Monday, November 10, 2008

Just How Useful is HSR, Really?

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

That's the question being pondered by one Kent Amberson in a letter to the Merced Sun-Star this morning. While one LTE in a smallish newspaper might not normally be worth talking about, I do believe that our work to promote the usefulness, value, and need for high speed rail continues after Prop 1A's passage. It's likely that many Californians have the same questions as Kent, considering how unfamiliar most Californians are with passenger rail. Here's his question:

How do you get from your house to the train station, and how do you get from the station to where you are going? In Merced you can call Dial A Ride, I suppose, but anybody that has to be in a particular place at a particular time knows that the Dial A Ride is not a solution...

Besides, not every community on the line has a Dial A Ride system. To have somebody drive you to the station is one solution or drive your own car, but where do you park if you need to for several days or even month?...

Then there is the question of when you get where you are going, what do you do?

Imagine getting to Los Angeles by train and your destination is Huntington Beach, Irvine or West Covina to mention a few. How do you get there from here? Perhaps you start looking for a Greyhound bus but again, how do you get to the bus station? Or are you going to try to figure out the local transit system?...

In planning a system like this, there has to be a way of getting to and from the station if it is going to be of any benefit to the paying public....

This is probably the reason most people prefer traveling by their own car.

Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with mass transit options in California - you can get to Irvine from Anaheim via the Pacific Surfliners, for example - and some of it is based on skepticism that other forms of transit will materialize to serve the HSR stations. By 2018 it is likely that the Expo Line will be open from LA Union Station to Santa Monica, and Metrolink service, which reaches numerous communities in Southern California, will be boosted. It's true that Orange County has a lot of work to do in building transit capacity, but a direct bus from Huntington Beach to the Anaheim HSR station (ARTIC) would be a sensible move for the OCTA.

The main problem with Kent's argument, though, is assuming that HSR service is analogous to automobile service. It isn't. The high speed train simply cannot bring you door to door. Neither can an airplane. Driving may solve the door to door issue, but at a very high cost - time, gas, wear and tear on the vehicle. The fuel costs of driving in particular are likely to rise dramatically between now and 2018.

Nor is HSR analogous with airplanes. Instead HSR provides the same travel need - getting from, say, Merced to Irvine - using a third method that provides the speed and convenience of airplanes and some of the flexibility of driving. HSR stations are not going to be located on the edge of town as airports are, but in the middle of the urban area, in places that are already the nodes of local transit systems. It's simply easier to provide transit connections to and from the HSR station than to and from an airport on the edge of town. LAX still lacks a true mass transit link, but LA Union Station is the hub of the entire mass transit system in Southern California.

And HSR will spur better transit connections, just as airports do today. It will bring more people into the city centers, making it easier to get from house to station. Certainly there will be journeys that require a car to complete, but HSR makes that easier and cheaper - you can rent a car at your destination, have a family or friend pick you up, etc, just as is done today.

HSR provides a different option for intrastate travel, matching the quickness of air travel with much of the flexibility of driving (through connections to other transit systems) at a lower price. Certainly California has work to do in expanding its non-HSR transit offerings and this blog strongly supports those projects, such as LA County's Measure R. HSR will never be and isn't intended to be the solution to everyone's point A to point B trip. But it will make those trips across the state much cheaper and much easier.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias reminds us that significant improvements in bus service can be made with a relatively affordable investment. For our own HSR system to be successful that means we need to push back hard against Sacramento's own efforts to further gut bus funding, which has already taken a significant hit over the last two years.


luis d. said...

I don't know what the big deal is. It's comparable to Air travel where a family member can pick you up at the station, you can take a taxi, take the bus, get on a local train, etc. It is comparable to Air travel but in my opinion way better and faster.

Some people even complain by saying we shouldn't build a HSR system because it won't take them to the front door of their destination, ridiculous!

Rafael said...

In voting in favor of prop 1A, Californians implicitly accepted a change of lifestyle as well. Solutions for connecting service will and should now take center stage in the cities and counties served by the very expensive new HSR line.

The first thing to point out is that prop 1A includes $950 million for capital projects by existing HSR feeder services, principally BART, Metrolink, LA Metro and SF Muni. Caltrain, ACE, VTA and NCTD are also likely to receive modest amounts. Pure bus services such as AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit may get little or nothing.

Unfortunately, the same will be true of bus service providers up and down the Central Valley. This omission may be rectified at a future date, especially if cities like Merced draft plans for transit-oriented development to fight urban sprawl.

Meanwhile, it may help to look at how other countries have addressed the issue of travel to and from their train stations.

In the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, bicycles are considered a general-purpose mode of transport rather than exercise equipment. This is reflected in the wide variety of models and accessories available, including pedelecs with electric assist motors.

Creating a network of bicycle paths in places like Merced could make bicycles a viable alternative to driving. Folding bicycles, with or without electric motors, can be brought on board trains in Europe. Space for non-folding bicycles is much more limited, especially on high speed trains.

Note that there are also folding mopeds but that train operators usually do not allow vehicles with fuel tanks and hot exhausts on board, as they represent potential fire hazards.

Folding versions of scooters powered by batteries or compressed air might be permitted, but they do not exist yet.

A separate concept available in the Netherlands is the train taxi. Passengers can purchase a combo train + taxi ticket. The taxi surcharge is a low flat fee to any destination in a well-defined area. Passengers may be asked to share the cab ride. Even so, this service is heavily subsidized.

bossyman15 said...

don't forget there are public Transit option in google maps.

people can easily use that to know which buses or train to take in other city they are not familar with.

ian said...

@google transit

I've worked extensively with the google transit feed spec and the great thing is that it's so scalable... that is, HSR (and air, if it's more reliable) can be integrated in the trip planner... Try planning a trip in Japan, they have all national rail, flights, and ferry service integrated into google transit. this would be great for CA, since you can look up driving directions and it'll suggest to take transit -- soon it could do this SF to LA.

Anonymous said...

I e-mailed the High Speed Authority and tried to convince them to include "Car Trains" I believe this would vastly increase the appeal to many would be train passengers. The train authority told me there will be no "Car Trains" only car rentals at each trains station and or public transit.

Rafael said...

@ james h -

auto trains are basically freight trains with some passenger cars thrown in and would not run on HSR tracks for that reason alone.

Amtrak operates an auto train between Virginia and Florida.

In California, auto trains could make sense during the winter ski season, e.g. between San Jose and Truckee. That, however, would have nothing to do with HSR.

Anonymous said...

prop 1A includes $950 million for capital projects by existing HSR feeder services, principally BART...

Any specifics on what project BART is planning on spending this 1A funding on?

Anonymous said...

@r. motorist

I'm guessing a fleet upgrade, which I really don't like-I've grown very fond of the 70s rolling stock, and I miss the carpeting. And possibly some expansion.

One thing I hope for for is that that they make the HSR's livery less dutch :-p.

Rafael said...

@ r. motorist -

SF wants BART to invest in improving the pedestrian flow capacity away from the platforms in the downtown stations. They are currently a bottleneck during rush hour.

@ anon @ 11:11 -

CHSRA will put system operations out to tender. There may be several operators, each with their own livery. Also, the sides of trains may be used for advertising. The blue and yellow scheme probably won't survive the planning stage.

Brandon in California said...

I cannot imagine HSR train cars having wraps like some light-rail vehicles. It would make them gawd awful ugly and I have doubts the revenue generated from such would go very far in a billion $ annual operating plan. Basically, the return amay not be worth the headache of a banner streaming up and down California turning peoples stomach's inside out.

-Just my 2 cents.

On the other hand, as minor as this whole subject may be, I suspect a blue & gold paint scheme will survive. Maybe not in its current design as depicted in vids, but will continue on b/c it is the states official colors. Right?

Maybe all blue trains with a gold-ish logo or lettering?

My prerference would be for red & gold/yellow trains... similar to the Thalys (but theirs are more moroon).

luis d. said...

@ rafael

I hope your kidding about advertising on HSR. It would make the trains UGLY and would drag down the image of HSR as some sort of cheap Public Transportation. It's like covering large Jumbo jets with advertising, they don't do it. Nobody else that on their HSR and it should stay so. It wouldn't be worth the little money generated

So far the Gold and Yellow scheme only looks good on the Shinkansen 700's shownn in the animations. It doesn't look so good on the TGV style trains. I beleive if they use the Gold and Yellow, they should also use a different paint scheme for other trainsets. An all Gold and Yellow fleet wouldn't look nice. Just my opinions anyway.

Rafael said...

@ brandon, luis d. -

my point was simply that people shouldn't get too hung up about the current color scheme as it is just a placeholder.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ I'd agree that that is the situation. This subject is far far to early vet now. Exterior advertising tho... eeeck. Scary!

Anonymous said...

There are already a surprising number of usable connections into the rail network - you just have to figure out which agency to ask.

I was thinking about how I might use the network if I ended up doing a lot of regular travel, either on the new SMART or in HSR. I realized that I might do well by buying an inexpensive small car for $1500 or so and just parking it at the other end.

But, the connections are better and better. Last time I traveled on business to Burbank, I realized that I wasted a lot of time and money renting a car - Metrolink has a stop at the Burbank airport, goes into downtown Burbank, and from there I could walk or possibly bus to my destination. Next time I won't spend 45 minutes waiting for a rental car. And if I had taken the train, it would have worked even better.

Anonymous said...

Exterior advertising:

I admit I'm not a fan, but subtle, funny advertising is done on airplanes and could work. I know I'm always a little extra excited when I get to ride the Shamu airplane. :-)

Anonymous said...

How useful is HSR? In the video posted with the AVE in the other thread:

there are a few shots of trains running in really heavy fog. People of the Valley should take a look at that next time the valley fog turns I-5 and 99 into a dangerous mess.

I also strongly agree with the first post in this thread, from Luis d. People fly places and then are picked up at the airport, rent a car, or take some form of public or semi-public (taxi / shuttle) to their destinations. All this too will happen at HSR stations.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ But will be minimized to a degree if stations are lcoated in downtown core areas.

Anonymous said...

"^^^ But will be minimized to a degree if stations are lcoated in downtown core areas."

Respectfully disagree.

Transbay in SF will be a hub like SFO. We have rental car agencies operating out of downtown SF. Super Shuttle and others will likely move people there. Marin and Sonoma Airporter will likely bring people there. And there will need to be space for a huge taxi queue.

And all the transit there, as well.

Anonymous said...

Since we are talking about train colors and advertising...

What about the name of the system?

Caltrain would be the ideal name for the system, but that one is obviously taken.

Any other ideas?

Anonymous said...

In Europe, the Eurostar carriages allow you to just drive into a train and drive off at your destination. If the SF to LA HSR project is to be successful, it will be critical to give people the option to take their cars along on the train (for a minor charge).

Without this, I can guarantee that very very few will use the train.

Anonymous said...

@ rafael: Letting people drive onto trains and drive off them at their destination is done on hi-speed trains in Europe. This allows folks to not worry about transportation on either end and will dramatically improve ridership on the SF-LA-SD route imo.

Loren said...

I've never heard of any high-speed train that carries people's cars -- auto trains are what rafael says.

And that being said, I once saw someone turn CAHSR / CHSRA into "Chaser".

But I think that the train stations ought to include long-term parking, just as airports do, at least in the lower-population density areas like the Central Valley.

Anonymous said...

"I've never heard of any high-speed train that carries people's cars -- auto trains are what rafael says."

I suggest you look at Eurostar's Le Shuttle which is a high-speed train that carries people's cars.