Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Solving "Chronic Air Troubles" with High Speed Rail

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

In today's Newsday Bruce Reed and Paul Weinstein, two Democratic policymakers, called for high speed rail as a solution to worsening problems with air travel:

While the laws of supply and demand will undoubtedly correct some of the problems the airline industry faces, the future for air travelers is not so bright. Most economists agree that airline mergers, fewer flights, and new, more fuel-efficient planes will eventually help put the industry on stronger financial ground.

Unfortunately, these very measures will also mean higher prices, less choice, and fewer amenities for passengers. In the short term, passengers have two choices: fly less or pay more for an inferior service. But if the United States is serious about fixing the air-travel mess, there's a real, long-term solution: high-speed rail.

Which is pretty much the point I've been making these last two months - air travel is in serious, long-term, fundamental trouble. If we are to be able to afford to travel around our state, HSR is a necessary solution.

Bruce Reed is the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the right-leaning group that rose to prominence with Bill Clinton. For Reed to throw his support to high speed rail is a significant shift - the DLC is usually slow to embrace forward-thinking solutions like this, and while the DLC's influence isn't what it was, it doesn't help to have them on our side. If they can help HSR become conventional wisdom, I'll take it.

In any case, Reed and Weinstein propose a massive national investment in HSR:

Today, however, with the cost of energy skyrocketing, and our air-travel system reaching its limits, demand for rail is outpacing supply.

That's why the next president and the new Congress should commit to building five new high-speed rail corridors in the next 10 years. The corridors would be selected based on three key criteria: geography (the flatter the terrain, the faster the train); a high probability of use (densely populated corridors with significant levels of highway and airborne traffic); and a commitment by the private sector, states and localities to share in the cost of construction. Wherever possible, the high-speed rail corridors should connect to major air hubs.

This dovetails very well with what California is planning. We have the geography - aside from two mountain passes it's flat, we have the solid ridership projections, and the shared construction costs. So how do Reed and Weinstein propose paying for the federal share?

Roads and airports have direct sources of financing - namely, taxes on gasoline and ticket purchases. If high-speed rail is going to become a reality, it will need a similarly robust stream of income. That's why policymakers should establish a trust fund that would finance construction and maintenance. We could pay for this investment in a number of ways: carbon-offset purchases; a 4.3-cent diesel gas tax on the railroad industry that would raise about $200 million a year; ticket surcharges; and/or matching contributions from states served by the new rail lines.

I am less convinced by this. Reed and Weinstein are absolutely right that we "need a similarly robust stream of income" - so why did they propose something that isn't? Taxing railroad diesel?! That makes little sense. I doubt there would be much money gained, and it would probably have a damaging effect on the non-HSR rail infrastructure, most of which is still in private hands. Here Reed's DLC colors come out - as a group originally dedicated to getting Democrats to adopt Reaganesque economic policy, they still can't bring themselves to say the words "consumer gas tax" or "carbon tax" or anything truly robust. HSR isn't a Reaganesque policy, it's very much the opposite - so you can't finance it with 1980s-style solutions.

Still, I give them credit for moving the discussion from the "should we or shouldn't we?" phase - we answered that question already and clearly in the affirmative - to the "how do we pay for it?" phase. That's a FAR more productive place for the discussion to be and while I question their specific proposals, at least they suggested an idea. Much more than can be said for the HSR critics, whose suggestions amount to "well just keep driving, we'll figure something out."


Rafael said...

Reed and Weinstein omitted a fourth criterion for the selection of the corridors to be implemented: completion of the EIR/EIS process. It's no use showering federal money on projects in an early phase of gestation. Someone has to go and do the prep work, as CHSRA has done for California.

On the funding side, I think it would be a bad idea to invent a new tax on railroads mirroring those on civilian aviation and on-road vehicles. Dedicating any tax to any specific type of spending deprives the political process of the opportunity for arbitration. Far from protecting funds for infrastructure, dedicated taxes actually encourage politicians to leave them at inadequate levels.

All taxes collected on all forms of transportation ought to go into the general fund, as they do in Europe and Japan. Infrastructure then becomes one of the many public services that voters expect and actually hold their politicians accountable for.

In North America, there is a twist: the railroads aren't a single network, maintained and expanded by a regulated, monopolistic grid operator. That means the only public entity to direct funding to is Amtrak, a service operator with very little say over how its ROW fees are spent. That is because it relies on freight companies, each of which owns and operates its own private network of tracks. Amtrak is tolerated only because the law requires it.

Disjoint private networks are actually quite inefficient, e.g. in California's Central Valley: both UPRR and BNSF own roughly parallel rights of way some miles from one another, but each only has a single track. Unsurprisingly, both are struggling to turn a profit hauling freight and neither is able to properly support passenger traffic.

If the two competitors leased their networks to a grid operator who sets usage fees, northbound traffic could use one alignment and southbound traffic the other. Public money could then be spent on usage fees for passenger trains, supporting the construction of bypasses to ensure the trains run on time, gradual electrification to clear the air and grade separation plus anti-trespass measures to ensure public safety as speeds are increased.

Admittedly, having one station for northbound passenger trains and another one miles away for southbound ones would be funky - but beggars can't be choosers.

No tax scheme is ever going to address this fundamental issue of creating a single integrated rail network. Until such a network exists, both private and public investment in track and signaling quality will remain inadequate - the very reasons speeds have been too low and punctuality too rare for rail to compete effectively against road and air transportation.

All of the above refers to normal speed rail, i.e. anything below 125mph serving regional commuters (up to 150mph with tilt trains on sufficiently straight sections). True high speed passenger service at speeds well in excess of 150mph requires dedicated tracks, which is what CHSRA is proposing.

Anonymous said...

Having just started to read this blog what I find is a cadre of rail enthusiasts willing to build a project at any costs.

The later posts seem to be focused on competing with the airlines and the notion that airline travel on routes below 600 miles in length should be replaced by rail. This seems to be founded on the premise that the airlines can't operate profitably on those routes.

Obviously these writers know little if anything about the airline industry. Right now the most profitable airline is Southwest and short haul routes are precisely what they do.

Using a publicly funded rail system to compete with the airlines and try to drive them out of business is poor thinking to say the least.

For some un-explained reason, passenger rail service which has been a disaster here in the US is all of a sudden going to be the salvation or the transportation woes in California.

Anyway I have completed my study of the issue. If the bond measure manages to get on the ballot, here is one registered voter who will vote against it.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Harold, thanks for the uninformed assumptions. If you would look at all the posts on the site you'd find a point-by-point deconstruction of your claims. I'll give the short version here:

1. We're not out to kill the airline industry - only to provide an affordable and sustainable alternative given our energy, economic, and environmental needs. Besides, the airline industry is facing severe problems - or did you not even read this post? Read this one and the previous one, where Southwest's own CEO says the era of cheap flights is over for good.

2. Folks ARE riding passenger rail. The demand is off the charts and is only limited by lack of available supply. Acela has 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor between DC and Boston. Amtrak California is setting ridership records every month. Moreover, HSR lines around the world are profitable.

3. Finally, you repeat the ridiculous notion that it's only HSR's costs that count. What about the cost of NOT building HSR? Our argument is the cost of doing nothing will be much, much, much higher than the $10 billion HSR will cost Californians.

But hey, thanks for confirming my last point in this post - that for you HSR deniers, your only response to high fuel prices and its devastating effect on transportation and the economy is basically "keep doing what we've been doing" even though it is no longer working.

Rafael said...

@ Harold -

Southwest provides an interactive map of its myriad routes on its web site. Please take a look at it. Perhaps you'll discover something about the ratio of short haul vs. long haul routes provided by just this one carrier.

European airlines used to provide many domestic flights. Wherever HSR has become available, e.g. Paris-Lyon, London-Paris, Paris-Brussels, London-Brussels, Madrid-Barcelona, Cologne-Frankfurt etc. customers have switched to trains. This has not really hurt the airlines, many quite happily resell code-shared connecting train journeys for their long-haul network - which is anyhow the more profitable end of the civilian aviation business.

And it's not just high speed rail that's integrated: in Vienna, the Hague or Hannover, to name just a few places, you can check into your flight at the train station and your bags will be forwarded to the airline for you. Aviation and rail can and do co-exist, each handling the range of distances it is best suited for.

Robert Cruickshank has used this blog to advance the case that HSR is a good idea for California. This is an important message, because intercity passenger rail has advanced tremendously in Japan and Europe since it was last popular in the US. Only about 10% of Californians have had a chance to ride a modern HSR train. For everyone else, it requires a leap of the imagination.

As for exactly how HSR would be implemented, it is fair to ask the CHSRA spell out in greater detail exactly how the currently estimated $40 billion price tag for the SF-Anaheim trunk line was arrived at. The route has been presented and the supporting documents describe in detail where the tunnels for the mountain crossings will be etc.

However, the information that voters will care most about is how CHSRA intends to construct the alignment in the areas that are already fully built up: where will they use tunnels, cut-and-fill, trenches, embankments etc.? What will be the visual and aural impact on nearby properties? What will happen to existing over- and underpasses and to existing level crossings? What about storm drains and sewers - many in poor condition?

Of course, not all of this information is available yet, as the Authority has not been given the funds required to complete even the preliminary engineering work. There is a link to a Google maps version of the alignment on the CHSRA web site's route page that used to provide some insight. Since about a week ago, only the stations show up on my browser - the alignment no longer does. I'm not sure why.

That's unfortunate but CHSRA could and should explain the process by which these detailed decisions will be finalized in the context of a large but still finite budget. Have planning officials from individual cities and counties already signed off on the plans? If not, when will they be asked to so? Will their citizens have a chance to influence these decisions? If so, what are the inherent risks for the project timeline and construction cost?

It would be nice if those who are skeptical of this very large project applied their energy to demanding more information from CHSRA before they make up their mind on how they will vote.

Anonymous said...


You write:

“It would be nice if those who are skeptical of this very large project applied their energy to demanding more information from CHSRA before they make up their mind on how they will vote.”

Gosh Rafael what are we supposed to do. We lay out our position on a web site (www.derailhsr.com). I ask Kopp, on the air, how CHSRA can project a San Jose to SF segment cost estimate of $5 billion dollars, and his response is “I have the full faith of our engineers who produced this estimate”.

We have been told many times this segment will align along the existing CalTrain tracks. The right away that CalTrain has is 100 feet in most areas which is sufficient to run 4 tracks (2 for HSR and 2 for CalTrain). There are over 40 grade crossings along that route, and from several cost estimates done by CalTrain for grade crossings only needing 2 tracks, but possibly expandable to 4 tracks, these structures average well over $100 million dollars each. Then you have laying track for 50 miles. You have a station in SF which is sure to be at least 2 billion and one in San Jose at probably 1 billion or more. Also a station in Redwood City probably and one at the airport. They don’t give these away. They will have to use eminent domain proceedings in a few selected urban locations and those takings will also cost plenty.

In San Franciso they plan to cut and fill or tunnel along some of the route; not cheap. You have BART extimating costs of around $380 million per mile to extend to San Jose. There is just no way the $5 billion dollar estimate is even in the ball park.

If CHSRA has not had enough time or money to produce decent, peer reviewed (by an independent group – my suggestion transportation experts at Berkeley), than asking the voters to pass a bond measure of the magnitude is way too premature.

PS. Your assertion that Einstein did not break the laws of thermodynamics is in error. Actually Relativity did exactly that. Fusion or fission were not expected when these laws were formulated and tested by experiment much earlier. Today one uses these laws with the provision that mass is just another form of energy is not taken into account.

Tony D. said...

Derailhsr.com? (LOL) How about "keepingusslavesoftheoilcompanies.com?" Robert, I think we have to come to the realization that some people just won't support and vote for HSR. That's fine; it's their rights as Americans. I also feel that these naysayers are in the minority. However, we still need to focus on the greater electorate to get this important project passed and built. Case in point: I showed a co-worker the other day the YouTube video of HSR. She was greatly impressed and stated "we need to get that thing built!" This is someone, like many a Californian, who doesn't follow the issue that closely but will definetely vote this November. For the average Californian, the "WOW" factor of HSR will be huge in getting the bond passed. "You mean I can get from Gilroy to LA in about two hours?!! without driving or checking-in at an airport? WOW!!"

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

first off, we couldn't have this discussion on derailhsr.com because you don't allow comments on your site.

Second, Quentin Kopp is a seasoned politician with a flair for dominating the conversation. From what little I've heard from him personally so far, my impression is that his personal comfort zone is the big picture, not the details. It's quite possible he fobbed you off simply so he wouldn't have to admit that he didn't know the answer off the top of his head. Plus, on-air time is very limited so he couldn't have given you a comprehensive answer even if he could have.

That said, you do raise valid points regarding the cost of upgrading the Caltrain corridor. Major train stations are indeed expensive, the UK just spent GBP 800 million on St. Pancras in central London. However, that was an historic building that architects had to work around.

However, afaik the $4.2 billion Transbay Terminal redevelopment project is being pursued and funded separately from HSR. It includes the 1.3 mile long tunnel from 4th & King for Caltrain. Separate funding doesn't mean any of this is free, just that it won't impact the budget for HSR - though that service will obviously greatly benefit.

Partly because of the future tunnel in SF, Caltrain has firm plans to electrify its line even if HSR is not approved. Of course, if it is, the two projects will be closely co-ordinated. Laying the tracks and electrification are actually among the cheaper aspects of implementing HSR in the peninsula corridor.

The big-ticket items, as you rightly point out, are the many over- and underpasses needed to achieve the full grade separation mandated by FRA for sections where passenger trains run at speeds above 125mph.

Quite a few grade separation structures already exist along the SF peninsula. Keeping the tracks at grade and installing noise abatement structures where appropriate would be much cheaper than trying to move the alignment wholly or partially underground or, into the air. It would also minimize disruption during the construction period.

If CHSRA spends a smidgen extra - e.g. on wood paneling or trellises for climbing plants - noise abatement structures could be made if not pretty then at least aesthetically acceptable. They also do double duty as barrier to trespassers - accidental or otherwise.

Note, however, it's unrealistic to expect that each and every existing level crossing will be upgraded. Many of the smaller ones will have to be closed permanently or else limited to an overpass with stairs for pedestrians and bicycles. This does mean that local vehicle traffic patterns will change. And yes, full grade separation does bisect communities to some extent, a fact that some adapt to more easily than others.

The principal upside is that motorists never again have to wait for a train to pass. CHSRA is planning headways of as little as 18 minutes on the trunk line and Caltrain will be running its local trains as well.

A more somber benefit is that citizens will no longer have to read about yet another avoidable death on a regular basis. Such events also traumatize the engineers driving the trains. Perhaps, then, some investments are simply worth making - even if it means having to take a little detour.