Van Ark, Representatives from China and France Speak on HSR in SF
Note from Robert: the following post is from Kenya Wheeler, a graduate student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at U.C. Berkeley. Thanks to him for agreeing to write this post!
The future of High Speed Rail took center stage at a crowded panel discussion with over 120 attendees on May 19th at the annual conference for the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) in San Francisco, CA. WTS is an international organization committed to supporting the professional development of women in the Transportation industry. The membership of WTS spans from undergraduate students to women who serving at the highest executive levels in state and federal government and in the consulting world. The leadership of women in the transportation sector was evident at the panel discussion, which was moderated by Karen Rae, Deputy Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration who is leading the efforts to advance President Obama’s commitment to bring true high-speed rail to the United States. The panel consisted of Patrick Merrill, Assistant Vice President for Policy & Development for Amtrak West, Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), Guifeng Quan, Deputy Director, U.S. Project Working Group, Ministry of Railways, People’s Republic of China and former General Manager for the Shanghai – Hangzhou High Speed Rail Project and Denis Douté, CEO of SNCF America, all senior executives leading rail initiatives across the U.S. and the world.
Deputy Administrator Rae in opening the panel noted the scope of the High Speed Rail program outlined by the Obama Administration. She commented that President Obama is committed to bringing high-speed rail to 80% of the population of the United States in the next 25 years and compared the program to the expansiveness of the Eisenhower Administration’s investments in the Interstate Highway system. She said this commitment was illustrated by Vice President Biden’s announcement of the administration’s six-year budgetary commitment to high-speed rail as one of the first budgetary programs to be announced.
Amtrak’s Merrill provided an overview of Amtrak’s services in the U.S. The Accela Express service operated in the Northeast Corridor of the United States, the fastest passenger train operating in the U.S. was touted as a highly successful service with Accela fare revenue covering 169% of the operating expense. Over the entire Amtrak system fares cover about 80% of total costs. In a clear sign of the popularity of existing California inner-city rail services, Miller said that during some summer months ridership on the Pacific Surfliner exceeds the Accela Express. He closed by stating that Amtrak is in full support of bringing high-speed rail to America and spoke of plans to increase train speeds in a number of corridors across the U.S.
CAHSRA’s van Ark presented a brief overview of California’s High Speed Rail plans and focused on an update of the current status of the state’s rail program The agency is moving forward towards construction, have released a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) from firms exploring the opportunity to bid on the construction of the first funded segment of High Speed Rail in the Central Valley. Plans are to release follow-up RFQs for companies to bid on the construction of the first segment of track between Bakersfield and Fresno by mid-2011 with award and construction beginning in early 2012. This schedule is driven to meet the Federal Government’s deadline of expending funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by 2017.
Although he did not directly mention the recent Legislative Analyst Office report criticizing the High Speed Rail effort in California, van Ark addressed critiques about the project and the CHSRA’s commitment to build the first segment in the Central Valley. Mr. van Ark described the utility of the first phase by pointing out that 4 million people in the Central Valley (Merced to Bakersfield) region would be served by this first phase. He also mentioned that every new transit system is required to have a test track to identify problems before operations begin. This is a role the Central Valley segment will provide not just for California, but the entire United States as the first true high-speed rail segment in the country. Finally, he argued that the choice to build a first segment that is easier to construct from an, environmental, political and constructability view would pay off in the long term, as this segment is built into an initial operating segment that connects to existing rail tracks. This will allow high-speed rail service to begin operations while the full high-speed rail system is still being constructed (a point expanded on by Douté from SNCF later in the presentation).
The CHSRA is focusing now on finishing environmental review work on the Fresno-Bakersfield-Merced segment, with the next priority to finish environmental review to connect this segment to San Jose and Los Angeles. He stated that it is critical to start construction now and secure public funding to show the private sector that we are serious about constructing a high-speed rail system. While the $3.9 billion in current federal funds commitment to California’s project is larger than the total federal commitment originally envisioned, van Ark noted that a longer term Federal commitment is needed. In response to a question of whether Federal investment would restrict private capital, he strongly endorsed the need to operate high-speed rail as a public/private system but stated that private capital will not be attracted without a commitment of public investment.
Quan Guiefing provided an overview of the massive investment that China is making for High Speed Rail, noting that by 2015 over 45,000 km of high speed rail will be operating, with trains running between 250km/h and 350km/h depending on the individual segment. Within this network will be high-speed (350 km/h) segments connecting several major cities, including the Shanghai to Beijing corridor. Ms. Guiefing described some of the technical challenges overcome in building the line, including the construction of a 320 meter viaduct over a large active expressway that was built in the median of the roadway and rotated into it’s final alignment across the roadway. In response to questions about timeframes for constructability, the unique political and project delivery environment in China was evident when Ms. Guiefing stated in response to a question that it took four years to plan and three years to construct the Shanghai-Hangzhou line.
Finally, comments by SNCF Americas CEO Dennis Douté provided the most hopeful comments on the viability of HSR in California. Speaking from the perspective of a system operator, he provided an context of how building and operating a high-speed rail system could occur using the SNCF Paris-Marseille route as a case study (at 488 miles it is equivalent to the distance between San Francisco and San Diego). The first phase between Paris and Lyon was not constructed with any public subsidy and had a reasonable financial Internal Rate of Return of 15% according to the presentation. While subsequent segments required some public subsidy, they were phased in over time resulting in a twenty-year time span before the entire high-speed rail was completed. Prior to full completion trains were running along high speed segments connecting Paris, Lyon and intermediate points to Marseille, with non high-speed rail compliant tracks used to connect trains between the mainline high-speed rail tracks.
Mr. Douté closed with lessons learned from an operator’s perspective. Unlike high-speed rail service in Japan, which serves dense population corridors and operates like mass transit, the French system uses a reservation-based system to manage demand. SNCF utilizes principles of yield management developed by the Airline industry (he specifically mentioned American Airline’s Sabre reservation system) to optimize seat utilization on SNCF trains. Mr. Douté suggested that given California’s lower population density as compared to Japan it would be wise to incorporate this into operations in California. He also suggested that a system operator as early as possible when developing a high-speed rail system. The operator would then be charged with securing private funding. While this might seem a bit self-serving coming from SNCF, it does seem prudent to bring in a partner who has experience operating a high-speed rail service. Finally, one lesson that seems especially pertinent to the design phase was toe ensure quality in connections between high-speed rail and other modes. Mr. van Ark noted this in his presentation as well, stating to the transportation professionals in the audience that “we are dependent on you to bring us passengers, and we will deliver them back to you on the return trip”. Providing a high-quality experience in transferring between high-speed rail and local transit modes as well as on the local transit system to a final destination will be critical to attracting the riders needed to make the system viable.
A final question asked by a participant was whether the capacity among American contractors to build high-speed rail here in the U.S. Deputy Administrator Rae noted that before Florida cancelled its high-speed rail program they received bids from eight consortiums of contractors. Clearly the private sector is ready to build high-speed rail. In the case of high-speed rail, the decision we are faced is a question of whether we as a society are ready to commit to investing in our future.
Kenya Wheeler is a graduate student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at U.C. Berkeley. A California native, Kenya has previously worked as a transportation planner for consulting firms and public agencies in California and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He has been active in statewide political campaigns and formerly served as the Deputy Field Director for Organizing for America in California.