Archive for November, 2010

CHSRA Featherbedding

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has published an Operations and Peer Review document (ht Caltrain-HSR Compatibility blog). The document envisions operational procedures in the proposed CA High-Speed rail project.

The “Peer Review” is truly depressing. The inescapable conclusion is that this is high-speed rail as envisioned by Amtrak foamers, ignorant of global industry best-practices.

If you read the document, pay particular attention to Table 11: Required Manpower Staffing – Transportation Operations. Labor costs make up a huge chunk of the operational expense of running a passenger railroad. Thus, rail operators who care about operating costs want to minimize manpower overhead as much as possible.

And yet, look at how much staff will be riding on trains in revenue service: two conductors, “Special Services” attendants, and two ticket punchers. Even the non-revenue trains require an on-board conductor. It is just as bad at the stations: the plan envisions ticket sellers, and possibly baggage porters and TSA security.

This level of staffing is typical of Amtrak-style operations, which are notorious for low labor productivity. It makes one wonder how this thing is supposed to achieve operational profitability.

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China, US, and Europe

The distance from Los Angeles to New York is 2800 miles — which makes high-speed rail impossible in the USA. At least, that is what Megan McArdle argues in the Atlantic:

Yesterday, we rode the high speed rail from Hangzhou to Shanghai. It took 45 minutes to go about 110 miles, and the ride was smoother than any US form of transportation…Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to get it. To see why, compare the map of the 10 biggest cities in China:

And here is the map Megan proudly presents of China’s largest cities:

And here is the map Megan proudly presents of America’s largest cities:

The crux of her argument is that America’s 10 largest cities are more spread out than China’s 10 largest cities. Why is high-speed rail limited to only the 10 largest cities…who knows?

For comparison, here is a map of Europe’s 10 largest cities. I hear Europe has a network of high-speed trains too.

Those points in the upper northeast are Moscow and St. Petersburg. Over in the far southwest corner is Madrid. Distance from Madrid to Moscow is roughly 2500 miles. (No fair throwing Istanbul you say? Well, Turkey is building high-speed rail network too.)

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Nimitz Freeway Pet Cemetery

Did you know the Nimitz Freeway had a pet cemetery?

Each day, tens of thousands of commuters drive right by it without even realizing it. Plonked underneath the new Mission Blvd interchange, it is just yards away from the zooming traffic.

Situated on a spit of land between I880 and a nondescript Fremont office park, it is the most unlikely of places for Fluffy’s final resting place. But how did it get there?

The dates on the tombstones are from the 1970s, and earlier. The only possible explanation: this was once a bucolic location, with peaceful views of Mission Peak. Back then, this neighborhood was largely undeveloped. Then along came the highway and the sprawl.

It is hard to describe the surreal location. The din of traffic zooming around and above the graves of pets who passed on decades ago. Definitely not a location to “Rest in Peace”.

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The Six Million Dollar Train

SMART has received bids from DMU vendors. And as predicted, those bids are way above the market price for DMUs.

So how has SMART staff reported this news to the Board?

The price proposal from SCOA is very favorable to SMART, so much so that it became clear in the evaluation process that its acceptance without further change was in the best interest of SMART…SMART’s estimate for this base order prior to opening of the price proposals was approximately $80 million. The recommended award is for a contract that is about $23 million below the engineer’s estimate.

The lowest bid (Sumitomo Corporation of America) was $56 million for 9 DMU trainsets; i.e. $6 million per trainset. Similar projects in Europe are considerably less expensive, around $3-4 million per trainset. For example, Alstom’s sale of 23 DMU trainsets for $90 million to Hessische Landesbahn GmbH (transit operator in Hesse, Germany). Or this Deutsche-Bahn order of 30 DMUs for $96 million.

Even worse, the Sumitomo bid isn’t for a real train. It exists only on the drawing board. The SMART riders will be the ones to test and debug it.

So how did they get to this point? Answer: the usual reasons…staff specifying custom-designed rolling stock, and refusal to pursue FRA-waiver. The regulatory flaming-hoops-of-fire (FTA Buy-America rules, and FRA/PUC screwiness). Just another example of how American transit riders pay more, and get less.

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Page 18 of ‘SMART’ staff recommendation on DMU vehicle procurement gives further proof that the only US jobs preserved through Buy-America are those of idiot FTA bureaucrats:

As part of the contract, two pilot cars will be built. These cars will be fully assembled and tested in Japan and, to meet Buy America requirements, will be disassembled and shipped to Rochelle for re-assembly and limited retesting.

Here we have a make-work program to build, disassemble, and then re-assemble train cars. Remember when the Soviets used to be ridiculed for this? Why would SMART go to all the trouble?

The reason might be the ill-fated Metro project in Houston, where two prototype cars were to be assembled in Spain. As reported in the Houston Chronicle:

A year-old voicemail retained by one of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s outside attorneys may hold the key to preserving the first federal light-rail funds in Houston history. The April 17, 2009, message from Scott Biehl, then the Federal Transit Administration’s acting chief counsel, to Metro attorney Ed Gill responded to Gill’s inquiry about whether “Buy America” rules would permit the assembly of two prototype rail cars in Spain if the cars were purchased with local, not federal, funds.

“Ed, you nailed it,” Biehl said in the message, which was included in Metro’s formal response Friday to the FTA’s Buy America investigation. “The answer is we don’t care.”

Based on this message and the advice of its lawyers, Metro believed the arrangement would pass muster under Buy America rules, which require that assembly of all rolling stock for federally funded projects take place in the United States, Metro chief counsel Paula Alexander said in the response letter. Metro sent the eight-page letter, along with a binder containing 32 supporting exhibits, to the FTA on Friday.

In the end, Metro lost its appeal — even though the regular fleet would have been assembled in the US. With the vehicle procurement scrapped, the project got delayed. All because of two test vehicles!

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