Friday, November 18, 2011

Where is our Transit Silicon Valley?

The high-speed rail advocacy community likes to use analogies.  They frequently select the 1960s Interstate Highway System, the 19th century Transcontinental Railroad, and some even use the Erie Canal of 1817 as prototype model projects for high-speed rail.  They all were, indeed, major break-through transit/transportation technologies in their day.

Let's take a quick look at those.   At the time of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1800s, there was no other mode of transportation Westward across the Mississippi besides horseback or oxen-drawn wagons. Having demonstrated their functionality during the Civil War for the North, railroads became the newest, most cost-efficient transit modalities.

The Interstate Highway System (for which military reasons served as one major justification) in the '60s, came at a time of the emergence of the automobile as a universal, and universally affordable, transit mode in the US. The car (and gas taxes) supported the building of roads and highways. And they, in turn, became the opportunity that created an even greater market for cars.  (Remember those highway cruisers?)

And, during those decades, from right after the end of WW II, commercial aviation also came into its own.  Those two newer transit modalities were so marketable that we saw a decline in passenger rail travel. (Freight rail, however, remained very healthy, as it is today.)

Finally, the Eirie Canal comparison. It connected Albany, and therefore New York City via the Hudson River, with Buffalo, and thereby enabled the opening up of the Mid-West for commercialization. Railroads, while already in existence, had very limited impact on the movement of freight in the early 1800s, especially bulk freight (like grain, coal, gravel, etc.) for which the Canal and less time pressure were optimal.  What the canal lacked in speed, it made up for in volume.  Indeed, it was the faster and more robust railroad that finally made the Canal obsolete since locomotion on the canal could be no faster than a mule.

And most important, while railroad track spread across the US in all directions, canals remained few and far between, the Erie being the most prominent by far.

The Erie Canal that started on July 4th, 1817 was a boom for Rochester, turning it from a hamlet into a major city in a decade.  Products from the West could be boated across [the state on] the canal, one of the best in the world, to Albany and then down the Hudson River to New York City.  But the canal cannot help us now, it’s too slow. 

So, we could argue, now that we have very high speed shallow water boats available (even super fast hover-craft vessels), why aren't we digging new navigable canals in California whereby these high-speed boats could haul both freight and passengers in large volumes at relatively low cost? After all, like the steam engine locomotive as pre-curser to 220 mph electric trains, we can replace those slow-poke canal mules with high-speed waterborne technologies.  That's silly and highly impractical, you say? And the high-speed train isn't?

The railroads were the last technologies that evolved to be optimally efficient carrying both freight and passengers.  As far as freight is concerned, that's still true.  But moving people over long distances? Not so much. Many thousands of miles of rail track were removed or abandoned to rust.  So, why do other countries pursue high-speed rail?  It depends. 

Europe has had a long tradition of passenger rail with a vast network that reaches each and every hamlet, village and town.  Japan evolved its rail system as part of its post-war reconstruction.  Their high-speed rail became the 'icing' on that railroad network 'cake'.  They know it's only for the affluent, but it serves as publicity and political propaganda and therefore their governments are happy to subsidize its use to keep their trains full. 

China built HSR for a variety of reasons, Western prestige being one of the most important.  (In addition, they built more miles of highways, and more airports than we can possibly imagine.)  They also consider their over-a- billion population as a form of freight and are happy to create rail where none has ever existed to open up underpopulated western China by moving people from the over-populated coastal east. With that many people, everything they do appears like excess.

Mass transit has been part and parcel of many of these older nations and their cultures. Individual, private vehicles, whether horse drawn or (later) automobiles, were only for the affluent upper classes. Most people who couldn't afford private cars; they travelled by bus or rail. 

All this is changing dramatically.  Even with their high-speed rail systems, European and Chinese highways are starting to clog up just like ours despite still stringent taxes and costs. (I sat on a TGV coming into Paris and observed massive traffic jams on the highways coming into Paris.) China's air pollution is attributable as much to their rapid expansion of automobile use as their coal-fired power plants.  That is to say, the notion that HSR will reduce car use is not, in fact, the case.

We also should not forget that all these high-speed rail systems charge the highest fare available for train tickets.

All of which is to say, there is a natural life-cycle to all technologies, and when a generation of one technology is supplanted by another, there are compelling market/economic  reasons.  Cost/benefits, or cost/efficiencies are a way of understanding and justifying their use.  When one takes what was the most pre-eminent transit mode, railroads, and seeks to keep that technology alive by speeding it up, do the former cost/benefits remain, or do these speed modifications, such as for HSR, change that equation?

If speed is the critical variable, why did the Mach-2 Concorde not become more popular? Each seat was highly subsidized by British Airways/Air France. And yet, they still cost $10,000.  There's an analogy we never hear about from the HSR promoters!

The answer is that HSR is no longer cost/efficient, as we can immediately see with the exorbitant costs of the California project. As we like to say on this blog, "Speed Costs! This may not even be the case in those countries cited above; there, there may indeed be cost/benefits.  But, in the US, in California, that is not the case.  The costs -- both development and operation -- far outstrip any possible benefits to be derived by this technology. In California, high-speed rail will be a luxury in every sense of that word. 

In short, the three historical transit-mode examples so popular among those promoting high-speed rail are actually highly inappropriate. 

So, what should we be doing and what would be an appropriate analogy?  We should be doing what we did with information technologies; that is, we took the several dozen or so IBM mainframes in use around the country and totally re-conceptualized them into the universal desk-top and lap-top that now is woven into the the entire world's fabric.  We, in the US, invented, and re-invented digital information technologies.

Instead, what is being proposed in the US now is the purchase of forty year old HSR technologies off the shelves of other countries.

Where is that Silicon Valley parallel in transportation, that is, a major transit revolution? Certainly not on the shelves of the German, French or Japanese manufacturers who've been making high-speed rail rolling stock for themselves and hope to make it for us in the US.

Where is our Transit Silicon Valley?  That is the analogy we should now emulate.

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