Save the Amtrak Cascades!

Mar 31st, 2015 | Posted by

One of the nation’s federally recognized high speed rail corridors is the Pacific Northwest corridor, running from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon. That route already has a successful passenger rail service, the Amtrak Cascades, and both Washington and Oregon have been investing in new tracks and trainsets to provide faster and more frequent service.

Ugly!

But that may all come crashing to a halt if Oregon decides to stop funding its portion of the route. Reports swirled over the weekend that Oregon might defund its part of the Amtrak Cascades, which includes the Portland to Eugene leg of the service. (Washington State funds trips from Vancouver BC to Portland via Seattle.) Here’s the details:

Amtrak’s Cascades route carries the most passengers of any of the railroad’s services outside of California and the Northeast Corridor. According to ODOT, it will cost just over $28 million to keep the line from shutting down later this year….

Passenger rail supporters said they are closely tracking the progress of House Bill 5040. In it, ODOT is asking the legislature for $10.4 million to complete the $28.1 million funding package. They already have two-thirds of that in place.

“The issue is, removing the possibility of continuing these trains breaks the links there,” Leap said. “It breaks the connectivity that ODOT has worked hard to install.”

But KOIN 6 News found out the current proposed budget, as it is written, includes just $5 million for all passenger rail.

If ODOT only gets $5 million for rail, that’s not enough to keep the Talgos operating south of Portland Union Station. No wonder activists are – rightly – up in arms.

Oregon legislators are trying to calm fears:

Democratic Representative David Gomberg, who co-chairs the budget committee that writes ODOT’s budget, said, “I don’t know anybody here that wants to shut down the program. But we’re looking at the total dollars involved.”

Democrats in Salem are apparently trying to find ways to increase the farebox recovery rate, wanting to spend fewer dollars per passenger. That’s fine, but the best way to do that is to actually spend more money – to provide faster, more frequent service along the route.

One of the challenges is that after recently changing the timetables, ridership on the Oregon segment of the Cascades dropped by 15%. Of course, gas prices dropped dramatically during that same time, so I would not be too quick to declare a crisis. But no matter the cause, there is no justification at all for the Oregon legislature to even threaten to cut back funding for rail.

Oregon rail advocates are taking the threat seriously and mobilizing to save the Cascades – and they’re right to do so. As AORTA, the brilliantly-named Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates points out, the Cascades is a tiny fraction of ODOT’s overall budget:

The 2011-13 budget for all of the Oregon Department of Transportation was about $5 billion — billion with a “b.” The $10.4 million to operate passenger rail service is a tiny portion, about two-tenths of 1 percent (0.21) of the ODOT total.

It doesn’t make any sense to haggle over this amount of money. Oregon would do better to start figuring out how to invest in improving service. Right now there are two trains a day connecting Portland to Eugene, making the 110-mile trip in about 2.5 hours. The trains depart PDX at 6AM and 6PM, which isn’t bad but doesn’t provide a whole lot of options for people who need more flexibility. Adding more trains and investing in new tracks to allow for faster speeds would help bring down the long-term operating cost – something Washington State has been able to accomplish.

If high speed rail is ever going to come to the Pacific Northwest, it will need to be built upon a successful Amtrak Cascades service (if not in exactly the same route alignment). Oregon would be dealing a big blow to hopes for Northwest HSR if they defunded the Amtrak Cascades. Let’s hope wiser heads prevail and they fully fund train operations – and start planning for improvements.

HSR Is Drought-Friendly

Mar 30th, 2015 | Posted by

One of the more absurd attacks being leveled against California high speed rail lately is that it’s somehow “drought-intolerant.” This is absurd, as CityLab’s Laura Bliss explains:

Yes, it does. To pan high-speed rail (HSR) on the basis of the drought is short-sighted. Low-density development uses more water than high-density development does. HSR will encourage the latter, and not just in terms of accommodating induced growth.

Those millions of people coming to the SJV are going to set roots somewhere. No matter what, hundreds of thousands of acres of land that are currently used by agriculture are going to be sold to developers and become urbanized. And if California had no big infrastructure project planned, and merely allowed historical patterns to unfold, urbanization of the Valley would continue in its current shape: sprawling, low-density development, with greater quantities of farmland swallowed up. Think “ranchettes,” the bane of every SJV farmer’s existence: non-farming, suburban-style homes on ten-plus-acre parcels.

In other words, HSR will help reduce sprawl and fuel infill development – the very kind of development that is better for water conservation. Without HSR, the Valley’s growth will lead to more sprawl, which has terrible impacts for groundwater storage and overall water usage.

There’s a bigger point to be made, of course. Global warming has long been expected to lead to a drier Golden State, especially a smaller snowpack. The current drought is playing out as predicted.

California is a national leader in trying to reduce CO2 emissions, in part because of the knowledge that carbon emissions are contributing to the drought. HSR is a key part of the state’s work to reduce CO2 emissions, so that’s another important way that HSR will help fight the drought.

Want to Work on the Hyperloop?

Mar 25th, 2015 | Posted by

A new company is setting up shop in downtown LA to work on the Hyperloop:

Now Hyperloop Technologies Inc., one company working on the project, has taken up residence for Hyperloop World Headquarters in a 6,500-square-foot industrial space in a gentrifying section of the Arts District.

Wedged into a corner abutting Interstate 10, the Los Angeles River and railroad tracks, Hyperloop shares a scruffy, graffiti-marked block with a fish wholesaler and a number of garment factories.

More power to them, I suppose, though they’re still going to have to overcome enormous technical hurdles that many have identified to actually making this thing work as advertised. Those hurdles are starting to get wider attention in the media, as this article in the Silicon Valley Business Journal comparing the Hyperloop to HSR makes clear:

Better the devil you know. High-speed rails have been proven to work around the world. The Hyperloop may be nothing more than science fiction.

Critics of the Hyperloop say the low-pressurized tube would overheat and the difficulties surrounding the land acquisition would make the project dead on arrival.

And those are just two of the many problems the concept faces. Despite what Elon Musk thinks, the Hyperloop should not be seen as a substitute for high speed rail. I have nothing against people wanting to see if this is a workable concept, but let’s also keep working to build high speed rail, a technology we know for a fact works quite well.

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HS2 Becomes Bargaining Chip in UK Elections

Mar 22nd, 2015 | Posted by

The UK general election is just over a month away, and already the bargaining is beginning. Polls suggest that Labour could win a plurality of seats, though an outright majority is unlikely.

One reason why it’s unlikely is that Labour’s vote in Scotland has collapsed. Labour’s support of austerity policies, while not as extreme as that of the governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, has been enough to drive Labour’s traditional voters into the arms of the Scottish National Party. The SNP is likely to win the vast majority of Scotland’s seats in the UK parliament – and would hold the balance of power. Labour cannot form a government without SNP support.

That’s where high speed rail comes in.

The HS2 project would bring true high speed rail from London to the middle and north of England – and eventually to Scotland. Labour originally proposed the project, and the coalition government has backed it as well. In opposition, Labour’s support has become softer. The Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has repeatedly criticized the project but has stopped short of saying Labour would oppose it outright.

Which brings us back to the politics of forming a government. As SNP support would be required for Labour to pass a budget, they’re setting out their terms of support – and they include HS2:

Alex Salmond has suggested the Scottish National party could demand that work on the UK’s new high-speed rail link, HS2, starts in Scotland as a price for backing a minority Labour government….

“So I propose an amendment to [that] budget,” the former first minister said. “Let’s say instead of this very, very slow train coming up from London, I think we should start it from Edinburgh/Glasgow to Newcastle and I put that down as a budget amendment. It would have substantial support from the north of England and other parties and would carry the House of Commons. What does Mr Balls do then?”

So that’s a different spin on HS2 – it’d be like building from SF southward, whereas the current plan is the equivalent of building from LA northward. But it’s still a way to ensure that Scotland gets a piece of high speed rail – and ironically enough, it would link Scotland and England closer together, something that the independence-minded SNP usually doesn’t want.

We will see what happens on election day in May, and in the days afterward. But this is a good sign that HSR in Britain has a strong future – and that the SNP continues to be the party of progressive ideas in the UK.

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