Saturday, February 5, 2011

HSR: Where's the Science; where's the Technology; where's the Innovation?

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is a respectable monthly magazine that covers the broad spectrum of science and, to make the distinction, technologies.  Here is a piece by Larry Greenemeier talking about high-speed rail in the United States.  He cites a number of facts, or more correctly, claims made by various government agencies, pro-rail groups and organizations.

Mr. Greenemeier has written other HSR related articles for SA. And, there are several other articles by other authors as well in prior editions of SA.  Yet, they all share the same characteristics.  They focus on costs, political will and the likelihood of HSR ever coming to fruition in the US.  Some of those SA articles are cited, below.

What is of interest here is that these broad descriptions avoid all the issues that are, in some sense -- considering the publication -- 'scientific.'  And when they are briefly mentioned, the article merely repeats the marketing rhetoric and platitudes laid out by the rail promoters, with which we have become so familiar. You know, saves fuel, is cleaner, removes automobiles, etc. 

Mostly we have been discussing this HSR in political and financial terms, because we believe that these are paramount.  However, we would expect SA to raise the more technical and scientific aspects of this project as worthy of discussion.  Is HSR really a good idea from a scientific or technological perspective? Perhaps, perhaps not.  After all, humans have an obsession to go faster.  Just what are the human costs, and cost-efficiencies in that quest?  I'm thinking of the Mach -2 'Concorde' (now only in museums) as a prior example.  Just because something is possible, doesn't make it necessary or even desirable.

In short, are there science and technology-related issues connected with this national vision and its particular HSR projects in various states?  You bet.

Here are a few that come to mind. Energy, environment, transportation efficiencies, innovative (or not) technologies. Those with an engineering background can think of many others, I'm sure.

Energy:  The CHSRA Board has issued many claims about the superiority of an electric high-speed train over flying or driving.  If you look at their studies, however, you will see that they are rigged to produce their desired outcome.  They insist on comparing apples and oranges, so to speak, and to not take the entire HSR system and its construction into account.

Although some electric energy sources are truly clean, unlike coal or oil, many aren't despite their renewability. HSR is the most energy intensive mode of rail travel.   A half empty train is not more energy efficient that a fully occupied car.  The technologies of cars and commercial aircraft are undergoing dramatic transformations, but that has never entered into the rail authority's calculations. Forecasting energy efficiencies ten years out is a dangerous game.

The construction process of building the 800 mile long train system will take at least ten years.  That construction process will consume vast amounts of conventional, carbon-based energy, like Diesel.  That can't be overlooked.  In terms of energy consumption, the CHSRA insists on using vague numbers like "riders." They should use a metric that permits empirical validation, like "passenger-miles" which is a unit of one passenger, one mile. Such units are cross-referential and comparable across modalities.

And, since the measurement of motion includes speed, time and distance, a fourth factor, mass or weight ought to also be incorporated.  I don't understand why SA does not solicit academic analyses and studies of these HSR related factors.

Environment: As we have said,  HSR is the most energy intensive version of electric rail.  Much of the energy consumed in the future will come from midwestern coal powered plants.  The train's construction process will produce pollution that will take nearly 100 years to amortize.  The very existence of the rail corridor will inject huge amounts of irretrievable damage into both the national and the urban environment.

The immense amount of concrete required has yet to be calculated.  It should be understood that the creation and use of concrete is enormously harmful to the environment.  So is the manufacture of rail and other steel requirements.  So is the manufacture of rolling stock, as well as other construction and operational materials.

Because the train itself is electric does not mean that its maintenance and support will also be electric powered. If, as anticipated, the train stimulates huge amounts of urban development, yet more environmental damage.
Transportation efficiencies and innovation: Is buying high-speed train hardware off the shelves of China, Japan or France the best we can do?  Are we seeking to run trains in ten or twenty years that are already considered out of date in those countries and the other HSR operating countries?  China has 1,000 mph trains on their drawing boards; and they are not the nation noted for its innovative and creative aspirations, we are.  What would be the break-through equivalent of computers --for which we are the innovative nation -- translated into the mass transit industries, products and services?  

Shouldn't we be far more aggressive in the investigation of maglev, for example, which is still a long way from being 'market ready?'  What are the per capita, per mile fuel efficiencies of various transportation modalities? And, by way of full cost accounting, what are the total costs, per person per mile of constructing,operating and maintaining such transit systems?  We don't know the answer because the only source of such information comes from biased advocates for one modality over the others.

The rhetoric of HSR promotion incorporates terms like competition, getting ahead and being leaders. Yet, what we are pursuing is the creativity and innovation of other countries, not our own.  We have no HSR culture, or even a railroad culture, having relinquished that decades ago. So, where is that innovative spirit, and its venture capital investors? Absent? Why, you might wonder.  You could say, only partly tongue in cheek, that what we propose to build is Un-American; that is, slavishly imitative, highly derivative, and not original, creative, or innovative.  If so, shame on us. 

Please understand that I am a lay person, not a scientist or engineer.  I would expect a much more intelligent discussion of these issues about high-speed rail in publications like SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.
Obama's State of the Union: The facts about high-speed rail in the U.S.

By Larry Greenemeier  | Thursday, January 27, 2011 | 2


President Obama made several references to the development of high-speed railways in the U.S., during his State of the Union Address, and stated that one of his administration's goals is to, within 25 years, "give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." In support of this goal—which would go a long way toward alleviating air and road traffic and its associated pollution—the Obama administration last year began doling out the $8 billion it had promised for such projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Yet, the creation of a number of high-speed railways scattered across the U.S., much less one system connecting the coasts, requires key infrastructure and technology commitments in addition to plenty of money—commitments that not everyone is ready to make at this time.

"As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway," the President said Tuesday night. Yes and no.

In January 2010, the federal government announced how it would spend the $8 billion it allocated to high-speed rail development throughout the U.S. as part of the ARRA. A proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco corridor received $2.34 billion (to add to a $9-billion bond approved by voters in 2008). Among other key projects, the government allocated $1.25 billion for an 135-kilometer line dedicated to high-speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, $1.10 billion for rail improvements that would increase top speeds from 127 to 177 kilometers per hour between Chicago and St. Louis, $800 million for new and refurbished stations along the Madison-to-Milwaukee line in Wisconsin, and $400 million for Ohio's Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland (3C) route.

Last month, however, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that $1.2 billion in high-speed rail funds originally designated for Wisconsin and Ohio would instead be redirected to railway projects (high-speed and normal-speed) in 14 different states. Wisconsin has suspended work under its existing high-speed rail agreement and the incoming governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have both indicated that they will not move forward to their ARRA high-speed rail funding. One reason cited is that the high-speed rails would be too expensive to operate. Unfortunately, spreading out the original $1.2 billion means that only a few states will receive a meaningful amount of money—California adds up to $624 million to its coffers whereas Indiana and Iowa are entitled to only about $365,000 and $310,000, respectively.

Florida's high-speed rail project now appears to be in doubt as well as Governor Rick Scott says he is withholding support for the Tampa-to-Orlando line until he sees ridership studies that support the investment.

Still, it's full-speed ahead on the West Coast and some areas of the Midwest. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) last week announced it is setting aside $30 million in federal funding for property acquisition and railway development in the Los Angeles area. The CHSRA says it is committed to developing an 1,290-kilometer high-speed train system that will operate at speeds of up to 355 kilometers per hour, connecting the state's urban centers, including the Bay Area, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego.

In the Chicago area, a cooperative agreement among the State of Illinois, Union Pacific Railroad and Amtrak announced on December 22 leaves officials there hopeful that Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis could be traveling at 177 kilometers per hour on portions of the corridor as early as 2012.

Amtrak's Acela service along the U.S.'s Northeast Corridor is the only passenger train line in the country that has exceeded the 177-kilometers-per-hour speed necessary to earn the Transportation Department's "high-speed" classification. U.S. transportation officials acknowledge significant room for improvement. While high-speed trains in Europe travel as fast as 300 kilometers per hour, Amtrak's Acela "chugs along" at an average speed between D.C. and New York of 133 kilometers per hour—"a snail's pace by comparison," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday at a hearing held in New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

The hearing's purpose was, among other things, to discuss ways to help Amtrak, which owns 584 of the Northeast Corridor's more than 700 kilometers of track, more than double the speed of its trains and help keep the President's promise of extending high-speed rail service to most of the country. Amtrak's current plan to expand high-speed rail within the Northeast Corridor would require $117 billion and would not be completed until the year 2040, behind Obama's timeframe.

© 2011 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.