31 July 2010

If We Had Four Billion Dollars...

The recent Executive / Administrative Committee meeting featured an interesting memo regarding the application for another $2.3 billion of HSR federal funding to be distributed nationwide. Last time around, the CHSRA bagged $1.85 billion out of $8 billion of ARRA stimulus funding distributed nationwide. The additional funding, if CHSRA continues to bat .231, is on the order of $530 million.

The memo examines various scenarios where ARRA funding and Prop 1A bonds, of which a total of $3.3 billion is claimed to be available, are combined with new federal funding to reach a threshold of "independent utility" for one of the many segments of the California high-speed rail project.

If the San Francisco to San Jose segment were chosen as the initial recipient of this funding, then nearly $4 billion would become available for construction, still quite short of what will ultimately be necessary. The hypothetical question examined in the memo is how this money would be spent.

Salient points:
  • the CHSRA is starting to realize that they can't use a "Big Bang" approach where everything is constructed at once. For the first time, there is talk of phasing and a "building block" approach within the peninsula segment.
  • phasing means construction would start first on the ~26 mile stretch between San Francisco and Redwood City, avoiding the controversy in PAMPA (Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton).
  • $4 billion would only cover elevated grade separations; trenches through Burlingame and San Mateo would not be included.
  • ERTMS is mentioned in the same breath as CBOSS, an encouraging first baby step in the right direction.
  • FRA would likely frown on using high-speed rail funds to provide "independent utility" for what is primarily a commuter rail corridor, not an intercity corridor
Of course, all this is purely hypothetical. Consider that (1) only one single segment could be started as the marquee project for California high-speed rail; (2) the high level of controversy on the peninsula makes it highly unlikely that the environmental clearance will be obtained on schedule; and (3) short-term improvements that benefit primarily Caltrain will be difficult to pass off as "independent utility" for intercity rail service. The likelihood of $4 billion suddenly hitting the peninsula is fairly close to zero.


  1. Is it plausible that they chose to start with SF-RWC to leave open the possibility of switching to Altamont?

  2. Here's an alternative idea. Spend the big bucks on some useful section of the line first (perhaps somewhere with a gap in rail service? LA-Bakersfield, anyone?) and save the controversial SF-SJ section for later. In the meantime, they could just spend a few million dollars on electrification and buy schedule paths from Caltrain.

  3. Interestingly, the memo called for construction of the alignments basically to the city limits only of Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. I think this is a good approach. It allows them to get good usage out of the new tracks before any HSR trains ever run, and it allows them to use Prop 1A funds in the process. Kind of shows how the "logic" behind Morris Brown's lawsuit is being mooted.

  4. How fast can Amtrak's equipment go on HSR tracks? Wikipedia says that the Superliners (California cars are a derivative) can get up to 100mph and the engines can go up to 110.

  5. Having read the memo, it's interesting that they're actually seriously considering using the HSR line to speed up San Joaquin service. It'll be neat to see a San Joaquin train running with an electric locomotive from Merced to Bakersfield, and there's really no reason that ALP-46A's couldn't be modified with ETCS signalling. I believe the California Cars are rated for 110 mph, as are the current diesels, while Amfleets and both current and future electric locomotives are rated for 125.

  6. If the San Joaquin were to run on the partially built HSR tracks, bring in Acela which runs up to 150 mph. Or put another way, what is the highest rated FRA compliant equipment which could be run on an interim basis?

  7. James: The interim San Joaquins still have to run on a lot of non-electrified infrastructure, so completely electric operations are out of the question. At best, we'd be able to use dual-mode locomotives, but I have my doubts that they will even acquire any new equipment.

  8. Clem,

    It is actually not true that only aerial is being looked at. The transcript of the meeting, which we will post as soon as cleaned up a little bit more, makes it clear that it would be whatever comes out of the environmental process. They explicitly mention trenching. If they did trenching, it might just be a shorter distance. In general, all the distances are a little up in the air, since costing is still fairly loose.

  9. So they'll change engines at Merced like they did at New Haven for 70 years. It'll still be worth it to swap a 3000 hp diesel for an 8000 hp electric. No need for dual modes, and no use hauling the Acela around with a diesel for half the trip. Besides, electric locomotives will soon be relatively plentiful on the East Coast, while the Acela has just enough equipment to run the current timetable and have enough spares for maintenance.

  10. NJT and Canada's AMT is buying OCS/diesel dual-mode locomotives from Bombardier, called ALP-45DP, with prototype due this time next year.

    Also, by the time these HSR sections are done, Amtrak California's fleet would need major overhaul or replaced, so it might make sense to buy a few dual-mode locomotives to encourage piece-meal electrification along the current corridors.

  11. "Here's an alternative idea. Spend the big bucks on some useful section of the line first ..."


    San Jose-Fremont-Livermore?

    Redwood City-Fremont-Livermore?


    Transbay-Mission Bay not designed by cretins?

    What sort of utterly incompetent, grossly unprofessional organization wouldn't have such segments ready to go given years of advance notice?

  12. political_incorrectness01 August, 2010 13:35

    If the STRACNET was already 110 mph electrified and double tracked, we wouldn't need to have the discussion of electric San Joaquins. It'd certainly help passenger trains and freight. Electric locomotives have much more horsepower than diesel. Unless I am missin something.

  13. Don't go picking out new trainsets yet. The Central Valley segments don't include electfication.

  14. @ Elizabeth.

    Yeah, $3 billion for tracks plus signalling plus electrifications seemed a little bit low for 160 or so miles...

  15. Someday the Cal HSR golden spike............

  16. Peter, at tunnel-free TGV costs, $3 billion buys you about 140 miles, complete with electrification and signaling.

  17. I'm getting about 200 km for $4 billion, based on the LGV Bordeaux-Toulouse. Not sure if that has tunneled sections, though.

    In contrast, the 160 miles Merced - Bakersfield corresponds to about 256 km.

  18. I would doubt that any of those sections included a 12 mile stretch of 60 foot elevated rail through an urban area that will need to be engineered to maintain 220 mph speeds and keep the noise at an acceptable level.

  19. @ Elizabeth

    It looked to me like they are avoiding building the urban aerial sections for right now. Instead they're going to bypass them and simply linking up with the existing Amtrak stations. Unless you got something different out of the meeting?

    And yes, I just saw on the German wikipedia site that the Velaro E is rated at 95 dBa at 350 km/h. It did not say how they got that value, so it might be rated differently according to the FRA guidelines.

    Speaking of which, do you happen to know when they will be releasing the new HSR noise study?

  20. Maybe I should mention the relevance of my last comment, in case it was not completely clear.

    I was simply giving an example of how loud a current-generation HSR train is at the 220 mph mentioned by Elizabeth.

  21. The "interesting memo" cited by Clem, is really much more than that.

    It outlines a complete "sea change" in how van Ark wants this project to proceed.

    No longer will they be using the "shot gun" approach of starting with small construction projects in all 4 segments, but plan to pool all of their limited funds into a segment that can completed.

    If you listen to the meeting last week, part of which was piped into Judge Kopp's office, you really get the sense of all of this. Eventually there is to be a transcript that can be read and it is revealing as well.

    It would seem almost for sure that the LA section will be the one to get the go ahead; the central valley doesn't have the political pull to get it and does anyone believe that it could be operated economically without connections to LA and SF?

    For numerous reasons, as covered by Clem, the Bay Area will not be chosen.

    Thanks much for the post Clem.

  22. @ Morris

    Do you think your lawsuit will still hold water if this approach is adopted to the construction of the project?

  23. FYI - the Caltrain corridor will be SFFS with Caltrain on the outside and HSR in the middle. The PB "Program Management Team Monthly Progress Report" notes the developments on the Caltrain corridor on pgs. 7-9. The corridor designation of SFFS is to reduce the footprint of the caltrain stations.


  24. Peter: I was thinking of LGV Est costs, which were €10.8 million per km.

  25. @ Morris

    The problem with the LA-Anaheim section is that it doesn't allow for sufficient testing of high-speed rail equipment. The Central Valley section really does need priority over all other sections.

  26. I would be really surprised if LA - Anaheim got picked. It's even less HSR-like than the peninsula, and would be a sure sign of HSR money being pissed away on appendices when the main plot is yet to be written. If Van Ark is worth his salt, he won't allow that to happen, no matter what political machinations may be brewing within his parochial board of directors.

    Something will have to give, and I would guess that when push comes to shove, ARRA and HSIPR spending deadlines will prove surprisingly elastic.

    @anon, thanks for the tip, rumors are confirmed...

  27. From the beginning this project has been planned and promoted by politicians. Politicians make up the whole board membership.

    Why anyone would think that this decision, which segment to choose for phase 1, is not going to be a political one is beyond me.

    Choosing to start work in all 4 segments was a political choice, against the wishes of Morshed.

    Clem's analysis, which I agree is on target, rules out the Bay area.

    The central valley doesn't have the political power on the board to get their corridor chosen.

    Do you think, even if the Authority were to choose the central valley, the legislature would fund that corridor? I certainly don't.

  28. And if you're by political power, which I presume is proportional to population, the actually useful sections of the line are also the ones with absolutely no political power since they're unpopulated. Yet the links between Southern California and the Central Valley and between the Central Valley and Northern California are what would make the HSR project worthwhile in the first place. Just building the Central Valley line, even if it's a couple hundred miles long, would still mean no train at all between LA and SF: you'd still have to transfer to a bus at Bakersfield. Likewise, it would mean the only through trains from the Bay Area to the southern Central Valley can go via Martinez and Stockton, rather than a more direct route via Altamont or Pacheco.