How to Get High Speed From LA to SD Before HSR Arrives

Feb 3rd, 2017 | Posted by

Alon Levy has a great article at the Voice of San Diego exploring how to speed up the popular passenger rail service between Los Angeles and San Diego well before the California high speed rail project gets to that segment – which is likely many years away. His answer: take advantage of new FRA rules and electrify:

The way to achieve trip times lower than two hours on legacy track is to combine new federal regulations and strategic investments intended to take advantage of the new rules. In late 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration released new regulations for passenger rail safety, which allow lightly modified European trains to run on U.S. tracks. Previously, unique U.S. rules required trains to be heavier. This follows a regulatory change from 2010 that allows trains to run faster on curves, subject to safety testing. The existing diesel locomotives are too heavy to take advantage of this change, but lighter electric passenger trains face no such obstacle.

This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.

Levy points out that electric engines not only allow for faster service on legacy tracks, but that their superior power allows for cheaper ways to get around slow parts of the route:

All of the above improvements work together. New regulations allow the corridor to use more powerful trains. This encourages electrification, in order to immediately buy the best standard-speed trains available, and run faster on curves. Electrification, in turn, encourages a cheaper Miramar Hill realignment than the proposed tunnel.

I think this is a brilliant idea. At a cost of less than $1 billion, it’s affordable and can add desperately needed capacity to the crowded and busy LA-SD corridor. I don’t know how this would affect Metrolink operations, especially their Inland Empire-OC line (which under this proposal would be half electric and half not), but there are probably ways to deal with that.

California will need to step up and take a greater role in funding transportation infrastructure now that Trump is in the White House, and this LA-SD plan is a good and affordable place to start.

Streetsblog Demolishes Vartabedian Article on HSR Project

Jan 23rd, 2017 | Posted by

Damien Newton has an excellent article debunking Ralph Vartabedian’s appallingly misleading attack on the high speed rail project:

The Times’ critique isn’t a fair one, using partial truths to create doubt. While it is factually true to state that the report is “confidential,” Vartabedian uses the term without providing any context, leaving readers to imagine why the report’s findings would be withheld from the public….

Vartabedian clearly has an ax to grind with the Authority. Roger Rudick, now editor of Streetsblog SF, wrote a scathing takedown of his coverage in 2014. Perhaps that explains the many pieces of good news left out of his article, news that is outlined in the Authority’s response. Or maybe it explains why much of the background for Vartabedian’s article is from anonymous sources, without any context for who is providing the information and why anonymity was granted.

Newton’s article includes point by point refutations of Vartabedian’s claims, emphasizing that the FRA routinely offers “frank” analysis via confidential reports designed to ensure that problems get solved and projects get built quickly and effectively, rather than slog it out in the media.

Of course, that slog continues, as the California High Speed Rail Authority’s Dan Richard and Jeff Morales fire back in the LA Times:

The story ignores the fact that the original federal grant was only for basic construction, not all the stations, electrification and other features obviously necessary for operation. Calling those additions — which are funded by state dollars — a “cost overrun” seriously misleads readers, particularly when full project costs were announced by our board last month and submitted to the state Department of Finance and California Legislature. That plan was clear that capital costs for the $7.8 billion program have actually decreased.

The CHSRA is full of great people doing excellent work in a difficult environment, one that just got even more challenging with the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’s not right for Vartabedian to continue making misleading attacks on them and the project like this.

CHSRA Fires Back At Latest Flawed LA Times Article

Jan 17th, 2017 | Posted by

Dan Richard and Jeff Morales, chair and CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, fired back in an open letter to the Legislature against what they describe as a “fundamentally misleading” article by Ralph Vartabedian in the LA Times that implied the high speed rail project faced massive cost overruns:

First, with regard to cost, the article ignores the fact that the original grant funding was for basic civil construction and did not include stations, electrification, systems and other features necessary to achieve high-speed rail operations. These additional features — which are not overruns but necessary additions — are being funded with available state funding, as detailed in the plan approved by the Authority’s Board of Directors in December 2016. That plan provides extensive details, estimating the cost at $7.8 billion, not $9.5 or $10 billion; further, the $7.8 billion includes $900 million in contingencies to cover increases.

As has been detailed in the Authority’s 2016 Business Plan, the capital costs for the program have decreased, not increased, something not reported in the article. While overall capital costs have declined, we also reported to the legislature risks to the schedule and costs associated with specific construction packages and we will continue to do so, with our next project update to be provided to the legislature in March 2017.

The letter goes on to debunk more of Vartabedian’s article, including pointing out that the FRA says California is “on track” to spend the stimulus funding by September 30.

The letter makes it clear that once again, Vartabedian wrote a biased article that did not provide his readers with a full picture of what is actually going on with the high speed rail project or the FRA’s review.

HSR Opponents Seize on Federal Report to Slam Project

Jan 16th, 2017 | Posted by

It’s a movie we’ve seen several times before. A government agency issues a report warning that it’s possible there could be big cost overruns on the high speed rail project. (In other news, water is wet.) HSR opponents jump all over the report, Republicans wave it around to justify another attack, all while the California High Speed Rail Authority takes further steps to actually ensure everything goes as planned.

This movie has been rebooted again here in 2017, and our old buddy Ralph Vartabedian is once again writing the story:

California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion.

The federal document outlines far-reaching management problems: significant delays in environmental planning, lags in processing invoices for federal grants and continuing failures to acquire needed property.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

The report, the most critical official assessment of the project to surface so far, is labeled a “confidential-draft deliberative document for internal use only” and was presented by senior Federal Railroad Administration executives to California rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard and Chief Executive Jeff Morales on Dec. 1 in Washington.

This analysis puts the state on notice that it could face bigger cost overruns than anticipated and much longer delays than have been made public, a troubling critique by an agency that has been a stalwart supporter and longtime financier of the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

Leave it to Vartabedian to paint this in the worst possible light. He’s been convinced for years that massive cost overruns are certain, even though so far they haven’t materialized once the contracts have been signed.

He does let Jeff Morales have his say:

Morales cautioned in an interview that the numbers in the analysis are only projections and estimates that do not account for intervention by the rail authority, and he asserted that the construction in the Central Valley will cost less than the risk analysis indicates. The estimates, he said, are based on a lot of assumptions that the authority wants to ensure are correct.

“The point of doing this analysis is to identify the challenges and work through them,” he said. “They are not conclusions and not findings.”

Morales is, of course, correct. The analysis is part of good risk management and the Authority has repeatedly shown it is responsive to these warnings – to the extent they can, given that so much of their work depends on factors entirely out of their hands.

But then Vartabedian spends the rest of the article quoting Republican anti-HSR voices like Jeff Denham, as well as throwing other random attacks out at the Authority:

And an internal report obtained by The Times notes a just-completed survey in which employees complain that morale is low and has declined in each of the last three years. Employees interviewed by The Times say turnover is consistently high, leaving staff overworked. The rail authority’s senior deputy, its chief administrative officer and its top information technology executive recently left.

I have no way to know if this is true, and I’m certainly not going to take Vartabedian’s word for it. But if it is true, I’m sure the constant misleading and biased attacks from a reporter writing in the state’s largest newspaper has nothing at all to do with it.

The Authority has powered through the last ten years despite constant media attacks, constant doubts being leveled by Republicans, a persistent unwillingness by state and federal legislators to ensure the SF to LA project is fully funded, vicious personal attacks from HSR opponents (especially NIMBYs), and endless nuisance lawsuits.

It cannot be an easy job. Yet they not only continue doing it, they do it well. Construction is humming along without any major problems or overruns.

Still, these stories have their effect. And because Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president this week, we need to now start paying attention to what his administration’s Pravda – Breitbart.com – is saying about HSR. It’s mostly a rehash of Vartabedian’s article, but this stood out to me:

The Federal Railroad Administration provided California with $3.5 billion between two federal grants for the project. President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus granted funds to the project; however, if the state fails to meet a September 30 deadline that requires paperwork to be submitted by June 20, the rail authority could lose up to $220 million of those funds.

I will bet money that the Trump FRA finds a way to claim that the Authority missed this deadline and must repay that $220 million. I would not be surprised if they also make a play to try and clawback much more of that stimulus money, though I doubt it can go very far.

Of all the obstacles I described above that the Authority has weathered, they may be about to encounter the largest one yet: Donald Trump. Let’s hope California’s anti-Trump resistance includes refusing to let Trump destroy the state’s future by attacking high speed rail.