Nov 10, 2009

High Speed Rail in the USA continued

Our discussion continues on mass rail transportation in the USA and how it compares to what other countries have now and what we possibly could have in the future.

The following is a review from a NY Times article of 6-10-09, "Getting Up to Speed"
The discussion is about the California High Speed Rail Authority and it's efforts to build by 2020 a high speed(up to 250mph)rail network in parts of California. Preliminary funding has been approved by California voters. The Governor supports the project.

The writer also travelled to France to ride and review the AGV fast train.

We see one problem is the unpredictable seismic activity in parts of California. This was not addressed closely.

Also France has a history of strong train ridership from the original industrial revolution.

But after years of pain and suffering in building and financing the project, once it is complete, Californians would find the interconnected fast rail a big boon and would make the state more livable we feel.

Since it was established in 1996, the California High Speed Rail Authority, an assemblage of train advocates and engineers, had been working out of offices in the capital to explore how the state could build a rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $33 billion, with two additional branches — costing billions more — eventually extending to Sacramento in the north and San Diego in the south. It would not be an Amtrak operation but one owned by the state of California. Last November, state voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to get the project moving......

Earlier this year, President Obama...... submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan.

What is it
If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history. And if it is completed, the train will go from L.A. to San Francisco in just under 2 hours 40 minutes and from L.A. to Sacramento in about 2 hours 17 minutes. Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, it would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars. Apart from the breathtaking price tag, commentators often focus on the projected velocity of the California trains, on how they will reach an astounding 220 m.p.h. in some stretches near Bakersfield and will cover the distance from L.A. to the Bay Area at an average speed approaching 175 m.p.h. As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck. Which is to say that high-speed trains are obviously about going fast, but when you think about it, they’re just as much about time as speed.......

Can California really afford such a project? Shouldn’t transportation dollars be spent instead on upgrading urban mass transit or commuter rail, both of which would also ease freeway traffic? Over the past decade, specific parts of the rail plan — tunnels, mountain passes, stations, environmental impacts, costs, ridership estimates, the technologies needed, you name it — have been challenged at nearly every turn by officials and citizens alike, as have the motives and wisdom of rail-authority board members and staff employees.

How They Operate
Or as the French tend to say, the trains have a high power-to-weight ratio that allows them to attain terrific velocities. What’s more, the newest high-speed designs do not depend on locomotives pulling or pushing a string of cars. Instead, powerful motors are distributed throughout the undersides of the train cars. Up above, the trains are delicate: the pantograph that touches an overhead electrical wire (the catenary) is far more sensitive than its equivalent on regular trains in order to maintain electrical contact at extreme speeds. Things are different on the ground too. Crossties are made from concrete and not timber, and rails are sometimes set on a concrete bed rather than a ballast of crushed stone. The alignment of the rails cannot involve tight curves or sharp turns — because straighter track is faster, and faster track is the whole point. One of the most crucial distinctions with the trains, finally, is invisible: they have a signaling technology, called “positive train control,” that keeps tabs on the location of the trains in operation. If a train gets close to the one ahead of it, it slows down automatically — or shuts down altogether if it gets too close. A big seismic tremor or act of sabotage trips the system, too.

You can’t plunk a bullet train down on an existing corridor. High-speed lines in Asia and Europe are, in the argot of transportation engineers like Daniels, “dedicated lines without grade crossings.” That means vast stretches of the routes are for high-speed trains only (no freight or commuter trains allowed) and are built so that anything crossing the train’s path (local roads, highways, freight lines, white-tailed deer) must do so via overpass or underpass.

(There was a deadly high-speed-train accident in Germany in 1998, but in 45 years of operation in Japan, and in 28 years in France, there has never been a fatality on a high-speed train.)

The monumental difficulty of the California rail project is finalizing the route.

For the moment, it’s fair to assume that the high-speed-rail project will be a vivid, 10-year nightmare for many engineers and Californians. On the positive side, the start of construction — beginning, say, with all those grade crossings — will instantly create thousands of jobs, a considerable boost given the state’s double-digit unemployment rate. But it will disrupt dozens of communities and almost certainly raise the ire of many civic activists.

The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million. Only five or six companies in the world can make such trains, and of them, only two at the moment — Siemens in Germany and Alstom in France — can build them to be reliably fast enough for the California corridor.

It is sometimes easy to forget in the disputes over state money and local politics that the train project has national implications too. For one thing, it represents the challenge of getting big and risky things built following a boom-time era when it often seemed as if America was content to build little else besides cars, houses and shopping malls.

Jon Gertner, a frequent contributor to the magazine, often writes about business and the environment.

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