Sunday, September 28, 2008

To get high-speed trains we need new high-speed track

How do we really get high speed rail built?

The California model of an independent authority that will build its own electrified high-speed rail track is really instructive.

We will never get high-speed rail (of more than 200 miles per hour) using the freight rail network. They don't run trains that fast. They never will.

So if we want track that runs trains that fast, we're going to have to build it ourselves.

Amtrak is unlikely to have a corporate strategy that involves putting their resources into building high-speed rail track. They have enough to do with the capital demands of running the Northeast Corridor as well as doubling the current fleet of 1400 cars or so -- not to mention figuring out how to meet the demand of all the states who want to run more trains along freight-owned tracks.

I suspect we're going to want to create a separate high speed rail authority to build electric-powered high-speed rail tracks along particular routes (probably starting with Chicago-New York). These authorities would be responsible for design and engineering work so that when they are ready for the multi-billion investment to build the track, we can find the money. Some of that money would likely come from our energy policy and some from the general revenue fund. Some of the capital should come from the private sector to take advantage of depreciation or to use design-build-operate procedures (that I don't know enough about).

I think creating more authorities to spend resources and focus employee talent on building high-speed rail track and related infrastructure is our next step as advocates.


Blogger Rafael said...

One of the reasons the proposed California system is so expensive is that the plan calls for new dual tracks to be laid even in city centers and other built-up areas. That entails widening existing corridors, if necessary via protracted and expensive eminent domain proceedings.

This is a direct consequence of FRA rules on crash compatibility, which insist that every passenger train that shares track with freight trains must be built like a tank. The results are expensive mongrels like the Acela Express, an outcome CHSRA rightly wants to avoid.

International standards call for much lighter designs because the focus there is more on active safety (avoiding crashes) than on passive safety (surviving them). Proven, integrated off-the-shelf high speed train systems from Alstom, Siemens, Talgo-Bombardier, Hitachi et al. are designed to these international standards, rather than to FRA's.

Recent crash simulations by Caltrain (see Appendix C) suggest that commuter rail rolling stock designed to international standards would actually perform as well or better in grade crossing accidents with cars and trucks than FRA-compliant equipment. Caltrain was somewhat surprised that FRA was sympathetic to its arguments.

For crashes between trains, the recent Metrolink crash in Chatsworth provided tragic evidence of the value of active safety measures like positive train control (PTC). Unfortunately, private freight rail operators don't want to pay for the upgrades to all of their locomotives and the many thousands of miles of tracks that would entail. For them, the upside is too small.

Throwing some public money their way to make that happen would allow FRA to gradually harmonize its safety rules with the international ones. Crucially, it would allow tracks in major city centers to be used by both US-style freight trains and modern, efficient passenger trains - including high speed designs operating at moderate speed in these sections.

Out in the countryside and near smaller towns that high speed trains would rarely if ever stop at, new dedicated track would be required. Fortunately, it would also be much cheaper to construct there than in built-up areas. This hybrid track model was pioneered by SNCF for its TGV network.

7:03 AM  
Blogger James said...

This may or may not be the best place to leave this link for you, but I couldn't find an email address...

The UK opposition party has formally backed plans for a high speed railway from London to the north instead of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Quite impressive for the party that forced privatisation of British Rail into happening :)

2:19 AM  
Blogger Adron said...

As Rafael points out...

You also have to fix the FRA rules and limitations on getting equipment. Amtrak couldn't legally buy better equipment if they wanted to. Just look at the Acela. It SHOULD be able to go as fast as the TGV. Sure there are trackage issues, but also the train is far heavier, and thus slower because of stupid FRA regulations.

Fix those, and we'll have moved a decade ahead of were we are now just by the mere act.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think you are right on here. That means we all have an interest in what happens in California. Their success will show what is possible and other regions will want it too. The time may not be right today because of the credit crunch, but we can lay groundwork.

The other thing worth noting is that the French TGV not only makes money, but has returned the investment in it's construction. This was only possible because the government took on the risk and backed the investment.

The German's run freight on their high speed rail network. I'd like to see fast intermodal trains (perhaps at night, when the infrastructure otherwise isn't being used) on high speed rails. Only let the high speed rail authority be the landlord!

5:28 PM  

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