What to do in high speed rail?

Last week, new studies came back on the California High Speed Rail project. They have raised the estimated cost to $99 billion, and dropped the ridership estimate to 36.8 million and $5.5 billion in annual revenue. Note that only around 20 million people currently fly the SF to LA corridor -- they expect to not just capture most of those but large numbers of central valley trips.

Even at the earlier estimates the project was an obvious mistake, and there's no way to financially justify spending $99 billion to pull in $5.3 billion/year even subbing zero in for the large operating cost. But for various political reasons involving getting federal money, some are still pushing for this project, and we may well build a short train to nowhere in the central valley just to get the federal bucks.

They're planning there because the various cities in the populated areas have been fighting legal battles to block the train there, not wanting its disruption. Because the train can only stop if a very few places at the speed it wants to go, a lot of towns would end up having construction and noise and street blockage and not get a lot of use from the train.

The local opposition is a tough barrier, because the train ends up really only being useful where the people are. While I have doubts about how many people would ride the long haul, since few want to go from downtown SF to downtown LA, lots of people would ride a fast train in the urban areas. In particular, what nobody talks about is running the HSR primarily to the airport, and streamlining both security clearance and the connection with new technology. The only reason HSR is pushed as possibly competing with flights is because of the nightmare we have made of flying, where people have to get to airports 45 minutes ahead of even short-haul flights and take a fair bit of time to get out of airports on the other end and make it through traffic to their destinations. A fast train from a downtown to the airport where you clear security (and check bags) right on the train, and the train drops you right at the central gate areas post security would create an unbeatable trip from downtown anywhere to downtown anywhere.

For fast trains, the San Francisco to San Jose route is so short that a 250mph HSR could do the 48 mile trip between the towns in 12 minutes without stopping, call it 15 with the start and stop at each end. This opens up an interesting cost saving -- you could build a single track, and have a train zip back and forth on it, and still provide service every 30 minutes. You could put a double-track section in the middle and have service every 15 minutes, with lots of safety interlocks of course. A single track requires less land, less of everything and could probably be built along easier routes, even highway medians in some cases. You could avoid turnaround time by having double track at the endpoints, so one train is leaving for opposite route the moment the other train arrives, giving each train quite a long turnaround -- with double rolling stock.

Of course, having no stops is not that valuable because only a few people want to go from SJ to SF. People would want a stop at the airport as I have indicated, and at least one in Mountain View or Palo Alto. Each stop costs a bunch of time, and eventually the trip gets long enough that the single-track trick becomes less useful. For a while I've wondered if you could make trains that could dock, so that the main train runs non-stop and is able to shed cars which stop at local stops (not that hard) and to dock with cars coming from local stops (harder.) I proposed this 7 years ago near the start of this blog, and there are serious rail designers thinking along the same lines -- see the video in that link.

In the Priestman Goode proposal, they have trains docking side to side. That seems much more challenging though it offers fast transfer. If you combine the two ideas, you would have two tracks -- one for the nonstop trains and one for the docking shuttles which serve all the local stops. Indeed, if you could do this you could get rid of the old regular speed rail service running on existing track pairs because this would be superior in all ways except cost. My own proposals attempted to dock on a single track, which seems easier to me.

Robocars play a role in all this too. Even the HSR authority realizes they have a big problem, in that once people get quickly to an HSR station, they still have to get to their real destination. Using local transit may mean spending more time on a local bus than on the HSR. The mobility on demand of robocars is a great answer, and I'm pretty sure that with a 2030 forecast completion date (if they're lucky) we'll have robocars long before then. And the one thing cars can't readily do is go very fast efficiently between cities.

The docking approach, should it work, has another advantage. The main train can take the best route (cheapest or shortest) without too much regard for where the stations are. People like stations in urban centers, but bringing the high speed train right through such areas (like Palo Alto) is hard and has caused the lawsuits. If the train goes through the industrial space along the Bay, and a spur goes into downtown for the shuttle that docks with it, you get a win all around.

Another approach that doesn't require dock/undock works when you have a solid terminus like SF. You have 3 trains leave SF at the same time. The first one goes express to San Jose. The second goes express to Palo Alto and Mountain View and then switches to low speed tracks to go to Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. The third goes to SFO airport. Because SFO airport is also an origination point, it sends a train to SJ just before or after the one from SF, and another train to Mountain View right after that one. Mountain View to SJ service might be able to fit in or have to be local service. These sub-trains are just a few cars. This is not as energy efficient, though it can be if the trains are able to get close to one another and draft, sort of a virtual coupling without physical contact. You need perfect sync, and special long-spring collision bumpers in case the sync fails and they bump. The risk of higher-speed bumping must be prevented by failsafes that don't even let the trains get on the same track until speed is matched close enough. This requires more than just a single track of course.


If there's currently around 20 million people flying the SF to LA corridor, what is the estimate for the number of people flying that corridor in 2030, when the HSR would become operational? What is the estimate for the cost of the needed airport infrastructure to support that many people in 2030?

How many people are currently driving between SF and LA? How will that number change by 2030? What are the costs for the highway infrastructure changes needed to support that number in 2030?

What are the savings in total fuel consumption and carbon emissions per year with HSR vs. equivalent automobile and airplane ridership?

If robocars are available by 2030, how much could that increase ridership on CA High-Speed Rail?

I don't think it's reasonable to just throw around the total cost estimates for HSR alone, without both factoring in other benefits and comparing capital costs that would be incurred instead in its absence. Even if HSR winds up with a bigger up-front cost, long-term its benefits should make up for it.

As for who would ride the long haul, personally I'd totally pick HSR + robocars at my destination over driving or flying between SF and LA.

Side note 1: If robocars were available I've even choose rail that WASN'T high-speed to go between SF and LA. In fact I'd even take an express coach. As long as the trip time is equivalent or less than doing the drive myself I'll gladly give up the costs of gas, wear on my car, wear on myself, and/or airport hassle with security, baggage check, etc.

Side note 2: Just yesterday a friend asked me for advice about getting around the UK to go to four concerts in four different cities over four days, and whether he should take the train between them or rent a car. Since I'm very familiar with both modes of transport in the UK, I looked everything up. Two ~200-mile trips and two ~100-mile trips. Two 2.5 hour and two 1.5 hour train rides, or the hassles with a rental car, traffic, parking, navigating unfamiliar routes by yourself, etc. (even considering that the four cities are all on major motorways). The trains win by a mile. If only we had similarly usable non-car/airline transportation in the U.S... (And a side-side note is that the UK is planning future HSR to go between three of the four cities I looked up.)

Like all transport modes, HSR's efficiency depends on the load. Right now airlines have gotten very good (almost too good) at keeping their planes mostly full, while most train lines for various reasons don't seem to do this. Perhaps the HSR could do so.

Rail has plus and minus for efficiency. Energy lost to drag goes up with the square of velocity, and with air density. Going 250mph in the thick air of the ground is inefficient, though not having wings of course makes a big difference. Being electric is better than burning jet fuel or gasoline.

I don't disagree that we'll see more population, more flying and more driving. I just am skeptical of such a huge transfer to the rail. Especially if you can make the plane trip take 1.5 hours and the rail is 3.5 hours. To make the plane take 1.5 hours requires tricks like I have described -- pre-clearing security, HSR to the airport and/or robocars to and from the airport. I predict even fewer folks will go downtown to downtown than do now, and perversely, the airport is better suited to reach most destinations than a downtown SF rail station would be -- if you streamline getting in and out of the airport.

I do agree with a good robotaxi fleet for hire it is far less likely you will feel like driving SF to LA. Any public form becomes reasonably convenient then, and then the energy advantages of public transit can work, or the speed advantages (which planes will win.) I don't think we need more highway infrastructure but we would need to maintain what we have. That's going to happen regardless.

Some might elect to drive in their robocar on I-5 though because they get to work or sleep in their own personal space, customized to them. Less efficient, but it leaves when you decide to leave and is private and just the way you like it.

Robocars by themselves can do about as well all-around as high speed rail. You get into your car and let it drive you to your destination. You can work, sleep, communicate, or play games during the trip, and you have your car with you when you get there. For many people, the extra travel time won't be a big deal because most of it won't be lost time. It may not take all that much longer after factoring in moving from car to train and waiting for it to start. Fuel efficiency doesn't have to be bad, either. With ubiquitous robocars, convoys of autonomous vehicles could draft each other at high speed and get fairly good mileage. I think the money could be better and more fairly spent by investing it in robocar development.

I second this. If built in California, high speed rail will be obsolete for most of its lifetime. It's beat by airplanes for scheduled station-to-station travel requiring pick-up, taxi, public transport, or rental car on the other end (HSR will require the same security and boarding hassle as airplanes). And it's beat by robocars for mid-range point-to-point asychronous travel. Caravaning at 100+mph gets you from S.F. to your final L.A. destination in four hours which is in practice what air takes now. It would be *much* cheaper and more versatile to build more roads than the roadbed, overcrossings, and single-purpose precision track needed by HSR.

A great attraction of a car is that it's *your* car. You're familiar with it. It's got your junk. You clean the coffee stains or not if you want to. Robocars augment this by adding safety, efficiency, parkability, and all the other features Brad has discussed. For an infrastructure set up for the car culture, HSR and many other forms of public transit are toast---but that's a good thing for most of us.

It's an interesting question if HSR would get the security of planes. It does get more security than regular trains today.

  • While a bomb on an HSR is bad news, there will probably be many survivors. But there are presumably more on an HSR than on most planes
  • HSR is government funded. If the argument is put forward that airport-level security on HSR will ruin the whole point of the huge HSR investment, after it is spent, they might change their minds and deliberately have lower security even in spite of the danger.
  • As weight is less of an issue, it's easier to have bomb-proof luggage cars on HSR, and you can even put them at the back where the passengers would not be killed.
  • I'm not sure you really even need to make people check their weapons on the HSR. What can you do with a gun that you can't do in a crowded security line?
  • You can't crash an HSR into the World Trade Center.

I can concede this point.
The biggest security threat to HSR or any other rail is not what passengers do, but along the tracks.

The question to come back to is, how much time is lost dealing with the overhead of a central station and batch scheduling? Even without five to fifteen minutes getting through security, significant time is spent checking and waiting for baggage, queuing, getting seated, and especially the slack time most of us build in to make sure we don't miss the departure time. These are significant time-wasters that put HSR at a disadvantage with respect to a highway-capable personal transit vehicle, especially a faster/safer one than we have now (robocar).

The trick is not to think like we do today. I have a post earlier about a robocar airport, and the same principles could apply to rail. Which is to say that your car goes right up on the train platform and drops you there, and there are rows of cars waiting when the train arrives, and luggage robots take your bag later if you prefer not to wait for it. (Though on trains today the norm is you keep even large bags with you as they don't have time to fuss at stations.)

If you want to go really fast, that's when public transport makes sense. Drag is high enough at high speeds (square of velocity after all) that it now makes a lot of sense to share. And I want high speed to go from SF to LA, be it in the air or on the ground. Getting the land for the rails is difficult, and planes can go even faster, so I am not sure trains make a lot of sense, even at 250mph, but this is the one place private cars don't make as much sense. Though it is true, as you say, that a 120mph car might not be too bad, especially if drafting other robocars, and while it will be slower than the plane, 3.5 hours in a private space might be better than even 1.5 hours on a public plane and quick transfer robotaxi trips. Today the plane trip is about 2.5 hours, but that depends on your start and stop points. Unlike longer flights, you can pretty safely arrive at the airport only 30 minutes ahead of takeoff for the short haul SJC to LAX run with carry-ons and if you miss it, there is another flight pretty soon (at a cost.)

"Because the train can only stop if a very few places at the speed it wants to go, a lot of towns would end up having construction and noise and street blockage and not get a lot of use from the train."

This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why the BART doesn't go to San Jose. Milpitas and Fremont didn't like the idea of a mass-transit system going through the middle of town but not having a whole bunch of stops along the way.

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