Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The World is Passing Us By

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

There was once a time when the United States, and California in particular, were looked upon as global leaders and innovators. We had the most advanced technologies, the most efficient economy, the most modern forms of transportation. Our 20th century economic accomplishments were due in large part to that reputation, attracting investment and skilled workers from around the globe.

But if a nation wants to remain prosperous, it has to adapt to the changing times. When one country refuses to change, even when the need to do so is clear, others WILL catch up. In the 1970s this was made clear when Detroit automakers insisted on gas guzzlers instead of innovating as the Germans and Japanese were - and the result was devastating for the nation's economy.

It may also be true today, as the rest of the world begins developing high speed rail lines while we in California continue to delude ourselves into thinking the 20th century hasn't ended. A simple Google News search on any given day turns up numerous reports of global HSR projects, such as:

It's not just that this should embarrass Californians. It should also concern them. HSR is key to a 21st century economy, providing green jobs and sustainable transportation free from the vagaries of oil prices. In an era where our economy is truly global, and companies can choose to set up shop in SF and LA, or Shanghai and Beijing, or Madrid and Barcelona, or Rio and São Paulo, it won't help California's case if we have sky-high transportation costs because we still rely on oil to get around. Moreover, the cost to our businesses and workers of high fuel prices makes us even less competitive and prosperous.

HSR isn't a cheap initial investment, but $10 billion isn't going to break anyone's bank either. And considered against the cost of doing nothing, HSR is clearly the more affordable and fiscally responsible choice.


Rafael said...

HSR is no panacea, but for intercity trips up to roughly 600 miles it is hard to beat. Citizens and governments in many other countries have accepted this and are investing accordingly. While many view the result with - typically national - pride, it is not a game of one-up-manship. Rather, having an HSR line is seen as a stepping stone into a post-oil economy, which will be a century in the making.

The US still has enough domestic oil to cover roughly 45% of its voracious demand. In addition, Canada and Mexico each contribute significant amounts. Most of the countries that have HSR systems or are building are not - or no longer - blessed with such abundant resources. Some have coal or natural gas, but it is expensive to make these fuels usable in cars and aircraft. Trains will readily run on electricity from any source.

It should not surprise anyone that North America is having a tough time accepting that the oil age is slowly drawing to a close. Southern California in particular was built in part on the oil off its coast - no matter how disneyfied, that's still an oil derrick.

Perhaps it's time to ask which is stranger to have in your neighborhood: nodding donkeys or electric high-speed trains?

Rafael said...

Btw, in case you're wondering: TCDD's initial HSR line will soon connect the capital Ankara to Istanbul via Eskisehir, as shown on this map.

Turkey's HSR netowrk is being implemented in stages, something CHSRA has advocated but AB3034 - in its current guise - would do away with. In the wake of the Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass decision, Central Valley residents in particular want to make sure their underserved corridor will actually get its planned HSR link. There appears to be a lack of trust.

However, building in patchwork mode would virtually guarantee cost overruns, so the draft of the bill should be amended. Voter approval of the $10 billion bond should be explicitly tied to a guarantee that construction on the spurs to Sacramento and San Diego, respectively, will begin as soon as funding permits, i.e. when the SF-Anaheim trunk line starts generating an operating profit.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks for the clarification on the Turkish line - I was going off the article I linked to, and of course it makes sense they're linking Ankara to Istanbul. I completely agree about the building in stages part, and I am growing more and more concerned about the language in AB 3034 that does away with that in favor of some silly "competitive" approach to winning HSR bond funds. A clear commitment to building in stages, not competition among regions, is the way to win voter support.

Anonymous said...

From HSR suppliers own literature, you don't find 600 miles as being a yard stick they use and apply as being competitive with the airlines. Rather 350 miles is their most often cited measure. Of course as they run out of customers using that benchmark, they will try to extend it to longer routes to encourage more projects to be funded and build world wide.

Personally I can't imagine going 600 miles, which at an average speed of 150 MPS would take four hours, which I can go by air and get there is 90 minutes.

As been mentioned here before, there is no shortage of oil, only a shortage of cheap oil. Anyone who believes that electricity or other power sources will not get expensive in the future has their head in the sand.

How long ago was it we had Enron and buddies controlling electricity production and prices?

Rafael said...

@ anon at 8:09am -

a) please consider using a name or pseudonym in the future

b) the 600 mile figure is based on the experience in Europe, where travel times for even greater distances are definitely shorter if you fly. Discount airlines also make it cheaper to do so. You're quite right in stating that most HSR journeys are much shorter than this approximate limit.

Also, it is misleading to compare different transportation technologies on line haul times alone. What matters is door-to-door time, including getting to and from the station or airport, check-in, security, boarding, baggage retrieval etc. These days, flying entails a lot of cooling your heels and not getting much - if any - work done.

By contrast, high speed trains offer business travelers electric outlets, proper tables for laptops, conference rooms and the ability to use their own cell phone. Reliable broadband internet connections are in development and should be available on California's system from day one.

c) electricity isn't free now and will get more expensive as fossil fuel prices rise. Natural gas and coal prices take their cue from the oil markets to some extent. And yes, it is the cheap oil that the world is running out of.

However, California possesses abundant natural energy resources in the form of solar thermal, wind, geothermal, hydro and biogas. Neighboring states can add to this capacity. Renewables require a higher investment up front but you pay little or nothing for many decades of operation.

Solar and wind are a little capricious, but modern electric grid management strategies can balance these resources against dependable ones.

For reference, the entire HSR system will generate a peak load of 480MW, with ~300MW more typical. That is about the size of the Ivanpah solar thermal plant and just a small fraction of the 50000MW of generating capacity supporting California.

CHSRA is currently spending ~$40k on a feasibility study to see if it can run the system on renewable electricity alone - which would mean never ever paying OPEC a dime for going to Disneyland.

If you factor in the mind-boggling cost of military and homeland security measures that result from decades of propping up brutal dictatorships in the oil-rich Middle East, electric trains running on sunshine make even more sense.

Rubber Toe said...

Anonymous said: "Anyone who believes that electricity or other power sources will not get expensive in the future has their head in the sand."

This is the kind of non-critical thinking that leads to the problems that we are already facing. Lets look a bit further into this. Anonymous seems to think that since the costs of fuel and food are going up, that everything else will be going up to, including electricity.

In reality, the cost of electricity varies depending on what the source of the electricity is. Electricity derived from ANY fossil fuel will most definitely be going up at the same rate that the underlying fuel increases. As the fossil fuel resources get more scarce, the cost of them will be bid up on the open market, and the end user will end up paying the higher bills. As Robert has pointed out, the airlines are a perfect example of fuel costs disrupting an industry. Fossil fuel electricity generation will be going down the same path, except...

Generating electricity from renewable sources is getting cheaper over time due to better technology (i.e. bigger wind turbines are much more efficient than smaller ones, and kill less birds too) and the fact that they are not burning up non-renewable resources that have escalating costs. It's really pretty simple if you think about it for about 10 seconds.

I have posted here before that the CHSRA needs to run the system using 100% renewable power from wind and solar. While initially more expensive to build such a system, once it is built and up and running you are guaranteed that the cost 10 years down the road will be no where near as expensive as the cost of powering it with fossil fuel derived electricity. The windmills will need to be maintained, and the labor cost associated with that will rise, but will be nowhere near the cost of burning thousands of gallons of oil. Likewise, solar PV or solar thermal systems also require maintenance, but do not consume resources over time.

Is this so difficult to understand? Instead of just throwing out lines like "having ones head in the sand", please explain the logical reasoning behind the innuendo that leads to the conclusion that you come to. How is it that I have my head in the sand in thinking that solar or wind derived power will be much less expensive in the future than fossil fuel based power?

And no, simply saying that "it will always be that way cause it is that way now" is not an acceptable answer...

And yes, there is most definitely a shortage of cheap oil. There is going to be a very, very long shortage of cheap oil. This was all predicted by many people for a long time now, but no one was listening. A good book on the subject is "The Long Emergency" by James Kunstler. Found out about that on The Oil Drum blog referenced from this blog.

Other Robert

Robert Cruickshank said...

The absence of cheap oil IS the problem. I see our anonymous friend (use a real name, dude) still has not read of Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher's comments that air travel is going to be something only the rich can afford. That's why so many countries around the world are building HSR - they realize that the end of cheap oil means major transportation difficulties unless an alternative is found.

As to that alternative - the CHSRA is currently studying how to make their system powered by 100% renewable resources. Given California's capacity for wind and solar power generation it seems likely that HSR can be powered by cheap sustainable electricity. You can bet when that study is published we will cover it in depth on this blog.

Whether the HSR denying anons will actually READ such studies and posts is another matter entirely, I'm sad to say...

Rafael said...

Giovanni Pivirotto from Fresno is one of the roughly 10% of California residents who have experienced HSR first hand in other countries. Once you ride it, it becomes a no-brainer.

It just goes to show that lack of experience leads to a lack of imagination. 50 years is a long time to be stuck with substandard service, even if Amtrak is playing its weak hand as best it can.

Kymberleigh Richards said...

Anonymous (what are you hiding?) said:

Personally I can't imagine going 600 miles, which at an average speed of 150 MPS would take four hours, which I can go by air and get there is 90 minutes.

Let's take a shorter trip example.

I live in the Los Angeles area and travel a few times a year to Sacramento for legislative lobbying.

Right now, it takes me about 30 minutes to get to the airport from home, I have to be there an hour in advance of my flight, the flight itself takes 30 minutes, and it is about another 30 minutes from SMF to downtown Sacramento. That's two and a half hours, much of which is spent unproductively.

HSR has a projected travel time of two hours 17 minutes for Los Angeles to Sacramento. It's roughly the same time to/from the train as it is the airport for me, but the train depot is in downtown Sacramento so I save that 30 minutes. But I probably won't need to be at the train depot an hour in advance.

So the time is about the same, but the inconvenience is lessened, and if HSR can meet or beat Southwest's price (very likely), guess what I'll use as soon as it is available to me?

HSR, in my opinion, will replace much of the intrastate air travel in California and therefore free up airline/airport resources for interstate travel ... a market which is still growing.