May 26, 2017

Toronto-London high speed train plan – “many Ontarians wouldn’t trust the Liberals to see an HO-scale model of this plan to fruition on time or on budget”

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Chris Selley discusses the weak-but-barely-plausible high speed train plans announced by the Ontario government the other day:

High-speed rail is expensive — to build, certainly, and more on that shortly, but just as importantly to ride. It’s 202 kilometres from Le Mans to Gare Montparnasse in Paris. The first TGV of the morning takes 58 minutes — total average speed, 208 km/h — and will set you back €45. It’s 180 kilometres from Frankfurt’s Hauptbanhof to Cologne’s Hauptbanhof. The 7:27 a.m. ICE train takes 65 minutes — average speed: 167 km/h — and Deutsche Bahn wants €60 for the privilege. Brussels to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is 195 kilometres. The Thalys will get you there in 92 minutes tomorrow morning, at a relatively modest average speed of 127 km/h and for the eye-watering sum of €82.

This is the sort of distance Ontario’s Liberal government says it plans to cover with high-speed rail — from Union Station in Toronto to London via Pearson Airport, Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo. A report and “preliminary business case” by former federal transport minister David Collenette, released Friday, envisions 185 kilometres of track with a maximum speed of 300 km/h in one scenario and 250 km/h in the other, and by 2025.

The London-to-Toronto trip would take 66 minutes in the faster scenario and 73 in the slower, for a total average speed of between 152 and 168 km/h. Either would represent genuine high-speed rail, and it would come at genuine high-speed rail prices: somewhere between $4 billion and $11 billion under the 250 km/h scenario; somewhere between $15 billion and $44 billion at 300 km/h.


So it’s a bit of a conundrum for the Liberals. This is a big offer — just the sort of thing people in the GTA say they want when they come back from Cologne, Paris and Amsterdam. It ought to be a reasonably compelling plank of an election platform.

But many Ontarians wouldn’t trust the Liberals to see an HO-scale model of this plan to fruition on time or on budget. It’s vulnerable to the sort of grievance-mongering and populism that sometimes makes it hard to tell a New Democrat from a Tory these days. We haven’t even gotten into the technical details. And ultimately, I’m just not really convinced people want this to happen as much as they say they do — not unless it’s free, and stops just the right distance from their back yards.

On the technical details, here’s a very brief overview from a post I wrote several years back, at the time California was beginning their insane high speed rail project:

The best place to build a high speed rail system for the US would be the Boston-New York-Washington corridor (aka “Bosnywash”, for the assumed urban agglomeration that would occur as the cities reach toward one another). It has the necessary population density to potentially turn an HSR system into a practical, possibly even profitable, part of the transportation solution. The problem is that without an enormous eminent domain land-grab to cheat every land-owner of the fair value of their property, it just can’t be done. Buying enough contiguous sections of land to connect these cities would be so expensive that scrapping and replacing the entire navy every year would be a bargain in comparison.

The American railway system is built around freight: passenger traffic is a tiny sliver of the whole picture. Ordinary passenger trains cause traffic and scheduling difficulties because they travel at higher speeds, but require more frequent stops than freight trains, and their schedules have to be adjusted to passenger needs (passenger traffic peaks early to mid-morning and early to mid-evening). The frequency of passenger trains can “crowd out” the freight traffic the railway actually earns money on.

Most railway companies prefer to avoid having the complications of carrying passengers at all — that’s why Amtrak (and VIA Rail in Canada) was set up in the first place, to take the burden of money-losing passenger services off the shoulders of deeply indebted railways. Even after the new entity lopped off huge numbers of passenger trains from its schedule, it couldn’t turn a profit on the scaled-down services it was offering.

Ordinary passenger trains can, at a stretch, share rail with freight traffic, but high speed trains cannot. At higher speeds, the actual construction of the track has to change to deal with the physical problem of safely guiding the fast passenger trains along the rail. Signalling must also change to suit the far-higher speeds — and the matching far-longer safe braking distances. High speed rail lines cannot be interrupted with grade crossings, for the safety of passengers and bystanders, so additional bridges and tunnels must be built to avoid bringing road vehicles and pedestrians too close to the trains.

In other words, a high speed railway line is far from being just a faster version of what we already have: it would have to be built separately, to much higher standards of construction.

August 21, 2016

Why Trains Suck in America

Filed under: Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 16 Aug 2016

Trains, well, just aren’t that great in America. Here’s why.

July 1, 2016

Is the end in sight for California’s high speed rail fiasco?

Filed under: Economics, Government, Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Virginia Postrel says the state’s high speed rail boondoggle may finally run out of chances:

California’s high-speed rail project increasingly looks like an expensive social science experiment to test just how long interest groups can keep money flowing to a doomed endeavor before elected officials finally decide to cancel it. What combination of sweet-sounding scenarios, streamlined mockups, ever-changing and mind-numbing technical detail, and audacious spin will keep the dream alive?

Sold to the public in 2008 as a visionary plan to whisk riders along at 220 miles an hour, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a little over two and a half hours, the project promised to attract most of the necessary billions from private investors, to operate without ongoing subsidies and to charge fares low enough to make it competitive with cheap flights. With those assurances, 53.7 percent of voters said yes to a $9.95 billion bond referendum to get the project started. But the assurances were at best wishful thinking, at worst an elaborate con.

The total construction cost estimate has now more than doubled to $68 billion from the original $33 billion, despite trims in the routes planned. The first, easiest-to-build, segment of the system — the “train to nowhere” through a relatively empty stretch of the Central Valley — is running at least four years behind schedule and still hasn’t acquired all the needed land. Predicted ticket prices to travel from LA to the Bay have shot from $50 to more than $80. State funding is running short. Last month’s cap-and-trade auction for greenhouse gases, expected to provide $150 million for the train, yielded a mere $2.5 million. And no investors are lining up to fill the $43 billion construction-budget gap.

May 13, 2016

QotD: The boring efficiency of North American freight railways

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes. Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars. Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full. I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight. As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves. Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail. One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy. Its not a government function in the US. So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from an energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.

Warren Meyer, “The US Has The Best Rail System in the World, and Matt Yglesias Actually Pointed Out the Reason”, Coyote Blog, 2016-05-02.

March 1, 2016

QotD: Tall building mania

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a sign of growing maturity on the part of the United States. Many of these super-tall building projects make little economic sense, but are completed to validate the prestige of emerging nations, like teenage boys comparing penis sizes. Grown men are beyond that behavior, just as are grown-up nations. I discussed this in the context of rail a while back at Forbes. In that case, it seems everyone thinks the US is behind in rail, because it does not have sexy bullet trains. But in fact we have a far more developed freight network than any other country, and shift of transport to rail makes a much larger positive economic and environmental impact for cargo than for rail. It comes down to what you care about — prestige or actual performance. Again choosing performance over prestige is a sign of maturity.**

The US had a phase just like China’s, when we were emerging as a world economic and political power, and had a first generation of successful business pioneers who were unsure how to put their stamp on the world. So they competed at building tall buildings. Many of the tallest were not even private efforts. The Empire State Building was a crony enterprise from start to finish, and ended up sitting empty for years. The World Trade Center project (WTC) was a complete government boondoggle, built by a public agency at the behest of the Rockefeller family, who wanted to protect its investments in lower Manhattan. That building also sat nearly empty for years. By the way, the Ken Burns New York documentary series added a special extra episode at the end after 9/11 on the history of the WTC and really digs in to the awful crony and bureaucratic history of that project. Though Burns likely did not think of it that way, it could as easily be a documentary of public choice theory. His coverage earlier in that series of Robert Moses (featuring a lot of Robert Caro) is also excellent.

** I have always wondered if you could take this model further, and predict that once-great nations in decline (at least in decline relative to their earlier position) might not re-engage with such prestige projects, much like an aging male seeking out the young second wife and buying a Porche.

Warren Meyer, “This is a GOOD Sign for the United States”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-15.

January 22, 2015

The seductive appeal of the big project

Filed under: China, Railways, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In a Forbes post from a few years back, Warren Meyer looks at the appeal of the megaproject to those inclined to think that what society really needs is someone in control:

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects? Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.

Writers like Thomas Friedman and Joel Epstein in the Huffington Post have eulogized China and its monumental spending projects. These are the same folks who, generations ago, tried disastrously to emulate Mussolini’s “forward-thinking” economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act. These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI’s management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession). These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was un-breathable. These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens. To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff than we do. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occurred when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry — all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

October 9, 2014

“Japan’s high-speed rail system may end up being the victim of its own success”

Filed under: Economics, Japan, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

An interesting look at how the Japanese Shinkansen system has literally shaped Japan’s urban development pattern:

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

At 10am on 1 October 1964, with less than a week and a half to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the two inaugural Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” arrived at their destinations, Tokyo and Osaka. They were precisely on time. Hundreds of people had waited overnight in each terminal to witness this historic event, which, like the Olympics, heralded not just Japan’s recovery from the destruction of the second world war, but the beginning of what would be Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower. The journey between Japan’s two biggest cities by train had previously taken close to seven hours. The Shinkansen had made the trip in four.

The world’s first high-speed commercial train line, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, was built along the Tokaido, one of the five routes that connected the Japanese hinterland to Edo, the city that in the mid-1800s became Tokyo. Though train lines crisscrossed the country, they were inadequate to postwar Japan’s newborn ambitions. The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital.


In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”

And where the Shinkansen’s long tentacles go, other services shrivel. Local governments in Japan rely heavily on the central government for funds and public works — it’s how the central government keeps them in line. Politicians actively court high-speed railways since they believe they attract money, jobs and tourists. In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line — Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa — and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month — so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical — not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

August 2, 2014

The Burlington “Zephyr” in 1939

Filed under: Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:01

The Burlington Zephyr in 1939 (via Retronaut)

The Burlington Zephyr in 1939 (via Retronaut)

Visit the Retronaut for three more photos in this series. Wikipedia says:

The Pioneer Zephyr is a diesel-powered railroad train formed of railroad cars permanently articulated together with Jacobs bogies, built by the Budd Company in 1934 for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), commonly known as the Burlington. The train featured extensive use of stainless steel, was originally named the Zephyr, and was meant as a promotional tool to advertise passenger rail service in the United States. The construction included innovations such as shotwelding (a specialized type of spot welding) to join the stainless steel, and articulation to reduce its weight.

On May 26, 1934, it set a speed record for travel between Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois, when it made a 1,015-mile (1,633 km) non-stop “Dawn-to-Dusk” dash in 13 hours 5 minutes at an average speed of 77 mph (124 km/h). For one section of the run it reached a speed of 112.5 mph (181 km/h), just short of the then US land speed record of 115 mph (185 km/h). The historic dash inspired a 1934 film and the train’s nickname, “The Silver Streak”.

The train entered regular revenue service on November 11, 1934, between Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; and Lincoln, Nebraska. It operated this and other routes until its retirement in 1960, when it was donated to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where it remains on public display. The train is generally regarded as the first successful streamliner on American railroads.

August 7, 2013

Infrastructure does not lead development – it lags

Filed under: Economics, Government, History, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:28

In the Wall Street Journal, Larry Schweikart and Burton Folsom correct the misunderstanding that development and growth will follow infrastructure:

History says it doesn’t work like that. Henry Ford and dozens of other auto makers put a car in almost every garage decades before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. The success of the car created a demand for roads. The government didn’t build highways, and then Ford decided to create the Model T. Instead, the highways came as a byproduct of the entrepreneurial genius of Ford and others.

Moreover, the makers of autos, tires and headlights began building roads privately long before any state or the federal government got involved. The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway for cars, pieced together from new and existing roads in 1913, was conceived and partly built by entrepreneurs — Henry Joy of Packard Motor Car Co., Frank Seiberling of Goodyear and Carl Fisher, a maker of headlights and founder of the Indy 500.

Railroads are another example of the infrastructure-follows-entrepreneurship rule. Before the 1860s, almost all railroads were privately financed and built. One exception was in Michigan, where the state tried to build two railroads but lost money doing so, and thus happily sold both to private owners in 1846. When the federal government decided to do infrastructure in the 1860s, and build the transcontinental railroads (or “intercontinental railroad,” as Mr. Obama called it in 2011), the laying of track followed the huge and successful private investments in railroads.

In fact, when the government built the transcontinentals, they were politically corrupt and often — especially in the case of the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific — went broke. One cause of the failure: Track was laid ahead of settlements. Mr. Obama wants to do something similar with high-speed rail. The Great Northern Railroad, privately built by Canadian immigrant James J. Hill, was the only transcontinental to be consistently profitable. It was also the only transcontinental to receive no federal aid. In railroads, then, infrastructure not only followed the major capital investment, it was done better privately than by government.

July 25, 2013

Spanish passenger train may have been running at 190 km/h in an 80 km/h zone

Filed under: Europe, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:33

The horrific railway crash near Santiago de Compostela that has taken at least 80 lives may have been caused by excessive speed, which this video certainly seems to confirm:

The BBC reports that the engineer may have admitted travelling at a speed more than twice what that curve was rated for:

At least 130 people were taken to hospital after the crash, and 95 are still being treated, health officials say.

The 32 seriously injured include children.

People from several nationalities are among the wounded, including five Americans and one Briton.


A spokeswoman for the Galicia Supreme Court said the driver, who was slightly injured in the crash, was under investigation.

Named by Spanish media as Francisco Jose Garzon Amo, he is expected to face questioning by police on Thursday.

It was unclear whether anyone else was subject to investigation.

The train’s carriages have been removed from the track by cranes and sent for analysis.

The president of railway firm Renfe, Julio Gomez Pomar, was quoted by El Mundo newspaper as saying the driver, who was aged 52, had 30 years of experience with the company and had been operating trains on the line for more than a year.

He said the train which derailed had no technical problems.

“The train had passed an inspection that same morning. Those trains are inspected every 7,500km… Its maintenance record was perfect,” he told Spanish radio.

But Mr Garzon, who was trapped in the cab after the accident, is quoted as saying moments after the crash that the train had taken the curve at 190 km/h (118mph) despite a speed limit on that section of 80km/h, unidentified investigation sources have told Spanish media.

Spanish train crash 20130724

Update: The Renfe high speed trains use a safety system known as ASFA (Anuncio de Senales y Frenado Automatico or signal notification and automatic braking). The BBC says railway safety experts are confounded that the engineer was even able to exceed the speed limit in the area of the crash:

Sim Harris from Rail News told the BBC he was baffled as to how this could have happened.

“Modern trains have got so many systems on board to stop ‘over speed’ of this extreme kind,” he said.

“The ability of the driver to break the rules in this way is very limited indeed by the on-board systems of the train.”

The most modern train safety systems use equipment on the track and within the driver’s cab to replace traditional signals and control the speed and movement of the train automatically.

With a system such as the European Train Control System (ETCS), a driver would not be able to break the speed limit.

While parts of Spain’s rail network — including a large section of the route the train had travelled from Madrid — do have the ETCS in operation, the curve where Wednesday’s derailment took place relies on a less sophisticated safety system known as ASFA.

ASFA — Anuncio de Senales y Frenado Automatico or signal notification and automatic braking — relies on a series of beacons to communicate with the driver’s cab — so does not have the constant communication of ETCS.

The system gives audio and visual warnings to the driver if speed limits are surpassed, and will step in and brake the train if there is no response from the cab.

July 2, 2013

British high speed railway run

Filed under: Britain, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:22

As part of the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record breaking 126mph run in 1938, sister loco 4464 Bittern was temporally permitted to exceed from 75mph to 90mph on the mainline. This was to be a rare look at steam running at higher speeds, following recent high speed test runs. On June 29th Bittern hauled a London-York special “The Ebor Streak” which ran along the A4’s native racing ground the East Coast Mainline.

4464 is first seen at Langford in Bedfordshire running like a greyhound at 90mph! Well…I think it was doing a little more than 90! After a high octane pursuit on the A1 carriageway, the next location is what better place to see an LNER A4 would be Doncaster. Ending on a high note, the A4 whistles and echoes past Doncaster Works where she, Mallard, Flying Scotsman and all other LNER locos were built.

With special thanks to Locomotive Services Limited, DBS and Network Rail for this miracle to happen.
I’m now in high hopes in getting the next two 90mph runs on July 19th and 27th.

These shots and much much more will be included in the forthcoming documentary: “BITTERN: The Need for Speed” as part of the “MALLARD 75” celebrations. Which will include at an depth look at the preparations and build up to the main events in June & July, along with interviews with the crews & officals at this historic event in railway preservation history. See http://www.ovpsteam.co.uk/48.html

H/T to Eric Kirkland for the link.

June 6, 2013

Rail technology changes on a slower timescale than other transportation systems

Filed under: Business, Railways, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:50

The Economist looks at innovation in the railway business:

Compared with other modes of transport, train technology might seem to be progressing as slowly as a suburban commuter service rattling its way from one station to another. Automotive technology, by contrast, changes constantly: in the past decade satellite-navigation systems, hybrid power trains, proximity sensors and other innovations have proliferated. Each time you buy a new car, you will notice a host of new features. Progress is apparent in aircraft, too, with advances in in-flight entertainment and communication, fancy seats that turn into beds, and quieter and more efficient engines. Trains, meanwhile, appear to have changed a lot less.

Actually, the perception of change is much greater for cars and airplanes, but there are few changes in those areas that are not merely evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Incremental changes are the rule of the day, as neither cars nor planes travel significantly faster than they did thirty years ago … but they do it safer and more comfortably now.

This comparison is not entirely fair. For one thing, people buy their own cars, so they pay more attention to automotive innovation. Carmakers are engaged in a constant arms race, trumpeting new features as a way to differentiate their products. Nobody buys their own trains. Similarly, air passengers have a choice of competing airlines and are far more likely to be aware of the merits of rival fleets than they are of different types of train. In addition, notes Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, a design consultancy that specialises in transport, trains have longer lives, so technology takes longer to become widespread. The planning horizon for one rail project he is working on extends to 2050. “You have to think about longevity, whereas the car industry wants you to buy a new car in two years,” he says.

Another big difference is that the way railways operate — with a small number of powered units (locomotives) and a very large number of unpowered units (freight cars and passenger cars) that have to be reliably connected to one another and operate successfully. A car can go on any kind of road (or even none, in many places) and a plane can fly in any part of the sky, but a train needs an engineered right-of-way that falls within established standards of curvature, elevation change, and overhead and side clearance. Because of this, any piece of railway equipment that does not run on its own isolated track (like monorails or the various flavours of high speed railways) must always meet the existing standards … which have been slowly evolving since the mid-nineteenth century. With so much capital invested in existing right-of-way and rolling stock, the costs for introducing significant changes can be astronomical.

There’s also the fact that unlike other forms of transportation, passenger and freight trains operate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. Passenger trains need to operate on a known schedule between high population centres at relatively high speed. With higher speed goes a need for better braking systems and more capable signalling methods. Unlike a train full of new cars or iron ore, you can’t just park a train full of living human beings on a siding for a few hours to allow slower trains to clear the way (unless you’re Amtrak or VIA). Passenger trains have to have top priority, which often means the railways have to delay freight traffic to ensure that the passengers are not unduly delayed.

One solution to the problem is to provide separate tracks for the passenger trains, but this can be very expensive, as the places where the extra tracks would be most effective is also where the land is at peak cost: in and around major cities. Most passenger trains are now run by government agencies or corporations acting as agents for local, regional, or state governments, so they sometimes use the power of eminent domain to gain access to the land. This is a politically fraught area, as the more land they need to take, the tougher the process will get.

Brakes are also getting an upgrade. Stopping a train can take so long that locomotive-operators, also known as engineers, often have time to contemplate their fate before an impact. “Your life races before you,” says a former operator who, years ago in Alabama, helplessly watched as his freight train, its emergency brakes screeching, headed towards a stalled truck that ultimately managed to pull off the tracks in time. Stopping a train pulling a hundred cars at 80kph can require 2km of track. Road accidents take far more lives, but 1,239 people were killed in more than 2,300 railway accidents in 2011 in the European Union alone.

Much of the problem is that the faster a train’s wheels are spinning, the hotter its brake shoes get when engaged. This reduces friction and hence braking power, a predicament known as “heat fade”. Moreover, nearly all trains power their brakes with compressed air. When switched on, air brakes activate car by car, from the locomotive to the back of the train. It can take more than two minutes for the signal to travel via air tubes to the last car.

Again, it’s not physically or financially possible to switch over all existing cars to newer technology in one fell swoop, so any updated brake technology must be 100% compatible with what is already in use, or you risk creating more dangerous situations because some brakes may operate out of sequence which will increase the chances of accidents.

Norfolk Southern, an American rail operator, now pulls roughly one-sixth of its freight using locomotives equipped with “route optimisation” software. By crunching numbers on a train’s weight distribution and a route’s curves, grades and speed limits, the software, called Leader, can instruct operators on optimum accelerating and braking to minimise fuel costs. Installing the software and linking it wirelessly to back-office computers is expensive, says Coleman Lawrence, head of the company’s 4,000-strong locomotive fleet. But the software cuts costs dramatically, reducing fuel consumption by about 5%. That is a big deal for a firm that spent $1.6 billion on diesel in 2012. Mr Lawrence reckons that by 2016 Norfolk Southern may be pulling half its freight with Leader-upgraded locomotives. A competing system sold by GE, Trip Optimizer, goes further and operates the throttle and brakes automatically.

This is a good use of computer technology: you add the software on top of the existing infrastructure and use it to detect operational gains without needing to make system-wide changes to all freight cars.

May 30, 2013

High speed steam run

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:54

LNER A4 Class 4464 (60019) “Bittern” has been given dispensation to run at 90MPH on the East Coast Main Line in July, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Mallard’s world speed record, subject to a satisfactory high speed test. This is that test. The weather was perfect — damp, cool, no wind. Bittern left Didcot at 05:23 am and flew through Slough 05:58 at full pelt for an average of 60mph over the 35 miles. The 6.2 mile section between Maidenhead and Slough was completed in 4 minutes, an average of 93MPH. Using film time markers I timed the whole train at 90mph through Taplow where this film was shot.

Given the two sets of hand cranked data, and with no speed gun to hand, I am happy to put the 90MPH stamp on the film title.

H/T to Jim Guthrie for the link.

July 2, 2012

Alex Tabarrok on the slow rail and infrastructure bottleneck

Writing at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok wonders “Why haven’t the $500 bills been picked up?”:

High speed rail, especially California’s project, looks to me to be monorail economics, a costly boondoggle whose appeal lies not in rational calculation […] but in the desire of some politicians (and voters) to feel visionary and sexy. In theory, CA HSR might work but the inevitable reviews, delays, lawsuits and special interest payoffs make the prospects of a beneficial project look dim, demosclerosis kills.

Slow speed rail, however, i.e. freight transport, isn’t sexy but Warren Buffett is investing in rail and maybe we should as well. In particular, there are basic infrastructure projects with potentially high payoffs. Congestion in Chicago, for example, is so bad that freight passing through Chicago often slows down to less than the pace of an electric wheel chair. Improvements are sometimes as simple as replacing 19th century technology with 20th century (not even 21st century!) technology. Even today, for example:

    …engineers at some points have to get out of their cabins, walk the length of the train back to the switch — a mile or more — operate the switch, and then trudge back to their place at the head of the train before setting out again.

In a useful article Phillip Longman points out that there are choke points on the Eastern Seaboard which severely reduce the potential for rail:

    …railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line.

April 20, 2012

Building High Speed Rail won’t do much to cut carbon dioxide emissions

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:11

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post on the latest straw that high speed rail enthusiasts have been grabbing to justify their expensive toys:

… Brown’s administration has proposed using money raised by California’s new climate law. Under the state’s cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, power plants and factories will have to buy permits to pollute. Brown has suggested diverting this money into high-speed rail. But there are two problems here. For one, this might be illegal, as the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded on Tuesday. But second — and more broadly — high-speed rail turns out not to be the most effective use of money that’s meant to combat global warming.

Paul Druce at Reason & Rail offered up a few numbers on this topic last year. The California High Speed Rail Authority claims that by 2030, if the train ran entirely on renewable energy, then it would reduce the state’s carbon emissions by about 5.4 million metric tons a year. If you ignore all the energy used to build the system, that means the rail network would reduce California’s emissions at a cost of $12,506 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.

That’s a pricey way to cut carbon. To put this in perspective, research has suggested that you could plant 100 million acres of trees and reforest the United States for a cost of about $21 to $91 per ton of carbon dioxide. Alternatively, a study by Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley found that it would cost somewhere between $59 and $87 per ton of carbon dioxide to phase out coal power in the Western United States and replace it with solar, wind and geothermal. If reducing greenhouse gases is your goal, then there are much more cost-effective ways to do it than building a bullet train.

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