Monday, April 20, 2009

How The AVE Is Changing Spain

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

Today's Wall Street Journal offers a fascinating look at how Spain's AVE high speed trains are changing that country in some interesting and generally positive ways. As you know from our previous posts on the topic, not only do I have a personal affinity for the AVE, but their dramatic success in a nation whose pre-AVE travel habits, population densities and natural geography are very similar to those of California is a strong indicator of how HSR will be successful here in California.

To sell his vision of a high-speed train network to the American public, President Barack Obama this week cited Spain, a country most people don't associate with futuristic bullet trains.

Yet the country is on track to bypass France and Japan to have the world's biggest network of ultrafast trains by the end of next year, figures from the International Union of Railways and the Spanish government show.

Although the AVE was initiated by a Socialist government in the early 1990s, both the PSOE and the right-wing Partido Popular are strong backers of the AVE trains, and now Spain will have a large network of fast electric trains connecting its major cities. Already Sevilla, Málaga, and Barcelona are linked to Madrid - Valencia, Bilbao, and some of the northwestern cities are next in line. But they don't plan to stop there:

But the AVE-which means "bird" in Spanish- proved to be a popular and political success. Politicians now fight to secure stations in their districts. Political parties compete to offer ever-more ambitious expansion plans. Under the latest blueprint, nine out of ten Spaniards will live within 31 miles of a high speed rail station by 2020.

That's some amazing penetration of the HSR network that is planned for the next ten years. And it's even more fascinating considering that until the first AVE line opened in 1992, Spain's travel habits closely resembled those of California:

And although those numbers stem from the Madrid-Sevilla AVE line, they've been repeated in particular on the Madrid-Barcelona line, which has taken nearly 40% of the market on what was one of the world's busiest air routes.

The WSJ article suggests that the AVE has not only reshaped travel habits, but social and economic habits as well, maybe even cultural habits:

"We Spaniards didn't used to move around much," says José María Menéndez, who heads the civil engineering department at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. "Now I can't make my students sit still for one second. The AVE has radically changed this generation's attitude to travel."...

The AVE was originally designed to compete with the airplane for commutes between major cities around 300 miles apart. But the biggest, and least expected, effect of the AVE has been on the smaller places in between.

Perhaps the most striking example is Ciudad Real, a scrappy town 120 miles south of Madrid in Castilla-La Mancha which, Mr. Ureña says, "had completely vanished from the map." In medieval times, the town was a key stopover point on the route between the two of most important cities of the time, Córdoba and Toledo. But the railway and the highway south later bypassed the town, and Ciudad Real began to wither.

Now it has an AVE station that puts it just 50 minutes away from Madrid, and Ciudad Real has come alive. The city has attracted a breed of daily commuters that call themselves "Avelinos." The AVE helped attract a host of industries to Ciudad Real, and the train is full in both directions.

Ciudad Real is a town somewhat analogous to Merced, and one can imagine that the California HSR trains will make UC Merced a more attractive option to students in the Bay Area and in Southern California. You can be sure that Central Valley cities are looking to the experience of places like Ciudad Real as a possible model of how their towns can provide more stable and lasting economic growth built around the high speed train.

Of course, the article does mention some criticism of the high speed trains:

Not everyone is pleased. ETA, the militant Basque separatist group, has said it would target anyone involved in the construction of a high-speed train line that will connect the restive northern region with Madrid and France. In December, ETA killed the owner of a company working as a contractor on the project, and in February detonated a bomb at the headquarters of Ferrovial SA, another contractor working on the project.

This issue is not so relevant to California, for obvious reasons, and it's worth noting that ETA's concern is that the AVE will be so successful that it will erode the Basque Country's autonomy by linking it more closely with the rest of Spain. The other main criticism voiced is that Spain's HSR focus is leaving other transportation infrastructure less funded:

Other, nonviolent critics say the country's massive investment in high speed rail has come at the expense of other, less-glamorous forms of transportation. Starved of funds, Spain's antiquated freight-train network has fallen into disuse, forcing businesses to move their goods around by road. That means the Spanish economy is unusually sensitive to changes in the price of crude oil.

And yet that's not really an argument against the successful HSR project - instead it's an argument for the investment in freight rail. It doesn't have to be an either/or proposition.

Critics say the AVE will never stop losing money. Even its backers say high-speed rail can only be economical if the state bears much of the construction costs. But they say the train's benefits-lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less road congestion and, in Spain's case, greater social cohesion and economic mobility-make it an investment worth making.

Of course, Spain's roads were built with state money as well. Here in California our airports and freeways were built with state and federal money. Freeways are not expected to turn a profit. The whole notion that our transportation infrastructure should turn a profit is absurd, even if most HSR systems break even or generate surpluses, more than covering their operating expenses. And that's a sensible approach - the state makes the investment in the infrastructure, and the ongoing operations are self-sustaining.

Spain is like California in another way - it's getting extremely hard hit by the global recession. Like California, Spain experienced a significant property bubble and is now paying the price with high unemployment. I don't know how this will impact the ambitious AVE construction plans. But at least Spain spent the last 20 years investing in sustainable transportation - whereas California frittered away its economic boom on sprawl, roads, and tax cuts. Spain is in a better position to weather the economic storm and recover from it thanks to its investment in the AVE.

It's not too late for California, of course. With Prop 1A and President Obama's support we can start down the trail Spain blazed nearly 20 years ago. HSR will change California in interesting ways, and although we're already a far more mobile population than Spain apparently is, HSR will still provide economic and environmental benefits that so far we can only imagine.


Jack said...

this is off-topic. Robert, do you have any comment on how you think Proposition 1A may impact HSR funding? I heard on NPR this morning that 1A has a potential long term affect of diverting state spending from social programs to building infrastructure.

Rafael said...

The Basque Y will actually be used for freight as well as passenger traffic - indeed, mostly for freight. The Perpignan-Figueras LGV was completed in February, but it won't run any high speed trains until Spain completes the Figueras-Barcelona section in 2012. The whole line will feature a maximum gradient of 1.2% and will also support mixed traffic.

Both connections into France will be standard gauge, as is the entire AVE network in Spain. RENFE relies on gauge change technology to allow trains capable of speeds up to 250km/h (150mph) to leverage both the new lines and the legacy Iberian gauge network (1668mm, same as BART).

A third, freight-only rail link between Pau in France and Huesca in Spain is also being considered, but it's unclear if it will use the abandoned route via Canfranc. There is substantial resistance in France to a new rail line through the Pyrenees national park.

Spain's neighbor Portugal is also busy constructing standard gauge HSL lines to supplement its existing medium speed (120-140mph) passenger services on the legacy broad gauge network. The one between Lisbon and Madrid will also support mixed traffic, with passenger trains running at up to 350km/h (220mph). It is expected to be completed by 2013.

All of these projects are part of the EU's TEN-T framework for integrated pan-European infrastructure development, with about 50% of the total expenditure focused on overcoming historical barriers to cross-border freight and passenger rail services.

Note that while the EU does provide some funding, the bulk of it still comes directly from member states, who are also in charge of environmental statements, tendering etc.

Rafael said...

@ Jack -

of course unionized teachers and prison guards see money going to infrastructure construction as a threat to their members, but that construction will create jobs for workers currently receiving unemployment and other state benefits - arguably also "social programs".

There are going to be some trade-offs, especially as long as a 2/3 majority is required to pass a balanced budget. The California GOP is adamantly opposed to bringing tax revenue and expenditure on public services into alignment.

resident said...

as a threat to union members? Wow, what blatant propoganda.

Its a threat to funding of services this state needs - like education for our children, funding for mass transit, funding for infrastructure (like roads), funding for security, levy's, etc.

Threat to union members. PULEEZE.

I can not wait until CHSRA comes out with the truth about how much the HSR project will cost California, and how they propose to fund it with massive tax increases.

But I wouldn't worry just yet - measure 1A bonds can't be sold or spent until CHSRA completes their environmental reviews successfully (HA), and until they show how HSR will operate without subsidy (HA), and specifically how the balance of it will be funded. Our decendents will be farming vegtables on the moon before that happens.

Anonymous said...

but do the trains in spain run mainly on the plain?

Anonymous said...

Money should be shifted from social programs to infrastructure and schools and their districts should be for entirely by local property taxes. You know there needs to be some consolidation of social services. You know there is a department of aging? What do they do ? give out low interest loans for face lifts? The education budget has got to be cut. it sucks up over half our entire expenditures every year to fund a bunch of thankless little punks and spoiled helpless babies.. Give em a shovel and put em to work so they'll learn some common sense.

Jack said...


I guess anytime a proposition comes out that's vehemently opposed by the existing California power brokers, it's probably a good sigh. I sometimes think social programs can be used as rewards to unions and special interest for their electoral support.

back to topic: even though most HSR infrastructure around the world (maybe Taiwan is a notable exception) is started entirely with government money, so is most highways. I saw this comment from the WSJ commentary section by Virgil Payne:

"For a true glimpse of the state of subsidy to our roads consider the Texas DOT's Asset Value Index, one of the few attempts to compile this data. The index showed that not a single road was paid for by gas taxes (fees). One new major road, SH-99, showed an index of 0.16, meaning gas taxes would need to be 6 1/4 times greater than they are now for the road to pay for itself. When you consider this as a true comparison HSR begins to look a lot better."I think it's important to get the numbers to back up the assertion that highway system is also heavily subsidized by the government, since gas tax itself cannot pay for highway maintenance and construction.

btw, Times has a good story on HSR today:,8599,1892463,00.html

mike said...


You are very, very, very confused which Prop 1A is being discussed. That type of thing happens when you spout knee-jerk reactions rather than thinking carefully about what people are discussing!

Anonymous said...

Social programs aren't a union issue, social programs have a different constituency. infrastructure is a union issue. Building schools, building, prisons, building roads, and building rail, as well as operating all of the above. Social programs, medical, wic, drug treatment, low income housing, these things need to be consolidated into one agency. We can also do many other redundant state agencies. if the state would stop being a magnet for losers they would go elsewhere.

Robert Cruickshank said...

mike, yes, it's annoying that the May 2009 Prop 1A is numbered the same as the November 2008 Prop 1A.

It is very unclear what the impact of the May 2009 Prop 1A will be on HSR. It won't impact the $9 billion in HSR bonds approved in November. It's not clear what impact it will have on how we spend that money. Hell, the impact of the May 2009 Prop 1A on the state as a whole is really unclear. I've had different budget experts tell me very different, sometimes even contradictory things.

It's possible that the May 2009 Prop 1A may divert spending from social programs to infrastructure although I'm not quite sure how that would work. What may happens is the May 2009 Prop 1A would make it more difficult to restore state funding for local transit agencies, and that would hurt HSR since we need a robust network of local mass transit to make HSR a success. And I do not believe it is necessary or right for HSR to be built at the expense of the social programs that are necessary to our state's economic survival.

I personally oppose the May 2009 Prop 1A for a number of reasons, and this isn't the blog to go in depth on that (the best place is Calitics.

The most immediate impact would be on the state's ability to borrow money, but I am unconvinced passage of the May 19 measures would significantly help make that easier.

Anonymous said...

Well having a good rainy day fund is a good idea and if it can double as a slush fund for needed big ticket items even better. I can tell by the terminology that the opposition uses ( histrionics such as "back room" and "pork barrel") in the rebuttal that I am going to vote for it.

Aaron said...

@Jim: If 1A passes, CAHSR is probably DOA (yeah, I know, acronym abuse). It imposes a hard spending cap which prohibits state spending above a certain set amount - even if the money for that spending comes from third parties like the federal government, or if it's associated with a funding mechanism such as the HSR bonds. California will be struggling to simply do basic infrastructure maintenance, let alone build anything new again.

Aaron said...

@Rafael: I have serious issues with the union for the prison guards, but I wouldn't be so fast as to characterize the teacher's union the way you are. I think that they honestly believe that they have to support the special election measures because education funding is so important, and because when it fails, California will be thrown into another budget crisis. I think they're wrong - I think there are other, better options on the table - but I don't think they see, as a group, infrastructure as some kind of threat to their existence.

Monkey Business said...

Can california afford to subsidize HSR, ~AND~ the rest of its transportation infrastructure? It already can not afford roads, bridges and airports. It can't afford its electricity grid, or its water needs, or its education needs, social services, (or pretty much anything else). And democrats and republicans are rejecting the ballot measure packages which only means more budget problem on the horizon.

Is the federal government offering to pay for this? not by a long shot. who will then?

Rubber Toe said...

Zooming a bit back on topic here. I also sent Robert an e-mail concerning this in case he wants to address it via a separate blog post.

In his blog post today, James Kunstler, who is one of the founding fathers of the idea of "peak oil" and argues very strongly for sustainability, has come out against HSR. Even though he strongly supports rail transit. Here is a short excerpt from his post:

"If Mr. Obama doesn't get with a better program, then we are going to face a Long Emergency as grueling as the French Revolution. One very plain and straightforward example at hand is the announcement last week of a plan to build a high speed rail network. To be blunt about it, this is perfectly f**king stupid. It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time."

He seems to think that the best idea is to use the old tracks instead of building new high speed ones. For the sake of brevity I will ignore the entire discussion of who owns the current rails, and whether it would even be possible to run conventional trains at a reasonable speed while sharing the tracks with freight trains. Rafael could probably give an entire PHd dissertation on that subject ;-)

The tie in with todays blog post here is that the charts from Spain show that prior to the HSR line coming on line, conventional trains only captured 14% of the Madrid-Seville market. A mere 2 years later the AVE-HSR had a 52% market share. With plane share dropping from 11% to 4%, and car share dropping from 60% to 34%.

With Madrid-Seville being 533km and LA-SF being 615km, you have a very good comparison of what the conventional train market share might be if there was no HSR. And since the LA-SF trip is a bit longer, you are probably looking at under 14%.

This seems like the perfect case of "If you build it they will ride".


Alon Levy said...

Rubber Toe: Kunstler doesn't argue for sustainability - he argues for going back to the 1840s, complete with a peasant population and tiny cities. Of course he likes conventional rail - that existed in the 1840s, too.

Adirondacker said...

This seems like the perfect case of "If you build it they will ride".They do, all over the world including on the Northeast Corridor which isn't high speed but still faster than the alternatives.

Rafael said...

@ Rubber Toe -

what Kuenstler seems to discount is that bullet trains run on electricity, which can be produced in any number of ways, including from renewable sources.

We'll always need mobility at multiple distance scales. Electric trains are still the only available technology that can move millions of people across hundreds of miles in a matter of hours without having to use a drop of oil.

You'd think someone concerned about peak oil would grasp this simple concept.

Tony L. said...


Speaking of gauge-change technology, do you think a few decades down the road this would allow BART and Caltrain to interoperate? Switching between a third rail and overhead electrification shouldn't be too difficult either.

If this happens there could finally be an electrified commuter ring around SF Bay (assuming BART to SJ eventually materializes).

Aaron said...

@Tony: Can't speak for the gauge-change part of it, but Boston's Blue Line changes from pantograph (North Shore) to third rail (Downtown) at the Airport station. It's not graceful, the lights on the train blink out for a second, but it's perfectly doable, and by doing it at Logan Airport (a very busy station, obviously), the switch takes place while passengers are getting on and off.

Andrew Bogan said...


"The whole notion that our transportation infrastructure should turn a profit is absurd."

Only because the US has communist transportation infrastructure. Our electricity infrastructure is privatized and does turn a profit most of the time. So does our freight rail infrastructure, the only broadly privatized portion of American transportation infrastructure. The problem is that governments are not interested in profits since they have taxation powers and do not need profits to survive. Governments are interested in employment, whether or not those jobs are productive, which is a mistake. Only productive employment is beneficial to the economy. Look at China and you will notice that most of their freeways are toll roads and do turn profits. The same is true of most passenger railways in Japan and Hong Kong. To Rafael's earlier point about union special interests, that is the issue with transportation infrastructure under government control as well. Why is California bankrupt? Take a good hard look at the costs of funding CalPERS and CalSTERS and it is pretty clear.

mike said...

Speaking of gauge-change technology, do you think a few decades down the road this would allow BART and Caltrain to interoperate? No. Will never happen. Even if technically feasible, BART would never go for it.

Clem said...

there could finally be an electrified commuter ring My precioussssss...

Seriously, what's with the gauge change obsession? It's a ridiculous solution to a problem that doesn't exist. The holy "electrified commuter ring" will simply plop out of the high speed rail project.

Alon Levy said...

Andrew: I'm not sure you'd want to give electricity as an example of a successful privatized industry in California.

Andrew Bogan said...


California's electricity mess was from freeing wholesale prices and controlling consumer prices. That's a regulatory quagmire, not a well organized privatization. Michigan's electric grid was more in line with my thinking and there are many other examples, but even if you choose to throw out the electricity example nationwide, it's harder to refute freight rail. Privatization is not a solution to every problem, but claiming that infrastructure must be a subsidy laden mess is not accurate.

resident said...

Now THIS will revolutionize the world (or variations on it which we'll see flooding the markets). California ought to spend a fraction of the investment in HSR to simply reconfigure highways - to create safe lanes for lightweight vehicles - everywhere. 50% or more of all lanes designated to this type of vehicle.

This serves the public what they REALLY need. Door to door green transportation.

HSR? Where you've got crowded city centers (like Barcelona, Madrid, etc) fine. Californian's are going to invent their way out of this issue. The only question is, can they do it before the CHSRA bankrupts the state.

Tony L. said...


I should have said "unified." Being able to travel from, say Palo Alto to Oakland on a single train without transferring would be highly convenient.

It might sound ridiculous now but a few decades (or less) down the road it could very well happen. Obviously it will take some political willpower to get BART and Caltrain to play nice and integrate.

Aaron said...

@Resident: Ever been to LA before? See here, from the LA Times:

Then there is the part about how the city is too dispersed. Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile -- by a fair margin the densest in the United States.Not to mention that the eastern part of San Francisco has more in common with Manhattan than anywhere else.

Seriously, I don't know why we keep tolerating blatant lies. There are credibe arguments to be made against HSR (I think they're wrong, but they're at least worthy of discussion), but I'm getting tired of debunking the same lies day in and day out.


Seriously? This blog used to be a great place before it was lost to the HSR deniers and the gadgetbahn promoters. I'm not sure why I still have it on my RSS feed, maybe I'll just go back to reading the paper closely. I must admit, the geek in me is fascinated by things such as gauge-changing devices, but have you considered splitting this into two blogs? I worry that all of this talk about fascinating technology - but technology that is extremely complicated - may distract readers from the fact that the California HSR project is not a terribly complicated one, as rail projects go. We don't have separatists in San Diego paranoid about assimilation into San Francisco's colonialist culture, we're not trying to bridge Tsugaru Straits, we're not facing any kind of earthquake risk that JR hasn't already mitigated decades ago, and we don't have any part of the track where we have to even contemplate varying track gauges.

The challenges this project faces are predominantly political, economic, and social. They aren't insubstantial challenges, but all of these complex posts about this new technology is the political version of borrowing trouble, and I really think you need to consider splitting off into multiple blogs.

At its heart, in terms of the engineering and design, this is not an exceptionally difficult project, and I worry that we're getting lost in the weeds here.

無名 - wu ming said...

the HSR in taiwan has certainly changed the way that people live, especially in the two anchor stations in taipei and kaohsiung, where the stations are linked into mass transit more effectively than in more peripheral stations like in tainan or taichung.

weekend trips down south are actually possible, in a way that they weren't when the train took 6-8 hours. and the huge crush of people heading back home for new year's (analogous to christmas, thanksgiving and labor/memorial day weekend rollled up into one) has been made far more humane with those trains carrying huge numbers of passengers at high speeds, where before you had to sit in parking lot highway traffic for ages, or shoehorn yourself into an 8 hour standing room only train.

as for CAHSR, i wouldn't be surprised to see the biggest changes in the central valley. right now, in the sacramento area, LA seems so much further away than the bay area, but HSR would make them at roughly the same distance, time-wise (which is, after all, the way westerners measure distance). and yeah, it should help UC merced actually land both students and professors, who are currently a bit gunshy of relocating to the middle of the valley (the location's causing mild recruitment problems, from what i've gathered talking to a UCM prof).

when peak oil hits, having HSR in place will be a huge hedge against the natural centrifugal forces of higher oil-based transit costs. as ETA realizes, it would knit the regions it connects together in a pretty resilient manner.

Spokker said...

"I'm not sure why I still have it on my RSS feed, maybe I'll just go back to reading the paper closely."

If there's one thing Internet users love to do it's announcing that they are not going to read a forum or blog anymore. Nobody cares.

Everybody should have a say here, supporters and the opposition alike. Not every post is going to please your delicate sensibilities. If some guy talking about PRT or maglev really bothers you that much, I don't know what to say except to maybe contact a proctologist and ask them how you can remove that stick stuck up your asshole.

Hey, did you know the Columbine killers really weren't members of the Trench Coat Mafia and that they didn't target jocks or popular kids? If not, ugh!

Debunking myths and mistruths are part of any advocate's duty. Quit your bitching.

Aaron said...

@Spokker: Wow, you need to cool off. The problem is, we're not debunking myths here, we're incubating them. As Robert has earlier shown, the blog is getting notice, which makes it an effective tool for advocacy - but something that should be effectively used, not pissed away. Most political blogs have a rating feature for exactly that reason - the fruitcakes get hiderated. Here, we seem to be encouraging the fruitcakes.

Spokker said...

"@Spokker: Wow, you need to cool off."

Right back at you.

"Here, we seem to be encouraging the fruitcakes."

Buddy, that's all the Internet is. You, me, Robert, Morris Brown, Martin Engle, Rafael, Clem, jim, Brandon in San Diego. We are all fruitcakes of our respective ideologies. Some of us are train nuts and some of us are mass transit nuts. Some of us are like dirty hippies and some of us are like conservative dicks. Some of us are a lot of things but we're all nuts on the Internet voicing our opinions.

I'm not sure we should be deleting any posts that aren't spam or contain threats of physical violence. If a rating system were implemented all of the opposition's arguments would be voted down if for no other reason than because this is a pro-HSR blog. Their comments should be protected and given the same weight as anyone else's comments. That's the only way to bring out the full potential of the Internet. Otherwise you become a power tripping prick that wants nothing more than to control some gay little blog on the Internet and everything everybody says on it.

We all love to live under democracy but when we start our own clubs and our own web sites we turn into dictators.


Anonymous said...

I think that this blog's devolution into partisan sniping is just a function of NIMBYs and other vehement HSR opponents having found it. The existing base was already pretty partisan in favor of HSR, exemplified by Robert calling his opponents "deniers" (with the implication that his supporters are the "believers"). It's all compounded by the fact that many of the posters and commenters, both supporters and opponents, are residents of the Bay Area, and seem to think that the world revolves around their region, so the authors love to post on Bay Area related topics, and of course a firestorm of "deniers" versus "believers" results in the comments. Also, and rather unfortunately, few people seem to have much technical knowledge about HSR or railroad operations, or actual existing conditions along the proposed HSR line today. I also think technical issues really aren't the major problem for the HSR line. Really it's just a matter of adapting existing technology to local conditions. The real issues are firstly financial: is the funding really going to come through? Secondly, there's the organizational aspect: HSRA really doesn't have much expertise in building HSR, building a railroad of any kind, planning a railroad, running a railroad, or managing a large construction project in a manner that doesn't result in the contractors putting up a plaque thanking the authority. There's also the issue of cooperation with other agencies, or lack thereof. PCJPB, TJPA, Caltrans DOR, SCRRA, Amtrak, ACE, and others have various interfaces with the HSR project that need to be handled, and they largely haven't been. Thirdly, there's the regulatory issues: FRA and CPUC regulations as they currently stand are a major obstacle in the way of an easy technical solution for HSR. Caltrain is working on this to some extent, but the fact remains that, as the regulations currently stand, even if HSR is built, they would not be able to run it, and that is a major problem that needs to be addressed early (before preliminary design) because many other things depend on the regulatory outcome, such as choice of rolling stock and allowable clearances to name just a couple.

Oh, and about Spain: the construction of the AVE system to date has coincided with a decade and a half long housing bubble, not unlike the one that just popped in California. The government had too much money and they figured they'd blow it all on building subways and HSR. That's not the situation that either California or the United States finds itself in today.

Brandon in California said...

RubberToe at 1:38pm...
James Kunstler made the fatally flawed assumption that what he heard should be taken literally.

"Existing lines" do not mean existing tracks. Or even corridor. And if such statements came from Obama... or any president... comments should be viewed from a higher perspective elevation... not ground level and detailed work.

Maybe James Kunstler gives Obama too much credit if he's willing to accept stuff of such detail at face value.

James Kunstler should stick to oil analysis... and spare us with his off-base statements.

Anonymous said...

I point out frequently to people that although there are tracks that technically link northern and southern california, that there is only one passenger train a day in each direction because there is simply no capacity on the rails. Even though some people think of trains as old dying technology, the reality is that freight traffic in California already is considerable, and that to have passenger service we simply need new track. If we're going to build new track, it should be HSR.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what kind of nut I am but I don't like the anti union and privatization rhetoric. Some things should be PULBICLy owned, water, electricity, transit, roads. And people whowork for a living, not at fluffy suit and tie lets go to lunch on the companies expense account and pass all the costs on to the consumer -type jobs - but the rest of us who do the work nobody else wants to do because its not hoity enough for a white woman... we deserve as much pay as we can bargain for and Ill tell you that what I do for a living is just as valuable as what some shithead in an armani suit in the Fi DI does. Workers Unite. YOu want your precious trains to run at all? you want your toilets cleaned? you want your gabarge picked up? YOu pay us a living wage and decent living or we'll shut it down. the ports. the railroads, the airports, the subways. Don't even think of f ing with the with the working men and women of america's unions. Its yuppie scum who ruined this city in the first place.

Anonymous said...

and I promise you that this hsr in cali will be built with union labor and operated by union railroad men and women or it won't run at all.

Unknown said...

Seriously, what's with the gauge change obsession? It's a ridiculous solution to a problem that doesn't exist. The holy "electrified commuter ring" will simply plop out of the high speed rail project.
YES!! Can we stop bringing this up?

Bart is incompatible in every way with any standard rail system - loading gauge (US trains are big and tall, BART is fat and short, honestly very well proportioned for a mass transit system), axle loading, axle spacing, control system, etc. Track-gauge compatibility is the least of those reasons. Now, there are good reasons BART should have been built to standard gauge, but mainly because it could run off the shelf RTS stock. But here's the thing - it really doesn't matter all that much.

In fact, anywhere in the world that Rapid Transit runs on conventional rail, this is invariably a sub-optimal legacy solution.

There's this idea that SF Bay has this unique problem because BART is broad gauge - actually the majority of large scale mass transit systems contend with, or, alternatively, take advantage of, incompatible technologies.

NYC - BMT trains can't fit into IND tunnels; IND trains are too small to platform at BMT stations - no revenue train can serve the whole system.

London Underground - Tube and Subsurface trains can technically, and in a few stations actually do, platform at the same stations, but at the cost of disabled access, since there is a real platform height difference, not to mention subsurface trains are far too large to fit into tube line tunnels. In fact, subsurface trains are actually larger than the standard British mainline loading gauge, so they generally can't serve suburban train stations without specially built infrastructure. Also some lines have drivers, some have automatic control - yet more incompatible equipment. Not to mention - DLR automated light rail, Croydon tramlink...

Paris - like London, it's all standard gauge... except some of it is rubber-tired guideways, some conventional rail; some lines automated, some with drivers controlling the trains. France has a fun little wrinkle - mainline and commuter trains, including RER, run on the left, unlike most of the rest of Europe, imagine high-traffic junctions at international borders - they're quite complex. On the other hand, Paris metro and most local trams run on the right.

What about Tokyo? The world's busiest and most profitable metro system? Surely, they must at least have a standard track gauge! Yes, they do. Three of them. A number of lines are 42 inch Japanese narrow gauge, others are Western 4 foot 8.5 inch standard gauge because... who knows, if it was good enough for the Shinkansen it's good enough for the Metro. Now, there's a tiny legacy of Tokyo's streetcar system that still exists, built to 4 foot 6 inch gauge - surely if they wanted to hook it into the Metro they'd just widen it a couple of inches to standard gauge, right? Or, you could just build a couple of new Metro lines to a gauge 2.5 inches narrower than standard, heck, why not, that's what Tokyo did.

Anyway, are we done? Can we stop talking about gauge changing on BART now please?

Unknown said...

and I promise you that this hsr in cali will be built with union labor and operated by union railroad men and women or it won't run at all.

Amen to that. I assuredly don't want to be riding a train on a substandard lowest-bid railway, and where the train crew is demoralized, low-paid, and purely at the mercy of capricious management. Britain tried that recently - it did not work out well. Passengers died.

But, the unions need to make sure they promote professionalism, not just jobs - no need to defend some creep who, say, is texting teenage railfans while he runs signals and plows innocent passengers into a freight train.

Rafael said...

@ Tony L -

my gauge change comment related to Spain, where they have 10,000 miles of legacy broad gauge track.

BART is a subway on steroids without any bypasses for express service. Except to BART bureaucrats and contractors, it makes no sense to somehow run it around the bay. Caltrain works well enough on the peninsula and will work even better post-electrification and with a downtown SF station.

Once the Dumbarton rail bridge is repaired, Caltrain will run a few run commuter trains from Union City BART to Silicon Valley. If there is demand, it could also run some up to SF 4th & King, e.g. to provide a faster connection to employers in San Mateo county and/or to SFO.

BruceMcF said...

Kunstler: "To be blunt about it, this is perfectly f**king stupid. It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time."

To be perfectly blunt, this is f*cking ignorant. The vast majority of the track miles, both in corridors that have already been designated and that are on track for designation, are track in existing rail right of way, designed precisely along the lines that is done around the world when "activating existing rail corridors".

And of course this involves lot of laying of track, rather than just re-using existing track ... but if Kunstler imagines for a second that there is a lot of track capacity presently available for the taking, he must have gone to sleep in 1950 and woke up in 2009, completely obliviously to the half century long process of track abandonment as railways seek to shed property tax liabilities and move the maximum amount of bulk freight at the absolute bare minimum cost.

There really is only one Express HSR system that is seriously advanced in planning, the CA-HSR system ... the NEC is only more than a Regional HSR by semantics, given the limited proportion of its time is spends maintaining speeds over 125mph ... and except for the always pushed, never funded Florida and Texas systems, all the rest are planned from the outset as Emerging HSR, with hopes to be developed into Regional HSR.

Anonymous said...

@eric - agreed - safety first always. and that's not just a catch phrase.

Anonymous said...

A trip from Concord to redwood city on bart wouldebe excruciatingly long anyway. I think that for the most part bart and caltrain have their traffic patterns and serve their constituents well. 9 caltrain better than bart) Bart was great up until recently and the biggest problem is over usage and wear and tear. This has more to do with the patrons. The decline in civility has lead to the filthiest trains ever.

crzwdjk said...

Just for the record, the benefit of a standard gauge BART would not be any track-sharing or even sharing of rolling stock. It would be in the ability to use standard designs, tools, and parts. Suppose BART wants to buy some concrete ties: those have to be custom made. They can't just bring in track equipment like tampers and so on: those also have to be custom-made for the track gauge. All the track layouts have to be done from scratch because the geometry isn't quite the same with broad gauge, and sometimes this requires custom track parts as well. The trucks on the trains have to be custom designs too, since I suspect that most rapid transit designs are for standard or narrow gauge, and might have to be modified, possibly significantly, for BART gauge. Don't forget that the power supply voltage is also nonstandard. Most drive electronics are designed for either 600/750 or 1500 volts, none for BART's 1000 volts.
Without the custom track gauge and voltage, I think BART may even have been able to share rolling stock with WMATA, which would have led to considerable savings for BART.

Morris Brown said...


You write:
"Once the Dumbarton rail bridge is repaired,..."The last I heard about this was they were going to send down divers last December and make a report on the foundations to see if they had any salvage value at all.

Your statement here leads to me believe that you have perhaps heard they can be used.

Could you amplify?


Adirondacker said...

NYC - BMT trains can't fit into IND tunnels; IND trains are too small to platform at BMT stations - no revenue train can serve the whole system. . .

Minor point. BMT and IND trains are compatible. They run over each other's track. IRT trains can't serve BMT/IND stations and vice versa. The IRT cars are narrower, they wouldn't reach the BMT/IND platforms. BMT/IND cars are wider the platforms would have to be cut back so they could make it into the station. I'm sure there are other operational considerations but that's the main reason why IRT cars don't run on BMT/IND tracks and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record. The Madrid Barcelona air service levels are not off by 40%. Operations are down 29% and seat capacity is down 32%. Most of which is the result of Iberia's financial problems. As for CAHSR, they've slected the wrong route. As a result, the impact to air service within CA will be minimal. On the order of 10% at best. All the passengers are on the coast and most connect, but CAHSRA has foolishly not opted to go into LAX. Nevermind there are only 20 million passengers within the entire state that fly each year, adn HSR is somehow goign to have 117 million? WOW!!!Oh and I noticed in another area of your site you stated airports can't pay for train stations. So what. Airports are financially self suifficient by law. The have user fees, fuel taxes and ticket taxes paid for by users of the system. Perhaps HSR should collect a terminal fee to pay for it's platforms rather than trying to shake down local governments for stations? Perhaps a ticket tax to cover the cost of infrastructure is in order. Rail want's a free ride. I say pound sand until you can find a way to self fund a much larger portion of the cost. All this thing is is a double taxation proposal.

Rafael said...

@ Morris Brown -

I presume you are referring to the remnants of the foundation of the Western trestle, which was destroyed in a suspicious fire in 1998.

I wasn't aware that they were even considering re-use of the old creosote-soaked wood pylons, I assumed that they would carefully remove them from the mud - on account of mercury poisoning dating back to the Gold Rush days - and replace them with rebar columns. The whole bridge is after all already 100 years old.

In a sane universe, it would be torn down and replaced by a new dual-track causeway with bascule sections that meets modern seismic code. In the Bay Area, that's not possible because (a) it costs money people would rather spend on roads and (b) NIMBYs have made sure the eastern approach to the rail bridge was included in the DENWR so it cannot easily be used by passenger or freight trains. Meanwhile, the road bridge is of course considered entirely harmless to nearby endangered species.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 4:12pm -

as much as I would love to see HSR trains go directly to LAX, the Harbor Subdivision Transit Corridor (HSTC) is too narrow and its corners too severe to support HSR trains.

Access from Union Station to the western districts of LA will be much improved once the Expo light rail line and the subway are extended out to Santa Monica. This is partially funded by measure R (approved by LA county voters by 2/3 majority in Nov 2008).

Btw, LA Metro is looking at various alternatives for connecting LAX to Union Station along this old BNSF corridor, including light rail. As long as they don't force passengers to transfer yet again to some people mover monstrosity at Century/Aviation, that would be an acceptable connection. Measure R included funds to extend the Green Line, but the HSTC is a new, as-yet unfunded project.

Morris Brown said...


Indeed they are still considering using the old foundations. Jim Bigelow just sent me some information on the subject.

Last December, they sent down divers to examine the foundations. There is a report on the findings, to be included in an EIR//EIS for a Dumbartion Bridge project.

I don't claim to fully understand this all yet, but Bigelow told me the conclusion was

1. The old foundations could be used with much reinforcing/retrofitting.

2. Or new foundations could be put into place.

On a cost basis there appears to be no advantage to using the old foundations.

The is much concern about environmental issues, however and as you have mentioned several times, worries about stirring up the mud with mercury and other problems, would be much less of a problem if the old foundations were made usable.

As you probably know, 90 million was diverted from this east west bay crossing project and given to BART. The project is well over 300 million short on possible funding.

At least the Menlo Park council thinks the possibility of this project ever gets going now is very moot, since they have given up on a transportation station / development on the west side of the bay.

Yet, money is still being spent on studies and I guess an EIR.

Anonymous said...

HSR is old and dated. How about a turnkey Maglev with no overpaid union drivers? It woudl be cheaper due to the use of existign high right of ways and could easily be brought into airports without the nightmare that is rail.