Drill, Baby, Drill (for HSR tunnels)

Sep 29th, 2015 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority is seeking permission to drill in the San Gabriel Mountains as part of their study of a possible tunnel from Palmdale to the LA basin:

The California High Speed Rail Authority has asked permission to test-drill deep beneath the Angeles National Forest to determine the feasibility of digging a rail tunnel through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Clarita.

If allowed to perform its tests, the rail authority will drill down 900 feet to 2,500 feet below the surface in up to eight locations of the northwestern portion of the Angeles, a federally protected wilderness. Borings will only be allowed on existing forest roads, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

By examining the test borings, the rail authority can determine the soil, water content and locate earthquake faults — all important geological information needed to complete an Environmental Impact Report on the high-speed train’s alignment from Palmdale to Burbank airport station.

All of the proposed routes to get the tracks from Palmdale to LA have been controversial, whether it’s the route near the 14 freeway or the tunnels under the mountains. Reflecting that controversy, the US Forest Service will be taking public comment, and as Curbed LA points out, that’s unusual:

Concerned citizens who don’t want the rail authority digging around in the Angeles will have their chance to voice their concerns about the tunnels with the U.S. Forest Service: “In what only can be described as an unusual process,” the USFS has decided to open up to public input on whether or not the preliminary drilling should be allowed. (Any complaints or issues with the test-drilling and the feasibility study can be sent to Comments can be sent to gfarra@fs.fed.us.)

The CHSRA hopes to be able to present a draft EIR for the Palmdale to Burbank segment in mid-2016, and the test drills would help determine the feasibility of constructing the tunnel.

What will they find? Will the tunnel be feasible from a geologic perspective? Stay tuned!

How China’s HSR System Became A Success

Sep 27th, 2015 | Posted by

During the Great Recession, China chose to stimulate its economy through massive infrastructure projects – including building out a national high speed rail system. But after a few years, criticism began to mount amidst growing problems.

Suzhou train station, China

The Wenzhou disaster in 2011 showed China had serious problems in terms of managing the rapid growth of the system. That same year, American news outlets like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal described the system as overburdened with debt, lacking riders, and facing financial ruin.

Many people stopped paying attention at that point. China’s HSR project was seen as unsafe and unsuccessful, what more was there to know? But as it turns out, the story did not end in 2011. Four years later, Chinese high speed rail is a stunning success and a model for the rest of the globe which will have to catch up or be left behind.

Over at the European Tribune, DoDo has taken a fresh look at China’s HSR system and finds it is doing quite well:

The history of high-speed rail is full of projects that, due to this or that planning deficiency, failed to meet initial expectations, only to become a roaring success a few years later. CRH went through an extreme version of this: while in 2011, some feared (and US anti-rail propagandists hoped) that China will be crushed financially by a trillion-dollar debt for lines that, rejected by the public, will never turn a profit, now the renminbis are flowing and China is the only country where there has been a pro-high-speed rail riot(!). It’s worth to look at how three specific lines performed.

The biggest success now is the most important and most expensive part of the network, the Beijing–Shanghai line. In 2014 (its third full year of operation), it carried more than 100 million passengers, and turned a profit a couple of years ahead of schedule. For scale, this is already two-thirds of the peak of the world’s busiest high-speed line (the Tōkaidō Shinkansen), and pretty close to the design capacity of 120 million passengers/year! Hence:

…over 250 trains are running on the tracks every day, and even this cannot meet the need of passengers,” said chairman Cai Qinghua. “We are about to build the second Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway if it continues developing this way.”

Before that, the newly planned lines from Beijing to Hefei would provide relief.

The second case study is the Wuhan–Guangzhou line, which was one of the first to open. It was a big gamble as the first near-1,000 km line in the world, it provided for negative news with unmet initial ridership expectations, and its losses were of real significance due to its sheer size. However, it reached 50 million passengers in 2013, or 2½ times its initial year ridership, or about break-even level. A big factor was the opening of connecting lines (in particular its extensions to Beijing and Shenzhen), another the opening of urban rail connections to several of its stations.

It’s become quite clear now that China’s ambitious HSR project is paying off quite well. The finances work out, and ridership is soaring. This year will be the peak construction of the system, with a dozen more routes likely to be completed by the end of 2015. DoDo expects the entire system to be pretty much done by the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which would be less than 15 years from start to finish.

DoDo also points out that HSR construction has helped to spur construction of more metro rail lines in China’s fast-growing cities, which would be something Californians would certainly welcome.

What happened between 2011 and 2015? Nothing, really. The problem was that in 2011 the system was too young to judge whether it was a success or a failure. In 2009, DoDo himself explained that there is a five-year curve in any new HSR line, that there is a ramp-up period that builders and governments just have to ride out rather than panic and make bad decisions that would compromise the effectiveness of the system. Basically, ridership on a new HSR line will take about 5 years to reach its full potential, and governments have to be willing to let that process unfold naturally, rather than panicking in the face of bad press in the second or third year.

DoDo developed that basic analysis after looking at the expansion of Spain’s AVE network in the 2000s and the early years of the French TGV in the 1980s, but the story of China HSR proves the concept quite well.

So now that China is entering the North American HSR picture with its deal to help build XpressWest to Las Vegas, it’s worth keeping in mind that China actually does know how to build a successful HSR system.


Whatever Happened to the X Train?

Sep 22nd, 2015 | Posted by

XpressWest, which just inked a deal with China to help build HSR from Southern California to Southern Nevada, isn’t the only proposed new passenger rail line along that route. There’s also the X Train, a proposal by Las Vegas Railway Express to operate a private luxury passenger rail line from LA to the Strip.

Unlike XpressWest, the idea behind the X Train is to use existing diesel locomotives to pull the luxury cars on existing tracks. No need for huge construction costs or a long federal approvals process. It should be a simple idea, but it’s taken years to become reality, and there have been several false starts along the way.

Las Vegas Railway Express feels confident that this time, they’re ready. The X Train announced last month it plans to begin service on New Year’s Eve:

X Train, which has been working on getting this stylish party (train) started for five years now has announced on its Facebook page that it’s planning to start selling tickets in September for a New Year’s Eve train ride in a classy-looking vintage train running from the Fullerton Transportation Center to a train station in downtown Las Vegas that’s built into the Plaza Hotel & Casino, says Los Angeles magazine.

Here’s the full scoop from X Train itself:

It’s been a while folks. Sorry for going dark on you but we have been busy and frankly, we weren’t allowed to talk about a number of things we have been working on. So, here’s a brief piece. The X Train is going to run as a Private Charter type train from LA to Las Vegas and our inaugural run is planned for New Year’s Eve this year. In the weeks and months to come, we will be talking more and more about the service, time table, accommodations, and special entertainment we have planned along this iconic trip. We have decided to make these runs even more special as private charters and not a regularly scheduled train. It is not. We plan to run these on special occasions and like a private tour, our service will be unlike anything on rails today.

And yes, these are actual pictures of the cars we will be using on the service.

We will be offering a $99 coach fare each way, which is pictured and a First Class and VIP service, which is also pictured featuring a “classic Vegas” style of service. Even riding in Frank Sinatra’s lounge car pictured at left.
Tickets will go on sale in September, so watch for that.

It’s been a long and challenging journey, but our staff and supporters have hung in there with us. December is only four months away. We hope to see you on board the fabulous X Train where the journey is the destination.

More recent updates on their Facebook page indicate that they have railcars currently being refurbished in Minnesota, and will bring them out to LA in December for testing before the New Year’s Eve ride.

The X Train already got the approvals it needed to operate on existing Union Pacific tracks from Daggett to Las Vegas. But they have struggled to get approval from BNSF to use their tracks through the Cajon Pass, in part because that corridor is one of the nation’s most congested railroads. So what now?

According to one market analyst, the X Train is looking at going through the Antelope Valley, just like XpressWest:

XTRN was in limbo until October 21 of this year [presumably 2014] when XTRN announced it has begun the engineering of the route to Las Vegas via conventional rail on what it calls the Western Alignment. This pass travels to Las Vegas via Lancaster & then east to Barstow before it turns north to Las Vegas.

CEO of XTRN, Michael Barron, an entrepreneur largely involved in real estate, stated “We have spent the last year re-tooling our efforts to run the X Train service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and based on the findings of UNLV’s Rail Engineering Group, have concluded that the route from LA to Mojave to Barstow to Las Vegas would avoid the rail traffic of the Cajon Pass.”

XTRN owns outright a series of 16 bi-level passenger railcars as well as two leased cars acquired through an agreement with Mid America Leasing Company. These cars are planned for use in the deployment of cars on the LA to Vegas route. The first two cars have been completed and are in service on the Santa Fe Southern Railway. The remaining cars are scheduled to be refurbished during the remainder of 2015.

It’s unclear if the route issue has been resolved, but apparently X Train feels confident enough to move ahead with its plans for a New Year’s Eve ride. Tickets haven’t gone on sale yet, but if and when they do, my guess is they’ll sell out.

Two Public HSR Meetings This Week

Sep 21st, 2015 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority is hosting a couple of meetings this week to discuss various segments of the HSR route.

First up is a meeting in Shafter on Wednesday, September 23, from 4-7 pm in the Shafter Veterans Hall. The topic there will be the proposed route in and around the city of Shafter.

On Thursday, CHSRA staff will be in Morgan Hill to update residents on planning for the San José to Merced segment. That meeting will take place at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center on Monterey Road, also from 4-7 pm.