China Opens 32 HSR Lines In One Day

Dec 11th, 2014 | Posted by

No big deal, just China massively expanding high speed rail service once again:

A total of 32 new high-speed routes will be launched December 10, Shanghai’s railway authority announced. The trip between Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangdong province has been shaved down from 16 hours to six hours and 51 minutes, and travelers looking to go from Shanghai to scenic Guilin, Guangxi province will now be able to make the trip in about nine hours, versus the previous 19 hours.

The new routes will depart from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station. The railway authority also announced that fast trains to Harbin, Shenzhen and Lhasa will be upgraded to direct trains starting December 10 as well. Celebrate!

The distance from Shanghai to Guangzhou by rail is 1780 km, or a little more than 1100 miles. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles.

China continues to excel at building 21st century infrastructure, while the USA – outside of California, at least – is content to fall further and further behind.

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California’s First New HSR Station Opens in Anaheim

Dec 9th, 2014 | Posted by

On Saturday the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center – ARTIC – opened to the public. It will eventually serve as a high speed rail and streetcar station, but for now it serves as Anaheim’s Amtrak and Metrolink station, along with serving connecting OCTA buses.


Photo by @CaHSRA on Twitter

The Orange County Register was there and interviewed a few of the first users of the new ARTIC station:

Keith Shular, who traveled to Anaheim to visit Disneyland with his family from Penticton, British Columbia, was upset there was no place to buy food while everyone waited for a train to San Diego.

“If you’re going to open this station, you should have the restaurant ready, or at least a vending machine,” Shular said as he waited with family members on the station’s open-air bridge.

The first food establishment to open in the station, Mission Market Express, was still working on getting things up and running Saturday morning, though the store’s manager said the market would be open later on Saturday. Luckily, the family brought a few snacks.

But Valerie Ashton, another family member, was more impressed by the station’s design.

“It‘s beautiful, the architecture is amazing,” Ashton said. “I think it’s prettier than Crystal Cathedral.”

Well, speaking personally, prettier than Crystal Cathedral is not exactly difficult – I’ve never been a fan of that building – but it’s good that a traveler thinks ARTIC looks great.

I will confess that I’m a shameless partisan of mission-style architecture – I love LA Union Station as well as a personal favorite of mine, Santa Ana station – and I’m not wild about Calatrava-style modernist stations. But I’ve liked the look of ARTIC ever since I saw the first drawings.

I’ll bet that other person quoted was just hungry and frustrated. Which I totally understand – I’d be pissed too if I got to a new station and they didn’t really have good food options ready. Apparently new restaurants will be opening at ARTIC in the months to come.

Have any readers had a chance to visit ARTIC since it opened, and want to share their experiences and thoughts in the comments? I’ll be in Orange County in two weeks and plan to drop by to see it for myself.

Caltrain Electrification One Step Closer to Construction

Dec 8th, 2014 | Posted by

Caltrain released the final EIR for its electrification project. If approved next month, the design/build contract will be put out to bid, with construction beginning in 2016.

The Final EIR is facing some criticism from rider advocates who argue that Caltrain’s ridership estimates are too low – and that longer trains will need to be accommodated:

But the agency may need to take extra steps to accommodate riders, such as increasing the length of trains, said Adina Levin, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Caltrain.

“We are concerned that the ridership forecast is unrealistically low,” said Levin, noting Caltrain’s ridership has more than doubled since 2003. “More planning will be needed to keep up with ridership growth.”

Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said the agency is already beginning to study those issues.

Of course, as long as there are only two tracks along this corridor, ridership growth will be constrained – it’s not just a matter of train length. Additional tracks will have to be built along this route, and now is the time to plan for them.

It’s been years in discussion and planning, but it will be great to see electrification finally get underway for Caltrain. It would also be great to see this spur electrification on other passenger rail lines in California – starting with the LOSSAN corridor.

Just Be Honest About Costs. Voters Won’t Mind.

Dec 5th, 2014 | Posted by

Bent Flyvbjerg, the guru of cost overruns on megaprojects, has posted the first installment of a series examining how people are apparently tricked into backing megaprojects. He starts off by quoting California’s own Willie Brown, in some revealing comments about the Transbay Terminal:

One may argue, as famously done by Albert O. Hirschman, that if people knew in advance the real costs and challenges involved in delivering a large project, “they probably would never have touched it” and nothing would ever get built.* So it is better not to know, because ignorance helps get projects started, according to this argument. The following is a recent and particularly candid articulation of the nothing-would-ever-get-built argument, by former California State Assembly speaker and mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, discussing a large cost overrun on the ongoing multi-billion-dollar San Francisco Transbay Terminal megaproject in The San Francisco Chronicle:

“News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the [San Francisco] Central Subway or the [San Francisco-Oakland] Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Rarely has the tactical use by project advocates of cost underestimation, sunk costs, and lock-in to get projects started been expressed by an insider more clearly.

It’s not clear where Flyvbjerg is going with this, at least based on this first installment. So I’ll direct my comments to the Willie Brown quote.

If that’s what Brown believes, then he’s wrong. It is just not true that “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved.” High speed rail shows this in practice.

The 2008 vote on Proposition 1A could be seen as a classic example of Brown’s theory. Voters were asked to approve a $9.95 billion bond to build a bullet train that was at the time estimated to cost around $30 billion. Many people objected that the real cost would probably be higher, and I always said that was likely to be true.

It didn’t take long for new cost estimates to come out that were ever higher. $43 billion. $68 billion. Over $90 billion. The latter two figures were published at the insistence of Governor Jerry Brown, who understood that truth in advertising matters.

Those changing numbers helped fuel a counterattack against the bullet train, beginning in 2009. They were seized upon by NIMBYs and Republicans who had their own reasons for not wanting to see HSR built. The media, always in the mood to tell a story about government being wasteful and profligate, breathlessly reported on each new estimate as supposedly proving there was something inherently wrong with the project.

The media and the HSR opponents expected that these higher costs would destroy public support for the project. But here’s the crucial point: they never did. Support declined a few percentage points, but there was no mass rejection of HSR.

HSR’s high costs also had no political traction at all. In 2012 Republicans tried to use HSR to defeat several state legislators in close races, and failed every time. In 2014 we witnessed Neel Kashkari try to make HSR a core issue in his campaign – and he wound up losing by 20 points.

Despite some whining in the state legislature, Sacramento came through with key approvals for releasing the HSR bonds in the summer of 2012 – and in the summer of 2014 delivered billions in cap-and-trade funding to the project. The high cost estimates didn’t dissuade legislators from committing ever more strongly to HSR.

But the higher cost estimates did have their…well…costs. We lost years to fighting NIMBY lawsuits and NIMBY-influenced political battles in Sacramento that unnecessarily delayed the approval of the bonds. And while Republicans in Congress would have opposed California HSR no matter how much it cost, the higher cost estimates helped them justify their opposition.

I don’t believe that the California High Speed Rail Authority was deliberately inaccurate or dishonest in its 2008 projections. The federal government made them change their accounting to year of expenditure, which caused projections to rise due to including 30 years of possible inflation. And once the actual details of how the project would be built and precisely where the tracks would go were known, costs rose further.

That being said, had they proposed a much larger figure than $30 billion in 2008, I don’t think voters would have flinched.

Voters don’t actually pay that close attention to costs of megaprojects. Once you’re above $1 billion or so, few people can really comprehend those sums. It all just becomes numbers. Big numbers with lots of zeroes. To most voters, it doesn’t really matter whether HSR costs $30 billion or $43 billion or $68 billion or $90 billion.

Voters make decisions on visions and ideas, not on facts and figures. Wonks never like to admit this, but it’s true, and everyone who’s studied voter behavior knows it to be true. This is not intended as insulting toward voters at all. Instead they make the same decisions we all do when making a big purchase: “is this something I really want? Is this going to make my life better?” The facts and figures matter, but at the end of the day, those are usually not the deciding factors in any big decision.

Politicians would do well to ignore Willie Brown’s advice. Sell a project on its merits. Be up front about its costs and construction timeline. As most people know, it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver rather than the reverse.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is taking the smart approach, being honest about its expectations and not making extravagant promises they can’t keep. And that honest, open approach is one reason why the project has survived six years of attacks.