Wednesday, October 22, 2008

HSR: Safe and Fuel Efficient

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

Dennis Lytton, who has authored a post for this blog back in June and is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has now published an op-ed in today's Daily Breeze, a newspaper in SoCal's South Bay region, explaining the benefits of Prop 1A and high speed rail. I won't reproduce the entire op-ed here but will include some of the salient points.

The op-ed opens by retelling a tragic story of a UC Berkeley student from Pasadena who was killed on her way back to campus while driving near Gilroy - one of the numerous automobile fatalities that can be prevented by fast, efficient, plentiful intercity rail:

Improvements in auto safety have helped reduce the rate of automobile fatalities. However, that gain is largely negated by increases in the number of miles Americans typically drive. This is a reflection of bad public policy that favors sprawl and freeways over modern rail systems and transit-oriented development. It causes our traffic nightmares, fouls our air, takes far too many lives and makes us dependent on triple-digit prices for crude oil.

California High Speed Rail would initially stretch from Anaheim to San Francisco, with future branches to Sacramento and San Diego. The system would be completely separated from automobile traffic and freight trains. The tracks would be fenced in and monitored by earthquake sensors and cameras. Safety would even exceed that of airplanes, since high-speed trains don't carry volatile fuels that can be touched off by explosives in a shampoo bottle or shoe.

But the most important safety feature is that millions of people annually will take the train instead of driving. Europe and Japan have far fewer transportation-related fatalities than the United States - due mostly to their lower dependence on the automobile for local and intercity transit. California could potentially save thousands of lives lost per year in auto accidents if it built a state-of-the art intercity rail system.

Dennis' points are excellent and have not been made often enough. The safety features that HSR offers are not available to drivers or those taking planes. The system's safety will save lives over driving and will make the trains a more attractive option to travelers within California.

Dennis also reminds us of the fuel efficiency of HSR:

High-speed rail is the greenest way to move people ever invented. Trains consume only one-third of the energy used by an airplane and one-fifth the energy of an automobile trip. Nearly all of the electricity of HSR's trains could be produced from renewable energy sources. High-speed rail would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 17.6 billion pounds per year. It would reduce California's oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels per year (1,100 million gallons per year). At a price of $125 a barrel, savings in oil costs alone would approach $2.75billion annually. Oil costs will rise in the long run, as oil geologists agree that we are entering an age of declining oil reserves that will be ever harder to extract.

Which gives me the opportunity to repost one of my favorite images:

(Image from Alberta High Speed Rail)

Now I'm sure the usual HSR deniers are clucking, "but oil prices have fallen!" That's true - for now. When Dennis originally wrote this op-ed the price of a barrel of oil was at $125. They're now at $66. Of course, it is common for oil prices to decline in the autumn and winter months, only to rise again in the spring and summer. But here's the thing - that does NOT mean we can rely on oil to serve our travel needs.

The only reason oil prices have declined is demand destruction. Meaning that fewer people are using gas to travel. If lower gas prices spur an increase in gas consumption, the price will rise again, as many economists have recognized. The only way to produce affordable, sustainable, long-term growth independent of the vagaries of oil price fluctuation is to build rail projects such as high speed rail.

As we've seen here, HSR is a successful method of travel around the world. It operates without subsidies, attracts millions of new train riders, and provides badly needed jobs and economic growth. Thanks to Dennis Lytton we are also reminded that it provides safer and more fuel efficient travel. The case for Prop 1A could not be clearer.


Anonymous said...

"The system would be completely separated from automobile traffic and freight trains."

What about the sharing of ROW with UP in the peninsula? What's the status of that issue anyway?

Brandon in California said...

Sharing the same corridor is not the same thing. Completed separated means no sharing of tracks. And, can also mean zero connectivity (ie. crossovers or switches) between the two types of rail.

Think BART.

I admit, sometimes I see phrases like, "Not sharing ROW."

Brandon in California said...

^^^ ... and I hit enter before finishing.... oops.

Anyway, I sometimes see that. When I have done that... my intent is to mean 'not sharing tracks.'

By the way, I read that Daily Breeze article earlier today. It was excellent.

Robert, This was another good posts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up. For some reason I thought sharing ROW entailed sharing tracks.

Spokker said...

Trains can also be separated by time.

In North San Diego County the Sprinter light rail operates on feight tracks. The light rail shuts down at night and the freight trains have a window to make their runs.

Since there's very little traffic on the Caltrain corridor, freights may be run this way.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 10:59pm -

UPRR theoretically has the right to run freight trains up to SF, but it almost never makes use of it. The critical section is Santa Clara to Gilroy. UPRR has more land in its ROW than it is using right now, but it doesn't want to sell it.

Other than price, the issue is the option to expand freight capacity in the future. The central coast corridor an Tehachapi Pass are the only rail connections between northern and southern California. CHSRA has said that if need be, the EIR/S remains valid if they buy land next to the UPRR ROW but still inside the corridor. That could entail a significant number of eminent domain proceedings against homeowners and businesses.

Downtown Fresno, the Soledad Canyon and the LOSSAN corridor are other stretches where UPRR could refuse to co-operate willingly.

UPRR also expressed concern about a highly improbable scenario in which one of their trains derails and fouls an adjacent track used by high speed trains. HSR routes feature numerous safeguards against debris, livestock or other things on the tracks that should not be there. However, even if an accident can be avoided, UPRR could find itself liable for lost HSR revenue until the wreck is cleared.

Loren said...

From San Francisco to San Jose, the Caltrain line will be widened to 4 tracks, with the HSR line occupying the inner 2 tracks and the Caltrains the outer 2 ones. I don't quite recall what they're planning for SJ-Gilroy, however; I think that it's a pair of HSR tracks alongside the UP/Caltrain tracks.

Anonymous said...


What do you exactly mean by writing with regards the UPRR

"but it almost never makes use of it.",
referring to the San Jose to SF tracks for freight. At least once a day a freight train uses these tracks, almost always at night. I don't know exactly what rights they have, but my understanding is they have the right for freight and they do use it.

This SF to San Jose corridor in places is narrow and this project is going to necessitate eminent domain land takings to expand it in places -- homes will be lost -- that is just a fact of life.

Diridon was on KGO yesterday, ignoring these problems, especially the San Jose to Gilroy problem, where the UPRR is not going to give up its corridor. He just says the UPRR is "tough to negotiate with", and in any event they will buy up a new corridor if they must.

What he fails to admits is a new corridor will absolutely need a new EIR. As I have said before, a major blunder from the leadership of this organization.

Today, Oct 23rd, at 10:00 am is a very important meeting of the Transportation and Housing committee.

It will be webcast live. The agenda, with a witness list and staff report I have now posted for anyone wanting to view

Rob Dawg said...

High-speed rail is the greenest way to move people ever invented. Trains consume only one-third of the energy used by an airplane and one-fifth the energy of an automobile trip.

While it is true that HSR is both safe and green, it is not the greenest. Cruise ships. I know, a trivial and unimportant mode but still.

More important is that electric rail transit actually uses 3 times as much energy after generation, transmission and conversion are considered. Still electric passenger rail is much more energy efficient than any other practical mode just not as amazingly superior the graphs indicate.

Anonymous said...

Check out a discussion of the potential of an Obama presidency on transit at the transport politic.

Brandon in California said...

It is my understanding that the environmental studies are phased or staged according to the work program at the time.

In another words, the initial EIR considered HSR from a programmatic level... comparing alternatives from a distance; technology, air versus roads vs. rail. Imagine from 30,000 feet.

Once the programmatic level EIR was adopted/accepted, additional EIR studies are done in smaller bits, focusing on segments of the system and detailing more of the impacts. Think general alignment type stuff, implications to grade on surrounding areas, fault zones, ... and from 10,000 feet.

That is where I believe where the CHSRA is at.

After those phases of EIR work have been completed and adopted/accepted, more detailed/focused studies are done in the immediate vicinity of where work may take place. Think traffic impact studies around proposed station locations, studying impacts to personal property, necessary land for final product and construction phasing, archeological and historic preservation studies, storm water runoff, etc.

It is not until this phase that you get into the level of detail you're speaking too that would take into consideration marginal bits of land affecting personal property or implications to local roadways and such.

And, this has not been done yet, at least for substantial parts of the system. Or, what has been done yet has not been publicly vetted.

There are pros and cons to this approach. Prudence in keeping costs in check is the main thing, I would assume. It wouldn't be practical from a cost perspective to conduct traffic studies for all possible station location possibilities, or roadway closures, or storm water studies... along every foot of proposed track before the project is approved.

Additionally, there is not enough technical staff in the state to do all that at one time... let alone to manage all those staff!

Anyway, that is my general understanding of the environmental approach for the studies. There may be other more informed persons here that can correct what I've written.

Brandon in California said...

Rafael & Morris,
In San Diego the same occurs as in the SF penninsula.... freight sharing track with lighter weight LRT separated by time.

From downtown SD to San Ysidro freight operates 1 trip in each direction in the middle of the night... and once a week from downtown San Diego out to El Cajon.

But, I am very doubful the same could be done on the pennisula. Or, that you would want to do that.

The operating window for HSR could be late into the night... and start up early in the morning. It could be that HSR may not be operating for only 3 or 4 hours.

A freight train running that 30-50 mile stretch at low speeds may not provide sufficient assurance that they'll be off the track in time for scheduled service to run.

But, maybe freight could only run on Caltrain tracks... thereby slotted into time when they are not running.

At the end of the day, I prefer Caltrain changing technology to be consistent with HSR. And/or that CHSRA run their service for them.

Anonymous said...

For brandon in san diego

The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce has just voted to oppose Prop 1A.

You seem to be way out of touch with your community.

So the tally is:

San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce
SD County Chamber of Commerce

all opposing -- vs. brandon in favor.

Brandon in California said...

Thanks for the heads up. I can understand why they'd recommend a no vote on 1A; SD is not in the first phase.

Do you think those entities influence people? I am skeptical. The Tribune has the furthest reach, but at the same time, few peeps read the editorial section and fewer people even bother to read that paper altogether.

Each and every friend I have spoken with in SD, and eleswhere in the state, are voting yes.

If 1A fails, I think it'll be a failing for the state. But, I'll not lose any sleep on it. It'll rank right there with my favorite football team losing the Superbowl; there will be a tomorrow.

Tony D. said...

Living in Gilroy and having family residing near UPRR/Monterey Road in San Jose, I can tell you there is no problem for San Jose/Gilroy. The corridor is wide enough for both freight/HSR/Caltrain EMU. UPRR/Caltrain currently runs parallel to Monterey Road for much of this route. Monterey Road through South Central/South San Jose is plenty wide; 6 lanes of traffic and large, tree-lined median. There is enough room, need be, on the western side of the road to widen the rail corridor, but of course it may require a reconfiguration of Monterey Road (narrowing median/shoulders, 4 instead of 6 lanes, etc.). South of SJ, Monterey road through Morgan Hill, San Martin, Gilroy is lightly used and wide, so the same applies down here. I don't think this will become an issue of UPRR "giving up" it's corridor; it will be all about accomodating and negotiating.

Brandon, love San Diego! Stationed there in Navy back in early 90's. Your beautiful city will one day be served by high-speed rail and trust me, you;re going to celebrate in two weeks like you favorite football team DID WIN the Superbowl. YES TO PROP. 1A!

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

compared to most other freight routes, a train a day is very light traffic. I do, however, see your point.

As for the corridor vs. ROW issue in e.g. the Santa Clara-Gilroy section, it seems to me there is some confusion. By definition, a transportation corridor extends about 1/4 mile to either side of an existing major road or railway tracks. UPRR's ROW is about 100 feet wide.

If - big IF - CHSRA had to substantially deviate from its preferred route in any given section, then it is my understanding additional EIR/S work would be required for that section only.

Brandon in California said...

If anyone is trying to watch the Senate T&H Committee meeing online.. the provided address is incorrect. Try this link:

*** Note, the numeral 3 in the address. The Senate site identifies numerial 1 or 2.

Spokker said...

"You seem to be way out of touch with your community."

Yeah, he's out of the touch with the attitude that if you aren't part of Phase 1, you have to vote down the project. There's an "I got mine" mentality. And when you don't get yours, nobody else can either.

I think it's a good attitude to be out of touch with.

Spokker said...

I guess I tuned in late to that hearing and Vranich was talking. What did Kopp say?

Brandon in California said...

I plan to watch an archived version tonight. I caught that Vranich claimed that ridership figures were 'science fiction'... but that is all I caught.

All-in-all, it was just an informational meeting. And, I saw that few of the members of the committeee were in attendance. So, I am concludign that teh informational meeting actually meant very very little, if anything at all.

Anonymous said...

The Senate T&H committee meeting held today is now archived and can be viewed at:


Anyone seriously interested in this project should take the time and view this hearing.

Anonymous said...

At the hearing, the rep from Howard Jarvis and Ashburn tried to make hay with the $4.2m that the Authority spent over the past eight years on public information and outreach, which they called PR. They tried to confuse the $4.2m as an amount of money which could have been available to update the business plan.

Their deception was unmasked when it was asked what were the dates that the Authority paid the firm for their services. All of the dates mentioned were long ago. Ashburn still persisted, $4.2m for PR and no money to finish the business plan.

Seems to have been a "big surprise" that they hoped would make the Authority look bad that backfired on the Jarvis folks. : ) If there wasn't money spent on public participation and education, there would have been claims of the Authority acting in secret. Such is the world of bogus politics.

Brandon in California said...

Ddamned if you do, damned if you don't! No matter what you do, you're in the wrong.

Anonymous said...

hey i'm deaf so i have no idea what they are talking about.

can someone help me on this?

Anonymous said...

Morris you registered just so we can see your stupid web site?

Brandon in California said...

Omgoodness! I got through the first 23 minutes of the Senate T&H Committee and saw a brilliant exchange between Ashburn and Kopp... in which Ashburn got his butt handed to him!

Ashburn used "un-temerate" langauge AT Kopp in saying the Authority is breaking the law by not publishing a business plan by a certain deadline. Kopp roared back and claimed Ashburn had broken the law, citing the states consitition, by not adopted a budget by June 15th.

Ashburn has a visble wimper in his retort.

It was YouTube worthy!

Robert Cruickshank said...

If anyone can get a YouTube of that exchange that Brandon mentioned, between Kopp and Ashburn, I'd love to have it. That sounds fucking priceless.

njh said...

More important is that electric rail transit actually uses 3 times as much energy after generation, transmission and conversion are considered. Still electric passenger rail is much more energy efficient than any other practical mode just not as amazingly superior the graphs indicate.

I'm not sure what your stat source is for this, but the usual source for the 1/3 remark is based on the inefficiency of conversion of chemical energy to rotational energy in the generator (due to the intermediate conversion to heat). This is usually about 50%. But this inefficiency is also true of jet engines and car engines (actually cars are much worse) given that they are all roughly the same process. The main difference is the transmission line losses, which are rarely worse than 10%. And of course you can reduce these with local generation (especially things like wind along the rail route).

Anonymous said...

Anyone that has seen / listened to the meeting, and concludes that Kopp got any mileage with his comeback, is to let me use a term often written in this blog "a denier".

You will find that not only Senator Ashburn was visibly upset, but Senator Lowenthal, the Democratic Chair of the committee was very hostile with Kopp as well.

I would love to see a u-tube video put up on that. But what I would rally like to see is what Joseph Vranich gave as his testimony.

I will eventually get around to posting some audio and text on our site.

Anonymous said... you still have an aircraft parts business? Talk about a "Denier"

Brandon in California said...

Oh Morris, It was hilarious!

But mileage... lets nt fool ourselves. No one watches those things. At least prospective voters that have not made up their minds already.

Proposition 1A and HSR is hardly noticed. Yes, there are a couple editorials and NPR-type radio commentaries, but news coverage is swamped with the prersidential campaign tidbits with a marginal bit on Proposition 8.

In San Diego... HSR also competes for attention with the our City Attorney election and a measure to allow a new football stadium to be built atop a shipping dock downtown.

95-98% of voters will go on other information.

Anonymous said...

@brandon in san diego

I agree with your comment about Prop 1A and HSR being noticed by only a few.

The comment made here about my being in the aircraft parts business.

I was indeed an owner of a wholesale avionics company. Our customers were the radio shops at the general aviation airports, mostly in the 11 western states. We had almost no involvement with the Airlines. I know virtually nothing about their business. I don't think anyone who knows me, would classify me as an Airline advocate.

I have not been involved with selling avionics now for over 25 years. I do have a pilots license but I haven't flown in a small aircraft now for over 8 years.

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