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High Speed Rail as Pyramids

2012-01-08 05:10:35.942029+00 by Dan Lyke 11 comments

The Transportationist on California's High Speed Rail Project:

In addition to Peter Gordon's point about slaves building the pyramids, I will reiterate Dick Soberman's (U Toronto) point that "the Pyramids have lower operating costs". I am sure three millennia from now people will visit the ruins of the earthquake-ravaged island of California to visit the random spurs of metal and concrete that were once a High-speed rail line which had operated for about a year before technology obsoleted it and the operator went bankrupt. This is much like today when veritable hoards of people visit closed Underground stations and other abandoned infrastructure. This future tourism (discounted to the present at an appropriate discount rate of negative 7 percent) is perhaps the best justification for HSR yet.

[ related topics: Weblogs California Culture Earthquake Trains ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-09 20:42:51.731642+00 by: petronius

The Pyramids were unbelievably expensive containers for dead men's bones. A perfect metaphor for High Speed Rail in Cali.

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-09 21:06:46.502807+00 by: Mars Saxman [edit history]

High speed rail might not make total sense now, but it is a long term infrastructure project, so the real question is whether it will make sense in 20-50 years. Given that oil is only going to get more expensive, and highways are pretty much already built to capacity, the next generation is going to be cursing the current one if they don't get going on the project soon.

Here in Seattle, we need a citywide rail transit system *now*, which means that they should have started building one back in the '70s. But the anti-transit people won the battle back then, the plan was defeated, and we got nothing but more highways for the following 30 years. Now we're way behind, the highways are clogged, and it's going to take billions of dollars to catch up. We might have a reasonable citywide transit system by 2030.

As someone who will likely end up living in California for an extended period of time sometime in my future life, I urge those of you who currently live there not to wimp out on decent trains.

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-09 21:24:35.288179+00 by: ebradway

Given that oil is only going to get more expensive, and highways are pretty much already built to capacity

I think Dan's recent research has shown that these two statements do not come out in favor of rail. Don't have the link right here but Dan showed that if you use real ridership numbers, a current-model VW TDI is more fuel efficient than light rail on a rider/mile basis. He's also shown that the reason highways are clogged isn't because there are too many cars, it's that there are too many bad drivers. I think he said if something like 30% of current cars used technology to manage following distances, we would see zero traffic jams at current highway capacity.

And I'd have to say Seattle has a great rail transit system already. It just suffers the problem inherent in rail. It is terribly expensive to build rail, so you are limited to where it can go. So you have to choose where you think it needs to go. In the 1970s, there was no clue that Bellevue would be as big as it is now. OK, maybe there was some clue because they did build a second bridge. And maybe they could have built rail out there. But the way Seattle has integrated the urban light rail system and the regional bus system is pretty cool. The buses provide greater flexibility (pardon the pun) because routes can be adjusted without laying new track.

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-09 23:35:26.541651+00 by: Mars Saxman [edit history]

Railways should fill the gap between car trips and plane trips. Cars are good for getting around within a metropolitan region, and for visiting nearby cities; planes are the only option for long-distance travel; trains should be the option in between, for trips between cities. We can't do that right now because Amtrak is stuck trying to fit passenger trips in between freight trains, and because those tracks are built for big, heavy, slow freight trains, not for zippy passenger trains.

MPG is not the only important factor: all those hours you spend sitting behind the wheel, keeping your car from drifting out of its lane, are hours you can't spend doing something productive. It is true that self- driving cars could take away a lot of this burden, but even if we hypothesize a future where every car has a Google- style automation suite, it will be a long time before the regulatory environment changes such that a human driver can practically spend the trip working on a laptop or sleeping. For the foreseeable future you will still have a driver stuck behind the wheel who can't do anything but sit there and watch the road. But why should we waste human hours with such tedium? And what of the people who are too young, too old, too tired, disabled, etc.? And we are all disabled some of the time...

Self-assembling highway trains of rubber-wheeled self-driving autos coordinating themselves through short- range mesh networks are a great idea but they do not exist. We can see how that technology might come about in the future, but no amount of money will allow us to start building such a system right now. It's worth investing in the research that will make it possible, but the idea is still science fiction.

Why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? High-speed rail is a well-understood technology which we can build right now, which will solve the problem of city-to-city transportation for many people on many trips. Trains offer a nicer experience than cars: you can read, you can talk to people, you can use your computer, you can get up and stretch your legs, you can get a snack or use the bathroom and through it all the train just keeps on cruising along.

Regarding Seattle's rail transit system, I can't imagine by what criteria you call it "great", unless you are comparing it to having no rail transit system at all. We have one line, which goes from downtown to the airport - that's it. Seattle will have a decent transit system in 2025, when you will actually be able to get all the way across town. Seattle may have a great transit system by 2050, if Sound Transit keeps building.

As far as the sound transit buses, or whatever it is you are talking about, yeah yeah yeah, people claim that Seattle buses are good as buses go, but they're still buses: they're still noisy, uncomfortable, and unreliable. They are transportation of last resort and in no way replace a proper rail system. I had to commute to work by bus for a year, good lord. Yuck. Ugh.

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-10 01:20:28.569481+00 by: ebradway

I agree that rail is a good option for regional inter-urban transportation. But my view, from the Colorado Front Range, is a little skewed. Sure, it makes sense to run something better between Cheyenne down through to Albuquerque. But that's a pretty long run for less than 6 million people. The next nearest large city is Salt Lake and there is rail service. It takes 15 hours. I can drive there in less than 9 hours.

But you then start talking about losing time due to driving... So is it regional or local commutes you are talking about?

And Dan's research revealed that you don't need self-driving mesh-network cars. You just need something to manage following distance in 30% of vehicles to eliminate most rush hour traffic. I'm skeptical too and would like to see it demoed.

To reverse your statement, high-speed rail is the perfect enemy of the good. Rail is f'ing expensive. My home, Longmont, CO, has been slated to be the northern extent of Denver's FastTracks program. We've taxed ourselves over and over. When I bought my house in 2009, I was supposed to see FastTracks service to Boulder and Denver by 2014. Now they are saying that it's going to be 2020 and if there isn't more money piled on to the already over-budget project, it'll be 2042!

I'd love to see more rail service. But I'm beginning to doubt the numbers. As Dan has noted, the ridership for existing rail programs are inaccurately reported. I wonder if rail is simply an inefficient use of funds for a country the size of the US. It works well in places like England and Japan. Does it really work that well in China? If China weren't using it as a way to control dissent, is that where they would spend money? And beyond human transportation, what are the economic benefits of improving regional rail vs. improving roads?

I use public transportation a lot. I frequently take the RTD bus from Boulder to Golden. This is a 75 minute regional trip. I enjoy the fact that I can get work accomplished. But I hate that there is no bathroom. There are only four trips in the morning and four in the evening. If I need to work past 6pm, I have to bus into Denver then out to Boulder.

The problem with bus service is that the transportation departments run them as a service of last resort. The people who use it don't have any other choice and can just "put up" with bad decisions. Like RTD rescheduling the Longmont-Boulder bus so that it arrives in Boulder 3 minutes AFTER the bus to Golden leaves. WTF?

When I asked RTD about adding bathrooms and Wifi to these regional buses, they said it wasn't economically feasible. I got no response when I pointed out that private bus lines on the East Coast provide service between large cities at prices that approach what RTD charges. It's completely outside their paradigm to consider making things better for riders. It's all about reducing costs.

So which is perfect and which is good: adding rail (which will be run via the same poor decisions as the current bus system), improving bus service, or improving cars?

As for Seattle public transportation... Well, my experience has been limited to taking the train from the airport to downtown and then busing around (including a trip to Bellevue).

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-10 15:47:16.633822+00 by: Dan Lyke

I think there's a different set of cases to be made for electrified urban light rail, and most of those are long-term.

The problem with high speed rail is that you're pushing all that dense air out of the way at ground level, rather than doing it at 35k feet. Sure, there are some huge numbers claimed, but if you look at, for instance, the Wikipedia fuel efficiency in transportation page and follow some of their cites down, the numbers don't add up: For instance the cite given for the East Japan Railway Company claimed 0.35 MJ/passenger-km doesn't mention passenger loads at all. I haven't dug deeply into the rest of the cites on that page, but the rest of my digging about says to me that those numbers are seat-mile numbers rather than actual passenger-mile numbers.

If you go back to actual passenger-mile numbers, they're in the same ballpark as airplanes.

So in practice, with airplanes you can easily change the number of flights along a given route, keeping a high passenger density on your vehicles. And your transportation network can more easily adapt to actual development and use patterns. You're not paying huge amounts for infrastructure that can only be used for one thing. Whereas with rail you're pretty stuck with guessing what development patterns are going to look like for a 30-50 year lead time (or determining those development patterns, on which our models still look extremely flakey).

Our local medium speed rail is looking at upgrading the old freight lines here to accept 80MPH passenger trains. They're saying this is going to cost circa $9M per mile. They'll be running two trains an hour, claiming 200 people per train (that's actually like 140 seats and 60 standing, blowing away any "but it'll be useful time" argument), so that's the equivalent of 2/9ths of a lane of singe occupancy automobiles. $40 million bucks a mile appears to be more than what the 101 lane widening on the path that directly parallels the railroad tracks.

Yeah, trains and buses can give you useful time, if you're willing to accept that your trip will take twice as long. I'm about to take a job offer that'll have me commuting on a bus, about a 40 minute bus ride plus a 20 minute bike ride each way, vs 25 minutes each way in the truck, and I have to make sure I make my connections. The bus has WiFi, but I'm guessing that within a few months I'll be looking at a more efficient daily driver vehicle and subscribing to an additional podcast or two.

The real opportunity for change is to get people traveling less. More telecommuting. More delivering products to the consumer rather than every consumer driving to get products. And change people's transportation patterns by simply raising energy costs so that fuel costs becomes more than 20% of the per-mile cost. Because at that point people will alter their transportation useage patterns in a way that makes personal sense, rather than having flawed sociological models (remember, urban planners are the same people who gave us non-grid neighborhood layouts) being used to funnel tax dollars into private pockets (the traditional use for rail).

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-10 20:45:38.974768+00 by: Mars Saxman [edit history]

I guess I'm looking at this not so much from the perspective of maximizing efficiency as from minimizing irritation. Air travel sucks now that the TSA has buried it in police-state nonsense, buses are slow, noisy, and uncomfortable, trains are slow and expensive, and long-distance car travel is just plain boring. Automating the driving process may increase efficiency but it will also make the experience more tedious, since there will be less to do. The problem with highways is being stuck in a bubble staring at the road with nothing to do but avoid hitting things and avoid speed traps. That's the problem that high-speed rail promises to fix. Even if all they offer is travel time equal to driving at a ticket price equal to flying, that's still a big win over anything available now because it's more comfortable and less tedious.

I guess HSR seems more obviously beneficial out here on the west coast because there is already a definitive transportation corridor that isn't going anywhere. The west coast is linear, and I-5 is its backbone. Run a train line roughly parallel to I-5 and you have a winner. It's as simple as that - all long distance travel out here is basically north-south oriented. It's the same up here in the Northwest; population is centered on a strip running north-south along I-5 from Eugene to Vancouver. There's already a fairly successful train line serving the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver run; speed it up and more people will use it. It's close enough a difference that you barely save any time flying over driving; a fast train will have no trouble competing.

Oh, well. Maybe it really doesn't make financial sense. I guess what I've learned from this conversation is that I'm for it not because of a sober economic analysis, but because it's the only proposal on the table that offers to solve the problem of boredom.

(fwiw, I think I supported the Seattle Monorail project for the same reason: it seemed like the least boring way to get around the city.)

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-10 21:27:50.529875+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, I voted for high speed rail, and for our local commuter rail (before I learned what I have), and I'm still not totally sure I'm against them. Rail holds a certain romance for me, even though I know that generally it means I'm getting screwed as a taxpayer. Let's face it, like the Space Needle, Seattle's monorail is part of what gives it a "we should go visit there" feel when most tourists are gonna hit the Nordstrom's that's available in any city.

And to the other part of this: we need to fix flying, both because of the convenience factor, and because it's ridiculous that we let ourselves get screwed over by an out of control security theater apparatus.

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-11 03:39:10.610702+00 by: ebradway

What we really need is teleportation!

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-12 05:35:13.371284+00 by: spc476

We have "light commuter rail" here in South Florida and it's pretty much a joke. It runs right next to I-95, which is great if you live or work near either, but sucks otherwise (one friend has a half hour commute to the train, just to sit on the train for another half hour or so, for a trip that would probably take 45 by car). Then there are the issues. Two weeks ago there were issues that caused the trains to be late consistently. Yesterday, there was an "incident" that closed the track for four hours. Even though I live within walking distance, and work within walking distance of the train, I find my car more reliable (and more convenient---the trains only run every hour).

And for someone who lives in, say, Coral Springs and works in Pembroke Pines, taking the rail is a complete waste of time and money. Move to Deerfield (east of Coral Springs) and work in Hollywood (east of Pembroke Pines) and it may make sense to take the train (incidents not withstanding).

#Comment Re: made: 2012-01-12 14:02:36.090319+00 by: meuon [edit history]

If we could just tweak gravity a little, flycycles would solve all our problems.


Oh, I thought this was about toking. Wrong article. I'd love a 60-120 mph commuter train from Chattanooga to Atlanta and Nashville, it doesn't have to be a bullet train, just useful, reasonably cheap, hooking the downtowns and three airports together. But here I live in Chattanooga, home of the famous Choo Choo, and the only train ride is a touristy museum one. ie: Low speed rail as a tourist trap.