HSR Funds To Fix CA’s Most Hazardous Rail Crossing

Aug 28th, 2016 | Posted by

The California Public Utilities Commission has rated the railroad crossing of Rosecrans and Marquardt streets in Santa Fe Springs as the “most hazardous” in the entire state. As the video below explains, the California High Speed Rail Authority will fund 50% of the $137 million cost of building a grade separation. The result will be a safer and faster trip for train riders as well as road users.

Goodbye Acela, Hello Avelia

Aug 26th, 2016 | Posted by

The Northeast Corridor is getting new trains in five years. Today Vice-President Joe Biden announced the Acela trains will be retired, to be replaced by the Alstom Avelia:

Alstom and Amtrak announced today that they have signed a contract for Alstom to design and build 28 new high-speed trains, which will run on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and Washington D.C. Amtrak and Alstom also signed a long-term contract under which Alstom will provide Amtrak with long-term technical support and supply spare components and parts for the maintenance of the new trainsets. Together, these contracts are worth €1.8 billion ($2 billion)….

The train ordered by Amtrak is Avelia Liberty, the latest development of Alstom’s high-speed train range Avelia. The new trainset will be able to carry up to 33% more passengers than the current Acela trains. The trainset configuration includes an innovative compact power car and nine passenger cars, with the possibility of three more being added if demand grows. The train is capable of travelling at speeds up to 300 km/h (186 mph), but will initially operate at a maximum speed of 257 km/h (160 mph) based on NEC track speed limits. Additionally, each concentrated power car is equipped with Alstom’s pioneering Crash Energy Management (CEM) system.

The trains will be manufactured in the United States at Alstom’s facility in Hornell, New York. And it’s made possible by a $2.45 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation – the largest such loan in USDOT history:

Officials said about $2 billion would be spent on the new trains. The rest of the loan will be used to upgrade several stations, including those in New York and Washington, and to improve track reliability and safety.

Amtrak expects increased revenue from the more frequent Acela service to help it pay back the loan, the biggest in the history of the Department of Transportation, officials said.

I think this is amazing. Obviously the only thing better would be track and catenary upgrades along the NEC to allow the Alstom trains to go their top design speed. But this is going to allow a major increase in capacity on the NEC.

Most of all, it demonstrates that the United States is already a good place for high speed rail – and that we need a lot more of it.

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CO2 Reduction Bill Finally Passes Assembly

Aug 23rd, 2016 | Posted by

It’s a big day for cap-and-trade. First, the good news: SB 32, which would extend the state’s CO2 reduction mandate to 2030, finally passed the assembly. Unfortunately, the legislature did not agree to include specific language extending cap-and-trade:

After an intense floor debate, a bill extending California’s greenhouse gas emission targets squeaked by in the Assembly on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 32 was seen as a crucial step for reauthorizing the state’s cap-and-trade program. Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to include an amendment specifically extending cap-and-trade authority but was rebuffed by lawmakers.

The bill now requires a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. The current climate law, AB 32, required the state to reach 1990 levels by 2020.

“With SB 32 we continue California’s leadership on climate change,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount. Rendon acknowledged that the bill does not expressly extend the cap-and-trade program, but said it was “a piece of the puzzle” and that he is committed to continuing the program.

Basically, moderate Assembly Democrats, who are bought and paid for by the oil industry, refused to support the bill if it specifically extended cap-and-trade. However, that part of the story isn’t over yet. There’s still a possibility that the legislature will reach a deal to specifically authorize an extension of cap-and-trade.

But there’s also a school of thought in Sacramento that argues the California Air Resources Board has the ability to extend cap-and-trade anyway, without new legislative action. So that gives Governor Brown some important leverage.

The bad news is that today’s auction of cap-and-trade credits did even more poorly than the May auction:

A little more than 1% of state permits available were sold in the latest cap-and-trade auction, according to the California Air Resources Board, which runs the program….

Although final financial details won’t be available until next month, it’s expected that revenue will be less than $10 million. The numbers show an even weaker auction than the previous round in May, when only 2% of state permits were sold.

This isn’t a surprise. As long as the legislature leaves cap-and-trade in limbo like this, it doesn’t make sense for people to buy new credits that could become worthless in just four years. Let’s hope the legislature sides with the environment, the climate, and California’s future rather than with the oil companies.

More Criticism Emerges Against the Hyperloop

Aug 19th, 2016 | Posted by

This week we learned that the Hyperloop might go into actual service not in California, not in Nevada…but in Dubai. And it might not carry passengers, instead it would carry cargo.

Which is fine. Whatever. More power to ’em. But this is further evidence that the Hyperloop is not nearly ready for prime time for passenger service in North America. And, despite the claims of HSR critics and Hyperloop fanboys, it’s not a substitute for high speed rail.

The Guardian made that exact point this week, showing how the Hyperloop is a distraction from the actual things that will improve passenger rail in North America:

Despite its success in raising funds, questions are being raised about the viability of Musk’s hyperloop concept. Some say the technical challenges will be too great to get the idea off the ground, while costs, including land acquisition, for rail projects can run into the billions.

The other issue is whether the system is actually fit to transport people. “I’m not sure that most of us have a strong enough stomach to ride inside a vehicle traveling at several hundred miles an hour,” says James Moore, director of the University of Southern California’s Transportation Engineering Program. “Whether such a system can provide a comfortable, humanly bearable ride is completely unclear.”

Musk’s elaborate vision may have attracted plenty of media attention and Silicon Valley funding, but it also highlights society’s tendency to get caught up with new transportation technologies, instead of the less exciting but perhaps more workable solutions – some of which may already exist.

“There’s always been an element out there that valued the ‘gee whiz’ factor rather than the economics,” says Moore. “But if you look closely at the cost, benefits and risks, new technologies frequently do not compete well, yet we continue to pretend it’s obvious we should adopt them.”

It’s generally easier to improve transport systems incrementally, says Moore. Yet recent history has produced some high concept ideas that have captivated imaginations but failed to really take off in the real world.

The article goes on to talk about Personal Rapid Transit and other cutting edge technologies that never actually took off – and explains why we’re better off looking at off the shelf improvements rather than wasting time and money chasing some unproven technology.

Ultimately I would not be surprised if the hyperloop winds up being used for short-distance cargo shipments, though even then the speeds would limit the types of goods that the system could carry. The hyperloop isn’t going to be a passenger rail solution anytime soon – if ever.