Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica
PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP SHAPING A BOLD NEW HIGH SPEED RAIL PLAN
As America slowly emerges from the Great Recession, increased economic activity will make it obvious that Big Sticks described in Part 3, have removed the luxury to slowly fix our transportation infrastructure. Part 4 also explains why we must not be misled by short term cheap gasoline and that America, if only for transportation security, must change its mix of energy consumption. Part 5 illustrates how our top metro areas are expanding Rapid Transit and building Multimodal Transportation Centers that will cut oil consumption and boost HSR patronage.
Weighing the Big Sticks vs. the Big Carrots described in Part 2, President Obama increased MPG standards for automobiles, boosted Rapid Transit funding, and kick-started wind and solar energy projects. He also set a visionary, yet realistic, goal of building an Interstate HSR System accessible by 80% of Americans by 2035. Rather than describe these huge benefits as "Big Carrots", in two State of the Union Addresses, Obama calls it "Winning the Future." With those goals in mind, the Secretary of Transportation is translating Obama's HSR vision into project launch milestones.
Riding HSR in Europe and Asia and engaging their train experts, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has a solid understanding of the benefits and costs of a world-class HSR network interconnected with Rapid Transit. Secretary LaHood knows that 22,000 miles of legacy rail routes and old train stations awaiting restoration into Multimodal Transportation Centers will save us several hundred billion dollars and many years of catch-up.
Dozens of funding applications from governors since Obama's HSR Kick-start are nice signs of political support for an Interstate HSR System, but LaHood suffers no illusions. Politics killed HSR projects in three states, costing time and public confidence before the funds were reallocated. LaHood now faces the added pressure of executing subsequent HSR project launches without hiccups. A supporting cast can help him pull it off.
SUPPORTING CAST INITIATES MERIT CRITERIA FOR HSR CORRIDOR RANKINGS
One anti-HSR argument claims that, excluding the Northeast, America doesn't have enough population density like Europe to justify building an Interstate HSR system. Now LaHood can prove that argument is bogus and intellectually lazy.
In Europe, HSR runs in multiple, densely-populated 150-500-mile corridors that contain major city-pairs every 40-100 miles. Though America has more open space, a check of the 2010 U.S. Census laid out on a map reveals that we also have many densely-populated 150-500-mile corridors that contain major city pairs every 40-100 miles. Moreover, compared to 2010, the U.S. Census also forecasts 71 million more Americans by 2040 -- most settling in our Top 50 Metro Areas located in mega-regions.
America 2050 HSR Study & Map, helps everyone understand how mega-regions, corridors and city-pairs should be prioritized based on the sum of primary, secondary and tertiary factors. Scoring those factors, the Northeast, California, and Midwest mega-regions have the highest merit. Texas, Florida, Mid-Atlantic-Piedmont, Cascadia, Gulf Coast, Arizona and Front Range mega-regions also have merit.
The America 2050 Study & Map suffers one inexcusable shortcoming -- the implied 2050 completion date. As indicated by President Obama's vision to complete an Interstate HSR System by 2035, the year 2050 is 15 years too late for our transportation and energy security, while accounting for population growth. The 2050 date implies that we can casually wait until 2020-25 to start VHSR projects that often have 20 year construction timelines.
Another flaw is the America 2050 HSR Study treats Transit Connectivity Population as a Secondary Factor based on 2009 data and does not account for rising oil prices. In Part 3 I explained, no matter how much oil we extract at home, oil is priced by the world marketplace. In Part 5, I explained that our Top 50 Metro Areas are rapidly expanding Rapid Transit, and the largest metro areas are building Multimodal Transportation Centers. Due to World Peak Oil conditions since 2010 and increasing oil demand by China and India, gasoline is likely to cost $8-9/gallon by 2020. The Federal Transit Administration has decades of evidence that transit usage increases in correlation to gasoline price hikes (economists call this "elasticity of demand"). Amtrak patronage has the same elasticity of demand correlating to gasoline prices. Furthermore, many top metro areas are adding offices, retail, hotels and residences around Multimodal Transportation Centers -- more collateral patrons for HSR. Hence, HSR executives can confidently forecast that when gasoline prices hit $9/gallon and inflation only accounts for $6 of it, demand for Transit and HSR will nearly double. Therefore, 2020 Transit Connectivity Population Forecast should be weighted as a Primary Factor rather than a Secondary Factor.
In 1990, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, UK and Spain had 155-186 mph HSR lines operating or under construction in high merit corridors. In 2010, America had the same number of densely-populated high-merit corridors as 1990 European Union. Yet, America had only one 135-150 mph HSR line operating and no 155+ mph lines under construction. That means we're already behind the Europe UNion, not to mention Japan and China. Since 155+ mph HSR projects take 10-20 years for completion and we are in World Peak Oil conditions, alarm bells should be sounding that we need to start building high-merit, 20-year projects no later than 2015 and 15-year projects no later than 2020. Therefore, high-merit 20 year projects should escalate to Primary Factor and high-merit 15-year projects should escalate to Secondary Factor.
Before President Obama, America was on pace for a 2010 transportation infrastructure trying to meet the transportation needs of 2035 America. His kickstart to HSR and Rail Transit changes the pace of funding for the Northeast Corridor and California to catch up by 2035. But without substantially more federal HSR and Transit funding to anchor projects, transportation infrastructure in every other region will lag by 20 years. Despite a number of challenges, Senior Fellow Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institute, notes that America is ready to begin building High Speed Rail in many more corridors.
The Federal Railroad Administration has not published a corridor ranking criteria. Consequently, most HSR advocates focus on the important, but inadequate America 2050 HSR Study for corridor merit rankings. To ensure that we build high-merit routes first, the FRA should do better. Another Secondary Factor should identify 2020 Corridor Population Forecast. Coupled with Cost Per Mile of Construction and 2020 Transit Connectivity, the threesome can form an insightful Cost Per Forecast Patron Mile metric that helps explain corridor project ranking with the public, news media and Congress.
COMMUNICATING THE RIGHT HSR SPEEDS AND TIMELINE TO AMERICA
The U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) is attracting worldwide HSR industry experts to their conferences to discuss best practices on how to build a world-class HSR network in America. The current USHSRA map comprehensively sews together the viewpoints of international experts, many politicians and regional consortiums. It is the only Interstate HSR System Map to date that sparks national imagination with blazing speed, mega-region connectivity and aggressive completion date.
The 2030 USHSRA Map is not without issues. The 2030 completion date is unrealistically aggressive by 5 years and the USHSRA did not develop a rigorous corridor ranking criteria. Consequently, half a dozen corridors can be questioned, even by HSR advocates like myself. Another blemish is the USHSRA Map only identifies 110 mph and 220 mph speeds.
French, Japanese, German, Canadian and Spanish train manufacturers have next generation VHSR trains that have Certified Operating Speeds up to 236-248 mph (380-400 kmph) on VHSR Routes certified for the same or higher speeds. European countries encountering every obstacle that we face, plus different voltage standards when trains travel between countries, are planning to support 186-193-199-206-211-217-224 mph (300-310-320-330-340-350-360 kmph) speeds, depending on patrons per mile, external noise and energy consumption factors.
An example of the latter is provided by an Italian train operator, Italo, who replaced older 186 mph HSR trains with the French-built AGV, a next generation VHSR train. Travelers love the AGVs for their slick aerodynamic exterior, smoother ride, greater luxury and quieter cabins. Ferrari-operated Italo loves them for being externally quieter and consuming 20% less energy at 186 mph than the older HSR trains.
Though Italo eventually plans to operate the AGV's faster, to maintain profits, Italo must keep energy costs under control because the laws of physics indicate that the same object needs 4 times more energy to go twice as fast. Since higher speed increases friction on wheels, brakes and catenary wires transmitting electricity to trains, Italo operators are also dependent on next generation components holding up. Wheels and brakes on next generation trains are more durable. Catenary wiring must also be upgraded on VHSR Routes for higher durability.
In the years ahead, more inexpensive wind, solar and geothermal energy will join hydroelectric and nuclear energy powering electric plants to keep a lid on energy costs for electric trains. As more nations construct/upgrade VHSR Routes, anticipate VHSR train operators choosing a maximum operating speed between 205-211-217-224 mph (330-340-350-360 kmph), yet maintain the same relative operating costs as 186-193-199 mph (300-310-320 kmph) trains today.
Amtrak is currently building VHSR track between Philadelphia and NYC. Once the upgrade completes, existing Acela trains will operate at 160 mph in that short segment. By 2022, VHSR trains will operate up to 200 mph in most of the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-NYC segment. America also has expansive desert and farmland in other high merit corridors feasible for 220 mph VHSR Routes. Thus, VHSR and HSR Routes combined under the name "Express HSR Routes" in USDOT parlance, should be enumerated as 160-220 mph on Vision for High Speed Rail in America maps.
IMPORTANCE OF SUB-3-HOUR TRIP TIMES AND TRAIN FREQUENCY TO BUSINESS TRAVEL
Like airplane travel, the premium paid for Business-Class train tickets make Coach-Class tickets affordable for leisure travel, while trains operate at a profit. Before 1975, many business travelers could go airport to center city in 2 to 3 hours. Today, airport runway congestion and airport security make Journey Time well over 3 hours. When the HSR option exists for a given corridor, business travelers compare these Journey Time factors for air vs. HSR:
• time to airport or train station
• ticketing, security & boarding time
• runway taxi, flight, de-boarding time
• taxi ride to city center time
When HSR trip times are 2.5 to 3 hours, more business travelers between city centers prefer HSR because it saves time on overnight trips. When trip time is under 2 hours in the same corridor, HSR business patronage soars because it enables more day trips. With those trip time characteristics in mind, a 2011 Siemens Study for Midwest High Speed Rail Association illustrates why very high speeds would attract substantially more business travelers:
110 mph 1:08 minutes, 220 mph 0:40 minutes
110 mph 4:10 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
110 mph 4:27 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
110 mph 4:24 minutes, 220 mph 1:55 minutes
110 mph 4:48 minutes, 220 mph 2:15 minutes
110 mph not applicable, 220 mph 2:45 minutes
As you would imagine, the Siemens Study forecasts substantially higher patronage and revenue for 220 mph HSR Routes in high merit corridors listed above.
Every traveler hates missing a flight because they value getting to their destination on-time or within a reasonable delay period. If the next flight is 30 minutes, piece of cake. If its 60 minutes, manageable. If its 90 minutes until the next departure, a delayed meeting time is costly, but tolerable. If its 120 minutes or longer, missed connections or a day trip often mushroom into a hotel stay. Business travelers in particular have the same concern on trains.
So the Siemens Study, using patronage data gathered in the Northeast Corridor and around the world, plans for trains to run every 30-60 minutes, depending on the corridor. Given HSR service typically begins at 5 am and ends at Midnight, the last train in a 3-hour route should leave no later than 9 pm. Thus, a high merit corridor first achieves 60-minute frequency with one Regional HSR train per hour x 16 hours = 16 daily trains. Train operators can also fudge 60-minute frequency up to 90-minute frequency between 9am-3pm for 14 daily trains while meeting the hourly business travel requirement in medium demand routes.
Train operators in Europe and Asia also found that business travelers pay a ticket premium for trains that skip stops to produce 1 to 3 hour Journey Times. Hence, train operators insert Express HSR trains between Regional HSR trains to achieve 30-minute frequency. If very high demand exists, train operators schedule 48-96 Regional and Express HSR trains to achieve 20- to 6-minute frequency in 400-475 mile corridors. When medium merit corridors feature 110 mph Emerging HSR Routes that achieve sub-3-hour Journey Times, they can maximize patronage and revenue with 14-18 daily trains in 225-250 mile corridors.
ICE Valero train by Siemens runs up to 320 kmph (199 mph)
CHANGE FEDERAL RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION CULTURE
Within the USDOT, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does a great job representing the interests of freight companies, who own most of America's rails. They maintain low regulation and help preserve freight right of ways. In contrast, Interstate HSR requires high regulation and new management skills to scrutinize route speeds and frequencies, and to choose alignments that maximize Forecast Cost Per Patron Mile. For example, a FRA competent in HSR planning never would have approved a 49-60 mph "HSR" project in Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor. Slower speed than driving is PR poison for High Speed Rail.
To prevent similar mistakes, Secretary LaHood must shake-up FRA management with talent that better understands HSR and congeals input from HSR engineers, pro-HSR congresspersons, governors, America 2050, U.S. High Speed Rail Association, and the Brookings Institution. Having access to project engineering & cost studies from its funding applicants, the FRA can more accurately assign merit scores to each corridor and better identify public-private HSR opportunities.
The Interstate HSR Construction Forecast Map should contain 2010, 2015, 2020, 2025, 2030 and 2035 animated milestone completion dates. The Interstate HSR System Speed Map should illustrate different colors for 110, 160, 200-220 mph routes. Another page should summarize speeds and train frequencies that best match corridor rankings to produce attractive Forecast Cost Per Patron Mile. This particularly important to explain why certain HSR corridors merit building VHSR Routes and why certain HSR corridors should be built before other HSR corridors.
For comparison to Interstate Highways, USDOT should include 2010, 2015, 2020, 2025, 2030 and 2035 forecast maps of highway congestion, airport congestion, jobs created, foreign oil consumption in U.S. corridors WITH and WITHOUT the Interstate HSR System. Another section should illustrate the higher costs of widening highways in the same corridors and international airports that can not add runways. Additional pages should estimate smog and greenhouse gas reductions.
Obama and LaHood should unveil the updated 2035 Vision for High Speed Rail in America in early 2013. Ask celebrities, mayors, governors and businesses to back the vision in a compilation video, website and a downloadable Acrobat PDF summary. That 2035 Vision for High Speed Rail in America weblink and PDF should be circulated across the Internet, TV, Radio and Print media. In that manner, it will spark more interest by the public and politicians looking for ways to generate jobs, boost productivity and relieve traffic congestion using Green Transportation.
AMTRAK BRANDS SHOULD BE BASED ON MAXIMUM OPERATING SPEED, TRAIN FREQUENCY & ON-TIME PERFORMANCE
Today, most HSR-critics accept that when Acela in Boston-NYC-Washington Route is upgraded to 160 mph maximum operating speed, more train frequency and higher on-time performance, it can double patronage. That's cool, but if super-highways were limited to a single Northeast Corridor, the Interstate Highway System never would have transformed our nation.
Amtrak Northeast Corridor plus extensions to Springfield, Albany and Harrisburg
Unfortunately, the notion of an Interstate HSR System isn't on the radar screen of most taxpayers. That's understandable, when the frame of reference is slow Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor. To survive de-funding threats over the years, Amtrak appeased Congresspersons and governors in low and medium merit corridors with slow, low frequency service. That lame brand image does not increase public interest outside the Northeast.
To place Vision for High Speed Rail in America on the average person's radar screen, the FRA and Amtrak have more work to do. After the new & improved FRA prioritizes mega-region corridors and city-pairs, Congress and the President should give FRA authority to make Amtrak cancel low-merit routes (low population, low patronage) or transfer them to states who want to run them as Regional Commuter Rail routes. In general, Greyhound, Megabus and Boltbus have better business models for lower patronage routes, so some passenger rail routes should disappear. Then, the FRA can focus on gluing high- and medium-merit projects together for a more effective 2035 Vision for High Speed Rail in America.
The FRA should demand that Amtrak represent excellence handling its part of the Interstate HSR System by committing, under significant penalty, to standards of excellence similar to these:
• Emerging HSR 110 mph, 14-18 daily trains each way, 80-85% on-time
• Express HSR 160-185 mph, 28-48 daily trains each way, 95% on-time
• VHSR 200-220 mph, 48-96 daily trains each way, 98% on-time
Train nerds know that Average Speed is more important the Top Speed. For example, a 160 mph train that stops every 15 miles produces a lower average speed and longer Journey Time than a 110 mph train that stops every 50 miles. But John Q. Public doesn't need that level of detail, if Interstate HSR operators follow the best practices in Europe and Asia. Their best practices suggest that 110 mph trains should stop every 20-35 miles, 160-185 mph trains should stop every 40-75 miles and 200-220 mph trains should stop every 60-125 miles.
ACCELERATE CONSTRUCTION OF SHOWCASE HSR PROJECTS
California has the nation's worst transportation-related smog and auto traffic congestion. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that California's Central Valley will add 10 million people by 2030 and 7 of the 9 largest California airports can not be expanded. That is why the California DOT under Democratic and Republican governors understood that a "No Build Transportation Option" does not exist in a such a growing state. Instead, the two Build Transportation Options became as clear, as they are diametrically opposite:
A. Spend less taxpayer funds and attract private investment to take 2 lanes of land that divert freeway traffic to HSR thereby, REDUCING foreign oil consumption, traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases.
B. Spend more taxpayer funds without private investment carving mountain sides and acquiring more land for 8 more freeway lanes, thereby INCREASING foreign oil consumption, traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases.
Even in the state most dominated with auto culture, Californians voted for the HSR Build Option in a $9.9 billion bond measure in 2008. In 2010, Obama committed $4 billion in federal funding to California HSR and Amtrak California. In 2012, the California legislature and governor approved the start of construction. The nation also benefits from lower foreign oil consumption, less greenhouse gas emissions and less air traffic delay originating from Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area and surprisingly, Las Vegas.
A private party called XpressWest backed by $1.5 billion from Las Vegas casinos has acquired federal approval for a $7 billion plan to build HSR from Las Vegas in the median of I-15 Highway to Victorville. Though Nevada DOT will invest as well, the project hinges on whether it receives federal loan guarantees of $4.5 billion. XpressWest will order the same trains as California HSR and Amtrak HSR to reduce costs by volume purchase. We'll see if the funds are approved in 2013. XpressWest backers informally seek additionally federal funding to extend the route 50 miles from Victorville to Palmdale Station on the California HSR System.
By law, all California HSR bond money must be used towards the designated California HSR route. But since XpressWest will remove cars from congested California freeways and reduce freeway maintenance costs, California DOT is supportive of XpressWest in ways detached from the HSR bond money. Metrolink commuter rail agency, which owns tracks between the existing Palmdale Station and Los Angeles Union Station, is also a supporter of XpressWest.
Interrelated California HSR and Metrolink projects will upgrade the route for electric-powered HSR trains between Palmdale, San Fernando Valley, LA Union Station and Anaheim. Since XpressWest runs through mostly flat desert, trains can run over 200 mph for more sub-3 Hour Journey Times to/from Northern and Southern California.
But the federal transportation objective is less about profit than mode shifting patrons from congested highways and regional flights to HSR. Success at the objective can be measured as Cost Per Patron Mile. To attract more mode-shifting patrons and lower Cost Per Patron Mile, USDOT should stipulate that if federal grant and loan money pays for over 50% of the route, XpressWest trains should also run up to 200-220 mph, like California HSR. At 200-220 mph, California HSR patrons from San Francisco and Sacramento would also have 3-Hour Journey Times.
Provided XpressWest construction commences by 2014 and the USDOT includes those speed stipulations, service between Las Vegas-Palmdale can open by 2022, where XpressWest travelers can transfer to Metrolink trains from LA Union Station and Amtrak trains to Sacramento. By 2026, California HSR travelers from San Francisco can transfer from Palmdale Station to XpressWest to reach Las Vegas for a 3-hour trip time. By 2028, travelers from LA Union Station will have a one-seat XpressWest ride to Las Vegas in 2 hour 15 minutes and a one-seat 2 hour 40 minute California HSR ride to San Francisco Transbay Transit Center.
By designating Northeast Region, California HSR and XpressWest as "Showcase Projects", Congress and the President have a huge opportunity to complete projects faster and cheaper. While under construction, the design goals of 160-220 mph top speeds, sub-3-hour Journey Times, 48-80 daily train frequencies and 95-98% on-time performance would also capture the public's imagination.
Congress and Presidents have occasionally moved funding bills up sooner than scheduled. So they can accelerate Federal HSR funding, which attracts more State & Local HSR funding. The next Surface Transportation Bill is scheduled for September 2014. Transportation bills are usually 6 years in length to enable contractors to plan complex construction schedules with a high degree of certainty and to make larger volume orders that lower project costs. Given the last transportation bill was drawn up in September 2012 under hyper-partisan Election Year politics, its funding level suffered Draconian cuts. The bill was also an unusually short 2 years.
Based on the uncertainty of federal funding, operational milestones for California HSR and XpressWest are 2022, 2026 and 2028. If federal funding accelerates and increases for California HSR and XpressWest, building contractors can compress those milestone dates to roughly 2020, 2023 and 2025. Accelerated funding will do the same in the Northeast. These Showcase Projects would generate profitability and tax revenues 2-3 years sooner. So additional Surface Transportation funding is a fine candidate to revisit in 2013.
There is reason to anticipate that Surface Transportation funding may be increase sooner than scheduled. More members of the 2013-14 Congress have reasons to better cooperate with President Obama in his 2nd term. See Part 7 for insights.