High Speed Rail in the USA

Prague main railway station June 2010-01

Pendolino Train in Prague – From my flickr photos.

I just commented on a very interesting article in The Infrastructuralist: A Powerful Argument for US High Speed Rail. The article discusses the fact that no US transportation system actually pays for itself and therefore arguments against HSR because it does not pay for itself are wrong. Here’s my comment:

I think an important point is that we need a transportation SYSTEM that works. High speed rail is part of that system and we all realize it’s not appropriate everywhere and it will be impossible to build quickly enough even where it is justified right now. What’s to be done?

1 – Focus on improving the existing railway system. It may not be possible to build a real HSR system through New England, but I am sure there are many projects that could shave ten minutes off the travel time.

2 – Improve multimodal connections. Travelers care about door-to-door time not speed. Any rail traveler can tell you the horror stories involved with connecting to local public transport networks. Most of these problems are “simply” institutional, they would cost almost nothing to fix. Again, this could save tens of minutes.

3 – Build a couple HSR lines where they make sense. California for example. Let’s see how they work, even starter lines with (1) and (2) above could show whether the concept will work in the USA.

These seem like pretty uncontroversial suggestions. A country as innovative as the USA should be able to try out an idea like HSR and spend some money improving the rail system without all the controversy that seems to have been generated by what is really a very small program.

Reading through the article comments is really enlightening. There is so much negative energy being thrown around about what amounts to a very small amount of money. It seems strange that people would object to spending a little money testing something that works pretty well in other countries and which could be implemented successfully in carefully chosen US corridors.

Furthermore, many of the investments in Obama’s High Speed Rail program fall in the first category of improvement above: small projects to improve railway travel in the USA. Again, a small amount of money to make pretty useful improvements (and create jobs in a depression economy – no small benefit). Critics say these are not “real high speed rail,” fine, but useful, yes.

Most depressing of all is the fact that normal people have been coerced by politicians and the media to get fighting mad about these small expenditures on relatively benign infrastructure improvements. To be against simply trying out things that just might really improve our society, and certainly won’t hurt. A pessimist would say that it’s useful for those in power to keep the middle class fighting with each other about peanuts rather than questioning why, for example, hedge fund managers only pay a 15% income tax rate.

Urban Track Final Conference 2010


Czech Pendolino train in Prague main station.

I went to the Urban Track Project final conference in Prague because I am helping the Wiener Linien (Vienna’s public transport operator) on a research project intended to better understand the motivation for implementing good maintenance procedures. The conference presented results of the four year research project on how to design and build better urban rail (streetcars, metro, subway, etc.) track work. Several of the presentations were about how to design slab track to reduce noise and vibration.

Since I am more of a planner than engineer a couple of the less track-engineering presentations were more interesting for me. These were on: green track, rehabilitation processes and socio-economic impacts of rehabilitation projects.

Brussels Public Transport 25apr10-06

Green Tram Tracks on Avenue Louise in Brussels (from my flickr photos)

The Green Tram Tracks, The Advantages of Implementing Vegetation Systems in Tram Tracks presentation was by Henrikje Schreiter from the Institute of Agricultural and Urban Ecological Projects (IASP) in Berlin. She described her phd dissertation on the benefits of using a specific plant species (Sedum, which is a succulent plant) for green tracks. In summary, there are a lot of benefits including water retention, reducing noise (small, but something), reducing airborne particles and just creating a nice visual environment. She discussed lots of the practical reasons why Sedum is a good choice (e.g no need for mowing) and how you actually build these systems (e.g. building them so that emergency vehicles can drive over them).

The IASP is holding a seminar on the subject of green tracks (German) – who knew that Berlin has been using green tracks since the early 1900s? – on 20 September 2010 (before the Innotrans Exhibition). The seminar is in German, but I may try to go and can do some translation of interesting presentations.


Westbahnstrasse Tram Track Rehabilitation, Vienna July 2009

Several speakers talked about rehabilitation of tram tracks. As visitors to my website know, tram track rehabilitation is a subject close to my heart! Speakers described a replacement project in Bremen where the tram service was only stopped for a weekend (although roadway traffic on the adjoining lanes was stopped for four weeks) for a traditional tram track replacement project, and one in Karlsruhe, where the city took about three weeks to install pre-fabricated track slabs in a historic district.

The contrast between the two projects was quite interesting. In Bremen the goal was to minimise service disruption and in Karlsruhe the goal was to install historic-looking track as efficiently as possible. In the project area Karlsruhe’s track is set in cobble stone pavement, so the prefabricated sections had a cobble stone surface. Also interesting was the fact that the work was done under the catenary lines – which made it difficult to manoeuvre cranes and lifting equipment. Both projects were partly funded by the Urban Track project and lots of practical lessons were learned.

The final presentation I will talk about was by Marjolein de Jong from Hasselt University in Belgium. The presentation was on evaluating the socio-economic impacts of tram track rehabilitation projects. What I found so interesting about her research was how systematically she identified the potential impacts and her findings regarding various potential staging strategies. When I talked to her later she said, well it’s just impact analysis 101, but I think it’s important because it starts to develop an organised framework for thinking about some of the problems planners face when considering rehabilitation programs.

More information about the project is available on the UrbanTrack project website.

Benefits of High Speed Rail

I just read an interesting article on high speed rail that takes a more comprehensive look at the benefits of high speed rail … it’s not just travel time savings, but what these make possible for the economy. The article presents a very nice analysis by the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. Here it is High Speeds, High Costs, Hidden Benefits: A Broader Perspective on High-Speed Rail.

Web 2.0 and California High Speed Rail Planning

TGV at Zurich Hauptbahnhof – October 2009 – from my flickr photos.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I just finished revising my TRB paper on Web 2.0 applications for improving public participation in the transportation planning process (download here: web2transport). Yesterday I was talking to someone about some of the ideas in the paper and I remembered a story I wrote in 2005 as part of a proposal for completing the Regional Rail Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area.

The story was a speech given by one of the participants in the Regional Rail Plan planning process given 25-years after completion of the California High Speed rail system. I just re-read the story and I was surprised about how good it is and how relevant so many of the points it raises are today. So, here’s the link to a pdf file. As they say, sit back, relax and enjoy the trip!

San Francisco Bay Area Regional Rail Plan – A vision (2005)

(By the way, although people I talked with on the inside said that this story was an important reason for selecting the consultant team, the consultants never asked me to help with the project and I’m not sure what ever happened to the plan itself.)

High Speed Rail – Challenges and Opportunities for California

While in California last week I attended a high speed rail seminar organized by the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies and the Global Metropolitan Studies Center. The seminar consisted of six UCB professors talking about challenges and opportunities associated with the proposed California high speed rail system. The seminar was excellent.

Professor Carlos Daganzo gave the first presentation. He showed convincingly how high speed rail can bring down the total cost of travel given the expected increase in travel demand combined with the HSR’s decreasing cost per passenger model. This means that there is a very strong case for subsidizing high speed rail in the early stages of development, since it will improve the overall transport system.

Daganzo also believes that high speed rail can have a transformational effect on local public transport. This means that cities will seek to improve public transport linkages to the HSR stations creating a positive feedback loop leading to better integrated local-long distance public transport systems.

Professor Mark Hansen spoke next. Hansen looked at the relationship of HSR to air travel. He believes that with HSR the air travel market will become less competitive and that the reduction in flights will be most evident in secondary airports (only a small share of SFO, LAX and SAN flights are intra-state … although they use more than their share of capacity since they are generally smaller planes).

Hansen described research on proximity of Japanese HSR stations that shows that small differences in accessibility make a big difference in demand; therefore stations need to be very carefully located and highly accessible. Finally, he suggested that the best strategy for airlines is to fully integrate their systems with HSR by adopting an intermodal strategy. Interestingly he suggested that this strategy could be ad-hoc, for example, when there is bad weather airlines could shift passengers to HSR.

Professor Robert Cervero spoke third and described the land use impacts of high speed rail systems and joint development. He reflected that there have been many studies of the impact of rail on development. Most of these have shown that rail increases development of downtown areas (it would be impossible to have such dense downtowns without rail systems bringing in workers), increases commuter sheds (people are traveling longer distances to access jobs) and that transit oriented suburban development is very hard to accomplish (it needs very strong political support).

Cervero proposed four lessons for California: (1) station siting is critical, building stations in freeway medians or surrounded by free parking will lead to more sprawl development and greater driving; (2) feeder systems are important for solving the “last mile” problem, extended TOD corridors are a good solution; (3) TOD as a necklace of pearls (e.g. like Copenhagen’s approach) would be excellent, but California’s current planning regime does not support this approach; (4) joint development must be high quality and pedestrian-oriented, studies of joint development in Hong Kong show that these types of joint development can be much more effective than the alternative basic systems.

Cervero ended with the warning that, the high speed rail planning must carefully consider land use or it will simply fan the flames of sprawl development. California needs institutional reform to make effective land use planning possible.

Professor Elizabeth Deakin was the fourth speaker. She described results of a study she had done for the California High Speed Rail Authority for several Central Valley cities on how they could use HSR to revitalize their city centers. Her presentation was fascinating because she was able to show how these cities could use infill to grow into much more sustainable places while maintaining local building styles and character. Her drawings and planning maps helped illustrate the great potential HSR has for creating livable and environmentally sustainable cities.

Professor Arpad Horvath talked about the full life cycle environmental impacts of HSR. His main point was that HSR needs to be well used to be a more sustainable form of transport than automobiles or airplanes. However, if well used, HSR would be good for the environment. Another important point was that much of the electricity generated for California has a high level of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which means that HSR would generate more SO2 than driving or flying (on a per passenger KM life cycle basis), therefore, as part of the California HSR project, the state needs to develop alternative sources of electrical energy (not a bad idea).

Professor Samer Madanat, Director of the ITS, summed up the main points and moderated the question and answer period. He emphasized the fact that most of the speakers emphasized the need for good feeder systems and improved land use planning to make HSR successful.

The seminar was an excellent overview of ideas for making high speed rail in California more successful. The ITS is trying to develop an organized center for continuing and expanding this interdisciplinary research, I hope that they are able to attract the funding and support necessary to create the center.

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