Commentary, Issues

The High Speed Rail Dilemma

Response to High-Speed rail system:  Leaders mull benefits, fears,  first published in the Burbank Leader on 2/13/10.

Commentary by Paul Dyson

It was great to see the Leader take a close look at the High Speed Rail project on Saturday 13th February.  This huge undertaking is described as the largest public works project in our history and the impacts will be far reaching and long lasting.  But while the Leader discussed some of the issues arising from the project I would respectfully suggest that we need to review why these issues exist, and whether indeed some of the impacts need to be as great as they are.

When California voters passed proposition 1A in 2008 authorizing bonds to help finance a High Speed Rail (“HSR”) system throughout the state they created a series of conflicts which were not made clear to the electorate.  The key objectives of the system were stated as:

  • To connect most of the major cities in California in accordance with a route map published with the Proposition.
  • To convey passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes.
  • To be environmentally beneficial, by taking cars off the highway and planes out of the air, reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

The problems start when you try to reconcile these objectives.  To accomplish the shortest running time between Los Angeles and San Francisco you would build the line more or less along Interstate 5.  The shortest distance between two points is still a straight line.  But to connect as many cities as possible, and to garner as many votes as possible, the chosen route deviates from the straight line by about 90 miles.  Thus we see the eastward doglegs first to accommodate Palmdale and then another to serve Fresno and the populated side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Now in order to make that 160 minute target between Los Angeles and San Francisco including the extra 90 miles you need to operate the trains at 220 mph for as great a distance as possible, including through some of the cities where other trains will make stops.  Not only that, the trains that do make stops will have to accelerate between stations to that same high speed, otherwise the fast trains catch up with the trains making stops and you lose line capacity very quickly.  All of that can be done with modern technology but then you bump into physics and the “green” element of the project.

It’s a fact of life that the faster you go in any kind of vehicle the more fuel you consume.  Trains are not exempt from this, even electric-powered trains.  At lower speeds energy is consumed accelerating the vehicle and overcoming friction between wheel and rail.  But above about 150mph the majority of the energy is consumed by overcoming air resistance or drag.  Studies indicate that a train traveling at 220mph will consume about 80% more energy than the same train at 150mph.  Worse, a train stopping at intermediate stations and accelerating to 220mph, even using regenerative braking when slowing down, will more than double its energy use compared to a maximum speed of 150mph.  Comparisons with modern, fuel efficient cars, even with single drivers, and with aircraft with a full load of passengers, indicate that 220mph trains cease to be the green alternative.  This is especially true if you take into account the energy consumed during construction and in making the materials used.

Unfortunately the public have not been made aware of this dilemma, and the California High Speed Rail Authority is pushing ahead with their 160 minute “mandate” to the detriment of communities such as Burbank and the east San Fernando Valley in general.  In order to meet this mandate the line has to be built as straight as possible, even through urban areas, and completely segregated from existing rail traffic.  Sections will be elevated, causing significant noise and visual impacts.

If the voters had had more information back in 2008 I would guess that they would have chosen to give the designers some flexibility on the 160 minute issue.  After all, travelers between Los Angeles and San Francisco are only a part of the market for this service.  How much business would the train lose if the journey took an extra 30 minutes at a lower, energy saving speed?  Given that the time on the train can be made to be very productive for a business traveler (3 hours of internet, ‘phone, restaurant, even conference facilities) are an attractive alternative to airport lines and a cramped seat.

What we have on paper is a very good express regional connector that I believe could be a successful in opening up Palmdale airport, providing an economic boost to the San Joaquin Valley, and giving us an alternative to Interstate 5 and the airlines to travel around the state.  The dilemmas are, do we want a green alternative, or are we willing to take a little longer?  Do we want to serve more communities, or do we want the shortest possible journey time between the end points?  Will communities tolerate trains running through at up to 220mph in order to meet the 160 minute mandate?

As taxpayers and voters we are entitled to ask these questions and to demand a review of the project, now that the planners and designers have revealed these inconsistencies.  After all, it is our money they are spending.

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