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About this blog: I am a native of Alameda County, grew up in Pleasanton and currently live in the house I grew up in that is more than 100 years old. I spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business and wrote a column for more than 25 years in add...  (More)

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High-speed rail reality check

Uploaded: Feb 4, 2014
Writing in the Saturday Wall Street Journal, Tom Zoellner states that trips of one to three hours are ideal for true high-speed rail.
Zoellner adapted his book, "Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief."
His piece prompted more thoughts about the high-speed rail proposal in California from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles. If the rail could move at 180 mph (current plans are for substantially less than that), it would be close to his three-hour upper window.
A more telling point Zoellner makes is how easily you can get around once you arrive in the destination city. If you are arriving in San Francisco and headed to the financial district, it's easy. It mimics the densely population Europe cities or big hub cities on the East Coast of America.
If your destination is on the peninsula, good luck getting around. A business person riding high speed rail is not going to be interested in renting a car to reach his/her destination.
Curiously, Zoellner identifies the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor as a promising one based upon the amount of daily business the airlines do during the work week. You had to think he's never tried to get around Los Angeles with mass transit.
Fortunately, the courts are still demanding that the California rail authority follow the law that contained specific performance expectations for the train as well as financing requirements. The authority has attracted no private investment and has downgraded the performance substantially.
Its job is made more challenging because polling shows the public wants a "do-over" and would soundly reject a $68 billion system (a number full of dreams that was developed after early estimates put the cost at nearly $100 billion.
The governor, presumably mindful of a likely re-election campaign this fall, spent no time on the high-speed rail during his State of the State address last month.
Now if the courts will just continue to demand the authority follow the law, the state and its taxpayers may be saved from a huge boondoggle that will be a cash-sink on the state's general fund for decades.

Comments

Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 11:41 am

I actually have gotten around Los Angeles using mass transit - and I suspect you haven't. LA's bus, subway, and inter-city train systems are very efficient and cover a lot of ground. Moreover, with the advent and expansion of end-of-trip transportation alternatives such as Uber, it's not actually necessary to rent a car on the Peninsula, either.

I know it's hard for boomers to realize that the times have passed them by, but young people today have lots of ways of getting around town that don't involve driving cars, even when that "town" isn't San Francisco. Get with it, Gramps!


Posted by old fart, a resident of another community,
on Feb 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm

@ Huh? Do I detect a hint of agism? Try to get from the LA hills to Santa Monica. Yeah, you can take a bus, but it'll take about two hours. LA's a lot more transit oriented than it was 20 years ago, but it's still mostly cars.


Posted by John Maynard , a resident of another community,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 8:06 am

I just can't figure out any scenario in which the third dimension does not beat the second when it comes to future public transit: air will always be faster, and less land intensive, with superior upside potential for improvement. Better to promote regional/local ground transit networks fed by air -- and preferably UNDERground (also third dimensional).

The only good argument I've heard for rail is its carbon footprint/passenger mile. And that one may not be much good when you consider the sequestration potential lost in devoting all that fruit-basket farmland to right-of-way.

"I don't always agree with Tim, but when I do, it's high-speed rail."


Posted by Sam, a resident of Oak Hill,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:48 am

John Maynard wrote: "I just can't figure out any scenario in which the third dimension does not beat the second when it comes to future public transit: air will always be faster, and less land intensive, with superior upside potential for improvement."

I don't agree with your views. First, air is not always faster. Yes, the aircraft themselves may be faster than the high-speed rail trains, but when you figure the check-in and boarding times associated with aircraft, the inevitable delays in taxiing out and waiting for tower clearance for takeoff, and possible delays in getting landing clearance and waiting for a gate to become open because another aircraft is still there, the raw speed advantage can diminish into nothingness. When I go to Japan, I much prefer to take their high-speed rail (i.e., Shinkansen ) as opposed to flying. Just get on the train and relax. Oh, and the seats are much bigger and more comfortable than standard airline coach class seats and the trains run like clockwork. None of the weather-related delays or maintenance-related delays which are all too common to airline travel.

As for "upside potential for improvement", if you mean increasing the carrying capacity due to increased passenger demand, I would say that that's easier to do with high-speed rail (increase the frequency of the trains) than it is to do with aircraft since airport gate availability and the capacity of the air traffic control system are big concerns.

Any two metropolitan areas the size of LA and SF would be connected by high-speed rail in Japan and it would all work well and make perfect sense. However, their high-speed rail is also complemented by very good intra-city rail systems which make it easy to get from one point in one city to another in another city entirely by rail. That's the problem I see with the California high-speed rail concept. In order for it to be effective, it really needs to be complemented by good intra-city rail systems in both metropolitan areas and we don't have that.


Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 10:25 am

Actually, Old Fart, I'm a sexagenarian myself. (Love that word!) But I am constantly amused by the myopia of my generation. Boomers seem to think that everything is, was and always be the way it was when we were in our prime, and are blind to the changes going on all around us. Of course private vehicles have their place, and likely will for a long time. But that doesn't mean that alternatives don't exists for a high percentage of actual trips, particularly when comparing rail terminals vs. airports as your starting points.

John Maynard exhibits that myopia in a way as well. It's not just "carbon footprint" but "energy cost." Energy costs money, plain and simple. Moving people (or widgets) by rail costs far less energy per mile than using any other means of transport - a fact which is unlikely to change absent the development of Star Trek-style transporters (assuming they are energy-efficient.) Airplanes are wasteful - extremely wasteful. For very long distances that waste is offset by the factors Maynard cites, but a high-volume corridor like SoCal-NorCal high-speed rail is practically a no-brainer for anyone looking beyond the era of the boomers.

Of course, we know the world will come to an end once we're through with it, right?


Posted by Sam, a resident of Oak Hill,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 11:25 am

Huh? wrote: "Energy costs money, plain and simple. Moving people (or widgets) by rail costs far less energy per mile than using any other means of transport...."

That's true but probably not the strongest argument for high-speed rail as opposed to air travel for most people. It does make a strong argument for rail freight and is why US railroads are doing well these days. But for time-conscious travelers, energy costs are way down on the list of concerns. If energy costs associated with traveling were a big concern with either customers or with the state or Federal government, then there would be a movement to discourage travel by either aircraft or high-speed rail and instead promote transport by slow-moving rail services going at 45 mph or so which would use a lot less energy than a high-speed rail train moving at 180 mph. Aerodynamic drag forces increase with the square of speed, so a 180 mph train experiences drag forces about 16 times larger than a 45 mph train. Actually, high-speed rail trains are shaped to reduce drag so it's probably not that high, but I would guess that the drag forces and, hence, the energy costs are at least 10 times larger.


Posted by John Maynard , a resident of Danville,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Well I, for one, am unwilling to accede to brother Huh\'s characterization of his fellow Boomers. I had husky Lionel trains as a kid -- no sissy HO scale for me! I can also report that the experience of the sleeper car ride from Calgary to Vancouver through the Rockies was spectacular -- and I\'m told the scenery is pretty good, too. But that\'s where trains belong for me -- they are romantic holdovers from the days of Butch and Sundance, and Woodcock, only faster.

Even the TGVs are generation-old technology, and that was their great leap forward. They\'re not going to be made here, they\'re not going to get any better, they can\'t use existing RoWs, and you can build a local public transport network as easily from airports as from rail stations.

I would also dispute the notion that trains are the most economic/energy efficient best way to move widgets or people. For that crown, look to water. The buoyancy effect counteracts gravity and the freight units can be huge, which means unit costs are infinitesimal. You want a high speed passenger alternative to El Lay? Put it on hydrofoils ten miles out in the ocean, or hell -- engage Larry Ellison\'s crewe. TGVs make sense in densely-networked Europe or the NE corridor, But one track on a straight line between two or three destinations is no network, and it\'s a fantastic waste of resources. Think what else could be done to secure CA\'s future with that $100 Beellion Bucks (so far)!

For people, air makes more sense to me -- relatively young technology, built here, already faster and capable of further efficiencies, no new land required. We can get better at the security delays and indecencies, or may not have to, sadly, once the terrorists attack their first train.

Far from being stuck in the ground-shackled past, air is in the realm of better possibilities -- nearly unlimited potential. It is simply groovier, man.


Posted by Sam, a resident of Oak Hill,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm

John Maynard wrote: "I would also dispute the notion that trains are the most economic/energy efficient best way to move widgets or people. For that crown, look to water. The buoyancy effect counteracts gravity and the freight units can be huge, which means unit costs are infinitesimal."

Yes, a ship on water can be viewed as being on a nearly frictionless platform which can support huge weights - but not quite. The problem is when you try to move it you\'ll find that it\'s not quite so frictionless. There\'s the hydrodynamic drag of the water on the hull which will always slow the ship down to zero after a short time, and energy has to be constantly applied to overcome that drag. Rail actually wins in that category as having less drag on motion. Steel wheels on steel track is very efficient and difficult to beat.

Only scenario where I see a ship or barge winning against a train in energy efficiency is if you\'re floating the barge downstream a river. Then your propulsion energy costs are zero. Of course, the same could be said of rolling a train car downhill.


Posted by John Maynard , a resident of Danville,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

These guys, at least, agree with me Web Link . See graph on page two, indicating that ton-miles per gallon of fuel are as follows:

Truck: 155
Rail: 413
Inland barge (upstream, downstream and intracoastal waterway): 576.

And freighters are dramatically better than barges on a ton-mile basis. Ergo, still groovier.


Posted by Sam, a resident of Oak Hill,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm

@John Maynard
Well, actually you said that "the unit costs are infinitesimal" for water-borne freight, and neither the graphs in the pamphlet that you linked to nor the study behind the pamphlet say that. OK, so I said that rail is more efficient than water-borne freight (assuming that there is no water current and that propulsion must be supplied). The graphs in the pamphlet appear to contradict that claim, but maybe not. The graphs describe not a raw rail freight versus water freight comparison, but if you look at the study behind the graphs it appears that the authors were making comparisons of the efficiently of the overall rail freight infrastructure versus the efficiency of the overall water freight infrastructure, as revealed by the following passage, for example:

"For freight modes, a significant portion of the energy expended is attributed to non-haul purposes. For example, almost half of the energy consumed by freight rail is not used to move freight:
• More than 30% is used for empty backhaul.
• About 4% is reported lost or spilled each year.
• About 4% is consumed in idling.
• 10% is used by yard locomotives assembling and switching cars."

The bottom line is that the water-borne freight system may be more energy efficient than the rail freight system, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the raw efficiency (i.e.., energy required to move a ton of cargo by barge through still water versus energy to move a ton of cargo by rail neglecting the "system" costs listed above) is better.

Anyway, it's been fun and educational discussing all this and learning new things....


Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 9:11 am

John Maynard, I accuse you of not only being a dreaded boomer, but of being stuck in yesterday's future. You know - thew one where we all have jet packs and robot servants a la the Jetsons!

You gloss over the inherent physical issues involved in inter-city transit. As Sam cogently points out, steel wheels on steel rails have the lowest friction coefficient of any transport mode. No pushing hulls through water. No need to have wings pushing air around to provide lift. At any human-compatible speed, trains are the most energy efficient option. That's just plain, unavoidable physics. Yes, freight can go slower than humans, but we're in a hurry, as you've noted. And while you can make a transport hub anywhere - even at an airport - you can't put an airport in the middle of downtown, while that's where the trains end up. For a significant majority of inter-city travel, the train takes you pretty close to where you're headed and the plane doesn't.

Yes - TGVs are generation-old technology. Proven, reliable technology. (I rode in one 30+ years ago.) And the speed they travel at - up to about 200 MPH - is actually fast enough to get you portal-to-portal over a 300 mile distance like SF to LA in the same amount of time as a plane, when you take into consideration time spent loading the plane, waiting for takeoff, climbing to altitude, taxiing back to the terminal, waiting for the ramp to be set up, deplaning, and then traveling to wherever it is you actually are headed for. (And don't get me started on TSA and luggage!)

But I'll return to my main point: energy and the future. A train can be powered by electricity from a hydro-electric dam, a nuclear power plant, wind turbines, solar panels, coal, natural gas, or, as is the reality, a grid to which all of the above contribute as available and appropriate. Planes need jet fuel. No options. We can't be sure what the future will bring in terms of energy supplies, but my bet is it'll cost more. More per person-mile, just for the energy required to move from place to place.

And particularly petroleum-sourced fuels will cost more. Petroleum is a limited, non-renewable supply, with adverse environmental consequences to its use. As a sexagenarian parent and hoping-to-be-grandparent someday, I care about the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren. If we take the effort to build some infrastructure (like our parents did) which will allow people to travel from place to place using varied and less expensive (and less ecologically perilous) energy sources, we will have done a good thing. If we just do what's cheapest and easiest for us, now, I think we will earn the contempt of future Americans.

Boomers: the "greatest generation?" Not by a long shot. Call us the "me, me, me" generation.


Posted by Ms. bunny, a resident of San Ramon,
on Feb 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm

You're right Tim. This is an idea originally framed a bit differently than the needs present themselves today that have truly been evolving and make this older idea obsolete in the sense a whole new revamp needs to take place before the public is going to "buy into it" (-and whoever this "Huh" person is? He has, shall we say? A LOT of growing up to do...) Jerry can TRY to run again at what, 72? -But gosh, I really would like to see someone more on the "cutting edge" of thinking when it comes to California. Enough Mr. Brown! Appreciate your common sense and logic Tim...(-precious commodities lacking in, shall we just say, "the young grandkids" here and leave it at that?!)


Posted by Bill, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm

It would be one thing to complete a high speed rail line either non-stop or one stop between SF and LA along i5. But to stop at every hick town along Hwy 99 plus Palmdale (whatever for?) is beyond logic. If I want to make a trip down to LA, I would want to get there in the fastest way possible. Isn't this the whole idea behind the high speed project? The taxpayers voted for an engineering marvel, not some Disneyland railroad that circles all of central and southern California in order to line the pockets of a few politicans.


Posted by Bill, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm

It would be one thing to complete a high speed rail line either non-stop or one stop between SF and LA along i5. But to stop at every hick town along Hwy 99 plus Palmdale (whatever for?) is beyond logic. If I want to make a trip down to LA, I would want to get there in the fastest way possible. Isn't this the whole idea behind the high speed project? The taxpayers voted for an engineering marvel, not some Disneyland railroad that circles all of central and southern California in order to line the pockets of a few politicans.


Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Bill, ordinarily when a high speed rail line is built both express (non-stop) and "local" - multi-stop - trains run on it. So there would presumably be non-stop (or one stop - San Jose?) express trains running from SF to LA on the tracks as well as others that stop in Fresno, Palmdale, etc. That's the advantage of choosing a route which goes by intermediate cities - People from Fresno or Palmdale can use it to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles in addition to the SF to LA crowd who use the express trains. And the route is dictated to a great extent by the need to cross the Tehachapis into the Central Valley in the South and then back across the Diablo Range in the North. The travel time difference between the Highway 99 route and an I-5 route is less than 10 minutes at the speed the high speed rail travels at.

As to Ms. bunny, I have to say that I always enjoy posts consisting of stream of consciousness rambling with random punctuation and capitalization, tenuous relevance to the topic, apparent obliviousness to what has been written before and no ascertainable point. It's kind of like free verse - does it have a beat? Can you dance to it?


Posted by Scott, a resident of Foothill Place,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Modern Ocean going freighters of the very largest size are at least 3 times as efficient as rail. Friction on a freighter is dependent upon surface area, and the bigger the freighter, the less surface area per interior volume. Double the ship's surface area (drag) and you are quadrupling the volume (squared) - ie, freight costs per container fall by 50%. This is why they are enlarging the Panama Canal - to take freight from Asia to the East Coast, its vastly cheaper to use a freighter and go directly there, vs. taking the shorter route to a West Coast port and putting it on rails. They have bet $6 Billion on this fact, have to pay significant canal fees, and travel a significantly longer overall distance, yet its clearly cheaper.


Posted by John Maynard , a resident of another community,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Take THAT, Sam -- what Scott said. And yes -- I was promised a flying car in the Weekly Reader, and I shall have it!


Posted by Scott, a resident of Foothill Place,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm

By the time high speed rail is built, we will have autonomous cars. What that means is transportation at the endpoints will no longer rely on mass-transit, buses, rails, or any other transit system. A fleet of cars that can merge onto a highway and join together into a train will have very low drag and be very efficient and will be door to door. Very much like the jetsons, but using autonomous vehicles. You won't even own the car, you will just get charged whatever the costs are for getting you to your destination. At 200mpg (think of a train of 200 cars zipping along - air friction drops radically), energy consumption becomes irrelevent. So, getting to your destination anywhere in the LA or Bay Area won't be an issue, regardless of whether you take the plane or high speed rail. You need to look at this whole plan with a very long term point of view.


Posted by Scott, a resident of Foothill Place,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Finally, take a look at Elon Musk's Hyperloop. Local vs Express won't matter. There won't be trains, just single pods. You get picked up at any station, and stations can be placed as often and convenient as people want. Pods get injected into an airless tube (vacuum) where there is no drag and can go extremely fast, probably in the range of 500 - 1000 mph. Think LA in 30 minutes. And at very high efficiency. Energy spent to accelerate a pod will be recovered when it slows down. That mostly leaves air drag, and in a vacuum, this is near zero. His current plan doesn't even have wheels, so no wheel friction either. His technology is not perfect, and its really far from proven, but it is stunning. There are no known reasons why it can't work. And the costs are 10% of the current boondoggle. He even calculated the number of posts it would take to run this up the center of I-5 like an elevated BART. Prebuilt posts, prebuilt tubes, its almost like building an errector set out of lego's - everything just fits together. No land acquisition or right of way fights except for stations. California and technology go hand in hand. We can build a world class transportation system if we decide to do so. The current high speed rail plan is an exceptionally large boondoggle that will achieve little. We should be investing in transportation technologies that will leapfrog what we have now, not just slightly improve it.


Posted by Huh?, a resident of Danville,
on Feb 8, 2014 at 11:23 am

Whoa! Scott! Put down the latte and take a deep breath. First, ocean freighters are only efficient at speeds of about 10 knots. They have an absolute top speed of about 30 MPH. You can make a boat go faster, but your efficiency drops dramatically, and you're still going to top out at significantly sub-TGV velocities. (If a freighter were moving at the speed of even a slow freight train its efficiency would be horrible. Again, you can't beat the simple, inescapable laws of physics.) So, just as I would not suggest rail as a primary trans-continental means of business travel at this point, water transit for people who need to go places is not practical for any significant distance. Ferries? Sure. SF to LA? Only if you're looking for a two day cruise.

Autonomous vehicles? What happens to the rest of the convoy when Joe's car suddenly has a blowout outside of Buttonwillow? Have you ever actually driven on I-5? And while Musk's idea is really cool, it's not only completely untested, but has some obvious flaws, such as catastrophic failure consequences, the size limitations of what can be carried, etc. There is a high likelihood that Musk's "pod" system is to today what the monorail was to the 20th Century - a futuristic idea whose time will never come.

In the real world, high speed rail is actually a viable, proven, reliable response to the situation we will in fact probably be facing over the next 30 years. Whatever practical difference may exist between rail, jets and "pods" in the time involved in getting from SF to LA - considering that you'll have wi-fi and an outlet at your seat - is probably not actually "real world" significant either way. The nice thing about rail is you can get up from your seat, walk around, go get a cup of coffee and a bagel (or a cocktail, if you're so inclined) go to an actual, full sized bathroom that you can stand up and turn around in, chat or play cards with your companions, or wander back to your seat where you can spread out your stuff, open your laptop or tablet and have room to work or surf. You can't do that in your car, jet or "pod." For all practical purposes you're stuck in your seat for the duration.

High speed rail allows for a human-scale environment (including legroom!) the absence of which which we've been trained to tolerate as we shoehorn ourselves into private cars and commercial jets, and over in-state distances gets you there in a reasonable amount of time. For those who have never experienced it, you should try it before deciding that it's either "old fashioned" or "too slow." And if you think it's "too expensive" compare the overall cost per person-mile traveled over the next 30 years, including all infrastructure, fuel, and environmental factors. I think it wins by a wide margin there, too. (Of course, the problem is that it requires an investment now, with a payoff in our children's time. Our generation hasn't proved to be too good at that sort of thing.)

I see a lot of knee-jerk opposition to high speed rail. (Not necessarily referring to the above posters.) I suspect a spin campaign funded by the petroleum and air travel interests behind the NIMBY's of the SF Peninsula, the "if they're for it we're agin' it" attitudes of some in the Central Valley, and the Pavlovian anti-environmentalism of the far right wing. It would be interesting to follow the money if it were possible to do so.


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