Randall O’Toole’s Gadgetbahn

May 9th, 2010 | Posted by

Most of us who support high speed rail do so out of pragmatism. We look at a situation where our state is choked by traffic, suffering from the economic effects of an overdependence on costly oil, and in need of more sustainable forms of mass transit that get us around this state quickly and affordably. And in order to address that crisis, we find waiting for us a readymade, proven solution that has worked in other countries – high speed rail. Logically, we think “well let’s just build it here in California – the state’s geography and urban densities make sense, most of the core of the state is already laid out along rail lines, and fast trains can take the load off of freeways and airports and turn a profit as well.” Sure, there are details to still be worked out, but overall HSR is an obvious solution to many of our state’s problems.

For some, however, HSR offends their preexisting ideological views. And no matter how practical or sensible it is, they won’t abandon their ideology to allow it to be built, instead demanding the rest of us be held hostage to their ideology of hostility to government spending (except for spending they like) and of dependence on the automobile.

Such is the case with our old friend Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute, who has been fighting high speed rail for the last few years. Because HSR offends his ideological sensibilities, he can’t support it. Instead of simply bringing a proven and effective transportation solution to America, he prefers we waste our time and money developing a gadgetbahn that has so many problems and flaws it’s unlikely to ever work, and certainly won’t address our needs.

Unfortunately for us, he found a credulous listener in the form of Adrienne Packer, the “Road Warrior” columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who praised O’Toole’s silly gadgetbahn in her column today:

Forget DesertXpress. Forget a magnetic levitation train. Forget high-speed rail altogether.

It’s too expensive and by the time a line is built between Las Vegas and Southern California, if that even happens, the technology will be outdated and unpopular.

Oh, this oughta be good.

At least, that’s the position taken by Randal O’Toole, an urban land use expert with the Cato Institute, a public policy research foundation.

“America is on the verge of a new transportation revolution,” O’Toole said last week . “That revolution is not going to be high-speed rail. It’s not going to be light rail or street cars.”

Nope. If O’Toole’s prediction is correct, those of us who shudder and wince at the thought of leaving behind our convenient and comfortable vehicles can rest easy.

He firmly believes driverless vehicles will lead the way in transportation revolution.

Yep. Driverless vehicles. THAT is Randall O’Toole’s answer to high speed rail advocates.

It gets better:

These vehicles are equipped with “lane keep assist systems,” which are controlled by cameras that detect the lane stripes and keep the vehicle within those lines.

Obviously, the lane markers must be in better condition than those we see on Interstate 15, otherwise the detectors would go bonkers and we’d be pulled over for drunken driving.

They also have “adaptive cruise control,” which uses lasers to detect fellow motorists on all sides of the car. If the vehicle traveling ahead of the driverless car is too slow, the high-tech car will move over, pass and then return to its original lane.

O’Toole envisions driverless vehicles mingling with traditional cars at first. The driverless vehicle would simply see other cars being objects they detect, but designated lanes similar to high-occupancy lanes could be created for the new cars.

Maybe this is workable, maybe not. Perhaps it’s worth exploring. But O’Toole makes it clear this isn’t an idea that should be pursued for its own sake, but because it can undermine a perfectly workable transportation system he opposes on ideological grounds:

The greatest obstacle at this point is, you guessed it, the government, which O’Toole said would rather push high-speed, taxpayer-subsidized trains on us.

It’s political, he said.

But guess what, Randall? Your gadgetbahn is political. Your opposition to it is political. Instead of high speed trains, you want to push taxpayer-subsidized freeways and gadgetbahns on us. Tell me how you build this without more taxpayer subsidy:

Driverless vehicles could be the norm by 2018 barring any major hurdles, he said. “They would be institutional and bureaucratic, not technological. Turning vehicles into driverless cars is basically a software update,” O’Toole said.

So how exactly would this new technology improve congestion on the stretch between Southern Nevada and Los Angeles or address pollution problems?

O’Toole believes if everyone rode in a driverless vehicle, our highways could accommodate 6,000 vehicles per lane per hour, three times the amount today. Great, so how does that help with pollution and congestion? They would all be moving at consistent speeds and traffic jams would be headaches of the past. Fewer cars idling equals less pollution.

Ultimately, speed limits might be raised because driverless vehicles are viewed by some as safer.

“Collisions are caused by slow reflexes; computers won’t have that,” O’Toole said.

Here are some of the internal contradictions and obstacles to O’Toole’s gadgetbahn that make this a very costly and undesirable substitute to the proven success of high speed rail:

1. How much will taxpayers have to spend retrofitting freeways to handle these cars? Driverless vehicles require major changes to existing freeways, including putting in the infrastructure to help keep cars in their lanes. Who pays for it?

2. How can we afford the cost of oil? Given the reality of peak oil – declining supply at the same time as oil demand soars in China and India – these driverless vehicles are going to cost Americans an enormous amount of money to operate. If Deutsche Bank is right and we see oil permanently above $175/bbl in 2015, this gadgetbahn will be totally unaffordable.

3. Alternatively, if there were somehow a method to meet the current driving demand with another fuel source aside from oil – and there is widespread skepticism that we can generate that much electricity – growth projections mean we’ll have to spend billions of dollars to expand freeways to handle the new cars. That’s taxpayer subsidy for new freeway lanes even though HSR is a much cheaper option. It would cost $25 billion to upgrade Highway 99 to interstate standards in the Central Valley, but a fraction of the cost to link Sacramento to Bakersfield via high speed rail. O’Toole basically wants us to waste a bunch of money to suit his anti-rail bias.

4. This gadgetbahn doesn’t eliminate traffic or provide the same speeds and amenities as high speed rail. Unless we spend those billions of dollars to widen freeways, this will do nothing to solve the existing and severe traffic problems California and Nevada face. Unless people are going to put a toilet and a cafe in their driverless cars and/or crank them up to 220 mph, a driverless vehicle isn’t going to provide the same quality of experience that riding a high speed train does. (And how much will it cost to completely rebuild interstate freeways to allow driverless cars to handle 220 mph?)

Packer doesn’t ask any of those questions. Instead she equates HSR with this gadgetbahn:

This all might sound far-fetched, but it appears the chances of us riding in but not driving our own cars are about as good as any of us riding in a Las Vegas-to-Anaheim high-speed train anytime soon.

What’s truly sad about this column is that it shows how deep the ignorance of HSR runs in the American media. Journalists simply don’t know anything about it. That’s why Adrienne Packer can equate HSR – which has been in successful operation for nearly 50 years in Japan and decades in Europe – with this totally unproven and as yet nonexistent technology that O’Toole dreamed up. Whatever you think of O’Toole’s gadgetbahn, it is factually incorrect to equate it to high speed rail. We may never see that gadgetbahn implemented. But in just two or three years, Adrienne Packer and other Nevadans can take a high speed train to Southern California for a fraction of the cost.

It’s just another example of how Randall O’Toole and other HSR deniers and skeptics are enabled by the widespread ignorance of passenger rail and HSR in particular on the part of American journalists. Maybe we need to stage an intervention and take them all to Japan or Spain for a week and make them ride the Shinkansens and AVEs between the cities so they can see how it works.

In fact, that appears to be what the San Francisco Chronicle did in today’s paper. Unfortunately, the Chronicle has chosen to deny it’s the 21st century and is keeping their very good articles on the Shinkansen in today’s print edition and off the website until Tuesday. Which is unfortunate – but hopefully other reporters and journalists will read those articles closely and understand that HSR already works, instead of being seduced by someone’s ideologically-fueled gadgetbahn.

  1. HSRComingSoon
    May 9th, 2010 at 13:17

    I truly think Mr. O’Toole is secretly waiting and hoping for the world to resemble that of The Jetsons. Either way, he is seriously lacking in his own analysis, which he offered up in a similar piece he did for the Wall Street Journal: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11633.

    Besides the obvious arguments that can be used to steamroll O’Toole and his fixation with keeping people in cars, one of the biggest reasons is inter-connectivity. People stuck in cars do not lead to people being connected. One of the biggest problems that people who are opposed to HSR focus on is that once you’ve got off the train, what next? For CA, the system is designed to be inter-connected to other forms of transit that will connect cities and neighborhoods. Further, the mere fact that O’Toole thinks more cars are the answer begs the question, where are we going to put them all when they are not being driven? I suppose there will be parking lots with automated lifts to stack cars on top of each other? For the free-market capitalist that Mr. O’Toole believes he is, wouldn’t this be a tremendous inefficiency when land can be used for other things like office buildings or other areas of commerce? It isn’t that hard to establish alternatives means of effective, inter-connected transportation, all it takes is the political will to do so. Fortunately, by the time the SF-ANA segment is finished, much will have improved to show that even in CA, you don’t always need a car to get from one place to another.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    We cant even keep the 1950s OToole world in good shape and he spouts this space cadet idea?

  2. political_incorrectness
    May 9th, 2010 at 13:48

    Mr. O’Toole just doesn’t want to step out of the driver seat. Maybe we should have him drive the Santa Monica Freeway for 12 hours during the most congested time and see what he thinks of driving.

    thatbruce Reply:

    “See, if we had driverless cars, this traffic wouldn’t be here!”

    Incidentally, where are all these cars being stored when they not being driven/driving themselves? You’ve got the same problem with any unmanaged system of transport using private vehicles. Donald Shoup’s book _The High Cost of Free Parking_ expands on this a little bit.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The car foamers envisage a system like Zip Car on steroids. Your car arrives in the morning when you are scheduled to leave for work, whisks you there while you sip your coffee and read the morning news. It drops you off and melts into the ether until it’s time for you to go home. You read the evening news and sip a cocktail. It drops you off and melts back into the ether. No need for those nasty parking lots. … or PRT on steroids…

    lyqwyd Reply:

    The funniest thing about O’Toole’s idea is that even if it happened, it would signal the death of the private car. Why would anybody want to own when you can just call a car to come and pick you up and take you where you want to go?

    In fact, I believe it would increase pubic transit and rail ridership, since you would still be unable to use these automated cars as an effective means of transporting people from home to work and back.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They have this fantasy that the autonomous car would drive you to work and then flit off to take someone else to work and then off to take someone shopping and merrily be kept busy all day and that there would be enough of them when the workday ends to take everybody home. PRT without the guideways.

    Spokker Reply:

    Well, the car disappears into the netherworld and returns to our dimension by workday’s end.

    AndyDuncan Reply:

    “Maybe we should have him drive the Santa Monica Freeway for 12 hours during the most congested time and see what he thinks of driving.”

    We call those 12 hours “daytime”. :-)

  3. Peter
    May 9th, 2010 at 13:53

    I just shot the journalist an email laying out why O’Toole is a tool.

    Victor Reply:

    Good for You, Although O’Toole is more than just a Tool, He’s a Moronic Troll.

  4. Bianca
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:03

    Rigid adherence to ideological purity over a reality-based view of what actually works did us no favors during the Bush Administration.

    Driverless cars controlled by computers sounds like an invitation for some hacker to pull a real-life version of “The Italian Job” but this time shutting down the 405 or the 101 completely.


    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Hang on boys, I’ve got an idea…

    Dan Reply:

    “Rigid adherence to ideological purity over a reality-based view of what actually works did us no favors during the Bush Administration.”

    Obama can hardly be said to favor pragmatism over ideological purity, not that (either) Bush did any differently. Clinton was probably the last president to have a reality-based view on anything.

  5. Daniel Krause
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:03

    O’Toole is just representing those who pay his paycheck – the oil companies. He probably has convinced himself that the ideas he spouts are legitimate, but the poor reasoning he typically lays out, as opposed to true academic research, reveal that he is really just a political hack serving the corporate masters that fund Cato. Sad that the media is unable to decipher real research with lame politcally-motivated research, but that is where we are at these days.

    Joey Reply:

    Yeah it’s kind of amusing that he’s talking about futuristic automatically controlled cars powered by GASOLINE…

  6. John Burrows
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:05

    This isn’t Randall’s first article on driverless cars (see Wall Street Journal, Mar 20, 2010) It was in the leisure section and I think the title was “taking the driver out of the car” or something like that.

    In that article, he mentioned that the driverless car concept originated at the 1940 New York Worlds Fair, and that now, 70 years later its time has come. My guess—the driverless car might be on the road in another 70 years; and that would be fine as it would represent a real upgrade to the car. But we are talking here about a new technology that will take years and years to develop (if it happens at all). And even if driverless cars do hit the road someday, they would compliment not replace high speed rail. High speed rail is a proven technology and high speed trains can be running in the United States as soon as the systems can be built. Driverless cars are a maybe, far off in the future.

  7. AndyDuncan
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:19

    Here is a visual explanation of the problem with “automated car” or “Personal Rapid Transit” ideas.

    Even if all those cars are automated, the capacity of the system is still an issue. If tomorrow you took all the cars on the 405 and made them automated, you’d get an increase in capacity, sure, and it’s something that should be looked at. But it’s not going to solve our local transit problems, we need systems with an order of magnitude more capacity than personal vehicles.

    Plus, personal rapid transit and driverless cars have very, very little to do with interregional transportation that airlines and high speed rail is focused on.

    Start exposing the O&M costs of our roads via tolls and people will shift their tone very quickly.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Yes even if cars run on air nothing will change when it comes to gridlock and sprawl..something the resason/catos of the world color over and PRT is going to have little impact with 250 million cars

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Andy Duncan raises an interesting point.

    One of the things that has fascinated me for years has been that we fail to recognise just how big a money-loser the highway system is.

    There is a USDOT website (and series of publications) called “Highway Statistics.” All manner of informationis there in different forms. For now, we’ll look at finance, specifically Table HF-10, “Funding for Highways and Disposition of Highway-User Revenues, All Units of Government.”


    Basically, this is a consolidated report on all levels of road taxation and spending, federal, state, and local. All these units, combined, spent a little over $182 billion on highways in 2008, but only collected $94 billion in fuel taxes and tolls. That’s only 51%; the remaining 49% came from property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, and so on. That’s a subsidy of something like $88 billion, or 11 times that of the recent high-speed rail awards.

    At that, this is just a cash-flow figure, and doesn’t tell the whole picture. It doesn’t account for other costs, such as deferred maintenance, poor construction, poor design, and external costs such as air pollution, unrecovered accident costs, and, let’s be honest, a couple of wars that are at least partially about oil. My seat-of-the-pants guess is that gasoline really costs about $7 per gallon right now, which is paid not just at the pump but in your income tax, sales tax, property tax, car insurance, and so on. Oh, and let’s also remember that we have had to bail out the federal highway trust fund for the last couple of years. . .


    The truth is, gasoline is too cheap, and has been actively kept that way to promote driving (and road-related profits, including those of the auto industry, oil industry, and the road-building industry). If we priced roads properly (and, as an essential component, cut the other taxes), we would soon have transit, particularly by rail, in business as a for-profit line again. (It’s not profitable now because the game is rigged against it.) Bring that about, and we not only will have trains and trolleys back, but we won’t need so much in the way of roads and cars. We would also reduce the crazy people of the Middle East to just crazy people in the Middle East–no more money for terrorists’ tribute!

    In a related matter, we also need a different way to charge for highways as well. The funding mechanism is broke now. A fixed price per gallon made sense back when everyone drove Stovebolt Chevys and Flathead Fords, and it still made sense when everyone was drving small blocks, Y-blocks, and wedge-heads (GM, Ford, and Chrysler-Plymouth V-8s), but it falls apart even if you just get a bunch of 4-cylinder cars in the mix, and gets even worse when you have hybrids and eventual straight electrics running in anything like serious numbers. We have to divorce road revenue from fuel consumption, perhaps with tolls, perhaps with GPS systems like the ones being eperimented with (but those raise privacy concerns), or perhaps a fixed yearly car tax, perhaps paid monthly if the amount is as much as I think it would come to. Most likely we will need a combination of some sort.

    Problem is, no one wants to hear any of what I’ve just said, particularly the polititians. No one wants to face the truth, even though the “truth will set you free,” to quote a wonderful old book. , ,

    Oh, a P.S.: I did a similar analysis some years ago, which included a breakdown in terms of cost per gallon (didn’t have the time to look up the fuel consumption for 2008). Basically, I took the “subsidy” amount and divided it by the fuel consumed, to get a subsidy per gallon based on the cash flow (which of course does not cover all costs). In 2004, the country spent $148 billion on roads, collected $76 billion in gas taxes and another $6 billion in tolls; that left $44 billion as “cash flow subsidy,” and divided by the 175 billion gallons of motor fuel used that year gave a , and that divided into the “subsidy” gabe a cost per gallon of 36 or 37 cents per gallon, when gas was in the $2.00 range. I looked up O’Toole at the time, and got to speak briefly with him, wondering if there was any chance he might have missed it. His comment was that it was irrelevant.

    I know people who get upset at price differences of 5 cents per gallon, and O’Toole thought 36 cents was irrelevant?

    If I were in the oil industry or car industry, I’d fire O’Toole and Wendell Cox, another anti-rail man. They are incompetent, and look silly because of it. I could do a better job of promoting roads over rail–and I’m a rail supporter!

    Alon Levy Reply:

    O’Toole and Cox do not need to be competent, or reasonable. All they need is to sound like they’re serious, which they do. That’s enough to convince Congresscritters who don’t have time to do research. It legitimizes the point of view: it tells people that there’s a debate going on and they can choose their sides. In that Reason Transportation is no different from the Tobacco Institute, the global warming deniers, or creationists. As long as an issue comes off as political rather than scientific, the people with the most money to fund thinktanks will win.

  8. Spokker
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:39

    Are driverless cars and driver, uhm, driverfull cars compatible? Will everybody be mandated to buy a driverless car?

    I also imagine that driverless cars would have to be assisted by some kind of expensive external infrastructure. The driverless and trackless Winnie the Pooh attraction at Tokyo Disneyland uses some kind of local GPS-like infrastructure. The key is synchronizing all the driverless cars on the road at any one time.

    We would be better off if the driverless car knows what the average speed of the freeway is, and not only what cars are doing behind, in front and to the sides you, but also down the road. If driverless cars only rely on the GPS in the sky then you’ve got tunnels and bridges to worry about.

    Victor Reply:

    I highly doubt It, So far just getting a driverless car to follow a predefined road is not as easy as It sounds, And a software upgrade? Driverless cars need to see the road, as normal cars have No way to See the road, Just cause It has a low powered computer inside, Doesn’t mean that a cars computer could ever cope with driving a car at present, As the Cars owners in the DARPA Grand Challenge soon found out, The quickest of the Cars was Stanley, It drove 7.36 Miles(11.78Km) in 6 hours and 54 Minutes back in 2005, In 2007 there was a 60 Mile(96Km) Urban course where a car owned by Tartan Racing that did the deed in 4 hours, 10 Minutes and 20 Seconds(1st Place; averaged approximately 14 mph (22.53 km/h) throughout the course). Obviously this technology is not nearly ready for Primetime, Maybe in 20 Years It’ll be ready, Right now I HSR or Me in My car could get somewhere much faster. So to Me It’s a 70 year old idea, That’s still not ready and is a Waste of Money(at least for Civilian use that is).

  9. Spokker
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:42

    Interesting tidbit about automated highways.


    “One example that uses this implementation is the AHS demo of 1997 near San Diego, sponsored by the US government, in coordination with the State of California and Carnegie Mellon University. ”


  10. David Bloom
    May 9th, 2010 at 15:20

    For folks who aren’t subscribed to the Chronicle, you can read up to two articles a day for free at http://www.pressdisplay.com/, which happens to be enough to read both high speed rail articles.

    Adam Clark Reply:

    ah thanks!
    Just brought the issue so i can read the whole thing. ONLY 99 CENTS! Cheap compared to $3.00 price in San Jose.

  11. rafael
    May 9th, 2010 at 15:51

    Driverless cars are technically feasible, all of the major car manufacturers have robotized test vehicles because they can repeat a given closed course more precisely than any test driver. That makes it easier to optimize suspension tuning etc. Separately, DARPA has organized several competitions in an effort to develop technology for military drone vehicles.

    However, no-one in their right might would consider taking the driver out of the loop in a civilian context in the US. The product liability would be astronomical.

    Running passenger cars in an automated convoy on a freeway would increase its real-world capacity a little bit and reduce wind resistance for all but the lead vehicle, saving fuel. However, such a convoy would feature a cruise speed of around 55mph, not 220mph. Comparing automated driving features to high speed trains makes no sense, the two are apples and oranges.

    Peter Reply:

    More like apples and bananas. They’re not even the same shape.

    Yes, the liability is one of the primary reasons why this has not been implemented. Not because of the amount of damages that would be occurred, but because no one knows who would be deemed responsible for accidents and who would therefore incur such liability…

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Yes, the liability is one of the primary reasons why this has not been implemented.

    That and the technology for driverless cars doesn’t exist.

    Peter Reply:


    Joey Reply:

    It does exist, but it has never really been tested or implemented on a large scale (and for the most part, not off of freeways, where you don’t have to worry about pedestrians and other less-than-predictable obstacles.

    Peninsula Rail 2010 Reply:

    The technology most certainly does exist, and Velodyne-guided cars are remarkable in their ability to negotiate other traffic.

    Just look at this video coverage of the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge:

    What’s lost on both Robert and Randall the Toole is that these laudable advances in vehicle navigation, obstacle detection, and system integration can be applied to transit and trains too. Given the high speeds of HSR, active obstacle detection would add an important safety feature. Human train drivers can only see so much, especially at high speed. Systemwide train control could become vastly better and allow even higher capacities. This technology could also allow the implementation of ‘smart’, active, and secure grade crossings to HSR systems, dramatically lowering capital costs and time to implementation.

    Unfortunately, the current generation of HSR builders is more interested in pouring vast amounts of carbon-emitting concrete for grade separations than developing sophisticated innovations for the control of train systems. Automobile companies are adaptive and recognize the potential of these navigation and sensing technologies, while our neanderthal train industry scoffs and remains in the iron age.

    dejv Reply:

    What’s lost on both Robert and Randall the Toole is that these laudable advances in vehicle navigation, obstacle detection, and system integration can be applied to transit and trains too. Given the high speeds of HSR, active obstacle detection would add an important safety feature.

    No, not for heavy rail. Heavy rail (including HSR) is based on principle tha if driver is signalled clear track, he doesn’t have to see tracks up to the point where he can safely stop. HSR pushes this approach to its limits, with miles long braking distances. Trainborne obstacle detection system can do nothing with sudden obstacles like cars on the crossing. FYI, train covers one mile in 28.8 s at 125 mph and in 16.4 s at 220 mph – the train is on the crossing mere seconds after obstacle emerges and the train hits obstacle even before sensing system finds out that it should brake.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    You are correct. The low friction of steel wheels on steel rail is what gives rail its inherent energy efficiency, and is a big part of what allows very long freight trains with quite modest horsepower (about 1 hp/ton for slow drag freights), and it helps for high speed service, too. But a trade-off of that same low friction is the limit of that low friction. For that reason a railroad really feels the effects of relatively minor grades (I seem to recall that a 1% grade, which is to say a rise of only 1 foot in 100 feet of forward travel, cuts freight locomotive haulage capacity by 50%), and it also makes for terrifyingly long stopping distances compared to anything short of an ocean liner. Even a convetional passenger train at say, 60 m.p.h., will need a mile or more to stop.

    While here, I’d better make another item clear. A lot of what is mentioned about grades is for freight practice, where the goal is move large tonnages economically with a minimum of power. Any passenger train has a horsepower-to ton ratio that’s much higher, and HSR goes higher still. Much of this is to overcome wind resistance, which goes up as the square of the speed (i.e., doubling the speed quadruples the power requirement for a given aerodynamic coefficient, which is basic physics), and in rail, this means that true streamlining isn’t much of an issue below 85 m.p.h. Even at that relatively modest speed, with the low friction a train has, many grades can be surmounted with momentum effects; in the case of a very long freight, it is very common to have the train longer than many grades, and then the power dispatcher only has to provide enough power to pull as much of a train up a grade as will be on it at one time, or more commonly, the civil engineers who lay out a railroad can take advantage of much steeper than normal grades (in the 4% range) for things like flyover junctions.

    Actual brute climbing ability is much greater than this, but leads to horrendous tonnage reductions in freight service and expensive operation. In Colorado there is a steam heritage railroad called the Cumbres & Toltec that climbs grades of 4% that go on for miles, and regularly has to stop and restart a train on the 4% at a water tank to fill the thirsty steam locomotive. In West Virginia, the Cass Scenic Railroad, a former logging railroad using Shay locomotives (this is an engine with a geared instead of direct drive mechanism, but still relies on adhesion; this is not to be confused with a cog railroad, such as the one on Pikes Peak), averages a 5% climb, has stretches of 8% (including one where they have to restart at a tank again), two stretches of 11%, and at one time had a stretch of 13%! Even at that, there are two places where the ground got too steep even for this, and the railroad has two switchbacks, in which the train runs into a dead-end track, and a switch is thrown to another track; the train reverses direction and climbs the hill in reverse, not a problem as almost all locomotives of any type are bidirectional as far as the running gear is concerned.

    Electric street cars, or light rail to use the modern term, is also good on steep stretches because it’s only moving itself, and the usual application of magnetic track brakes on this relatively light equipment (when compared with a locomotive or even a sleeping or dining car) can help it stop in street traffic similar to that of a rubber-tired car. Acceleration from a stop is peppy, too, with the official limit of 4 m.p.h./sec./sec. being imposed not by adhesion but by standing passengers. Basically, this means a trolley car, if it is set up properly, can go from 0 to 40 m.p.h. in ten seconds; those of you who have ridden either trolleys or subways know how rapid this is.

    Some video clips again.

    First, a grade-crossing incident; you can see the train slowing down, but not by much, and this is in emergency braking! This is why you need grade seperation for HSR, and ideally would segregate a railroad from everything, except that there would never be enough money–we’ve built too many roads, and built a great many of them dumb:


    Somewhat surprisingly, Randall O’Toole is a steam locomotive fan, as am I! Now, I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but I’m from West Virginia, and I say, to paraphrase Thomas the Tank Engine, that proper locomotives are painted black and burn coal!


    Cass Scenic in West Virginia; at about 5:00 in this clip is a start at Oats Run tank (the tank is actually below track level, and the engines have steam syphons to draw the water), this start is on a grade that’s well over 8%.


    Why does the State of West Virginia support this heritage railway, with its 11% grades and 40 deg. curves that keep modern diesels away? This is why: Bald Knob, second highest peak in the Mountain State, with up to five states visible on a good day:


    Hope you enjoyed this nostalgia trip–and I hope you get a great rail service, and that it is the percursor of a true nationwide passenger rail revival.

    Andrew Reply:

    HSR systems do feature sophisticated obstacle-detection systems…on the tracks, not the trains themselves. But like dejv said, the trains move much too fast to ever allow for grade crossings. The laws of physics don’t allow you to stop a 715 ton train moving at 200 mph that quickly.

    dejv Reply:

    Trains actually can brake faster, but that’s sort of Sophie choice: would you rather prevent any injuries/loss of life in car/truck/bus (singe person to tens of people) or in train (hundreds to thousand of people)? To me, the answer is clear: avoid such choice altogether and build the grade separations!

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The technology most certainly does exist, and Velodyne-guided cars are remarkable in their ability to negotiate other traffic.

    A few vehicles having accidents on an abandoned military base is truly impressive. Impressive that people have been working on this since the 60s and the best they can do is not destroy buildings and only have fender benders. It’s not going to happen on an actual street anytime soon.

    AndyDuncan Reply:

    “That and the technology for driverless cars doesn’t exist.”

    Absolutely correct. People who have no concept of engineering see some demonstration on a closed course, or some DARPA contest with a few robotic volkswagens and they think the problems have been solved. A lexus that can park itself or a mitsubishi with lane-keep or a mercedes with adaptive cruise control are a long, long way from a vehicle that can negotiate LA traffic. Minimum headways on the average LA freeway are far, far below what would be considered “safe” in any kind of automated system. We’re not talking moving block, we’re talking sub-block signaling. If I rear-end someone on the freeway, it’s my fault, if my car rear-ends someone on the freeway, is that GMs fault? If my car leaves a 170-foot gap in front of itself (the space it would require to get from 70-0 in optimum circumstances) that both reduces capacity on the freeway and invites about 6 other people to change lanes in front of me.

    Even if the technical problems completely solved (not even close) you’re still talking about 2 full product cycles worth of vehicles before these things are available, and another couple product cycles until they’re beginning to make a dent, and another couple product cycles before mass adoption makes any noticeable impact on freeway or road capacity.

    At 5-10 years per product cycle on your average Toyota or Chevy, we’re talking 2050 before these things are in widespread use.

    Any capacity increase these things provide on roads will be lost in the ocean of traffic like Spokker peeing off the Huntington pier.

    Thankfully most people in LA realize that cars aren’t the long term answer. It only took 14 million people spread out around the basin with some of the world’s worst traffic to do it, but it’s happening. Hopefully the rest of the state learns from LAs mistakes.

    ATTN: Menlo Park and Palo Alto: Compton was a beautiful little suburb once too.

  12. aw
    May 9th, 2010 at 16:04

    Driverless cars could allow the roadway system to function much more efficiently. The problem is that in order for it to work effectively, everyone must be (not) driving the efficient cars. The same folks that Randall O’Toole is appealing to with his propaganda, are just those folks who would never cede control over their own car to ‘the system’.

    Disparate speeds, inappropriate merges, inattentiveness; all these things get in the way of efficient operation for the greater good. If you mix one or two human-operated vehicles into a stream of well-interacting, cooperating vehicles, the system will break down.

    Then there would be the issue of getting NHTSA to sign on. The individual improvements mentioned in the article will come into the system over a period of years, but autonomous vehicles operating on public rights of way are a long ways off.

    Spokker Reply:

    The whole concept of driverless cars doesn’t seem to be very libertarian.

    It requires a great deal of government support to develop. It requires you to give up your freedom to drive the vehicle of your choice. It requires you to cede the operation of your vehicle to another entity.

    I guess I don’t get why it’s coming from him,

  13. Bianca
    May 9th, 2010 at 16:23

    Instead of going driverless, it would cost a lot less to install battery charging/swapping stations across the nation’s freeway systems to smooth broad adoption of electric cars. For some silly reason I don’t see Cato advocating for that particular upgrade.

  14. Roger Christensen
    May 9th, 2010 at 17:32

    Back in the 1990s, Otoole’s magical response to LA’s “Red Line boondoggle” was to rip out the tracks in the subway tunnels and run buses in them instead!

    Peter Reply:

    I guess the rubber industry has him in their pocket, too, then? What would he say about Paris’ metro lines that use rubber tires?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    No, that’s a separate thing. To be an effective propagandist, O’Toole must appear to support public transportation in principle. Thus he supports buses, the least useful, least desirable form of transit, as the solution to everything, even things that are clearly rail advantages. It’s the equivalent of how the Bush administration staffed government agencies with people who ran them to the ground so that they could claim government doesn’t work.

  15. Daniel Krause
    May 9th, 2010 at 19:30

    A further comment based on what has been said. As a pragmatic person when it comes to solving problems, I beleive that it is essential that we pursue multiple solutions to multiple problems. If car technology can save lives and energy then it is worth a look. But to then conclude that all mass transit is a waste is silly. If O’Toole was not ideologically driven (or more likely paycheck driven or some combination of both), then he would be able to assimilate information such as the space requirement of cars, the lack of space in cities, energy constraints even if cars a become more efficient, or that government involvement would be just as heavy as it would be for HSR, etc. So I don’t oppose the study or even the advocacy part of what O’Toole is doing, rather his insistence that it is the only way forward and that other solutions, like all mass transit is bad. These all or nothing approach, black and white approach shows and embarrassing intellectual immaturity, which unforutnately is all too common in many these days, and worse, rarely questioned.

  16. Andrew
    May 9th, 2010 at 21:09

    Somebody spent way to much time in Tomorrowland watching those stupid 50’s cartoons about the future. I’ll bet O’Toole also advocates for an undersea highway connecting LA to Honolulu, and car elevators that go directly to your 20th floor office.

  17. D. P. Lubic
    May 9th, 2010 at 21:39

    While on the subject of RAndall O’Toole, I thought these video clips from YouTube would be appropriate. I’m also a nostalgia hound, a retro fan. . .in other words, I think this is cool, even if the future isn’t what it used to be.



    Of course, not everyone took this sort of thing too seriously, as we note this example from MGM’s animation studio in 1951.


    Have fun!

  18. Peter
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:23

    Can it be a gadgetbahn if there’s no fixed guideway involved?

  19. Alon Levy
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:41

    Do not feed the troll.


    synonymouse Reply:

    A robotic car would inherently not be a muscle car, which would take away a big part of the auto market. How could you call call a driverless car a cobra, a mustang , etc., etc.?

  20. Dave
    May 9th, 2010 at 23:31

    It’s funny that he proposes something that’s whacky and from his imagination, but HSR wich is proven technology is no good to him. I say if the Japanese haven’t done it then it’s no good. We should be copying them, they’re the innovators.

    What this does is make us more dependent on cars and if I know anything it’s that cars are not a natural form of moving from place to place, walking is. If you can get to a station walking or not you board a single connected moving platform (HSR) and travel with others, get off that platform, walk to a different platform (Bus, Light Rail) or walk to your destination with wide sidewalks, green scenery, lots and lots of trees. We would be one with nature, not having one car per person per family crowding up space because we are lazy and want to take our love (cars) with us seems like a stupid way to live, get around and is destructive to our planet.

    It’s obvious this guy want’s to satisfy his sponsors (oil companies) who write checks to his orginization under the false notion of “Expert” in urban land use. He’s nuts if he thinks he can fool us, because it’s clear what he’s doing

    Dave Reply:

    I remember when I was young our whole family had one car, now my father has three, I have one, my brother has one, my sister has one, my other sister is just getting her license and will need one. My youngest brother will want one, it’s ridiculous how they have a hold on us. I know other families are the same way and all this means to society as it’s build today is PROFIT’s to Oil Companies, PROFIT’s to Auto makers wich is obvious that they work together to keep their precious “Black Gold” as the monopoly for transportation energy use. They have infiltrated our Government and Congress, not to mention the Government of the World and have helped each other gain the seats in office of power that make decisions for us wether we like it or not.

    Of course I love my car, I wash it, I clean it, I wax it and I hug it and put it to sleep just like every other American does wether they admit it or not. But I would leave it behind for the greater good of our planet, our society, our future generation and so on. I’m not talking about being a hippy neither, I’m talking about solutions and being realistic. I would like to think our existense on this earth is not like a cancer that spreads over it’s host until it dies, that’s what we are.

    Dave Reply:

    The only way I see this working is if it can compliment HSR. Although I do not advocate to eliminate all vehicles, it’s clear we will still have them. For the vehicles that we do have they need to be used responsibly and I mean ending/retireing the wastefull combustion engine for good and replacing it with a clean form of energy preferrably a form that does not open the doors to a new industry. Yes jobs will be lost, but the problem we face is that as technology grows and makes our lives more convinient, they begin to replace us with robots or workers are replaced with computer systems. It’s happening and the world governments are going to have a crisis soon where they can’t produce enough jobs for the worlds growing population. The monetary system will fail and people will not be able to survive without the government’s help. A big change is coming and so far it could go bad or good.

    Like I said, this system could work and stop the expansions of existing freeways by adding capacity and safety at higher speeds but only with the help of alternative High Occupancy forms of transportation like High Speed Rail. It should also be atached to Toll roads so if you want to travel in luxury in your own car, you have to pay BIG for it. If I do the right thing and get on a High Speed Train I would still have to pay, but a lower price for using a High Occupancy form of transport.

  21. jimsf
    May 9th, 2010 at 23:55

    Why waste time on this driverless car thing when clearly the real answer is to use transporter beams. It’s all political I tell you! If it weren’t for government interference we could have them by 2018! And we can power them with “clean coal!”

  22. Dan
    May 10th, 2010 at 07:39

    The driverless car has been slowly happening for years. The first step was simple cruise-control which removed the need for the driver to modulate the gas pedal on long drives. This has since been followed by “active cruise control” which adjusts the speed of the car based on distance to the vehicle ahead. Newer systems can slow the car to a full stop if an obstacle is sensed which would cause a collision. High-end vehicles now include fully automated parallel parking “assist”.

    The steps are slow, but incremental, towards a vehicle with less and less driver interaction. I have little doubt that in another ~10 years, a (probably luxury) vehicle will be available which will drive itself along certain predefined roadways / interstates / etc.

    That said, all this technology will only have the effect of making the driver’s situation more akin to that of the passenger. Having been the passenger on more than a few trips from San Diego to San Francisco, I assure you driverless cars are NOT the solution to leg cramps and a stiff back. Until they change the open-beverage laws and add 200mph speed limits to the freeways, I’ll be riding the HSR — you can find me in the bar.


  23. jimsf
    May 10th, 2010 at 09:16

    And all the people who use transit but don’t drive, what about them? And all the people which is most everyone these days, who can’t afford to buy one of these new cars, what about them? And those of us who voted for high speed rail and won, what, elections no longer matter? I guess election results aren’t law, but merely “suggestions”? Where and when do I pick up my free gadget car? (will sacramento be paying for my parking in sf as well?

  24. AndyDuncan
    May 10th, 2010 at 10:28

    Turning vehicles into driverless cars is basically a software update

    Of all the ignorant things that O’Toole has spouted, that has to be the most stupid, willfully ignorant piece of dribble that has ever come out of his mouth.

    Let’s ignore the inherently stupid implication that developing comprehensive and safe automated driving software is somehow equivalent to a new version of iTunes, let’s just take one small bit of the problem: steering. Any driverless car needs electric power steering, which only a few cars have. How is a software update going to put electric power steering on 95% of the cars that don’t have it?

  25. Dave
    May 10th, 2010 at 13:27
  26. Peter
    May 10th, 2010 at 14:15

    So, running more cars at higher speeds would decrease pollution? What about the drag penalty of driving faster? My Civic Hybrid gets its best gas mileage at speeds below 65 mph. How does that figure into Clueless O’Toole’s world?

  27. Andre Peretti
    May 10th, 2010 at 16:35

    O’Toole cites European research but, as usual, he cuts out the part he doesn’t like. The aim is to make traffic faster and safer around cities. Robotized cars are seen as feeders for transit, not as replacement.
    Some of the research even points to something he would appreciate even less: doing away with private cars. Given that cars are idle most of the time and occupy space which could be put to better use, the solution is for everyone to have a car available only when they need it.
    A proposed scenario: from your TGV seat you phone for a car and are given a code. When you’re out of the station, you dial the code and your car flashes its headlights. You get in and tell it where you want to go. When you’ve finished with it, you close the session and the car drives away to its next appointment.
    If technically feasible, this would also have negative repercussions. Taxi drivers would practically disappear and car production would drop dramatically since far fewer cars would be needed.

    AndyDuncan Reply:

    “Given that cars are idle most of the time and occupy space which could be put to better use, the solution is for everyone to have a car available only when they need it.”

    Zipcar and similar services are well positioned to take advantage of that market, I think they will be highly successful, even more so when electric cars raise the capital cost and lower the running costs of running a car.

    Driverless cars would allow them to solve the unidirectional commute problem (you currently have to drop the car off where you picked it up, for obvious reasons), though any solution that involves empty cars driving around the city can only make traffic worse, even if it makes parking better.

    Ultimately it’s a matter of transportation density, and personal vehicles just don’t have it. Well, at least not anything with more than two wheels.

  28. tomh
    May 10th, 2010 at 21:18

    Wait, O’Toole’s vision is supposed to cost less than HSR?

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