Saturday, July 30, 2011

When it comes to High-Speed Rail, you do the math!

"Fifty million people already inhabit the region served by Amtrak's Northeast Corridor."
". . .the population is expected to grow to 70 million by 2050."
". . . carry 18 million passengers per year."

That's what Vice-President of Amtrak HSR, Albrecht Engel, is saying for Amtrak's anticipated high-speed trains.  Is that significant?

The CHSRA insists that it's projected 39 million annual riders is the correct forecast, based on a smaller population expected in California by 2050 (50 million).

Shouldn't we be asking how there will be only 18 million riders with a population of 70 million in the Northeast Corridor (the busiest transit corridor in the US), while the CHSRA projects 39 million riders with an anticipated population of 50 million.

I've never been very good at math, but this problem is crystal clear.  We're being lied to.

Thanks to William Grindley for finding this and bringing it to our attention.

High-Speed Rail from the Railroad Industry Perspective

Google searches can turn up amazing information.  Here are a number of "finds" from railroad publications such as Amtrak, dating back to 2009, and while these emphasize freight and Amtrak services, they do make mention of high-speed rail in a number of ways.  It's a long read, but really interesting as context for high-speed rail and why it's such a bad idea.

The key information provider is the American Railroad Passenger Association (ARPA) and Amtrak's key supporter.

For example, here are a set of selections from a document entitled Arizona Rail Passenger Review, June 2009, which includes a high-speed rail discussion about California.  Remember, the Proposition 1A Bond issue passed the previous November, just 8 months earlier.

One of the lessons re-affirmed here is that American Freight operators are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about high-speed rail. Furthermore, even Amtrak, in 2009 not yet considered to become a partner in high-speed rail, felt that incremental increases in speed and service would be preferable that launching an entirely new, self-contained HSR system on its own rail corridors.

When federal high-speed rail funding for Amtrak became highly likely, Amtrak's position quickly changed.  They hired a Vice-President for High-Speed Rail and applied for and received authorization to represent the entire Northeast Corridor's High-Speed Rail funding requests and HSR development.  That is, they suddenly realized enormous funding opportunities for themselves.

There is a discussion here about the emergence of Amtrak from the various passenger rail services owned by the freight operators, and this viewpoint is from that of the freight rail operators.  They point out that passenger rail declined dramatically, never was significantly profitable and that the evolution of inter-city passenger travel from rail to automobiles plus air carriers changed the rail landscape:

". . . . in the 1930s the number of passenger cars in the United States was around 65,000. By the late 1940s the number was down to about 30,000. Today, Amtrak stables less than 1,400 passenger cars. As regards the latest order for rolling stock from CAF USA, everything except the stainless steel will be domestic, since they could not find a domestic source."

This is a useful quantification of the decline of passenger rail, as well as the termination of rolling stock manufacturing capacity in the US. The point we need to understand is that the US, unlike all other high-speed rail supporting nations, has had a major decline in passenger rail use, even with the current ridership for Amtrak rising.  The overall transit population number using rail remains trivial.  

As one of the rail operator CEOs  points out, TGV was developed because their passenger rail system in France was unable to meet demand. HSR was an expansion of their capacity.  What we are doing is trying to bring back a much faster horse and buggy which we abandoned decades ago. 

Please understand that people like Boardman and Matthew Rose, and all the others quoted here are professional railroad men, not politicians with ulterior agendas.  They are protecting the profitability of their industry, or, in Boardsman's case, trying to keep Amtrak afloat.  Their advocacy of "incrementalism" in passenger rail recovery and growth should be taken very seriously.  I've said a number of times in these blogs, that HSR in the US is like laying on the icing with no cake under it.  That's totally unlike other nations with successful HSR programs.

In his speech, Matthew Rose talks about the CHSRA plan to begin construction and operation in the Central Valley.  The year is 2009 when he is saying this.  In other words, beginning in the Central Valley, not at the northern or southern population center ends of the rail route, has always been the CHSRA's intention.

Noel Braymer talks about the history of rail in the US and the circumstances under which it grew and then shrank.

These professional railroader executives -- even as passenger rail supporters -- are critical of the excess that HSR represents.  Too much, too expensive, too useless. Maybe they know something that all the politicians don't. 

What they all do want is incremental growth.  Bring back regular passenger rail service; increase speeds where possible, from 79mph to 110mph.  That would be a major improvement and could be affordable for the US.  Build up a base of rail ridership first throughout the US.  

That actually makes a lot of sense.


A long-standing ARPA position, that long-stance trains should be run daily, took a step closer to realization at the May 2 annual meeting of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) in Los Angeles. 

Amtrak Interim President and CEO Joseph Boardman and longtime and well-respected Vice President Brian Rosenwald laid out the company's new direction.

Mr. Boardman spoke of Amtrak as momentarily feeling like "the dog that caught the car" with the recent stimulus funds – "What do you do now?" Yet, plans are moving quickly, with the $1.3 billion already 70% obligated. He said "a healthier Amtrak includes a better relationship with employees" and the May 1st employee appreciation day included due back pay.

Touching on the Obama Administration's high speed rail plans, Boardman explained systems like the French TGV only occurred after the existing networks were at capacity. America does not yet have a "high speed rail culture ... we are not ready for orphan systems" that do not have appropriate feeder networks including bus, streetcar, subway, and commuter trains.

Boardman described a high speed network emerging through incremental improvements using improved track such as"Class 6 at 110 MPH," and even using (relatively common) Class 5 mainline freight tracks at 90 MPH. And, "I don't buy the argument you can't mix passenger trains and freight at 110 MPH." This from the man whose immediate previous job as Amtrak’s interim president and CEO was the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose primary role is that of the safety of America’s railroads.

BNSF: Passenger Rail Principles - 2009 [BNSF was to become a major purchase of Warren Buffett in 2010.]

Matthew K. Rose, Chairman, President and CEO, BNSF Railway Company, this April testified before the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, for a hearing on the future of High Speed Rail, Intercity Passenger Rail, and Amtrak. Selected quotes:

“As a freight railroad CEO, a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, and an early supporter of the One Rail coalition, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what our country’s vision for passenger rail ought to be.
“I, too, have traveled to Europe and Asia and appreciate the perspective of those in the United States who ask why Americans can’t have what they have – 200 mph corridor service connecting dense population centers which, themselves, have efficient regional transit distribution. However, as I discovered in my work on the Commission, while many passenger rail advocates and policy makers at all levels of government are inter-city passenger rail advocates, they are somewhat skeptical of this vision. [meaning high-speed rail]
 Their appetite is for a more incremental approach of improving existing inte-rcity passenger rail service...
“The Commission clearly called for the kind of investment needed to support passenger trains operating at the highest speeds in sealed, passenger-only, separated right of way... this is a trillion-dollar funding proposition. Such a system may be beyond our current means...
“Importantly, the Commission report also specifically recognizes the contribution that less-than-highest speed passenger trains in corridors of fewer than 500 miles can make to the Nation’s transportation system. Existing Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor generally achieves 79 mph on freight rail tracks. Public investments made to enhance reliability of this service can yield tremendous on-time performance reliability benefits, which is often all that is needed to successfully satisfy demand for passenger service in certain markets...
“Speaking as a freight railroad CEO, it is possible to increase speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph on tracks that both freight and passenger trains use. Upgrades would include the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), which I’ll touch on again shortly. Track would need to be upgraded from Class IV to Class V track... At sustained speeds in excess of 90 mph, passenger train operations will need to be segregated from freight operations on separate track...
“In sum, the Commission’s model for inter-city passenger rail in this country is to develop the highest speed rail where feasible and economically viable, coupled with more reliability for 79-90 mph passenger service in other key corridors where it will continue to make sense from a density, utilization and cost perspective. We believe that this vision could finally generate the public support and political will necessary for a successful passenger rail system in this country...
“In closing, my recommendations to you are two-fold:
1. Observe the principles for passenger/freight joint use of rail right of way that the Commission recognized, and be realistic about the kind of passenger service that can be achieved, given the limitations of joint use. Generally, those limitations are based on nothing less than the laws of physics and the consequences that flow from them.
2. Develop a realistic vision for passenger service that works for all stakeholders – including freight railroads and the nation’s shippers – and fully fund it.
“It took $4-a-gallon gas to show us that passenger train options are important to providing a fuel efficient alternative to the highway for millions of Americans. In addition, though, a comprehensive passenger rail program may shift a portion of the congested short-medium haul air traffic to rail, expand employment in the passenger rail industry and engender vibrant economic development around these networks. The choice to fund passenger rail over the next 20 years can have as significant an impact on this country as funding Air Traffic Control and runways have had in the last 20 years...” [end quote]

Here in Arizona, BNSF gave a brief presentation to ADOT at a recent meeting of the Stakeholders for Commuter Rail, including these points:

-BNSF is willing to cooperate on passenger rail studies and provide state and local officials with information

-Any passenger operation or service change must not negatively affect freight customers or our ability to serve them

-BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for passenger service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF

-Studies must reflect actual operating conditions and cost structures

-BNSF will not incur any liability for passenger operations that it would not have but for those operations


The California High Speed Rail Authority is talking about starting construction by 2011, with the first segment from Bakersfield to Merced operational by 2015. Between 2018 and 2020, the CHSRA plans to have service running between Anaheim and San Francisco. Running times of 2 hour 38 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles are planned. The next route would be service to San Diego via Riverside with the last route to Sacramento by 2030.

Virgin Airlines is also a major passenger rail carrier in Britain and has expressed interest in getting the operating contract for the California High Speed Rail service.

Controversy has arisen over complaints by the CHSRA that current plans for Caltrain’s extension to the San Francisco Transbay Terminal will not be able to also to handle CHSRA’s expected 12 trains an hour service into San Francisco. These last minute objections have upset years of planning for the Transbay Terminal extension. 

Union Pacific Railroad is objecting to any High Speed Passenger service on rights of ways used by its freight trains. And some local neighborhoods are starting protest against HSR service in their back yard.

Passenger Trains make money, but Railroads need Freight to be Profitable.

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

The construction of the Interstate Highway System, starting in the 1950’s, caused dramatic changes in where we Americans lived, worked, and shopped. During this time the new highways almost put the railroads out of business; their construction created “Suburbia” and with it urban sprawl. Urban rail transit declined, even disappeared in many cities during this time. Not only was the new housing far from train stations, but the new shopping centers and work places were impossible to reach by rail, on outlying land.

An example is Orange County, California. In 1950, this mostly rural county near Los Angeles had a population of about 200,000. When Disneyland was built in Orange County in the mid-1950’s, the site was on cheap farm land near ramps for the brand new Santa Ana Freeway. When this highway first opened it had 4 lanes total, 2 in each direction. Almost immediately, a third lane each way was needed to handle the traffic. The population of Orange County today is almost 3 million.

From the beginning, freight has always been the main business of American Railroads. Passenger Trains generally are profitable, but not as much as freight. In many cases, passenger service was mostly used to develop land owned by the railroads. The railroads up until the 1940’s had enough freight business to justify high capacity rail lines to handle large numbers of passenger and freight trains. 

As the highways were built, the railroads quickly lost time sensitive, high value freight to trucks. New factories were not built near railheads. Furthermore, new natural gas and oil pipelines meant factories no longer needed the railroad for coal deliveries. By the 1950’s, the railroads were fighting to stay in business, and had to cut costs. Railroad employment dropped from a million and a half in the 1940’s to just over 200,000 today. Thousand of miles of unprofitable branch and secondary lines were abandoned.

The easiest way the railroads had of cutting costs was cutting back on its infrastructure. This meant in many cases deferred maintenance, pulling out tracks, switches, sidings, signaling, buildings or anything else they felt they could live without. The major obstacle to doing this was the Passenger Train for many railroads, for there was often public opposition to passenger service cutbacks.

Freight trains often are not on a tight schedule and long trains didn’t have to be run frequently. Good passenger service, on the other hand, requires a well maintained railroad, which is expensive. This is particularly true of commuter and corridor rail service, which often are in areas without much freight business.

By the early 1970’s, things for the railroads hit bottom with the bankruptcy of the PennCentral, which led to the formation of Amtrak. Even then, some railroads with long distance passenger trains refused to join Amtrak or joined reluctantly. Their reluctance wasn’t because they loved their passenger trains, but because they questioned whether Amtrak would be greater evil than running their own passenger trains. The point is, railroads were not going out of business at this time because of passenger trains, but for lack of profitable freight to pay for the railroad infrastructure.

The highways which were brand new 50 years are now literally falling apart. They are often jammed with traffic, and it isn’t practical to build more lanes. There isn’t enough money now to keep up with the repairs for the highways we have let alone to build new ones, especially in already-built-up areas.

The Business and Politics of Passenger Rail; 2011-07-29
July 29th, 2011

Volume 1, Number 13

"The final Shuttle flight raises the question: What does Amtrak have in common with the Space Shuttle?

Both cost far too much, did far too little, and led their industry to atrophy. Our space program and our inter-city passenger train network today lie shriveled and sunken, in need of a new and vibrant life.

The Space Shuttle was envisioned as an inexpensive way of transporting men and machines, with quick turn-around times on the ground and weekly launches. Yet, somewhere between concept and execution, the program became burdened with supporting so many different objectives, becoming so heavy and complex, that in reality each launch cost over a billion dollars – a hundred times the original budget – and across the 30 years the program averaged 11.5 weeks per launch – ten times longer than desired. 

According to the Boston Globe, the Shuttle program ran up a total budget $196 billion. Other than the Hubble Telescope and a few other major successes, the Shuttle program resulted in relatively little new science, at the cost of the loss of all crew on mission numbers 51 and 107.

Contrast this with the two highly successful and scientifically valuable Mars Rovers whose total budget to date is somewhere around one billion dollars. Yet, NASA, which has an effective monopoly on space exploration, has barely been able to build and operate programs like the Rovers, with the Shuttle devouring so much time, manpower, and money.

The net result across three decades was that few scientists and engineers were inspired to pursue space careers, and few new businesses were formed. How far ahead we would be if there were a hundred Burt Rutans competing to build spacecraft to the stars! Instead, our space program lies mired in bureaucratic muck.

Amtrak, too, came out of this eggs-in-one-basket approach. Like the centrally-planned NASA, there was one way to do things and Congress held all the purse-strings. Like NASA, almost everyone at Amtrak believed in their mission and their product, but the organization’s structure permitted little dissent or imagination.

Both Amtrak and the Shuttle were monstrous, ponderous programs that discouraged competition and co-operation.

I shed no tears for the Space Shuttle which drained the adventure and vitality from the Space Age I envisioned as a child watching the Moon Landing, and I shall shed no tears at whatever befalls Amtrak." – William Lindley

Volume 7, Number 22
October 18th, 2010 
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America's foremost passenger rail policy institute
Jacksonville, Florida USA
Waiter, there's a High Speed Rail in my soup.
By Daniel Carleton

You know the party has only started when Charles "Wick" Moorman, Chairman, President, and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation, begins his statements in regard to passenger trains with, "Get the damn things off my railroad."

After the roar of laughter settled down, day one of this year's Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads conference, presented by Railway Age magazine, was underway. Afterward, Moorman acknowledged his appreciation for passenger trains, having ridden them to school every day in Great Britain. Hardly a stuffy or stodgy individual, Moorman proved to be quite congenial and self-effacing. He sees his company's relationship with Amtrak as "strong," a position this gathering of railroad professionals would not deny. He made one fact quite clear: passenger trains on his freight railroad means 79 mph, maybe 90 mph in certain circumstances, but definitely not "High Speed Rail." He also made it very clear that the increased track maintenance will not be borne by his railroad or stockholders.

Moorman was quite concise that every corridor and potential corridor for passenger trains is different; they are "not all the same." He pointed to three areas where current and future services are welcome: 

(1) Virginia — the increase of service by extension of a Richmond train to Lynchburg is seen as a success. Norfolk to Petersburg makes a lot of sense, but a connection will have to be built between the former N&W and SCL at Petersburg, after which one would "bounce your way to Washington" (a good-natured jab at his primary competition, CSX). The Commonwealth of Virginia is shouldering the cost of these services and upgrades. 

(2) Chicago — the grade separation at Englewood, which will raise a Metro commuter line over a busy NS freight line (also shared by numerous Amtrak trains), is one of many great projects in that area, improving freight and passenger service. 

(3) North Carolina — work continues in this state to continuously improve passenger service, and NS is committed to this work.

Then Moorman addressed two areas that have caused great concern to the industry, those being the now reconsidered Federal guidelines for high-speed rail, and Positive Train Control. He described the Federal guidelines as "surprising to us" and "frightening to us." The reward of passenger trains is slight, to the freight railroads. Then a call to any seeking to run a new passenger service: "Keep the word `risk' in mind." Whereas many may see the benefits of running passenger trains, it is the freight railroads who weigh the risk. As for PTC, it is a well-intentioned but bad piece of legislation, with an estimated price tag of $10 billion for the industry. This is going to be a big distraction to the railroads for the next five years. NS has estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of its track will require PTC.

Following that was a panel discussion on the National Rail Plan, chaired by Al Engel on his first day as Amtrak's new Vice President for High Speed Rail. The Plan is a project by the FRA. As it is limited to 120 pages, the Plan is a strategic vision for the future, and an answer to Congress when it asks, "Show us your High Speed Rail plan?" FRA replies, "We don't have an HSR plan, we have a National Rail Plan." Even so, there were many useful tidbits of information brought out in this two-hour segment. The freight hauling system in the United States currently moves 40 tons of freight per person, per year. The goal of the Plan is to realize an increase of intermodal (trailers or containers moving greater than 500 miles) on the railroads from about 23% today, to 50%. The largest roadblock to building new intermodal terminals is not NIMBYs, but the environmental permitting process; this is a critical issue for the Plan. The expected cost of applying PTC to a single locomotive is $60,000-70,000.

Don Itzkoff, who will be moving to GE Transportation, then gave us an update on how things stand in Washington, DC. Simply put, HSR is now a higher political target. Everyone is feeling his way around this new scheme of transportation with the mindset of "play the game, then write the rules." 

Of the more than $10 billion (soon to be over $11 billion) set aside for HSR, only $1 billion has been spent; however, rail is now very visible on Capitol Hill. Rail is now very much part of the surface transportation discussion, and rail is now speaking with one voice.

Our luncheon speaker was none other than Joseph Boardman, President and CEO of Amtrak. He started off by joking that his education in Agriculture Management at Cornell qualified him for Amtrak's top spot. 

Despite his wit and spry manner, he looked tired and concerned, as though the weight of the whole world was on his shoulders. Even so, he did attend the entire morning, and most of the afternoon sessions. 

He was quick to point out that despite the conference title of Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads, talk of High Speed Rail kept "sneaking" in. Unlike most of the participants who stuck to the 'where and when', Boardman seemed compelled to answer 'how and why' he is, where he is, and what he intends to do about it. His appreciation for public transit came with the gas lines of 1973 and a national lack of desire to fix the problem. 

Even now it is already too late to provide balanced transportation for the nation. Amtrak needs a fundamental change in its culture — it has visibly lost support due to its arrogance – and to this end, Boardman seeks to instill the three parts of humility into those in his charge: inclusion of all, being collegial, and pursuing continuity. He said later on that he wants the people in key positions to be able to make those decisions on their own with the proper input. Is this perhaps a move away from the micro-management so prevalent in state agencies? Time will tell.

Boardman acknowledged that his work is cut out for him. He noted that in the 1930s the number of passenger cars in the United States was around 65,000. By the late 1940s the number was down to about 30,000. Today, Amtrak stables less than 1400 passenger cars. As regards the latest order for rolling stock from CAF USA, everything except the stainless steel will be domestic, since they could not find a domestic source.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Just how many are actually going to ride the High-Speed trains?

Let's get to the bottom line of this story quickly.  All railroad development projects over-state the number of passengers they will carry. That's how they convince us to get the funding to build it.  And, they want to build it to get their hands on the money.

The CHSRA is no exception to that empirically demonstrable rule.  They began by projecting 117 million annual passengers.

Let me remind you that this will be the most expensive project ever in the state of California and probably in the entire United States.  People kill for that kind of money. 

With lots of complaining about such ridiculous ridership estimates, the rail authority has been reducing the number and making their search for the correct number sound more and more scientific and mathematical, with "models" and consulting companies who are in the business of projecting future numbers.  

Making such forecasts with mathematical models and research is ever so much more attractive than using Tarot cards of crystal balls. However, most consulting companies, and I suspect that Cambridge Systematics is no exception, stay in business because they tell their clients what they want to hear.

(Could you imagine getting a million dollar contract to project future ridership and telling the rail authority; "Sorry, your numbers are far too low. You have no reason to build this train."  Yeah, right!!)

Anyhow, the current proposed number of annual riders is 39 million annual riders.  Still a ridiculous number.  Do they want us to believe that, figuratively speaking, each and every resident of California will ride this train once a year? Of course not. By the way, the entire Amtrak passenger rail network in the US carried less than 30 million annual passengers this past year. And that's over 23,000 miles of track.

What's important here is that these forecasts drive (or should drive) a huge amount of decision-making about the design of this rail project, and whether it should even be built at all.  Not enough riders means no need for such a train.

Therefore, it behooves those who are so eager to get their hands on all those billions to build this train (and help their croneys) to propose as large a ridership number as we are willing to digest.

The fight between the people of California and the rail authority exemplifies the importance of these numbers.  The rail authority is withholding data, stalling, procrastinating and doing everything it can to put off as long as possible any truths leaking out.  Which can mean only one thing.  They already know the truth, and don't want us to.  Anyhow, this contest is far from over.

In October, the rail authority is obliged to produce another "business plan."  It has to contain more reliable (whatever that means) forecasts of riderships.  What are the chances?

One related factor to ridership will be ticket costs.  The more that tickets cost, the fewer riders can afford the train.  With fewer riders, the requirements for train subsidies (which are not allowed) goes up.  We have interlocking dilemmas and the rail authority is desperate not to let its fabric of lies be torn apart. 

The bottom line here is this.  The more the rail authority tells the truth, the less justification exists for building this monstrosity in the first place.  The more we learn the actual costs of development, the actual ridership projections, the real revenue surpluses or necessity for subsidies, the more it will be apparent that this train project should never, ever leave the drawing boards.

Report casts doubt on forecasts for California high speed rail
In a review of California's high speed rail project, a panel of experts determines that ridership and revenue projections need to be more conservative.

By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
July 29, 2011

Fresh questions about the ridership and revenue projections that underpin the state's $43-billion bullet train project have been raised in a new internal report by the agency charged with building the system.

Among the key conclusions of a California High Speed Rail Authority panel of experts is that forecasts of up to 117 million annual riders by 2030 — which have helped support predictions that the system would generate billions in profits — need to be recalibrated to be more conservative and better reflect important factors that could affect ridership.

The new critique comes as the authority is racing to complete a business plan for the Legislature and break ground next year on an initial segment in the Central Valley.

The analysis echoes some of the concerns of transportation experts at UC Berkeley. They concluded last July that the patronage models were so unreliable that they could not accurately predict whether the train would be profitable or run severe deficits.

Within days of the Berkeley report, rail officials and their consultants went before the authority's board to defend the forecasts as realistic and state-of-the art.

The agency's five-member peer review panel has found that projections prepared by consultant Cambridge Systematics Inc. are well-founded in many respects but suffer from "important technical deficiencies."

Additional peer review reports are planned in the months ahead as part of an ongoing effort to reexamine the project's patronage and financial forecasts. Panelists said they cannot draw more definitive conclusions about the agency's forecasts until issues they have raised are resolved.

Ridership forecasts are crucial for the project's 500-mile first phase, which would link Los Angeles and San Francisco. They form the basis of calculating ticket income, the amount of public funding required, stations needed, as well as the size and number of trains to be purchased.

Rail officials said Thursday that the new study is no cause for alarm and that the forecasts would be revised in time to complete the business plan by October.

"The purpose of peer review is to identify issues," said Tom Umberg, a former Orange County legislator who chairs the high speed rail authority board. "If the peer review group is raising issues that we need to address, that is helpful. Do we need to refine our ridership figures? Yes, and we are doing that."

Critics of the project said the peer review report is another indication that the authority's forecasts are unreliable.

"Not only is it bad; there is so much missing information that the review panel can't fully give their opinion on the original study," said Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. "You should not rely on these numbers."

Among other things, the panel stated that Cambridge used a now-obsolete survey method, made unrealistic assumptions, failed to properly analyze what would happen to ridership for varying levels of train service, and did not consider the impact of airline competition.

"Generally, Cambridge is well thought of," said David Brownstone, a UC Irvine economics professor who worked on the Berkeley study. "But the bigger take away from all this is that there are now two independent reviews that show things are lacking here."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John Mica, Republican Congressman, Chairman of the Transportation Committee. Where does he stand on High-Speed Rail?

All those who object to high-speed rail, particularly in California, and who are fond of saying:  "Oh, this will never happen."

You better pay attention to this article.  We've been telling you that the real decisions about the future of high-speed rail won't come from Sacramento, where too many Democrats are too intent on getting federal bailout money to stop the project no matter how egregious it is.

We've been saying that the money either will or won't come from Washington and so will the fate of HSR.  With money, the CHSRA can keep on going.  Without it, they'll dig up 100 miles of the Central Valley and run out of money. Game over. The choice is up to the Congress and it's under debate right now.

As you all know, on the House side, John Mica, discussed in this article, is on the side of the Republican majority that appears to oppose high-speed rail, or so we have been led to believe.

On the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Boxer heads the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee which is preparing their side of the Transportation Re-authorization bill, and it incorporates the President's obsession with "winning the future" in the global race by using high-speed rail.

We should note in this article that surprisingly, Mica, the high-speed rail opponent, is happily meeting with a high-speed rail support organization. 

Which leads me to reiterate my anxiety about thinking that "this will never happen."  I'm not so sure it won't.  By which I mean, I'm not so sure that there won't be HSR funding in the next Transportation Bill, regardless of current Republican rhetoric to the contrary.   Mica's ambivalence is not re-assuring.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway
by Tanya Snyder on July 28, 2011

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated
Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

Everyone is still trying to figure out exactly what the “pie” consists of, in any case, and Mica let the USHSR know that he had sent a letter to Joseph Boardman asking for an itemized inventory of all the assets on the NEC and their fair market value. Mica’s staffer says that “knowing what’s there and how leveraged it is and what are the encumbrances” would be a “building block of private sector financing participation.”

Kunz of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association agreed that Amtrak “needs to show that they’re willing to bend a little bit,” if for no other reason than because “Amtrak needs funding from the federal government every year.”

In an interview with Streetsblog immediately after the Capitol Hill meetings, Kunz said, “Amtrak is just assuming they’re going to control everything and run everything, and that may not be in the interests of the whole country… it’s the country’s rail system. They need to do what’s best for the country, which may not always be what’s best for Amtrak.”

Mica is hoping that transit-oriented development will be a key source of private sector involvement, and, perhaps, revenue. He pointed to successes with TOD in Phoenix and said, “Can you imagine, in the Northeast Corridor, what you could do?”
Mica also said he’s been meeting with Democrats on the larger reauthorization package, and that so far they’ve gotten about 55 or 60 percent of the way through the bill. It’s been lamented that there haven’t been “Big Four” meetings in the House like there have been in the Senate, bringing together top members of both parties from the committee, but those meetings have now started in the various subcommittees. Mica started to say that all that consultation was the explanation for the delay in marking up the bill, but then he said, “We will continue in a slower motion fashion,” he said, “mainly because our leadership controls the floor time.”

He granted that the delay makes sense. “Given the intensity of the current drama on the budget deficit, they probably calculated right,” he said. “To get this to the floor before next Friday seems highly unlikely. But we have a commitment to do it as soon as we get back [from recess]. So you’ll see everything go from slow motion into fast motion as soon as we get back.”
The U.S. High-Speed Rail Association is trying to drum up interest in its new “Republicans 4 Rail” program. They’re trying to get members of Congress, governors, state and local officials, and even some rank-and-file members of the Republican party to sign on.

For now, the pickings are still somewhat slim. Mica counts, although many Democrats see his Northeast Corridor proposal as the “death knell” of passenger rail in the U.S. So does Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of few Republican senators representing urban or industrial states. In trying to brainstorm other Senate Republicans who might be interested in joining R4R, Kirk’s staffer and the USHSR came up with a short list indeed: maybe Rob Portman from Ohio; maybe Scott Brown of Massachusetts if he weren’t running for reelection.

The rail lobbyists met with Kirk’s office after the meeting with Mica, but Kirk himself was not able to show up. His staffer talked about the Lincoln Legacy Infrastructure Development Act, also designed to draw private investment to public infrastructure projects.

He also alluded to the House/Senate split around the duration of a reauthorization. He said the constituent calls he gets on the subject are about split, 50-50, on the issue of whether to lock in low spending levels for six years, a la the House bill, or go with a two-year bill at higher spending levels, but offering less ability to plan long-term projects.

Yea, it's Fox News. And, they hate High-Speed Rail. But then, so do I.

Gotta watch this video.  Andy Kunz, the head of the US High-Speed Rail Association, is being interviewed.  Andy supports the HSR train project.  Fox News, of course, opposes it.

The Washington Post's Editorial on China's High-Speed Rail Disaster

This Washington Post editorial says, better than I could what I've been trying to say since the Chinese rail accident.  You know, the one that was predictable, since there has been a recent history of corruption, cheating on construction, safety issues, power outages and other mechanical failures. "Haste makes waste, rail builders of China!"  

I suppose that in authoritarian China, the loss of a large number of lives is no big deal, given a population of 1.3 billion people.  "Easy come, easy go." We may never know just how many were killed in this accident.  Given the absolute power of the ruling autocracy, first they tried to literally bury the evidence -- a literal "cover-up" -- of what happened and why. But because of huge public outrage, they are now digging up the buried railroad cars to look for evidence. First the government issued statements prohibiting any news on the event, suppressing the press, but now they are talking about "transparency." 

What are the issues here?  In the US, and from the President, we never heard an end to the fact that the Chinese were doing a wonderful thing by building thousands of miles of HSR routes, and their trains were faster than anybody else's.  They were winning the train race and we weren't even in the race.  Shame on us!!!  Aren't we competing with China for WORLD DOMINATION?  We're supposed to be number one about everything, especially if its about shiny metallic things that go fast.

Now, with this calamity, are we having second thoughts about our entry into this pointless race?  Are we reconsidering the high costs of the entry fee?  Are we watching that their trains often run empty since so few in China can afford the high-priced tickets?

Apparently not.  Certainly not in California where the lust for this rail-based "vision of a better future" still haunts so many people.  It even haunts those who have been making a lot of noise about how terrible this train project will be "in our neighborhood."

These are the "objectors" who only object if it's "elevated." Otherwise, they think it's really a good idea.  So much for our grass-roots opposition in California.  Wouldn't you think that what's happening in China is an object lesson to which we should pay a lot of attention?  To the contrary.  We are told by our outspoken colleagues that we shouldn't generalize from this one event or make too much of it. That's because doing so would threaten the likelihood of getting this train running through our neighborhood. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The last sentence of this Washington Post editorial is:  The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better, looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.

I would suggest that High-Speed Rail in California is a disaster waiting to happen.  I suspect that the reason for so much support for HSR is the inability to see the forest for the trees.  The question that each and everyone of us should be asking is how does it get paid for and who will be doing the paying?  And, if built, who will be using it?  The best answer I can come up with, it will be paid for by the taxpaying classes at all levels, but used only by the affluent who can afford the tickets. ("Why should the poor be paying to build a train used only by the rich?")

The fact is that it won't that solve any of the promised problems; not congestion, not fuel consumption, not unemployment, not a failing economy, not the damaged environment. Instead it will perpetuate financial harm to the state, probably forever. 
The politics of China’s high-speed train wreck

By Editorial, Published: July 27

FOR MONTHS, it has been increasingly obvious that China’s shiny new high-speed rail system is not the triumph of national planning that Beijing or Western admirers claimed. The Chinese government this year fired top rail officials for alleged wrongdoing , an implicit recognition that corruption and debt plague the project.

Many of those who questioned the economics of high-speed rail in China also argued that authorities were cutting corners on safety in their rush to build the world’s largest bullet-train network. Those accusations, too, received tacit confirmation when China announced in April that it would cut the trains’ top speed by 30 miles per hour.

Too late: Last Saturday, China’s high-speed rail produced the long-feared catastrophe. Two bullet trains collided in the eastern province of Zhejiang, leaving more than three dozen people dead and scores more injured.

The terrible collision is not only a human tragedy but also a major blow to the credibility of the communist government, which had hoped to sell its trains to other countries – including the United States. Authorities blamed a lightning strike for causing one train to stall out, after which a second train rear-ended it, causing four cars to plunge off a bridge.

Unlikely on its face, this scenario does not explain why no fail-safe mechanism halted the second train after the first stopped. That’s what would have happened in Japan, where bullet trains have operated for half a century with zero fatalities.

The Ministry of Railways in Bejing then promised a “serious” and “honest” investigation. Communist party officials immediately undermined that pledge by instructing Chinese media not to report the matter aggressively but rather “to use ‘in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’” as the major theme. “Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate.”

A flood of skeptical, even angry, comment on the Chinese Internet suggests that the damage-control effort isn’t working. As more and more Chinese are realizing, the tragedy’s lessons are not only technological but also political. China’s high-speed rail system epitomizes the inherent flaws of authoritarian governance, not its strengths.

After a minimum of public discussion and despite contrary expert advice, the nation’s unelected rulers decided to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a mode of transportation that many, if not most, ordinary Chinese cannot afford to use. As the cash flowed, well-connected officials lined their own pockets. Plan-fulfillment and national prestige took priority over passenger safety as officials muzzled reporters who dared to say otherwise.

In short, the high-speed rail program operated pretty much as you would expect in a one-party state with a controlled media and no effective checks and balances. The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Supplement to the prior blog entry: What to invest in rather than High-Speed Rail?

Here's a follow on article from Huffington Post about the same issue as the blog entry just posted here a little while ago. The infrastructure problem.  The author makes a very compelling case for why our infrastructure situation is so deplorable.

But, you have to remember this is Huffington Post, with a Democratic Party bias.  So, sure enough, there is a high-speed rail endorsement at the end of the article.  That, of course, contradicts the article writer's awareness that the congestion problems are not inter-city but metropolitan and regional.

And, he brings in the international competitiveness issue; that is, HSR is a competitive race with winners and losers, like an Olympic sport, upon which a Nation's reputation and status among its peers is to be judged.  And, that's ridiculous. (He who has the most toys when he dies, wins.) 

Quoting a new report from the American Society for Civil Engineers,  the author suggests the host nation's economic benefits of HSR.  We are now learning that this typical prediction turns out to be far from true and that HSR actually imposes huge and unexpected costs on the host country, including some of the countries that have been mentioned in recent news articles, like China, Spain, Taiwan and Korea.

Let's discuss this point further. "Global Competitiveness" as a measure of economic health, does not rely on moving people around between cities faster or more comfortably.  The cost burden on all taxpayers of doing so far exceeds any economic benefits that might accrue thereby and those questionable benefits that are available tend to be highly inequitably distributed; that is, class stratified.

If we look at all modalities of transit, and consider the issue of "the greatest good for the greatest number," high-speed rail stands at the bottom of the list.  That should be compelling enough for the Democratic Party to drop HSR and turn their attention to all the other transportation needs that are used by most of the people of this country. And that includes the upkeep of the neglected infrastructure components of all the transit modalities at the people of this Nation's disposal.  
Deteriorating Transportation Infrastructure Could Cost America $3.1 Trillion

First Posted: 7/27/11 03:33 PM ET 
Updated: 7/27/11 04:54 PM ET

New tires add up. That's the finding of a report issued Wednesday by the American Society for Civil Engineers, which tallies up the cost of our decaying surface transportation infrastructure, from potholes to rusting bridges to buses that never come.

The engineers found that overall, the cost of failing to invest more in the nation's roads and bridges would total $3.1 trillion in lost GDP growth by 2020. For workers, the toll of investing only at current levels would be equally daunting: 877,000 jobs would also be lost. Already, the report found, deficient and deteriorating surface transportation cost us $130 billion in 2010.

By and large those costs would not come from the more dramatic failings of America's transportation system -- like the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota -- but more mundane or even invisible problems. The minivan that hits a pothole chips away at a family's income. The clogged highway that drains away an extra half hour of a trucker's day also drives up the cost of shipping for businesses.

Congestion, the report found, is of particular cause for concern. Already, 40 percent of urban interstates have capacity deficiencies. Currently, that costs us $27 billion a year in lost time and other inefficiencies wasted on the roads. By 2020, that number could grow tenfold, reaching $276 billion a year.

The civil engineers are, by their own admission, a biased party -- they stand to gain the most from renewed investment in infrastructure -- but they paint a picture of an infrastructure shortfall that would have ripple effects far and wide through society.

Companies, the report estimates, would underperform by $240 billion over the next ten years without additional investment. Exporters, which would have trouble moving goods to market, would send $28 billion in trade less abroad. The cost to families' household budgets, the report suggests, would by $1,060 a year.

Underscoring the wider appeal of ASCE's argument, the report received the backing of both labor and business leaders.
"Today’s report from the American Society of Civil Engineers further reinforces that the U.S. is missing a huge opportunity to ignite economic growth, improve our global competitiveness, and create jobs," said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, said, "with a modest increase in investment, we can rebuild a strong economy where business can thrive and workers can afford a place to live, raise a family, take an occasional vacation, pay for their children’s education and have a dignified retirement."

The ASCE claims the answer to the transportation problem is simple: Invest more, and quickly.

"The problems facing our nation's infrastructure are widely acknowledged and well understood," said Andrew Herrmann, the president-elect of the ASCE.

But that doesn't mean Congress is rushing to fix them. Re-authorization of the transportation bill that pays for most of our highways has stalled. The House Republican outline for a bill would slash one third of transportation funding. The idea behind cutting those funds is that private enterprise could fill the gap.

Further, gas taxes revenues, which have traditionally been used to pay for transportation funding, are falling because they aren't tied to inflation and more people are switching over to fuel-efficient cars. For conservatives, some sort of new tax is verboten, even though they might appreciate infrastructure's benefits to business.

But even the Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee is not satisfied with his transportation plan. He said he was forced to limit his spending plan because of the House GOP leadership's allergy to tax revenue.

"They wouldn't vote on a Mother's Day resolution if it had extra spending on it," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) told the Wall Street Journal.

David Goldberg, the communications director of Transportation for America, said part of the problem with finding new government funding for transportation lies with the fact that there are fewer new roads to be built. Much of what we need to do lies with fixing old highways.

"Maintenance and repair and upgrades are not as sexy as ribbon-cuttings on new projects," Goldberg said, "And there's a lot of political pressure many times to build new projects."

But beyond that, Goldberg would also like to see expanded access to mass transit. One surprising result of the ASCE report was that cost of deficiencies to Americans in bus transit alone would add up to $398 billion by 2020.

Scott Bernstein, the president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said that while "the general argument that we need to not lose any more ground is sound," we should look more closely at what our infrastructure spending gets us.

"I think they missed the opportunity to talk about what people actually spend on transportation," Bernstein said. He said he thought inadequate spending on infrastructure, especially on mass transit, hurts poor families disproportionately.

"Simply spending it on maintaining highway capacity isn't likely to give people much more of a deal," Bernstein said.

The new report is agnostic on where we should direct new transportation money towards, if we ever decide to increasing spending at all. But ASCE does give a nod towards high speed rail, saying that:

Most of America's major economic competitors in Europe and Asia -- including Japan, Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain, as well as rapidly developing and developed countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea -- have already invested in and are reaping the benefits of improved competitiveness from their intermetropolitan high speed rail systems. Simply continuing to invest in the nation's existing transportation infrastructure may not be enough to maintain its standing in the global economy in the long run.

So far, Goldberg said, we're nowhere near looking at problems like that. "The big question is, can we come to any kind of agreement about what is worth investing in? And can we do it in a timely enough way to avoid the bills the engineers' report warns us of?"

Of course, decaying roads and bridges don't make everyone worse off. One of the report's few bright spots: The future looks good for auto repair shops, which are expected to see increased demand as our roads get worse.