Posts Tagged ‘HSR’

FRA Review Of Texas HSR

For its high-speed rail project, the Texas Central Railroad is proposing to use Japanese Shinkansen (“Bullet Train”) technology. The Shinkansen is, by all accounts, the world’s safest train system. There have been no fatalities in 50 years of operation. So it is amusing that the FRA would give its expertise on the safety of the technology. Robert Eckels, President of the TCR, describes some of their interactions with the FRA:

Remember how the FRA was developing “alternate compliance” rules to allow the use of off-the-shelf trains? Retrofitting half-inch steel plates into a proven design doesn’t sound very off-the-shelf.

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US transit planners have a poor record with integrated transit planning, and designing accessible stations. So will California HSR learn from those past mistakes? It seems unlikely, to judge from a recent workshop moderated by Jeff Morales of the CHSRA.

I note in particular the presentation by Stan Feinsod (of the “National High-Speed Rail Connectivity Center”). His talk on station access not once mentioned bikes or pedestrians. And it is curious that the panel included an aviation security expert (though thankfully he didn’t go full TSA).

On a positive note, Armin Kick of Siemens gave a good talk on interoperability (skip to the 29 minute mark in the video). By using real-world examples from German HSR lines, he shows how regional and commuter services can exploit the new HSR infrastructure. To do that, they all must use the same platform height, and the same signalling standard (hint: not CBOSS).

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Four of China’s HSR Lines Profitable

China’s HSR network is both impressive and financially viable:

According to a report late last year, four of the country’s high-speed rail lines achieved break-even since the bullet trains started running full-speed, intercity services – with ticket revenues matching costs, including debt payments – on several routes, including Beijing to Tianjin, Shanghai to Nanjing, Beijing to Shanghai and Shanghai to Hangzhou lines.

Not only does the high-speed rail system work, it’s financially workable too.

Note how they include debt payments in the cost calculations, whereas in the US we only include operating expenses. Of course, it helps when your construction costs are really, really low:

The web of bullet train lines will reach 18,000km by 2015, Sheng Guangzu, minister of railways, told a recent rail conference. That means more than 8,000km of newly built stock will be put into service within three years. The plan is to expand this to 50,000km by 2020, with four main lines running north and south, and another four east and west. The high-speed train pulls in to vast, customised stations, with terrific facilities.

Investment in the high-speed rail network was a big part of China’s infrastructure spending programme in 2008/2009, when Beijing pushed out a four trillion yuan (€490 billion) stimulus to fight the financial crisis. The rail ministry plans to invest 650 billion yuan (€76 billion) in railway infrastructure, aiming to have 5,200 kilometres of new railways opened this year.

All of the new HSR capabilities is causing major disruption for Chinese airlines. In the long run, they will have to shift to more international service.

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As you may have heard, Caltrain has gotten a “Go” to install a modern signal system, paving the way for electrification and high-speed rail. The Governor, Sen. Jackie Speier, and other dignitaries were on hand to celebrate the new project:

The $100 million construction project aims to convert Caltrain into a modern commuter rail system with a new traffic-control system, smoother rails, and express trains that will whisk riders between San Francisco and San Jose past slower local trains in half the time. Besides track improvements, new crossovers, and rebuilding some stations, grade crossings, and a bridge, [Caltrain] will focus on two major projects necessary for express service: A new central traffic control system will allow trains to be switched from track to track from a central location….

Sen. Speier sees this project as a precursor to high-speed rail from Southern California. With California population still growing, “We can’t continue to grow by growing highways,” she said.

Ooops — my bad. That story was actually from 10 years ago.

That’s right: Caltrain already went through enormous cost and disruption to install a new signal system, called CTC, just 10 years ago. And transit advocates, at the time, were beside themselves with anger that Caltrain was wasting time and money installing a primitive system, which used wayside signals and was not at all compatible with HSR.

And now history repeats. A new-and-improved system, this time called CBOSS, will be installed. Another primitive system, again not compatible with high-speed rail (despite what the press reports would have you believe).

And what do you know — many of the same dignitaries (including Sen. Speier) are there attending the launch of the project. Don’t they remember they already funded this project once before? Were their memories wiped?

Oh, and to give an idea of how primitive these signal systems are:

Suddenly, a two-story tall, one-million-pound express train, that was not scheduled to stop at the station, came hurtling down the southbound tracks at 76 mph. The engineer hit the emergency brake. That slowed the train, but it didn’t stop until it had passed through the station. “There were some passengers that needed to move quickly to get out of the way of the oncoming train,” Ackemann said. “And I’m sure that there were some passengers, regardless of where they were, who witnessed this and were extremely frightened by the incident.” Usually engineers radio each other or use headlight signals to ensure the station is clear before an express train zooms through, but that apparently didn’t happen this time.

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The Berlin Wall of Fresno

Admitedly, “Berlin Wall” is a loaded term. But it is appropriate for what high-speed rail might do to Fresno. That is because the Chinatown and Westside neighborhoods would lose direct access to downtown.

The CHSRA proposes to close Kern, Inyo, and Mono Streets at the rail right-of-way. Tulare and Fresno Streets do get grade separations, but by putting those streets in long subways under the tracks (both freight and HSR tracks) it creates a hostile environment for bikes and peds.

Here we see on the map how HSR creates a 6 block barrier:

Remember, the whole point of HSR was to revitalize urban neighorhoods. This is not the way to go about doing it. And Lord knows, these wrong-side-of-the-tracks streets can use the help:

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Dubious HSR Studies

In modern, complex economies, calculating the cost/benefit of a high-speed rail project is virtually impossible. That is because  there are too many confounding variables. Pro or Con, one should be dubious of any economic study on HSR.

In the latter category, there is a new study from the UCLA Anderson School of Management (California High-Speed Rail and Economic Development: Lessons From Japan). The authors argue against high-speed rail investment as a generator of economic growth. Their methodology was as follows: look for correlations in the economic growth rates of Japanese prefectures depending on whether or not they had Shinkansen service. The authors found no measurable difference between prefectures with Shinkansen stations and those without.

This is not a really surprising result. Let us note that Japan has the world’s best passenger rail system, reaching all parts of the country. Areas lacking a Shinkansen station still have really, really good conventional rail service — so good that they might even be considered “high-speed” by US standards. And there is the “network” effect: conventional rail links serve as feeders to the Shinkansen station in the big city.

Even worse, the study extrapolates the Japanese experience to California’s high-speed rail project. If the Shinkansen made so little difference in Japan, the authors argue, then surely California would be the same, right? Well, that is a really apples-oranges comparison. California doesn’t already have an extensive and high-quality conventional rail network like Japan. Compared to California’s existing Amtrak service, HSR would be a gigantic improvement in mobility. Now, whether that big gain in mobility results in economic growth is anyone’s guess, but studying the Shinkansen probably doesn’t tell us a whole lot.

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Well, LA Times reporter Ralph Vartabedian is at it again.

Last month he triggered a false alarm over high-speed rail operating costs. Now he has made new allegations over the “aggressive” construction schedule:

If California starts building a 130-mile segment of high-speed rail late this year as planned, it will enter into a risky race against a deadline set up under federal law. The bullet train track through the Central Valley would cost $6 billion and have to be completed by September 2017, or else potentially lose some of its federal funding. It would mean spending as much as $3.5 million every calendar day, holidays and weekends included — the fastest rate of transportation construction known in U.S. history, according to industry and academic experts.

This is nonsense. Compare to the recently completed TGV-Est line in France. It took the French 5 years to complete a 190-mile project. And that was the whole enchilada, including electrification and signalling. Here we are talking about 4 years to do the track-only portion of a 130-mile project.

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Mystery Solved

Mystery solved.

As you may recall, William Grindley, World Bank “expert” and Penninsula NIMBY, issued a scathing report claiming California’s high-speed rail would require large operating subsidies.  The basis for his claim was a paper published by Spanish Banking Group BBVA , which included a table showing operating costs as high as $.40 per passenger mile.

The BBVA data made no sense whatsoever, and someone at the CHSRA tracked down the error:

Rail board member Mike Rossi told a legislative hearing this week that incorrect data undergirds a downbeat analysis of the bullet train’s finances published recently by four Peninsula-based financial experts.

The errors concerned operating costs for European bullet trains, Rossi contended. “The problem is, they picked up the wrong numbers,” Rossi told members of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “The numbers they are showing for operating expenses are actually capital acquisition costs, so the data … just isn’t right.”

The World Bank is notorious for funding  megaprojects of little of benefit, except to the multinationals that build them. Their dam projects have caused immense ecological damage and displaced villagers. Their highway construction schemes are exporting American-style sprawl to the developing world. Now granted, I have no idea what Grindley did for the World Bank, but as a general rule of thumb: when a World Bank Executive gives “expert” advice on transportation infrastructure, best thing to do is Run Away!

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Carbon Footprint of a High-Speed Train

In 2009, Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath of Berkeley’s Institute for Transportation Studies published a paper entitled “Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California” in the academic journal Environmental Research Letters. The paper suggested high-speed trains were not so green, with possibly negative cost/benefit.

The paper went viral, particularly among Libertarian types, even though there were huge blunders in the study. One error was the unrealistic seat occupancy numbers (as low as 10%). But even worse was a units-conversion error, as discovered by Clem Tillier:

Berkeley’s numbers are undone by a simple unit conversion error committed by a CHSRA consultant. Conversions between metric and imperial units are prone to errors and misunderstandings, most famously in the case of NASA’s $300 million Mars Climate Orbiter mission, which was inadvertently crashed into Mars because of an overlooked conversion between pounds and Newtons. In the case of the high-speed rail study, the CHSRA consultant’s unit conversion error leads to an overestimate of HSR energy consumption by a factor of nearly four–not just in the Berkeley study, but also in the CHSRA’s program level environmental reports.

The energy consumption figure cited in the Berkeley study and its supplementary data is 170 kilowatt-hours per vehicle kilometer traveled, or kWh/VKT, a measure of how much energy a high-speed train consumes on average when traveling one kilometer. This number is correctly converted by Berkeley from a figure of 924,384 BTU/VMT referenced in the energy chapter of the 2008 CHSRA program-level EIR. That chapter in turn references a peer-review study performed for CHSRA by the German firm DE-Consult in 2000, which evaluated the energy consumption of a hypothetical 16-car trainset with a seating capacity of 1200 and a design speed of 385 km/h (240 mph) and an operating speed of 350 km/h (220 mph), essentially a souped-up German ICE3. The DE-Consult study (unavailable online) contains detailed performance simulations for the proposed California system that give the average energy consumption of such a train as 74.2 kWh/VMT, or 46 kWh/VKT (see copy of Annex 4-11). And therein lies the error: CHSRA’s consultant botched the conversion from kilowatt-hours to British Thermal Units, feeding Berkeley a figure of 170 kWh/VKT instead of 46 kWh/VKT.

With the release of the 2012 Business Plan, the CHSRA has corrected their energy consumption figure. Their comedy-of-errors is too convoluted to detail here, so here is a link to the latest CHSRA Energy Usage Calculation. But in short, there was a KWh-Btu conversion error, and also some other errors.

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High Speed Rail Operating Costs

What are the per-mile operating costs of a high-speed rail line? And how high do fares need to be to cover those costs?

Those seem like simple metrics to answer. But as the California High-Speed Rail Authority releases its revised 2012 Business Plan, the agency has come under criticism from CC-HSR, a group of NIMBYs Peninsula residents, who accuse the agency of underestimating the operating costs:

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s claim that its future system would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses is based on unrealistic assumptions about what it will cost to operate the network, according to the study group, which included former World Bank official William Grindley and Stanford University management professor Alain C. Enthoven.

The rail authority claims it can operate the 510-mile system at a cost of about 10 cents per passenger mile, less than one-fourth of the 40 cents to 50 cents it costs high speed rail operators in other countries, the analysis found.

While there is much to criticize in the plan regarding the phasing and blending, the CC-HSR argument is not valid.

First, let’s review their methodology. CC-HSR extrapolated a 10-cent operating cost per passenger mile based on the the published $81 LA-SF premium fare, and assuming 50% profit. They compared this 10-cents number to a study done in 2007 that reports a per-mile operating cost of around 30-50 cents per mile for European high-speed rail operators.

So according to the CC-HSR, the LA-SF fares are too low, and would have to be at least triple the $81 fare just to break even. Does this argument make sense? Well, let’s look at SNCF fares for Paris-Avignon, which is exactly same distance as LA-SF. This image is a screenshot taken for a random reservation on the SNCF web site:

You are welcome to try your own trip reservations, and do the Euros to Dollars conversion —  but the SNCF fares don’t seem all the far off from CHSRA fares. And if it really cost SNCF more than 30 cents/passenger mile, then the Sud-Est wouldn’t be profitable, which even CC-HSR admits is not the case.

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