Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act." How safe? How reliable?

Before I get to the point of this entry, I want to call attention to a blog I was introduced to today.

http://freemotorist.blogspot.com/  This blog has certain, shall we say, pronounced political biases (whose doesn't?) but its author is a stalwart opposer of high-speed rail and makes some interesting arguments against HSR in California.


Now, on with the issue of train safety.

Former Chairman and member of the CHSRA Board Quentin Kopp used to say in his speeches that high-speed rail is absolutely, totally safe.  That there has never been a fatality or serious accident with them, anywhere.

That's totally untrue of course.  The most famous HSR accident, in which more than 100 were killed, was in Eshede, Germany in 2006. He dismissed that one as a "fluke" that would never occur again.  Whatever.

In this older article, from February of this year, we are reminded that there were indeed a number of accidents with HSR already. It's insane to promise any technology as zero defect. It's a goal, not a condition. 

There are two kinds of safety standards for railroads, one for the US and the other for Europe and the rest of the world.  The US has codified the belief that the safest trains are those that are crush-resistant; built so tough, reinforced and so heavy that even a derailment or collision can be survived.   The European standard is lighter, and therefore more energy-efficient, with faster trains, which are kept safe by accident prevention systems, such as positive train control (PTC) and other signalling technologies.

We've never had real high-speed rail technologies operating in the US.  The ACELA has been built to US safety standards and is therefore heavier and slower.  Modern HSR rolling stock is built more like aircraft than the old 'heavy-rail' passenger cars of yesteryear.  Therefore, it is absolutely required that they run in dedicated rail corridors and on dedicated tracks.  In Europe they have been mixing tracks in the same corridors as other rail.  In the US, they will not be allowed to do that.  And that's one of the reasons for the huge per mile expense of construction of HSR in California.

Amtrak rolling stock is built to US standards and does share rail and corridor with freight.

I wonder why it is only the makers of the Japanese Shinkansen trains that have been proscribed by US standards, but not the European manufacturers, such as Alstom and Siemens, who make similar rolling stock, or, the Chinese, for that matter.

The authorizing legislative language for the CHSRA  begins their title with the word "safe." 

"Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act "

California's HSR trains are legislated to be safe.  It's against the law, in other words, for them to be unsafe.  Does that mean that with their first train accident, the CHSRA Board and staff will all go to jail?  I wish.  Because it's nonsense to put such language into a ballot proposition -- they can't promise such a thing -- the California Apellate Court ruled against the use of such language in ballot measures. 

Actually, as we've pointed out, the fact that the rolling stock to be used in the US will be manufactured overseas (along with lots of other stuff necessary to operate this rail system), is of greater concern since it impacts our critical 'balance of trade' severely and highlights the decline of US manufacturing capacity and productivity.  Contrary to all the marketing hype, building and operating HSR in the US won't help our economy.  To the contrary.

Oh, and about the matter of reliability.  In China, the recently introduced newest entry into their high-speed rail empire, from Beijing to Shanghai, had a major power failure.  No, wait.  It had another one after that.  They've already been criticized for their shabby construction and possible safety issues.  So, the reliability issue should certainly remain an open one for our project in California.  

One should not take the hyperbolic language of the bond measure too seriously. Even if you did vote for it.  
U.S. Rejects Japan’s High Speed Trains
By Robert Wyre

TOKYO (majirox news) – Believe it or not, the Shinkansen has been kicked out of the running as a candidate for America’s high speed rail because it can’t meet new American railroad safety requirements. One could almost hear audible gasps of astonishment in Japan.

“If the Shinkansen ever collided with a freight train, the survival of the passengers and crew was something that never entered our thoughts,” said a representative of JR East. “The Shinkansen runs on special tracks and no other train is ever allowed on it. So there has never been any reason to ever think about it.” JR East had pushed hard to export the Shinkansen.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in the middle of January sent out a list of 13 safety requirements for high speed trains to railroad manufacturers worldwide, including Japan. One requirement was that if a high speed train crashes into a stopped train at 20 miles an hour (about 32 kilometers per hour) crew and passengers have to survive the collision. Furthermore, if the train collides with a truck loaded with 18 tons of steel coil stalled at a crossing the engineer has to survive. As it stands now, the Shinkansen can’t meet these requirements.

Put it another way, if the Shinkansen collides with another train about the speed a race horse can gallop at an all out canter, there is a clear possibility that crew or passengers could be killed or injured.

“The Shinkansen itself has been a very successful train in countries that have rail systems like Japan,” says Kevin van Douwen, a hydraulics engineer who consults for the Dutch Railway System. “Here in the Netherlands we use 400 Japanese made engines and cars based on the Shinkansen, but running at much slower speeds on a rail system somewhat like Japans.”

Germany’s Inter City Express, ICE, France’s Train à Grande Vitesse, TVG, and the Shinkansen are among the world’s premier high speed trains that run in conditions far different from the United States but different from Japan. In fact, the ICE had accidents like the ones that the Americans fear.

The differences between German and American railways are more obvious than their similarities. In the U.S. there are often grade level crossings where automobile traffic has to stop for the train to pass, where freight trains and passenger trains run on the same track and areas that livestock and wild animals can easily get on the track.

In densely populated Germany it’s different. For one thing there are overpasses, dedicated track, grade level crossings are unknown, and there are no vast areas of wilderness. Even so there have been collisions with other trains, vehicles and livestock.

“The ICE runs in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and to a limited extent in Holland and Belgium, too,” Van Douwen says. “Unfamiliarity with foreign systems may have been the cause of the crash.”

The ICE collided at about 56 km/h head on with a stopped Swiss train April 2006. Thirty passengers and the driver of the ICE suffered minor injuries and the driver of the Swiss train leapt off before the collision. But both trains were close to a total loss.

“The Americans may have had this crash in mind when they wrote their new regulations,” Van Douwen says. “They want the crew and passengers to be able to walk away from a wreck.”

The ICE had collisions with trucks and tractors that fell off from overpasses. There was even a collision with a herd of sheep that managed to get on the tracks. Although there were injuries and sometimes serious ones, no one has been killed. This may have had to do with the initial design, and an expectation that accidents like these were possible.

“We’ve asked the various manufacturers whether they can reinforce their trains to meet the American requirements,” JR East told the Japanese publication the Asahi Shimbun. “But from what we’ve gathered, they apparently see no reason to do so.”

Japanese manufacturers point out that its lighter carriages use less fuel, are more energy efficient, and reinforcing them enough to meet American standards would make them heavier and turn them into the railroad equivalent of gas guzzlers.

Florida intends to open bidding for a high speed rail line in the middle of February. Don’t look for a Shinkansen to pull into Tampa soon, or ever for that matter, unless there is a huge change of heart among Japanese railroad equipment manufacturers.

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