Texas HSR Could Face Same Challenges as California HSR

Apr 8th, 2014 | Posted by

In recent days there’s been a spate of posts and articles touting the Texas high speed rail project as a better approach than the California project. Some of this is undoubtedly the California-Texas rivalry at work, but it’s also fueled by the routine misunderstanding in the media about the nature of California HSR’s problems. Those problems exist solely because opponents of California HSR found powerful allies in the Congressional Republicans, and have been able to block future funding and create a cascading set of problems that stem from that denial.

One of the reasons for Republicans’ hostility to high speed rail is their ideological opposition to government funding for trains and buses. And so the Texas HSR project gets touted for its reliance on private funding in outlets like the Dallas Morning News this week:

The United States has been touting high-speed rail for years. Texas even made a push in the early 1990s. Yet there’s still no bullet train in the country, at least nothing like what’s being proposed here.

That’s because the economics usually stink. Flying is cheaper, cars are more convenient and the U.S. population is too spread out. High-speed rail usually requires billions in subsidies, and we have better uses for that money.

That’s why the Texas Central Railway is quick to say: “This is not a government project.”

In fact, it’s a private play on infrastructure, targeted at the best corridor in the country.

But hey, guess what, even the Texas HSR project will need federal money:

While the Texas Central Railway has agreed to operate that leg with high-speed trains, it won’t pay for construction.

Some of that would fall to federal and local government, and local officials are leading the effort.

The pitch will go something like this: Let’s leverage the private investment with maybe a 20 percent match from the feds and build something even more special.

The Texas HSR project has been pegged at $10 to $12 billion to build. That number will rise. But 20% of that gets you $2 to $2.4 billion. California HSR has already gotten more than that. But Republicans in Congress were furious even with that amount, and have vowed no more money for HSR anywhere. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida also had similar federal matches and rejected it. So already the Texas HSR proposal is basing its financing on a wish that federal funds would come through – when all the indications are that no such money will materialize as long as Republicans are in the majority.

In other words, the Texas HSR project suffers from the same problem as the California HSR project: gathering all the money it needs to complete the route. Even that hagiographic column in the Dallas Morning News had to acknowledge, though buried at the end, that federal money will be needed. Just as the XpressWest bullet train project from LA to Vegas needed a federal loan, it’s a sign that the private sector cannot actually finance and fund infrastructure of this scale.

But let’s play along with the Texans and assume the money comes through. Other defenders of the Texas project have argued that Texas has numerous advantages over California – all of which dissolve upon closer inspection.

Tom Jackson at Equipment World points to three factors that he thinks make Texas a better fit than California:

1. Both DFW and Houston have relatively compact downtown business areas. You can walk to a lot of the places you need to go, and both downtowns are well served by taxis. Los Angeles is a massive, metastasized sprawl. You can cab around but it’s going to cost you. San Francisco is less spread out, but because of the hills it’s no fun to walk, even short distances. (Houston sprawls with the best of them, but most of the business traffic goes straight downtown.)

Really?

This is just nuts. Both SF and LA are much denser than either Dallas or Houston, with better transit networks and connections – especially once the Metro Rail lines planned for LA are built. Houston is literally the poster child for massive, metastasized sprawl.

2. Interstate 45 in Texas is flat and low density. This would make construction and engineering less complicated and acquisition of land rights much less problematic.

3. Texas isn’t eaten up with environmental zealots. Trust me, as soon as they find an endangered mugwort, the California bullet train will come to a screeching halt while the state conducts 10 years of environmental studies.

This argument was also made in the Dallas Morning News column and by Tobias Buckell, that Texas has lower land costs and less environmental obstacles and so the problems caused by California NIMBYs won’t be an issue in Texas.

But if that were true, the Trans-Texas Corridor would have been built instead of killed. The TTC would have included high speed rails, along with new toll highways, pipelines, fiber, and more. It was planned for stretches of rural Texas and would have been financed mostly by private funds. In other words, it had all the positive attributes of the current Texas HSR project.

And yet it was killed by the Texas government after a massive uprising from residents in the TTC’s path and from those adamantly opposed to what was seen as a governmental power grab. Texas NIMBYs didn’t have the same judicial paths open to them that California NIMBYs have, yet they found other paths and killed the TTC anyway.

The truth of the matter is that while Texas is a great place to build high speed rail, any project there will encounter exactly the same obstacles as California high speed rail:

• Inability of the private sector to fund multibillion dollar infrastructure without government aid

• Ideological opposition among Republicans to any public funding for rail

• NIMBY opposition to whatever route is chosen, no matter what that route is

• Misguided environmentalism prioritizing open space over reducing CO2 emissions

• Lack of urgency, unwillingness to believe that high speed rail is a priority.

Those are the problems that have to be solved for high speed rail to be built anywhere in the United States. I wish Texas all the best and I hope they get HSR built. But until they solve those problems, not imaginary problems with government or with California, their efforts will inevitably stall.

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Soaring Caltrain Ridership Puts Capacity Expansion Back on the Agenda

Apr 6th, 2014 | Posted by

Caltrain ridership continues to boom and even the addition of new cars may not be enough to stay ahead of demand:

With Caltrain attracting about 4,300 new weekday riders every year since 2010, ridership will reach almost 60,000 on weekdays this summer, and could surpass 75,000 by 2018….

To alleviate crowding in coming years, Caltrain is planning to run longer trains using 11 to 16 used train cars to be purchased from Los Angeles Metrolink for $8 to $10 million. By 2015, Caltrain riders could see some five-car trains extended to six. Those trains would burn more fuel and require more maintenance, but would also boost seat capacity from 650 seats to 780. Caltrain’s two busiest trains started seeing more than 780 passengers per train on typical weekdays since February of last year.

While the 20 percent increase in those trains’ capacity would help mitigate the Caltrain crunch, it took just two years (2011 to 2013) for weekday ridership to increase by 20 percent. So, the added seats may be filled by 2015.

As a result, passenger rail advocates on the Peninsula are rightly calling for Caltrain to explore other capacity solutions. Adina Levin and Clem Tillier, two names familiar to readers of this blog, are quoted in the Streetsblog article offering their thoughts on the issue:

“We want to see Caltrain address the capacity crunch strategically,” said Adina Levin, Co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “Caltrain should be planning for expected ridership based on demand from cities and employers, and proposing capacity improvements to address the demand.”

Levin says level boarding platforms and wider trains could provide major increases in Caltrain’s capacity. The agency hasn’t sufficiently analyzed those measures’ costs, timelines, or most importantly, their potential for meeting future ridership demand….

Some of the scenarios for electric Caltrain service analyzed in the agency’s draft environmental impact report on electrification are perplexingly unambitious. When service to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center begins in 2022, Caltrain only plans to run two trains per hour to the grand new hub, while up to four other trains would still stop at the existing 4th and King Station. The Transbay Center will have over 100,000 jobs located within a half-mile radius – more jobs than every other Caltrain station combined.

“This station absolutely must be served by each and every train, and it would be highly counter-productive to terminate any train at 4th and King,” wrote Clem Tillier, author of a blog on building a Caltrain system compatible with California High-Speed Rail.

I fully agree with both Levin and Tillier on this. Levin’s suggestions for level boarding and wider trains are sensible planning and can add capacity easily without a big capital investment on the ground. And Tillier is absolutely right that for a variety of reasons, Caltrain needs to send as many trains as possible to the Transbay Terminal. After all, it’s much better served by connecting mass transit lines than 4th and King, even when the Central Subway opens.

Others on the Peninsula are coming to understand the importance of electrification in solving the Caltrain crunch, such as Paul Bendix at the Almanac Online

Use it. That is the interim answer to speeding Caltrain service from Menlo Park.

As for the long run: support electrification….

Until Caltrain electrifies – within the next few years – the rail service will operate under strain. Meanwhile, be patient. Keep riding the rails. And whenever possible, ride them from Menlo Park.

Bendix is right as well. Electrification speeds trains along the corridor, creating more space on the tracks for additional trains to serve the corridor.

But even if level boarding, wider trains, and electrification are adopted, there’s still one major obstacle to providing Caltrain with the capacity it needs – adding two new sets of tracks to the Peninsula rail corridor.

As long as the corridor includes just two sets of tracks, rather than the four that the ROW can currently accommodate, Caltrain will be operating under artificially low constraints. When Highway 101 was jammed with traffic, new lanes were added. Of course, widening a freeway is bad transportation and bad environmental policy. But it did prove that more space meant the facility could carry more users.

Adding new tracks to the Peninsula rail corridor was incredibly controversial a few years ago, and it led the state to develop the “blended plan” for high speed rail service to San Francisco. This plan was intended as an interim phase until adding the new tracks on the corridor became politically possible. That plan has raised questions about whether the bullet trains can make the SF to LA trip in the legally required 2 hours 40 minutes.

The “blended plan” is bad planning imposed as a result of shortsighted NIMBYism. Above all it puts an artificial cap on Caltrain ridership, ensuring that the system will be prevented from having the capacity it needs to handle soaring ridership. And from a transportation and environmental perspective, getting as many people as possible to ride Caltrain is a top priority for the Bay Area.

Adding two sets of tracks remains controversial, and I expect that many advocates will continue to see it as a last resort given that contentiousness. But it cannot be avoided. Even if high speed rail didn’t serve SF at all via the Peninsula, more tracks – as well as grade separations – will eventually be required to allow Caltrain ridership to keep up with demand.

There’s no good reason why someone who wants to ride Caltrain should be turned away because a nearby homeowner felt wider tracks or an overpass would offend their personal view of what their city should look like.

CHSRA Solicits Five Bids for HSR Construction South of Fresno

Apr 3rd, 2014 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority is issuing a request for proposals to five bidding consortiums who met the prequalification requirements. According to the Fresno Bee they include the winner of the first HSR construction segment from Madera to Fresno, Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons:

Among the construction teams that were pre-qualified earlier this year to bid on the project are a consortium which last year won a contract worth about $1 billion for the Madera-Fresno section: Tutor Perini Corp. of Sylmar, Zachry Construction of Texas and Pasadena-based Parsons Corp.

The other companies expected to vie for the second contract are:

California Rail Builders, a joint venture that includes Ferrovial Agroman U.S. Corp. and Granite Construction. Ferrovial is an American subsidiary of Ferrovial S.A., a Spanish company; Granite Construction is a California firm headquartered in Watsonville.

Dragados/Flatiron/Shimmick, a consortium that includes Dragados USA Inc., a subsidiary of Spanish firms Grupo ACS and Dragados S.A.; Flatiron West Inc. of San Francisco; and Shimmick Construction of Oakland.

Golden State Rail Partnership, which includes OHL USA Inc., a subsidiary of Spain’s Obrascón Huarte Lain S.A. and Samsung E&C America Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of South Korea’s Samsung Group.

Skanska-Ames Joint Venture, a team that includes Skanska USA Civil West California District Inc. (a subsidiary of Sweden’s Skanska) and Minnesota-based Ames Construction Inc.

The Golden State Rail Partnership bid is new, but the other four were among the finalists for the Madera to Fresno section of the project. The selection of Tutor-Zachry-Parsons brought some controversy at the time, largely from anti-HSR forces. We’ll see what those critics come up with this time to attack the winning bidder for this segment.

It’s worth noting that this construction contract is fully funded, using a combination of Prop 1A and federal stimulus funds. Unfortunately the Prop 1A bond funds are on hold pending the resolution of Judge Michael Kenny’s ruling against the Authority’s financing plan. Hopefully that gets resolved quickly so that construction can, at long last, finally begin in the Central Valley.

High Speed Rail Eats Into Chinese Airline Profits – And That’s Good News

Apr 1st, 2014 | Posted by

One of the main reasons to build high speed rail in California is to lure passengers away from airlines, which spew huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and put them onto bullet trains powered by renewable electricity. All over the world we’ve seen how riders will make the shift from planes to trains once given the choice, and more news from China proves it again:

China Southern Airlines is the latest Chinese airline to post miserable year-end 2013 results. Net profit dropped 24 percent to 1.99 billion yuan ($321 million), and operating profit fell 70 percent. China Southern Airlines joins Air China, where net profit dropped 32 percent in 2013, and China Eastern Airlines, where it fell by 25 percent.

High oil prices, as well as increased competition from low-cost carriers and each other, have taken a toll. But, as each airline has recently acknowledged, so has China’s massive and growing high-speed rail system.

What may surprise you is that this is a good sign for American airlines.

As this blog has repeatedly explained, US airlines want to focus on the more profitable medium and long haul routes rather than place their bets on the short haul routes like San Francisco to Los Angeles. That’s why Virgin America is leaving SJC and ending its San José to LA flights – they make more money flying east to other parts of the North American continent than they do flying within California.

Low-cost carriers that got their start on short haul routes are making the switch. And they want HSR to replace those short haul routes because it opens up more gates at existing airport terminals so these carriers can operate more medium and long haul flights. It’s why JetBlue is bullish on HSR and why Virgin and Southwest want to operate the California HSR system.

In the early 1990s Southwest Airlines helped kill a Texas high speed rail proposal. 20 years later they are not standing in the way of HSR anywhere in the country. The executives who run California’s airports, including SFO, wholeheartedly embrace HSR because they see it as a complement to their services, not a threat.

China’s experience with high speed rail shows once again that if you build it, they will ride. That’s exactly what the airlines are banking on and why they want HSR to be built as planned.