China Prepares Its Pitch to Sell HSR Trains to California

Oct 22nd, 2014 | Posted by

CNR Corporation, a state-owned enterprise of the Chinese government, is planning to pitch California on purchasing its high speed trains:

CNR, its unit Tangshan Railway and U.S.-based SunGroup USA are submitting an expression of interest to California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project for a contract to supply up to 95 trains that can travel as fast as 354 kilometers per hour (221 miles per hour), SunGroup told Reuters.

“We believe that high-speed rail is something that China does very well, and it’s a product that we can export across the world,” SunGroup spokesman Jonathan Sun said in a phone interview, adding that SunGroup, CNR and Tangshan Railway had been working together for four years….

Project details published on SunGroup’s website show the consortium is putting forward the CRH380BL train, a model used on the Beijing-Shanghai line, which can travel up to 380 kph.

Sun said an initial order would probably be about 18-20 trains and that they would open a factory to make the trains in California if they won the bid, as required by U.S. law.

The consortium also intends to bid for the next available contracts to build track sections of the line. A group led by Tutor Perini is building the first segment, while consortiums that include Dragados and Samsung are bidding for the next construction package.

“In the future we want to be involved in all aspects of the project,” Sun said. “Because by undertaking a package you can showcase the true value of the high-speed technology that China has created and manufactured.”

CNR just won a bid to deliver trains to Thailand for intercity rail service, with speeds up to 320 km/h, and California is their next big target.

The more bidders the merrier, I say. Bids from companies based in Germany, Japan and Spain are likely, and Germany’s Siemens already has a factory in Sacramento with room to grow to add capacity for building high speed trains. But China can pretty quickly scale up manufacturing capabilities in California if needed.

You can read more about SunGroup’s proposal to use the CRH380BL in this report – though it helps if you read Mandarin. I don’t, but you can at least see some interesting photos of the CRH380BL.

After Court Defeat, HSR Opponents Set Sights on Tehachapis

Oct 19th, 2014 | Posted by

Having been resoundingly beaten in the courts once again, opponents of the California high speed rail project are now shifting their attention to another part of the project in hopes they can derail it. Their new claim is that the route from Bakersfield to Tehachapi Pass is too steep:

A grassroots group of Central Valley residents called the Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability presented a letter to the authority Tuesday that charges the agency with covering up the fact that any route selected through the Tehachapis would violate the terms of Proposition 1A, the 2008 rail bond measure.

“What’s most important is that the public and elected officials know that what they’ve been told all along is unachievable,” said Frank Oliveira, a Hanford-area private investigator and co-founder of the citizens’ group….

In response, a spokeswoman for the authority said program operators are still in the early stages of considering possible routes, but are confident that a suitable route will be found to meet all program requirements.

“There are engineering and design challenges in the Bakersfield to Palmdale section but they are challenges we will overcome,” Lisa Marie Alley said in an email. “I must say that there is absolutely no story here.”

HSR opponents will desperately try to prove her wrong, and their case rests on a section of the track between Bakersfield and Tehachapi, as was first reported by the Bakersfield Californian recently:

It comes as no surprise that the Tehachapi Mountains are a tough climb, even for a train that can travel up to 220 mph. The primary alternative, the Grapevine, also has steep grades that agency officials have said would require extensive tunneling and viaducts, both of which would be very expensive.

Newly released progress reports engineering firm URS Corp. sent the rail authority in fall 2013 raise concerns about a stretch of more than four miles southeast of Tehachapi near Oak Creek Road where the mountain grade is greater than 3.5 percent. That exceeds the rail authority’s self-imposed limit of 3.5 percent average grade for sections measuring about four miles.

The worries evident in those reports aren’t necessarily limited to the difficulty of going uphill. Just as formidable, observers say, is the challenge of going down a steep mountain….

Alley, the project spokeswoman, dismissed the notion that a 3.5 percent incline would stop the project, noting high-speed rail in Germany crosses 4 percent grades.

The Bakersfield Californian article is more than a little slanted against the project’s choice of Tehachapi over the Tejon Pass route. It argues that the reasons for choosing Tehachapi were political – a desire to appease Palmdale, which had threatened to sue, and a desire to appease the developers of the Tejon Ranch project.

But that wasn’t the full story of the California High Speed Rail Authority’s decision to reject a Tejon route. First of all, Prop 1A – which the HSR opponents sued to uphold – includes Palmdale in the alignment. So choosing an I-5 alignment via the Tejon Pass would violate Prop 1A.

Second, the I-5/Tejon alignment brings its own uncertainties, including grade. Clem Tillier’s research – which, it must be stated up front, led Clem to conclude that that Tejon is the better choice – does indicate that the maximum grade for that alignment is 3.5%. That’s coming close to the level of concern that the HSR opponents voiced about the Tehachapi route, though not quite at 4%. Clem and others have pointed out that estimates prepared in 2012 suggested that Tejon was up to $5 billion cheaper than a Tehachapi alignment, but that’s before any detailed engineering had been done for that tunnel-heavy route, and it doesn’t include lost revenue from abandoning the half a million people living in the Antelope Valley.

The Bakersfield Californian report has certainly fueled a renewed call to examine and choose the Tejon option. Personally I’m just fine with going via Tehachapi, in order to serve Palmdale, on the basis of the idea that HSR should go where the people are. But if a Tejon option is chosen, I could probably live with it, assuming that questions about ridership and revenues absent a Palmdale alignment are answered. And of course, the plan to connect LA to Las Vegas with high speed rail currently assumes a connection at Palmdale.

We’ll see if this new attack gets any traction. Everything I can see suggests that the Tehachapi option remains the solid choice of the Authority, but until construction begins one can probably never completely rule out a switch to Tejon, however unlikely it may seem.

Supreme Court Upholds Decision Favoring CHSRA in Kings County Case

Oct 15th, 2014 | Posted by

The California Supreme Court has just rejected Kings County’s appeal of the Court of Appeals decision that favored the California High Speed Rail Authority. Earlier this year the Court of Appeals had overturned a Superior Court decision in favor of Kings County that threatened the future of the high speed rail project.

The justices rejected a request for a hearing on a lower court ruling that allowed the nation’s first high-speed rail project to proceed despite questions about whether it complies with promises made to voters when they approved it in 2008.

Plaintiffs from the Central Valley argued in a petition to the court last month that the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s July ruling undercuts a century of legal precedent requiring the state to strictly comply with the intent of voters.

To be clear: the Supreme Court didn’t feel Kings County and the anti-HSR forces that joined them had enough of a case to merit even a hearing. That’s a much bigger smackdown than if the Supreme Court had taken the case and upheld the Court of Appeals anyway. It’s the Supreme Court’s way of telling Kings County and the other plaintiffs that their arguments were literally not even worth hearing.

CHSRA Board Chair Dan Richard is ready to go full speed ahead with construction. Here’s his statement in response:

“This decision reaffirms that the Authority can continue building a modern high-speed rail system that connects the state, creates jobs and complies with the law,” said Authority Board Chair Dan Richard. “We will continue to move forward aggressively to deliver the nation’s first high-speed rail system.”

The Supreme Court’s decision means the CHSRA does not have to produce a new funding plan. It means that the Prop 1A bonds can be issued. And it means that we really are going to see high speed rail built in California.

Once again, HSR opponents have been defeated. They have ultimately lost every court case they have brought against the project. They have lost every legislative battle they have fought in Sacramento. And of course, they lost the fight at the ballot box against the project in 2008. They’re about to see Neel Kashkari, whose campaign for governor has largely been about smashing the “crazy train,” lose to Jerry Brown by as much as 20 points.

They won’t give up, of course. They’ll never give up. But that’s fine. We will continue to proceed on this important project, and eventually have a nice laugh about their futile if annoying and costly obstructionism when we’re speeding across the Valley floor at 220 mph on our way to LA or SF.

California Should Not Live In Backwardness

Oct 13th, 2014 | Posted by

James Fallows is back with his occasional series on California’s high speed rail project, which includes some great reader responses:

I travel frequently from San Francisco to Southern California to visit an elderly parent. I cannot count the number of times my plane is late. This time, like the last time, it was 3 hours late. I commented to someone seated next to me in the crowded unpleasant lobby that when high speed rail goes in, I will never fly to Southern California again. The airport is always crammed, there is never a power outlet available, the planes are crammed as well as late, and the whole experience is awful. My airfare on Southwest is usually closer to $250 each way than $130—speaking as someone who actually flies this route (to San Diego).

San Francisco’s runways are too small and it gets fogged in. The fog would not impact the train.

I do not agree that our state should live in backwardness, under development, and inefficiency because there are folks who don’t believe in state investments in infrastructure. I suggest that these folks take a look out the window the next time they actually do fly in California. Look for the dams, in particular. The feat of engineering that is the California Water Project is what makes our lives here possible. I am beyond annoyed that there are people who have appointed themselves as judge and jury that public infrastructure cannot work by definition. It is a willful and selective blindness. I do not appreciate these attempts to undermine our collective future.

That’s a powerful, fantastic jeremiad against the small minded and backward looking people who spend their time and even their money desperately trying to prevent California from embracing a better and more sustainable future.

Another letter from a regular commuter between Northern and Southern California points out the value of HSR to commuters:

I commute from LA to SF weekly to commute to a job in Silicon Valley (Redwood City, actually). I bought a house close to LAX (in Mar Vista) to facilitate the move. I don’t want to be any closer because of aircraft noise. I can make it from my house to the Parking Spot on Sepulveda in 15 minutes at any time of day (quick cruise down Centinela). I need to budget 3 1/2 hours door to door to make the trip….

Anyway, from the point of view of time efficiency, I think it is pretty clear that CA HSR for my commute will be a wash when it is done. There are enough new subways going to LA Union Station that I will have a much broader section of neighborhoods to choose from (and many cooler ones) within a few minutes walk to the subway as opposed to the 15 minute drive and 15 minute park at LAX with the same time before departure. Metro is projecting a 25 minute trip to downtown from Westwood on the Purple Line to Union Station, and it will be done before HSR. In terms of quality factor, eliminating the lines I wait in for security, and both to board and disembark from the aircraft, will be the biggest pluses.

Keep in mind that by the time HSR opens from LA to SF, the rail network in LA will have been vastly improved. Further, the cost of flying will have risen, perhaps significantly, and that will provide HSR with a cost advantage. Ultimately, this commuter’s experience simply reflects the reality we’ve seen in Spain and elsewhere: that when you build HSR between two cities, it grabs a majority of the travel market share from the airlines. That same commuter offers a very useful list of suggestions that would make HSR even more attractive to a commuter, a list that this blog has been pushing for six years now:

I think CA HSR can really get the edge over flying in the following situations:

* people who want to get off farther down the Peninsula (e.g. Googlers going to Mountain View). San Jose Airport has many fewer flights so that’s not a good option either.

* coordinated schedules with Caltrain with ZipCar’s available at the train station so I can avoid the rental car

* nicer amenities (e.g. more legroom, bigger tables)

* if the HSR folks get their act together and arrange for high-speed internet connectivity on the high-speed rail, that would make HSR an easy choice over the flights. It seems like you should be able to do way better in bandwidth on the ground than in the air, although the European HSR lines aren’t particularly good at Internet connectivity right now.

Note the point about destinations below Palo Alto. This is why serving San José on a spur with the mainline connecting to the Peninsula at Menlo Park via the Dumbarton corridor is such a bad idea.

Another writer appears to be deeply confused as to the state of mass transit in LA:

I’m a believer in high speed rail, but I think California has its priorities confused. One of your writers nailed it but then didn’t elaborate.

The key to any successful high speed rail system isn’t in the middle, it’s at the two ends. Without a first rate local system of public transportation at each terminus, most of high speed rail’s advantages evaporate. I’d accordingly suggest that California’s highest priority should be addressing the rotten public transportation system in LA.

I think Governor Brown is pushing HSR because it is a project that is within his purview and something at which he might succeed. Solving LA’s transit problems is probably a greater challenge, and not exactly the responsibility of the Governor. But building HSR before addressing public transit in LA is simply putting lipstick on a pig (lovely lipstick, admittedly, but still lipstick).

First off, solving LA’s transit problems is absolutely the responsibility of the governor and the state legislature. California should be taking a greater role in addressing local transit needs.

And that’s what they’re doing. Cap-and-trade will help fund improvements to transit within metro areas, as well as connect them with high speed rail.

But more importantly, this letter writer is simply wrong to assume that public transit in LA is being ignored. I’m guessing the writer lives in Northern California, or in a Southern California suburb far removed from LA proper. LA is building more mass transit right now than perhaps any other city in America. If a new transit measure appears on the November 2016 ballot and is approved, then LA’s dramatic expansion will merely accelerate. By the time HSR opens from SF to LA, the City of Angels will have a far more extensive mass transit network than SF and the Bay Area, which appear content with their status quo.

Fallows gives the final word to Mike Lofgren, author of a great book on Republican extremism:

It might be useful to anchor the whole California rail debate in the historical context of infrastructure in America: The antebellum Southern opposition to internal improvements is still with us today in thinly disguised form.

So very true. Opposition to HSR isn’t about the details of the project, it’s about hostility to government spending on infrastructure, plain and simple. Californians do not share that hostility, and that is why anti-HSR forces have consistently lost in their efforts to stop the project.