Posts Tagged ‘HSR’

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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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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Given Dan Richard’s involvement in BART-SFO, perhaps someone in the media should connect-the-dots between CHSRA ineptitude and BART-SFO ineptitude:

MYROW: You used to serve on the board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System and right around the time they were trying to connect the city with the San Francisco International Airport. Do you see similarities with that experience and the challenge you see now?

RICHARD:  I was very involved in the construction of BART to the San Francisco Airport and getting the funds for that. We heard many of the same things like ‘Where are you going to get the money? Why don’t you do it this way or that way?‘ So I have really been through this before in a smaller scale and my view is that if the fundamentals make sense then it’s really important to have civic leaders come together and persevere to get things done.

This is too funny. The “do it this way or that way” line presumably refers to the EIR lawsuit by the Coalition for the One Stop Terminal (COST). The COST lawsuit uncovered many fabrications in the project regarding cost and ridership.

More importantly, COST wanted the line to accommodate future HSR. The Millbrae “Y” track configuration (as pushed by Richard and most of the BART Board) precludes CHSRA trains from ever connecting with the SFO PeopleMover. Heckuva job Dan!

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What is the difference between a Think-Tank and a PR Firm? Most people would probably answer “Not Much.”

And what if that Think-Tank is government funded?

The Mineta Transportation Institute describes their ogranization as follows:

“It was established by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and was reauthorized under TEA-21 and again under SAFETEA-LU. The Institute is funded by Congress through the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration, by the California Legislature through the Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and by other public and private grants and donations, including grants from the US Department of Homeland Security.”

It’s Board includes Steve Heminger (Exec. Director of the MTC), Thomas E. Barron (President Parsons Transportation Group) and many other representatives of the transportation consulting complex. Like any other Think-Tank, its publications serve to promote the sponsors. But unlike a corporate Think-Tank, this one is government funded — and it promotes mega-projects that benefit the big construction firms.

Case in point, a report that hit the PR wires just today regarding the California High-Speed Rail project. The report is called Research finding: California high-speed rail can bring positive urban transformations; however, the title of the report is meaningless: there was no actual research. Instead, it is an opportunity for civic boosterism on the part of City Councilmembers and staff regarding the project.

The “study” covers several major stations for the project, but let’s focus on its coverage of San Jose. I selected San Jose not just because the “Institute” is headquartered there, and not just because Diridon Station is named for the Institute’s Exec. Director, but because the Diridon station exemplifies the fact that the HSR will actually bring no transformation whatsoever.

Here is the sales pitch from San Jose’s Transportation Policy Manager, Ben Tripousis (page 138):

As Tripousis reasoned, “With a fully builtout Diridon station, we will have more transit nodes than Transbay in San Francisco with HSR, BART, light rail, Amtrak, and Caltrain. We like to think that it sets us up to be in a position to have people take transit to transit.” Dennis Korbiak expects that the HSR will spur development around the Diridon station, adding a significant area that is currently underdeveloped to the downtown core. Station area design consultant, Frank Fuller, envisions the Diridon station as a dense urban center with mixed-use, office, and entertainment uses applications, “which is likely to appeal to a demographic of younger technology-based individuals employed in the area, and possibly encouraging many of them to live  near the station.

And what about the pedestrian and bike environment? The Diridon area, like the rest of San Jose, is awful for bikes and peds. And the huge parking planned around the station won’t make it any better. But you wouldn’t know that from the Mineta Institute report:

This would really be a vibrant place, with a lot of attention given to place-making, and major attractions for urban dwellers and visitors…. There will be virtually no car traffic through that area; it will be entirely pedestrian and bike, with a few exceptions – maybe taxis and zip cars.

Whoever put that paragraph in the report ought to be, um, institutionalized.

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