Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Open Thread

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

Been a bit busier this weekend than I'd anticipated, so this will have to suffice for your weekend high speed rail fix. It's worth continuing the discussion on high speed rail and safety - HSR systems are among the world's safest train systems - and trains are already a safe way to travel. Crashes like the Chatsworth disaster are high-profile tragedies but driving is still more deadly - 4000 people died on California roads last year but because that doesn't happen all at once we don't notice it.

CA HSR is already going to be safer than Metrolink because for most of its route it will run on dedicated tracks. The parts where there would be some sharing with freights, like the Peninsula, can be managed with effective PTC - which federal regulators have been seeking for decades, whereas the freight rail companies are deeply resistant, preferring to risk the lives of their engineers than spend the money to ensure safety. HSR's high cost comes partly from the numerous safety protections that will be included - from PTC to grade separations. But we will have to keep a close watch on the decisions the Authority makes regarding safety implementation, and help our elected officials pressure the FRA and others to help make the right choices.

But before you discuss that or any other HSR-related issue, take the poll.


Spokker said...

If we tell people that this bond will result in a grade separated train that is not only separated from other cars, but freight traffic as well, and it loses in November, aren't we as a people sort of accepting the risk of outdated rail infrastructure? We stand on a pedestal and condemn the agencies responsible for these trains but then turn around and vote no on funds for upgrades and yes for anti-rail representatives.

Metrolink doesn't operate in a vacuum. With 5 minutes of research one can understand how and why Metrolink works or doesn't work. I understand the risk that when the engineer messes up at the wrong time there's little that can be done to prevent a tragic situation.

Again, we all want safe rail. Now are we going to pay for it?

Anonymous said...

Ummm I went to the poll link and I don't see the poll. Where is it?

crzwdjk said...

I think the most positive thing that can come out of all of this is that the FRA takes a good hard look at the effectiveness of their collision standards. It seems like one of the big contributing factors to the level of damage was the big, heavy, solid and uncrushable passenger train locomotive, which caused the first passenger car to be crushed between it and the rest of the train.

The other positive thing is that California, and Metrolink in particular start to seriously consider installing ATS or some form of PTC. I'd recommend going with the system that Amtrak uses in the NEC: it's good enough for 125 mph operation, safe, and based on proven technology. And unlike GPS, it works in tunnels just fine, and unlike communications-based systems, it degrades gracefully for trains not equipped with the onboard equipment.

Brandon in California said...

Has anyone seen or heard of what the HSR advocacy campaign will include?

I understand the budget for it is very small... and any effort will likely be targeted for immediately before November 4th. Or, sometime around when absentee ballots are distributed; mid October?

Rafael said...

@ arcady -

these trains collided at a relative speed of 60mph. Beefing up passive safety is not the way to go here, FRA needs to focus on collision avoidance. To err is human, so systems that compensate for that are appropriate. They are in use all over Western Europe, Japan and probably some other countries.

The issue, as usual, is not whether this is a good idea but rather who pays for implementing it. The freight railroads are cheapskates because that's the only way they can compete against road freight, which enjoys massive hidden subsidies.

Passenger railroads like Metrolink cannot take the lead in getting PTC implemented because they only operate at the local or regional level. Amtrak doesn't have the political clout to force its adoption nationwide. Basically, if voters want modern safety equipment on the nation's railroads, they will have to pay for it at the federal level.

Matthew Fedder said...

So where are the glossy brochures I can place at locations where there might be interested people? Who's doing outreach? WHERE IS THE CAMPAIGN?

I talked to the attendant at the Model Railroad Museum in San Diego, and she hadn't even HEARD of it! What better place to inform enthusiasts who are going to really care about getting their friends interested?

Ads and information should be plastered around rest stops on the 5, train stations, airports, etc. by now!

Anonymous said...


It's less than 8 weeks to the election - it's clear at this point that there will be no campaign, for or against it. This is hardly unusual - when was the last time you remember seeing TV ads for a public works bond? I don't remember ever seeing one.

crzwdjk said...

rafael, I entirely agree with you, but the FRA still seems to think that their way of doing things is safer, when, as this latest crash demonstrated, it clearly is not. As for implementing PTC, I suspect that Metrolink can just implement it on their own tracks (such as the track in question), and force the freights operating over their lines to comply. The closest thing there is to a standard is the PRR pulse-code track circuit system, which is in use at least on some lines belonging to CSX, NS, and UP, as well as of course Amtrak, so there ought to be at least a reasonably-sized fleet of locomotives that have the necessary equipment. The first step would be getting cab signals, the second is mandatory enforcement, and the third is full-on Positive Train Control using the ACSES system that Amtrak has on the NEC. The nice thing is that the upgrades can be done incrementally and safety will improve as more trains and more tracks are equipped. As for the freight railroads, at least some of them (CSX, specifically) think it's more cost-effective to eliminate wayside signals and use cab signals exclusively.

Anonymous said...

The FRA's crash standards did not prevent deaths in this case. The focus really needs to be on prevention of accidents. I think also that single trackage on a passenger rail line should be required to double up the track, especially in the heavy corridors. Cab signals would allow trains to go faster if mandated and regulated along with providing safer systems, PTC would include and automated element to prevent these tragedies. I believe the on board cab signals should be some of the first system upgrades to be regulated in areas to allow faster service and maybe reduce delay time.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Matthew, I absolutely agree that we need more visibility. To achieve that though, we need money.

Myself and a coalition of grassroots supporters are about to launch a small-scale fundraising drive to help pay for things like printing brochures and distributing them to folks. But for this effort to succeed we need participation.

If you want to see brochures at a museum, will you commit to helping print them and deliver them to the site? That is what we need above all else - warm bodies who can do a bit of legwork. Money will be useful but only if there are volunteers who will help put the products of that spending in voters' hands.

The "official" campaign could use some money too - donate if you haven't already - but even they aren't likely to raise a huge amount of money. You're not likely to see TV ads or billboards or ads at train stations.

If Prop 1A is going to pass we'll need your help. Send me an email - my last name at gmail - and let me know what all you can offer.

Rafael said...

Today's events in the financial world will likely have lingering effects - both economic and psychological - for months or even years. Many voters' initial instinct will be to batten down the hatches and reject any spending - private or public - that they consider non-essential.

Wrt prop 1A, I believe this would actually be exactly the wrong response. Here's why:

a) the project is a very long-term proposition, both in terms of the construction period and of the operations that will follow. If history is any guide, there will probably be several booms and busts before the entire network as currently proposed is completed.

California's population growth may slow a little for a few years but the underlying rationale for building HSR remains intact. It is not a luxury but rather, essential to keeping the state's residents mobile, to reducing their dependence on oil and, to reducing their carbon footprint. Temporary turmoil on Wall Street would be a lousy reason for rejecting prop 1A.

b) the roots of current credit crunch lie in the combination of excessive mortgage borrowing, lax lending standards, inadequate oversight by government watchdogs and overly generous tax breaks for homeowners.

Foreclosures have depressed the housing market and, new housing starts are way down. That means an army of contruction workers is now struggling to make its mortgage payments. What they need is job opportunities.

Granted, building wooden houses is not quite the same thing as constructing tunnels or laying tracks. However, the required skillsets do overlap to some extent.

c) public works projects stabilize an economy in recession and, generally result in true assets that boost economic growth for decades. The HSR ballot initiative was twice delayed, so it won't have a significant direct effect on the state's economy for another couple of years even if it is approved. However, the statewide prop 1A and measure R in LA county come on the heels of prop 1B(2006), in which voters approved almost $20 billion in bonds for highway projects.

What California's economy needs right now is additional public works to ensure consumers and private investors alike maintain confidence in the state's economic health in the medium and long term. At this point, that psychological signal is almost as important as actual spending.

d) paradoxically, institutional investors may now be more - rather than less - interested in the opportunity afforded by California's HSR project.

Since no-one really knows when the US housing market will stabilize, lenders will be reluctant to pump more money into it for quite some time. Meanwhile, falling house prices and a low savings rate mean that US consumers will be keeping their wallets closed, which will depress stocks. On the other hand, US treasury bonds generally feature low yields.

As an investment, HSR should fall in-between these extremes of risk and reward, which makes it an attractive proposition for institutional investors. However, CAHSR still needs to make that case in a prospectus.

Of course, it wouldn't hurt the state's credit rating if its politicians could pass a budget on time for a change.

Rob Dawg said...

And if CAHSR does not propose a design that fully grade and track separate from surface and freight modes do we give up on the whole system? Look, at least to start HSR is going to run close to freight and at grade (in the Central Valley) and with inadequate security. It won't be dangerous or unsafe but it won't be perfect either. Advocacy needs to stay inside the realities.

Anonymous said...

Woke up this morning to hear the first radio ad of the election season on KFOG in San Francisco twice during morning drive. Guess what it was for......

I'ts mid-September and KFOG is one of the top stations in the Bay Area. They're spending some real money on that ad.

Anonymous said...

I gave about 2-3 weeks ago..glad they got started. Now all I want are flyers and buttons I can pass out the the bart-muni

Rafael said...

@ rob dawg -

CAHSR wants to use proven, off-the-shelf HSR trainset technology, most likely from Europe or Japan. Those products are not FRA compliant wrt crash safety and would therefore not be permitted on tracks that also carry freight trains. Ask Acela Express, BART, Caltrain and every other passenger rail operation in the US for details.

"Not" is actually short for "not unless there is adequate guaranteed time separation" and even then only if you have one of those elusive FRA waivers. Time separation puts a serious crimp in system capacity when you have to share track with long, relatively slow trains. Ask Eurostar for details.

If the legacy tracks you want to use happen to be in the posession of a freight company whose trains have priority and run whenever, you might as well feed your timetable to the dog. Ask Amtrak for details.

Of course, running heavy double-stacked freight trains on fancy new HSR tracks would pretty quickly throw off the carefully constructed geometry. If you still wanted to run at high speed on them, your maintenance overheads would go through the roof. Light cargo is fine, the heavy stuff isn't.

Bottom line: leveraging legacy track (plus tilt train technology if needed) sounds like a great way to get moderately fast HSR on the cheap and it is - in Europe, where tracks feature modern signaling and are owned by state enterprises that give priority to passenger trains. Also, freight trains there are short, single-stacked, seriously subsidized. In the US, not so much.

Rafael said...

@ michael kiesling -

they said getting from "Northern California" to LA would take "a couple of hours". That's almost true, but only if you start in San Jose.

Ah, the truthiness of advertising. Still, I'm glad someone (in this case, the construction industry and unions) is spending some money on advertising. Sure the ad is self-serving but then again, HSR would benefit everyone, right?

Rafael said...

@ michael kiesling -

they said getting from "Northern California" to LA would take "a couple of hours". That's almost true, but only if you start in San Jose.

Ah, the truthiness of advertising. Still, I'm glad someone (in this case, the construction industry and unions) is spending some money on advertising. Sure the ad is self-serving but then again, HSR would benefit everyone, right?aaa

Rob Dawg said...

Read what I wrote. Not track sharing, "run close to" meaning in the same narrow right of way. Except that isn't really possible. The footprint for double tracking and at speed separation and the catenary system is huge. And that's before and security buffers and the inevitable noise mitigation allowances.

Altough I thsank you for making it absolutely clear that HSR cannot be used for commuter rail in the Bay Area. Everything you say about freight/HSR applies to some extent for commuter/HSR. It's why we have arterials/freeways and general/hub airports.