Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hooray For Victorville!?

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

Remember that whole Las-Vegas-to-Disneyland maglev concept that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev) is still pushing because it's supposedly "more Vegas"? While he's been making waves in Congress, private investors have quietly pursued an alternative based modern non-compliant multiple unit trains trains running on dedicated tracks. Diesel-electric option would run at a top speed of 125mph, whereas an electrified version could run at 150mph (top speed is currently limited by the lack of FRA rules, not the available technology). Note the faint overhead catenary in the above picture, with nary a pole in sight. Or a second track, for that matter, but perhaps that is only needed at one or more points along the route.

The big idea is to relieve congestion on I-15 and at McCarran airport in Las Vegas so folks in Southern California have an easier time getting to Las Vegas. The investors had become disillusioned with prospects for public funding for a fast a rail link. The hardest part is securing a viable ROW through Cajon Pass, which is heavily used by rail freight and includes a crossing of the San Andreas fault. Therefore, the current plan simply calls for the line to terminate at a giant new parking lot northeast of Victorville. Southern Californians would drive there, park and take the train the rest of the way.

This then is DesertXPress. FRA has announced the closing date for public comments on the draft EIR/EIS: May 22, 2009. Before then, there will be three more public hearings on the project.

  1. Las Vegas Area
    Tuesday, April 28, 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Hampton Inn Tropicana
    4975 Dean Martin Drive
    Las Vegas, NV 89118

  2. Barstow Area
    Wednesday, April 29 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Ramada Inn
    1511 East Main Street
    Barstow, CA 92311

  3. Victorville Area
    Thursday, April 30 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Green Tree Golf Course
    14144 Green Tree Boulevard
    Victorville, CA 92395

From the California point of view, there are a number of pluses and minuses here:

  • PLUS: private companies are funding an HSR line (standard gauge steel wheels)
  • PLUS: final nail in maglev coffin (at least on the California side)
  • PLUS: congestion on I-15 should ease quite a bit
  • PLUS: diesel trains require far less fuel than cars at the same occupancy rate
  • NEUTRAL: SoCal-Las Vegas not part of federally designated California HSR corridor
  • NEUTRAL: no stop in Barstow (limited water to support population growth)
  • MINUS: project not integrated with California HSR
  • MINUS: project not integrated with Pres. Obama's smart electrical grid
  • MINUS: tracks (and OCS, if any) not designed for operation at 220mph
  • MINUS: max. gradient 4.5% (vs. 3.5% for California system)
  • MINUS: only limited relief for McCurran airport in Las Vegas
  • MINUS: requires people to drive out to Victorville and park there

IMHO, there would be a lot of value in getting SoCal-Las Vegas included in the officially designated national HSR corridor for California as soon as possible. Sure, the Republicans would have a field day (for a day) but it's still the smartest thing to do.

First, it would establish that HSR out to Las Vegas shouldn't be a completely separate project, even if the tracks won't join up right away. That would give USDOT (i.e. Ray LaHood) some leverage to force integrated planning.

Second, the designation would make the tracks through the desert eligible for federal HSR dollars, which could fund the wider curves and tighter geometry tolerances required for future operation at 220mph. The DesertXPress sidesteps the thorny issue of the endangered Desert Tortoise by hewing close to I-15 east of Barstow. Nevertheless, some opposition from at least Indian gambling interests in California is likely, though siting the western terminus at Victorville makes the train less of a competitive threat.

Third, early electrification of the line would make a whole lot of sense if phase 2 of the project included a nearby HVDC power line to carry renewable electricity from the Mojave desert and Nevada to population centers in (Southern) California. But please, don't put a big solar farm and a relief airport next to one another.

Fourth, an early connection to the California network would do more to relieve McCarran airport, since 30% of its flights are to or from California cities that will be served by California HSR. At peak times, e.g. during major conventions, Las Vegas could leverage Palmdale as a relief airport, provided LAWA doesn't hobble it with a solar thermal plant right next to the runways. At 200mph cruise speed, travel time would be just over an hour. Fully leveraging California HSR and Palmdale airport would eliminate the need for a new Ivanpah Valley relief airport between Primm and Jean in Nevada, not far from the BrightSource's Ivanpah solar thermal power plant on the California side.

Sixth, project integration would permit both sides to pool both political clout in Congress and purchasing power.

The tricky part is figuring out how to integrate the projects. A spur off the SF-LA-Anaheim starter line at Mojave would make a lot of sense, but DesertXPress may not be interested in going anywhere but Victorville. A connector from there to the phase II spur between LA and San Diego is theoretically possible and would give San Bernardino an HSR station. We'll see.

Early electrification of the DesertXPress line would be excellent but it's something their web site has not previously mentioned. Note that CHSRA is currently planning its own, electrified test track in the Central Valley (part 1, part 2), which will become part of the starter line and spur to Sacramento.

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Anonymous said...

What about letting them proceed with their plan and building an extension of their line from Victorville to Palmdale Airport. There's just desert between the two.

Rafael said...

@ anon -

such an extension would be a detour for trains hailing from Northern as well as those hailing from southern California. It would also be longer than the Mojave-Barstow section and run through rural terrain instead of an established transportation corridor.

Palmdale (and/or Ontario) should be useful stops along the way between LA and Las Vegas, no more.

Rafael said...

@ anon -

sorry, I misspoke. Victorville to Palmdale would actually be a little shorter than Mojave-Barstow, but not by much.

Spokker said...

I'm not sure how viable their idea is, but I've always admired the DesertXPress guys for their moxie.

Rob Dawg said...

One word rebuttal:

Al2000 said...

OCS only? Thats crazy!

Would it really cost that much more to put in some signaling?

Marcel F. Williams said...

In theory, you should want it to be as easy as possible for anyone using the California Highspeed rail system to get to Vegas via one of the rail stations.

So a direct train line to Las Vegas from the California Palmdale station would seem like the most logical move to me.

Unknown said...

The DesertXpress folks seem to be overlooking the best part of running DMU trains: at Victorville, the trains could enter/exit the new HSR ROW and run at conventional speeds on the BNSF/Metrolink lines into LA.

Also, this could be done in tandem with the proposed LA-LV train conventional rail service. And YES, restoring LA-LV train service is currently an ACTIVE project among several agencies.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The DesertXpress project ought to become the de facto federally supported HSR solution to link LA to Vegas, and Harry Reid should give up his unrealistic maglev dreams to help bring this to fruition.

From a political perspective that might help get the LA-Bakersfield segment of our own HSR project completed more quickly.

Of course, I still believe that this project isn't nearly as important as SF-LA HSR, but if there is demand for Vegas HSR, let it be based on the Desert Xpress model.

Anonymous said...

Original Anonymous here . . .

If a private company wants to build the line, so much the better. I applaud their entrepreneurial spirit and am pleased the costs won't be borne by the taxpayer.

I agree that Victorville to Palmdale would be a detour for folks coming from NorCal, but the truth is most of the traffic on I-15 is from SoCal. And I-15, more than air travel, is the problem this project is trying to solve. And if you're a private firm, you can't be happy about spending money to build all the way to Victorville only to see your project usurped by public authorities who want to build a bypass at Barstow after you've invested a lot of effort in your line. That's why I think a Victorville Palmdale route, even if it is outside of an established transportation corridor, would better.

Could their diesel trains run on the HSR authority's track all the way to LA if an extension were built? Maybe they could lease time slots. I imagine trains won't be able to go their top speeds from Palmdale to LA because of track geometry. If you're driving to Las Vegas, the train is still faster.

Anonymous said...

A few final points, if they're at the draft EIS stage, it seems a bit late to be adding features like electrification or curve easement. Planning for that will set them back several years.

"Sixth, project integration would permit both sides to pool both political clout in Congress and purchasing power."

As a private entity, the Desert XPress folks don't need much in the way of political clout. And even if they did, there's no reason why CA and NV wouldn't join forces for a project that under this proposal, already serves both states. Where would the additional Congressional support come from?

Also, I think that if it were easy to take the line down into San Bernardino, they would have done so. The reason they're not going further south is because, for reason geographic and political, it becomes prohibitively expensive to do so.

Alon Levy said...

The problem is that Victorville is the desert equivalent of a beet field station. The TGV can live with these because they're only featured in minor cities, with the main cities having stations close to their centers. California will have no use for a station separated from LA by 80 miles of congested freeways. That's about the same as the distance between SF and Gilroy. CAHSR will be useless between LA and Gilroy, and SoCal-LV HSR will be useless between LV and Victorville.

In principle, Victorville is useful in that it's a cheap terminus for a starter line. But in practice the line won't be extended - it won't get enough ridership to make enough money to merit extension.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I've driven from Pomona to Vegas and it's taken me 8 hours. It's 4 hours at a minimum. I'd park at Victorville and take an hour long train from there.

If they fail, at least no public money was wasted, and we are left with a physical asset that another investor might pick up and run with.

Ed - Burbank said...

I can see CA doing everything in their power to stop or hinder this project. The last thing the state wants is for potential tax revenue to go to Nevada. Especially when CA lacks the ability to balance the budget without gimmicks.
Personally I will just fly to Las Vegas out of Burbank. The problem is by the time I drove to Victorville, I coul
d have flown to LV. I would also be cheaper to fly if I was going by myself. The LV to Victorville train does have merit, It should help relieve traffic on the highway.

GLEN said...

WE are building high speed rail ..San Fransciso to Los Angeles
What is the purpose of this post?

Spokker said...

Off topic:

Add to the list of high speed rail concerns starvation and Summer camp. This comment from Palo Alto Online wins this week's insane NIMBY comment award.

"You can call the homeowners in any part of this city or other city's up and down the Caltrain corridor NIMBY's, since the HSR will effect all these residents.

I will begin with congestion, waited listed for neighborhood schools, local grocery stores running out of food, filled up summer camps, brownie and Boy Scout troops, etc."

I've heard a rumor that CHSRA is looking to build a station here. We don't want Boy Scouts from Los Angeles coming up here!

Anonymous said...

I just don't care about getting people from LA to LV. If it doesn't go from BFD to LVS then its of no use to me or my clients. And, again I have to wonder where the common sense it. Pick one system and stick with it. If there is gonn be TGV HSR in the desert area already, then it only makes sense on every possible level from construction to operations to equipment purchase for ca and nv to get together and make it all part of the same system and connect in the middle at palm. it is the only thing that makes sense. so of course, we can expect anything BUT that, to happen. Instead what we will get is yet another fragmented and incomplete, and inconvenient result. I try very hard to stick to my guns for hsr and other projects, but I have to tell you I totally see why people throw a fit about large projects because as we can see, already, the ca hsr is a clusterfk . I'm ready to say forget the whole thing as I have zero confidence in seeing any train get me from here to LA in 2.5 hours before Im in my grave. If some fool wants to spend money on a train from vegas to nowhere. knock yourself out. but no southern californian is gonna drive all the way to vicotrville ---and then get out fo there car. if they made it that far, they will keep driving. feet on the dash board and big gulp in hand. Its like a stupid bomb has exploded over america.

無名 - wu ming said...

OT, but there's a nice comparative post here on the top 7 HSR networks.

Anonymous said...

you know all the things that made this country achieve greatnes and high standard of living.. all the projects - the big projects - from the national parks, to the dams and the grid, and the interstate, - if you tried to do any of it now you couldnt do it and if you could get it done it would wind up being done so poorly that it wouldn't be worth it. Our inability to look at a map with common sense eyes and draw a line that takes people from point A-to B and then say - "make this happen" and then send guys out with concrete and bulldozers and viola five years later there it is. - that will never happen again and thus - our slow demise from 1st to 4th world status. I'm gonna patienlty wait right here for the article that says "this just in- common sense prevails, best solution found and chosen!"

Alon Levy said...

Jim, Jane Jacobs has shown how big projects like those you cite are a result of success, not a cause of it. Depressed regions can stay depressed after decades of public works and investment; Jacobs' example is Southern Appalachia, which remains as poor as ever despite the TVA. I would add that of the two greatest success stories in the developing world, China and India, only China can "say - 'make this happen' and then send guys out with concrete and bulldozers and viola five years later there it is." India doesn't do these things, and is growing as fast. Similarly, in the developed world, the two fastest growing major economies are Canada and Britain, neither of which engages in large-scale projects.

If CAHSR doesn't get built, it'll make adjusting to a world without cheap oil and with zero emissions harder, and it'll make it harder to integrate LA and SF economically. But it won't take California into the third world. Transportation infrastructure isn't that important.

Anonymous said...

it wont take us into the third world - true - but it will accentuate our descent from leader to loser-hood. Its just embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

not because the train is so important - but because it is so simple and basic yet we can't get it done.

Anonymous said...

and as for those projects I mentioned - they did help the country to greatness - not because they created jobs building the project - but because the resulting infrastructure and quality of life that water and power and national conservation brought. California couldnt not be an economic power without the water project for instance.--- and my real goal is an attempt to shame the powers that be into getting their shit together. the problem with that is - they don't care what they look like to the public.

無名 - wu ming said...

california without the water project just wouldn't have been centered in socal, is all. i'm all for infrastructure projects like CAHSR, but i'm not with ya on the aquaduct.

it's going to be amazing the difference between the beijing-shanghai route now and with HSR. it's flat as a pancake for most of that run, they should be able to run those trains at absurd speeds. we'll benefit here in CA from china building those things, from the carbon not released from airplane flights never taken. and lord knows they need more capacity and higher speeds, china's a huge place and needs to move a ton of people.

BruceMcF said...

I don't see the problem with Victorville. Its not as if the CHSR Mojave spur to give access to the track to LV would have to pass through Victorville.

And if it is electrified ... so what if the maximum speed is 150mph? If most of the cost was borne by someone else and its simply a CA-HSR operator paying an access fee to run a train to Las Vegas, why not? The French branch TGV's off the HSR corridors onto the regular Express Rail network all the time. The main reason we can't do that in America is because we don't have a coherent Express Rail network.

TomW said...

The fact they are planninh on running non-complient trains on a long-distance intercity route shows how silly the FRA rules now are. I wouldn't be at all surprised if CHSRA chose an off-the-shelf non-complient design for their rolling stock (my bet is on Alstom's 220mph, AGV).

The FRA need to realise that rolling stock technology has developed hugely since the exsisting rules were created several decades ago, and change them. Otherwise, everyone will ignore them, preventing there being any way of enforceing sensisble standards.

BruceMcF said...

What "non-compliant" shows is that the FRA needs to get out of the one-size-fits-all model ... modernize the existing FRA standards, for heavy rail freight and trains sharing track with heavy rail freight, a regulatory standard for Rapid Rail, to allow trains to be qualified for the standard rather than separately for each system via a waiver process, and a regulatory standard for bullet trains.

Rafael said...

@ GLEN -

last I looked, 125-150mph was considered high speed and Victorville was in California.

This is the California High Speed Blog, so the CHSRA system isn't all we ever discuss.

Robert Cruickshank said...

To clarify - this blog is focused on high speed rail in California, which is to be defined broadly. The Vegas HSR project is very much an appropriate subject of discussion here.

We have talked about other HSR systems around the country and the world before here, and will continue to do so, but a focus on the LA-LV project is something we absolutely will continue to do.

Anonymous said...

Funny Robert that you're pointing out their glossy marketing media's lack of honest representation of HSR profile truth (barely visible electrical overhead wires, 'nary a pole in site', shown one wide track only), when CHSRA and 1A props wrote the book on that kind of sleazy media tactic. Shoot I'm surprized the don't show the matterhorn, the castle, and fireworks exploding in joy in the background.

BTW if they'll drive all the way to Victorville to catch a train, why wouldn't Peninsulan's step off a Caltrain at Diridon, walk 50 ft across a platform to board an HSR train?

Alon Levy said...

Anon: neither option is feasible, but at least the Vegas-Beet Field line will be developed privately, with no public money to waste. I'd say it's also easier to connect to downtown LA from an engineering point of view, since laying tracks through the unpopulated areas between Palmdale and Victorville is easier than expanding the Caltrain corridor from two tracks to four.

About the only upshot to terminating at SJ first is that if in the future Atherton and Menlo Park undergo severe white flight, there will no longer be any high-income people there to bitch about HSR and their delicate schools. But that's very unlikely - white flight generally affects middle income areas, not high income ones.

Rob Dawg said...

Purely theoretical question.

If the proposal were for high speed drive-on drive-off auto transport Victorville to Las Vegas so that California could save billions in roads expansion and passengers could save energy would the support here be as great or would the auto component sour the milk?

Alon Levy said...

I don't think auto trains can achieve very high speeds - carrying all these cars adds too much weight. The US Auto Train is essentially a mixed passenger/freight train, for instance. I think they have faster auto trains in Switzerland, but even those are very far from high-speed.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I'm guessing very few people will drive to Victorville to catch an HSR train to Vegas. Well, maybe "very few" is a hyperbolic statement, but I cannot envision it attracting a significant ridership if the trains do not enter the basin.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 12:05pm -

a) next time, before you start foaming at the mouth, please check who published the post.

b) the gist of the post, in case you missed it, is that I don't think going to Victorville makes a whole lot of sense.

c) DesertXPress has zip to do with CHSRA at the moment. I'm sceptical of the way they're pitching electrification, but it's important to remember that this is a completely separate, strictly private venture.

d) Travel to Las Vegas is not at all the same thing as travel within California. In the early years, every HSR trains needs to stop in both SF and in the south bay to build sufficient ridership. That means figuring out a way to run them through the mid-peninsula.

Bay Area Resident said...

Whats wrong with maglev, from a laymans perspective? There are people who think maglev is the only approach that should be considered and everything else is obsolete.

Spokker said...

It was my understanding that Maglev provides marginal benefits for a much higher cost, isn't compatible with existing infrastructure and uses a lot of energy.

Alon Levy said...

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with maglev. It's just stupid to build LA-LV HSR using a technology that's completely incompatible with the CAHSR mainline. The main strengths of maglev - faster acceleration, better performance with slopes, and higher speed - don't have much of a chance to show on the LA-LV line. The fast acceleration doesn't mean much with as few stops as between LA and LV; the slope performance is useless because the terrain is either flat or mountainous enough to require tunnels in either case; and the distance isn't large enough for the higher speed to make a big difference.

I'd argue that maglev could be a pretty good fit for the CAHSR mainline, but the cost concerns and the lack of good off-the-shelf models make it very iffy.

Rafael said...

@ BAR -

maglev doesn't have much of a track record. The only commercial implementation world-wide is a 20-mile stretch between Shanghai and its airport.

The only vendor with an off-the-shelf product is Transrapid, a German consortium. They haven't succeeded in getting any one in Germany to eat their dog food and even managed a major crash on their own test track that killed 23 and injuring ten more. Someone forgot to move a maintenance vehicle out of the way before a trial run. Confidence builder!

JR Central's been working on its own maglev technology for God knows how long but the $100 billion or so needed to build a new shinkansen line hasn't materialized yet.

In the US, General Atomics has been advocating a variation that requires superconducting coils. To work around patent issues, it relies on unstable magnetic repulsion rather than stable attraction.

All maglev designs have serious safety issues if the power fails at high speed, because they need to "land" on rubber tires. Ever seen an aircraft land at 300mph?

Basically, maglev is the Jetsons on steroids. Steel wheels is noisier, is limited to shallower gradients and tops out at less stupendous speeds. But it is proven and there are plenty of vendors with off-the-shelf products that will compete for orders. Plus, the weight of the vehicle is supported even if the power fails.