Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bringing High-Speed Rail Stupidity and Venality from China to the US.

Full credit here: The attached article was written by Richard Tolmach who is one of the most knowledgeable authorities on passenger rail issues and particularly on high-speed rail in California.  Based in Sacramento, he edits and writes for a newsletter, California Rail News, and this article is from the April issue, volume 24, number 1. 

Although Tolmach is a passenger rail advocate, and perhaps just because he is one, he has been a severe critic of the distastrous high-speed rail project from the very beginning, and one of my early sources of information.

As you know by now, there are three major regions through which this intended train will run. The Central Valley is supposed to be the connector between the two population centers, the Bay Area and the LA Basin.  

The funding from Washington requires that the project's construction begin in the Central Valley, but regional transit organizations have manipulated the politicians to support their efforts to get some of this funding for those two population centers along the routes the HSR is intended to take. They wish to upgrade local/regional commuter rail, pretending that it's preparation for future HSR development.

Remember, this project is about obtaining funds and spending them, regardless of what for. Therefore, although the original intentions were to build a high-speed train that would run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2:40 minutes, those plans have been left way behind as rapid changes have taken place by the rail authority to accommodate the fact that they will only have the current funding of $3.5 billion from the DOT, plus an additional $2.7 billion from the state bond issues.

What's on the CHSRA drawing boards is nothing like high-speed rail as initially proposed.

And, with the currently available roughly $6 billion in funding, that's it; there won't be more.   

In this article Tolmach takes us into the lunatic decision-making that puts the route no serious railroad design engineer would ever consider seriously.  It's all about the politics of course. 

The map shows the southern route from Bakersfield into the LA Basin.  What Tolmach is pointing out is that this designed route is a guaranteed failure for the high-speed rail's efficacy.  It will fail, almost intentionally, in each and every one of its intentions.

You have to ask why.  It's more than a pervasive and persistent incompetence. The answer is that each and every step is not based on the best rail design practices, but upon political judgements and, at the bottom is the plausible idea that they really don't intend to build a successful train at all.  They intend to spend money, section by section, regardless of its ineffectiveness.  The long term outcomes are irrelevant.  Most of these guys will be long gone. That's the game.

Please understand that much of the work is being done by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a company that has a world-wide reputation for gross cost-overruns and mismanagement. Putting hugely expensive tunnels and viaducts where few or none are needed is one strategy that PB will use as much as possible. It's a revenue enhancer. 

There is also another article in Tolmach's newsletter about construction of high-speed rail viaducts in China, with US consultant advice and guidance.  China has, to put it mildly, a terrible track-record, with corruption, graft, failed construction and severe fatal accidents in their HSR program. Some of the US people involved there have found employment with Parsons Brinckerhoff here in California and the havoc they created there may very well be visited on us here.  

It's a long article, titled: Red Army Construction Battalion Arriving Soon? and frankly it's quite scary. 

Once open, click on California Rail News. Then click on April 2012

New HSR Plan a Non-Starter

by Richard F. Tolmach
The latest edition of the High Speed  Rail Authority (HSRA) Business Plan released April 2 is available on the Authority website. It is by far the least convincing effort to date.

HSRA has hyped this version as “saving” $30 billion, but plan details show  this was achieved by just chopping back high-speed mileage and ignoring the mandate for 2 hour, 40 minute L.A.-S.F. service. For seven years after the start of train service, from 2022 to 2029, neither San Francisco nor Los Angeles will be on the network, and changes of train will be required on both ends.

HSRA seems to have  forgotten California's current problems with connections on the Bakersfield-Los Angeles bus.  On a good day, the bus takes only two hours, but that does not make  it pleasant. Surveys  consistently show  passengers want a single  seat ride on a through train. Lack of through service is clearly the main impediment to ridership growth on California's intercity network.

California's High Speed  Rail Authority (HSRA) is so off-track  it can't build a simple 80 mile line to fill the missing link to Santa Clarita, eliminate that bus trip and unify California's fractured passenger rail network.

Even worse, HSRA refuses to do anything about the Bakersfield-Santa Clarita link for at least 15 years, and once it does,  wants it to run the longest, slowest way possible, via Mojave, Palmdale and Soledad  Canyon.

No sane motorist drives  that way, and fast trains shouldn't go there either. Bakersfield to Palmdale is 95 miles, the same driving distance as Bakersfield to San Fernando Valley.

Metrolink's torturous route from Palmdale via Soledad  Canyon  to L.A. takes 80 minutes. The notion that this single-track line shared by Union Pacific and hemmed in by steep terrain could be, as proposed by the latest plan, upgraded to become part of a high-speed route to Los Angeles is preposterous.

Even a billion dollars  spent in Soledad Canyon can't make trains run at high speed there, and the dangerous long grades on Tehachapi means total elapsed time from Bakersfield via Palmdale to L.A. will exceed two hours, just like the current Amtrak bus.

Going the long way also undermines all of the claimed energy and economic benefits. Trains  running 480 miles via Palmdale suffer a 40 percent mileage penalty compared to airlines with 344 air miles from SFO to LAX. As China  learned, 220 mph trains have  high energy costs.  HSRA has not demonstrated that trains via Palmdale can save  any energy.

Leading experts, including Silicon Valley's William Warren, already have  cast doubt that trains can compete against air carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. JetBlue managed to retain 12 cent cost per available seat mile (CASM) and 16 cent passenger-mile cost in spite of today's fuel prices. By comparison, the leanest high-speed service worldwide is TGV- Southeast with 31 cents per passenger mile, and others cost 40 cents or higher.

HSRA's inefficient Palmdale route, combined with higher rail costs  makes it economically dead on arrival.  Airlines  are profitable with $100 Bay Area-Los  Angeles fares  (29 cents per mile) but trains via Palmdale would  need S.F.- L.A. fares  of at least $150 just to break  even.

It is obvious the public won't agree to pay higher than airfare to ride a train wandering in the desert for 2 hours  just to get to Bakersfield, or connecting service that takes 5 hours  L.A. to the Bay Area, as the Initial Operating Segment does.  The only explanation for profit claims in the 2012 Business Plan is magical thinking, because the Authority makes no credible case  for profit in its 212-page report.

Compared to HSRA, Southern California and Bay Area leaders like Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Caltrain's Mike Scanlon have shown considerable financial  talent, figuring out ways to bend Authority funding plans  to benefit their local projects.

However, “blended” service that curtails frequency and slows  trains on 120 miles of the 480 mile network harms the fiscal viability of the entire proposal and is also illegal.

As former HSRA Chairman Quentin Kopp pointed out, the plan does  not conform with AB 3034 mandates on frequency and service to named endpoints. The Plan also violates state laws  requiring that operable segments be fully funded and need no public subsidy. It is amply clear that the 480 mile route cannot be run in the mandated 2 hours  40 minutes.

The Authority and its army of consultants have  now wasted nearly  $1 billion of scarce public funds.  They need to be ejected from the gravy train, if California  is ever to have progress on its passenger rail network.

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