Archive for April, 2012

Here is dramatic video footage of two cyclists struck on Tunnel Road in Berkeley. The collision happens at the 2:40 mark. The hi-res camera captured the license plate number, and police have identified the driver.

Question: Will the driver be prosecuted to the full extent of the law?

Happy to be proven wrong, but all too often in cases like these drivers get off with just a citation.

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Bike to Work

Just in time for Bike-to-Work Day:

For the busy executives who don’t have time to drive and go to the gym, Becker Automotive sells an SUV equipped with an exercise bike.

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Another FRA Horn Blaring Rule

Horn blaring at train stations is a major problem. It complicates efforts to build housing near transit, and becomes ammunition for Nimby opponents of new passenger rail service.

Regulation for horn blaring at stations is currently handled at the State level. This is not necessarily a good thing — for example, the California PUC requires trains to sound bells and horns whenever they enter and leave stations. But now, the situation may get worse as the FRA plans to Federalize the regulation of horn blowing at “pedestrian crossings”:

Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 222.21 requires that a train horn be sounded while trains approach and enter public highway-rail grade crossings. However, horn sounding upon approach to pedestrian-only crossings at or near rail passenger stations is generally governed by State law.

On the other hand, horn sounding at passenger stations is usually performed in accordance with a railroad-issued instruction or operating rule. In order to supplement the audible warning provided to rail passengers by the locomotive horn, some railroads also require sounding of the locomotive bell on approach and while moving through passenger stations. FRA recommends adoption of this practice, whether or not the train will service the station.

This rule seems to apply to all types of stations, even ones with full grade separations and high platforms.

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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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Bikeshare Farebox Recovery

Here are some operating expense numbers for the Washington DC BikeShare:

Since its start in September 2010, Capital Bikeshare has taken in $2.47 million and spent $2.54 million on operating expenses. And that doesn’t even include the expensive things, like docking stations—which can cost well over $50,000 each—plus the bikes themselves. Those capital costs, at $7 million thus far, are covered by federal funds.

That is an astounding 97% “farebox” recovery. To put in perspective, the average rail system in the US is lucky to earn back more than 50%. The typical bus service gets back less than 20%.

And then there is the capital cost — a whopping $7 million. By comparison, a single 70-seat BART railcar will cost over $5 million.

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BART Or Freeways?

BART or freeways? All too often, the answer is both.

Latest example: the VTA.

The VTA has started work on an I880 widening project, adding two new lanes at a cost of $100 million. This highway expansion will compete directly against the BART-San Jose extension — also under construction by the VTA.

One agency building two incompatible transportation projects. The irony is that VTA was chartered by Santa Clara County to combine all road and transit planning under a single agency. You know, to create synergies

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