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Archive for January, 2010

Enforcing CVC 22350

CVC 22350, the Basic Speed Law, states the following:

22350. No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.

In other words, the maximum speed may be considerably lower than the posted speed limit, depending on condition of the roadway.

California law enforcement generally ignores CVC 22350, even when a 15 year-old girl is struck and killed in a crosswalk:

Cordova and her cousin were headed north across the T-intersection at West College Avenue and Link Lane and had crossed both eastbound lanes and a middle turn lane when Cordova was struck in the first westbound lane, Police Sgt. Doug Schlief said. The impact sent her about 30 feet past the crosswalk, where paramedics found her, police said. She was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she died, Schlief said.

She said a woman identified by the cousin as Cordova’s mother arrived at the scene and traveled with her daughter by ambulance to the hospital. “It was pretty awful,” Manning said. “I didn’t have a good feeling when I saw her, and I just, all night long, saw her in my head and just thought of her.”

Police said neither speed nor alcohol appeared to have been factors in the accident, which remained under investigation.

If a driver is going too fast to notice two pedestrians in the crosswalk, then by definition speed is a factor. And unless drivers suffer real consequences for dangerous behavior, then more tragedies like this are inevitable.

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Much to the embarrassment of California, it appears that Florida will be taking first place in the race for Federal high-speed rail stimulus funding:

A high speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa could soon get the green light. Some local leaders believe President Barack Obama will announce $2.6 billion in federal funding for the project during a visit to Tampa on Thursday.

“We don’t believe President Obama and Vice President Biden would come down Thursday if it weren’t for an announcement,” said Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal.

California is often mentioned as the project most studied, and most shovel-ready. But the CHSRA has had numerous set-backs. In the Bay Area, CHSRA did not prevail in a major court battle regarding the route, which would needlessly bisect over 50 miles of upscale suburban neighborhoods. The agency is also battling San Francisco over placement of the northern terminus. Even proponents have skewered numbers in the latest business plan.

Florida began work on its project following a 2000 voter referendum. Five short years later, the EIS was released. And though it suffered a setback with a second voter referendum against the project in 2004, it has since gained broad bi-partisan support culminating in Gov Crist signing the Sunrail bill.

Unlike the California project, the route chosen for ‘Sunrail’ has not been deeply controversial. Sunrail business plan also shows more realistic cost and ridership estimates.

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More Helmet Fearmongering

Fresh from incurring the wrath of the bicycle community, California State Senator Leland Yee is now setting his sights on the ski community:

SB 880, as introduced, Yee. Public safety: snow sport helmets.

Existing law requires a person under 18 years of age to wear a
properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet while operating a bicycle
or riding upon a bicycle as a passenger upon the streets or any
other public bicycle path.

This bill would require a person under 18 years of age to wear a
properly fitted and fastened snow sport helmet while operating snow skies or a snowboard, or while riding upon a seat or other device that is attached to the snow skies or a snowboard. The bill would provide for fines to be imposed for violations of this prohibition.

What is the actual cost/benefit here?

On average, 39.8 persons have died skiing/snowboarding each year. To put in perspective, more Americans are killed by lightning strikes.

The comparison with bike helmets is apt. Ski helmets have similar design limitations as bike helmets. The standards only test for collision speeds less than 12mph, whereas most head fatalities occur at speeds considerably higher. Thus, even increasing use of helmets on the slopes will not have the effect that helmet promoters claim:

In the 1998/99 part of the study, Shealy and colleagues followed the deaths as they happened and found that, where the information was available, 35% of individuals who died were wearing a helmet. This is much higher than the rate of helmet use amongst the general population on the piste. Two of the deaths amongst snowboarders resulted from them being struck by young skiers wearing helmets who had jumped without being able to see where they would land.

Shealy et al conclude “…the findings are not particularly supportive of the notion that wearing helmets will significantly reduce the number of fatalities in winter snow sports”. This was supported by a presentation at the last ISSS meeting by the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Vermont, USA – Dr Paul L. Morrow. Dr Morrow was of the opinion that of 54 deaths at commercial ski areas in Vermont from 1979/80 to 1997/98, helmets would not have been of any particular value in saving any of the lives lost – as the degree of trauma simply overwhelmed any benefits that the helmet might convey in an impact. To quote Shealy et al again – a team of highly respected ski injury researchers – “On the basis of results to date, there is no clear evidence that helmets have been shown to be an effective means of reducing fatalities in alpine sports”.

Its a sobering fact that more than half of the people involved in fatal accidents last season at ski areas in the USA were wearing helmets at the time of the incident (Source – NSAA). As Shealy states “[E]ven though the prevalence of helmet utilization is rising by 4 to 5 percent per year in the U.S., there has been no statistically significant observable effect on the incident of fatality.”

In another recent scientific publication, Shealy and his colleagues found that the most common primary injury in ski and snowboarding fatalities is some sort of head injury – approximately 60 percent of ski fatalities involve a head injury. However, it is critical to place this into its proper context. “While some sort of head injury is usually the first listed cause of death, most of the fatalities also involve multiple, or secondary trauma sites; single causes of death are not common.” Most fatalities appear to occur under circumstances that are likely to exceed the protective capacity of current helmets designed for recreational snow sports. (Source – “Do Helmets Reduce Fatalities or merely Alter the Patterns of Death?” Shealy, J., Johnson, R., and Ettlinger, C., 2008)

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The recent article “Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California” (Chester, Horvath) analyzes the entire life-cycle GHG emissions of California’s proposed high-speed rail project. The study has gotten a lot of attention in the media lately, because it claims high-speed trains may have negative benefit in reducing GHG emissions compared to automobiles and airplanes.

The rather obvious point of the article is that train load-factors determine emission savings. Here the authors show this in graph form for the various occupancy scenarios: 100% load-factor and 10% load-factor (single and double trainsets).

Nobody would deny that running nearly empty trains would be wasteful – but is that a plausible scenario? TGV load-factor is 71%. And even the German ICE (which favors clock-face scheduling over load-factors) has around 50%.

The article also states that infrastructure construction must be included in GHG accounting:

The energy and GHG performance of CAHSR is dominated by active operation but shows significant contributions from infrastructure construction and fuel (electricity) production. The primary contribution to the infrastructure construction component is from concrete and steel material production. Construction of retaining walls and aerial track segments are the two largest concrete requirements in the inventory (PB 1999). The production of concrete is energy intensive and releases CO2 in cement production from both fossil fuel use for kilns in clinker production and the calcination of limestone.

The paper makes a major blunder here because it assumes the infrastructure is only intended to provide the HSR express service. In fact, it will be a shared resource and ideally should generate a huge number of commuter trips (over 15 million annual trips in the case of Caltrain). Yes, let’s count the GHG cost of concrete production, but make sure to divide by the total number of users.

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Uh oh. The Dept. of Transportation has announced it is all but eliminating the cost-effectiveness metric from the popular “New-Starts” program:

Our Federal Transit Administration needs to consider key livability factors when evaluating non-Recovery Act transit proposals. Factors like enivronmental benefits and economic development opportunities. Unfortunately, FTA’s flagship programs use cost and performance requirements that are too narrow to allow for weighing these livability factors.

So we are opening them up to a broader set of six performance criteria:

  • Economic development
  • Mobility improvements
  • Environmental benefits
  • Operating efficiencies
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Land use

These criteria–that our old way of doing business simply didn’t account for–add up to a much fuller picture of how proposed projects will serve their communities.

Throughout much of its history, the New-Starts program was notorious for allowing politics to trump sound engineering judgement. Projects with dismal cost and ridership projections were getting funded through earmarks and other games. One of the few good things to come out of the Bush Administration was the introduction of clear cost-effectiveness measures. Unfortunately, those measures were too embarrassing for BART-San Jose and other white elephants.

In place of travel time and cost-effectiveness, the new FTA standard would rely on “liveability”. Liveability is a highly subjective term when scoring projects.

Even more worrisome is the incorporation of “development potential” in transit projects. The New-Starts program generally passes over transit-dependent lower-income urban neighborhoods in favor rail lines to far-flung greenfield sites. The highest priority transit projects should be those serving communities which already have transit-oriented development in place.

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Yesterday, the Federal Register published FRA’s revised rules for enhanced strength of front-end cab and MU cars:

This final rule is intended to further the safety of passenger train occupants by amending existing regulations to enhance requirements for the structural strength of the front end of cab cars and multiple-unit (MU) locomotives. These enhancements include the addition of requirements concerning structural deformation and energy absorption by collision posts and corner posts at the forward end of this equipment. The requirements are based on standards specified by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). FRA is also making clarifying amendments to existing regulations for the structural strength of passenger equipment and is clarifying its views on the preemptive effect of this part.

The new regulation, which goes into effect March 9, 2010, will increase the “weight-penalty” of FRA -compliant passenger trains. Even worse, the regulation will complicate attempts by transit agencies to procure world-class trainsets from foreign manufacturers. Rather than promote safety, the FRA regulations serve to carve out a protected niche in the US market. US transit agencies have no choice but to run Amtrak-style “museum” trains, or even try to custom-design trains from scratch.

In the published rule, some of the comments from the public reflect growing concern that FRA regulations needlessly bulk-up the weight of trains:

6. Whether the Requirements Affect Vehicle Weight
AWA commented that, while it stands firmly for rail safety, it was concerned with any policies or institutions that have the effect of limiting the development and operation of passenger trains and pushing existing or potential rail passengers onto already crowded highways and putting more people at greater risk. As stated in its comments, AWA believed the NPRM to be the latest in a series of FRA rules that attempt to enforce safety by adding yet more heavy metal to already massive passenger trains.

AWA raised concern with increasing the weight of America’s “uniquely bulky” passenger rail fleet compared with the “extremely safe, lighter” trains of Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, or Japan, and how the added monetary costs of such heavier trains in terms of purchase and greater energy consumption may discourage or inhibit passenger rail carriers from acquiring rail cars or running passenger trains.

AWA recommended FRA reconsider its action and consider the impacts of mandating even heavier and costlier “steel-wheeled Hummers.” AWA recommended that FRA look to harmonize passenger rail car construction and safety standards with the widely-accepted standards of the International Union of Railways (UIC), a worldwide organization for the promotion of rail transport and cooperation, so that rail agencies and operators can afford to provide more people with passenger rail service.

Similarly, a private citizen principally commented that rather than increasing crashworthiness requirements and the weight of cab cars, FRA should first investigate whether existing UIC standards for end strength and buff strength would provide equal or better safety than the current FRA standards. The commenter believed that increasing the weight of passenger equipment should be a major concern from both an economic and an environmental point of view, causing greater wear on the track, increased energy consumption, and decreased operational performance. The commenter believed that reducing car weight and enabling use of European designs can reduce costs, and that there is a definite environmental and economic impact from having collision standards that differ from those in Europe or Asia.

In response to this criticism, FRA report offers this defense:

As noted earlier, FRA wishes to dispel the belief that there is a meaningful correlation between an increase in a vehicle’s crashworthiness and its weight. As FRA has stated, crashworthiness features from clean-sheet designs can occupy the same space as other material and not weigh in excess of the structure(s) being replaced. There is considerable leeway in designing such systems so that no additional weight is required, and the car body structure itself typically accounts for only between 25 to 35 percent of the final car weight.

Claims that FRA-compliant vehicles are no heavier than comparable European equipment does not pass the laugh test. Compare a “clean-sheet” Acela to a TGV, or a “clean-sheet” Colorado Railcar DMU to European DMU, etc, etc. The weight differences are incredible.

(And let’s not even bring up light-weight Japanese designs….)

The FRA regulation goes on to rehash the tired “Europe is different” argument:

Nonetheless, as FRA has previously stated, the rail operating environment in the United States generally requires passenger equipment to operate commingled with very heavy and long freight trains, often over track with frequent highway-rail grade-crossings used by heavy highway equipment. European and Asian passenger operations, on the other hand, are generally intermingled with freight equipment of lesser weight, and in many cases highway-rail grade-crossings also pose lesser hazards to passenger trains in Europe and Asia due to lower highway vehicle weight. FRA is necessarily concerned with the level of safety provided by passenger equipment designed to European and other international standards when such equipment is intended to be operated in the United States and must ensure that the designs are appropriate
for the nation’s operating environment. FRA does believe that these new requirements for collision posts and corner posts will significantly enhance the performance of the posts in protecting occupants of cab cars and MU locomotives, while having little if any effect on total vehicle weight.

If there is any difference at all in US and European rail environments, it is that European rail safety efforts focus on more cost-effective signal improvements, and other ways to avoid accidents from occurring in the first place. The FRA takes the SUV-driving soccer-mom approach. Assume collisions are inevitable, so design trains like tanks.

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President Obama has described the failure to uncover the Underwear Bomber as a ‘Systemic Failure’, but the White House report suggests the primary cause might be something as simple as a misspelling:

Mr. Abdulmutallab possessed a U.S. visa, but this fact was not correlated with the concerns of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father about Mr. Abdulmutallab’s potential radicalization. A misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name initially resulted in the State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa.

and:

A series of human errors occurred — delayed dissemination of a finished intelligence report and what appears to be incomplete/faulty database searches on Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name and identifying information.

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Because US firms have done such a great job designing passenger rail cars, Quentin Kopp is proposing to re-tool the idled NUMMI automobile plan for railcar manufacturing:

If Quentin Kopp with the California High Speed Rail Authority has his way, high speed rail cars, which are now not manufactured in this country, would be made at idled auto plants. “We’ve got to win the idea of creating high speed rail in America, and doing it in a way that advances jobs for Americans,” said Kopp.

There is enormous historical precedent for make-work domestic transit vehicles being unreliable. Even if that were not the case, this proposal by “fiscal conservative” Quentin Kopp will increase trainset costs considerably.

Re-tooling factories has very high up-front cost. The existing manufacturers have already developed factories and assembly lines. They sell to a global marketplace. The California (and even entire US market) is tiny by comparison. So unless that NUMMI plant has realistic plans to sell product to customers way beyond California, its per-unit trainset cost will be sky high.

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