The Economist: Why don’t Americans ride trains?

AMERICA has by far the largest rail network in the world, with more than twice as much track as China. But it lags far behind other first-world countries in ridership. Instead of passengers, most of America’s massive rail network is used to carry freight. Why don’t Americans ride trains?

Rail ridership is usually measured in passenger-kilometres—one passenger-kilometre represents one passenger travelling one kilometre. One 1,000-person train travelling 1,000 kilometres would on its own account for a million passenger-kilometres. Yet American railroads accounted for just 17.2 billion passenger-kilometres in 2010, according to Amtrak, America’s government-backed passenger rail corporation. In the European Union, railways accounted for nearly 400 billion, according to International Union of Railways data. When you adjust for population, the disparity is even more shocking: per capita, the Japanese, the Swiss, the French, the Danes, the Russians, the Austrians, the Ukrainians, the Belarussians and the Belgians all accounted for more than 1,000 passenger-kilometres by rail in 2011; Americans accounted for 80. Amtrak carries 31m passengers per year. Mozambique’s railways carried 108m passengers in 2011.

There are many reasons why Americans don’t ride the rails as often as their European cousins. Most obviously, America is bigger than most European countries. Outside the northeast corridor, the central Texas megalopolis, California and the eastern Midwest, density is sometimes too low to support intercity train travel. Underinvestment, and a preference for shiny new visions over boring upgrades, has not helped. Most American passenger trains travel on tracks that are owned by freight companies. That means most trains have to defer to freight services, leading to lengthy delays that scare off passengers who want to arrive on time. Domestic air travel in America is widely available, relatively cheap and popular. Airlines fear competition from high-speed rail and lobby against it. Travelling by cars is also popular. Petrol is cheaper than in Europe (mostly because of much lower taxes). Road travel is massively subsidised in the sense that the negative externalities of travelling by car, including the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, are not fully offset, and most major highways—which cost tens of billions to maintain—are still free of tolls. And finally, Barack Obama’s embrace of high-speed rail has heightened a political battle over rail that doesn’t exist quite in the same way in other countries (although the fraught debate over high-speed rail in Britain comes close). Opposition to rail is now often seen as essentially conservative, and Republican governors oppose rail projects to boost their conservative image.

America’s national-level politics are unlikely to become more functional in the near term. So all this leads to an inevitable conclusion: what happens with California’s planned high-speed rail system matters a lot. If it is completed, works and is popular—all of which are uncertain—other states will undoubtedly take note. If California’s high-speed dream fails, it may be a long time before America has true high-speed service. And by that point, America may be ready to put in a call to Elon Musk. Hyperloop, here we come!


HS2: 20 reasons why it can take 20 years to build a railway

HS2 sign

The HS rail link won’t be finished until 2033 so why does it take two decades to finish a project like this?

The government has announced a provisional route for the second stage of the High Speed 2 rail link between London and the north of England.

Its second phase – a Y-shaped section from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester – won’t be finished for 20 years. Those working on the project say its sheer scale and complexity explains the length of time.

But there are already critics of the timetable who believe it could be completed sooner. The 20-year time lag is a “complete nonsense” says Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning and regeneration at The Bartlett, University College London. If it wasn’t for political considerations, the line could be built in about 10 years, he says.

But what are some of the reasons that could explain a 20-year project?

1. A history of delays

Any major infrastructure project in the UK has the potential to take a long time. The building of HS1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – was completed 16 years after Michael Heseltine first announced it to the Conservative Party Conference in 1991. That was only 68 miles. HS2 will be 330 miles. It’s not just railway lines. The public inquiry alone for Heathrow Terminal 5 took nearly four years.

2. Splitting it into two phases

The biggest source of delay is that the HS2 project has been split into two.

Construction for the London to Birmingham route will begin in 2017 and be finished by 2026. The Birmingham to Manchester/Leeds construction starts in the mid 2020s and is due to be finished by 2032 or 2033.

Prof Hall, an advocate of high speed rail, says the phasing makes little sense. Why not start on both now so that they will be finished sooner? The same thing happened with the Channel Tunnel rail link, which could have been finished in 2003 but was done in two phases, he says. “The whole (HS2) line could be open in theory by 2023,” he argues.

3. Spreading the finance

An artist’s impression of the planned Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct

The splitting into two phases is because the planning and design work is so time consuming, a spokesman for HS2 maintains. But it’s easy to see a financial case for doing it.

HS2 costs £32bn. With the £15bn Crossrail not due to finish until 2018, the government is keen to spread the cost of the new North-South railway over a longer period.

Once Crossrail is finished, the £2bn a year that is being put into it will shift to HS2, says David Meechan, a spokesman for HS2. In other words, a longer timescale allows more of the financial burden to be passed on to the next generation.

4. Consultation

Consulting the public takes time. The route for phase one of the line – London to Birmingham – was initially published in December 2010. Consultation then took place and in January 2012 changes were announced. There was more protection for sensitive areas in the Chilterns and Buckinghamshire. But that’s not the end of the process.

An Hitachi Javelin train on the HS1 line

5. More consultation

Even after phase one’s route was tweaked there began a second stage of consultation and planning. Detailed engineering work has to be done looking at the exact route of the line. There are environmental impact assessments. Community forums are being organised along the route. Minor tweaks are still possible. It means that phase one will not be ready to be put before parliament until the end of 2013. That’s still not the end of the process.

The same process then has to start all over again for phase two – the Y-shaped route north of Birmingham that has just been announced. It begins with compensation for property owners facing “exceptional hardship”. Then the full consultation programme begins.

6. Buying land and people’s houses

The government doesn’t yet own the land. And to build a railway you need far more land than the line itself will occupy, says Ben Ruse, a spokesman for HS1, also known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. “You need vast swathes of land, for instance somewhere to store the machinery and materials.” It’s complicated and expensive.

The typical purchase price is roughly the market rate plus 10%, suggests Ruse. It can be a big business blocking the route or “Bob in his allotment”. Everyone needs to be talked to and negotiated with.

“We are not at the stage of CPOs on phase 1 yet,” says Meechan. “But we have said that 338 dwellings along the 140 mile route between London and the West Midlands will have to be demolished to make way for the new line. Most of these will be close to the redeveloped station at Euston.”

7. Demolishing Camden

The most disrupted area in the country will be to the north of London’s Euston station. More than half of the properties affected by the scheme between London and Birmingham are in and around Camden.

Euston is being redeveloped. As part of that a section of Camden will need to be demolished.

Andrew McNaughton, HS2 technical director, told the Engineer magazine last May that the London section would be the most time-consuming.

“The critical part of the construction is at the south end, with the complete rebuilding and expansion of Euston station and the long tunnels through London; that’s a seven to eight-year job,” McNaughton said. “Out in the greenfield away from London, most of the route can be built in two years.”

8. Tunnels

The sheer volume of tunnelling is a major headache. The route has been revised, with tunnels extended and several more added, in an attempt to remove noise and visual impacts.

Around 22.5 miles (36km) of the phase one route will now be completely enclosed in tunnel. That is 18% of the 140 miles of rail from London to Birmingham.

North Downs tunnel

North Downs tunnel

Much of that is “green tunnels”. This is essentially a deep cutting with a tube put into it, over which grass, trees and soil are placed. It is not as deep as a normal tunnel, and is much cheaper to construct.

The rest is “bored” tunnelling, an extremely time-consuming process.

“Tunnelling presents a real engineering challenge,” says Ben Ruse, HS1 spokesman.

“The North Downs Tunnel in Kent for HS1 was a mile or so long. A tunnel borer started from each end. When they met in the middle it was 4mm apart. And the engineers were shaking their heads.”

Four millimetres was fine and safe, he says, but the engineers wanted to be closer. It shows how exact the process has become.

9. Archaeology

When any big road or rail line is cut through the British countryside there needs to be archaeological investigation to make sure vital sites will not be destroyed.

The HS2 line probably won’t be comparable with the painstaking efforts made during the construction of the Athens Metro, but if HS1 is anything to go by, the archaeological considerations could still be huge.

Before any construction work could begin, archaeologists employed by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project were charged with investigating areas of Kent, Essex and London. More than 40 excavations were carried out along a 46km stretch, and key discoveries included a Neolithic long house in Kent, a Romano-British villa and two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.

A vast archive of archaeological data was also established.

Specialist archaeological teams will most likely be employed for the HS2 project, and English Heritage says it is continuing to “advise on the proper assessment of the impact [on listed buildings, scheduled monuments and registered parks etc] of the proposed lines so that Parliament can take an informed decision when the Bill is published”.

10. Regeneration

This isn’t just a railway. It’s also effectively a massive regeneration project. That element also takes time.

Toton – proposed site of one of HS2’s new stations

The wisdom of spending £32bn to cut an hour or so off journey times has been questioned by some. Justification for the huge expenditure is that it will combat the North-South divide.

“High speed will bring cities in the North and Midlands closer together, so we can really start rivalling London for jobs,” Mike Blackburn, chairman of Greater Manchester local enterprise partnership told the Financial Times. But delivering regeneration in practice will require planning and ingenuity.

11. Parliamentary approval

Getting anything through Parliament isn’t an overnight process.

The bill for phase one is expected to go to Parliament at the end of 2013 and receive Royal Assent in 2015. It is a hybrid bill, which means it is debated by both houses and goes through a longer parliamentary process than public bills. These hybrid bills are allowed to roll over into a new parliament.

Phase two will go to Parliament in 2018 and is hoped to win approval by 2020. Ruse says that there are profound differences between the Channel Tunnel and the new line.

“We were very fortunate there was complete political consensus.” It went through on its first reading. However, with HS2, there are a number of coalition MPs, whose constituencies the line passes through, campaigning against it.

“There is considerable opposition to HS2, more in the Conservative Party. It may be the bill doesn’t go through on its first reading,” says Ruse.

12. Ecology

Any major infrastructure project must protect the environment.

County wildlife trusts are concerned that the proposed route of the first section will pose a threat to wildlife. They estimate more than 150 nature sites could be affected, including 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Four nature reserves will be directly impacted, they say, and more than 50 ancient woodlands lie in the route.

Protected species – such as great crested newts – can create a major stumbling block to any development project.

Bechstein’s bat – a rare species whose habitat could be threatened by HS2

For example, one dual carriageway project in Cambridgeshire was delayed when £1m tunnels had to be built to enable an estimated 30,000 newts to safely cross the road. According to the contractors, it took 18 months to get the necessary licence to clear the area of newts and water voles.

A significant population of rare Bechstein’s bats – which are strictly protected under UK and European law – has already been discovered in Buckinghamshire, in ancient woodland either side of the proposed HS2 route.

13. Bridges

As a rule of thumb, building road bridges costs 10 times as much as putting road on the flat. The same impact on cost and time is there when building railway bridges. The Channel Tunnel rail link involved building the longest high speed viaduct in the world across the Medway. And high speed rail lines require lots of road bridges as there are not level crossings.

14. Franchising and timetabling

One of the advantages of the length of time construction will take is that it gives a long window for setting up and doling out the franchises. The decision over which operator should be granted the franchise can be controversial, as with the government’s recent U-turn over the West Coast Mainline. With journey times slashed, the high speed lines will be much sought after by the train operating companies. Once the franchise is agreed, the painstaking work of coming up with a timetable can begin.

15. The UK isn’t China

The same project in China might have moved quicker. The 1,318km Beijing-Shanghai high-speed route went from design to completion in 39 months.

But quickly forcing through such a scheme would be unthinkable in a democracy like the UK. David Cameron alluded to the point in an interview this week: “It’s difficult to get things built in a modern industrial democracy like Britain – that’s why we need to get going now.”

As Alan Stilwell, transport expert at the Institution of Civil Engineers, says: “We want to make sure people are properly consulted. But it does involve a longer timescale than in other parts of the world.”

16. Local campaigners

Campaigners in the Chilterns have already forced more tunnels to be inserted into the plans. With Chancellor George Osborne’s constituency of Tatton being bisected by the new line, intense pressure from local campaigners is likely. The same thing happened with HS1 when campaigners accused the route of threatening Kent’s garden of England.

A protestor in Knutsford

17. Moving the dead

There have always been developments that have touched formerly consecrated ground, and the HS2 rail line is no exception. The route is expected to run straight through old cemeteries in London and Birmingham, affecting an estimated 50,000 bodies.

Strict rules apply to the exhumation of bodies. In England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice first has to grant a licence for their removal, it then has to gain planning permission and adhere to rules set out by organisations such as English Heritage and the church.

Reburial must also take place – usually in other nearby cemeteries, and efforts need to be made to contact relatives and inform them of disturbance. In London, the burial grounds are, according to HS2, disused, with no bodies having been interred in a century.

18. Contingency

The route hasn’t been finalised. Modelling the programme of works means that contingency time or wriggle room has to be built in for unforeseen problems. Sometimes, as with Wembley Stadium, the contingency period is not sufficiently long for the mishaps that strike. It was supposed to open in the middle of 2005. It opened in March 2007.

19. Health and safety

In previous centuries, it was a given that large numbers of people might die building big projects. During the construction of Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, 27 people died. Nowadays there is more care taken over the safety of workers.

But the risks, despite painstaking care, remain high. Ten workers died during the construction of the Channel tunnel between 1987 and 1993.

20. Laying the rails

Once everything is prepared the track can be laid fairly fast. A factory train moves up the line laying track, putting down sleepers and erecting overhead wires, says Roger Ford, technology editor at Modern Railways. “They can probably do about a mile of track a day,” he estimates.

Even after the line is finished there needs to be testing to see it works. Months of it.

California High-Speed Rail: 10 Readers With 10 Views (The Atlantic)

As a reminder: California’s plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.

He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor’s successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.

In four previous installments, we’ve heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.

Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you’ll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I’ve chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:

1) “Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward.” From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.

Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:

1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I’m so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says “OK, option 1 understood, now let’s look at option 2”. But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.

2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.

Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I’ll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.

2) Let’s leap forward, but to self-driving cars.

I’m a fan of Brown’s high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I’m living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.

I’ve been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We’ve got Google; we’ve got Tesla. It’s about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).

An earlier era’s ambitious infrastructure program: The Last Spike, by Thomas Hill (Wikimedia)

3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.

Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory.  I love the idea of high speed rail.  I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.

In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state.  For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.

4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:

Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.

Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out.  Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.

$81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.

This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.

I’m not going to comment on most of these, but here I’ll add: this doesn’t seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don’t. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the “total” travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.

Aspirational high-speed rail map, via Federal Railroad Administration

5) “Political ossification that prevents real vision“:

As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento …  for different reasons:

Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly…

Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to  There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.

Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:

1)      The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.

2)      Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.

It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ….

I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.

Federal Railroad Administration.

6) “Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind … even the French!

I’m so glad you’ve taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country…

The word “infrastructure” gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside.  (Like referring to hotels and movies as “properties” as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)

But “infrastructure” is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of.  If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure.  Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers.  The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes.  See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?

Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country’s interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads.  So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways.  (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways…)   Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service.  Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement.  See also air service in the regulated era.  The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang.  And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.

By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network?  It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail.  The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it’s necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service.  And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the “free market,”  you can have it.  We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.

Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force.  Human activity won’t go anywhere if there’s no way for it to go.

The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself.  (Correction.  I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.)  Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover.  Why can’t we chant “USA! USA! USA!” and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries?  Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX?  You betcha.  I’ll have more of that thank you!

High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind … even the French!!

7) “Why not start someplace more modest?

I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.

I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.

Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:

-get to LAX and park

-allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening

-check in, screening and boarding

-flying time

-rent a car at SFO

-drive to your destination in SF area

Total time: 6 hours

Driving time: door to door if  you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours

How is the high speed rail going to make this faster?  Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.

Door-to-door transit time is what counts.  I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.

Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish ‘people-processing’ situation at our airports.  And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF.  I would still drive.

And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego.  No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service.  It doesn’t even have to be `high speed’. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.

A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.

8) “The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations.”

Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.

(A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. “How will it ever pay for itself” often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.

With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: “I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes.”  Furthermore, I’d like to remind people on the recent “star” IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:

•    EPZM – market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74

•    XON – market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%

•    FEYE – market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77

•    BNFT – market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%

•    FUEL – market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%

•    TWTR – market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%

•    KIN – market cap of 305m, no revenue.

•    XLRN – market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt

•    VMEM – market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,

•    CHGG – market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%

But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.

I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better 😉

(B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.

If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.

9) “A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days.”

Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this ‘build almost to where you want to go’ seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.

First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The ‘useful’ part was ultimately built.

Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the ‘useful’ part—will not be funded?

A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that’s all we can hope for these days.

10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:

Thank you for your work on the California HSR system.  I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work.  I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing.  If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us.  I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.

Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly.  Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around.  It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be.  There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.

For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.

Other Resources:

Magnetic levitation leads the way as train speeds top 500kph

In today’s age, plans for high-speed railway systems are speeding up.

In August, Elon Musk, the US billionaire entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, unveiled a plan to whisk passengers and cars between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 35 minutes, faster than the speed of sound.

The Hyperloop is not the only project gaining momentum. National railway companies and private operators across the globe are in a race to develop trains that transport passengers at record speeds.

The MLX01 (X meaning experimental) is one of the latest designs of a series of Maglev trains, which travel using magnetic levitation technology, in development in Japan since the 1970s. In December 2003, a three-car train reached a maximum speed of 581kph,m although operating speeds would be significantly lower.

Meanwhile, China, Spain, Italy and Germany are boosting the efficiency of their current high-speed rail networks, and the United Kingdom, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have grand plans for new or improved high-speed rail in the near future.

Saudi Arabia’s train system, slated for completion next year, will have an operating speed of 320kph. The railway is expected to transport three million passengers each year and help relieve traffic congestion on the roads. The 77km journey between Jeddah and Mecca is predicted to take less than 30 minutes, and the 400km route from Jeddah to Medina will take approximately two hours.

In the United States, the Acela Express remains the only high-speed rail service in operation but projects such as the California High-Speed Rail, XpressWest between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and a high-speed line connecting Chicago and St Louis are all in the planning stages.

Mr Musk’s Hyperloop plan provides a glimpse into the potential future of supersonic rail travel and provides a backdrop against which we can look at where our high-speed rail services stand today.

Here is a look at the current five fastest trains in the world.

1. China’s Shanghai Maglev Train

Launched in 2003, the Shanghai Maglev Train currently takes the helm as the world’s fastest train service, clocking in an operating speed of 430kph. Its record speed is 500.5kmh. The trains zooms along a 30km stretch, from Pudong International Airport to the Longyang Road Station of the Shangai metro system.

2. China’s CRH380

Unveiled in 2010 by China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation, the CRH380 has since expanded to include 9,330km of train track carrying half a billion passengers each year. The trains’ operating speed is a decidedly brisk 349kph, with a record speed of 487kph. This rail service operates on four routes transporting passengers between Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Nanjing and Hangzhou.

3. Germany’s ICE3

The InterCity Express (ICE3), unveiled in 2000 as a lighter and higher-powered train than its predecessors, runs between Frankfurt and Cologne in the Rhine Valley and Munich and Nuremberg in Bavaria at an operating speed of 320kph. The railroad system currently has nine more high-speed lines under construction or in the development stages.

4. Japan’s Shinkansen E5

These trains, nicknamed “Duck-Billed Platypus” due to their distinctive nose, are also referred to as Japan’s bullet trains. These trains, which travel on a 674km route between Tokyo and Aomori at the northern end of Honshu Island, have an operating speed of 320kph. The railroad system’s record speed tops 358kph. In September, testing began on the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev, a US$90 billion project, which will be able to reach about 500kph.

5. France’s TGV POS

Launched in 2008, these trains also operate at 320kph, with a record speed of 574kph, which set the bar for the world’s fastest speed for travel on conventional rails in 2007. The system operates on the LGV Rhin-Rhône line in eastern France, as well as the LGV Est between Paris and Strasbourg. There are reportedly more routes in the works.

Following on the tail of these fastest trains are Spain’s AVE Series 103, South Korea’s Sancheon and Italy’s ETR 500 Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) and ETR 575 AGV trains – which have operating speeds of about 300kph.

The Eurostar Class 373 in Britain, France and Belgium, as well as the THSR 700T in Taiwan also share operate at about that speed.

Greater Manchester’s transport plans: a blueprint for the rest of the UK?

Metrolink trams and buses on Moseley Street in central Manchester.

If Manchester is allowed to run its own transport system, surely other cities should get those powers too?

It was an argument that the shadow minister for transport, Lilian Greenwood, repeated several times as she debated with Patrick McLoughlin, the secretary of state for transport, and Mike Thornton, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, during the Guardian’s Big Transport Debate on 3 March.

The need for UK major cities to have an integrated transport system such as London’s has been a recurrent theme of the Guardian’s year-long Big Transport Debate project, which culminated in last week’s debate between the three main parties at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Westminster.

Debating at the Guardian’s Big Transport Debate, from left, was Mike Thornton, Lilian Greenwood, Patrick McLoughlin, and Gwyn Topham. Photograph: Anna Gordon for the Guardian

Greenwood said the announcement last November by chancellor George Osborne, that Greater Manchester will get powers to plan and fund a transport system that integrates bus and rail services, was only a first step. She said there needs to be a change to bus and rail franchising across Britain to allow public sector involvement.

She added: “If we want to see integration and effective investment in smart ticketing [like London’s Oyster card] we need to support planners with more powers and funding, including advanced powers to tender bus services,” Greenwood said. “If it’s good enough for Manchester, as George Osborne seems to believe, it’s good enough for the rest of the country too.”

She said buses are a lifeline for cities and towns, yet over the past five years 1,300 bus routes have been cut, passenger numbers have dropped, and bus and train fares have risen 25%, while the government has cut its funding by 17% in three years. “There’s an urgent need to look at buses,” she said. “In lots of places there is no competition, and where there is competition it’s only on highly profitable routes. Labour wants to do something about that.”
public leaders network

An essential resource for public leaders, offering news, commentary and access to a range of perspectives and best practice from everyone involved in public services.
Click here

She said the public sector should be able to run franchises in rail services as well, and pointed to the reprivatisation last month of the East coast mainline from London to Edinburgh, which has been operated by a government company, Directly Operated Railways, since 2009.

Greenwood said Directly Operated Railways was the only rail operator that had decreased ticket prices in real terms. “Here we had a successful, British-owned operator that wasn’t even allowed to compete to run its own services, as any other state operator could have … That’s why, in the first 100 days of a Labour government we would launch a review of franchising and start the process of legislating for a public sector operator.”

McLoughlin staunchly defended his government’s track record on investment in rail infrastructure, however. The coalition government funded the £50bn HS2 from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which has cross-party consensus. It plans to invest £38bn over the next five years on the railways, including the completion of Crossrail, the east-west rail line across London, which will be the biggest transport infrastructure project in Europe.

McLoughlin also pointed to the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises announced last month for a HS3 rail line linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull. “When you look at the invitations to tender in these franchises, they are encouraging, exciting and challenging for the franchise industry,” he said. “I do find it surprising that Labour is attacking franchising … They relied on it for 13 years. We saw the growth in rail numbers for 13 years. What we now need to do is ensure that passengers are first and foremost in the minds of the franchise companies.”

However, McLoughlin skirted the issue of bus franchises when the moderator, Guardian transport correspondent Gwyn Topham, asked what the panelists would do specifically about delivering better bus services outside London. McLoughlin focused on a new £4m scheme by the Department for Transport to fund “total transport” solutions in rural communities, giving grants to local authorities to link up buses with community-generated forms of transport.

Thornton said the Liberal Democrats wanted to see integrated transport systems in cities, enabled by smart ticketing schemes, which could also allow for variable fares for groups such as 16-21-year-olds. He said his party’s policy was to ensure greater access to poorly served people, such as disabled people and those living in rural areas, and that a Lib Dem government would create a dedicated cycling fund, amounting to 3% of the transport budget, to improve cycling infrastructure.

“Our aim is to make sure that whatever physical state you are in, wherever you live, that you get to go where you want to go and back again, and we want to make it as green as possible,” Thornton said.
The Guardian big transport debate and reception
Read more

No one disagreed with that, and much of the debate was marked by consensus rather than division – even on HS2.

Asked by Topham whether they would continue to back HS2 even if it was “deal-breaker” to forging an alliance with Ukip or the Greens, who both oppose it, in a hung parliament, Greenwood and McLoughlin both said their parties’ support was unwavering. Thornton could not comment as he is on the HS2 select committee.

As for the most contentious transport issue of all – whether new airport expansion in the south-east should go to Heathrow or Gatwick – the fact that the Airports Commission’s final recommendation won’t be published until June has kicked that issue into the long grass.

Thornton went furthest, saying Liberal Democrats at the last party conference had voted against any more runway capacity in the south-east, while McLoughlin defended the delayed report by commending the “thorough and proper job” being done by the commission, led by Sir Howard Davies.

Greenwood said it was because of the contentiousness of large infrastructure projects that Labour has promised it would quickly establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission, tasked with identifying the country’s long-term infrastructure needs and monitoring plans to meet them.

“Having a National Infrastructure Commission doesn’t take away the responsibility of politicians to take difficult decisions,” Greenwood said. “But it makes it easier for us to build political consensus over things that are difficult, just as we did over HS2.”

Unless we stop driving cars, all other sustainable transport plans are pointless

If we want sustainable cities, we are going to have to put the brakes on car usage.

Taking aim at the family car may sound a drastic solution to increasing congestion and air pollution in Britain’s cities, but Steve Melia, author of a new book, Urban transport without the hot air, says 60 years of largely ineffectual government transport policy have shown that nothing less will do the job.

Melia, who lectures in transport and planning at the University of the West of England and advised the last Labour government on its eco-towns programme, says one of the biggest myths about transport policy is that there has been a “war on the motorist” – that successive governments have used fuel duties, speed cameras and road taxes to discourage car use and help fund public transport.

The coalition government promised to end such hostilities when it was elected in 2010. Even the shadow transport secretary, Michael Dugher, latched on to the idea last December, when he said he would champion drivers, and be a transport secretary rather than “train-spotter” if Labour is elected on 7 May.

But if there is a war going on, it is against public transport users, says Melia. According to the RAC Foundation, the cost of rail and bus travel rose twice as much as the cost of driving in the past 10 years, and public spending on roads over the past five years has been more than twice that spent on local public transport.

Melia says that imbalance has to be redressed if transport policy is to be truly sustainable. But the other great myth about transport policy is that investment in public transport is the only solution. He maintains that public transport improvements, on their own, will encourage additional trips and reduce walking and cycling, but make little dent in car use. “Based on typical behaviour changes”, Melia writes, “doubling bus use across the UK would reduce car driving by around 1.3%”.

So what can make a difference? Planning. Melia coined the phrase “filtered permeability”, an urban planning concept that discourages the driving of cars through residential neighbourhoods and rewards cyclists and pedestrians.

Combined with strategies such as car-free residential developments, where car parking is pushed to the periphery rather than outside homes, such planning has allowed many cities in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany to increase by a third the proportion of commuters who cycle. This compares with 2.8% of UK commuters.

But there are success stories in the UK, too. Melia points to Cambridge and Brighton as cities where car use for the daily commute, and car ownership, has dropped since 2001. While in Brighton commuters moved to trains, cycling and walking, a more concerted effort to promote cycling in Cambridge has resulted in continental levels of 29%.

What both cities have in common, Melia says, is a geographical constraint on expanding their roads to cope with increasing congestion. Brighton is sandwiched between the sea and the South Downs, while Cambridge’s roads network radiates out of the city centre. In the 1990s city planners were faced with either knocking down listed buildings or building a four-lane inner ring road to cope with gridlock. They chose to create the Cambridge core traffic scheme, a filtered permeability scheme on a scale never attempted in any British city before or since, Melia says.

He hopes London could be next. The capital has made huge progress under mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, bucking the national trend by doubling bus usage and cutting car ownership by 30% since 2001. Yet air pollution levels remain perilously high. “There’s a long way to go before air pollution reaches levels where it isn’t damaging human health,” says Melia.

Cycling, despite increasing popularity in inner London, still accounts for only 2% of journeys city-wide, and Melia sees getting those rates up as key. Boris Johnson agrees, and in 2013 promised that cycling [pdf] would become an “integral part of the transport network”. Transport for London has recently announced investment in segregated cycle lanes – a network of quietways [pdf], cycling routes that use existing roads with little traffic, and similar “mini-Holland” schemes, in the outer London suburbs of Enfield, Kingston and Waltham Forest.

Asked whether government plans to devolve power to Greater Manchester, allowing it to run its own integrated transport system, as London does, is a blueprint for greater sustainability, Melia says yes – with caveats. Smart ticketing, such as London’s Oyster card, and reregulation of buses will be key, but can’t be done on the cheap.

“You have to put up taxes if you want to reregulate. If you don’t, you will end up with a situation such as in Northern Ireland” – which has a state-run integrated transport system but suffers from chronic underinvestment. “It’s not a panacea, but done in the right way [devolution] could significantly improve public transport,” Melia says.