High Speed Rail in the USA

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

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

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.)

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