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Archive for December, 2010

How NOT to Build a Train

Railway Age has a recent article on the race to build America’s high-speed trains. Here is the key section, which goes into all the nonsense of a decidedly political process:

The Federal Railroad Administration’s HSR grant program, funded under ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act), contains a 100% Buy America requirement. That means everything—vehicles, train control, rail, crossties, track fasteners—must be sourced and manufactured in the U.S. The FRA is willing to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis, “but only as a last resort,” Deputy Administrator Karen Rae told a Railway Supply Institute audience in Washington. “Foreign companies have talked with us asking us to change the requirement, and we told them absolutely not,” House Railroad Subcommittee Majority Staff Director Jennifer Esposito (a former Teamsters official) told the same group.

For politicians who feel compelled to wax patriotic and talk about creating American jobs in a recessionary economy, this is perfect public prose. But is it plausible? “Buy America is an emotional and political issue,” says National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association President Chuck Baker. “There is a greater short-term political risk in resisting it than a long-term manufacturing risk. Buy America is what works; it’s what creates political support. It’s too easy to kill high speed rail, so at least for now, there’s little choice but to agree.”

Privately, some carbuilders are shaking their heads. “We need a sustained capital market for high speed equipment,” says one. ”We’re already at 80% to 85% U.S. content, and moving our carbody manufacturing to the U.S. could bring us close to 100%. But it will drive up our manufacturing costs. We’ll have to create a new supply chain.” Says another, “From a manufacturing perspective, we are one industry, and transit cars are our biggest piece of business. Given the thousands of components that go into a passenger rail vehicle, creating requirements for only one mode, high speed, which represents a fraction of the market, does not provide the economies of scale we need to make a relatively small order viable.”

When DB or Renfe or even SNCF needs to buy a high-speed train, they simply call up Siemens (or Alstom or Talgo) and order some trains. Simple as that. Customization consists of painting a logo on the outside, and maybe choosing colors for the interior. It is no different than how United or Continental orders airplanes, or how Hertz orders automobiles.

Now consider the process for building trains in the USA. Under FTA rules, all train components must be 100% manufactured in the US. And to guarantee no foreign manufacturing takes place, regulators will devise enough oddball design specs that bidders have no choice but to custom design the rolling stock from scratch. Then, local municipalities compete to offer huge tax breaks to lure a manufacturer.

For transit agencies, this nonsense results in 100% higher costs for vehicle procurement. And even as a jobs program, the cost-effectiveness is abysmal.

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Bike lockers are a popular, cost-effective method for secure bike-parking at transit stations. So what does the Amtrak’s ‘Station Program and Planning’ policy say about them?

Where market analysis or community funded participation shows that station usage warrants the inclusion of bike racks, the racks are to be located outside, in close proximity to the station. Signage should clearly indicate that Amtrak is not responsible for loss, damage or theft. The racks should be canopied, if possible, to afford protection from the weather. Due to security issues, the use of lockers is discouraged.

(Dutch terrorist lockers)

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Supersized Dummies


In a new paper to be published next month (Influence of obesity on mortality of drivers in severe motor vehicle crashes) Dr. Dietrich Jehle finds that obese drivers make up a disproportionate number of automobile fatalities.

Might one simple explanation be that fat people drive more than their more physically-active counterparts? It isn’t clear from reading the abstract whether researchers considered this possibility. Instead, Dr. Jehle hypothesizes that seat belts and airbags are not tested for plus-sized adults.

“Crash test dummies have saved lives and provided invaluable data on how human bodies react to crashes, but they are designed to represent normal-weight individuals. If they represented our overweight American society, there could be further improvements in vehicle design that could decrease mortality.”

Needless to say, his proposed solution does not involve crash diets.

He argues that crash test dummies should be ‘super-sized’ to reflect our rotund reality. And cars would be re-designed to accommodate super-sized drivers.

Dr Jehle said extending the range of adjustable seats and encouraging obese people to buy larger cars with more space between the seat and the steering column could save lives. ‘The rate of obesity is continuing to rise, so is it imperative that car designs are modified to protect the obese population, and that crash tests are done using a full range of dummy sizes,’ he added.

This country already suffers from an overabundance of SUV’s, to recommend supersized car designs as a health measure would be stupid and ironic. At the rate we are going, cars of the future will come standard with insulin pumps and heart monitors.

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Shit Flows Down, Money Flows Up

Shit flows down, money flows up was how Tony Soprano described the Mafia. It is also an apt description for our transportation hierarchy.

Consider recent developments in the ‘SMART’ commuter rail saga.

‘SMART’ is now $350 million under-funded (shock news). As a result, the MTC has proposed to “down-size” a $70 million bike path that had also been promised to voters.

Besides the obvious inequity, shifting funds from bikes to trains is fiscally nonsensical. Bike paths require no operating subsidy, and are inexpensive to build. According to the FTA cost-per-new-rider metric, the bike path will be orders-of-magnitude more effective for reducing car trips. Trains might be more sexy than bike paths, but this scheme would cannibalize the most cost-effective portion of the project.

Highway Robbery
The situation gets more distressing as one looks at the overall funding picture. Highway 101, the main competitor for SMART trains, will be lavished with hundreds of millions for expansion projects. Since 2001, some $400 million has been programmed for Highway 101 widening, with more to come.

Sonoma County highway planners have asked the state to let them keep the savings from three Highway 101 widening projects that came in under budget and use it for three new projects. The savings, $50 million in state funds and $23 million in local sales tax money, would be earmarked to widen another stretch of freeway and rebuild two overpasses, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “This is the first time we have had full funding for these segments in sight,” Smith said. “We are pretty excited about the opportunity to keep the bid savings in the county and in the corridor.”

The bike path, the SMART rail line, and highway 101 all serve the same corridor! Two branches of government, SMART and the County Highway Dept, are operating at cross purposes. The highway department expands highway capacity while SMART is trying to shift car trips to trains. There is not enough money to pay for both, so guess who gets first dibs?

Thus, the transportation food chain is clear: The highway department gets all the resources it needs. The rail service has to truncate its project and raid bike funds. The bike path? It is at the bottom, fighting for survival. Shit flows down, money flows up.

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On the very same day Copenhagenize, posts this wonderful photo above (calling it “Classic” Copenhagen), the San Francisco Chronicle reports that police are writing $220 tickets for the very same “offense” in Berkeley:

Citations are up only slightly this year over last, and the fine is just a touch higher, but students have reached the boiling point. “I was very, very angry,” Allegro said. “I could have avoided that by being a strictly law-abiding citizen, but who would have thought? I assumed it’d be like $30. Or $50 max. I support myself with scholarships and financial aid, so $220 is food for two weeks.”

As the article notes, $220 is the same penalty as a speeding ticket, or for hauling large quantities of radioactive materials without a permit.

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To entice shoppers to drive their cars into its shopping districts, the city of Berkeley is having two parking holidays. Parking revenue averages $20-$50k per day, so the total cost of the parking subsidy could be as much as $100k.

Like most California cities, this has been a rough year for Berkeley’s budget. The police department is under-staffed, and a popular neighborhood pool was shuttered. And yet Berkeley, despite having a Climate Action Plan, despite having a Transit-First policy, will literally give away $100k in free parking.

What is really odd is why merchants would ask for such a thing. The whole point of parking meters is to encourage higher turn-over. This is a complete lose-lose proposition.

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Problem: SUVs and light trucks are booming in popularity. Because these vehicles have limited visibility in the rear, parents are crushing their kids while backing up out of the driveway.

Solution: A government mandate for rear backup cameras. As usual, this will be a one-size-fits-all regulation, applying to small cars too — even though the problem is mainly limited to hulking SUVs and light trucks:

When pickups and multipurpose passenger vehicles strike a pedestrian in a backover crash, the incident is four times more likely to result in a fatality than if the striking vehicle were a passenger car.

But the real question will be whether this regulation will be another test case for the theory of risk compensation. Proponents of risk compensation argue that drivers accept a certain level of risk. Rather than use safety devices to minimize risk, they instead use them to drive more aggressively. For example, exploiting anti-lock brakes to go faster down a snowy highway. This behavior has been observed on almost every safety innovation, even safety belts and motorcycle helmets.

The theory of risk compensation predicts that backup cameras will at best have no affect, and at worse cause an increase in fatalities. Once the camera shows the “all clear”, will drivers still take the time to look back and properly assess their surroundings? Or will they just go flying out of the driveway?

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Learning on the Job

The CHSRA Board selected the first 65-mile segment to build for its high-speed rail project. I was struck by this comment from project manager Hans Van Winkle:

Van Winkle described the section as a good mix of rural and urban space that will let engineers who have never built high-speed rail develop a “learning curve” on how to proceed with the rest of the project, “to allow us to get up to speed very, very quickly,” he explained. “Nobody in the United States has built high-speed rail before … this is not a short-term project,” he said. “We’re going to be here a long time.”

This comment confirms what critics have been saying all along — that this is a project being done by amateurs.

It also contradicts a talking point from Board Member Quentin Kopp:

TREFNY: How can you make sure when you’re projecting costs and ridership, which are two of the big things in question, when you’re projecting 20 years down the line, how can you be sure that your estimate is as good as it can possibly be?

KOPP: By the quality of the engineers and the cost experts and the ridership experts who supply the data for those estimates. You get the best possible firms and the best possible people that you can. I’m satisfied that the High-Speed Rail Authority has obtained the services of the best experts in terms of ridership forecasts and in terms of construction costs and engineering and design costs.

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China Rail Traffic

The Atlantic is at it again.

Last week, Megan McArdle argued high-speed rail did not make sense in America. This week, she argues against high-speed rail in China, the world’s most populous country.

She describes Chinese rail investment as a colossal misallocation of resources, on par with the West’s trillion dollar housing bubble:

These projects don’t have to go to the market for loans; the government directs the state-owned banks to lend to them, at interest rates decided by the state. There’s no opportunity cost to the money, since it’s not like the rail ministry would otherwise be building a chain of noodle shops. And the ridership projections are vetted by the same people who want to build 16,000 km of high-speed rail. Prices are really useful. But in whole large sectors of the Chinese economy, particularly the banking sector, the government sets those prices. This means huge information loss, and the concomitant possibility that there is a vast misallocation of resources.

While the Atlantic seems to view the China rail ministry as an economic basketcase, the traffic numbers show quite the opposite. Here are figures posted by railway expert Hans-Joachim “Hajo” Zierke:

Country Network length Transport volume ton mile/route mile
China 2006 47600 mi 1.97 trillion ton-miles 41.4 million ton-mi/mi
USA 2005 95830 mi* 1.68 trillion ton-miles 17.5 million ton-mi/mi

* Only Class 1

In other words, China achieves better than double the ton-mi efficiency as the US.

And then there is the passenger traffic:

Country Network length Transport volume passenger mile/route mile
China 2006 47600 mi 411 billion passenger mi 8.6 million passenger-mi/mi
Germany 2006 21500 mi 49 billion passenger mi 2.3 million passenger-mi/mi

Oh, did I mention China carries all this traffic on the same network? Whereas the US can only do freight, and Europe can only do passengers, China manages both at the same time. And their mixed-trafffic tracks are being upgraded to 125mph (what we in the US would call “high-speed”).

As Hajo says, “The Chinese are the only people with a government, that fully understands, what can be done with a railroad.” That will surely be the case, too, with high-speed rail.

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