HSR Emissions Paper Was Wrong

Dec 29th, 2010 | Posted by

Note from Robert: This post is by Clem Tillier, who runs the excellent Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog.

In late 2009, Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath of Berkeley’s Institute for Transportation Studies published a paper entitled “Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California” in the academic journal Environmental Research Letters. This paper received some attention from the media and the blogosphere because it appeared to debunk a popular notion among high-speed rail supporters: that HSR is one of the greenest forms of intercity transportation.

The key finding of the study was that HSR didn’t stack up against cars, planes or regular trains unless the trains were fairly full, as shown in the figure below. (See paper for full caption and explanation)

Click here for full-size version of the figure

Leaving aside for the moment the unprecedented notion of high-speed trains being operated at 10% seat occupancy–in reality, service frequency would be dropped to achieve higher loads–the numbers used in the study show that energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and sulfur dioxide emissions are dominated by emissions from “Vehicle Active Operation,” i.e. electrical power consumed for the purpose of actually running trains.

Unfortunately, that is where the study falls apart.

Berkeley’s numbers are undone by a simple unit conversion error committed by a CHSRA consultant. Conversions between metric and imperial units are prone to errors and misunderstandings, most famously in the case of NASA’s $300 million Mars Climate Orbiter mission, which was inadvertently crashed into Mars because of an overlooked conversion between pounds and Newtons. In the case of the high-speed rail study, the CHSRA consultant’s unit conversion error leads to an overestimate of HSR energy consumption by a factor of nearly four–not just in the Berkeley study, but also in the CHSRA’s program level environmental reports.

The energy consumption figure cited in the Berkeley study and its supplementary data is 170 kilowatt-hours per vehicle kilometer traveled, or kWh/VKT, a measure of how much energy a high-speed train consumes on average when traveling one kilometer. This number is correctly converted by Berkeley from a figure of 924,384 BTU/VMT referenced in the energy chapter of the 2008 CHSRA program-level EIR. That chapter in turn references a peer-review study performed for CHSRA by the German firm DE-Consult in 2000, which evaluated the energy consumption of a hypothetical 16-car trainset with a seating capacity of 1200 and a design speed of 385 km/h (240 mph) and an operating speed of 350 km/h (220 mph), essentially a souped-up German ICE3. The DE-Consult study (unavailable online) contains detailed performance simulations for the proposed California system that give the average energy consumption of such a train as 74.2 kWh/VMT, or 46 kWh/VKT (see copy of Annex 4-11). And therein lies the error: CHSRA’s consultant botched the conversion from kilowatt-hours to British Thermal Units, feeding Berkeley a figure of 170 kWh/VKT instead of 46 kWh/VKT.

While the conversion error is no fault of the Berkeley researchers, the least they could have done is cross-checked the number with other papers in their own field of transportation research, such as those referenced here, showing HSR values in the 20 – 30 kWh/VKT range. (DE-Consult’s California figure is higher because the assumed train is very long, with 1200 seats, and operates at higher speeds where aerodynamic drag increases rapidly.) An elementary back-of-the-envelope calculation of the physical quantities involved, such as a train’s maximum power rating, its travel distance, and its timetable, would also have indicated that 170 kWh/VKT was implausibly high.

Using the correct number, the study’s conclusions would be significantly altered, as shown in the modified figure below, where the contribution from Vehicle Active Operation has been proportionally scaled down to the correct DE-Consult number.

Click here for full-size version of the figure

The study’s comparison of HSR with other modes (especially cars and aircraft) would show California’s HSR pulling ahead with a significant life-cycle advantage in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and with a far lower sensitivity to ridership factors. In view of the enormous errors induced by a single incorrect parameter, it is incumbent on Chester and Horvath to acknowledge this major flaw and to publish a correction in Environmental Research Letters.

  1. Richard Mlynarik
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 12:56

    Any guesses how many millions PBQD have been paid so far to “translate” rail technical standards into “unique American units”?

    Any guess how many hundreds of millions extra will be run up doing Design Reviews and Acceptance Testing for equipment that “needs” to be be remeasured and redesigned and reprocured in furlongs and pounds and slugs and “needs” to be subject to AREMA track standards?

    Any ideas how many of the “technical” consultants associated with this fiasco possess even the most rudimentary qualifications which would entitle them to even land a job interview for a junior position on a minor regional project anywhere outside the retarded English-speaking Special Needs remedial rail club?

    Joe Reply:

    Spreadsheets and routine algorithms do this simple translation very easily.

    The clue is to not do the work by hand, automate it as part of the workflow and reuse the calculations, also cross check the results.

    This was a workflow error and careless.

    bleh Reply:

    If you have to arrange the workflow around the unit conversions something’s very very wrong.

    There used to be a joke, of a board meeting at a company, discussing the successful last year and plans for expansion into Asia, when suddenly the door opens, a man strides in and takes over the podium: “Hi, my name is Mr. Whatever and I’m with SAP. It is with deep sorrow that I have to inform you that your company is incompatible with R/3 and will have to be liquidated by the end of the year. We wish you the best for your future career.”

    Clem Reply:

    BTW, thank you Richard for having given me a photocopy of the full DE-Consult report… you probably don’t remember, since it was ages ago. While my BS detector went off as soon as I read the Berkeley paper, I wasn’t able to figure out exactly what was wrong with it until just recently, when I stumbled across that report and put two and two together.

    Brandon from San Diego Reply:

    This is great news. Thank you for uncovering the error.

    Actually, I am reminded by my kitchen garbage from this morning. I came downstairs and something smelled terrible. The fix was to take it out to the dumpster. Done.

    When that report came out… it didn’t smell right. I am glad someone had the know-how and put two and two together.

    If NASA could make an error, certainly some Berkerlely wanna-be PhD’s could too. It wouldn’t be a first.

    djconnel Reply:

    The real question is why it is we’re in 2010 and there’s still work published in peer review literature during the the preceding half-century which uses such an archane unit as British Thermal Unit, or for that matter kW-hours? If we’d all agree to stick with standard units all of this fuss could be trivially avoided.

    Clem Reply:

    Read it. The paper is entirely in metric units, and the kWh is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the Joule. It’s the CHSRA and its consultants that insists on converting everything to backwards British units, presumably to show solidarity with our remaining non-metric compatriots in Liberia and Burma. (Every single other country besides the three of us has gone metric.)

    Nathanael Reply:

    Another thing I can blame Ronald Reagan for. Jimmy Carter had the US on a phased metricization plan, and that “let’s rush backwards to the nineteenth century” ass Reagan cancelled it….

  2. Joe
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 13:05

    Models and simulation are prone to these types of careless mistakes but peer review should catch these types of common mistakes. The Editor is also at fault. He let this mistake get published.

    What bothers me is why any professional researcher, the authors in particular, would not catch the mistake. Over time, researchers de facto memorize and also develop an intuitive feel for units and efficiencies. If this particular calculation is not routine then cross checking estimates should be part of the evaluation of results. They should also have reproduced some benchmark examples to verify the units/parameters and then ran simulations to validate the model’s performance with HSR.

    Victor Reply:

    I think someone who did the work just assumed the numbers were correct and didn’t do squat when It came to fact checking, Very sloppy indeed.

    joe Reply:

    The purpose of peer review is to find these kinds of errors for the sake of the R&D community.

    The mistake is going to haunt the Author’s work and ability to get future funding.

    Helen Bushnell Reply:

    Researchers in the US can be incredibly parochial. Researchers in other countries are aware of the multiple studies comparing the energy efficiency of various forms of transportation and so notice when an unlikely number shows up. Researchers in the US often only read research that has been done in the US which means they have no idea what is reasonable.

    This goes along with many in the US pretending that international rail standards don’t exist.

  3. bleh
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 14:04

    While the conversion error is no fault of the Berkeley researchers, the least they could have done is cross-checked the number with other papers in their own field of transportation research, such as those referenced here, showing HSR values in the 20 – 30 kWh/VKT range.

    Funny thing, that paper you link to uses some pretty inconsistent standards, too. Especially regarding train length and speed profile (they used a 2 car train for the maglev, just upping that to 6 would easily half the energy used and that high energy consumption of the Shinkansen, especially compared to the TGV looks fishy, too. Perhaps the text provides an explanation but it’s tl;dr =)

    (DE-Consult’s California figure is higher because the assumed train is very long, with 1200 seats, and operates at higher speeds where aerodynamic drag increases rapidly.)

    It’s unfortunate the 1200 seats increase the per seat efficiency which is the reason the results looked strange but not preposterous, otherwise someone might have double-checked.
    170kWh/km * 350 km/h ~ 60MW, continuously. Which is 4 times what a 400m ICE3 is capable of.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    …thicker catenary, that should do it…

  4. RubberToe
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 14:29

    Great find Clem! And yes, it does seem strange like Joe pointed out in #2 above that people who work in this area every day didn’t catch a 4x off error. Robert, please let us know if the Environmental Research Letters journal fixes the error. Thats a whopper of one, as it essentially invalidates the primary point of their article…


    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Good that this got found–but one has to ask how (and perhaps why) such a whopper was in here in the first place. We recently had an experience here with a nationally syndicated columnist who grossly overstated the cost of unemployment insurance (she was brought up as an example of poor journalism, perhaps a misleading editorial); she is known to have axes to grind, suggesting the “sloppy” research was actually intended to be misleading. Could we have something similar here?

    Clem Reply:

    I’d rather ascribe this error to incompetence than malice.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I don’t know. It could be, but academia and punditry don’t really work the same way. My guess is that it slipped the reviewers, and the researcher either made an honest mistake or found the mistake and didn’t care.

    Such things happen. In math there’s a (true) story about someone who published a paper purporting to prove an important theorem in topology, which hinged on a lemma at the beginning that was obviously false. But it took years to detect and publicize that mistake; by then, the author had left academia for politics.

    Or it could be an actual mistake. It sounds like a mistake I could do. I don’t think I’ve ever put a zinger this big in a real paper, but I did make a big error in the statement of a theorem in a pre-preprint.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    With criticism of the use of the general GHG emissions of the western grid, in face of the CAHSR policy to be carbon neutral sustainable power, and criticism of the 10% load factor as a highly unlikely average load factor for a service mandated to operate without public subsidy … its likely that critics focused on the more obvious flaws of the study.

  5. Jerry
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 14:50

    Thank you Clem. Well done.

    PeakVT Reply:

    Yep. Thanks, Clem.

  6. Alon Levy
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 15:45

    Thanks, Clem.

  7. Elizabeth
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 15:55

    On the other hand, the Berkeley studied assumed that only the minimal amount of emission-heavy aerial structure would have to be built, based on the original HSR figures. The carbon footprint of the infrastucture now being planned is at least double, if not more, than the figures they used.

    Brandon from San Diego Reply:

    Construction impacts are one-time. Operations will continue for a 100 years.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    And comparable capacity on additional highways and airports have no carbon impact at all. They are constructed of pixie dust by elves….

    Elizabeth Reply:

    The whole point of the study was to look at total life cycle impacts, including construction.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The studies I’ve seen, I don’t know if I’ve seen the one you are familiar with, grossly underestimate or ignore the carbon impact of building and maintaining roads. Pixie dust and elves….

    Clem Reply:

    The study amortized construction impacts over 100 years, assuming eventual reconstruction. That part is not in question, and the general methodology is sound as far as I can tell. It’s just that one parameter, which swings the conclusion in very different ways.

    peninsula Reply:

    sounds familiar…

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    FYI All modern engineered structures of the type under discussion (bridges, tunnels) require maintenance that amounts to rebuilding on more like a 40-50 than a 100 year cycle.

    And the embodied energy of concrete and steel are nothing to sneeze at. I know I was outraged (as a tender young choo choo head of 17 or 18 at an MIT CTS seminar) to hear that numerous sample rail projects would never repay their embodied energy investment, but since, then as now, I prefer data analysis to prejudice or ignorance, I managed to outgrow that phase. Choooo-ooo-wooooooo!

    Just because the civil engineering has rails stuvk on top of it doesn’t make it good civil engineering or socially valuable civil engineering or environmentally justifiable civil engineering. Nevertheless superficial greenwashing (look! rails! shiny!) remains an extraordinarily powerful route for public-private wealth transfer hereabouts.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It depends on which tunnels you’re talking about. Subway tunnels need to be rebuilt on a cycle of longer than 100 years: the older segments of the London Underground, NYC Subway, and Paris Metro require a lot of maintenance, but nothing like full rebuilding. The only subway tunnel that’s fully depreciated was completed in 1843.

    Nathanael Reply:

    What Alon said. In fact, different civil engineering needs maintenance on different cycles. The “40-50” Richard stated is just wrong, it’s wildly different for different structures.

    Most tunnels need startlingly little maintenance compared to their initial construction costs (perhaps due to lack of weather exposure). Bridges tend to need fairly high levels (again, probably due to weather exposure).

    Nathanael Reply:

    As a simple example, I can’t actually think of a tunnel anywhere which has required “total reconstruction”, ever. It’s not like the magma fills it up again and it has to be dug out again. :eyeroll:

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The Thames Tunnel did need something like total reconstruction, and was closed for multiple years while it was being reconstructed. So it’s fair to say it depreciated.

    As for bridge vs. tunnel maintenance costs, I’ve just read the opposite statement on Railway Gazette: “A bridge design by Cowi/Obermeyer is costed at €5·2bn, and Rambøll/Arup/TEC’s tunnel plan at €5·5bn, with the tunnel having slightly higher operating costs and taking around six months longer to build, at 6½ years.”

    Johnathan Reply:

    Our auto industry sell about 7.7 million passenger cars each year, with an average price of $25,000.
    That is roughly $200 billion on annual new car sales.

    We also consume about 138 billion gallons of gasoline each year.
    At current average of $3.052/gallon, that’s another $400 billion.

    Then there are car accidents, insurance payments, parking structures, highway maintenance, gas stations, car maintenance, etc. to support the automobile way of life.

    HSR construction will be carbon neutral with just a 5% reduction in car ownership in California.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If HSR cuts car ownership by 1%, it’ll be a miracle. Cutting car use is more feasible, but then the fixed cost of the vehicle is already sunk.

    You’re actually underestimating the sunk cost, because the 7.7 million figure excludes SUVs and light trucks. Total sales including all passenger vehicles are closer to 15 million, the cost of which is a little higher than the total cost of fuel.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    But if you look at the bar charts, automotive GHG emissions is dominated by active use, even at 1 passenger per car. Indeed, 1 par car trips will be captured more readily than 5 per car trips.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    True, HSR’s positive externalities (really reductions in competing modes’ uncorrected negative externalities) are all about car use, not car ownership. What I’m saying is related to a different argument for transit, which is that it allows households to spend less of their money on transportation. This argument is true for local transit and false for intercity transportation.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    However, since intercity transportation is complementary to local transport, treating them as alternatives does not make much sense. A system of effective intercity common carrier transport and local transit allows more saving on transportation spending than local transit alone, since it increases the number of households that have the option of dropping down to from multiple cars to one car and from one car to car-free.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    No. A system of intercity rail means people can make more intercity trips, and make them without renting a car or flying. It has nothing to do with car ownership.

    I’m not treating intercity and urban rail as alternatives. I’m saying they have different benefits. It’s like, um, saying that some benefit of universal health care is not also a benefit of free college tuition.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    It covers a broader range of intercity trips along the corridor than flying does. So consider those trips, where the options for a prospective car free household moves from being rent a car, to a choice would be between taking the train and renting a car.

    The more car-free choices there are for all the transport tasks that would otherwise be performed by the car, the more people have the option of going car free. And having a feasible option of being car-free is a prerequisite for actually making the choice.

    I’m not treating intercity and urban rail as alternatives. I’m saying they have different benefits.

    You are treating them as independent benefits when they are in reality benefits that are complement each other in the question at hand, in offering alternatives to actual car uses that the other cannot offer. So treating them as independent benefits is fallacious.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Don’t make me mention Hong Kong and Singapore repetitively.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    The original increase in transit mode share in Hong Kong and Singapore happened in the context of dominant car ownership and with the people abandoning cars as they adopted transit in preference to cars for local transport opting to use rental cars for their intercity travel tasks that were not suitable for flying?


    Go ahead and mention HK and Singapore repetitively if you wish but the only way to get from there to the topic at hand is to draw a far broader conclusion from their examples than the evidence warrants.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Why would HSR make a difference to people in an already car-oriented region but not people in a rapidly developing region that’s not yet (and may never be) car-oriented? Put another way: if HSR didn’t give Tokyo a lower car ownership rate than Hong Kong, and had zero effect in forestalling the growth of car ownership in Seoul, why will it make an ounce of difference in Los Angeles?

    BruceMcF Reply:

    In part, because people make decision based on what they consider to be normal, and in part, and fairly obviously, because the pattern of settlement in a region with a transport system that is car-addicted is different to the pattern of settlement in a region with a transport system that is not car addicted.

    I’m a bit surprised that you were laboring under the impression that the impact of HSR would be identical, independent of the context into which it is introduced. It would, indeed, be astounding if the impact of HSR was context-insensitive, since the impact of no other mode of transport is context insensitive.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I don’t think you want to be making the argument that we can’t judge the impact of HSR in the US by looking at its impact in countries with a lot of connecting transit.

    Look, there’s not a shred of evidence HSR has significant impact on car ownership, anywhere. Could be that the US is unique and it would be different there – but, again, you don’t want to make this argument unless you’re either willing to go all-out attacking the ridership estimates, or cite multiple dozens of studies on the impact of intercity transportation from which you could extrapolate.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Alon, I think we agree that car ownership will not decline unless sufficient local rail is present.

    *But* can you think of any examples of cities with sufficient local rail which do *not* have sufficinet intercity rail? I can’t. Historically, for some reason I don’t fully understand, intercity rail tends to be built first (really, don’t ask me why, I think it must be a political issue). I suspect that sufficient intercity rail is *also* necessary to make a dent in car ownership. I suspect one needs both.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, I can, but those cities come from three different groupings:

    1. City-states. Singapore has a single meter-gauge line, with very little service, all operated by Malaysia; said line will close in a few months, after which Singapore’s only intercity trains will terminate right next to the border, far away from the main urban area. Hong Kong only recently opened rail connections to the Mainland. In neither state was there much pressure to invest in rural intercity rail lines, for obvious reasons.

    2. Canada. Canadian rail regulations favor freight over passengers just like in the US, but there are decent subways and light rail systems in many Canadian cities. Canada doesn’t even have a passenger-priority line like the NEC – even Toronto-Montreal trains get stuck behind freight trains.

    3. Australia. While Australian rail regulations are favorable, allowing Australian cities to have modern commuter rail (which, in Sydney’s case, gives it the same transit mode share as New York), intercity rail is just a few trains per day and a couple of tourist trains. Historically this comes from each state adopting a different track gauge.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    From what I can tell, the impact on car ownership so far has been mixed; there are a lot of factors at work.

    One place this may have had an impact is London, England. Some years back, the mayor of London convinced his city council to inaugurate a “congestion charge” on vehicles entering the city. This cut down on the automobile traffic, and shifted a lot of passenger traffic onto buses and the subway system. It did clear traffic up considerably (delivery drivers found they really could make deliveries on time, in some cases having their travel times halved), and at the same time, many other people got rid of cars, mostly second cars for commuting service, keeping one for vacations and the like. (The effect on this was felt particularly in the auto insurance business, which lost a lot of accounts to this). The Socialist mayor who was behind this later lost his reelection bid, and I have not been able to find out what has happened to the program or London traffic since then.

    In my own opinion, I do not see to large a difference in car ownership in America; cars are mostly affordable, and at least until recently, the insurance and gasoline were reasonable, too. The gas situation of course has great potential to change, and almost overnight at that, but I do not see that changing ownership levels dramatically. What I do see it doing is cutting back on car usage, but if we do that and anticipate the current need for travel, we need alternatives. This is where rail comes in, both for commuter and local service (i.e., conventional commuter trains, heavy and light rail systems, street railways, etc.) and for intercity service, the latter greatly improved with the new element, HSR.

    Those who follow the peak oil debate argue there is no “silver bullet” to solving this problem. I agree with this assessment, there is no magic overall solution. What is needed is a holistic or systems approach, and that includes a range of transportation options, including more walking or pedestrian accessibility, bicycle facilities, and local, regional, and high-speed rail, all of which are paths and hierarchies in oil-free transport.

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Who’s going to give up their car when HSR is built? Fess up. For example, thinking of where you plan to go in the next 7 days, will HSR be everywhere you want to be? I don’t see HSR influencing car ownership much at all.

    HSR is a comparatively terrible way to save the environment. Too big a construction footprint and the ridership is questionable for recovery.

    spokker Reply:

    I’m pretty sure the places I need to be have been influenced by policies and programs that favored the personal automobile over other forms of transportation. Hopefully that will change once HSR is built.

    But if it is never built, at least airports are everywhere I want to be.

    Johnathan Reply:

    Public transportation systems only work when all the pieces come together.
    That means mass transit, commuter rail, regional rail, and HSR at all the levels.

    Living car free won’t be for everyone and shouldn’t be.
    But, we have many that live in LA or SF that have decent public transportation systems, but can’t give up the car if it denies them access to long distance trips.
    I have a friend that studies at UCSD and it takes him about 6 hours to come back to LA (SDMTS + Amtrak + LA Metro) without a car.
    The cost of the trip is around $55 one-way.

    Why would anyone give up their car if they can’t even visit family and friends whenever they want to?

    In Europe and Asia, HSR is the preferred way of regional travel.
    Driving is so expensive that most never learn to drive in their lifetime.
    Actually, gas, highway toll, and parking fees alone are more expensive than a HSR ride.

    If HSR is to be successful in California, someone will have to give up their cars and ride it.
    It will be the first step of comprehensive transportation reform towards ending automobile subsidies and removing $100 billion in equivalent future highway/airport expansion costs.

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    LA’s and SF’s regional public transportation systems suck.

    “Why would anyone give up their car if they can’t even visit family and friends whenever they want to?”

    How could anyone give up their car if they can’t even get to work and do their daily stuff?

    I agree that a decent system requires that all the pieces come together. The problem is there’s not enough money to do it all. People who argue for HSR for environmental reasons should put their money where their mouth is and push for better regional public transportation. From an environmental point-of-view, local trumps distance. You realize more environmental bang for the buck by getting commuters out of their single occupancy vehicles – daily. May even change their travel habits.

    spokker Reply:

    I support HSR and LA’s Measure R, a half cent sales tax increase that will improve transportation in LA County. It’s 35% rail, 20% bus and 20% highway. The rest is for local return and there’s a little bit for Metrolink and rail operations.

    So yes, the local transit systems are more important, and are being improved, but that doesn’t mean HSR is not important. It’s part of a balanced breakfast.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:


    Spokker Reply:

    There’s a Measure R project map on this page on the right: http://www.metro.net/projects/measurer/

    Look at what Los Angeles County is expected to accomplish by 2030.

    Expo Line: Downtown LA and Santa Monica. Phase 1 should open by late 2011-early 2012. Phase 2 by 2015 I believe. The eco-nerds in Santa Monica will ride it and the impoverished folks in South LA will ride it. Hopefully the students at USC ride it too. It will come in handy during game day as well.

    Subway Toward the Sea: This is the Purple Line extension to Westwood. A funding scheme called 30/10 is expected to accelerate construction of this very important line if successful. This line is going to transform WestsideDowntown commuting.

    Downtown Regional Connection: Another very important project that will take three separate light rail lines and transforms them into a complete system. They are leaning toward a fully underground alternative. Really, this project and the Westside Subway Extension are going to be huge: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_Connector_(Los_Angeles_Metro)

    There are also a couple of clunkers that may not cost a lot of money, but aren’t as important as the three above.

    Gold Line Foothill Extension: A long extension to the suburbs on existing right of way. The most expensive part is a bridge over the 210 freeway. This will be useful to San Gabriel Valley commuters going to Pasadena. Will be more useful if the Regional Connector is built. The parking structure at Sierra Madre Villa (current Gold Line terminus) is always full on weekdays, so I have some hope.

    Orange Line BRT Extension to Chatsworth: Not a terrible project and not that expensive, but there are more important things to worry about, like converting the current Orange County to rail.

    Then there are some far-off projects that are a part of Measure R but still in the very early study periods.

    Santa Ana Branch: This has the potential to be a game changer. It’s along straight right of way that formally carried Pacific Electric trains between LA and Orange County. If it is extended to Santa Ana Station and if there is an extension into Downtown, this is going to be a very successful project. Usage in places like Maywood and Huntington Park will be high. Unfortunately, they are still selecting what mode it will turn out to be, BRT, commuter rail, light rail or high speed rail. There is also a proposal to turn it into green space, which many area homeowners want, so it’ll be a fight against NIMBYs once again.

    405 Corridor: This would be more important if we knew what it was. A subway under the mountains between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside would be a game changer.

    So LA’s transit system will someday suck a little less.

    Spokker Reply:

    And here is the progress chart as of November 2010: http://www.metro.net/measureR/images/Proj_Deliv_chart_11x17_mech_r3.pdf

    RubberToe Reply:

    Your point here is well taken. The primary purpose oif the HSR system is to connect LA to SF, and the cities on the route in between. It just so happens that those two cities either have (SF) or are rapidly developing (LA) absolute world class public transit systems. As you have less need for a car on either end of the system, it makes the system overall more desirable to use. If you are traveling from LA to SF to watch a football or baseball game, and you can simply take public transit from the HSR station to the game, there is no need for a vehicle. People traveling on business to downtown SF from LA are in much better shape than flying, since the HSR will drop you right onto Market St. You have a couple hours to prepare on the way down, have your meeting, then have lunch on the train on your way back. No cars required.

    Bottom line is every incremental step in enhancing the system, and making it more useful/usable by all parties involved, will increase ridership.


    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    “I agree that a decent system requires that all the pieces come together. The problem is there’s not enough money to do it all. People who argue for HSR for environmental reasons should put their money where their mouth is and push for better regional public transportation.”–Arthur Dent

    For what it’s worth, I did fight for a regional light rail (interurban) system 20 years ago as an alternative to another 4-lane highway in a portion of West Virginia that is in the Washington, DC greater metro area. The savings compared with building the road (i.e., less earthwork, no building demolition) would have paid to run the system for free for 10 years. My reward was a bunch of insults, including being called a Communist.

    In addition to this, we have been involved in what amount to several oil wars over the years, for which we have not had a proper cost accounting. How much could we have done with that money to make us stronger instead of wasting our strength away in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afganistan?

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Not to disparage your efforts, but for what it’s worth Rod Diridon brought us VTA Light Rail with its dismal ridership and outrageous subsidies. It’s one of the worst in the nation. Quentin Kopp brought us the amazing BART connection that doesn’t. SF has MUNI which is a damn good system – one of the most efficient in the country — but the SF region’s transit system sucks. It doesn’t function as a system. It’s a bunch of discrete components with interconnectivity as an afterthought.

    Look, I love a set of tracks as much the next guy, but the details do matter. The current HSR proposal, under the current leadership, sets the bar excruciatingly low. After unknown billions, we’re headed for VTA Light Rail on steroids.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    After unknown billions, we’re headed for VTA Light Rail on steroids.

    Light rail on highway medians is grossly flawed ~ it needs to have its speed cranked up, distance between stations cranked up, and connections provided to a real light rail alignment.

    IOW, putting the VTA light rail on steroids would be the best thing that could be done to it, provided a real local light rail system could be built to complement it.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    For SF and LA to have world class transit systems, the entire world outside the Western US will have to disappear.

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Knock out points north, too. (e.g. Portland)

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Ah, c’mon, SF is a world class transit system, in the same sense that Wolverhampton is a Premiership side. Though its true that its nowhere near the top of the table.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    LA and Portland have the same transit mode share right now, about 6%. Portland’s success is in getting people to drive shorter distances, not in getting them to take transit.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Transit Mode Share Trends Looking Steady …, @ttpolitic

    City: Auto vs Non-Auto (Transit)

    NYC: 28.7% vs 65.8% (54.9%)
    Boston: 44.7% vs 50.8% (34.5%)
    Washington: 43.1% vs 50.4% (37.1%)
    SF: 46.4% vs 45.1% (31.8%)
    … Philly, Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore …
    Portland: 70.1% vs 22.9% (11.5%)
    LA: 77.6% vs 15.7% (11.3%)

    The majority of the difference in Auto vs Non-Auto share between LA and Portland is 5.8% cycling mode share in Portland versus 1% cycling mode share in LA.

    30%+ transit mode share puts SF up in the world-class league, even if it is not going to be all that high in the league tables.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Do it by metro area and SF drops to 14% transit, lower than nearly any Canadian or Australian city of note, let alone a European city. And that’s without including Silicon Valley, which is really part of the same region as SF.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    People do not live in metro areas in general, they live in some place in the metro area in particular.

    Even more, travelers do not have destinations in metro areas in general, their destinations are to some place in the metro area in particular.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Okay, so people who live in Calgary or Brisbane not in general have a transit mode share of 16-17% and people who live in San Francisco not in general have a transit mode share of 14%. So what?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    In nice round numbers 10% of the people in the Bay Area live in San Francisco. 40% of the people in metro New York live in New York City itself. In nice round numbers 30 % of the people in metro Chicago live in Chicago. In nice round numbers 25% of the people in metro Los Angeles live in LA itself. Metro areas count.

    Alon, are there transit mode share numbers for people who live in New York County? That would be somewhat comparable to the transit mode numbers for people who live in San Francisco County.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, there are, on the Census Factfinder. I used to have a direct link, but it got wiped in a disk space cleanup. If I remember correctly, Manhattan’s mode split is 66% transit, 15% car.

    djconnel Reply:

    The amortization rate of fixed charge is nontrivial. For example, put 10 thousand people in a train and you’ll need to do maintenance on the train. Put 10 thousand people in cars and have them drive SF-to-LA and a good fraction of the cars will wreck along the way, not to mention a good number will be hospitalized and around 7% of the time, someone will die from a collision. So you need to include the carbon cost of the vehicle damage and the marginal wear & tear on tires and drivetrain on the vehicle which survive, not to mention the carbon-price of emergency medical care and funeral services. But to simply compare fuel-to-fuel is underestimating the cost of both modes.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    I agree that a decent system requires that all the pieces come together. The problem is there’s not enough money to do it all.

    Then create more money. There are ample labor and equipment resources to do it all, and as far as material and energy resources, they are net savers, reducing the net material and energy costs of our transport tasks.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    We are pushing for all of those transportation modes. This blog just happens to be focused on HSR, but as you know, we have always contextualized that in the bigger picture of improving mass transit more broadly.

    We have plenty of money to build not only this route, but a full, national HSR network. However, a political choice has been made to let that money sit in the bank accounts of the wealthy and the largest corporations. This will prove to be a far more expensive choice than using that money to build sustainable infrastructure, especially as gas prices are rising again. But do not fool yourself; the money is very much there if and when we choose to go out and get it. The rich are not going to be allowed to sit on that cash hoard for all that much longer (by 2020 I am sure it will be finally seized and redistributed).

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Actually, the two most transit-oriented cities in Asia – Hong Kong and Singapore – have no HSR. The pieces work strictly bottom up: local transit is important for the success of HSR, but a city like Hong Kong, where the fastest trains travel at 130 km/h, can still have world-class local transit.

    StevieB Reply:

    “A 2,240 kilometer Beijing-Hong Kong high-speed railway is now under construction. When it begins operation in 2012, overland travel time between the two cities will be reduced to 10 hours” according to the People’s Online Daily.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s not in operation yet, and wasn’t even on the planning board while Hong Kong built its world class transit infrastructure.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    They do not work strictly bottom up, but if someone focuses on the strongest transit shares, they would completely miss the benefit … HSR is far more useful to marginal local transit systems than it is to local transit systems that have mode shares in excess of 20%.

    It will offer the most benefit if it follows a regular tiered schedule rather than the station skipper that is in the notional timetable.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “most never learn to drive in their lifetime”
    In Europe?! I live in France and I don’t know any adult without a driver’s license. Even undocumented emigrants drive, at least until they cause an accident and get caught.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    I mean immigrants.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    They’re also likely to be undocumented emigrants in the places they left … undocumented migrants is the simplest phrase.

    smooth indian Reply:

    I don’t think that people have to give up their car so that HSR can be called a success. HSR provides a faster and frequent option on some high density intercity ( and some commuter) routes. In all HSR countries except china the car ownership is high and even in china it is going up. HSR’s success will lie in convincing people to opt for the train (instead of driving/flying)) whenever they have the option for its speed, comfort and convenience. Sure public transit is best when all levels like commuter rail, transit buses, subways e.t.c compliment each other and I do believe that the HSR plan should have included improvement in public transit connections. However IMHO the CaHSR plan is still a good plan covering the most travelled corridors and major population centers of the California.

    P.S. Singapore and HongKong don’t have HSR bcoz they are city states and for the most part politically independent from their hinterlands. However I believe HSR connections on the Kuala Lumpur- Singapore and HongKong-Mainland China have been planned.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    This is my entire point! A city doesn’t need HSR connections to the hinterland to be a successful transit city.

    While a Mainland-HK line is under construction, the plans for a KL-Singapore line remain remote. Nobody in either Malaysia or Singapore cares enough about intercity rail right now. (It’s too bad, because such line could actually be successful, with high populations, a suitable distance, and good connecting transit at one end.)

    Nathanael Reply:

    I’m not entirely sure you’re right. You picked two examples with artificial political barriers preventing movement from the city to the hinterland. Would the same have really worked in Manhattan or London or Paris? Well, we’ll never know, because the intercity rail links to those cities got built *fist*, before the urban rail.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Every single piece of an integrated sustainable transport system will yield the same answer: “that alone cannot replace a car”.

    So? What difference does that make? Each and every piece allows a reduction of uses of the car, and the more pieces are in place, the more people can dispense with a car.

    Since the active use greenhouse gas component of the one or two person car trip covers the entire greenhouse gas cost of the HSR at even a 50% load factor with a substantial benefit, and that is assuming that the HSR flouts the policy to buy carbon neutral power to support the market for carbon neutral power generation:

    Mandates for CAHSR to
    purchase cleaner electricity have not been established so the WECC mix has been used to capture electricity imports to California and provides a more reasonable estimate of the electricity consumption profile with additional use of out-of state carbon-intense fuels.

    Take the policy into effect ~ a policy that is possible to implement because the train is a single vehicle carrying large numbers of passengers rather than a fleet of privately owned vehicles ~ and the greenhouse gas emission gains of capturing one and two person rides only increase.

    wu ming Reply:

    it was a pain in the ass to love car-free in taipei before the subway was built.

    it was quite easy to live there when the subway was completed, but somewhat of a pain to travel out of town, before the HSR was built. especially if you had reason to slog all the way to the south.

    it was a snap to live in taipei and flit back and forth along the west coast once the taipei subway, HSR, and kaohsiung subways were completed, and i found myself taking way more trips south for tourism than i ever had before.

    with every new link, being car-free was easier, to the point now where the only reason i’d even theoretically consider owning a car in that country would be to go hiking in the mountains. i can easily imagine a california in the 2020s where being car-free is possible in a series of cities up and down the state, and single-car households are far more feasible and comfortable than is currently the case. a lot will ride on adequate transit being built at all the HSR stops, but from my experience, the combination of the HSR trunk with local transit networks is really freaking convenient.

    wu ming Reply:

    LOL, love should be live in that first sentence

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Given that the 10% average load factor is not going to happen ~ no reason to run the full length sets if there are not enough passengers to fill a half length sets ~ every one person per car trip captured is a substantial GHG win, even if you leave the size of the infrastructure component alone when you cut all the others in half to get a still safely-below-any-likely-load-factor of 20%.

    So, where you are going with this is that an increase in proportion of elevated alignments is going to be why the project has to be abandoned? Right?

    Clem Reply:

    I’ll have to go back and look at those details, but even if you doubled the amount of concrete, it wouldn’t nearly approach the magnitude of the error that I pointed out. And that possible shortcoming of the study can hardly be counted against the researchers, unlike the energy discrepancy, which was an outright mistake.

    mike Reply:

    Hopefully groups like CARRD and CA4HSR will keep the pressure up to maximize at grade alignments (and berms if necessary to go elevated), and minimize aerial structures and tunneling. Then both carbon emissions and taxpayer expenditures can be kept low.

    Helen Reply:

    The question of whether or not rail is more energy efficient than cars is a separate one from the question of whether or not a particular project is being constructed the best that it can be.

    A few years ago, there was a study done that compared costs of transportation projects in various countries in Asia. The study found that corruption was the single largest cost in most transportation projects and that the percentage of money going for corruption did not vary by the type of transportation project. Corruption was effected by whether the construction was at ground level, elevated, or underground. So probably some of the elevated structures proposed for the California HSR project are probably boondoggles. Certainly there have been sections of highway in California that have been elevated unnecessarily.

  8. randyw
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 21:43

    So did you send your report to the authors at Berkeley’s Institute for Transportation Studies?

  9. Arthur Dent
    Dec 29th, 2010 at 22:04

    Even in the absence of escalating oil prices (in 2005 some Malthusians predicted oil – then at $65 a barrel — would triple in cost in 5 years. It’s now about $80, or $71 in 2005 dollars) even so, Californians lead the nation in embracing new fuel technology. Hybrid car sales are higher in CA than the next 4 states combined.

    Given that, HSR’s environmental benefits over automobiles should factor in the regional trends: benefits of HSR in CA will be somewhat reduced compared to parts of the country where people are slower to convert to high fuel efficiency (or no fuel) vehicles.

    The CSRA’s studies did not consider hybrid or electric vehicles in their environmental calculations, which always seemed misleading. What kind of vehicles did this Berkeley study use for comparison?

    StevieB Reply:

    Oil futures closed the year just over $91 a barrel with many predicting $100 in the new year. The price of oil is rising as the supply becomes more difficult to get from the ground and many including myself cannot afford the $5000 premium of a hybrid car with immature battery technology.

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Battery technology continues to evolve, and prices continue to come down. There’s a tax credit which brings electric cars into the high $20K range.

    Washington State got $1.3 million in federal stimulus funds to install electric vehicle charging stations along Interstate 5 with another $1M expected from the FTA, while Oregon got $2M in TIGER II funds. WA & OR are waiting for CA to join in on their West Coast Green Highway project to turn the I-5/99 corridor into an “electric highway”.

    WA & OR will have infrastructure in place to support electric vehicle ownership while we’re still dicking around with environmental clearances.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    An important question to be settled in anything like this is an alternative highway finance system. The current system relies heavily on revenue tied to fuel consumption (gas taxes), and even then, this user fee barely pays for half of what we spend on the road system, just based on cash flow. It doesn’t include deferred maintenance, compromised design due to budget constraints, or external costs, including air pollution, oil wars, and just plain hassle of driving.

    Arthur, what might be your alternate finance scheme that would be divorced or independent from fuel consumption?

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Don’t know. But you can take air pollution and oil wars off the expense list if/when electric vehicles outnumber gas guzzlers. Imagine the possibilities if we lost interest in the middle east and redirected the money elsewhere.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    “Imagine the possibilities if we lost interest in the middle east and redirected the money elsewhere.”–Arthur Dent

    Precisely why I’m so gung-ho for this, and for a more comfortable, better way to travel besides.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Certainly, if they run on steel rails. Not as much, if they run and park on asphalt.

    And we need no new technological advanced, battery or otherwise, for neighborhood electric vehicles. The obstacle to their adoption is that they are less suited to providing longer distance trips.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I’m all for electric cars as a way to reduce oil consumption, but they’re not going to outnumber gas guzzlers for a while. The savings they offer over hybrids are about the same as or lower than those hybrids offer over non-hybrids, and hybrids don’t have a lot of market penetration. Hybrids are actually making more inroads in bus fleets, where they are 20% of new orders in the US, than in car fleets, where they’re about 5% of new orders.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    And electric cars, even if they are powered by non-carbon emitting sources, take up the same amount of roadway as gas guzzling behemoths ( give or take ) Building the roads to handle the same capacity improvement rail offers in congested corridors … can’t be done…. add a lane to I95 cheaply….

    BruceMcF Reply:

    You are talking about looking forward to the time when sales rise to single digits of new cars sales, and close to full fleet replacement will take over a decade from the time that new car sales are dominated.

    So this is yet another in a long line of, “don’t do anything right now because in two or three decades it won’t be a problem”.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Arthur must make a good deal more money than I do to not worry about gasoline over $3 per gallon, its effect on household expenditures and its indirect impact on things like food prices, its effect on jobs, its effect on heating prices (I have oil heat), and so on. . .

    Motor fuel for trucks (diesel) and cars accounts for 54% of oil demand. The American way of life, as defined by drive everywhere, just has to go. This doesn’t mean we need to get rid of cars, but we need to them a lot less, and use other things, like HSR and local trolleys, a lot more.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    You can always find trend projections that are wrong ~ what is clear is that commodity markets with constrained supply have greater price volatility, and we have had a recession following each substantial oil price shock that we have experience. The second biggest oil price shock was followed by the second deepest recession since the Great Depression, while the biggest oil price shock was followed by the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

    Indeed, if we just projected price trends from 2005 to 2008, the Malthusians were easily on track ~ they did not factor in, however, the fact that massive global oil price shocks tend to lead to synchronized global recessions, which in turn reduces demand for oil.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Hybrids and electrics don’t really figure into the overall picture since they still produce congestion and still have long travel times. Further, their cost of purchase is high compared to alternatives.

    They do play a role in assessing overall emissions of various transportation modes. I doubt very much that they play a significant role in overall HSR ridership.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Indeed, since any new electric cars sold in the immediate future will have issues with range and battery life in terms of deep discharge cycles, they are more complementary with HSR than rival to it for intercity travel.

    Helen Reply:

    Two points:

    Half of all the petroleum used by a car goes into its construction and into building and maintaining the roads that it drives on.

    Many people do not WANT to drive. Large percentages of the population in both Los Angeles and San Francisco are car free and VMT has been dropping in California for several years. Most people don’t care how they get around, and driving is work and is becoming more and more expensive.

  10. Clem
    Dec 30th, 2010 at 13:32

    The full DE-Consult report is now available online, thanks to Richard.

  11. Helen
    Dec 31st, 2010 at 16:28

    Chem, thanks for this information. I will pass it along.

Comments are closed.