Friday, November 21, 2008

John Kerry Introduces HSR Bill

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

I don't have a whole lot of time to go over this today, as I'm going to be on the Coast Starlight headed back to Monterey from a quick SoCal trip. But it's important to discuss the new High Speed Rail funding proposal that Senator John Kerry and Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter are proposing in the US Senate. It's known as the High Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 and is numbered S.3700 (full text not yet available from THOMAS) (UPDATE: see an extensive summary of the bill's provisions here (h/t to Peter in the comments) and has a number of co-sponsors, including Senate heavyweights Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and Charles Schumer. According to Kerry's office:

Specifically, the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds which finance high-speed rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour It creates a new category of tax-credit bonds – qualified rail bonds. There are two types of qualified rail bonds: super high-speed intercity rail facility bond and rail infrastructure bond. Super high-speed rail intercity facility bonds will encourage the development of true high-speed rail. The legislation provides $10 billion for these bonds over a ten-year period. This would help finance the California proposed corridor and make needed improvements to the Northeast corridor. The legislation provides $5.4 billion over a six-year period for rail infrastructure bonds.

The obvious question this raises is will this be enough? The entire bill looks to be around $23.4 billion, which would be enough to help finish the first phase from SF-LA-Anaheim. Obviously we're not getting all of that, and being a Congressional bill other states and other Senators are going to want a piece of the pie - note that most of the co-sponsors come from the Northeast Corridor. But our project IS the farthest along, and is the best positioned to make use of this funding. Other states have a lot more ground to cover to be able to make use of these bonds.

In fact, my only criticism of this proposal - pending the actual bill details - is that the amount is not ambitious enough. $50 billion seems like a better funding level - instead of setting states and Senators against each other, $50 billion would help substantially seed a number of HSR projects around the country and build a true national system. This recession is deepening and significant stimulus is necessary to pull us out of it. Now's the time to be ambitious, Senator Kerry. Think big, think bold. This bill is an excellent start, but let's use the opportunity to build a truly national high speed rail project.


Rafael said...

I think the amount reflects a recognition of the prop 1A vote as well as the lack of maturity of other HSR projects.

If anyone thought Congress was going to fork over all of the matching funds needed to make California HSR a reality all at once, think again. Congress is going to insist on oversight on planning and execution, just like the state legislature. Private investors will probably also insist on oversight and phased investment.

CHSRA would be smart to set up a liaison office that all types of investors can assign a person to monitor day-to-day activity and provide independent feedback on a regular basis. Think of it as "embedding".

The liaison office should also include someone from FRA, since that agency will almost certainly have to draft some new rules to enable HSR using proven equipment designed to meet international rather than FRA crash safety standards.

If Sen. Kerry's bill does become law with the amount currently proosed, it would mean perhaps $5 billion for the California system. Coming close on the heels of HR 2095, which included $1.5 billion for HSR projects, it illustrates how federal funding will come in a series of bills.

Rather than lament that the amount is too small, California should focus on getting its ducks in a row to create a positive planning and implementation process model that other states can emulate. That means resolving issues such as funding for the DTX tunnel in SF behind closed doors and on the basis of rational evaluations.

Only when other states see the California effort succeeding will politicians there stick their necks out and ask their own constituents to put skin in the game. And only if the do that and therefore have a shot at getting a cut of federal funds will the purse strings in Congress become looser.

Brandon in California said...

Rafael is exactly right. Appropriation of Federal funds for California HSR will not occur all at once; it will become available in stages.

My feeling is that what Congress did was both functional and symbolic. It’s functional in that it assures the CHSRA has a commitment and can move forward with great confidence with ROW acquisition and construction when ready. It will also move a project forward that will create jobs; something that is ever pressing on every ones mind right now.

It is symbolic in that it sends a message to private sector interests that state and the Federal government is committed to this project and there is a minimized risk in their financial participation. The Feds will not leave them hanging on this one.

At this time I do not envision this first appropriation being split by formula by state or region. However, obviously I have not reviewed the congressional bill as it is not available yet. My reasoning for this is simple; California is yards ahead of all other regions and will likely receive the lion’s share of that first infusion. The northeast may be an exception and could have some projects waiting on the shelf ready to be pulled off. As other systems move forward and Congress apportions more, I am sure California’s proportional drawdown will have decreased.

But, this relatively useless talk. The good thing is that the Feds are stepping up to the plate in a big way. They are acting like leaders rather than representatives. Good for them.

Rafael said...

@ brandon -

if HR2095 is any indication, the actual appropriations will anyhow be spread out over a number of years. That gives other states an incentive to speed up their efforts before California gets the whole pie.

On the other hand, legislators will be wary of approving something they know their own states will have trouble even qualifying for. This is why Kerry set the lower limit at 110mph, which is feasible with straight dual track alignments in good state of repair and four-quadrant grade crossings.

The California model of true HSR (by which I mean 186mph+) only makes sense there, in the NEC and perhaps in Florida and Texas. Those states have clusters of population density that can support something that expensive.

BruceMcF said...

On the summary, its a logroll between the California HSR system and the large number of 110mph systems at earlier stages in their development. The "HSR" corridors already designated serve in excess of 30 states, and Colorado is working on a Cheyenne to New Mexico corridor through Denver and Colorado Springs.

If it succeeds in advancing a substantial number of the already designated 110mph projects, advancing the logroll for two or three more tranches should be no difficulty. Everyone bringing home the bacon on HSR for "their" state will have a marketing investment in the California True-HSR system progressing.

If the Midwest and Ohio Hubs were to be built out as 110mph tilt-train systems, then New York to Chicago would also likely be a viable HSR corridor. 714 miles line of sight, geometric mean population around 4.7m end to end, with Cleveland, Toledo, Gary as intermediate stops ... that'd likely be viable.

However, there's a case where the regional systems on either end can be built up first, given the population density of the Midwestern megaplex.

Rafael said...

@ BruceMcF -

the 10 HSR corridors formally identified in 2002 line up quite well with the emerging US megaregions that urban planners have identified for 2008.

Note that the second map shows Las Vegas to be part of Southern California region for these purposes. Sen. Reid (D-Nev) and SCAG (Curt Pringle et al.) are still pursuing maglev from Vegas to Anaheim, but a spur off the California HSR system may now make mor sense.

Also note the corridor in Arizona, which is the subject of a planning study.

Nothing in the Rockies just yet, nor between Atlanta, Chattanooga and Nashville - a maglev concept is driven by Georgia's desire to divert water from the Tennessee River.

Btw, as the Acela Express experience shows, active tilt systems and FRA crash safety regulations don't mix well.

However, Caltrain has performed some simulations that suggest lighter rolling stock conforming to international standards should perform as well or better in grade crossing accidents (see appendix C). This information was received unexpectedly well by FRA, potentially the first step toward an update of the mixed traffic rules - especially now that Joe the Acela is the veep-elect and there is broad bipartisan support for upgrading passenger rail service in the US.

Rafael said...

Here's a good primer that articulates the reasons why Amtrak trains are slower today than they were 50 years ago and slower than European train in similar terrain.

I'd recommend it to anyone advocating upgrading passenger service to 110-125mph on freight tracks in anything but flat terrain. Making that work nationwide requires changing the financial incentives for freight rail operators, e.g. on property taxes, track maintenance and upgrade investment - at least in the areas where moderately fast and frequent passenger service makes sense but a brand-new dedicate HSR alignment does not.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read it all yet, but here's a draft summary.

I'm not really sure who SGA is, or where they got this draft. They don't seem to have an obvious news/blog page with an update about this.


Anonymous said...

And blogger ate the URL or something. link.


Robert Cruickshank said...

I don't disagree with Rafael and Brandon - certainly we're going to see a series of bills in the Congress over the next 10 years, at least, to provide ongoing support for HSR projects, and that this is just the beginning.

That being said, why not be bold now? Infrastructure projects take some time to get steel in the ground. A larger initial Congressional stake in the national HSR system would help get more projects off the ground sooner.

I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth - and CA is likely to benefit greatly from the Kerry bill - but now's the time to think big.

BruceMcF said...

Making that work nationwide requires changing the financial incentives for freight rail operators ...

Of course. And indeed, Alan Drake's STRACNET freight rail electrification is an opportunity to get a good start on that, if the electric infrastructure is owned by a public authority selling electricity to the corridor owner, so that a portion of the capital investment in the program is no encumbered with property taxes, and there is a substantial operating cost advantage to the operator for the track upgrades. Combine that with access to public finance for privately funded expansion of track capacity, and that's a massive reduction in capital costs.

Its important to bear in mind that Peak Oil will have impacts on the time sensitive and time guarantee sensitive portions of the freight market as well, which will substantially expand the freight rail task.

Rafael said...

@ robert -

I have no problem with the idea of thinking big and getting construction workers on the job asap.

However, the HSR project simply isn't mature enough yet to break ground, even if all $33 billion were available right now and the entire ROW was already in the bag. The project-level EIR/EIS work needs to proceed. Given the economic times, it might be possible to accelerate that but there's a risk that residents near the chosen route will feel - literally - railroaded. You could end up with a lot more Menlo Parks in a hurry.

If Congress did decide on a sizable stimulus package on the condition that it be spent on infrastructure project that are ready to go right away, California voters could do the following: cancel state bond authority for selected levee and road projects, use federal money for those and increase state bond authority for HSR.

However, I don't think Congress is still in the ZOMG ZOMG THE SKY IS FALLING mode that prompted them to fork over $700 billion to the Treasury, more or less blindly trusting Secr. Paulson and Fed chairman Bernanke would know how to avert a financiapocalypse.

Instead, there is growing awareness that it's going to take several years of sustained, coherent and supervised public investment in infrastructure upgrades worth having to pull through this recession. The scale of the Kerry/Specter bill is an indication of things to come - multiple manageable stimulus bills in fairly quick succession rather than one big one.

In any but the current economy, any proposal to spend $23 billion on high speed passenger rail would be met with consternation. Lawmakers are used to spending that kind of money on weapons but not on a mode of transportation that is new to the US.

Rafael said...

@ BruceMcF -

from that Alan Drake post:

"In many, but not all cases, use the railroad ROW as new electrical transmission line corridors"

There may be engineering issues with using the same masts for very high voltage DC lines and the 25kV AC overhead catenaries for the trains, but this is a key concept for California HSR as well, especially in the San Bernardino county section. That goes doubly for potential spurs to Las Vegas and Palm Springs/Phoenix.

The desert is pretty much the only place where solar PV/thermal power plants covering several square miles each can be sited, but they are useless without transmission lines to population centers. Hydro power should be generated primarily at night.

If farming needs to be abandoned in the southernmost part of the CV to quench the thirst of new cities for all those extra millions of people, that area would also be ideal for solar power generation.

By contrast, inexpensive open racetrack ponds to grow algal biomass for biofuel production would be better sited north of Sacramento, where the inevitable evaporative water loss can easily be compensated.

A Lynch said...

I would like to think that a good portion of the money will go to CA HSR and the NE corridor while the rest goes to starting other HSR projects around the country. Texas, Florida, Chicago, there are a lot of great projects out there that could have a big impact on our transportation structure.

SantaTeresaHills said...

This is an article where the BART supporters celebrate the Measure B victory. They mention that there will be a new "Grand Central Station" in San Jose which could have as many as 500 trains in 10 years: BART with 133, Caltrain with 120, Light Rail with 116, HSR with 90 and a total of 50 trains out of Amtrak, ACE and Capitol Corridor trains.

Unknown said...

Diridon trying to take the title of "Grand central of the west" before the transbay terminal!?! who will win the really important battle of trying to imitate a train station on the other side of the country.

I expect this battle to be fought on newspaper columns near you!

Rafael said...

@ SantaTeresaHills, Ben -

just for reference, the city of Vienna, Austria is currently constructing a new central railway station for itself (click here for the overview folder in English). The project is part of a larger European effort to overcome the lack of transportation corridors across the former iron curtain and down to Greece.

The new through station will feature 10 at-grade platforms and two underground, plus platforms for two nearby subway lines, multiple streetcar lines and buses. In total, 1000 trains (incl. subways and trams) and 145000 passengers are expected to use the station each day.

The project scope includes a new freight terminal, office buildings, a mall and a new residential district with a little park. The new station will enter service in 2015, at a cost of around EUR 860 million.

The requisite environmental impact studies for the station itself have just been completed, ground on the freight terminal and western approach was broken some time ago. A related tunnel under one of the city's western districts is also already under construction, it will enable through traffic of trains from Linz, Salzburg and Germany.


To put the effort in perspective, Austria is about the size of Maine, home to 8.2 million people (~2 million in Vienna and its suburbs). Austria has ~3500 miles of standard-gauge track of which ~2350 miles is electrified (25kV AC @ 16.7Hz).

High speed trains are limited to 230-250kph due to population density outside the Vienna area, alpine terrain and the economic need to share track with freight trains, which are very different from their US counterparts.

Passenger service based on new railjet cars pulled by regular Taurus locomotives will soon complement the existing ICE-Tservice to Munich. However, HSR is not the reason for building the station in Vienna.


That's in contrast to Liege in Belgium, where Spanish architect/civil engineer Santiago Calatrava is being allowed to work his magic.

BruceMcF said...

There may be engineering issues with using the same masts for very high voltage DC lines and the 25kV AC overhead catenaries for the trains

There are substantial advantages of the proposition to use the rail corridors independent of whether they use the same masts ... that would be an additional capital cost saving, over top the core benefits, including:

(1) dealing with one or a few landowners, who have a vested interest in the long haul electricity transmission.

(2) corridor access for maintenance can rely on existing corridor access facilities.

If they can use the same masts, even better, but its not the main deal-maker, so if its not feasible, or only feasible in some conditions, its not a deal breaker.

Rafael said...

@ BruceMcF -

don't confuse corridor with ROW. The former is a term planners use to describe a fairly wide swath of land to either side of a road or railroad in which the environmental impact on residents and wildlife must be assessed.

A ROW is the actual stretch of contiguous land available for constructing the actual road or railroad. It is usually much narrower than the corridor, e.g. 100 feet or less for most railroad ROWs.

Therefore, it would be possible to conduct an integrated environmental impact study for a railroad and a transmission line that are to be constructed within the same corridor.

However, unless the transmission line can leverage the air space immediately above the railroad ROW, new land and air rights would have to be acquired for it. Ergo, if it's feasible, sharing masts/pylons would save a lot of money.

Rafael said...

Just took a look at the draft of the bill.

First off, I think it's a great idea to restructure the FRA. More on this below.

Second, the amount of money and how it is structured is significant though no more than a down payment. I'm sure Sen. Kerry knows this, but legal and fiscal foundation at the federal level must be created before more significant sums can sensibly be discussed.


Also, I'm not sure if setting up just an Office of High Speed Rail is the right approach. There are many areas of the country in which brand-new, dedicated alignments cannot be justified but there is a need for upgraded passenger service.

I'd prefer that FRA be organized into six offices: bulk freight, rapid rail, high speed rail, urban transit, health & safety and, integration.


Bulk Freight would be responsible for the portion of the national network that is owned by private freight companies that run US-style heavy freight trains and host passenger services limited to 79mph. The primary focus is on low cost per ton to compete with sea freight.


Rapid Rail would reflect European-style mixed-use portions of the national network owned by public-private partnerships. These would be subject to a property tax regime that favors appropriate upgrades and maintenance.

The primary focus would be on avoiding wait states and punctual service. All trains on rapid rail tracks would be subject to operations based on an integrated timetable. Wherever technically and economically feasible, a top speed of at least 110mph should be specified for passenger trains.

Dual track throughout plus adequate bypass tracks or loops would be required. In certain sections, a legacy alignment could be retained for US-style freight trains and a new shortcut built for limited axle loads and greater physical and virtual superelevation. Shortcut sections would be restricted to passenger and European-style rapid freight trains that compete with regional trucking.

Tilt train operators would rely on sensors plus geographic information systems maintained by the track owner to maximize safe speeds through relatively tight curves.

Critically, rapid rail classification would permit the mixed use of (legacy) equipment designed to FRA crash safety regulations and equipment designed to specified international standards, as long as both meet the active safety rules defined for rapid rail by the Health & Safety Office.


High Speed Rail would be responsible for portions of the national network dedicated to passenger and/or cargo trains connecting major population centers located roughly 100-500 miles apart.

In practice, that implies at least dual track throughout, overhead electrification and usually speeds in excess of 150mph where economical and feasible in terms of technology and environmental impact.

The focus would be on long stretches of sustained high speed, to compete with passenger cars and commercial aviation in transportation corridors where freeway and/or airport expansion is not feasible or desirable for cost, air quality, national energy security and/or climate policy reasons.

Taxpayer funding assistance for capital investments should be a mix of grants and low-interest loans, with the federal component limited to at most 80% of the total.

When prioritizing proposals competing for pools of available federal funds, Congress should apply the following five criteria with the help of FRA expertise:

- the ratios of reasonably expected monetized benefits at the national level to the absolute amount of federal assistance being requested. Proposals must include a justified expectation that the high speed rail service will attract sufficient ridership to reliably cover recurring expenses for a 30 year period.

- investment commitments by the state(s), counties and cities to be served, legally conditioned at most on obtaining the requested federal funding by a certain date. Such funding must be compatible with that for regional and urban transit services, especially those that directly affect ridership levels for the proposed high speed rail service.

- investment commitments by private parties, legally conditioned at most on obtaining the requested federal funding by a certain date

- the modalities set up for federal participation in the oversight of project planning and construction phases

- the evaluation of feeder infrastructure furnished by the Office of Integration (see below)

Critically, this office should prefer high speed rail technology available from multiple vendors and with a proven track record relevant to the conditions in the proposed corridor, established either in the US or in one or more other countries.

New technologies should only be considered for anything other than small-scale proof-of-concept projects if based on industry standards that permit new vendors to enter the market. The concept needs to be proven in conditions relevant to the proposed corridor, either in the US or in one or more other countries.

Proposals to use novel high speed rail technology must also specify how the service would integrate with existing standard gauge steel wheels services. This may involve transfer stations or rolling stock that can adapt to operating on them on-the-fly.


Urban Transit would be responsible for local passenger rail services on dedicated alignments in urban environments. These include subways, light rail and streetcars as well as commuter rail services on networks that are functionally segregated from the national network.

That means they are either physically disjoint (e.g. BART in the SF Bay Area) or else, physically present connections may only be used for exceptional maneuvers such as introducing new or removing old rolling stock. This may involve having it towed by equipment permitted to operate on the national network.

This office would also be responsible for defining and enforcing framework rules for integrated transit service planning. Particular attention needs to be paid to convenient transit access to airports, ferry terminals and regional/long-distance passenger rail stations.

Within the urban core, the focus should be on minimizing transfers and/or making them as convenient as possible, high service frequency and, on providing ETA information and explanations for delays to waiting passengers.

This includes layout and operations guidelines in and around major transit hubs, based on best practice case studies from around the world, with particular attention to motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian flow capacity, cleanliness and security (especially at night).

The office should also promote financial arrangements between separate public or private transit operators that permit customers to purchase a single ticket for any given trip involving multiple operators. This includes standardizing the technology and/or procedures used to verify payment.

If urban transit must be used to execute a transfer between e.g. an airport and a high speed rail station, the requisite ticket should be available for purchase online or as part of the long-distance reservation.


Health & Safety would define and enforce work rules for train and infrastructure operators, construction workers, maintenance crews and documentation that are appropriate for bulk freight, rapid rail and high speed rail portions of the national network.

It would also define and enforce appropriate equipment features and operator training requirements related to avoiding accidents and to minimizing injuries and loss of life and property in the event of an accident, for all of the aforementioned classifications.

Finally, it would codify and enforce policy frameworks defined by federal EPA or California ARB (where it has jurisdiction) on outdoor and enclosed spaces air quality and by DOE on energy sources (i.e. on whether electrification must be installed and whether it must be used if available). These external agencies could not demand tighter standards without a plan for funding the necessary upgrades.


Integration would be senior to the others, reporting to the Secretary of Transportation and defining the appropriate classification for each portion of the national rail grid. However, the head of each FRA office would be named directly by the Secretary, unless he or she chooses to delegate this responsibility to the head of the Office of Integration.

It would be responsible for making sure qualifying operators can run trains across classification boundaries where appropriate. This includes defining and enforcing gauge, electrification and signaling standards, in co-ordination with Canadian and Mexican authorities where appropriate.

In particular, this office must resolve conflicts related to maintaining adequate heavy freight capacity through rapid rail portions at reasonable cost to the operators, especially near the nation's sea and inland waterway ports.

At the same time, it must identify and promote planning solutions that enable improved passenger and rapid freight operations where feasible and economically justified. For example, establishing heavy freight corridors shared by competing operators to eliminate obstacles to road traffic and free up rail ROWs for urban transit.

High speed rail proposals in particular need to demonstrate that there are or will be adequate urban transit and/or rapid rail feeder services and/or road infrastructure to achieve ridership targets. Where appropriate, high speed trains should transfer to rapid rail alignments through built-up areas, especially if approaching a station at which they will stop.

For proposals to use novel high speed rail technology (e.g. maglev) that is incompatible with the existing network, this office must evaluate its technical and/or economic advantages against the loss of a ROW for compatible technology.

More generally, the office would be responsible for defining and enforcing the rules for EIR/EIS processes related to creating new rail alignments, modifying existing ones, migrating them to a different classification and, reviving legacy ROWs.

This includes defining and enforcing framework rules related to public-private partnerships, especially for rapid rail and high speed rail projects.

BruceMcF said...

@ Rafeal "However, unless the transmission line can leverage the air space immediately above the railroad ROW, new land and air rights would have to be acquired for it. Ergo, if it's feasible, sharing masts/pylons would save a lot of money."

Yes, sharing masts/pylons would be a saving of money. But the alternatives also involve installing dedicated pylons, so having to install dedicated pylons in the rail ROW is not a deal killer. The core benefit would be in being able to reach an agreement with the one or a few owners of the rail corridor, rather than having to stitch together a corridor based on where it is possible to sort out agreements with a large numbers of owners.