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, May 27, 2012

Sunday Train: Sustainable Steam Train? / SF Muni - HSR Disconnect? / A Geary Aerobus?

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

This week's Sunday Train is a trio of shorter topics. The first is a research development project to develop a modern steam train to run on biocoal. The target is a sustainable steam train that, as a headline grabber, will attempt to run at 130mph and break the world steam train speed record. There's much to like about this research development project ... but I am going to argue that biocoal to operate trains is not it.

Second, SF's MUNI transport agency is one of the ten agencies slated to split $760m in Prop1a(2008) bond funds improvements to systems interconnecting with the planned High Speed Rail system. The balance of the $950m goes to the three existing Amtrak California intercity rail services, the Capitol Corridor, the San Joaquin, and the Surfliner.

Odd thing is, the proposal that SF MUNI is setting forward doesn't actually connect to the proposed HSR system? What's up with that, after the break.

And third, a speculative look at an alternative technology that SF MUNI might deploy that money on, that actually would connect with the HSR system at the Transbay Terminal, as well as connecting to BART, the MUNI light rail network, the existing (and proposed alternative) Caltrain terminus at 4th and King, and provide express transit service along Geary Blvd.

So instead of the traditional long trip, Sunday Train for Memorial Day Weekend has three short exursions. Join us for one, two, or all three, after the break.


Read one or more and join the discussion:

The Stars Hollow Gazette


Progressive Blue

Daily Kos


Anonymous said...

Bruce -

I have been one of your critics for years, now. This post is indicative of why - nearly four years after Obama was elected - there is practically nothing to show for any passenger rail improvements, high speed or traditional. In fact, private freight carriers regularly delay/suspend services for basic maintenance which has been performed for 100+ years while maintaining service - as well as blackmailing Amtrak for hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain longstanding routes - for ex the Santa Fe.

Why? Because and other so-called "advocates" want rail proposals to be all things to all people. Urban renewal. Green energy. Local transit. The most egregious example - California High Speed Rail. And, thus, nothing has been accomplished. In fact, Amtrak has languished.

I said that there had to be a 50-state approach - - not a piecemeal HSR plan. What's happened to Ohio? Florida? Wisconsin? UP holds Illinois and Missouri HSR hostage - meaning frequent replacement bus service.

And of course, the worst example - CHSRA. What a horrendous boondoggle. Politicized routing, absurd ridership and revenue figures, and an initial segment comparable to Alaska's famous "Bridge to Nowhere".

Sadly, CHSRA will collapse under its own illusions within the next year or so. And with it - it will take another generation of passenger rail possibilities.

PS - I stand by what I said three years ago -
1. Public ownership.
2. National system - not corridors.
3. Long-term, permanent funding.


D. P. Lubic said...

OK, you're on. I agree, we need a national system, it should be true high-speed where feasible, which in turn requires new track because the old lines are too curvy. It can even include a transcontinental sleeper service--overnight, coast-to-coast, in about 20 hours running time, a wonderful trip with a good dining car in the train. Leave in the late afternoon or early evening, arrive just in time for the business day in the morning. Average speed about 150, well withing the range of the technology, indeed quite conservative.

Here's the challenge: How do you pay for it? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how do you convince the public to pay for it? I can tell you from first-hand experience you will be called a socialist, you will be called a Communist, you will be accused of wanting to take away people's cars and bring back the horse and buggy. You will be told we don't need 19th century choo-choos, you will be told you are part of a left-wing conspiracy to take away the Freedom(tm) of Real Americans(tm) to travel where and when they want to go, without being tied to a timetable. Never mind that most or all of this is false, this is what you will have to deal with, or what a president will have to deal with.

Now, how would you deal with it? And remember, a president will have more than just this one thing to keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

The point of my criticism of the blogger's overall position is that by taking an "All Things to All People" approach - he and other advocates actually harmed the chances for the rebuilding of an American rail system.

After 4 years, when progressives are trying to retain basic coverages in Social Security, Medicare, and public education - the political moment is long past when one can accomplish funding for rail initiatives.

And I made that point, as well - since I have seen multiple instances of "Bullet Train" initiatives since the 1970s - all of which have failed. And the failures only cement the political coffin for a generation or so.

California Highd Speed Rail is the poster child of how to do it wrong. At present there is only one all-rail round trip daily from LA to SF which takes 12 hours and has a miserable on-time record at that. There are a couple of additional bus/train combinations which take about 10 hours.

It takes about 6 hours to drive I-5 in good conditions - 8 or more hours in heavy traffic, etc. There are multiple airports in the LA and Bay areas with hour-long flights and ticket prices less than $99 each way.

So, CHSRA comes up with this Alice in Wonderland plan with train speeds faster than in France or Japan (even though the agency hasn't so much as pulled a little red wagon) and ridership that exceeds current air passengers between points. And a price tage that has grown from $35B to $98B.

At $60B with 4% interest (lucky if Calif could get interest that low) CHSRA would have an interest obligation - alone - of $2.4B per year. $6-7M per day. If ridership was a generous 10,000 per day early on - CHRSA would need to collect $60 to $70 per passenger just to service its debt.

(10,000 is 20 trains per day in each direction, 250 per train - roughly one per hour - comparable to airline schedules.)

And yet, CHRSA predicts ridership 30 times this level. None of their numbers remotely add up. Even Dems like Sen. Feinstain and the Dem legislature question CHSRA.

Oh, and did I say service speeds that were also in the realm of fantasy? 3 hours? California could have developed a 6-hour rail system that replaced the current absence of any real train service between LA and SF, but instead, it went off on a wild goose chase that will stymie passenger rail service for another 20 years.

You know - "Once burned, twice shy."

The reason that the Interstate Highway System was built was because is was a pig trough that included everybody - that's the art of politics. Soo for a national rail program you offer Hawaii a high-speed ferry link between islands. Everybody is included and has a stake to see that it succeeds.

Then, once every state is a stakeholder - you develop a funding mechanism that is long-term and reasonably free from annual political threats. That's how the Highway Trust Fund works.

But for now, high speed rail is DOA.

Anonymous said...

D.P.: You don't want to know the way to get things done in this country when you're facing a demented, doctrinaire, violent, abusive, evil, anti-democratic elite.

1860 is the precedent. I really think we're going to go there again, not over the issue of rail, but over other issues. And after the modern Republican Party destroys itself in a conflagration of fire, perhaps what replaces it will be able to build some serious railroads, just like Lincoln did.


Anonymous said...

PS - Countless Ohio studies -

D. P. Lubic said...

I'm familiar with some of those Ohio programs. I also recall that each and every one was shot down by either cold feet on the part of the promoters, or was shot down by carping about how trains were "socialist," "Communist," "wouldn't run at a profit," "should be run by private business," or the classic one, "This is America, Americans are in love with their cars, Americans will never ride trains."

In short, the dumb culture wars did it, every time--at least, as I see it.

I've said this before in other places, and I think it bears repeating here: Much of this "culture war" aspect about trains is generational.

Just over 20 years ago, I tried to promote a modern interurban in the part of West Virginia where I live, which is the Eastern Panhandle. This is the part of West Virginia that is near Washington, DC, and includes its easternmost town, Harpers Ferry, made famous by a raid and attempt to start a slave uprising in 1859 by an a fellow named John Brown. This area is in the Washington orbit, and even has commuter rail service to Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg, courtesy of the State of Maryland.

Anyway, there was also a build-up of auto traffic, and talk of making an old road from the 1920s into a 4-lane job. This was originally proposed in the 1960s, but traffic levels and money problems caused it to be shelved for years.

When this project was revived, I was among the people who questioned its wisdom. My argument at the time was that there were roads around Washington that had up to 12 lanes, but it took forever to drive there. You can guess how I had the time to count the 12 lanes, and I can also tell you I haven't driven down there in at least 10 years, thanks to that commuter train.

I suggested at the time--now over 20 years ago--that we should consider at least avoiding the mistakes of Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. I put together a proposal for that interurban, including estimates of the cost of building it, and comparing it to the highway proposal. Nobody ever said my numbers were wrong.

However, I did get called a Communist, and was accused of trying to take away cars and bring back the horse and buggy. This wasn't from the highway people, but from others attending public meetings and at least a couple of county commissioners.

We wound up getting the road, but it took a while. In talking with people about this project, I noticed a pattern developing.

Those who like the idea of the interurban were either under 40 or over 70. Those who hated it, and called me names, too, were between 40 and 70.

I also had the chance to meet with an Amtrak marketing man; he and I were both members of a civic organization at the time. I brought age thing up, and he said his marketing department had observed and measured the same thing in regard to Amtrak, and that it was nationwide.

It took a long time to raise the money to build the road, and of course there were environmental controversies to be addressed. Everyone got older. The lower age break moved to 50, to 55, and I now think it is somewhere over 60; I assume the higher age break has moved up as well--to 80, to 85, and now to over 90.

What is behind this?

(Break to keep comment length reasonable.)

D. P. Lubic said...

If you talk to a psychologist, he will tell you that the age of around 20 or so is when your views of you and the world about you crystallize. This is when you sort of figure out who you are, what you are, what your world is like, and in that, what you think the future might turn out to be.

Applied here, in this context, this means that the older people--over 70 before, over 90 now--recall a time before the Interstates, and a time when trains were, well, part of the landscape, part of routine life.

The younger crowd--under 40 before, under 60 or so now--grew up with cars part of the landscape, and perhaps take them for granted, perhaps too much. They've also seen, in this formative age, several oil price shocks, and noted our helplessness in them. This group is also environmentally aware, and more recently, has been noted to be more interested in keeping connected with electronic gizmos rather than riding in a car. The driving experience has also become degraded in their time, due to congestion, high insurance costs, high fuel costs, and other things. These and other factors are showing up in a lack of enthusiasm in younger people to buy cars, and even in getting licenses. I also think driving is too common for them; I can just imagine some of them saying, "What's the big deal about driving? My grandma drives, and she drives like a grandma, too."

The group in the middle would have been born between the late 1920s to about the early to mid 1950s, and would have been in their late teens or early 20s between about 1949-1950 and the first oil crunch of 1973. For them, the future was supposed to look something like an animated TV show called "The Jetsons," or perhaps the New York World's Fair of 1964. You take a look at what that future was supposed to be, and you notice there are no trains, nor trolley cars. They were supposed to go away, like the stagecoach.

We didn't get that future, and looking at how some parts of it turned out, that's a good thing. Unfortunately, for this group in what I have taken to calling "that difficult, in-between age," this is one of a number of betrayals they see of what was supposed to be this rosy technological future. "Bring back trains? Bring back trolleys? You're nuts!" I'm not making this up, I actually got this and worse! So did a friend of mine who was promoting an expanded commuter rail operation.

This age group was, and in many cases still is, the group in authority. This is to be expected; you normally don't hear of governors, or mayors, or heads of banks or other large businesses who are under 50. Yet this same group, growing up in an era that now seems like a "dream time," is either unable to unwilling to admit the world has changed, and changed radically. To them, this is about turning the clock back, about reversing "progress." To suggest a rail revival is also to talk about being like the effeminate French, or the little, crowded Japanese; that's not America!

And that, I believe, is what was, and still is, behind much of the failure of rail projects in the current time.

We have to wait for some more dinosaurs to die.

D. P. Lubic said...

What has become most interesting in recent years is that others are starting to see this pattern. The big sign is that younger people are not getting driving licenses at the rate they were in the past. This seems to have started at least 10 or 12 years ago; this means it likely wasn't caused by the current recession, although the recession certainly seems to be accelerating this trend, if it even is a trend (I personally still consider it too early to tell for sure.)

Still, others have seen this, and it has been written up in several places:






Although there were some earlier stories on this phenomenon, the first one to really get attention was this one, from Ad Age:



It's not just here:



Needless to say, this has some people in the car business, the car insurance and finance business, and the oil business a bit worried. It is also a puzzle to the older members of our society, as their children and grandchildren seem to reject their ideal of what America was supposed to be.

Anyway, that's what I've been seeing, and apparently some others, too. Hope you have fun with some of this.

Anonymous said...

D.P. -

I agree with much of what you have said. Two generations have been raised on a Coke/Pepsi choice - cars or planes. Most are not even aware of other possibilities - and are clueless about the real costs of auto travel - just their own out-of-pocket - let alone social costs.

That's all the more reason why you can't continue to promote "Star Wars" projects. The most logical framing would have been to expand what works - i.e. Northeast Corridor patterns and tech. Those areas at a distance would still retain traditional service until upgrades might link them into the national system.

For ex - I am stunned that in the past 40 years - no Midwest-East corridor has been developed. Chicago-Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia-New York - with connectors from Toledo to Detroit and Harrisburgh to Balt/Wash.

Just as you posted, they had the opportunity to take advantage of a generation that had experienced and used rail travel - much of that is lost now. What else is lost is the trackage - given away to NS and CSX when Conrail was divvied up. So the government lost routing control and economic leverage, as well.

Once you had a NE Corridor combined with a Midwest-East Corridor it becomes far easier to make things such as the 3C route in Ohio, CHI to MSP, CHI to STL, CHI to OMA work.

A similar, but much slower process is taking place in Virginia and North Carolina - improved rail services BECAUSE of links to a already heavily used passenger rail corridor. It doesn't hurt that the state of North Carolina owns the NC corridor - from whom NS leases its mainline. Who sits in the driver's seat?

I have been castigated for criticizing the High Speed Rail Corridor Plan - but I felt stongly that it was serious flawed from the outset - technologically (too much, too fast), economically (no long-term funding sources), and especially politically (too many states with powerful congressional delegations left out).

So we have another failed episode of plans and more plans - with nothing to show for it.

BEst - J.E.

D. P. Lubic said...

Thanks for the response, J.E., but that still leaves the question of how do you expand the system. I'm not saying your approach would be wrong--it makes a great deal of sense to walk before you can run--but how do you gain support for it?

Look at it this way--I proposed a light rail line, no great shakes there other than a somewhat higher performance level. This included an average speed of 55 mph, and a top speed around 80 mph, the limit permitted without Positive Train Control. It's well within the upper limits of traditional interuban cars--the Cincinnati & Lake Erie staged a publicity race with an airplane, and the new "Red Devil" car won. That says more about the state of aviation in 1930 than anything else, but it still required the interuban car to hum along at 97 mph, and that is still the speed record for a trolley line. The effort got me called those names.

You see all sorts of criticism of rail projects. The Ohio 3-C project was very conservatively thought out, it would have served a population greater in total numbers than France in about the same area, but then everyone complained about an apparent low average speed (39 mph), even with the caveats that this was with almost no improvements in track or signal systems at all. Talk of new signal systems and some other minor upgrades along the lines of what you suggested got screams and yells of excessive cost.

Essentially the same thing happened in Wisconsin, in which almost the entire project was to have been paid for at the Federal level, but the loopy governor they have there screamed and yelled about a potential $7 million dollar operating subsidy. I don't recall the conditions of things costing that much, but it was a very conservative scenario--i.e., an extreme worst case--and but that got it shot down, and after 10 years of planning, just because some loopy politician decided he could make a campaign issue of it, and found enough people to scare with it (and other things).

Bruce has commented that the fairly recent Federal approach may have been fairly close to what you suggested--a lot of projects scattered, requiring a shotgun approach by rail opponents. If there was a problem, I would argue that it wasn't bold enough, wasn't big enough, wasn't sold well enough. Instead, most of it was really quite modest. One area where things are going ahead is around Chicago, and you've noted what's going on in North Carolina, but even that has had problems from the Tea Party bunch.

There was a big noise there about a project to speed up the operation in NC, and the Republicans wanted to kill that job--and, ironically, much of the project involved eliminating grade crossings, which would make life easier for motorists and for the freight trains that also run on that passenger line. Alas, it was also to improve the passenger service, and that drew those anti-rail zealots they have even there.

So, what happens is if you propose a small system, you get shot down, you propose an enhanced system, you get shot down, you go for broke with true HSR (California, the short demonstrator line in Florida), you get shot down, you propose just keeping what you have (Amtrak), and the opposition still tries to kill that.

Like I said, it's cultural, and it's generational. Nothing to do but push for whatever you can get, and hope you have the time to wait for enough of the dinosaurs to die or at least retire and get out of the way.

BruceMcF said...

"This post is indicative of why - nearly four years after Obama was elected - there is practically nothing to show for any passenger rail improvements, high speed or traditional."

On that basis, there would also be nothing to show for it with the national integrated system ... the only difference is that under the current work in progress, over the next four years, there will be increasingly more to show for it ... and under the single national integrated system, presenting a single target it would have either gone down in flames ... or else have suffered the fate of the 1990's HSR push, which ended up tied to the NEC where work was the most expensive and the result was the Acela, running up to 150mph but with a transit speed no better than a well designed Rapid Rail 110mph corridor.

Work progresses in Illinois, on several corridors. Work progresses in Virginia and North Carolina. Work progresses in Washington. Work progresses in Michigan.

When the current Transport bill expires in 2014, there will be a number of states who will be looking to get a new round of funding. In 2015 or 2017, the seeds planted in 2009 are going to bear fruit.