Sunday, May 10, 2009

What a Difference 10+ Years Make: Arizona Solar Bullet (UPDATED)

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by Rafael

On Friday, the business section of the Arizona Daily Star published an article on a high-speed solar train, proposed as Tucson-Phoenix connection by Solar Bullet LLC, a two-man outfit in Tucson that doesn't appear to have a website with this single-page web site (h/t to Adirondacker). Neither the proposed route nor any description of the ROW issues/environmental impacts to be addressed are provided. The picture shows a three-car train, which implies frequent but expensive service. The catenaries lack support structures, but at least this image shows the tracks at grade. The author appears more focused on using photovoltaics to power the train that it is on the train itself.

Judging by the comments, this idea has been floated before but somehow never died. This is remarkable/suspicious given that the estimated price tag for the first segment of approx. 115 miles is a whopping $27 billion!

The solar panels above the tracks would not come cheap, especially given their proximity to the overhead wires and exposure to aerodynamic forces plus vibration every time a train runs past. However, the artist's rendering also shows an aerial structure with a wide gravel bed at grade. It's possible the artists was clueless, cp. the short length of the train, but a picture does say more than 1000 words. There are few major roads between the metro areas, so why not use the gravel as ballast and switch to aerial alignments only within the relatively populated regions.

Proponents are touting quad tracks so express trains can operate at 220mph, which requires 25kV AC. Note that the artist's rendering is plain mendacious in that it shows just a single track. No speed was given for the local trains, but with just six intermediate stations 150mph peak should be entirely feasible. Apparently, no-one considered if overall train frequency would justify even sidings at the intermediate stations, never mind dedicated super-express tracks.

Back in 2000, the Tucson metro area has 843,746, while Phoenix counted 3,251,786. The metro area added around one million residents before the real estate bubble burst and is now in modest decline.

The problem for any HSR project is that both cities have little or no connecting public transit. The sprawling metropolis of Phoenix has a grand total of one light rail line and has to resort to an artificial Copper Square umbrella brand for a $3 billion development effort aimed at creating a mixed use neighborhood that is intended to give the city a recognizable downtown area.

Downtown Tucson is also a branding effort rather than the result of decades of planning designed to create a shaded, walkable urban core. Tellingly, the site provides not a map of downtown but of its parking amenities, including numerous multi-story car parks where commercial or residential real estate could have been if public transport had been a priority. It was only in 2006 that residents decided to tax themselves to get streetcar service. Senator McCain's principled stance against earmarks may be laudable, but in times like these, it could also prove a liability: his fourth term is up in 2010.

HSR between Tucson and Phoenix could perhaps make sense, but perhaps only as a dual-track rapid rail proposition with tracks mostly at grade and in combination with projects to expand local light rail and/or BRT routes, all at a far lower capital investment than is being touted. I'm not sure if it's the dry desert heat, but there are actually other projects that are partially disconnected from reality. For example, DesertXPress will apparently use a near-invisible overhead wire that needs neither catenaries nor poles. The roof panels above an air-conditioned 21-mile bike path in Qatar are held up by a tangle of pipes carrying expensively refrigerated cold water, presumably to keep cyclists from suffering heat stroke. Note that the artist for this project also forgot support columns.

While I'm all for greener forms of transportation, especially electric trains and (electric) bikes, the Arizona Solar Bullet project in particular does the cause of getting HSR off the ground in the US no favors at all. In spite of criticism of the way certain CHSRA board members and staff have led the California HSR project in recent weeks and months, it is undeniable that the 10+ years spent on environmental and technical studies was not wasted. Not only do none of its renderings defy the laws of physics, the per-mile construction cost forecasts in e.g. the Central Valley are also an order of magnitude lower than the $237 million advanced by Solar Bullet LLC for the Arizona corridor. Indeed, the average for the entire 450 mile starter line from SF to LA and Anaheim, including several expensive mountain and fault crossings plus busy rail traffic at either end, is currently estimated at $73.3 million per mile.

There are good reasons why Secr. of Transportation Ray LaHood thinks California is far ahead of every other HSR project in the country, perhaps even including the still-stalled effort in Florida. Plus, CHSRA has decided it wants the high-speed network in California to run exclusively on renewable power, i.e. a reliable combination of wind, solar and geothermal, possibly assisted by hydro and biogas. However, the Authority has wisely left the implementation details to the experts in the utility sector.


Aaron said...

Seems to be pie in the sky to me. As a part-time Phoenix resident, yes, there is virtually nothing between Phoenix and Tucson (Except Casa Grande). That would be easy.

But how the hell do you get the train north of Pecos, and assuming that "downtown" (Central and Washington) is your destination, where do you put the station? LRT has very little infrastructure Downtown (the trains switch from having actual stations to just overbuilt sidewalks).

Bear in mind that if you come into Phoenix from the south on the 10, you go through Guadalupe, which is an Indian nation. So you have to get them to go along or go to the east, which means going through Tempe, which ain't gonna happen. If you go west, you go through South Mountain, which ain't gonna happen.

On top of that, there's no "pain" that would make people want to switch from driving. Frankly, when driving to Tucson, most people do 90 on the 10, so much so that if you go slower than that, you get honked at. AZ Highway Patrol either looks the other way or has better things to do with their time.

I'm just not seeing it. I would think LA-Phoenix would have a better chance of getting off the ground, and I also think might have an easier time of getting into the city due to the abundance of freight operators in the West Valley.

Sounds like another very shiny idea that has no bearing on reality.

Adirondacker said...

Unless there are two Ray Wrights proposing solar powered high speed trains that run between Tucson and Phoenix this looks to be a likely candidate for their website. The picture there has the train on the ground and a hint of catenary.

On of the commenters at the full article on the Arizona Star pointed out that it's probably two guys in their garage. . . which is a bit better than the guy advocating Aerobus And it's not quite as far out as most PRT schemes.

At least it's getting the people in Arizona talking about something other than driving everywhere. Traffic there must be awful, after all Mrs. McCain says you have to fly most places....

BruceMcF said...

Plus, if you catch the train from Tucson to Phoenix, AZ, now you're in Phoenix, AZ.

It seems to me that in the West, an Emerging HSR line from Cheyenne through Denver, Colorado Springs, ALBQ and Las Cruces to El Paso is more plausible, especially since the northern leg of that is presently under study.

Alon Levy said...

Aaron: Tempe would actually be a very natural intermediate city, with more jobs than any other city in Phoenix metro except Phoenix itself. It shouldn't be hard to cut from the I-10 to the existing rail ROW in the vicinity of the 202.

Bruce: A rail line following I-25 could work, but I don't think it'd attract enough ridership to justify large capital investments. I think there's a stronger case for an I-10 alignment continuing as rapid rail from Tucson to El Paso. Coming to think of it, maybe they should start a Southwest HSR plan at rapid rail speeds modeled after the Midwest's, with the hub at LA and lines fanning into NorCal, Vegas/Salt Lake City, Phoenix/Tucson/El Paso, and Flagstaff/Albuquerue, and transverse lines from Phoenix to Flagstaff and from El Paso to Albuquerque and Denver. Only the CAHSR portion and the links to Vegas and Tucson can be profitable as full HSR, but the rest could benefit from region-wide planning...

Anonymous said...


Really, what is it with you and the electric bikes? Do you like the idea of heavy metal ground-water pollution from disposed batterys or are you just too lazy to pedal? The later is greatly simplified by dumping the thirty odd pounds of battery and electric motor. Last thing i want is a bunch of fatties on awkwardly balanced two-wheel Rascals "" hogging up the bike lane. Pedal! It's easy.

Aaron said...

@Alon Levy: Tempe would definitely be a great intermediate stop (and would probably be the only city clamoring for a station, if only to make sure that they didn't get one-upped by the UA), but I'm not convinced you could actually get there. Which ROW are we talking about? I thought much of it was used up by the LRT, and if it's the one I'm thinking of, doesn't it back up to a bunch of homes south of the LRT line? It would make Palo Alto look like a Sunday picnic, if you're talking about all of those HOA-governed planned communities. And unlike Palo Alto it is, to my memory here, largely unused, so the "you moved next to the Caltrain tracks, you moron" argument isn't going to fly as well.

If I'm wrong here, please correct me. Is there an ROW closer to the 10 that doesn't go through all those neighborhoods and doesn't run into the Guadalupe issue? I doubt you could shoehorn it in west of 10, so you're talking about going through Tempe I think.

Sure, once you get out of Tempe and just south of Washington, there's the freight ROW, assuming you could actually get the freight railroads to play nice.

Not to be LA-centric, but I think your chances would improve dramatically if you extended CAHSR to Phoenix (probably not hard to do in terms of logistics) and then tried to extend it east. Frankly, the I-10 corridor is so important, I do wonder why we aren't talking about a long-term HSR corridor that runs the length of 10. Obviously, it would take decades, but...

Alon Levy said...

The satellite view on Google Maps suggests the LRT line is unobstructed - you can get from its south end to I-10 without passing through populated tracts. Of course these tracts will start becoming more populated if Arizona takes too long to grade them for rail...

I think this line crosses Guadalupe, but my understanding is that Guadalupe is just a historically Yaqui town rather than a registered Indian reservation. It doesn't even have a Native American majority anymore.

Alternatively, there's a rail line going through Mesa and Chandler, and following Route 87. There are about 6 miles of the 587 between the line and the I-10, but they're entirely unpopulated. This option basically boils down to serving more people since there can be a station in Mesa, but taking longer to get from Phoenix to Tucson because the train spends more time in built-up areas at lower speed.

Of course it makes far more sense to just shoehorn it into an LA-Phoenix-Tucson line, whose logistics is no more difficult than this of phase 2 of CAHSR. On the other hand, I don't see much of a point in stopping at Phoenix, since Phoenix-Tucson is fairly easy to build once you have trains running in California and a line from LA to Phoenix.

theo said...

At 90 mph, I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson has the fastest traffic speed of any highway I've ever driven on (the average speed on the Autobahn is apparently only 80 mph). Aaron's right, it's already a very fast trip. Sorry to be a downer, but Tucson-Phoenix is going to be a boondoggle no matter how much time you spend studying it. There are lots of better HSR projects.

I'm skeptical about the idea of even connecting Phoenix to California in anything but the very long term. It's 350+ miles, which is an OK range for HSR, but there's nothing in between and there's not massive amounts of tourist traffic like there is between LA and LV.

If that was your objective, you could do worse than extending the CA HSR from Riverside to Palm Springs, and see what happens.

I suppose you could also try to come at Phoenix along I-8, which would collect 150,000 residents of the not-exactly-wealthy Imperial Valley, and 100,000 snowbirds in Yuma. Financially speaking, that's probably not worth the 50 mile detour.

Alon Levy said...

Theo: LA-Phoenix-Tucson is good mainly at getting people from LA to Tucson and vice versa, rather than from Phoenix to Tucson.

And although there isn't much tourist traffic between the two regions, they are still large metro areas; Phoenix is still growing quickly, though more slowly than before the housing bust, and can be expected to be a very large metropolis by the time HSR reaches it. It's better to plan now and acquire ROW before all the good corridors get interrupted by suburban sprawl.

Aaron said...

@Theo: There's an old Amtrak line that follows 10 to Palm Springs until it deviates out into the desert through Yuma and then either goes on to Maricopa, south of Phoenix, or could go into Phoenix. The Phoenix part is owned by our lovely friends UP, who had planned to abandon the line. It could easily be reinstated, and my earlier mis-statement should be revised - apparently Phoenix's Union Station still exists, although my guess is that it would need substantial renovation. Renovation, however, is a whole lot easier than finding real estate downtown.

I'm sure you can't do that speed all the time, but I've been down to Tucson twice since being back here, and both times the trip has been under an hour from the 202 into Tucson. Until that kind of speed is no longer possible, it's just not viable unless it's part of some larger plan (as mentioned above, LA to Phoenix continuing to Tucson might start to make sense).

LA-PHX isn't as compelling as LA-SF, but I woud guess that if you look at daily flights between Sky Harbor and LA-area airports, there's a substantial market to work from.

Unknown said...

I saw a report on CNN criticizing high speed rail without showing the benefits of it. You can see the video here

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 7:33pm -

you ought to take a second look at electric bikes, there have been massive improvements in the the products on the global market.

- Lithium is not a heavy metal.

- Modern batteries + electric motor + control system add up 10-15lbs, no longer 30-odd. Further weight reductions may come from the integration of electric motors and hub gears plus, tuning the batteries and/or combining the with supercapacitors to improve specific power at the expense of specific capacity. Depending on the terrain in which the bike is used.

- Li-ion batteries can be recycled and are all over the world, just like lead-acid and NiMH types.

- The Chinese market for electric bikes is currently about 21 million units per year. Those guys - and gals - aren't lazy, they just want to get to work without being drenched in sweat (high humidity over there).

- In the West, Holland and Denmark are large markets relative to their population. The UK, Germany, Switzerland and others are growing fast. So is Canada.

- Electric bikes tend to cost 2-3x as much as comparable conventional types, but they're still a whole lot cheaper to own and operate than a second (or third) car in the family. In particular, high school teenagers and college students can use them, especially where there are networks of bike paths (e.g. Palo Alto).

- US could enter the steep portion of the sigmoidal curve this year. The key isn't technology, it's getting American consumers to perceive cycling as a complement to cars, which are hugely inefficient for short trips and need vast amounts of land to be dedicated to parking lots. That's one issue a switch to electric cars would not address.

- The point of the electric motor is not to be lazy but to maintain relatively high speed throughout, even when tackling hills or covering relatively long distances. You still have to pedal, but the human portion of the propulsion power is more constant.

- Some systems, e.g. the high-end Bionx system, allow you to force the motor into generator mode so you can get a workout whenever you want and recharge the batteries without burning any coal or natural gas.

- The next wave of innovation, folding electric bikes, is already beginning in China. Add-on kits for regular folding bikes are available in Western markets. Folding is especially useful in combination with public transport (incl. HSR) and for theft prevention.

Rafael said...

@ Adirondacker -

thanks for the link, I've update the article in response.

Jake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
theo said...


The Southwest Rail Corridor Coalition have proposed to acquire the old UP track and use the Yuma alignment. They seem serious, but mostly focused on restoring conventional low speed intercity Amtrak service to Phoenix, "the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without rail passenger service."

According to them, "Phoenix — Los Angeles ranks as the 14th most heavily traveled metro pair in the country; Phoenix - Tucson ranks 25th."

Those are OK numbers (surprisingly high for Phoenix-Tucson, about what I expected for Phoenix-LA) but like I said, not enough to justify a high priority for federal support for this project.

Aaron said...

@theo: Yeah, unfortunately I agree that it doesn't make sense until you can talk about building a spur off an already-existing CAHSR line at Ontario. That's a long time from now and by then Phoenix will be more populated, probably have a much higher population density, and will definitely have more transit due to the current popularity of the LRT starter line.

That upgrade would be a good thing. Amtrak is very slow from LA to Palmdale - in fact, half the time to Maricopa only gets you to Palmdale - I would guestimate it only goes 30mph or maybe even less until there. Coming out of Palmdale, despite the detour to nearly the Mexican border, I think the train keeps a solid 79mph all the way to Maricopa. Hard to tell, because usually it's getting dark as you pull out of Palmdale, but.. So if they could bring it into Phoenix at that speed they could easily make up for the Yuma detour.

If Amtrak could rejuvenate that line and serve Phoenix before midnight, I'd probably stop flying between LA and Phoenix. But as it stands, I can't ask people to pick me up in Maricopa. I can't imagine I'm the only person thinking this way.

BruceMcF said...

theo said...
"I'm skeptical about the idea of even connecting Phoenix to California in anything but the very long term. It's 350+ miles, which is an OK range for HSR, but there's nothing in between and there's not massive amounts of tourist traffic like there is between LA and LV."

What's the very long term? 50 years? 20 years? 10 years?

LA/Phoenix is not a project for prior to the completion of CA-HSR Stage 1, but once CA-HSR Stage 1 is completed, it would not be surprising if there was a push to provide a branch to Phoenix.

In the meantime, establishing a Phoenix/LA conventional rail route, and then upgrading it to a Regional HSR corridor, are projects that would serve a much smaller niche market ... but on the other hand would require far less capital investment, so could be justified on the basis of a much smaller niche market. And, of course, could be rolled out before even CA-HSR Stage 1 is completed.

Aaron said...

@Bruce: That's something that could easily been done with an outlay under the auspices of Amtrak, and I think it's very important to do that in the meanwhile.

Why is 373 miles inappropriate, when LA-SF's 382 miles is appropriate? According to Google maps, the driving distances are effectively identical. Yes, there's very little in between the two cities, but the line would have fewer stops that weren't covered by CAHSR (Palm Springs, maybe Indio, Yuma (or Blythe if a new route was used), and then Phoenix, with perhaps a stop at Goodyear and in the West Valley. But, frankly, that would simply make it a faster line, going 220mph nearly the entire way.

From Wikipedia, the SF and Phoenix metro areas are essentially identical in size - 4.28 million in Phoenix, 4.27 million in the Bay Area, which doesn't surprise me. Obviously, the way to do this is to build CAHSR and then extend out from Ontario, but because you're going through the desert, it's a fantastically easy trip, and as I said, getting into Phoenix from the west for LA is worlds easier than getting in from the southeast from Tucson, the ROW in question is almost exclusively surrounded by industrial land until you get to Buckeye Rd. and 107th Ave on the very far west side of Phoenix, where there's a small subdivision.

Honestly, the more I look at it, the more I like it, although, as I said, it makes very little sense until you can build it as an extension of CAHSR.

Rafael said...

@ Aaron -

perhaps you mean Palm Springs, not Palmdale?

It would be relatively straightforward to run trains between Yuma and Phoenix, assuming UPRR is willing to offer up trackage rights. The track forks eastbound at Wellton, AZ just east of Yuma. It's a detour relative to going through Maricopa, but the Phoenix metro has 4 million people.

Tracks down to Tucson exist, but I'm guessing they're currently reserved for freight.

Aaron said...

Yes I indeed meant Palm Springs :(. Oops. Thanks.

Rafael said...

@ Aaron -

a while ago, I put together a Google Map showing the California HSR system and potential routes for spurs out to Vegas and Phoenix-Tucson.

I ended up choosing an access path from LA into downtown Phoenix via Sun City and Glendale to increase the catchment area. In the same vein, I figured it would make sense to include a detour through the airport, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert rather than try and jump back onto I-10 as soon as possible.

Note that not all trains would stop at all station, especially not all long-distance HSR trains. Instead, they would be complemented by regional HiSpeed trains (e.g. 150mph top speed) running between Sun City and Gilbert. Depending on project traffic volume, quad tracking might be required at the stations only.

Another option would be to stick with I-10 and access downtown Phoenix from the west. Passengers might then switch to rapid rail service (up to 110mph, some grade crossings retained) to reach their final destination.

Disclaimer: I picked the station locations more or less at random, my objective was to explore the concept as such.

Any thoughts?

Alon Levy said...

Aaron: the size comparison of SF and Phoenix is inappropriate, since the SF MSA excludes Silicon Valley. In terms of ridership, LA-SF will almost certainly be far ahead of LA-Phoenix, as a look at the size of the air market will confirm.

But yeah, getting from the Inland Empire to Phoenix is really easy. There are at least two different spots to get from the existing railroad ROW to I-10, one further east involving leveling one industrial site, and one further east that goes near but not through residences. It all really depends on when the land is graded - the sooner the better.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael: I suspect US-60 will be more NIMBY-prone than I-10 - the ROW is narrower and passes through more residential suburbs. It also involves more mountain crossings - near Wickenburg your line goes through mountains as if they weren't there, which would require tunneling. The I-10 route requires no tunneling east of the junction with US-60.

The most important stations are, in order, Phoenix Union Station, Tempe-ASU, and maybe Mesa. Everything else can be served by commuter rail. If connecting transit's good enough for Glendale, California, it should also be good enough for Glendale, Arizona.

Aaron said...

Alon is right... trying to ram HSR down Grand Ave is a non-starter. 60 is not a freeway through there, it's just a major street. I suspect that line may someday be used for LRT at least...

theo said...


I agree that rapid Amtrak service to Phoenix should definitely be implemented within the next 10 years.

Also, Metrolink to Palm Springs should be started as soon as possible, since it's an important tourist destination that attracts enough traffic to have its own medium sized airport.

Compared to the cost of true HSR, rapid rail systems cost very little, so upgrades should happen as soon as practical.

Regarding "the long term," my priority list would match the CA HSR system in the near term (10 years):


10-15 years, less if significant private funding becomes available:



無名 - wu ming said...

i suppose i'm a bastard for saying this out loud, buy strategically it's probably a better move to just let phoenix (and las vegas) wither on the vine. that place is far, far bigger than it needs to be on so many levels, and is the very definition of unsustainability WRT water.

i'd say let 'em drive their cadillac SUVs until peak oil drives 'em elsewhere, and count it as a net win.

Alon Levy said...

Wu Ming: it's not win-win at all. If oil or water issues hit Phoenix and LV hard, they'll create a mass migration into California, à la the Dustbowl. The migrants will not be able to settle in the LA Basin or the Bay Area, which are full and incapable of accommodating more than glacial population growth, but in the Inland Empire, which for purposes of land and water use is no different from LV or Phoenix. In other words, this would create a massive number of refugees for no reason.

Unknown said...


You do realize that practically every large US city imports water?

Where do you think NYC gets its water from, the Hudson?

Adirondacker said...

But how the hell do you get the train north of Pecos,

Aaron, it' looks like there is existing railroad right of way through Tempe and Chandler. Easiest to see at E56th St and Pecos/Rt. 202. If you meant south of Pecos they could if they had to, elevate it over the canal that runs parallel to S. Maricopa Road to get to I 10. There's other ones that go all the way to Tucson.

and assuming that "downtown" (Central and Washington) is your destination, where do you put the station?

Union Station is only 6 or 7 blocks away, is that close enough?

a while ago, I put together a Google Map showing the California HSR system and potential routes for spurs out to Vegas and Phoenix-Tucson.... any thoughts?

I 10 might prove to be a little more difficult than you imagine. The interchange with I 17 doesn't look like it would be very easy to pass through. The SPUI at N. 7th Ave and the entrance and exit ramps to N, 5th - in the median - might prove to be a challenge. The six block long park, three blocks on either side of Central Ave, over the highway, means you can't reasonably be expected to build an elevated structure. I suppose you could but since Central Ave is elevated over the park you'd have to go over that as well as the park. You can't build one in the median because there is no median... . I got to the SPUI at N 7th Street and stopped looking

Might want to consider looking for existing railroad ROW before you start confecting elaborate plans to use highway medians that don't exist. In downtown Phoenix there is one. The one where Union Station is. The one that goes past the airport on it's northern boundary. The one that connects with the ROW you are proposing through Tempe and Chandler. The freight yards in the satellite view gave it away. The long strings of things that look like H all strung together, in the map view, are usually a hint too.

Aaron said...

Yeah I was mistaken about Union Station, I thought they tore it down, but thankfully I guess it's still standing. Probably needs major renovations, but as I said, that's better than having to find new real estate.

Phoenix is not a great place to try to do eminent domain, it's not going to fly, but in the event there you identified a ROW from Union on out of the city towards the south, it could work (there is definitely ample ROW going west of Union towards California, and you seem to have found one that would work through Tempe).