Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Train: The Appalachian Hub, Part 1

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence at:
The Hillbilly Report, MyLeftWing, Docudharma, and ProgressiveBlue, coming to Agent Orange about 9pm EDT.

It is widely remarked that the US Department of Transport map of High Speed Rail Corridors leaves a lot of obvious holes.

Often, this reflects a misunderstanding of what the DoT is mapping. This is not a "Master Plan". There is no HSRail planner division inside the Federal Rail Administration inside the Department of Transport that is working away at deciding which corridor should be added to the corridor.

Instead, what they have mapped are the corridors that are eligible for HSRail funding. The way that things are set up is that a state or group of states do some planning, petition Congress be designated as a HSRail corridor, or added to a corridor, or for less sweeping changes petition the Department of Transport to revise an existing corridor, and {*voila*}, that's a designated corridor.

Since the corridor is a funding category, there are lots of HSRail corridors that are not on the DoT map. For example, compare the corridor map to the full Midwest Hub which is, formally, the "Mid-West Regional Rail System", a hub and spoke system centered on Chicago.

Some of the "missing lines" are not 110mph lines, but some - like Milwaukee to Green Bay, or Kalamazoo to Port Huron - are planned for 110mph.

So why are they missing? Because they are not planned for immediate construction. Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo/Port Huron would not be started until Chicago/Detroit is running as an HSRail corridor. Milwaukee/Green Bay would not start until Chicago/Milwaukee is running as an 110mph service. There is no reason to seek designation for these branch corridors until the corridors they branch out from are under construction and nearing completion.

Looking at the full Midwest Hub from a Buckeye perspective, there is one real obvious gap - the Cleveland/Columbus/Cincinnati route - the "Triple-C". And, as you can see above, the Triple-C planned for by the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) in their Ohio Hub plan, was added to the Midwest HSRail corridor system.

But the Ohio Hub is much more than just the Triple-C. It reaches out to connect to the East Coast via Buffalo and the Empire Corridor and Pittsburgh and the Keystone Corridor, and direct connections for southern and central Ohio to Detroit and Chicago. However, it is a staged plan, and the Triple-C is the first stage, so that is all that shows up on the Federal map.

Some Gaps Really Are Gaps

Some gaps in the corridor map, however, are exactly that: gaps. East of the Mississippi, the biggest gap is right smack dab in the middle: Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The only plans that I am aware of that even touch these states are a maglev proposal from Atlanta to Chattanooga, and the designation of Indianapolis to Louisville in the Federal corridor map - which is not, note, part of the most recent Midwest Hub.

And in general, in what will be no news to anybody who grew up in or near Appalachia, very few routes are planned to run through Appalachia at all.

The Keystone Corridor extended by a later stage of the Ohio Hub runs east to west through the far northern end of Appalachia, while the Gulf Coast corridor swings through Birmingham, Alabama, so its got to run into the far southern end of Appalachia. But West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia, Western North or South Carolina, northwestern Georgia - pretty much nothing.

You might think, "but, this is terrible terrain for High Speed Rail, its normal that there are few High Speed Rail corridors planned".

Except - the HSRail system has that problem covered.

Tilt-Trains and Appalachian Rail

The Federal designation of "High Speed Rail" actually covers three distinct tiers of High Speed Rail. The top tier, "Express HSR", are the bullet trains that most people think of when they hear HSR. And bullet trains through mountainous terrain are massive undertakings, with tunnels connecting to viaducts connecting to tunnels. For the size of most of the cities and towns of Appalachia - even when connecting them to a large metropolis - it is very hard to justify the cost per mile in terms of the available ridership.

But the second and third tiers, the 125mph "Regional HSR" and 110mph "Emerging HSR", are different. These are the speeds you can get to on existing right of way with modern "tilt-trains".

You can't just run at 110mph on an existing right of way without upgrades, of course. The track sometimes has to be upgraded to take 60mph rail traffic. All level crossings have to be upgraded to standard above the 79mph standard. The signaling has to be upgraded. Still, the new grade-separated right of way designed for trains running 220mph is the biggest cost of an Express HSR system, and that is not needed for an express tilt-train system.

That is why, after all, the Midwest Hub, Ohio Hub, Empire Corridor, Keystone Corridors, Southeast Corridor and Gulf Coast Corridor are all planned for 110mph or 125mph tilt-train systems. There are quite a lot of cities that can be connected for two to three hour trips via 110mph or 125mph trains, and connecting them with Emerging HSR and Regional HSR corridors allows five to ten times as many route-miles as an Express HSR system.

So, what is a tilt-train, and why is it important?

The top speed of a train only has a loose relationship with the travel time between two places. The problem is curves. A passenger train needs to bank to go through a curve at speed, to avoid tossing the passengers inside around like so much loose baggage.

Problem is, when you are sharing track between passenger trains and freight trains, banking the track to allow for faster passenger trains leaves a slower freight train unbalanced, causing excessive wear, for higher maintenance cost and increased risk of derailment. And a heavy freight train has to go slower, because a trestle that can handle a passenger train with 17 tons per axle at 110mph cannot necessarily take a heavy freight train with 33 tons per axle at 100mph.

So, as the Japanese, Spanish and Italians have worked out over the last thirty years, a key trick to sharing track between 110mph passenger trains and slower heavy freight trains is for the fast passenger train to do part of the banking itself. This is the "tilt-train".

And the more curves, the more benefit the tilt-train provides. Indeed, for the existing Amtrak routes through Appalachia, such as the DC/Cincinnati route through West Virginia, a tilt-train running at 79mph would be faster than a regular Amtrak running at 79mph.

Actually, a 110mph tilt-train can be more energy efficient than a 79mph train on a typical Appalachian alignment. While the the 79mph is constantly slowing down for tighter curves curves and then speeding up to go through looser curves, the 110mph is able to maintain a much steadier speed.

Network Economies and the Appalachian Hub Stage 1

The "Appalachian Hub" sketched here - and I stress that this is just a back of the envelope concept, and there is absolutely no state rail planning agency behind this unless people in these states make it happen - fills in the big hole in the middle of the current state plans east of the Mississippi.

You may notice that one of the striking features of this Appalachian Hub is how much of it lies outside of Appalachia. The reason for that is simple. While the Great Lakes states, Southeast Coast states, and Gulf Coast states have at least got systems up on the drawing boards that Appalachian rail corridors can connect to ... it seems like the state governments of Kentucky and Tennessee have been laying down on the job.

So the first stage is to complete the hole in the ring around Appalachia, with a corridor from Atlanta to Chattanooga to Nashville to Louisville to Cincinnati. As noted on the map, the Nashville to Cincinnati leg could also be usefully extended to Memphis.

Access to an 110mph route at Chattanooga opens up the door to an Amtrak speed route from Knoxville to Chattanooga, which can be incrementally upgraded to 90mph then 110mph. When it reaches 110mph, that opens the door to a through route from Atlanta to Knoxville, which can run through to Lexington and on to Cincinnati.

The ultimate target for these corridor would be electrification and signal and level crossing upgrades to allow them to run at 125mph.

Stage 2: The Real Appalachian Hub

Even with these corridors in place, there are still a big hole in the map. Much of the hole represents the Appalachian mountains themselves. But of course, they have mountains in Spain, Italy and Japan - that's why they led the way in developing tilt trains.

The northernmost east-west link is the existing Amtrak route through the eastern pandhandle of West Virginia from Pittsburgh through to Washington DC. That ties into the Keystone Corridor and Ohio Hub at the western end, and the Northeast Corridor and Southeast Corridor at the eastern end.

The second east-west link in the map runs into the Appalachian foothill counties of Ohio that are excluded from the Ohio Hub, then to Charleston, West Virginia, then on to Washington DC on the existing Cincinnati/Washington Amtrak route.

The third east-west link on the map runs from Knoxville, Tennessee through the TN "tri-cities" of Kinsgport, Johnson City, and Bristol, and then through Western Virginia to Roanoke and on to Richmond.

Now, it looks like the second and third east-west links run awful close to each other, and on the state map it looks like it might be possible to crosslink those, with the existing Cincinnati/Washington route through Charleston, WV, connecting to a Columbus/Richmond line. However, while I am still on the look-out for a useful rail link to make that cross-connect - so far the miles between the two routes seem to be "mountain miles", and it might be that no real useful route exists.

Wait a minute, what about the owners?

This whole business of "sharing right of way" sometimes means laying new track in a sliver of a right of way bought off a railroad ... and sometimes means sharing track owned by a private railroad.

Won't they mind? Many railroads are awfully grumpy hosts for Amtrak, and if an Amtrak service is fifteen minutes late for a scheduled slot, some rail operators will think nothing of putting a coal train in that slot instead that will stretch the delay out to hours.

Even where these Emerging HSR corridors share track used by freight railroads, they will be upgrading track and corridor to 60mph capacity, and installing somewhere around 10 miles of passing track for every 50 miles of track. That allows the HSR services to run through without being interrupted by freight service. But it also means that there is an increase in freight capacity without cost to the freight operator.

The HSR corridors will also see a number of trains per day each way, at a rate negotiated up front, with each train paying an access fee for use of the track, which is a better source of income than one (or fewer) Amtrak service each way.

Finally, one of the things that has been driving the push to single-track rail corridors is the fact that railroads, unlike public roads and airports, pay local property taxes. The new improvements to serve the HSR corridors will typically be owned by a public authority, so the private railroads gain this new capacity without an increase in their property tax burden. At the same time, for many small towns the railroad can be their only commercial property tax income, and this approach avoids disrupting their local tax base.

Conclusions? This is just Part 1

This is a work in progress, and I am sure there are glitches, flaws, etcetera all the way through. Next time I look at the Appalachian Hub (no promises on how many weeks it will be), I will be doing back-of-the-envelope comparisons of the transport market along these corridors compared to some of the other HSR corridors already on the map.

Of course, if you find one of those glitches, I'd thank you for that. Also stories about transport in the are, criticism, praise, sharing the link around to friends of Appalachia and friends and enemies of High Speed Rail alike.

So for now, I'll open the floor for discussion.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Samuelson transforms Glaeser's hackery into The HSR Stupid

Morris [http://www.docudharma.com/diary/15589/sunday-train-ed-morris-duped-by-libertarian-hsr-hackery says] he and his tag-team High Speed Rail partner Ed Glaeser ... that's HSR or #HSrail for short ... are taking at least a one week break. So Robert Samuelson [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/23/AR2009082302037.html steps into the breach].

He repeats the old familiar argument:
  • (1) Amtrak requires operating subsidies.
  • (2) Rail operators overseas had the same problem.
  • (3) Rail operators overseas found out that increasing the speed solved the problem.
  • (4) So if we do the same thing, it will lose money.
Why does (4) follow from (1), (2), and (3)? It doesn't, of course, its just guilt by association given the form and shape of an argument to allow intellectually dishonest rhetoric to pass as if it were real argument.

He also channels Ed Glaeser's hackery on High Speed Rail, and indeed using the strategy that Ed Glaeser's hackery was built for:
In a blog-posted analysis, Glaeser made generous assumptions for trains...

... except,
  • (1) Ed Glaeser is looking at a "hypothetical" Express HSR corridor with a potential ridership of 1.5m.
  • Which is (2) not enough ridership to get an Express HSR corridor funded under the current policy - the California Express HSR system will be 10's of millions.
  • So (3) it would be either The Big Stupid or The Big Lie to use Glaeser to criticize the current policy.
  • Notice, its easy to be generous when you have rigged the game from the start

This is Robert Samuelson, not the famous Paul Samuelson (and while I critique much of Paul Samuelson's work, he had an impressive intellect and work ethic), so I pick The Big Stupid. This is just recycling the argument Ed Glaeser made, with an even bigger dose of (mostly inherited) reputation to make up for an even smaller dose of actual argument.

Note about the picture: the WaPo supports Samuelson pretending to engage in serious argument by showing a Japanese high speed train, with a caption about high density and such. This is of course also intellectually dishonest, since HSR has been a big success in areas like Germany, with similar population density to Ohio, and Spain, with similar population density to California. So my picture above is a Spanish high speed train, "from a country with similar size, population density, and geography to California".

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sunday Train: Ed Morris Duped by Libertarian HSR Hackery

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Freakonomist Eric Morris finishes up his tag-team attack with Ed Glaeser on the HSR policy with a post that confesses to the hack jobs both are doing on HSR policy - but works hard to spin the confession into a defense of the hackery.

Eric Morris's efforts have been clearly the weaker of the two, to the point where Ryan Avent, who wrote blog posts to pick apart the analytical flaws of Ed Glaeser's four part series as well as the first posts by Eric Morris, responded to Eric Morris' last effort via twitter:
@ryanavent: Eric Morris closes HSR series by referring readers to Randal O'Toole. You know, in case you thought he and Glaeser were aiming for an honest critique

The main takeway point from below?
So the bait and switch is as follows. By overstating the costs and understating the benefits of Express HSR, "it costs too much", or is only useful in a very few special cases, and therefore we cannot afford its "transformative benefits". And by ignoring the fact that the benefit of investing in Emerging HSR is greater than the cost, and focusing on dismissing the quality of the benefits, the Emerging HSR is "unworthy" of investment because it is not "transformative" enough.

The "Libertarian" Alliance

Randal O'Toole, for those who do not know, is the "Libertarian" anti-HSR propagandist working for the Cato Institute, with corporate sponsors that might have an interest in the High Speed Rail debate including: the American Petroleum Institute; ExxonMobil; General Motors; Honda North America; Toyota Motor Corporation; and Volkswagen of America.

Oh, and by the way, buying propaganda for your corporation propaganda doesn't really cost all that much. According to Sourcewatch (above link), for example, Cato's corporate haul came to under $700,000 total in 2006, and that will cover a wide range of pro-corporate propaganda on health insurance reform, regulating the corporate ability to dump unlimited amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, pollution regulation and, yes, transportation policy that may shift consumer buying habits and help a nation reduce its addiction to your product. A few $10,000's spread to a handful of foundation-supported propaganda mills, repeated by a few dozens of corporations, and you've got a tidy little propaganda industry, for very little outlay.

Now, it sure does look bad that Eric Morris' is willing to elevate Randal O'Toole to "articulate critic" status. But, what about the hypothesis that he's just too busy to read O'Toole's work and compare it to non-partisan information sources to understand that O'Toole is a hack? That is, maybe Eric Morris has been duped instead of trying to deliberately mislead?

The answer is, of course, maybe he is. I don't know from any other source what species of partisan hackery this is. For all I know, Eric Morris could be engaged in deliberate deception, or he could be using his reputation to push an argument without investing enough time and trouble to get to the bottom of the matter. The only place I can look for clues is his arguments themselves.

One point to understand is that the partisan hack job will continue:
A couple of caveats are in order. First, transportation investments are highly context-sensitive; Dallas-Houston may not pencil out, but other lines may have more potential. Glaeser and I will return to this in a couple of weeks.
... so it is in any event necessary to be prepared for further partisan hackery.

Also, note the admission that this is a coordinated attack by two of the NYT conservative economic bloggers - here Eric Morris admits to the coordination.

The Attack on the Express HSR Policy Plank

The second caveat:
we have been considering a true electric high-speed rail system with average speeds of 150 m.p.h. or more. Florida has flirted with such a system, but currently only California is in the advanced stages of planning one. This is where much if not most of the stimulus money will eventually go.

That is, they were focusing on a hypothetical under 300-mile Dallas/Houston corridor where they presume the ridership potential of 1.5m - a distance that makes a far less expensive Emerging HSR another option - in order to critique the California HSR system, where well over 300 miles separates the LA Basin from the Bay, with several cities over 100,000 along the alignment between the two, and where the potential ridership is in the 10's of millions.

There is not the slightest indication that there will be any significant funding at all for an Express HSR corridor with ridership projected to be 1.5m. Its like "proving" that a large roast turkey cannot feed a family of four at Thanksgiving by working out whether a small roast squab can feed a family of four - there is no reason for focusing on a hypothetical route with a presumed ridership of 1.5m as an Express HSR except to get the answer "costs greater than benefits" which can then be turned into a talking point, "Express HSR costs are generally greater than benefits".

The Attack on the Emerging HSR Policy Plank

Eric Morris kind-of acknowledges (without recognizing) this critique:
The proposals on the table for the rest of the nation are currently much more modest; while electric HSR is the endgame, for now plans focus on maintaining what we have or on raising the top speeds of existing Amtrak trains (outside the Boston-Washington and Los Angeles-San Diego corridors) from 79 m.p.h. to 110 m.p.h. This sounds quite fast, but average speeds would be well below the top speeds; we’d be looking at an effective increase from about 40 to 50 m.p.h. to about 70 to 75 m.p.h.

I added the emphasis: "Electric HSR is the endgame". Reading it through, you'd think "Electric HSR"="Express HSR" ... but it doesn't. Where the cost of a new Express HSR corridor is not justified, there is the option of directly upgrading an Emerging HSR to an electrified 125mph Regional HSR corridor. And since well-chosen Emerging HSR corridors will gain the ridership to generate operating surpluses, they can fund the state side of the capital investment themselves with revenue bonds.

We then see Morris channeling his inner O'Toole with the following bit of blatant [self?/deliberate?] deception:
But even this more modest strategy is not inexpensive. Current estimates are vague, but one puts the cost of upgrades to three comparatively modest Midwest segments (Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Detroit, and Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison) at $4 billion. This totals out to $200 per resident of those cities, a considerable amount given that most of those people will use the service rarely, if at all.

There are four deceptions here. I will take them in ascending order.

Cities at the end points are not the sole beneficiaries. With stations every 30 to 50 miles, leveraging the express connections between the large metro areas with all-stations services using the same infrastructure, there is substantial service provided to smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas in between the cities at both ends of the corridor. And these corridors are the seed corridors in a network, so as the network expands, these corridors will also serve population centers outside the corridors.

Second, Morris says "$200" with no time frame. Ed Glaeser presented capital costs in annual terms, because the scenario was already biased to give massive net costs. But taking Eric Morris' "$200 per resident" at a 3% real discount rate on publicly finance investment gives an annual capitalized cost of under $10.25.

The annualized cost under $10.25 per year is the far more reasonable number to state. However, "Under $10.25 per person per year" sounds far too reasonable for infrastructure similar to an airport that many residents will use, but most residents will use only rarely. And Morris undercounts the of population served, so that'll be well under $10 per person per year for access to a new transport choice, far less exposed to the risk of oil price shocks.

Third, Morris treats the Emerging HSR as if there is no congestion cost or capital cost saving in the transport capacity going by rail instead of air or road. This is a point that was a major part of Ryan Avent's earlier critique of Ed Glaeser's conclusion of his part of this tag-team effort:
Glaeser seems to believe that in coming decades congestion costs will cease rising; otherwise he'd build future increases into his model. He seems to think that the addition of over 100 million new Americans need not lead to any new infrastructure investment; otherwise he'd compare the economic benefits and life-cycle emissions of rail investments to alternative investment plans.

The fourth and largest deception here - the most blatant partisan sleight of hand - is that Morris is talking about capital cost per person - abandoning the analysis of costs versus benefit. If there is more than $200 in economic benefits "per person" for the $200 in spending "per person" ... what is the point of focusing on gross cost "per person"? If there is a net benefit, what is important is that net benefit means more opportunity to do more things later.

This biggest deception opens the door for this bait-and-switch:
Moreover, this path will not have the transformative environmental benefits that HSR backers tout, since the services in question will use diesel trains and will not travel at game-changing speeds.

This bait and switch seems likely to be the basis of their next series promised in a few weeks time. But like a street corner con game of Three Card Monte, you can't be fooled if you know the trick of the game.

A Rhetorical Game of Three Card Monte

The most capital efficient Emerging HSR corridors are justified in terms of their transport benefits per dollar, and also offer net enviromental and energy benefits, in terms of reduces CO2 emissions, increased energy efficiency, reduced oil dependency, the opportunity to upgrade to no oil dependency, and support for Transit Oriented Development, both directly at Emerging HSR stations and indirectly at stops on local transport routes that become financially stronger as a result of their connection at the HSR station. (see zOMG These Aint Real HSR Trains!")

Meanwhile there are a select few Express HSR corridors, such as the San Francisco Bay to the LA Basin, that are justified on their transport benefits alone, when the cost of other ways of providing the same transport benefit is taken into account. Following the path sketched by Ed Glaeser, that result is to be reversed by ignoring the cost of other ways of providing the transport capacity needed for population growth in coming decades.

Other Express HSR corridors will require Emerging HSR corridors to lead the way, building potential ridership, fostering growth of local rail transport, and improving rail access to large metro areas, before they will be cost-effective.

So the bait and switch is as follows. By overstating the costs and understating the benefits of Express HSR, "it costs too much", or is only useful in a very few special cases, and therefore we cannot afford its "transformative benefits". And by ignoring the fact that the benefit of investing in Emerging HSR is greater than the cost, and focusing on dismissing the quality of the benefits, the Emerging HSR is "unworthy" of investment because it is not "transformative" enough.

The fact that Emerging HSR corridors can be upgraded to all-electric Regional HSR corridors and can also reduce the costs and amplify the benefits of newly constructed Express HSR may be simply ignored, since most people will be unaware of it. The less people know, the more likely the bait-and-switch will work.

Don't Think About Congestion Costs!

Finally, in not considering the costs of other ways to provide the same transport capacity, Eric Morris opens the way for the biggest deception of all:
Costs in the real world are quite different. HSR is an exciting idea, and if we could make it appear by magic wand it’d be a terrific addition to our transportation network. But everything has a price, and the way things currently stand, the projected costs look like they outweigh the benefits. If the thought of some ominous budget numbers lurking on a piece of paper in far-off Washington doesn’t move you, consider the opportunity costs of this spending, in terms of health care, education, the economy, defense, or a (more effective) method of slowing global warming. Or if you want to keep the money in the realm of transportation, it could go to address what I consider to be the more serious problem we are facing: moving people around within our cities, not between them.

And so we finally see the hook that the so-called "Libertarians" would seem to have used to snare Eric Morris into spending his reputation on promoting their anti-HSR attack: that HSR and local public transport are rivals, and if only we do not spend on HSR, we can use those resources for better local transport.

For this, the deception on costs versus benefits would seem likely to be self-deception, since the opportunity of not engaging in investment in transport infrastructure with economic benefits outweighing the economic costs is less capacity to deal with everything else. That is, not investing in a net benefit does not "free up" resources for anything else.

In addition to this self-deception, Eric Morris also requires a substantial amount of political naivete. And in this case it is a trained naivete, one that is likely to be reinforced by experience in public transport policy over the past three decades.

Ever since the rise of Reaganism, our transport policy on everything except roads and air travel has been increasingly plagued by false choices between projects when, based on the benefit/cost ratios of road projects we fund, all of the rival transport projects ought to be funded. We have pushed the benefit/cost ratio required for local light rail funded by New Starts, for example, to dizzying heights - heights that would bring most road projects to a screeching halt - while at the same time discounting "benefits" that do not contribute to sprawl.

And this has fed the reflex assumption between backers of one public transport choice that they are engaged in a death match for funds with backers of other public transport choices.

But, politically, all three tiers of HSR are different. All of them offer advantages that extend out into suburban and rural areas. That makes it possible for the three tiers of HSR to make political alliances in places that are used to seeing local rail as spending for "big cities" alone.

Which means that instead of cut throat rivalry, HSR is a political coalition builder for local transport spending. Not only does HSR offer functional benefits to local public transport in suburban areas where they tend to be weak, and joint investment in infrastructure that benefits both HSR and local public transport (see A False Contest Between Local Rail and HSR to Kill Off Both) ... it also offers the opportunity to build a coalition in support of rail investment that represents a majority of the nation.

And that coalition offers the prospect of far greater investment in local public transport corridors than single-interest-group politics has shown any ability to deliver over the past thirty years.

Of course, the Cato Institute are being hypocrites when they raise this sort of argument, since they fight just as hard against investment in local rail transport as they do against investment in HSR. So, assuming that Eric Morris is sincere in this argument, its clear that he's been duped into attacking the policy that has the best prospects of shifting the political environment in favor of the substantial investment in local sustainable transport that we so urgently require.

The so-called "Libertarians" fighting against a broader range of transport choices understand that HSR is the camels nose in the transport tent. Some of their funders, such as the Petroleum Institution and ExxonMobile, likely understand.

But Eric Morris seems to have been duped into arguing that the camel's head should be pushed out of the tent because he wants to make room for the rest of the camel.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Playing Hardball with the Senate: Bring out the Nuclear Option

Burning the Midnight Oil for Progressive Populism

OK say, just hypothetically, that you are an administration looking to get one of your two signature policies passed. And the Senate, deeply entrenched in the pockets of the affected industry, looked like it will gut your legislation so badly that getting the result passed will stink of failure almost as much as the stench of failure if it is defeated.

Suppose its so bad that the Senate action is the most likely way for your party to lose the Majority in the House is for the disappointed Democratic supporters of so-called "Blue Dogs" to stay home in the midterms while fire up Republican opponents turn out in large numbers.

That would be the time to bring out the "nuclear option" ... the threat to radically change the Senate Filibuster rule so it can no longer be used as a roadblock to reform.

A short note on terminology

Yes, this soon after the anniversary of Hiroshima, it is striking that calling elimination go the filibuster "the nuclear option" is absurd hyperbole. It is, however, the term that is used, since the Republicans (back in the days when a "permanent Republican Majority" was a theory floating around) proposed eliminating filibusters on judicial appointments.

The Greatest Reform

Eliminate the filibuster, which is to say, restore the point from the original Senate rules of order that made a motion to bring the previous motion to a vote in order. That would make half the Senate plus One (or half the Senate plus the VP, when they are on the same side of the issue) sufficient to close debate - that is the rule that is used to make it impossible to have a filibuster in most committees and legislatures and boards around the world.

The Wikipedia Machine says that Aaron Burr proposed eliminating the rule, because it seemed redundant and had only been used once in the prior four years. However, the framing point here is that at the founding of the Senate, a filibuster was not possible: if a measure had the votes to win, debate could be closed off by the same winning margin.

The Great Reform

Don't know how likely the Greatest Reform is. However, if not likely, here's a version that runs on the "Make the Senators Do Their Goddamned Jobs" frame.

Under our system, each House can initiate legislation, and each House acts as a House of Review for legislation initiated by the other body. Now, the Senate can work under whatever arcane rules it wants to for initiating legislation, and indeed it can stage a sit-down strike on initiating legislation at all ... especially since early in the last century, it is now made up of elected representatives from every state in the union.

However, why should a House of Review have the right to refuse to fracking review the goddamned work of the House of Government, which is also made up of elected representatives from every state in the union.

So the "Great Reform" (but not Greatest Reform) is simply this: if the Senate has not brought its own version of legislation passed by the House to the floor in two calender months, it is in order to bring the original house legislation to the floor for an up or down vote without debate or amendment. Two months is plenty of time to get an existing bill out of committee and to the floor for a vote.

Note that legislation brought to the floor in this way does not require a conference committee and a second passage of the reconciled bill through both houses ... it is both houses passing the same wording, so it goes straight to the President for signature.

If the Senate wants to change something, bring an amended version to the floor. If the Senate wants to defeat something, bring the legislation to the floor and vote it down. But the Senate can no longer have a minority of Senators simply go on strike and refuse to do their goddamned job on something already enacted by the other chamber.

Note that if this was presented as legislation by the President (and there are various bills that touch on Congressional procedures ... various versions of PAYGO are an example) ... and in the event that it passes ... it would then be protected from being overturned by either a Senate filibuster, or a House majority in opposition to changing the rules.

Of course it would be subject to a filibuster threat, but the Senate filibustering on the principle of protecting its right to sit on its fat ass and do nothing would be a fine spectacle for setting up a rare increase in Senate majority by the party taking the White House in the first mid-term election.

The Small Reform

The Small Reform is more procedural than that one. It is changing the rules of the Senate so that the 3/5 required for cloture is 3/5 of the members present, and making quorum calls out of order once the Senate has been in session 24 continuous hours.

This would turn the filibuster back into the high political theatre it once was - and it would force the supporters of the filibuster to bring in their cots. They have to stay there and rotate control of the floor, and once a cloture vote has been brought to the batters box procedurally, the supporters of cloture are in a position to bum rush the room when the ranks of the filibusterers wane.

You can just see some of the hijinks ... the cable news channels will love to retell the story of the Senator that flew out of town, then put the slip on snoops watching the airport by catching the sleeper train back and walked in leading 50 Senators to bring the bill to a vote as seven of the filibusterers had headed off to caucus and fell asleep in the caucus room.

Once Rahm Gets Over His Hissy Fit ...

If we stand firm and push hard, the Progressive Caucus will stand firm on the public option. We are, collectively, stronger than Rahm Fracking Emanuel. He can swear and scream and carry on, but we are a threat to the job security of most members of the Progressive Caucus, if we get our backs up and support a primary opponent ... and Rahm Fracking Emanuel is not.

However, after he had beaten his head against that brick wall for long enough for it to sink into even his thick skull, this is where Rahm takes his "I don't give a frack what is in the bill, I want a win" act on the road to the Senate, and threatens to take away their filibuster toy unless they get something through that the Progressive Caucus will pass.


What, you think I can reach a conclusion on this without feedback? If you do, your more nuts than that lady at the townhall who said ...

... oh, never mind. Just have at it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Train: zOMG these aint REAL HSR trains!

Living Energy Independence

I've seen this before ... indeed, it was mentioned recently in some discussion threads of Libertarians Against Choice ... the effort to play divide and conquer by arguing "if it doesn't go 220mph, it isn't worth doing".

John Hilkevitch of the Chicago Tribune asked last money Are 110mph trains on the right track? (secondary link - I'm having trouble with the primary), establishing at the outset the false frame that 110mph and 220mph trains are two different "tracks" and we have to choose between them.

This is, of course, uninformed nonsense. Indeed, the first generation of bullet trains were 125mph trains, which is the second tier of the three-tier Department of Transport system.

Where does this meme come from? Some of it is a natural reaction. "110mph? How fast do those European trains go? Why can't we go that fast?" But some of it is clearly cultivated, since I see it in the writings of anti-HSR propagandists like O'Toole, where we find in a mix of facts, half-truths, red herrings and outright lies the following argument:
The FRA is not proposing to build 200-mph bullet trains
throughout the U.S. Instead, in most places it is proposing to
upgrade existing freight lines to allow passenger trains to run as
fast as 110 mph – which means average speeds of only 55-75
mph. This would actually be slower than driving for anyone
whose origin and destination are not both right next to a train

The first distortion here is the misleading pretense that the FRA is proposing the corridors. This is simply not the way the process works. Instead, a state or a group of states proceeds with preliminary planning, including identifying potential ridership and identifying potential alignments. As part of the process of getting ready to apply for Federal funding, any alignment that is not yet part of an existing Dept. of Transport HSR corridor needs to apply to be added to a corridor (or designated as a new corridor - under the original Clinton-era HSR legislation, Congress has one more corridor designation available to hand out).

The second distortion is the tacit suggestion that the only competitive advantage that rail can have over cars in transport markets is faster speed ... because after all, nobody ever takes passenger trains that are slower than driving.

Except, of course, they do ... experience in several states, including HSR funding applicant California and Illinois, is that providing more frequent and more reliable conventional rail results in increased patronage. Now, if the people taking the train before were those with no choice ... some of the new riders are those who could have driven, but decided to ride instead.

The third distortion is a 50:50 mix of outright lie and red herring. As described in techincal detail in this report from Sweden (pdf), when a track is shared with slower speed trains, and the track is banked for the slower speed trains - and this is essential when the slower trains include heavy freight, with their axle loads of up to 33 short tons - that means that curves impose a speed limit on trains, even if trains have a much higher top speed.

In fact, four factors interact: distance between stations, top speed, power of the locomotive, and the banking possible around curves. The closer stations are together, the more important a powerful locomotive becomes, because so much time is spent pulling out of stations ... but once stations are over 4 miles to 12 miles apart (depending on the tightness of the curve), the ability to tilt is more important.

So if you run a conventional train with a locomotive that can reach 110mph then it is perfectly reasonably to say that trip speed will be 55mph-75mph. However, with stations 30 miles apart or more, as in the Ohio Hub and Midwest Hub plans, and if tilt-train technology is used, the fastest trip speeds rise to the range of 85mph. If the line is then electrified, which increases acceleration and deceleration, that top speed can exceed 90mph.

Indeed, O'Toole is either confused or bullshitting when he says (p. 9):
It is unlikely that moderate-speed train operations will save any energy at all. Such trains will mostly be Diesel-powered, and increasing speeds from 79 to 110 mph will significantly increase the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of those trains. Saving energy requires that trains accelerate slowly and coast into stations rather than brake heavily, but such practices reduce the time savings offered by higher top speeds.

... since the primary factor determining the energy efficiency of intercity rail is the load factor ... the percentage of time that the average seat is occupied. Even Diesel 110mph tilt-trains have between fuel efficiency per seat-mile than cars do, so as long as their load factor is higher than that of cars, they are saving energy.

And how do you get load factors up? Well, consider the Triple-C corridor, from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati. At 79mph, that is two main transport markets - Cleveland/Columbus and Columbus/Cincinnati. At well over 3 hours, Cleveland/Cincinnati, the end to end trips fall outside of the day trip market, which is a strategic threshold for attracting riders from a wide range of market niches. The typical seat will either by occupied twice, or will be occupied for one leg but not the other.

At 110mph, Cleveland/Cincinnati comes into range for the day trip market. That increases ridership, and in particular increases the seats that are sold to be occupied for 100% of the route. And it also increases the frequency of rail services that can be offered, which makes it easier to match up to periods of stronger transport demand. And, of course, more frequent services means it is easier to use shift price sensitive passengers onto services with less demand, making room on the high demand services for the departure/arrival sensitive passengers ...

... all of which translates into higher load factors.

O'Toole is, of course, not interested in actually analyzing energy efficiency ... his interest is coming up with arguments against the HSR policy. But the point of interest for this post is the way that he works to divide Emerging HSR from Express HSR, which is presented as better than Emerging HSR (albeit "probably not good enough"):
True high-speed trains save energy by using lighter equipment, but the energy cost of higher speeds party offsets the savings from hauling less weight. Any remaining operational savings are not likely to be sufficient to recover the huge amounts of energy consumed and greenhouse gases released during construction of new rail lines.72

(Also note here the talking point on CO2 construction parroted by Freakonomist Ed Morris, despite the fact that he was citing a source that debunked the claim.)

Emerging HSR and Express HSR Are The Same Track

So, the Libertarian anti-rail propagandists are out there spreading the talking point that "and most of these are 'real' HSR anyway", aided and abetted by Express HSR enthusiasts who have fallen into the trap of talking down one option as a means to boost the chances of another one.

But it just does not hold water. Well chosen 110mph routes will be able to generate operating surpluses, so once they are up and running, they will not be fighting against other transport for public funds. Indeed, they will be able to support revenue bonds for their own capital improvements ... including, importantly, electrification.

By sharing stations with cross-cutting Emerging HSR corridors, Express HSR stations will have substantially more reach by supporting Emerging HSR / Express HSR transfer passengers.

Indeed, just as in France, once the 110mph corridors have been electrified, then a single 220mph corridor can host multiple services that continue beyond the end of the 220mph corridor to various points on the main inter-urban network. While they would not operate at the same speed as a train designed for those routes, they will benefit from the increased capacity and untangling of freight trains and passenger trains that has been undertaken for the Emerging HSR services.

Also, the process of establishing the 110mph Emerging HSR corridors will include untangling bottlenecks that currently plague express intercity services running through our major metropolitan areas. It is not critical for the Express HSR service to run through the densely populated core of major metropolitan areas at full speed ... but it is critical to have unimpeded access. Indeed, one of the reasons that the French HSR corridors were so financially successful is that they were able to leverage the existing infrastructure to allow Express Intercity services into major metropolitan areas, so 220mph corridor construction could be focused in the countryside where it was much less expensive.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a program focusing on Express HSR alone faces extreme political vulnerability. Competing against heavily subsidized interstate road and air infrastructure, Express HSR corridors will required substantial up-front capital subsidies. Relying on development of new rights of way, completely grade separated from the existing road and rail networks, these systems can take a decade or more to build. And under current conditions, relatively few states would be likely to participate in the first round of corridors ... a special concern given that the US Senate is normally where progressive policies go to die.

However, when all the types of rail services that offer substantial improvements on what is presently available are collected together into a single package, the result is much more politically robust. Over 70% of the states can make a quite serious and reasonable case for inclusion in some form of "Higher Speed Rail" corridor, whether Emerging HSR, Regional HSR or Express HSR ... and, indeed, over 60% have already done so, at least to the point of gaining corridor designation for their starter lines.

And unlike Express HSR, the Emerging HSR corridors can deliver results must more quickly, with many of the ones that have already completed their environmental impact statements able to go from funding to running services in three to four years time. And the ongoing launching of services in various parts of the country will naturally lead to cries of, "why not us?" ... which lays the foundation for maintaining the ongoing funding required to construct the Express HSR corridors.

What is the Strategic Point

And that would seem to be the strategic point behind that particular Libertarian talking points - divide and conquer. Whenever "the other side" is stronger in coalition than separately, it should be expected that part of the attack is an effort to wedge the coalition apart.

And the particular appeal of this particular wedge strategy is the fact that you can get enthusiastic Express HSR to do some of your dirty work for you. Despite that fact that a "standalone Express HSR" policy will not be able to deliver as much money for Express HSR as the coalition strategy will do, there will always be those who fall into the trap of seeing the funding going to Emerging HSR and Regional HSR and think, "why, they shouldn't get that money, we should".

And so all that the Libertarians propaganda mills need to do for this particular talking point to take a life of its own is to encourage the politically naive among Express HSR supporters in that misguided jealousy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Aint Gonna Study War No More

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Arc of the Sun

I guess its natural, as an advocate for transport cycling and for transport systems like High Speed Rail, light rail, and Quality Buses that support cycle transport, that among the enemies of our long term national interest, that I tend to focus on the Oil Patch and their allies.

But, what would our economy be like if we didn't study war no more?

Consider just official Federal Defense Spending, in 2005 dollars and as a Percent of GDP (to closest 0.1%) (BEA):
  • 1995: $476.8b, 5.2%
  • 2000: $453.5b, 4.0%
  • 2005: $589.0b, 4.7%
  • 2008: $659.4b, 5.0%

You can see right there why it was necessary to have Bush rather than Gore elected as President in 2000, and why the two candidates on the Democratic side in favor of expanding the size of the army were the two finalists in the Democratic primary contest to clean up for the mess that Bush made of things.

Direct Federal spending on "Defense" goods and services was heading south of 4%, and that could not be tolerated.

Suppose we transitioned to a cap on "Defense" spending of 3%. That would be plenty for naval forces to defend sea lanes, though maybe not for maintaining the current level of amphibious assault forces ... it would be plenty for air forces for continental defense, though of course we might have to scale back on overseas air bases ... it would be plenty for armed forces for continental defense, though of course we might have to scale back on overseas air bases.

It would, indeed, be plenty to retain the biggest military force on the face of the planet. Just not necessarily enough to allow us to invade one country while planning to invade another one.

And at the present size of GDP, it would be about $400b in direct government Defense spending, which would free up about $260b annually to invest in actual national defense.

What would we be giving up

There is one thing that we would certainly have to give up under this plan: the Carter Doctrine:
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world's exportable oil. ...

This situation demands careful thought, steady nerves, and resolute action, not only for this year but for many years to come. ...

Meeting this challenge will take national will, diplomatic and political wisdom, economic sacrifice, and, of course, military capability. We must call on the best that is in us to preserve the security of this crucial region.

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

The Persian Gulf is in Dar Islam, on the faultline in the biggest structural conflict within Dar Islam, between Shia and Sunni, southeast of a rising China, northeast of a rising India, southwest of a European continent slowly developing the accouterments of a nation state, and south of a Russia ruled by an oligarchy well versed in using foreign policy adventurism to distract from domestic authoritarianism.

And what is the Carter Doctrine? That we must maintain sufficient military force to assure access to the Oil of the Person Gulf for the global oil market, because if the supply is cut off, the price will go through the roof.

And then look at the Price Tag of that policy ... given that there is no other geopolitical challenge that we face that we could not meet with the military force that can be maintained on a budget of 3% of GDP ...

... $260b/year is a conservative estimate. Its just the economic cost of government purchases of "Defense related" Goods and Services. It entirely omits the economic commitment to a perpetual trade deficit in the Energy sector. It entirely omits the economic commitment to the "strong" (which is to say, anti-export) dollar exchange rates required to maintain the global base network of over 700 foreign bases. It entirely omits the economic cost of directing so much of our government spending into the destruction of global production capacity.

Greatest of all, it entirely omits the social cost of the militarization of US society.

So, $260b is a conservative price tag.

And what is the Real Cost of the Carter Doctrine

These are real resources of the nation being directed into the Military-Industrial sector of the economy. The question, then, it what kind of National Defense could we buy for $260b/year in terms of Energy Self-Sufficiency?

I have sketched some of these before in various forums:
we can spend $75b per year over the next six years to electrify the Dept. of Defense "STrategic RAil Corridor NETwork - STRACNET. That requires capital funding, but only when oil is cheap ... in the context of expensive oil, bonds to electrify STRACNET are readily self-funding through user charges. A form of crude oil import tariff that slides off as crude oil approaches $80/barrel would suffice to "fund" that. Or else, we can simply deficit spend for that ... since cutting off 10% of our demand for petroleum imports is an investment that pays for itself in multiple ways.

We can spend $75b per year over the next decade to build local electric transport corridors ... from trolley buses and Rapid Streetcars through conventional Light Rail and commuter heavy rail all the way to the mass transit niche for the biggest cities. Fund those projects on an 80:20 federal match, include both direct and indirect impacts on Energy Independence and Congestion Relief, and there will be no difficulty finding projects that justify the public investment. And, again, we can simply deficit spend for that ... if we can spent $1T+ on trying and failing to gain access to the last big pools of cheap crude oil in the world, we can definitely spend $750b on permanent alternatives to crude oil based transport.

We can spend $5b a year over six years on Electricity Superhighways to connect our main regional consumption grids to renewable resource areas. We can spend $20b a year on electric inter-urban transport over the next decade, from Express HSR through Regional and Emerging HSR to electric stopping trains. We can spend $25b a year on interest subsidies for Connie Mae finance for decentralized CO2 emission reduction and energy efficiency improvements, repaid out of the reduction in operating costs, on an ongoing basis.

And that's just $200b over the next six years, $120b over the decade. There's $60b left to add, rising to $140b by the middle of the next decade. If I was looking for a single program in addition to those sketched above, I would consider a wholesale conversion of our agricultural production subsidies and price supports into ecosystem conservancy payments for agricultural practices that preserve and rehabilitate the life support capacity of our continent.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

Lessee: for $260b a year, spent over a long enough time span, we can reach oil independence and Energy Self-Sufficiency. Meanwhile, even at the present levels of the military budget, we cannot guarantee that we have the military capacity to keep the Straits of Hormuz open. A couple of supersonic cruise missile strikes on a carrier task group and a couple of supersonic cruise missile strikes on some oil tankers, and the Straits shut down.

This really is the stage before the running of the numbers, where you work out which options allow you to reach the objective and which do not. The above may not be the preferred option, but its on the list for evaluation. Meanwhile, the Carter Doctrine does not reach the objective of Energy Security, so it does not get on the list for evaluation.


Waddya think, I can reach any conclusions here without your help? That's crazy talk.

Midnight Oil - My Country Video Clip

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ed Glaeser just plain lies about High Speed Rail

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Ryan Avent has provided excellent coverage of many of the flaws of Ed Glaeser's ongoing analysis of Cost and Benefits of HSR. and his current piece, Ed Glaeser's Rail Fail, is not exception.

Indeed, I read Ryan Avent's piece first, before reading Ed Glaeser's work, so I would not feel the need to vent on another one of Ed Glaeser's analytical flaws that had already been explained more clearly by someone with a broader readership in the area.

Still, one thing struck me, in addition to what Ryan Avent says, which is that Ed Glaeser in the most recent piece comes out with a blatant lie, and indeed one that is highly likely to mislead the casual reader:
As in the previous two posts, I focus on a mythical 240-mile-line between Houston and Dallas, which was chosen to avoid giving the impression that this back-of-the-envelope calculation represents a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route. (The Texas route will be certainly far less attractive than high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, but it is not inherently less reasonable than the proposed high-speed rail routes across Missouri or between Dallas and Oklahoma City.)

The proposed HSR route across Missouri and the proposed route between Dallas and Oklahoma City are 110mph Emerging HSR routes. But Ed Glaeser pretends that this part of Obama's HSR policy package simply does not exist. The very GAO study that he uses to estimate the cost of an Express System at $40m per mile says that the cost of Emerging HSR corridor proposals lie between $4m and $12m per mile. So for the kind of corridors he cites here, his capital cost estimates are inflated Threefold to Tenfold.

The whole argument falls apart right there. Nobody is proposing an Express HSR corridor for any route expected to serve 1.5m riders per year. All proposals for routes expected to serve riderships in the 100,000's to 1m's are 110mph "Emerging HSR" systems or 125mph "Regional HSR" systems. Actual projects to develop 220mph "Express HSR" systems are to serve riderships of far more than 1.5m.

So the strongest conclusion that is available to him is that if we were to abandon the White House policy - which focuses capital-intensive Express HSR corridors on opportunities to attract substantial riderships, and focuses on capital-efficient Emerging HSR for the situation he imagines for Dallas/Houston - and instead adopt a policy of funding all Express HSR corridors nationwide to serve riderships 1m or 2m, that would not be cost-effective.

Well, "No Shit Sherlock"!

Last week, this was an omission ... a "failing", a "flaw", even "ignorant misinformation".

But this week, he directly claims that he is analyzing a hypothetical project that is similar to actual projects being proposed.

And then points to corridors where that is a flat out lie.

What can I say? Its going to take more than one person to call Bullshit on this lie. Search for news articles with letters to the editor or online commentary that echo this lie ... here is one google search to get started ... and point out that Ed Glaeser has stepped over the line from shoddy analysis to a clear, direct, lie about current High Speed Rail policy.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Libertarians Against Choice: The Attack on Obama's HSR Policy

Recently, I speculated on what was behind the recent surge in op-ed articles using slipshod reasoning to attack the policy of the Obama administration to support investment in High Speed Rail travel options for the American Public. And, I stress, it was speculative:
However, just as with our Freakonomist Eric Morris, its a lot easier to adopt the stance of declaring "skepticism" and use that declaration as a magic incantation to dispense with any need to actually find information. Simply paint a specific Sustainable Energy Independence project as receiving "uncritical support", declare yourself a skeptic, and you are free to spout the a Libertarian anti-HSR talking point without dwelling on such messy things as facts and figures.

However, in searching for specific examples of the "libertarian talking points" that I referred to, I came across this excellent collection at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, in their High Speed Rail: Fact versus Fiction, where they collect a series of talking points from the three main anti-public-transport think tanks - Cato, Heritage, and the Reason Foundation (just google if you need the links).

I am not, of course, charging Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron, Freakonomist Eric Morris, or Economist Ed Glaeser with being part of a vast right wing conspiracy. It seems more likely that they were just being lazy, and taking advantage of material that the less than vast "Libertarian" Conspiracy had made available.

But the question of whether it is laziness or malice does not need to be resolved ... in either case, it is important to push back against the "Libertarian" conspiracy.

The fictions used as "Libertarian" talking points that the Midwest HSR Association highlight are:
  • "High-speed rail is a technology whose time has come and gone" (Cato Institute, July 09)
  • "Many trains, particularly Amtrak trains, are notoriously late, requiring travelers to factor in a time 'buffer' on both ends of their destination." (Reason Foundation, May 2009)
  • "Boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving" (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • "The Department of Energy says that, in intercity travel, automobiles are as energy-efficient as Amtrak" (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • "It's not realistic at all because it's not competitive on price and it's not competitive on convenience." (Heritage Foundation, July 2009)
  • "Asking everyone to shoulder the financial burden of building train lines to benefit a narrow and wealthy segment of the traveling public is just wrong." (Reason Foundation, July 2009)
  • "No high-speed rail in the U.S. will ever pay its operating, much less capital costs." (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • "Less than 1 percent will ride." (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • "It doesn’t work in Europe" and "it doesn't work in Japan" (Cato Institute, July 2009)
  • "Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel....But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway....In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road." (Cato Institute, April 2009)
  • "Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road...trains will push freight onto the highways." (Cato Institute, April 2007)

I urge anyone planning to roam through the newspaper Letters to the Editors following stories on HSR to bookmark this FAQ sheet, since the specific talking points will often show up verbatim, and there's no harm in quickly getting the contrary facts out there. And, it goes without saying, I urge anyone who wants to support the President's HSR policy to do exactly that ... don't stay within the blogosphere, but write Letters to the Editor and respond on online newspaper commentary sites.

Especially in these economically trouble times, its something you can do when your ability to donate to the numerous good causes clamoring for your contribution has been tapped out.

I will not respond to the talking points point-by-point ... click through the Midwest HSR Association FAQ sheet for that, they are all very good answers.

What I do want to do is to suggest three basic lines of attack that a roving group of three to seven grassroots HSR supporters could use to not only counter the "Libertarian" talking points, but to also to sway uncommitted readers before the "Libertarians" get their hooks into them.


This is why I have been putting "Libertarian" in scare quotes ... this campaign by "Libertarian" think tanks has one main goal: to reduce the range of American's transport choices.

The fiction that "only 1% will ever use it" is, of course, silly. It is based on the current Amtrak system, which for the majority of the country is a slow, often delayed, skeleton system normally operating one or fewer services a day, or, for much of their route, one or fewer services in the middle of each night.

Faster, more frequent, more reliable services with trips available when people want to travel attract riders. Hell, Illinois doubled its regional rail patronage just be making more conventional Amtrak services available, and California is doing the same thing.

Higher Speeds increase the population density per hour of train travel, and so it increases financial performance, so that well chosen HSR corridors will generate an operating surplus. That means that once we build them, the choice will continue to be available, independent of whatever state and local transport budgets will be coming.

And they are a choice of transport that can be made independent of imported gas and diesel. Even when they run on diesel, they can add another passenger with no extra fuel cost, so every time someone chooses to ride a train instead of drive a car, gas is saved.

Indeed, when people choose to ride the train instead of taking a car or a flight, that choice benefits those who choose to drive and fly. Growing cities and towns need more transport capacity, and 110mph Emerging HSR can be built in much of the country for less cost than a new interstate highway lane.

National Security

Investment in 110mph Emerging HSR and 125mph Regional HSR helps national defense in two ways. First, the most obvious, it provides us a way to move people from one place to another with less or no reliance on imported petroleum. This is why, after all, that the Department of Defense includes Amtrak service as a criteria for including a rail corridor in its STrategic RAil Corridor NETwork - STRACNET.

However, there is an additional point. The investments in Emerging HSR and Regional HSR include upgrades to level crossings, and signaling systems, as well as investment in passing track and dedicated track to allow passenger rail to run without interference from freight.

Those same upgrades allows freight traffic to run faster, and to run with less interference from passenger traffic. So while the Emerging HSR and Regional HSR upgrades are focused on supporting passenger rail service, they also benefit freight rail service. And so in terms of national defense, they serve double duty, allowing us to move more freight from one place to another in the face of an attack on our sources of imported petroleum.

Local Transport Choices

A well-designed HSR corridor has more stops than a competing flight would have, because the stop at a station is much faster for a train than landing and taking off is for a plane. That means that in big metropolitan areas, the HSR will have both a main downtown station, connected into the existing public transport network, and one or more outer suburban stations, readily accessibly to suburban motorists.

And Americans often stereotype local public transport ... local mass transit rail service, light rail service, streetcar service, high frequency bus service ... as something that primarily services dense urban core.

But when we look at why public transport routes struggle in suburban areas, one major problem is that they do not have a competitive advantage in serving any transport destination, so the only people riding the services are those with no choice.

So one benefit to local transport out in the suburbs is that an HSR station provides an anchor for patronage, that will attract those who have a choice, and for whom the local transport lets them leave the car parked at home.

This is likely to be only a marginal impact in a large city with 10% or more trips on mass transit and other public transport ... but in an area that struggles to attract each fraction of a percent of local transport, it can be the difference between service every one or two hours and service every half hour, and can add hours to the total service day.

A second benefit for outer suburban areas that an Emerging or Regional HSR corridor passes through is that local trains can use the same rail lines. Once they have been provided with upgraded tracks and signals and crossings, the extra capacity to serve a local service as well is much lower ... in many cases it will just be the locals-only stations, stable sidings at the ends of the routes, and the costs of buying and operating the trains themselves.

This does not, of course, mean that every suburb will have a local rail line running through it ... but it substantially increases the numbers of suburban residences that offer the choice of living within five miles of a suburban train station.

And finally, HSR make for attractive political alliances for local transport, since the HSR services attract interest from suburban and rural areas between metropolitan areas, and support for investment in conventional rail and other public transport in urban areas in addition to investment in HSR can attract suburban and rural support that investment in public transport in urban areas have struggled to attract on its own.

And we have seen this already. The $9.95b in state bonds for the California HSR system includes $9b in bonds for the Express HSR (220mph) system, and $950m in bonds for complementary transport services. The $8b in HSR funding in the Stimulus Package includes a substantial preference for infrastructure that can benefit both HSR and local public transport services.

Its a natural political coalition, since it is based on mutual self-interest. Strong local transport systems in big metropolitan areas ensures a stronger passenger share of HSR systems in inter-regional transport, and a stronger ridership on those systems ensures more frequent services serving the HSR stations in suburban and rural areas.

Meanwhile, since well chosen HSR corridors will operate at a surplus.

Libertarian talking points that I have seen that dispute this have invariably used one of two tricks. The first trick is to pool subsidised conventional rail service with HSR service in order to mask the operating surpluses of HSR services. The second trick is to cherry-pick operating losses in the first few years of an HSR service that is building its ridership. Indeed, I have seen the Cato propagandist O'Toole point to the loss of the first year of the Taiwanese HSR corridor, even as it outperformed its projected ridership and so was on track to reach operating surpluses even faster than originally expected. Indeed, an HSR system that has ridership with confirms that it is on track to an operating surplus can use revenue bonds to finance losses in its first two or three years as it builds up its ridership.

The operating surpluses available to HSR services means that a well-chosen HSR corridor will not result in pressure to divert funds from operating subsidies for local transport systems. So supporters of local transport can support even quite substantial capital subsidies for HSR systems, without it blowing up in their face in the future.

This is in marked contrast to roadworks, where support for new capital spending on roadworks to boost a local economy in the short term is often a ticking financial time bomb that will blow up the state and local transport budget, but only after the people that cut the ribbon and celebrated the highway widening have moved on to other things.

So HSR will benefit local transport in three ways: by providing transfer patronage - which is especially important for struggling suburban transit authorities; by providing opportunities to share the infrastructure built in support of the HSR service, and by supporting a political coalition expanding well beyond the traditional large urban political base of high frequency local public transport services.

Go Out Now And Preach the Word

Now, the "Libertarians" have their propaganda development arms at Heritage and Reason and Cato, and a small army of people "spreading the good news of less transport choice and weaker national security" in multiple online locales, from Youtube and Facebook and Myspace to a determined presence in the online commentary sites of any newspaper that prints a story on HSR.

On the other hand, they need as many advantages as they can get, since they labor under the handicap that they are just making shit up, and once they get beyond the incestuous merry-go-round of citing the people that got talking points from the other people they cite, and hit the actual Wide World of Facts and Information, their talking points do not hold water.

Above are lines of argument to draw on to seed newspaper LTE columns and online commentary sites with perspectives that a lazy "Libertarian" informed columnist or reporter will not have brought up, and the Fact and Fiction page offers a well written set of needles to use to puncture the "Libertarian" hot air balloons that you are most likely to see launched.

So, if you want to support the President's HSR agenda, sign up with Transportation For America, the National Association of Rail Passengers, the US HSR Association and/or a local Citizen Rail Group (links courtesy NARP). Or, if you want to "roll your own" rapid response team, use news.google High Speed Rail (that is last week, last day for a collaborative group), set up an email alert, and hit the trenches.

Arise! Break these "Libertarian" shackles ... we have nothing to lose but hot air, and we have new transport choices to win!

Midnight Oil - Read About It music video ...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Glaeser Hacks up the Numbers on HSR

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Last things first ... after reading and commenting here, go ahead and comment at Running the Numbers on HSR by Edward Glaeser.

This last weekend, I looked at a low-brow attack on HSR by John McCarron in the Chicago Tribune. This week, I look at a high brow attack by the economist Edward Glaeser at the NYTimes "Economix".

However, the attack by Edward Glaeser is different. Even if some suspect a partisan motive, given Glaser's support for McCain ... this is not the kind of hackery we are seeing in the health care debate, where paid partisan hacks are just blatantly lying. Its the kind of hackery that is embedded in a frame, and which will bias the results of any honest analysis done within that frame.

The hackery, in other words, is almost entirely in his framing of the problem, and the framing is a quite mainstream economic framing. Which means that shining a light on the biases of this analysis has the potential to give insight on how to pushback against a whole host of highbrow academic attacks on HSR in particular and public investment in useful infrastructure for a New Energy Economy in general.

Glaeser pursues an analysis that is biased against capital intensive transport ... and ignores the most capital efficient means of providing HSR between Dallas and Houston, as well as the most capital efficient alignment for providing Express HSR between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio-Austin. It is taking the mainstream definition of economics as the study of the allocation of scarce resources to unlimited human wants and needs ... and adding a rider, "plus, ignore the most effective means of pursuing the particular choice you are talking about."

And, yes, clearly Glaeser timed his piece for the day before my first class of the new term, so that I am responding to his piece days and days after it came out. Which means I have not chance of getting linked into at the immediate reactions ... but on the other hand, gives me the benefit of being able to use the immediate reactions.

Basic Skeleton Outline of a Basic Skeleton Analysis

Its a short piece, so summarizing it makes it really short:
  • The project is justified if benefits more than covers costs
  • Immediate benefits are the benefit to the riders on the HSR
  • Costs are operating costs and corridor construction and maintenance overheads
  • In other words:
    Number of Riders times (Benefit per Rider minus Variable Costs per Rider) minus Fixed Costs.

  • Benefits are $40 for a saved hour of travel, $80 saving on ticket costs, and say $20 for added comfort and amenity, $140/traveller less variable costs of $72/trip, for a net benefit per rider of $68.
  • Times, Glaeser guestimates, 1.5m riders, is $102m for net benefits from the trips.
  • Based on a mid-range of costs from a CBO study of Express HSR, and mid-range maintenance costs per mile of corridor in European experience, Glaeser arrives at fixed costs of around $650m.
  • So unless there are external benefits adding up to around $550m/year, its not a worthwhile investment.

Critiques Glaeser's analysis

More than a few people have critiqued Glaeser's argument.

Ryan Avent has addressed Glaeser writing on HSR on two days in a row for Streetsblog Capital Hill: Glaeser takes an Unserious Look at High Speed Rail on Wednesday, which our own Robert Cruickshank ("eugene") used as a springboard at the California HSR blog, and then on Thursday looking at Glaeser channeling the "False Contest between HSR and Local Rail" talking point in Missing the Point on High Speed Rail. Oh, and at very least click through to Ryan's pieces ... they deserve the hits far more than Glaeser's piece does.

In the Wednesday piece, Ryan Avent considers the corridor chosen, and also the considerations that the analysis omits:
Why would he choose this corridor to examine? Why not begin with the most natural place to construct true HSR -- the Northeastern Corridor -- or the state moving fastest toward building its own true HSR network -- California?
What are his long-term assumptions? How quickly does he think the population of the Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas will grow? What will that population growth do to the number of people living within easy reach of a train station? How will that population growth interact with planned expansions of local transit systems?

How sensitive are his projections of changes in oil prices? Do they take into account the effect of changing demographics on demand for various kinds of housing and transportation?
And that brings us to a final point (which, again, Glaeser may ultimately address): What is the proposed alternative?

Is it doing nothing? Then at what point does the rising cost of congestion justify construction of something? Let's say an alternative is new airport capacity; well, how do the costs and benefits there work out, and how does that math change with oil at $150 per barrel?

Or perhaps an alternative is new highway capacity. Can we see a cost-benefit analysis for that, and how that varies with oil prices, congestion levels, and so on? If we assume that drivers will need to pay the full maintenance cost of the highway network already constructed via a user fee (and currently they're coming up well short), what does that do to expected demand for rail?

Even if you accept the numbers that Glaeser uses (and one shouldn't automatically do so), you're left with almost nothing -- an amateurish, back-of-the-envelope analysis for a corridor that's not even part of the current Obama administration plan. What is this supposed to prove, exactly?

Of course, this is just one of Glaeser's peices. In Friday in the Boston Globe, Glaeser trotted out the argument "invest in mass transit instead of HSR", as if killing off HSR is going to do anything other than reduce the ability of mass transit advocates to gain increased funding. And, despite despite Robert Cruickshank's title to the contrary, it was in this piece on Thursday that Ryan Avent truly and completely demolishes Glaeser's analysis. Indeed, consider it embedded in full right here, and if you do not have time to read it in full and also the remainder here, then click through now, and thanks for stopping by.

Why is it Fair to call this a Hack Job?

OK, welcome back.

Now, my real focus here is how to recognize that Glaeser's analysis of HSR cost and benefits is not just wrong, but is, indeed, a hack job. That is, the analysis is situated in a frame that is commonly used by mainstream economists when analyzing a new public investment that is not considered to be a status quo, "normal" government investment ... and that framework is egregiously flawed even from within the mainstream perspective.

That is, being a mainstream economist brings with it a lot of trained incapacities in analysing many aspects of the economy ... but for one of the biggest ones that Glaeser lapses into, being a mainstream economist is absolutely no excuse. Blind as they are to so much about the economy, even mainstream economists are supposed to be equipped to see this particular aspect of the economy.

Glaeser is assuming
  • On the one hand, that the economy will be continuing largely as it has over the past twenty or thirty years, while, at the exact same time
  • assuming that the population of both the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolex and Houston metropolitan areas will be stagnant.

How can we see that Glaeser is assuming that the economy will be continuing largely as it has over the past twenty or thirty years? Because Glaeser completely ignores the car trips that will be diverted onto HSR. And we know that if gas prices spike, one of the first reactions will be a spike in rail travel where it is available. People may not be able to quickly change their daily commute, but for "that trip", the price response of longer distance car travel is much more sensitive to gas price shocks.

However, make the technological cornucopian assumption that the economy will continue along pretty much as it has over the past twenty or thirty years, despite the fact that its physically impossible: Houston and Dallas have been among the faster growing metropolitan areas in the past twenty or thirty years.

Yet, Glaeser tacitly but quite directly assumes that if the HSR corridor is not constructed, and we do not provide transport capacity, then all of those construction costs are saved. Yet, in the real world, if large metropolitan areas within 300 miles of each other grow in population, so that the transport demand for travel between the two grows, that leads to political demands to provide for more infrastructure to support those trips.

The growth creates more travel, which creates congestion on existing infrastructure, which leads to political demands for more transport capacity.

And this is not something that can be "added onto the analysis later" ... embedded in the direct benefits of the rail travel is the assumption that air transport is not congested, and indeed that road transport is so uncongested that nobody presently driving will switch to the train if it becomes available.

Now, that is an absurd assumption. The fact is, when you limit people's choices, then people making a particular choice like driving include those for whom driving offers strong net benefits, and also includes those for whom driving imposed substantial costs. The benefit of the HSR is not the difference between the average benefit to all motorists if they all switch ... its the average benefit to all motorists who benefit enough to make the switch.

Which is why the assumption that Glaeser makes that HSR takes over all existing Houston/Dallas air travel is such a sneaky assumption ... it sounds so generous, but in reality is so clearly understating the potential ridership. A one and a half hour rail trip is likely to take over over 70% of the previous air transport market ... but fewer than half of the passengers will be those who would previously have flown. The rest come from people switching from cars, switching from buses, and new trips generated by the opportunity to take a more convenient, faster, and cheaper trip than flying.

So, maybe we are going to be experiencing sufficiently massive disruptions that growth in Houston and Dallas will be halted, in which case the HSR will have a much bigger share of the transport market than Glaeser's analysis anticipates ... or it will be business as usual, in which case Glaeser's analysis assumes that the airports and roads between the two metropolitan areas are Magic Land Fantasy infrastructure that grows itself for free.

So even if Glaeser simply refuses to recognize the possibility of dramatic change ... that implies he is making absurd assumptions about the infinite flexibility of existing road and air transport infrastructure.

Why is Glaeser engaged in Ignorant Misinformation

Now, this is, of course, not to say that this is Glaeser's only fault. He also engages in substantial misinformation in this piece.

The the fact that it appears to be the intellectually lazy kind of misinformation from not bothering to inform himself about the topic of his piece, instead of the deliberate misinformation of the kind of lies being spread in support of Big Pharma, Big Insurance and Big Coal ... well, he's getting paid to write this stuff, so he does not have an excuse for being intellectually lazy if he chooses to pick up a topic.

As Ryan Avent noted above, why Houston/Dallas? If you are going to ignore the impact on property values of having an HSR station in the vicinity, and ignore the protection against the risk of an oil price shock, and ignore the substantial number of motorists that will have a net benefit, and ignore the benefit to the businesses who pay for business travel of allowing businesspeople to get more work done, and are going to ignore the capital cost savings from not having to build more highway lanes and airport runways and terminal capacity ... if you are going to ignore all of the benefits that come from putting on the fastest HSR trip possible, which will attract the most ridership ...

... then why choose the massive capital costs of an Express HSR corridor?

The very same Government Accountability Office report that Glaeser turns to for his estimate of $40m per route mile for an Express HSR corridor, reports that Emerging HSR corridors cost from $4m to $11m per route mile. Taking, following Glaeser's approach, a mid-range cost estimate of ~$8m, that means that after ruling out of consideration all of the reasons one would pursue an Express HSR over an Emerging HSR ... he analyses the more capital-intensive Express HSR anyway.

Cut the capital costs by 80% ... and that's ~$85m/year of benefit to generate. And then, for a much wider range of net benefit per rider and total ridership assumptions, there is a clear net benefit for Glaeser's "stagnant population and other than that business as usual" assumption:


And now, supposed that an expansion of transport capacity is required. Obviously, at full capacity, an Emerging HSR corridor is cheaper per seat-mile capacity than road or air infrastructure, but suppose, conservatively, that the new transport capacity of the Emerging HSR corridor substantially exceeds the incremental cost of new road and air capacity, so that there is still a net capital cost of $25m/year. Even under that conservative estimate, the prospects look quite promising in the "rose colored glasses" scenario of things keeping going the way they have been:


Looking Ahead

With nothing more than Glaeser's hackneyed analysis, there is no way of knowing whether Express HSR between Houston and Dallas is justified as a stand-alone project. This would require establishing a range of population growth scenarios, and developing reasonable estimates of the cost of constructing the alternative transport infrastructure under those scenarios.

However, an Emerging HSR corridor ought to be able to put an Express version of its service through between Houston and Dallas in three hours. A three hour train ride will typically capture around 40% of an existing air transport market. And, of course, the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex is not a typical air transport market ... it is a massive sprawling region encompassing a number of counties, which is far more easily served by five or six HSR stations than by one or two major airports.

Now, in the oil price shock, slow growth scenario, it seems like 1m trips on a mode of inter-urban transport that has far less exposure to oil price shocks ought is a conservative anticipation, as is a $100/rider benefit ... precisely because of the inflated cost gap between air and road on the one hand and Emerging HSR rail.

And in "business as usual" mode, its highly conservative to assume that an Emerging HSR has any incremental capital cost to cover, but even if it does, very modest assumptions about the average net benefit of those who benefit sufficiently to switch from air or car would cover those costs even at 0.5m passenger per year.

So it looks to me that if the numbers for a stand-alone Dallas/Houston Express HSR do not add up, the numbers for a standalone Emerging HSR corridor are very likely to do so.

So, in other words, it is quite amateurish of Glaeser to ignore the HSR option for two large metropolitan areas within 300 miles of each other. Fortunately for us, the Obama administration does not make the same amateur's mistake, and has positioned itself to support investment in whichever kind of HSR is suited to the variety of conditions that are found in inter-urban transport markets around the country.

What about the Texas T-Bone?

As a final note, as I have previously explained, the present momentum in Texas for an Express HSR corridor is "T" shaped Express HSR corridor between San Antonio/Austin in the South, Houston in the Southeast, and Dallas in the North.

So, why didn't Glaeser analyze the actual Express HSR proposal that is currently most likely to have an application?

I have not idea whether it is laziness or lying, but based on the balance of his piece, I am willing to assume laziness. As Napoleon is reputed to have said, never assume malevolence for what can be perfectly well explained by incompetence.

However, note that in terms of the "riders to cover fixed corridor costs" ... when the trains are going at 220mph, the "right angled" route from Houston will still leave the Express HSR trip as faster for most passengers than air travel in door to door travel time ... while, obviously, substantially cutting the capital cost by sharing the Fort Hood to Dallas/Fort Worth leg with the Austin/San Antonio trains. And then the Houston/Austin-San Antonio route is basically available for no additional capital cost.

So Glaeser pursued an analysis that was biased against capital intensive transport ... and ignored the most capital efficient means of providing HSR between Dallas and Houston, as well as the most capital efficient alignment for providing Express HSR between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio-Austin.

Which is a head scratcher that suggests to me that I should conclude with a quote from Ryan Avent:
Ed Glaeser is a fantastic economist. He has done magnificent work analyzing the economics of urban growth and written indispensable papers on the connection between housing regulations and migration.

But when the man picks up his pen to write a piece for public consumption, he tends to take complete leave of his senses.