress, and other policymakers want to get this country back on its feet and to avoid a repeat of the current meltdown, they need to ensure that more of the proposed stimulus goes to mass transit and not to fulfill state DOT highway dreams.

Obama didn't help when he said that the stimulus should fund projects ready to turn dirt within six months - the need for speed is there, but he should have given himself more flexibility to include using the stimulus for transit. Even so, Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, is working to increase the share of transit funding in the overall stimulus plan.

Some of that stimulus should go to high speed rail, of course, and even if our project gets federal funding in a later appropriation outside the immediate stimulus, even $50 million to pay for planning and engineering work would demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable transportation policy. Plus, planners and engineers need jobs too!

The details of the stimulus are still being worked out, and public pressure can help produce a better, greener, more transit-friendly stimulus. Transportation For America is running a campaign to pressure Congress to do exactly that. Sign the petition and let Congress know that we need to provide a big boost to mass transit - and let them know that HSR should be a part of that stimulus.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Thunder Alley

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

Analysis by CHSRA has shown that in order to compete effectively against short-haul flights between the Bay Area and Southern California, the express line haul time between San Francisco and Los Angeles will have to be well below three hours. Given that any acceptable route would also have to serve Central Valley towns with non-express trains and, the desire to leverage Palmdale as a relief airport for LAX, this has led to a requirement to achieve maximum sustained speeds of around 220mph (350-360km/h). The consequence is that CHSRA preferred route calls for approx. 50 daily express trains to barrel through downtown areas of Fresno, Bakersfield and other towns and, do so at the limit of what trainset manufacturers will currently support in commercial service.

Should CHSRA expect strong resistance from residents and businesses located close to its chosen route in the network core?

The main problem is that anything moving that fast creates a great deal of aerodynamic noise. Indeed, the rated power required to overcome wind resistance at high speeds is proportional to the cube of velocity. Most of that power goes toward moving air out of the way, resulting in severe turbulence and hence, in noise. As a first approximation, it's reasonable to assume that noise levels will also increase with the third power of train velocity. Ergo, a train running at 220mph will radiate roughly 1.65 times as much sound power as one traveling at 186mph. At a distance of 50m (~150ft), a TGV train will register a peak of around 92dB in open terrain. The new AGV may be expected to come in at around 94-95dB at that distance and its top speed, though improvements in train aerodynamics may have mitigated the increase.

For reference, a major road at 10m (~30ft) comes in at 80-90dB, a pneumatic jackhammer at 1m (~3ft) at 100dB. In other words, high speed trains are really quite loud, especially if you consider that many railroad rights of way are no more than 100ft (~30m) wide. However, assessing the effect of this noise on the human body and psyche is quite involved. First, the raw sound pressures must be modulated to reflect the fact that the human ear is more sensitive to intermediate frequencies than it is to very low and very high ones. The most common modulation is the "A" weighting curve, resulting in dB(A) values. However, it was developed for sounds that are quiet overall and may therefore not be particularly accurate.

Second, the impact on an average person exposed to the noise depends on the length of exposure, the rate of change in sound power, the spectral distribution and the rate of change of spectral distribution (e.g. due to a Doppler effect). Initially, concentration is most easily broken by sudden, loud noises emitted by fast-moving sources - our stone-age physiology is prone to mistake them for approaching predators or other dangers. Depending on the person, frequent repeat exposure can lead either to acclimatization or, to annoyance. The former refers to a neurological response that mutes the initially present fight-or-flight response, the latter to a negative emotional response to frequent distractions from the task at hand. Activities that require high levels of concentration may favor an acclimatization response, whereas the same person lying still in a hospital bed may suffer acute annoyance. Age is also a factor: children are usually less able than adults to disregard noise events, which can impact their academic performance.

Third, noise tolerance is much lower at night, when most people are trying to sleep. This will be especially relevant to high speed cargo operations on the California network, if any. The increased sensitivity is often accounted for by artificially increasing the severity of nighttime noise events by 10dB(A), corresponding to roughly a factor 3. In general, CSHRA planning at the program level has followed established guidelines to account for all of this in their metrics for predicting likely noise impacts on sections of proposed alignments. However, none of them were developed for ground vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 220mph. CHSRA and other state and federal agencies will likely have to create some new guidelines in the context of this project.

Specific local noise impacts can only be assessed at the project level, as the type of alignment (at grade vs. aerial vs. trench etc.), the type of ballast (gravel vs. concrete) and the presence of nearby buildings all greatly affect how sound is absorbed and reflected in the environment. Structure-borne infrasound, i.e. vibrations below the hearing threshold of ~30Hz, can lead to secondary noise if it causes furniture and items to rattle, though this usually does not apply to high speed lines because their rails are continuously welded.

A much less well understood aspect of high speed train acoustics is the response of animals to repeated noise events. As with humans, for each species and individual there appears to be a spectrum of responses ranging from acclimatization to annoyance to panic reactions. Annoyance effects could range from changes in product quality to increased aggressiveness to obsessive compulsive behavior to reduced fertility. The effect of high speed train noise on small populations of endangered species, e.g. in the Pacheco Pass section between Gilroy and Chowchilla, would be especially difficult to quantify.

Fortunately, at least the trains themselves are easier to study. One tool used to identify noise sources at various frequencies is acoustic tomography. Microphone arrays and software are combined to help engineers figure out which parts of their designs they need to refine further. For example, the pictures below were produced by TNO in the Netherlands to analyze a TGV trainset then under development passing from right to left at 330km/h (~205mph) at a distance of 80m (~250ft). The vertical axis indicates distance from grade level and, the number above each picture reflects the frequency band shown. Note that the horizontal and vertical axes are not shown to the same scale.

Evidently, some of the noise at around 2000Hz is created by the rolling contact of wheels and rails, but most of it originates from the tractor cars at either end - presumably the power electronics. Note that the loudest emissions are from the underside of the trailing car, most likely a result of aerodynamic effects.

At 1000Hz and 500Hz, the ghostly images of the pantographs are visible. Note that the noise sources along the length of the train are located above the wheels at these frequencies, indicated structure-borne sound radiating off the lower edges of the carriages.

At even lower frequencies, the picture becomes harder to interpret. Clearly, the power cars still contribute the bulk of total noise emissions, but there is also a complex acoustic signature from the sides of the carriages. Note how it correlates with the location of the wheelsets, which in an Alstom design are found in-between the carriages (Jacobs bogies). This may be a reflection of the greater stiffness of the side surfaces at those points or, of gaps between the cars.

The sound track of the following video should give you a better appreciation of the individual sound sources, especially the recordings made at the overpass. The whistling sound may be that of air being squeezed sideways at the wheel-rail interface.

The Japanese have developed a variety of nose cone shapes to reduce not just regular noise but also tunnel boom and rail pitting effects related to HSR aerodynamics. Unfortunately, the sexy 500 series performs less well in terms of noise than the cheaper 700 series with its bulbous duckbill nose.

Just for kicks, here is a video of a Caltrain "baby bullet" train storming past a local one at ~79mph with various sound effects. IMHO, if a passenger train is going to make that much noise, it should be at least twice as fast!

The bottom line is that exterior noise will likely be a significant factor in engineering the California HSR system, especially in the Central Valley. In particular, FRA rules prohibiting mixed traffic currently prevent the use of legacy tracks to access stations in downtown areas while routing express trains through open countryside. Note that FRA might make an exception if HSR trains only share track with other passenger trains and their locomotives are upgraded to appropriate safety standards. Unfortunately, that would mean constructing bypass tracks for freight traffic, something Fresno in particular has long sought but never been able to afford.

Worst case, sound walls could be deployed next to HSR tracks to at least reduce noise by as much as 8-15dB (varies with wall height and alignment design). Construction would cost $1-1.5 million per mile, depending on visual appeal. In the context of a $40+ billion project, this may be a small amount compared to the cost and impact of creating brand-new rights of way through prime farmland. After all, HSR ought to improve the quality of life in Central Valley towns beyond merely eliminating horns, bells and danger via grade separation.

On the other hand, it's useful to keep in mind that freight rail operators aren't exactly walking on eggshells right now, even at night. Witness this recent example from east Modesto:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday Open Thread

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

I'll be back on Monday to continue the high speed rail conversation. For now use this as an open thread to discuss whatever's on your mind that's HSR related - even if only tangentially.

Some articles that have appeared over the last few days regarding California HSR:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thursday Open Thread

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

I'm in Arizona celebrating Christmas, probably freezing my ass off in the mountains and snow, but likely having a good time anyway. I hope all of you are having a wonderful holiday season, whatever it is that you celebrate (my wife and I are more into the solstice, but we're not going to turn down a nice big Christmas dinner either!).

I think we all got our present several weeks early, when California voters approved Proposition 1A and setting us on the path to finally building high speed rail. Of course we're going to have to defend it in 2009 as the economic crisis and residual HSR deniers and New Hooverites continue to swirl overhead. We built a solid foundation for HSR activism this year and next year it's going to accomplish even bigger things.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuesday Open Thread

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

I'm headed to Arizona for the holidays and will be back on December 29. So in the meantime we'll have a few open threads every other day to tide us over.

I wish I had more time to write about this, but Yonah has an excellent post on HSR privatization over at The Transport Politic. He looks over the two kinds of privatization - of infrastructure and of management - and concludes, rightly, that both are unworkable and unnecessary. With John Mica aggressively pushing privatization it is worth taking a close look at this and pushing back against ideologically-driven efforts to fix something that isn't broken. Public entities have had great success operating HSR around the world and the US should emulate that model.

One of the very first posts on this blog reached similar conclusions about HSR privatization. Worth a look.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Arnold Schwarzenegger + Jim Gibbons = Maglev to Vegas?

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

So claims the Las Vegas Sun:

For over 20 years, boosters have dreamed of and lobbied for a train that could travel from Southern California to Las Vegas at 300 mph.

The proposed magnetic levitation train line linking Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. — attacked by critics as a multi-billion dollar pipe dream — has gained new life.

Near the bottom of a news release detailing Gov. Jim Gibbons’ meeting last month with President-elect Barack Obama was the announcement that Gibbons and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had agreed to move ahead with the high-speed train project.

“Arnold and I agreed to jointly work together on the project,” said Gibbons, who is planning to travel to Sacramento to talk with Schwarzenegger about it.

The train, Gibbons argues, should be a candidate for federal economic stimulus money.

The rest of the article goes on to discuss "pork" in the stimulus bill and how infrastructure stimulus should emphasize projects with lasting value. We agree, of course, and HSR is one of the best possible examples of infrastructure that provides both short-term stimulus and long-term economic value.

The question here is, does Harry Reid's maglev from Anaheim to Vegas count toward that goal? Maglev is a notorious form of vaporware on an intercity scale - the cost is enormous and no project to build intercity maglev has gotten off the drawing board. That hasn't stopped Reid from getting $45 million from Congress to study maglev to Vegas, even though a competing firm has a more realistic plan to build conventional steel-wheel HSR from Victorville to Vegas. Reid dismissed the Desert Xpress plan:

Reid has criticized that project because he doesn’t think people will drive from Los Angeles to Victorville and then board a train to Las Vegas.

What Reid apparently doesn't realize is that it's a mere 50 miles from Victorville to the planned HSR station at Palmdale Airport:

So wouldn't it make sense, Senator Reid, Governor Gibbons, and Governor Schwarzenegger, to link a Vegas HSR line to our existing HSR plan - using the Desert Xpress model, merely extended west across the flat Antelope Valley desert from Victorville to the Palmdale Airport station? That would solve the cost issue, provide a direct train connection from LA to Vegas, and even could help logroll both Nevada's and California's HSR needs into a single plan.

I have to confess I've never believed that HSR to Vegas is a particularly high priority for either California or the United States as a whole - there are other corridors that have a greater need for HSR. But if Nevada and their powerful Senator are bent on HSR to Vegas, let's do it the smart way, the right way, instead of wasting millions on a maglev train that will never get built.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The New Hoovers Are Still Trying to Kill HSR

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

As we repeatedly explained at this blog during the campaign, the New Hoovers have it in for high speed rail. HSR is a necessary part of California's economic recovery, but Republican politicans - from Arnold Schwarzenegger to GOP legislators - are bent on using this economic crisis to achieve the dismantling of government that they could never get during normal times. They have used the 2/3rds rule and the governor's veto power to prevent a balanced budget from being enacted. As a result California has had to borrow money to pay for basic operations, but the strain of that borrowing has nearly exhausted our short-term borrowing capacity.

As a result of Arnold's most recent budget-blocking action the Pooled Money Investment Board had to cut off all funding for infrastructure projects - throwing a whopping 200,000 people out of work. As an AP article explains that action jeopardizes HSR planning efforts:

The state treasurer says the high-speed rail board won't be able to tap any of that money until lawmakers pass a balanced budget.

Without an agreement to close the budget gap, the treasurer won't be able to sell any bonds and won't allow the board to get a loan to tide it over until the bonds are sold. The state's loan fund, the Pooled Money Investment Account, is needed for other state operations, said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Treasurer Bill Lockyer....

Carrie Pourvahidi, one of the rail board's deputy directors, said the board is counting on getting $29.1 million from the Pooled Money Investment Account to pay for its operations in the first half of 2009.

Without that money it would have to shut down in late January or early February, she said.

[Mehdi] Morshed said he doubts any federal money could be allocated quickly enough to fill that void.

"If we can't pay our bills, we would just have to stop spending, which means we would have to tell our contractors to stop work. Then, hopefully, later on, when we have the money, we can pick it up," he said.

As you may remember we just went through this mess - during the summer Republicans blocked passage of a budget for three months, delaying the delivery of the updated Business Plan until just after the November election. When the state is out of money the CHSRA cannot continue its planning operations. This current delay - again caused by Republican intransigence - could cause consultants to leave the HSR project:

But if the state does not resolve its own fiscal problems in time to keep the board operating, even a short-term shutdown could prompt some of the engineers, planners and environmental consultants who have been working on the project to abandon it for more reliable clients, he said. That could cause delays.

"The federal government's going to pump billions into infrastructure nationwide," Morshed said.

"Then everybody's going to scramble for the people who are going to deliver those projects. Whoever has their hands on somebody, they are in better shape than the other person. If we lose some (consultants), we may lose them for good or a very long period of time."

Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to get his head out of his ass and sign the Democrats' budget plan. Otherwise California is going to suffer for quite a long time - the infrastructure projects Arnold championed in his Newsweek op-ed will be severely weakened and compromised by this ongoing crisis. Not to mention the effect of California being thrown into an outright economic depression which HSR is supposed to help alleviate.

Federal aid will still be necessary to complete the project and while that looks more promising, New Hoovers in Congress are beginning to stir in their own opposition to infrastructure stimulus spending:

House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said he has "grave reservations about taking $1 trillion from struggling taxpayers and spending it on government programs." He suggested tax cuts as a better alternative to kick-start the economy.

As far as I can tell Republican politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. are, instead of trying to help resolve one of the worst economic crises we've faced in 75 years and help build for our future, are using the crisis to settle old scores and trying to reverse what remains of the New Deal.

Canadian author Naomi Klein described this phenomenon as the shock doctrine. And it's now threatening to cripple the HSR project California voters approved last month. Things were bad in the 1930s, but at least our government wasn't being held hostage by a clique of ideologues determined to score points even at the expense of the economic security of millions of Californians, of the state's future prosperity.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

High Speed Cargo

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

Over the past several months, this blog has rightly focused on high speed passenger service, because that will be the primary task of the California network. This post will discuss the other potential application, that of high speed cargo. This would be suitable for a range of light high-value time-sensitive goods, e.g.

  • mail and packages
  • pallets of high-tech manufacturing parts
  • critical spare parts for machinery
  • meat, poultry and fish (in suitable auto-refrigeration units)
  • eggs, packaged dairy and farm-fresh produce (well insulated)
  • fresh cut flowers (idem)
  • general air cargo in standard unit load devices (ULD)

On page 13 of Chapter 1 of its 2008 business plan, CHSRA indicates it is at least aware of the possibilities:
"While the high-speed train system is not compatible with typical U.S. freight equipment and operations, the proposed high-speed train system could be used to carry small packages, letters, or any other freight that would not exceed typical passenger loads. This service could be provided either in specialized freight cars on passenger trains or on dedicated freight trains. Moving medium-weight high-value, time-sensitive goods (such as electronic equipment or perishable items) on the high-speed train tracks would also be a possibility but would need to be operated overnight when it wouldn't interfere with passenger operations and would require additional facilities for loading and unloading."

Note that this is essentially a technical assessment. The business case for running such a service in California would need to be made by a freight operator, which could be either a new company or an autonomous new division of an existing one.

There is already one precedent: in France, state-owned La Poste has long operated a small number of yellow cargo TGV trainsets at speeds up to 250km/h (~150mph) on the core Sud-Est line between Paris and Marseille in lieu of domestic air mail.

Video of La Poste TGV

There are now plans to take this one step further by forming a joint venture between SNCF Fret - the company's rail freight division - and La Poste called Fret GV (fret a grande vitesse = high speed freight). The primary business for this new JV will be mail and parcel service plus possibly light pallets. The rolling stock will be converted first-generation TGVs that SNCF is gradually replacing with newer, faster models.

A competing consortium called Carex (CARgo EXpress) is gearing up to provide connecting ground service for selected ULD sizes between airports on the Thalys network (northern France, Benelux, Cologne) and through the Channel Tunnel to London. Future extensions are planned to Spain and Italy as well as to Berlin, though Deutsche Bahn's HSR network is patchy. The driving forces behind the trans-national Carex effort appear to be the operators of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and, Liege Airport in Belgium. The service, which is not yet in operation, will likely be based on 20 trains featuring custom derivatives of Alstom's TGV Duplex design, as single-level concepts cannot accommodate the height of standard ULDs.

FedEx and UPS are both studying the opportunity, which promises to deliver more reliable delivery times than Europe's congested roads. Moreover, many airports do not permit nighttime operations, but HSR can operate 24/7 - especially at night, albeit with some speed restrictions in built-up areas to keep the noise down. For additional details, please see this PDF.

Meanwhile, DHL may decide to use a new high-speed rail line under construction for a rail freight forwarding service between Frankfurt/Main and its new European hub at Leipzig/Halle airport.

All of these examples are completely different from traditional rail freight, especially the cost-sensitive long-distance heavy container freight so dominant in North America. High speed cargo operators need to position themselves not against ocean or inland shipping but rather, in-between air cargo and medium-distance trucking. This niche requires fast, efficient transshipment from aircraft to trains to trucks/vans (and vice versa). In particular, sidings located directly on the premises of airports that can operate at night confer a real competitive advantage. In the California system, that would mean Ontario, Palmdale and possibly, Castle airport in Merced County.

Dedicated high-speed lines usually impose a load limit of 17 metric tons per axle. Heavier trains would cause excessive wear and tear on the rails and excessive geometry creep on the trackbed, especially in high speed curves. Lowering speeds through those curves reduce the dynamic loading, but below a certain point the flanges of the inside wheels will press too hard against the inside of the rail, again causing excessive wear and a lot of noise besides. This is a function of the amount of unbalanced superelevation permissible for the line - the bank angle can only compensate centrifugal forces exactly at one speed, the design target velocity. Gradients are another important factor for high speed cargo: consists must be able to climb and descend 3.5% inclines at fairly high speeds. In practice, that means short trains and plenty of traction power. However, older tractor-based designs are preferable to modern EMUs in this case - you want to use the permissible axle load on the cars for payload, not electric motors.

During the day, only the lightest of cargo - i.e. mail and packages - can be transported at the very high speeds required to keep pace with passenger traffic. Labor costs can be reduced and line headways maintained by attaching "hitchhiker" cargo trainsets to regularly scheduled passenger trains. Coupling and uncoupling at a passenger station is very quick, but a driver for the cargo trainset would have to be present to support the procedure. Note that European and Japanese coupler designs are incompatible with one another, FRA might have have to choose one or the other for high speed trains in the US.

Video of two ICE3 trains coupling

Alternatively, single high-speed passenger trainsets operating at the "local" or "semi-local" service levels could be scheduled to also stop at dedicated high speed cargo yards with run-through tracks, These could be many miles from the nearest passenger station but would still be integral to the high-speed network and therefore, topologically separate from traditional freight railyards where passenger trains are prohibited. In practice, the passenger train would drop off its current cargo trainset, if any, then (optionally) proceed a short distance down the track so a new one can be coupled and its temporary driver alight. The sidings in the high-speed cargo yard would feature wide platforms so multiple forklift trucks could quickly unload and re-load the trainset that was just dropped off so it can hitch a ride on another passenger train scheduled later in the day. The delivered cargo would immediately be moved to a waiting aircraft, truck or sorting facility, as appropriate. Note that a ULD might be used for a particular shipment even if it never leaves the ground, simply because that's what this logistics system would be designed around.

At night, when there would be at most a few sleeper passenger trains on the network, high speed cargo trains could operate autonomously in single or double trainset consists. Obviously, the operator would have to employ drivers for the graveyard shift. This is non-trivial, even with PTC safeguards, as humans tend to make more mistakes in the small hours of the morning. The biggest technical obstacles to leveraging the expensive high-speed infrastructure 24/7, other than finding suitable locations for the yards, is minimizing rail-wheel noise when passing through built-up areas at moderate speeds. Spanish manufacturer Talgo and Kawasaki/Hitachi in Japan are arguably leaders in this field.

The CHSRA quote also suggests that medium-weight goods could potentially be transported on the high speed network. For reference, there are several traditional systems of intermodal truck-on-rail transport:

  • "rolling highways", essentially rail ferries (e.g. Alps, Channel Tunnel)

  • trailer on flatcar (TOFC), allows tractor units to remain local

  • TCSC ad-hoc rail cars, an ingenious but complex system used east of the Rockies

All of these have one big disadvantage: consists must either be assembled using yard shifter locomotives or, trains must be loaded and unloaded at one or both ends. This takes a long time, sharply reducing the advantage of combining local trucking with electric rail over diesel-guzzling long-distance trucking. A modern take on TOFC that greatly improves trailer transshipment is the Modalohr system. In Europe, it operates on regular lines, but that would not be permitted in the US - the special flatbed cars are currently not designed to FRA standards. Note that the mechanisms for turning the trailer trays are embedded in the transshipment terminals. If required, an entire train can be unloaded and re-loaded in less than 30 minutes.

Video of the Modalohr TOFC system

This is an excellent example of what I would call rapid freight, as opposed to both conventional heavy freight and high speed cargo. Thanks to horizontal loading, the system is compatible with regular height overhead catenaries. In California, the challenge would be to keep the axle loads under 17 metric tons to avoid damage to the expensive high-speed line, since FRA won't permit mixed traffic on legacy freight tracks. Perhaps a push-pull combination of locomotives might be possible. If so, a large number of trucks could be taken off highways in the East Bay, the Central Valley and in the LA basin, all areas where air quality and congestion are especially problematic.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hey Arnold

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

The governator has a rather hypocritical op-ed in Newsweek on the importance of infrastructure to economic stimulus and recovery. Here are some quick excerpts:

America has failed to invest in its infrastructure for the past 50 years, and the bill is coming due. The situation is reminiscent of the ancient Roman Empire, which grew strong because of its advanced aqueduct system, but which fell into decline when that feat of engineering tumbled into disrepair. We're in danger of repeating that history, but it's not too late to fix the problem if we take decisive action now....

None of this makes sense in America. It doesn't make sense that in the greatest country on Earth we still rely on trains that go the same speed as they did 100 years ago, so our shipping times and commutes are longer than other countries....

In 2008 alone in California, we've committed more than $10 billion dollars in infrastructure investment, which will create at least 200,000 jobs over the life of that investment. And when our state unemployment rate has broken 8 percent, that kind of investment has a profound effect.

That last bit is a reference to Proposition 1A and high speed rail, although it'd have been nice had Arnold actually said that openly. But that's a quibble compared to the hypocrisy of this article.

Why do I say hypocrisy? I fully agree with everything I just quoted. The problem is this is another example of our governor's penchant for greenwashing - go tell the national media how awesome you are but back at home, help destroy the state.

You see, despite Arnold's claims to be an infrastructure builder, he has instead helped create a state budget crisis so severe that earlier this week the Pooled Money Investment Board voted to halt ALL infrastructure projects in California - immediately. 200,000 workers face unemployment as early as January 1.

Arnold could have avoided this had he agreed to a Democratic budget plan sent to him by the Legislature yesterday. Instead he announced his intention to veto the solution and consign the state to another indefinite deficit.

The state's bond ratings are plummeting fast, but worse, without infrastructure projects in the works, it's going to be very difficult to attract federal matching funds in Obama's emerging stimulus package. If this budget mess - for which Arnold bears the primary responsibility right now - continues then it may become difficult for us to get HSR funds from Congress in 2009. It'll become all too easy for HSR deniers to argue we don't deserve or can't even use the matching funds.

Arnold's hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Trouble with LA Union Station (UPDATED)

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

One aspect of the HSR project that we have so far paid little attention to on this blog is how the new service will be integrated with the existing Los Angeles Union Station. This terminal station with its iconic waiting room was built on a spur off the main line along the Los Angeles river before the war and is today a multimodal hub served by Amtrak, Metrolink, two Metro subway lines, Metro Gold Line light rail and multiple buses, including the FlyAway to LAX.

Union Station waiting room:

View from street level:

Aerial view:

Note the ramp for two light rail run-through tracks under construction for the Metro Gold Line Eastside extension. Separately, FRA published the final EIR/EIS for four heavy rail run-through tracks back in 2005. These would veer east to join up with the BNSF main line along the west bank of the Los Angeles river. These tracks would primarily be used by Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and presuambly, modified Metrolink lines.

Rumor has it CHSRA plans to add a second level of tracks dedicated to HSR, stacked on top of the existing ones. H/t to Michael for this video edit:

This would have the advantage of linking HSR directly to growing network of local and regional transit services in the LA basin, east into the Inland Empire and south into Orange County and to San Diego. Unfortunately, it would also have severe disadvantages:

  1. The HSR level would itself be a terminus station without run-through tracks. Trains between San Francisco/Sacramento and Anaheim-Irvine/San Diego would have to reverse direction, as would trains between Anaheim-Irvine and San Diego.
  2. Diesel trains serving a covered grade level would create an air quality problem for passengers and staff. This will become less severe if and when Amtrak and Metrolink receive funds to switch to Tier 4 locomotives, but dirty legacy locomotives will probably remain in service through a long transition period. Significant forced ventilation may be needed mitigate the issue in the interim.
  3. Without an additional mezzanine level, pedestrian flow capacity could be severely restricted at the stub end. HSR trains can be 1320's feet (~400m) long and support over 1000 seats with bi-level cars.
  4. Construction of a second story capable of supporting multiple HSR trains weighing 400-600 metric tons each will cause significant disruption to passengers of the existing heavy rail services. Along with the ramp for the approach tracks, this will also be rather expensive.

It may therefore make sense to consider an alternative involving the construction of a new Alameda Station, located about half a mile north of Union Station. A large area there is currently being undeveloped being developed as a State Historical Park as it contains archeological artifacts (h/t to bafg).

In theory, it could support an at-grade station plus rail yard (e.g. for high-speed cargo trains at night) plus a number of transit-oriented commercial buildings. The new station would be linked to Union Station via the existing Metro Gold Line, supplemented by a new courtesy Metro Black Shuttle funded by a small surcharge on HSR tickets to and from Los Angeles. This would leverage the Gold Line tracks and Chinatown station but use new, private single-track stub spurs at either end. These stub tracks would have platforms to either side, one for level boarding and the other for level alighting, to facilitate rapid turnaround. The two drivers sitting in the cabs at either end would alternate to secure high service frequency. At peak times, two Black Shuttle trains would be in service, otherwise just one. Their schedule would have to be integrated with that of the Gold Line.

The following map shows the location of the HSR station with its 10 platforms tracks and access connectors. These would permit run-through service north-to-south, north-to-north and south-to-south. Also note that HSR tracks would have to cross legacy tracks in one location. This can be implemented at grade with appropriate signaling to ensure FRA-mandated time separation in mixed traffic situations.

UPDATE: an alternate location next to the Los Angeles river east of Union Station is now also indicated on the map. This would avoid the loss of the aforementioned State Historical Park. See also UPDATE 2 at the end of this post.

View Larger Map


  • blue = section of proposed HSR tracks for non-compliant bullet trains
  • red = section of legacy + run-through tracks for FRA-compliant trains
  • yellow = section Metro Gold Line + Eastside extension
  • black = proposed Metro Black Shuttle
  • pink = alternate station location, connection via unmanned people mover

To illustrate the concept, 10 HSR tracks are shown at the station. It would be possible implement fewer HSR tracks and add some run-through tracks and platforms for FRA-compliant trains (e.g. Amtrak Pacific Surfliner) instead. This option is not shown on the map. Neither is the option of transit-oriented office tower development north-east and south of the new station.

Prior to station construction, a section of N Alameda street would need to be moved underground. Along with N Spring, Sotello and N Main Streets, this would afford vehicle access to the main station hall located east of the tracks. This corner of the station footprint could itself be a high-rise with office suites or a business hotel/conference center on the upper floors. There is room for an adjoining bus terminal.

The mezzanine level above the tracks would provide generous pedestrian flow capacity, with multiple descents to each island and side platform plus paths to the Black Shuttle and Gold Line stations. Optionally, the mezzanine could house a shopping mall. If desired, one or more levels of for-fee public parking could be implemented on top of this, accessible from N Broadway via a flyover at the north end of the station.

The loss of the existing public park at what would become Alameda Station could be compensated by adding a green roof park to the structure, supported by recycled water. This could include bleacher structures for open-air concerts and/or al fresco restaurants. For reference, here's a picture of the "living roof" on top of the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco:

UPDATE 2: In response to comments from bafg and others regarding the State Historical Park, I've fleshed out the alternative of a new East Terminal for Union Station featuring ten run-through HSR tracks at grade, i.e. underneath E Ceasar E Chavez Ave next to the river. The HSR terminal would be connected to the main terminal via a short unmanned people mover running above street level. The new terminal has a mezzanine level, but only north of the people mover station. A green roof would still be useful in that it eliminates an air conditioning requirement.

Optionally, the Metro subway lines could be extended one stop to provide direct service to the new terminal.

Note that in this alternative, the diesel tracks have been relocated to near where the road begins to rise to bridge level. It may be necessary to create a slight dip for them to achieve adequate vertical clearance. Doing it this way minimizes the number of grade crossings between legacy and HSR tracks. The large building north-west of Keller Street need not be torn down.

View Larger Map

UPDATE 3: If CHSRA is forced to use the I-10 median for the Inland Empire/San Diego spur in phase II because UPRR refuses to offer its ROW, then the plan to build run-through tracks for HSR at the existing Union Station terminal would run into problems. A modified version of my original proposal that skirts the new State Historical Park would solve that. The northern approach tracks would run on an aerial structure above N Spring St, with a transparent sound wall to avoid impacting visitors to the park. The mezzanine at the station would then be at street level, the platforms above severely curved. I'm not entirely sure of the vertical configuration of the existing tracks in the "throat" into Union Station, but perhaps the ones for HSR could run above them to separate grades and avoid capacity constraints. Note that the Metrolink San Bernardino line already runs along in the I-10 median between the 716 Junction and El Monte. Also note that an HSR station in the I-10 median at Ontario airport would require an additional people mover to be of much use.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ray LaHood - HSR Denier?

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

Some troubling news out of Chicago where a relatively unknown Republican Congressman from Illinois, Ray LaHood, is slated to become Barack Obama's Secretary of Transportation.

LaHood doesn't appear to have much of a record as a transportation expert - at least when Bush crossed the aisle for Norman Y. Mineta he got someone who knew the issues well. But the troubling thing is that what LaHood has said about HSR isn't encouraging. From 2004:

LaHood dismisses Illinois Amtrak high-speed service

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R) said on July 15 he does not favor high-speed rail for Illinois.

"I think it’s a bad idea, mainly because we don’t have the money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois," LaHood said at the Statehouse.

Amtrak President David Gunn said earlier this week in Chicago that upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis corridor for faster passenger trains is a top priority for Amtrak. Planners want trains to be able to go 110 mph in the corridor, while the current top speed is 79 mph – but it would take nearly $200 million for the next phase of track and equipment upgrades.

LaHood said he considers Amtrak "the lifeblood transportation for small communities," and he knows many college students from Chicago’s suburbs use trains to travel to school, Copley News Service reported via The Lincoln Courier.

"On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is fabulous," LaHood added, "and after 9-11, it became the transportation of choice for a lot of people because they felt it was safer than flying.

"I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak," LaHood said.

He said, "I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running," to be talking about high-speed rail.

While funding is his main concern, he said, "People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail... They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that."

Obviously 2008 is different from 2004, and the "HSR vs. Amtrak local" dichotomy that LaHood set up in these 2004 comments may no longer apply (if it ever did). But this doesn't exactly inspire confidence in our new Secretary of Transportation, who ought to be someone who understands the ins and outs of transportation policy, particularly high speed rail.

Some may argue that Obama-Biden's strong support for HSR will force LaHood to change his views. But that's quite a risk to be taking with such an important position. Many transit advocates are either wary or skeptical of the choice with one commenter at Streetsblog writing:

Not to sound like a reactionary here, but given the pool of great candidates like Janette Sadik-Khan and Earl Blumenauer, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

Blumenauer had taken his name out of the running and endorsed Mortimer Downey. The Bay Area's own Steve Heminger was high on the list too, with support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Other names like Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, had also been floated.

There are rumors that Rahm Emanuel had a big role to play in suggesting LaHood, who may be a purely political appointment to satisfy Obama's desire to have some Republicans in the Administration. If so this was a particularly bad place to put one, especially if LaHood doesn't have the expertise to fill this vital role effectively.

We need the DOT's help big time to get HSR off the ground - from FRA exemptions to disbursements of money; the Kerry HSR bill sets up an Office of High Speed Rail within the DOT. We need someone heading that department who knows what they're doing and who fully supports high speed rail. I am concerned Ray LaHood is not that person.

Something for the confirmation hearings, I guess...

The Central Valley Test Track, Part 2

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

In part 1, we discussed why CHSRA needs to construct a high speed test track early on in the project. Here, I'll propose one way how this might be accomplished.

The primary objective for the test track is to achieve speeds of 220mph for extended periods of time. Given that HSR can and will only run that fast in the Central Valley, that's where the track will need to be. In addition, the segment will have to be used in regular commercial service once HSR operation begin, because it would be far too expensive and anyhow not necessary (h/t to commenter thik) to construct and maintain a dedicated facility.

CHSRA appears to have decided that the central maintenance facility will be located in Merced County, quite possibly at Castle airport (formerly Castle AFB of the SAC) in Atwater. The airport is currently only used for general aviation, but its single long runway would be ideal for heavy air lift and air cargo services. Given the low population density of the area, it would be suitable for 24/7 operations. With the addition of a small passenger terminal featuring an HSR station inside the building, it could also support trans- and intercontinental passenger flights using the largest available jets (747, A380). In that sense, Castle airport could serve not just the Central Valley but - eventually (h/t to Robert Cruickshank) - perhaps also San Benito, Monterey plus Santa Cruz counties and, as a relief airport for the San Francisco Bay Area. Capacity at SFO is often constrained by dense fog.

The first part of my proposal is therefore to use Castle airport as the northern end of the test track.

View Larger Map


  • dark blue = current UPRR ROW
  • light blue = current BNSF ROW
  • yellow = proposed HSR test track alignment

Given that BNSF already hosts Amtrak San Joaquin trains, it may also offer to share its remaining ROW with HSR. Since UPRR has not, it makes sense to consider an alignment based mostly on BNSF's ROW. CHSRA had anyhow planned to use that south of Fresno, mostly because it affords easier access to the existing Amtrak station at Truxton Ave in Bakersfield. However, CHSRA had wanted to use the UPRR ROW in and north of Fresno because it affords access to the downtown areas of Fresno, Merced and Modesto. In and north of Stockton, UPRR is anyhow the only option. Since BNSF's ROW crosses UPRR's at a right angle in south Stockton, HSR would have to cut over further south, e.g. between Escalon and French Camp.

Merced County would probably be fine with having its station at Castle airport instead of downtown Merced, since it lobbied hard for just that solution. For Modesto, the current Amtrak station at E. Briggsmore lies at the the eastern edge of town. If UPRR is willing, it would be possible to cut over e.g. between the Stanislaus river and Modesto airport. Of course, all of these alignment changes would have to be reflected in the project-level EIR/EIS for the Sacramento spur, but construction on that won't start until the early 2020s.

Other advantages of using the BNSF ROW are that
(a) Amtrak can serve as an HSR feeder without a route change and,
(b) many towns that will not have an HSR or even Amtrak station will not be subjected to a lot of additional traffic through their downtown areas, possibly even high speed cargo operations at night. In Spain, AVE construction was complicated by small towns that desperately wanted to have stations on the high speed line between Madrid and Barcelona. Be careful what you wish for!

As the southern endpoint of the test track, I'd suggest Bakersfield. This will permit limited commercial HSR operations in the Central Valley to begin well before the entire starter line is completed. It also provides enough distance to conduct meaningful testing.

The fly in the ointment is that this means tackling the mess in Fresno early and head-on. Alan Kandel over at the California Progress Report has chronicled this saga in detail (though he has yet to discover Google Maps). The BNSF alignment in Fresno runs right through miles and miles of residential neighborhoods, at grade. Dozens of daily mile-long freight trains cause pollution, noise, vibration and especially, endless delays at the many grade crossings. The city has been trying to kick out BNSF for 90 (!) years, to no avail.

UPRR, for its part, appears quite happy to host the local San Joaquin Valley Railroad (SJVR, now a division of Rail America) and watch its primary competitor BNSF stuck with a PR nightmare. The company has resisted attempts to create a grade-separated joint freight corridor - conceptually similar to the Alameda corridor in LA - along its ROW, which runs next to hwy 99. Besides, Fresno has never had the money to implement all those grade separations and, FRA does not require them for alignment sections rated at less than 125mph - which means everything except the NEC. Its most recent "action plan" on grade crossings dates back to 2004 and suggests the agency spends most of its time writing reports and then mulling it all over some more.

Enter high speed rail, which Congressman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) has worked so hard for. All politics is local, after all...

A number of alternative solutions have been proposed, the one Alan Kandel prefers is called the Metro Rural Loop, subject of a recent regional planning workshop. It's still at the conceptual stage, calling for an enormous ring of bypass freeways around Fresno, stretching north to hwy 152 (Los Banos-Chowchilla) and south to hwy 198 (Hanford-Visalia-Exeter), perhaps even hwy 190 (Corcoran-Porterville).

Much of the area in-between would be gradually filled in with residential developments through 2110, by which time these four counties expect to be home to around 6.5-12 million people (baseline 7.7 million). Side note: it's not entirely clear to me where their drinking water would come from, unless agriculture in this parched section of California were to cease almost entirely.

Each of these bypass highways would consist of (see pp84 of this 8.2MB PDF document):

- 4 HOV, 6 mixed traffic and two emergency lanes (total 12 lanes)
- a two-lane frontage road to either side (total 4 lanes)
- two tracks of light rail, with zero room for express bypass tracks
- one multi-use path (i.e. bikes + pedestrians)
- eight rows of trees

Total width 400-450 feet. Some of the light rail lines would be over 50 miles long.

Grade separated major cross roads would feature:

- four mixed traffic lanes
- two BRT lanes
- two rows of trees

While I'm all for trees and transit, it seems to me the planners are steeped in asphalt lore and more than a little optimistic regarding the amount of gasoline and diesel that will still be available in 2110. Page 19 shows HSR scribbled in as a mere afterthought, several miles west of Fresno.

Transit oriented development - you're doing it wrong!

A slightly less grandiose - but still quite ambitious - alternative would be to focus just on the heavy rail alignments as a first step, since history suggests those are by far the hardest to move. CHSRA has decided - rightly, in my view - that high speed rail stations should be located in the downtown areas of major population centers. In the Central Valley, that means towns with 100,000 or more inhabitants that are expected to grow rapidly in the next few decades. Fresno surely qualifies.

The apparently simplest approach would be to leverage only the BNSF ROW and fully grade separate that. There are 26 road crossings, 23 of them currently at grade. The Fresno Amtrak station at Tulare and Q St. is located at the north-east end of the downtown area and would be an acceptable location for an HSR station. However, the alignment features a number of sharpish turns, which could well prevent operation at 220mph. Besides, even with full separation of the existing grade crossings, there would still be dozens of heavy freight trains running through residential neighborhoods every day, in addition to dozens of HSR and a handful of Amtrak passenger trains.

A more comprehensive, but also substantially more expensive concept has been suggested by Larry Miller in his recent op-ed in the Fresno Bee. What that might look like in practice is shown in this map:

View Larger Map


  • dark blue = current UPRR ROW/rail yard
  • light blue = current BNSF ROW/rail yard
  • green = current SJVR lines
  • purple = proposed Western Freight Corridor (WFC)
  • yellow = proposed HSR alignment (elevated for grade separation where appropriate)
  • black = proposed passenger heavy rail (Amtrak/regional), available for freight only if WFC unavailable due to accident etc.
  • brown = optional light rail alignments

The concept calls for the construction of a Western Freight Corridor (WFC) along a brand-new ROW through prime farmland west and south of Fresno, with access connectors for UPRR, BNSF and SJVR. It also calls for two new rail yards to compensate for the loss of access to the existing ones. The exact location of the corridor alignment and its rail yards would of course be subject to negotations, this map is just supposed to illustrate the basic concept.

This means no heavy freight trains would run through the city at all any longer. Optionally, a bypass freeway could be constructed just west of the WFC. That decision would need to be made early, as it would impact rail grade separation projects at the intersections with hwy 99 and rural access roads. A total of around 70 freight trains run through Fresno every day right now and, this number is expected to grow. During harvest time, slow road traffic would significantly impede freight trains, therefore the WFC should be largely grade separated before the tracks are even laid. It's much cheaper to do when there are no trains running yet.

The straight UPRR ROW within the city would be used for the following:

(1) HSR service, possibly including high speed cargo transshipment at the current BNSF yard in Calwa (south of downtown).

(2) Amtrak San Joaquin using FRA-compliant rolling stock. Note the option of additional county-level service between Firebaugh, Ingle, Pratton, Sanger, Reedley and Dinuba if planners decide to create new transit-oriented developments along part or all of this rural corridor. Heavy freight traffic would be permitted in downtown Fresno if and only if the new WFC were to become temporarily unavailable, e.g. as a result of an accident.

(3) optionally, light rail service using the current UPRR yard at N Weber Ave. The starter line would double back to the BNSF alignment via an existing ROW south of downtown and actually serve existing residential communities all the way out the Gregg, where the connection to the heavy rail tracks would be severed. A spur loop out to the airport terminal would be more difficult because the required ROW has been abandoned for so long. Also shown are optional extensions to Riverbend, Clovis (via the hwy 168 median) and Pinedale (via the hwy 41 median). Between them, these would vastly improve transit within the sprawling city and permit future growth via new transit-oriented developments arranged as a string of pearls.

However, the UPRR ROW is only 100 feet wide, enough for four tracks. Therefore, I'd suggest running HSR on an aerial structure directly above the at-grade tracks for the other services. That means there would still be grade crossings for these, but their gates would only be closed briefly, since passenger trains are short. In addition, they would be upgraded to meet FRA quiet zone regulations.

The new Fresno Central Station would be located near Tulare Street and feature the following:

  • 3 underground passages:

    • wide stairwells to at-grade platforms from outer passages
    • narrow stairwells plus elevator to island platform from middle passage
    • high-capacity elevators to side platforms (both levels) from middle passage

  • at grade:

    • station building
    • bicycle path + storage racks
    • 2 heavy rail tracks (west side)
    • room for 2 light rail tracks (east side)
    • side platforms plus shared central island platform. Level boarding for all trains would be preferable.

  • elevated:

    • 2 express HSR tracks through the center
    • 2 HSR side tracks with wide level boarding platforms (1320' long),
    • each with 2 stairwells to grade level at ends, plus
    • 2 stairwells to ends of grade level side platforms and on to the outer underground passages
    • optionally, 2 additional side tracks. In that case, the side platforms would become island platforms.

All told, the required width at the station only will be around 150-200 feet. Note that HSR trains that need to stop at the station must not impede express trains as they slow down or come up to speed, so it may be necessary to run four tracks of HSR for as much as a couple of miles to either side of the station. The switches will have to be especially long to support safe transfers between adjacent tracks at what will still be high speeds. Failure to pay attention to this could result in increased headways, i.e. reduced capacity, of the line.

In terms of phasing,

  • Step 1 would be persuading the city of Fresno, the four county-area and CHSRA that this concept is worth pursuing at all.
  • Step 2 would be convincing the railroads - especially UPRR - to also agree in principle.
  • Step 3 would be finding the money to fund construction of the WFC, likely to be a major sticking point. CHSRA certainly cannot afford to fund it by itself, nor should it.
  • Step 4 would be constructing the WFC including grade separations, new rail yards and access connectors (including the turnoff for heavy passenger rail near Herndon).
  • Step 5 would be migrating all freight rail operations out of Fresno.
  • Step 6 would involve construction of

    • any underpasses Fresno wants for the UPRR ROW
    • quiet zone grade crossings for the remaining cross roads
    • gantries and tracks for HSR
    • the new multi-modal station, prepped for light rail service

  • Step 7 would involve

    • migrating Amtrak San Joaquin to the new alignment
    • commencing HSR test runs (assuming the rest of the test track is completed by this time)

  • Step 8 would be the concurrent

    • introduction of county-level heavy passenger rail services, if any
    • construction of the light rail starter line
    • remodeling of the two legacy rail yards. Air rights to at least the UPRR yard could be sold to developers of high-rise office buildings.

  • Step 9 would be optional extensions to the light rail network in Fresno and the county-level heavy rail service.

See, I told you it was ambitious! Btw, the length of the test track as proposed here would be around 176 miles.

UPDATE by Robert: There is a meeting happening right now in Fresno about this topic. It's at the Central Valley Business Incubator, 1630 E. Shaw Ave, #163 next to the Old Spaghetti Factory by Fresno State.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

They're STILL Trying to Kill HSR

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

Back during the campaign the Media News Group were among the most die-hard HSR deniers. Their editorials were usually full of misinformation but that didn't stop them from crusading against a badly needed piece of 21st century infrastructure.

So it comes as no surprise that they're still trying to kill high speed rail, Prop 1A's passage be damned, as seen in Monday's editorial. And as usual they're not above lying to make their case.

California's high-speed rail boondoggle is a case in point. True, voters did back a $9.95 billion bond measure to provide seed money for the $44 billion project. But there is no good reason for the federal government to toss in more money for a highly flawed adventure.

There is no real business plan for the rail system. There are no realistic estimates of ridership, operating costs, capital outlays or total financing.

No business plan?! The new business plan has been available for weeks, including the voluminous source documentation. It includes ridership estimates, operating costs, and financing estimates. But hey, what are a few facts when you have some lies to tell your readers?

We suspect that there is no accurate estimate of the total cost of the rail system. If it is like other big state construction projects, the cost could be way higher than the current $44 billion estimate.

What "other big state construction projects" are these? Of course the editorial doesn't name them, because facts just get in the way - inconvenient truths don't make for good attacks on rail, I guess.

The real motivation for the editorial is to try and deny HSR any federal stimulus money, or any federal money at all:

Perhaps the board is beginning to understand that private investment in a project with no business plan or chance of turning a profit is not likely anytime soon. So why not get in line for a chunk of stimulus money?

Let's hope those handing out tens of billions of dollars of federal taxpayer funds have more common sense than supporters of the high-speed rail system.

California could use stimulus funds in the form of public works financing. But there are other far more worthy projects, such as the BART extension to Santa Clara County.

Private investors remain interested but we must be realistic - the financial and credit crisis is crippling ALL investment activity across the economy no matter what the project, so an increased level of federal support is now necessary. That crisis isn't going to last forever and when it eases high speed rail will be one of the most attractive investments in the country, ensuring long-term returns while providing economic growth through sustainable mass transit.

Media News Group would like to pit HSR and BART against each other but they work best in concert - what better way to ensure high ridership on the San José extension than to have BART meet the HSR line at Diridon Station, ensuring that East Bay travelers have the best possible connection to the HSR line and the rest of the state (short of having an actual HSR route themselves, of course)?

This editorial, for all its misinformation, is a good reminder that we will have to work hard in 2009 to ensure that we get our federal funding. HSR deniers may still be casting about for ways to stay relevant but I can assure that before long, they'll have their sights firmly fixed on Congress.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Central Valley Test Track, Part 1

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

By now, you may have read that near the top of CHSRA's priority list is the construction of a long section of sufficiently straight, flat track in the Central Valley, e.g. between Merced and Bakersfield. The central maintenance facility for the trainsets will likely be sited at or near Castle Airport in Merced county.

Today's post discusses why this is at least as important as the SF-SJ and LA-Anaheim segments. Part 2 will address the complicated issue of securing a suitable HSR alignment through downtown Fresno, given that the test track will later be used for commercial operations.

There are two reasons why a test track is needed early on in the project:

First, FRA has not yet written any rules regarding the safe operation of trains at 220mph in the context of the US rail environment. In particular, CHSRA will seek a "Rule of Special Applicability", in essence a new set of rules that will initially only apply to CHSRA and its network. FRA had begun similar work for the Florida HSR system but shelved it when that effort was abandoned. Whatever rules it writes now will create a legal precedent for other HSR systems. That is precisely why the new Kerry-Specter bill calls for a new Office of High Speed Rail to be established within FRA, which has traditionally favored the interests of private rail freight operators over those of public passenger rail services.

For the most part, FRA will leverage the deep experience of foreign HSR vendors and operators for rules on track and catenary construction, track geometry tolerances and creep documentation, signaling, infrastructure and trainset maintenance intervals, procedures, documentation standards etc. Special attention will need to be paid to environmental impacts such as noise - especially for nighttime cargo operations - and, to all aspects of safety. This includes signaling to avoid train-on-train collisions and track surveillance to detect people, livestock and/or wildlife that have wandered onto the tracks. It also includes the dynamic stability of trains and overhead catenary systems in normal operation as well as exceptional circumstances such as freak weather conditions, earthquakes etc.

Detecting and responding to changes in track geometry due to minor seismic activity is another important aspect: special trackbed construction may be required where the alignment crosses slip-strike faults. Japan has decades of experience with high speed rail operations in earthquake country, including how to recover from service disruptions as quickly as possible. Only one bullet train has ever derailed during an earthquake, in Niigata prefecture in 2004. There were no casualties, but it took about four weeks to resume basic service.

One politically sensitive issue is that HSR trains will share track with Caltrain in at least the DTX tunnel in downtown San Francisco and possibly, other short sections as well. CHSRA also plans to share track with Metrolink and freight trains from/to San Diego between Fullerton and Anaheim ARTIC and eventually, out to at least Irvine. Since at least some of these trains in both segments will use FRA-compliant rolling stock and, CHSRA wants to use non-compliant but proven European or Asian trainsets, it is vitally important to the success of the entire HSR venture that FRA create rules that permit mixed traffic subject to conditions yet to be defined. The powerful rail freight companies will vigorously lobby Congress to prevent any rule changes that would force them to invest and then maintain expensive upgrades to their infrastructure and/or locomotives.

Related to that and to HR 2095 is the requirement to establish national standards for interoperable positive train control (PTC) systems. European railroads and their vendors have spent the last decade developing ETCS (Electronic Train Control System) in the context of ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System). A number of other countries including China, India and Mexico have decided to adopt the European system rather than develop their own. Japan had already developed functionally similar but incompatible systems. US efforts related to PTC technology centered on differential GPS, which neither of these foreign concepts rely on. Complicating the issue is that wireless data communications use different protocols in each geography, with multiple incompatible systems and incomplete coverage in the US. Add to that the inevitable homeland security concerns about relying on foreign-built systems in general and phreakers (phone hackers) in particular and, you can see why FRA rulemaking won't be easy.

ERTMS level 1 is an overlay system that relies exclusively on electronic trackside devices called balises that automatically force a train to brake hard if it has not been given authority to pass them. The problem is that this infrastructure is expensive to construct and maintain because it still requires trackside signals and a lot of buried cabling.

ERTMS level 2 relies on GSM-R wireless communications to eliminate much of this cost. There are still balises, but they are "dumbed down" to just broadcasting fixed messages. This level is generally considered essential for safe operations at 350km/h (~220mph) because drivers can no longer reliably read trackside signals at that speed. There have been a lot of teething troubles related to getting the wireless components to work reliably enough, one reason why tracks and trainsets already capable of supporting that speed are not yet operated at it. For good reason, railroad engineers always err on the side of caution.

Second, CHSRA needs to conduct technical pre-qualification of vendor products. In addition to verifying claims that trainsets actually can run safely at 220mph in commercial operation, regardless of weather, the authority will need to look at interoperability with products from other vendors. After all, the objective is to put operations of both the infrastructure and the trains out to tender. Preferably, that means multiple competing train operators - possibly including some airlines - who will either buy their own trainsets and time slots at the central maintenance facility.

Attracting this private investment will be much easier if there are multiple vendors to choose from. Indeed, CHSRA may well require all vendors who want to make it onto the shortlist to invest in kind, e.g. by making their premium offerings available on term leases.

In no particular order, here's a round-up of the trainsets already capable of 350km/h or better in commercial service on suitable tracks with suitable signaling:

  • Alstom AGV, the successor to the TGV. Per unit of length, this design is actually lighter than conventional light rail (~1400 lbs/ft). The first customer will be NTV in Italy.

  • FS ETR500 Frecciarossa. The latest generation of this Italian design is capable of 350km/h (217mph) but operations will be limited to 300km/h (187mph) until the kinks have been ironed out of ERTMS level 2.

  • Siemens Velaro E, an uprated version of DB's ICE3. In service in Spain and China.

  • Talgo 350, a lightweight design based on traditional push-pull tractor cars. The ungainly nose supposedly reduces noise and sway in heavy crosswinds.

  • Kawasaki/Hitachi 700T, in service in Taiwan.

  • JR East's flagship Fastech 360S was supposed to be a drop-in replacement for the ageing E2 fleet that is limited to 275km/h (~170mph). Electric trains normally rely on electric recuperation to decelerate, but headways (minimum separation of trains) are determined by emergency brake distances when this facility is unavailable. As top speeds increase, manufacturers have to resort to increasingly exotic and highly proprietary technologies to maximize line capacity for their customers. JR East already operates its shinkansen lines near capacity, so headways had to be maintained. This video shows one nose style on the development platform and the emergency air brakes, which instantly earned the design the nickname "nekomimi shinkansen" ("cat-eared bullet train").

    In addition, very strict noise level regulations had to be met, in spite of a speed increase to 360km/h (~220mph). Neither goal was quite achieved, so these trains will operate at 320km/h (~200mph) instead. Note that all modern Japanese shinkansen designs feature active tilt mechanisms because the lines were built decades ago for lower speeds. A California version would run on tracks designed for safe operation at 220mph without recourse to tilt technology.

    Correction: JR East will actually bring the E5 series into commercial service at 320 km/h. This is based on technology developed with the purely experimental Fastech 360 trains (h/t to anon @ 9:13pm).

  • Kawasaki is working on a new design capable of 350km/h with the code name efSET.

  • KRRI/Rotem HSR-350X, an experimental design developed exclusively in Korea. The KTX series is separate and derived from Alstom TGV platforms.

Finally, here is a peek inside an SNCF maintenance facility. Note that Alstom and Talgo designs feature Jacobs trucks located-in between cars. This is part of an articulated frame concept that permits shorter but wider cars. It also helps keep cars from toppling over or jackknifing in the event of a high-speed derailment, greatly reducing the risk of death or serious injury for anyone on board. The flip side is that the entire trainset must to be lifted if a single wheel or truck must be repaired or replaced.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Global HSR News

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

Some interesting stories for a lazy Sunday afternoon:

  • Basque separatist extremists are targeting high speed rail, including killing a businessman working on the project, as part of a response to aggressive efforts by the Spanish government to break ETA. According to the Guardian article ETA and other Basque separatist groups claim that the "Basque Y" is going to destroy the environment and screws over rural Basques whose land is being taken for the project. What that article doesn't say clearly is that many in ETA and among their supporters are concerned that the Basque Y, once completed and linked to Madrid, will further solidify the region's connection to the rest of Spain and undermine what remains of the Basques' separateness. The determination of the Spanish government to go ahead with the project despite some local opposition then gets used by ETA to rally public support which has been declining significantly in recent years. Hopefully the project will go ahead as planned.

  • On a more positive note the "Red Arrow" Milan-Bologna HSR line opened yesterday, and DoDo at the European Tribune has a great overview not just of the service but of the history of Italian high speed rail, which is lesser known than its other European counterparts despite Italy having a longer history and having provided true HSR service ahead of even France's TGV (I'm as guilty here as anyone in not giving Italy its HSR props). DoDo also describes the future development of Italian HSR, its connections to Europe, and Ferrari's entrance into the HSR industry.

  • Frequent commenter BruceMcF has the third installment of his electric rapid rail series up at Daily Kos, this one focusing on electrification of STRACNET for freight and passengers.