Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On high-speed rail, getting there is half the fun; coming back is the other half

Let's start with the last sentence of this article first: "I just don’t think that high speed rail has made its case for doing those things just yet." 

I agree. The CHSRA has not made it case for building this high-speed rail system. Neither has the state government.  We have heard only exhortation and generalities, or concocted numbers to justify this project. But, the jury is still out and we have no business beginning the project.

The Economist is, as we know, fairly conservative and not hostile to the high-speed trains. The UK wants to build a second one, the HS2, and we have talked about this at some length.

What caught my eye was the Concorde analogy.  I've been using that to discredit the high-speed rail project in California for five years now. 

The article author appears to approve of the Concorde, despite it's litany of shortcomings.  The fact is, the Concorde is an excellent example of something that is engineering-possible, but nonetheless, totally unnecessary.  As we've described it in the past, it was supersonic in speed, but stunningly costly to operate, and it consumed billions of dollars in development. (Fuel consumption was like flushing hundreds of toilets constantly.)

As a "loss-leader" or marketing icon for British Airways and Air France, the Concorde's financial losses were huge, even with $10,000. tickets.

We should really reconsider the speed/cost equation to decide how much speed we require in the performance of our productivity by way of our locomotion.  What are the gains in arriving at our intended destination over considerable distance as filtered by the mounting costs of that time savings?  What is the productivity ratio increase based on those shorter travel times?

We already know that if we are indeed productive during the journey, what difference does it really make where we work on our lap-top, at our desk at office or home, a coffee shop or on a railroad train.  We do know that physical face-to-face meetings are becoming ever more costly and need to be closely assessed for their cost/benefits.  We Skype and have video conferencing.  Our travel budgets continue to shrink in order to produce a more profitable bottom line. 

By the same token, faster and more commodious train travel by improving regular passenger rail can be obtained at far lower costs if those speeds are not pursued regardless of cost.  We need to acknowledge that while we may obtain travel speeds on rail at, say, 1,000 mph, the costs would be impossible to sustain under any circumstances. The "gain" curve would flatten out and decline.  Somewhat like the power-curve on a car when RPM limits are exceeded. That point may already be approached with HSR. 

While I commend the Chinese for running carbon-composite HSR train-sets at 311 mph, I would challenge the costs against the urgency for creating the rail infrastructure that puts such speeds to use.

My point here is exactly that created by the Concorde.  It's not that Mach 2 was now available to anyone and everyone.  To the contrary.  It was a plane ride to Paris for high-income celebrities.   Just as a visit to the ISS isn't available to anyone without $20 - $35 million to spend.  Should, as a rhetorical question, the federal government make ISS tourism a part of its transportation policy? Of course not.

And, it is quite possible that these highest high-speed rail speeds exceed necessity and cost-benefits for the consumer.  In any case, the government (that is, the taxpayers) has no business creating such an exclusive transit modality for such a highly restricted clientele.

High-speed trains
The Concorde of the rail industry
Jan 11th 2012, 19:07 by R.B 

It is easy to be beguiled by the vision of modernity that high speed trains offer. The thought of zipping across the country at more than 250mph is tremendously appealing, nipping up to Leeds, Newcastle, even Edinburgh for the day. If it is technically possible to go faster, surely every effort should be made to do so? 

This is the notion at the centre of the £32.7 billion high speed rail project which was given the go-ahead by Justine Greening, secretary of state for transport, on January 10th. Britain’s second high speed rail link is known as HS2, a far longer, more controversial and more expensive project than the country’s first speedy link, which runs from London to the channel tunnel. 

This scheme is not Ms Greening’s own creation - transport ministers on both sides of the chamber have backed it. Britain is following a path that Japan first pioneered in the 1960s. France, Germany, Spain and more recently Italy and China have also invested very large sums of money in bullet trains, which travel at more than 250mph. 

Presenting the latest stage of Britain’s plan in parliament on Tuesday, Ms Greening referred to this as a “transformational scheme” which will “deliver prosperity” and “regenerate the regions”. This is a project “fitting for the 21st century”, says the minister. Many question the economics of this line, but in isolation, the space-age vision of it is exciting. And Ms Greening is keen that if others can do it, so should Britain. 

In fact, the secretary of state for transport is more sensible than this, and has looked into all the reasons and need for a line. The department makes clear that it believes an expected capacity crunch on the west-coast route means that some kind of new line will have to be built within the next decade or so - and a high-speed one is not so much more expensive than a traditional line. 

I have questioned some of those capacity calculations and the economic basis for for the line elsewhere. But the idealistic ambitions around such schemes merit further consideration. 

Think of China, which is currently determined to put people on the moon, not because of any demonstrated utility in doing so, just to show that it can. Britain’s bullet-train ambitions also remind me of Concorde, which for more than 25 years shot through the sky from London to New York in three-and-a-half hours, half the time of a regular flight. 

Many things did for Concorde: the price of tickets (around £8,000 apiece), the cost of maintenance, terrorism, recession, a decline in business travel and objections to the noise of its supersonic engines, not to mention a tragic fatal crash. When engineers first found a way to make a plane fly that fast, though, it must have seemed inconceivable that a niche for such a service would not be found. But that’s exactly what happened. 

Despite Concorde’s withdrawal in 2003, the beautiful dream of supersonic flight lives on. Several companies are developing technologies for private supersonic jets, according to an article by one of my colleagues in September. They haven’t had much take up yet, but that could yet change. 

Like Concorde, high speed rail involves incredible feats of engineering, and I still hope and believe it will have its day. The geography of some countries is better suited to it than others: population centres in America could be brought far closer by speedier train services, for example. Britain, by contrast, is a small island whose cities are fairly close together, relatively few internal flights and is already well-served by a dense network. Its non-high-speed trains are also already faster than many of its European counterparts — and on some lines could go faster still if signalling technology were improved. 

Speed is something the human race aspires to. From the 100-metre sprint to the fast cars of the Formula One circuit, there is a basic assumption that speed is a boundary that should be pushed and pushed. But being technically possible does not necessarily make it commercially viable. I admire the vision that wants to transform a country, bridge regional divides and improve services. I just don’t think that high speed rail has made its case for doing those things just yet.

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