Sunday, February 19, 2012

How fast is high-speed rail? How fast is fast enough?

There needs to be a point of clarification. What, exactly does high-speed rail mean?  In  California, it means a top speed of 220 mph.  Within the Federal Railroad Administration, in the US Department of Transportation, it means 110 mph or better.

You understand that top speed doesn't necessarily equate with average speed, or time of travel.  But, top speed is how high-speed rail sells itself to the public.  Let me ask you, when you buy a car, is your first concern about what the car's top speed will be (if you're not 18)? When was the last time you drove your car at 135 mph? By the way, commercial aircraft never fly at top speed. It's not cost/effective.

How come no one ever asks what the cruising speed of a passenger train is? 

If the FRA (and the White House) were to limit its definition of HSR to the 200+ mph of other rail systems around the world, not only would the Acela train not be called high-speed, but anything that Amtrak is operating, or intends to operate (NEC and Acela excepted), would not qualify as high-speed and would therefore not be eligible for high-speed rail funds.

At 110 mph, any 79 mph train whose speed gets elevated to 110 mph, qualifies as high-speed.  This makes all the difference. California's project is tons more expensive than any other passenger rail upgrades envisioned by Amtrak, because for over 200 mph, it requires all new, dedicated rights of way. It's even more expensive than the Asian and European versions only because it's in the US.  

All of which is to say that if we were to improve the existing Amtrak rail service in California, increase the average speed significantly and in other ways upgrade that service (to 110 or 150 mph), with improved rolling stock, better routes, etc. it would cost far, far less than the intended HSR line and it would improve passenger transit throughout the state consequentially.

Meanwhile, in the UK, there are studies analyzing the efficacy of above 220 mph, and their safety risks.
The Chinese have slowed down their top speed trains from over 200 mph to 186 mph.

Here's an alternative example for us in California.  A train from San Jose, down the US I-5 freeway right of way, that goes 150 mph to Palmdale. Looking at the map, you can see a fairly straight line that does not disrupt urban or rural environments.  From San Jose, the rider can switch to Caltrain to get to SF.  From Palmdale, the rider can switch to Metrolink to go south to LA or Anaheim, or even San Diego.

The big mistake here is to build one super fast train while underfunding all the other passenger rail services.  Whereas upgrading all existing passenger rail, urban, regional and inter-city would benefit a far larger commuting and transiting population. Making small improvements to large systems is superior to the making of a large change to a smaller system. 

No, it's not the promised 220 mph train which must make the trip in 2:40.  But, by now we have learned from the rail authority that whatever they will build won't make that train time anyhow.

We have let ourselves be persuaded that we must demand the Perfect in order to prevent us from obtaining merely the Good.

Why is that not being done? Because the high-speed rail project is not about transit. It's not about improving mobility throughout the state.  It's about nothing more than government pork; that is, obtaining and spending vast amounts of money on a luxury train that has glamour and fantasy appeal, like annual auto shows.  The train is principally for display. Anticipate photos of well dressed professionals using and posing in front of the train.  It's an amenity and an extravagance.  It's the farthest thing from practical and utilitarian transit.

It's a huge mistake to build it.

America's Newest High-Speed Rail Service Begins
Posted by: Jonathan Nettler

19 February 2012 - 9:00am
This past Wednesday, Amtrak debuted the newest high-speed rail service in the country, and the first outside of the northeast corridor. Where you ask? California? Florida? Nope, it's is Kalamazoo, Michigan.

You want the scoop? First, the sloganeering, courtesy of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, "Now, Michigan and Indiana residents are the first to see the progress we've made on America's 21st century rail system. On Wednesday, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo joined Michigan DOT and Amtrak officials to ride the train between Chicago and Kalamazoo. And this was no ordinary ride. It marked the beginning of 110 miles-per-hour service between these two cities and the first expansion of regional high-speed rail outside the Northeast Corridor.

Now the messy reality, courtesy of Mark Brown, who reports that the famous Silver Streak train used to travel between Denver and Chicago at top speeds of 112.5 miles per hour -- in 1934! Furthermore, "Surprising to me, though, the 110-mph speeds take only 10 minutes off the one-way trip, officials said. That’s because trains on the route were already going as fast as 95 mph before the most recent improvements that involved installing a high-tech train control system."

Hopefully this is just the first step in a decades-long process of expanding rail access and speeds across the country. And, in a bit of good news concerning this specific line, that both sources can agree on, "Within the next three years, Amtrak will expand 110 miles-per-hour service from Kalamazoo to the central and eastern regions of Michigan. Once complete, the modernized service will cut nearly two hours from the Detroit-Chicago run."

Full Story: Speeding to Kalamazoo aboard Amtrak’s high-speed train
Source: Chicago Sun-Times, February 15, 2012

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