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.

Tour de France – Brussels

I was in Brussels on Monday for a meeting of the High Speed Regions group. As it happened the Tour de France was traveling through Brussels – a block from our meeting location – on Monday too, so I had time to watch the racers go by.

Unfortunately it was right at the start of the day’s race, so the riders were going quite slowly and were all in a pack. Well actually mostly team packs. It was funny because the streets were blocked for hours but the race took about 30 seconds to go by (and, they were going slowly!). Also odd is that there were probably more cars, trucks, motorcycles etc. going by than bikes. More photos on my flickr photos Tour de France Brussels.

Die Prinzen: Mein Fahrrad – My Bike

I just heard the song “Mein Farrad” (My Bicycle) by Die Prinzen on the radio. It’s a very catchy tune and the words are lots of fun. I thought I would translate it for my English speaking bicycle friends, so here goes:

The other day I was going 120 (kph)
Riding round town on my bike
And as usual I could only hope
The police wouldn’t catch-up to me
Because they’d give me a ticket
And take me to the station
And my poor little bike
Would be left all alone out front
Oh how I love my bike
Although I really don’t know why
To her I’ll always be faithful
In contrast to my wife
Never will I leave her
Never will I give her away
Because we fly together on the clouds
And understand each other perfectly

Every grandpa drives his Opel
Every monkey drives his Ford
Every idiot drives his Porsche
Every asshole drives his Audi Sport
Every crazy man drives his Manta
Every complete idiot his Jaguar
Only connoisseurs are cycling
And they’re always faster there

My bike is surely not purple
That’s not my color at all
And it’s certainly not brown
Because I can’t stand brown
No, mine is painted blue
From head to toe that shade
Blue’s the perfect color for me
Because sometimes I’m blue too

Every grandpa drives his Opel
Every monkey drives his Ford
Every idiot drives his Porsche
Every asshole drives his Audi Sport
Every crazy man drives his Manta
Every complete idiot his Jaguar
Only connoisseurs are cycling
And they’re always faster there!

I took a few liberties with the lyrics, but I hope it does justice to the great song!

Rate My Street

Here’s my street in Vienna rated on Rate My Street.

Just found a cool new website called Rate My Street that allows you to rate your street according to several criteria. It was developed in the United Kingdom, but since it uses Google Maps as a base you can rate any street anywhere.

Other great sites that can be used to rate streets and indicate problems that I discuss in my TRB Paper: Web 2.0 Applications for Improving Public Participation in Transport Planning include:

cyclopath.org – Twin Cities Minnesota Area

The ultimate goal of my Bus Meister project (GreenCityStreets.com) is to develop a similar application that helps city residents use an internet application to help identify, plan and support public transport priority measures that improve the attractiveness and efficiency of public transport routes they use every day. I’m struggling to finish a proposal right now … more later!

Signs and Wayfinding from Slate

Julia Turner has a great series of articles on signs and wayfinding in Slate. The first article describes the importance of signs in general. The second article takes us on a tour through Penn Station in New York looking at how well (or badly) the signs work in helping us get from an entrance to the Amtrak trains. It reminds me of an experience I had in the Paris Metro Châtelet – Les Halles station in 2008.

The third article is on urban wayfinding, which Turner describes as completely different from wayfinding in transport stations or other controlled environments (e.g. Penn Station). She uses the example of Transport for London’s Legible London project to describe the concept. This is a really excellent article filled with lots of good information.

The photo at the right is another solution: people at the Copenhagen Airport who help guide visitors (the other signs there are pretty good too).

The fourth article describes research on the hand-made maps made by normal people. The fifth article describes the ‘war over exit signs‘ which includes a nice summary of the idea behind pictograms and their use on signs. The sixth article is forthcoming, but I am sure it will be good.

I have always been fascinated by signs. Here is a link to my flickr set signs and here is a link to my flickr set WC Signs … I find wc signs to be especially interesting because they give businesses and people the ability to be creative about how they use graphics. As they say, “You can tell a lot about a place by their WC signs” … well, at least that’s what I always say.

Finally, my restaurant review of the Hallwylerhof restaurant in Zurich. They have a wonderful graphics and signage design used consistently throughout the restaurant, and the food is great too.

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