Friday, May 16, 2008

Ride the HSR Route...Online

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

Although we often get into rather meaty (and therefore good) discussions about the various aspects of the high speed rail project here, it's worth remembering the need to make a...shall we say...more concise and direct appeal to voters. To that end the California High Speed Rail Authority has completely redesigned its website. I happened to like the previous site, which emphasized easy delivery of government information - reports, the Implementation Plan, etc. The new site is much more oriented toward educating the public about high speed rail - it's pretty much laid out like a campaign site. It's a necessary move for the CHSRA given the onset of the 2008 campaign season.

One of the new features of the site is grabbing a lot of attention around the blogosphere, and was even mentioned on the KQED Forum show this week by Erik Nelson - an interactive video journey along the proposed route, based on the videos prepared for the CHSRA by Newlands & Company. It's a neat feature, allowing you to pick an origin and a destination station, from which the site will then display the videos of locations along the route. It also provides information about travel time, carbon emissions saved, and likely fare, compared against the cost of flying and driving between the areas. Considering that the actual cost of both flying and driving is likely to be significantly higher in ten years, the cost estimates for those transportation modes are likely an understatement.

This has some kinks to work out - the cost comparison information isn't provided for all journeys - but it's an attention-grabbing way to make the benefits of HSR more real to Californians, many of whom have never even taken a trip on a train in their lives.

What are your thoughts?


Rafael said...

It's more than a little risky to put dollar figures out there. For one thing, there's always the question of what year those figures refer to. The general public will assume it is 2008.

However, Quentin Kopp asserted twice on KQED Forum that the reference year is 2020. The ridership study commissioned by CHSRA in 2005 says it's 2005. What's the difference? Well, at 3% constant inflation, an item that costs $1 in 2008 will cost $2 in 2020.

The second problem is that setting such a firm price expectation when actual construction costs are still unknown could put off the private investors needed to make the financing work.

This is why all prices should come with an asterisk hyperlinked to a disclaimer page. This should state the reference year and explain the assumptions regarding construction cost and time, growth in population and transportation demand, the cost of alternative modes, profit expectations and ridership forecasts.

Rafael said...

Another beef I have is with the Google Earth version of the chosen route, which is still accessible via a hyperlink at the bottom of the new route page of the CHSRA site. It details how the alignment will be implemented in each section. Presumably, this preliminary engineering work drove the $30 billion estimate for the SF-LA trunk line, which has been quietly extended to Anaheim since Curt Pringle joined the board.

However, there are no verbal explanations and no cross-section sketches of what the engineering terms used actually mean. The average voter will know what "Aerial" and "Tunnel" refer to, but what exactly is the difference between "Cut and Fill", "Trench", "Embankment" and "At Grade", both during and after construction?

For example, between San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos and San Francisco, basically only a tiny section in Redwood City is marked "At Grade". Most of the rest is "Embankment", with extensive "Cut and Fill", some aerial sections and significant tunneling in both San Jose and San Francisco. That alone amounts to over 100 miles of continuous earthworks and rebar!

Is that really cheaper than leaving the tracks at grade, adding noise abatement walls and a reasonable number of over- and underpasses for the region's roads? I'm sure CHSRA's engineering consultants did not make their decisions arbitrarily, but far too little has been published to understand the process by which the implementation map came about.

How do these plans impact Caltrain, which is implementing an expensive electrification project for its at-grade tracks to be completed by 2014?

How do they impact existing over- and underpasses? Have planning officials representing the communities along the route signed off - at least in principle - on the construction strategy the CHSRA is basing its cost estimates on? Engineering change orders down the road would almost certainly lead to cost overruns and possibly, to delays.

Much the same questions apply between Sylmar and Anaheim, in downtown Fresno etc. At this point, it's not even been confirmed that the trunk line has to be completed and operational before construction on the other parts of the system - including the "HSR overlay" under consideration - can even begin.

The question the CHSRA must answer unequivocally is this: if voters approve the $9.95 billion bond measure, what exactly will it be spent on?

Anonymous said...

It is my understanding that anywhere that requires 4 or more tracks, at grade is illegal under the Federal rules.

I understand that the whole corridor between San Jose and San Francisco is along CalTrain right-away and therefore must be above or below grade since a minimum of 4 tracks will be present in all locations.

CalTrain dearly wants to electrify, but they don't have the funds. The major reason why HSR using the CalTrain corridor is because HSR will be paying for the use of this corridor and will electrify the CalTrain system, as well as it own.

We are talking $600,000,000 by CalTrain estimates to electrify; almost certainly this is a 1 billion dollar project.

CalTrain is under constant deficit problems. Their own website, in spite of glorious recent increases in ridership, still predicts out into the future deficits.

Under their accounting rules they use, the electricity they use will will cost much less then the diesel fuel currently needed to power the train. That's all fine and dandy, but under full cost accounting, that is, including the cost for the electrification their deficit would be much larger. So goes the world of finance in the rail world.

Rafael said...

@johnny -

do you have a reference to that rule? If it exists at all, I could imagine it applies only to at-grade alignments with level crossings, which would not be the case here.

Rafael said...

@ johnny -

btw, what does your vaunted full cost accounting say about airlines and freeways? It's easy to make rail look bad if you measure with different yardsticks.

ian said...

As backup to Rafael's question regarding 4 or more tracks at grade, it's worth noting that the two areas where Caltrain is quadruple-tracked (in Brisbane south of Bayshore station, and either side of Lawrence station in Sunnyvale), all tracks are at the grade of the local landscape. They aren't crossed at grade by any roads, of course.

Anonymous said...

I must apologize if my understanding on the issue of required grade separation for the project is erroneous.

This blog seems to have some very informed people participating, maybe some even associated with CHSRA.

Maybe one of them can lend clarity to the issue. At this moment I cannot find the Federal regulation that would required grade separation for any 4 track or more system, but I'll keep looking.

Brandon in California said...

I think the topic about requiring grade separations is moot; the HSR plan is to be fully grade separated.

Concerning Catrains electrification efforts... if they are the lead on the project we can assume they will make the improvements with the long-term vision of the CHSRA project in mind.

And, I have strong doubts a rail operator, like Caltrain, would be required to grade separate their own right-of-way for any of their projects.... unless they were introducing a new/higher train speed surpassing some legislatve threshold.

However, the State PUC (or maybe Caltrans now) could require a local jurisdiction to grade separate a newly considered roadway at RR right-of-ways... and based on any of a number of criteria. Number of existing tracks could be a consideration. I would think auto, ped & train volume would be other considerations. Accident history?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for confirming that HSR will be fully grade separated; that was my understanding. I had been told it was a Federal requirement, which I cannot confirm at this time.

CalTrain simply does not have the funds for electrification. They are depending on HSR approval to get this implemented. CalTrain wants full grade separations at all crossings, but again no funds. There is a huge development project in San Mateo, the EIR of which called for grade separations at two points. There simply are not funds for these crossings. I think after reading about that project, this is where I find confirmation of costs ofat least $100 million per grade crossing are derived.

Brandon in California said...

Yes, I don't think the CHSRA considered anything but separated ROW. It could very well have been b/c of FRA requirements. It also makes sense given speeds and frequency of trains and so forth.

The San Diego area is looking at several grade separation projects. Each is large, but not nearly as expensive as $100million.

Taylor Street in Old Town... is estimated to be around $70 million for a 4-5 lane underpass (under freight, LRT, and future HSR).

And 2 in Chula Vista (E & H Streets)... each around $30m to $35m.

There is not enough local money for either of these... and the local MPO (SNADAG) is applying to the State for some 1B funds to do these. But, there is only $250million available for grade separations statewide.

Rafael said...

@johnny -

here's the FRA rule that specifies grade separation for high speed rail.

Anonymous said...

Regarding grade crossing costs, from a document regarding crossings in San Mateo, the costs are given for three locations. These crossings are for two tracks with expansion to four tracks, which would be needed for HSR.

At 25th street 80-175 millions
At 28th street 65-170 millions
At 31st street 120-270 millions

The very large spread reflects different methods like moving the tracks or moving the roads etc.

In any case grade separations are going to cost around 100 million each. Its a major part of construction costs, along with station construction and electrification.

CHSRA simply is not disclosing true costs, which historically has been the case with all agencies doing large infra-structure projects and in spite of what Judge Kopp says on the radio.

Robert even acknowledges that the cost estimates may be low. If the project is really going to cost 100 billion rather than 45 billion, should the project still be built?

Finally if the cost is 100 billion remember the total cost with interest is 200 billion or more when calculated to reflect interest costs. Is there a cost that is too great?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Do you have evidence that CHSRA is hiding true costs, johnny? Or is that just an assumption you made? If you're going to make charges like that it is incumbent upon you to provide some evidence - otherwise there's no need to take your claims seriously.

As to the true cost, I never said the cost estimates may be low. Instead I said I would not be surprised if the final bill was above $40 billion, but that is because of global inflation in the cost of construction materials and the declining value of the US Dollar. If you're going to refer to my arguments you can at least get those arguments right.

Just because it could go above $40 billion doesn't mean it will hit $100 billion either - that's the typical "oh my god" figure that HSR opponents love to cite even though it is HIGHLY unlikely any overruns would rise above a couple billion. Even if it did you still have to weigh this against the costs of doing nothing - costs that are rising every day and by a larger margin.

Further, it's not the case that all major infrastructure projects run over budget. The 10-mile Seattle light rail line, which includes some major tunnelling work, is going to open next year under budget. It is possible to build on-budget.

As far as I can tell, HSR's critics in this thread are relying on nothing more than speculation. It's not exactly a compelling argument.

Rafael said...

Most cost overruns are due to engineering change orders during construction. These are typically due to the customer changing his mind about what he wants, i.e. lack of project discipline.

Case in point: BART extension to SFO.

Anonymous said...

some of the prices on the route interactive have got to be low-end estimates. For example, the current listed cost from SJ to SF is $10...that's only $2.50 more than Caltrain costs for the same route (literally, since they'd share tracks!)
this cannot be correct, right?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Just testing to make sure the comments are working...