Sam Stein at the Huffington Post frets that “Obama’s vision for high-speed rail is in danger of stalling out.” Where has he been the last three years? High-speed rail was in danger of stalling out in 2010, when Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin elected governors who turned back funds for their states’ programs. Today, Obama’s “vision” is dead, and so is high-speed rail in this country.
Unlike air and highway travel, with Obama’s high-speed rail vision, you won’t be able to get from anywhere in the country to most other places in the country.
Like other rail nuts, Stein tries to make it appear we are in some kind of race for supremacy with Japan and other countries. “With countries like Japan already investing in the newest form of rail technology –- magnetic levitation, which LaHood called “way too expensive” for the U.S. –- the nation is very much set to be left in the proverbial dust.” The problem is that “the newest form of rail technology” is just as obsolete as the previous form. Stein might as well worry that we aren’t keeping up with the Japanese on floppy disk technology.
A California judge has refused to allow the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion worth of bonds to begin construction of the project. The judge said the authority had failed to meet legal requirements necessary to begin construction.
Not everyone was thrilled about the high-speed train.
The authority had filed a “validation” lawsuit last March, challenging anyone in the state to argue that it didn’t have the right to build. A variety of groups, including Kings County Board of Supervisors and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, rose to the challenge. As a result, Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the authority had failed to show that it was “necessary and desirable” to sell bonds and begin construction.
A group in Maryland is promoting magnetically levitated trains in the New York-Washington corridor. “Superconducting” maglev, says the group, is the “next generation of transportation.”
Superconducting maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.
Get real. Japan is proposing to build such a line from Tokyo to Osaka: 320 miles for a mere $112 billion. That’s $350 million per mile, or twice as much as the current estimated cost of California high-speed rail boondoggle (about $100 billion for 440 miles). Except for contractors, nobody is too happy about the cost of that line.
The Wall Street Journal points out (search for “Bay Area Shutdown” if this link doesn’t work) that the BART employees who are on strike represent an industry that has seen one of the steepest declines in worker productivity in history. By just about any measure–transit trips per worker, revenues per worker-hour, costs per passenger mile–the transit industry has gone backwards more than a century in both labor and capital efficiency.
The really scary thing, at least if you are a transit rider, is that the result of this strike will be that BART, along with other transit agencies, will sacrifice safety in order to politically accommodate its workers. Many public employees have fat pensions and guaranteed health-care for life, but if paying for these things forces your local planning department to not pass a few new rules or your local library to buy a few less books, no one is going to be particularly damaged.
However, transit agencies–and especially rail transit agencies–can and do cut maintenance budgets in order to keep the money flowing to workers with cushy jobs. This is because of the asymmetry in union-employer negotiations when the employer is a public agency that reports to elected officials who depend on union support to get elected. In the case of transit, this asymmetry is both local and national in scope, as federal law requires that transit agencies keep unions happy in order to be eligible for federal grants.
A county judge says the California high-speed rail project violates the law approved by voters in 2008. But he won’t decide to issue an order halting the project until after another hearing, for which a date hasn’t yet been set.
The Reason Foundation’s Adrian Moore and Antiplanner friend Wendell Cox discuss California high-speed rail.
The Contra Costa Times lists many of the ways the project as planned today violates the 2008 ballot measure: the construction cost has doubled; the projected ticket prices have gone up; the speeds are slower; and the projected opening date is already nine years behind schedule. But the judge only rules that the project had failed to complete its environmental review and find funds to finance the entire project, not just a few miles in the Central Valley.
Most reviews of Elon Musk‘s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?
None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.
Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.
While it is possible that Spain’s train crash that killed some 80 people was due to a broken rail or other equipment failure, most experts looking at the video below think the problem was simply high speeds. The video shows a train going an estimated 125 mph around a corner designed for 50 mph.
Much attention has been focused on the train’s driver, who apparently has been known to post photos of train speedometers at high speeds (but not more than the speed limits), suggesting he might have been less than fully attentive. But where was the positive train control system, which should have warned the driver and automatically slowed the train if the driver failed to do so?
As Detroit enters bankruptcy, an Indiana rail passenger group frets that its state hasn’t wasted enough money on pipe dreams. So it is publicizing a so-called feasibility study for a high-speed rail line from Columbus to Chicago. The study proposes to spend $1.3 billion improving CSX tracks to run trains at 110 to 130 mph, resulting in a Chicago-Columbus trip as short as 3-3/4 hours, or an average speed of about 80 mph.
I say “so-called” feasibility study because it seems like a real feasibility study would take the trouble of asking if it were feasible to operate passenger trains at 110 mph on the same tracks as freight trains when CSX, which owns the track, says 90 mph is the fastest it will allow passenger trains on its tracks “unless freight and passenger traffic were separated.” The study calls for running 24 trains a day (12 each way), which is probably more than CSX wants even at 90 mph.
The feasibility study ignores these limits and simply assumes 130 mph is possible. Everything that follows is just as speculative and unrealistic.
French rail officials say that “human error has already been ruled out” as a cause of the train crash that killed six people last week. But it was a human error, or at least a political error: the error was for the government to put most available resources into building new high-speed rail lines while it let existing lines deteriorate.
Officially, the cause of the crash was a piece of a switch that apparently broke while the train was going through the switch. But that probably happened because the piece that broke was old and worn out.
While the French Transport Minister claimed that “there was no indication that a lack of investment in maintaining the system’s infrastructure was at fault” for this particular crash, he admitted that most of the conventional rail infrastructure is more than 30 years old, meaning it needs to be replaced. “The situation is severe,” the minister added, “with the degradation in recent years of traditional train lines, due to a lack of resources.”
Last Friday, opponents of California’s high-speed rail line told a California state judge that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not met all the requirements to start building the first stage of the state’s high-speed rail line. As approved by voters in 2008, the law requires, among other things, that the authority identify the “sources of all funds to be invested in the corridor, or usable segment thereof” and hat the “authority has completed all necessary project level environmental clearances necessary to proceed to construction.”
So far, the authority only has funds to build a portion of the “minimum operable segment” from Madera to the San Fernando Valley and environmental clearances for only 29 miles of this segment. Opponents argued that the authority could not begin construction until it met these requirements.
The state did not attempt to refute these contentions but merely argued that when the legislature authorized the sale of $2.6 billion in bonds it effectively negated these legal requirements. The plan “was deficient,” admitted the deputy attorney general who argued the case. “The Legislature looked at it and said, we would like more, but this is what we’ve got and it made its decision. Those are political decisions that I can’t comment on.” As a result, she added, the judge has no authority to overrule the legislature.