Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Distressing Gap

Calculated Risk likes to talk about the distressing gap between existing and new home sales a lot. It's certainly something to ponder. When will the combination of population growth and consumption of fixed capital reduce the surplus inventory of homes enough so that developers have a reason to build again? Inquiring minds Greedy investors would like to know.

But I'd like to talk about the other distressing gap: the one between the policies being implemented and the policies that the country needs. I think it is the primary fuel for the online-lefty civil war that is going on right now (nope, I'm not linking to any of it).

Take health care reform. (Please!) Congress is about to pass a bill that makes a number of significant improvements to the current system. But the improvements are not anything like the fundamental transformation that is needed to really fix the system. Various legislators added cost controls here and there, but a strong, nationwide public option was defeated. A bill for a single-payer system wasn't put to a vote in either chamber. So, as of now, there is a big gap between what progressives want to see done and what the country is going to get. The same holds true for gay rights (the HIV travel ban has been lifted but DOMA/DADT haven't been repealed), economic stimulus (which wasn't large enough and had far too many tax breaks), foreclosure prevention (programs exist but they have done very little at a high cost), and others. The next big reform package that won't meet progressives' criteria is the climate change bill. The news from scientists keeps getting worse, and yet little is likely to be done. Fossil fuel production is geographically based, so the issue cuts across ideological lines - mostly in favor of the status quo.

So, what to do? Clearly the thing not to do is launch a nuclear attack against your closest allies, which is currently taking place. Instead, progressives should identify the obstacle(s) to better legislation and take them on. Quite clearly, the biggest obstacle for health care reform was the filibuster. It needs to go. So progressives should work together to lobby Senators to get rid of it. And they should also lobby Representatives, because the House has an institutional interest in beating down the filibuster. And they should lobby Democratic Party hacks because a lot of them will be out of a job if the party loses big in 2010. Once the supermajority rule is eliminated, progressives can take the campaign finance system (again) and support more progressives in primaries. Or something else. It will be tough, and there will be a lot of disappointments. The left just doesn't have the institutional muscle the right does, due to less money and extreme fragmentation into single-issue groups. There is also the inherent asymmetry between change and business as usual. But what else can progressives do except to keep on trying?

Update 2009/12/24: As usual, somebody else says it sooner and better.

Update 2010/01/01: Another good post, this time focusing on how the "movement" was squandered in at the beginning of Obama's first year. Again, right or wrong doesn't matter: how the former volunteers feel is simply a fact that has to be (or should be) addressed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Actual Insightful Commentary

A reader letter at TPM makes some good points:

Instead [many progressives] feel like the people they voted for and trusted to lead them failed. And it's hard to imagine making that same emotional commitment again in the future. Self defeating, yes. Temporary, maybe. But we're talking primal stuff here - people don't like wimps, not matter what party.
Two points deserve some elaboration: emotional investment, and wimps.

Leaving aside whether they should or not, it's clear that progressives work off of emotion a lot of the time. That is not surprising, because it takes a certain amount of courage to publicly advocate for a substantial change in society. Doing so means potentially facing disapproval from the rest of society, facing the fear of proposing a something new and untested, and facing the fear of failure. Nobody would choose to go up against those obstacles without a good reason and some passion. So progressives have to work themselves up before heading out to organize and campaign. And because of the nature of the emotion, progressive's energy can be deflated fairly easily. Contrast this with the other side, which has a default position against change, and frequently operates on hate or fear. The latter two emotions are much more enduring than hope.

The epitaph of "wimp" is something that has been lobed at Democratic politicians for a while. Sometimes the accusations stem from the fact that Dems are such a broad coalition it's hard for them consistently agree to anything. It's so broad there is a large group within the nominal coalition that regularly campaigns against the national party. Sometimes the accusations result from the asymmetry of effort between not doing anything and doing something (see above), meaning Democrats can potentially concede far more territory than Republicans. And sometimes liberals really are too open-minded.

This time around the accusation stems from the impression that no Democratic leader appears to have worked hard for a good bill (except Ted Kennedy until he got too sick). AFAICT, the administration didn't put its muscle behind a progressive version of the bill. Reid seemed perfectly happy to let Baucus drag out the "negotiations" in the secretive Terrorist Cell of Six. He also rejected using the budget reconciliation process as an option, meaning every Democrat could exploit the supermajority rule. And finally, the Senate leadership repeatedly and very publicly caved to Lieberman and Nelson every time they came up with a new objection. Nobody has even hinted about disciplining either.

It's always fun to speculate about motivations, but they're beside the point. The clear message from the process, combined with disappointments on other issues, is that Obama is not fighting for progressive values. Nor is the Senate leadership. Whether progressives have reasonable justifications for expecting a good effort is beside the point as well. They have expectations that are not being met, and their hope is deflating. And that will have consequences.

Wherefore Art Thou Progressive?

In answer to a question posted elsewhere:

"Progressive" has been used by 4 different parties in America, one of which is still active. I prefer it because 1) the word is much more clearly an opposite of "conservative" than the word liberal, 2) the Progressive Era made many improvements in government and people's lives which is something to emulate, 3) progressive goals are often about increasing individual liberty, but not always, 4) the current meaning of "liberal" is in many ways different from the original, which occasionally leads to some confusion, and 5) conservatives have poisoned the word "liberal".
But, really, I'd rather be called a DFH.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bailout Ben Blows

In case this gets taken down:

Why is three strikes not an out around here? Bernanke 1) helped create the biggest financial mess since the Great Depression, 2) is advocating a high-unemployment Fed policy for the foreseeable future, and 3) thinks the budget should be balanced by cutting entitlements because "that's where the money is." Not only is Bernanke bad for average Americans, he's going [to] hurt Democratic politicians, which will lead to Republicans being elected, which will be bad for average Americans.
Which means I've changed my backhanded semi-endorsement to outright opposition for reasons described above. Fortunately, one of my Senators agrees.

Update 2009/12/25: Baker utterly destroys Bernanke.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brilliant, Insightful Commentary

If I do say so myself.

Seriously, though, I think my conditions are pure common sense. It may be that a number of nuclear power plants of some kind(s) will be required in the future because the costs associated with providing enough storage capacity to smooth out the power from intermittently available renewables would be exorbitant. But we don't know. Or at least the people participating in discussion about new nukes on the internet don't know. So the sides keep talking past each other, and nothing significant gets done.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's Over


Conclusions, based on the Copenhagen promises about 2020:
  • Emissions from China and India will rise substantially, while those from the US will decline slightly.
  • China will be emitting 2.73 times as much CO2/year as the US, or 8,619 million metric tons more/year.
  • India will be emitting 76% of the US’s total, or 1,173 million metric tons less/year.

This doesn't mean I won't stop trying to slow anthropogenic climate change. But from this point forward all major planning exercises should include a worst case scenario for global warming. For instance, with respect to HSR, route selection should consider a ten foot (three meter) sea level rise and a 50% increase in the maximum predicted storm surge. The new design assumptions wouldn't affect just projects on the Gulf Coast and in Florida; there are also extensive low-lying areas in the San Francisco and NYC regions. Something that will have to be considered everywhere is water, as much of the US will become drier. Of course, there is always a chance that new technologies will come along in time to save us. There is also the chance that humans will fully grok the problem in time to change, but it's much smaller. The political and cultural dynamics at play are don't give me much hope.

Update 2009/12/16: Sites expected to be in use or toxic for more than 200 years should take into account a full 33 foot (9 meter) rise.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bordering on Insanity

Following up on this post, I've made two new maps of proposals to redraw the county borders in Arizona and California. (Update 2010-09-21: I've split California into three maps: North, Central, and South.) It's unlikely to happen in either state, but I think it should be given serious consideration.
When drawing the new borders, I tried to consider (as much as possible given the limited resources I have at my disposal) factors such as physical geography (keeping watersheds intact as much as possible), size, population (at both extremes), and economic interconnections. (In Arizona I also made a few counties that coincide with major reservations so as to eliminate jurisdictional issues.) For instance, in the case of Los Angeles County, it is huge (larger than both RI and DE), heavily populated (it would be the 9th most populous state), and geographically divided (the San Gabriel Mountains range up to 10,000 feet high). I trimmed it down to a more manageable 1,000 sq miles (down from 4,700) and 4,000,000 people (guestimate, down from 10,000,000), all of which are south of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains.
Because of my limited resources, these maps are diagrammatic. But I think they would be a good starting point for the discussion in each state.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Approach Diverging

I'm well beyond the point of diminishing returns on my HSR mapping, so here's the last set of images I plan to make for a while.

I left out the long distance routes this time because they are pretty unimportant in the larger scheme.

No changes in the Northwest.

I fiddled with the East Bay lines a bit. What to do with Altamont Pass is a controversial subject in Cali.

I changed the St. Louis - Nashville - Memphis triangle to more direct lines.

I made lots of changes in the Midwest and Northeast, but none of them are all that significant.

I've moved my maps to GMaps for any future work. Unfortunately, there seems to be a limit to the number of points that the interface will display at one time, so I had to split the lines into several maps:

And I did the same thing for the cities: To see all of the maps at once, you will have to add them to your own maps collection (left pane when viewing GMaps) one at a time. Since that is a total pain, I'll probably create regional maps containing all of the "layers" at some point.

A big advantage in using GMaps is that it covers the globe. This allowed me to plan out an integrated North American passenger rail system. Obviously anything resembling my proposal won't be built for 40 or 50 years. But it's there nonetheless.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bright Rails, Big City

I finally got around to filling a big gap in my high-speed rail analysis series. Examining the Hudson Valley turned out to be particularly unrewarding, as the solution would be very expensive to construct. Most of the expense would be in the southern half of the line, as the northern part runs through relatively rural and flat areas in Dutches, Columbia, and Rennselaer counties. However, the new line would provide significant time reduction. The current New York to Albany journey takes 2.5hrs to cover the @150 track-miles between the stations, which makes the average speed a leisurely 58mph. Raising the average to the still somewhat slow speed of 100mph would bring the time down to 1.5hrs, which would make a day trip from either end much more realistic.

Here some options for section through Westchester and Putnam counties:

  • An entirely new surface right-of-way - building an entirely new ROW would be enormously expensive and disruptive.
  • An improved Hudson Line - the existing line is curvy, busy, and subject to flooding. The slowest part of the current Hudson line is south of Beacon, and could be improved but so much.
  • An improved Harlem Line - the existing line is curvy, busy, and the northern half or so runs directly through town centers. Because it runs a good way to the east of the Hudson, utilizing it would significantly increase the total distance between NYC and Albany.
  • A revived Putnam Line - the abandoned Putnam Line is curvy, too narrow for two tracks, runs through through the center of various towns, and is currently a rail trail. Also, it doesn't go all the way through the Hudson Highlands.
  • A new tunnel - tunneling is expensive and slow. Attempting to tunnel under large parts of Westchester would be foolish in the extreme.
  • A hijacked highway - utilizing a part of an existing north-south highway would be probably be the cheapest way to build a new line. The ROW is already owned by state or local governments, cleared and graded, and separated from surface traffic. A pair of HSR tracks is about as wide as three lanes of traffic plus shoulders (45-50 feet). Of course, taking over half of a highway would be unpopular, and the ramps to local streets would have to be re-configured for 1/2 day directional traffic.
  • A viaduct - building a viaduct above existing surface streets would be expensive and disruptive. Also, elevated subways - or roadways for that matter - have a bad reputation for a reason.

A modified version of the last option is what I settled on. A viaduct along a highway right-of-way would preserve the utility of the existing roadway without disrupting neighborhoods during the construction period. The only right-of-way that I found workable was a combination of the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Taconic Parkway. That means some people's commute would become a bit less visually pleasing, but oh well.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Oversubscribed and Undersupplied

High demand for an offer of free money is unsurprising, to say the least. And so it was for the "Track 2" funds authorized by EGTRAA, aka the stimulus bill. There have been two previous deadlines: one in July that was basically for anything that had been batted about in the various state transportation planning offices, and a second in August for small to medium "ready-to-go" projects, with some states using a pretty expansive definition of shovel-ready.

I haven't read all of the proposals for the third round, but as the TTP points out, giving most of the money to California makes a lot of sense. The $10B in bonds authorized by citizens of the Bear Republic is probably about $9.9B more than any other state has committed to high-speed rail. If I were made SecTrans for a day, I'd give CHSRA $4B, Maryland $1.5B for fast-tracking the Baltimore tunnel replacments, $1.5B towards the more cost-effective small projects, and the rest for planning the more plausible large projects. Not much can be done with $8B - it's only 1% of my estimate for a full HSR network build-out. So the current round of money should be concentrated where it can do the most good.

Shit or Get Off the Pot

That's where we're at with Afghanistan. Here's the background: the security situation is getting worse, the Afghan government is a farce, Bin Laden is still not captured, neither Pakistan nor India will stop meddling, American citizens are tired of war, America's public discourse is juvenile, the President has boxed himself into a rhetorical corner, and the federal government is broke. But the only two options being discussed are more troops (shit), or altering strategy with the current level of troops (continue to sit). A third, withdrawing (get off), was preemptively dismissed. And that was a big mistake.

What (most) Americans don't understand is that their country is operating in imperial overreach territory. Literally. Afghanistan eats invaders for breakfast. Which is truly amazing - or entirely unsurprising - because there is no such thing as Afghanistan. As Alan Grayson put it, it's simply an empty place on a map. It's a label applied to an area not covered other labels, ones that more-or-less corresponded with a political entity.

I admit that, way back when, I was supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was there, the Taliban was medieval, and the US did sort of abandon the country once the proxy war with the Soviet Union ended. When Bush started transferring resources to Iraq I worried that the moment for lasting change in Afghanistan - tenuous though it was - would be lost. And it has been.

Now, after six years of tragic stupidity in Iraq, the nation's somewhat bleary focus is back on Afghanistan. But the context has changed. In 2001 there was not a monumental hole in the federal government's finances. It was before the country had muddled through another 7 years of inaction on energy, global warming, health care, infrastructure, education, and a host of other issues. And it was before every segment of the private economy - except the ultra-rich - drowned themselves in debt. The federal budget deficit for FY09 is likely to reach a whopping 10% of GDP. Gross federal, state, and local debt is approaching 100% of GDP. All of which is by way of saying: the US can't afford to shit. Even if the economy were to recover robustly (unlikely), there would still be large structural budget deficit that needs to be resolved. Something will have to give - taxes, spending, or both.

At the risk of sounding like a DFH, I feel our attempt to police the world should be the first spending item to be scaled back. Too many people have come to conflate their own self-image with the country's ability to bomb foreigners. Yet, at home, we treat each other like dirt, forcing people to go to extraordinary lengths to get health care. The mis-allocation is unsustainable.

Thus I believe the United States should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The people of the non-country shouldn't be abandoned like they were at the end of the 1980s. But instead of attempting to impose security, we should send aid in two forms. One should be cash, distributed at all levels of government and to NGOs. The other should be equipment and supplies - construction equipment, steel beams and rebar, transportation equipment, telecommunications equipment, water and sewage equipment, and medical supplies. We should let the Afghans (Pashtuns, Tajikis, Hazarai, etc.) build their own country as they see fit. Or not. $10B between the two streams per year should be enough, considering that the country's current GDP is estimated to be $20B or $30B per year. It would be a bargain compared to the $65B that has been allocated directly to operations in Afghanistan for 2009.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Bottom Line

Eight hundred billion dollars.

That's my guestimate for building out America's passenger rail system for a high level of performance. The total breaks down like this:

  • Core lines at HSR standards: $510B (8500 miles @ $60M per mile)
  • National lines at HSR standards: $160B (4000 miles @ $40M per mile)
  • Regional lines at MSR standards: $105B (5250 miles @ $20M per mile)*
  • Infill lines at SSR standards: $25B (5000 miles @ $5M per mile)
  • * - Includes upgrading the NEC to 150mph operations.

Now, $800B sure is a lot of money, but over 30 years it's less than $27B per year. For comparison, we've been spending an average of $115B per year on two wars, one of which was entirely unnecessary.

Opportunity costs, baby.

Update 10/10: Heck, we could build out the system with this year's defense spending alone.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cheese-Eating Railroad Junkies

Way back when, in the dark days of the last administration, before there was any indication that the US might get semi-serious about high-speed rail, I spent some time making a fantasy TGV network map for France. Why? Because.

The excellent base map I used came from Railways Through Europe. Existing Ligne à Grande Vitesse are solid red. Lines that RFF is considering are dashed red. My proposed lines (though I admit that I stole a number of them from LGV2030) are in dashed cyan. The little bits of dashed pink are lignes classiques that I think need to be electrified and/or double-tracked to support trains coming off the LGVs.

The main goal of my plan was to provide fast, direct inter-regional services. So far, the TGV network has been centered on Paris. This makes sense, of course, as the Paris aire urbaine contains about 19% of the country's population. But I think economic development away from the capital would be more vigorous if the TGV network was more of a mesh than a spoke-and-wheel arrangement.

On the Paris area map I added one new color: yellow for a cross-city tunnel linking the Gare Montparnasse with Gare du Nord and Gare de L'Est. As of now, there's no good way to run trains through or around Paris from the southwest to the north and east. Travelers going through Paris in those directions have to cross the city on the subway or otherwise to continue on their journey. Travelers going through Boston face similar difficulties. A tunnel would solve the problem in both cities, though at great expense.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Fast is Fast?

In my first rail-related post I defined three different terms: high-speed rail (HSR), medium-speed rail (MSR), and standard-speed rail (SSR). I've been reviewing the Federal Railroad Administration's rules about train speeds, and I now see that I need to add another definition.

There are two criteria that the FRA uses to set limits: quality of the track, and type of signaling system. For the track, there are 10 classes each of which has increasingly strict tolerance, maintenance, and inspection requirements. For signaling, there are three levels. Below 60mph (49mph for freight), trains can operate in "dark territory." There are no signals on such lines, and train movements are authorized either by the almost obsolete method of pre-written train orders, or by track warrants received by radio from a dispatcher. For trains to operate above 60mph, a railway line must have some kind of electronic trackside signaling. This is usually some form of colored indicator lights, though in the past it also included mechanical semaphores. The signals can operate automatically based on how they are wired, or they can be controlled from a central location, or both. Above 80mph, the rail line and the trains operating on it above 80mph must have some kind of system that will automatically protect a train (usually by stopping it) under certain conditions. Unfortunately, how the protection is implemented and under what circumstances varies quite a bit between protection systems, of which there are several in the United States alone. But they usually combine in-cab signaling and a way of applying the train brakes without assistance from the train operator. In-cab signaling is present because the status of a signal becomes harder to determine at higher speeds, and even a brief moment of distraction can cause an engineer to miss a signal. In most instances the cab signaling is a supplement to trackside signals. However, on dedicated TGV lines SNCF has dispensed with all external indicators, as there is no need to support legacy locomotives without cab signaling.

Back to my definitions. My SSR standard would require Class 4 track and trackside signaling. Both are what can be found on most major rail lines, like BNSF's TransCon. Amtrak currently operates on some Class 3 and even Class 2 track, which is really somewhat pointless. The average speed for a train running on low-quality track is well below what can be achieved in a car, which most people would opt for. Even if all the bright new plans for HSR networks come to naught, Amtrak should make an effort to upgrade all of its routes to SSR standards.

The next level I defined was MSR, which topped out at 110mph. This corresponds to FRA Class 6 track equipped with automatic train protection. And 110mph just happens to be the maximum speed of Amtrak's two intercity diesel locomotives, the F59PHI and the P42DC. Various bits of track maintained and operated by Amtrak meet the Class 6 standards, as does a very limited amount of track owned by various state rail authorities. In the immediate future, most passenger rail projects will be building to MSR standards.

Finally, I defined HSR as trains operating over 150mph. That means I left a big gap between 110 and 150 mph. Amtrak's operations on Northeast Corridor fall right into that gap. I'm going to call a new standard for that range of speed ISR, where "I" stands for intermediate, or improved, or impressive, or maybe something else that sounds catchier. This standard corresponds to Class 8 track, again with automatic train protection. The reason the ISR standard is set at 10mph less than FRA allows on Class 8 track is because the lower speed is what Amtrak has determined as safe for its equipment and track. "True" HSR rail lines would have to conform to Class 9 standards. No track of this quality has been built in the US to date.

One more thing about the ISR standard: it is - or should be - irrelevant. Away from the Northeast Corridor and the Keystone Corridor, there aren't many existing right-of-ways where triple- or quadruple-tracking is possible. If a passenger-only right-of-way is being built out, it should be done to HSR standards so as to get maximum benefits. For track shared with freight traffic, upgrading beyond the MSR standard is pointless because the much heavier freight trains will throw the track too far out of alignment for higher speeds to be safe. Curve radii are likely to be too small for high speed operation on existing lines, as most were laid out by the 1890s, when expected speeds were much lower.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Goin' Down South

Despite the frustration I experience while planning a HSR line across the Bay State, I've attempted to tackle the Big Kahuna: the southern Northeast Corridor. This 225 mile line is the busiest in the country. Naturally, it has many important stations: New York (number 1 busiest in the country), Washington (2), Philadelphia (3), Baltimore (8), Wilmington (11), Newark (13), BWI Airport (15), and Trenton (24). Amtrak's Acela Express trains stop at each of those stations (though not all individual trains do) plus Metropark in New Jersey. Amtrak's Northeast Regional trains stop at an additional 8 stations, and the various commuter rail operations serve at least 40 more. The line has a very long history: part of the line runs over the oldest operating railroad bridge in the world, built in 1836. The most recent major change to the line is the electrification between Washington and Baltimore, which was completed in the late 1930's.

Theoretically, Acela trainsets can reach 165 miles per hour, but due to a number of constraints the average speed for a trip from DC to NYC is just 78mph. The trip currently takes 2hr 47min with 4 intermediate stops, and 2hr 52min with 6 intermediate stops. The magic number people want to achieve for DC-NYC travel time is 2hr 30min, which would mean an average speed of 90mph. To cut the journey by a further 30min to 2hr, the average speed would have to reach 112mph, a 40% increase over the current figure.

I experimented with a few sections of entirely new track, which turned out to be pointless. Building a 25 mile stretch of HSR track between Washington and Baltimore would cut travel time by only 10 minutes. That doesn't seem like a good way to spend $1.25B, which is what the new segment might cost. And trains would still have to crawl through the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. Creating a new line east of the Delaware was the only way to lay new track north of Wilmington. It would be very expensive and somewhat useless because it would bypass so many busy stations. Elsewhere, sprawl made a new line completely impossible.

The inability to plan a new line meant that incremental improvements would have to be the means for reducing travel time. Amtrak and its supporters have been arguing for more capital investment in existing NEC infrastructure for decades, but the funds allocated by Congress have been minimal. Below are the improvements I would suggest, in rough priority, based on reading a number of reports, reviewing track diagrams, and eyeballing aerial photographs. The four cost levels correspond to guestimates of <250M, $250M-$1B, $1-3B, and >$3B;.

  1. West Baltimore tunnels - The B&P Tunnel for passengers and the Howard Street Tunnel for freight are the biggest choke point in the entire corridor. They both need to be replaced for reasons that are very well explained here and here. Cost: high. Benefit: high.
  2. Catenary - The power system south of NYC is unique, and not in a good way. It supplies 11kV, 25Hz AC electricity, which is used nowhere else in the world. The configuration of the wires themselves limits top speeds to 135mph. The entire system between NYC and DC needs to be replaced for those two reasons, and general age. Cost: moderate. Benefit: high.
  3. Signaling - The current signaling system is sufficient, but higher densities (meaning shorter blocks) on the entire line would increase capacity. Cost: moderate. Benefit: moderate. Update 9/26: Amtrak has already installed a Positive Train Control system on its equipment, and plans to have all commuter and freight rail upgraded in the next few years.
  4. New Jersey flyovers - Northbound commuter trains entering the corridor from two branch lines in central New Jersey (one is just a stub, really) have to cross the two southbound tracks and the northbound express track before continuing. This creates safety and scheduling issues that should be eliminated. Cost: low. Benefit: low.
  5. Curve straightening - There are a number of areas where curves could be eliminated. In most locations, doing so would reduce travel time a small amount (15-30 seconds or so) and at the same time would increase passenger comfort and eliminate higher wear curved track. Cost: low (each). Benefit: low (each).
  6. West Delaware track and curve - From Wilmington south to Newark there is a section of the line with only three tracks. Newark is the southern terminus of the SEPTA commuter rail system, so adding track would reduce scheduling conflicts. There is also a curve on the section that could be eliminated. This work could be done in conjunction with the bypass below. Cost: low. Benefit: low.
  7. East Baltimore tunnels - The two relatively short bores of the Union Tunnel east of Baltimore's Penn Station have a total of only three tracks, and need to be rebuilt due to age and height issues. Cost: high. Benefit: low.
  8. North New Jersey bridges - Two movable bridges just north of Newark need to replaced. Cost: high. Benefit: moderate.
  9. Northern Maryland bridges and track - Between Baltimore and the Delaware state line there are three two-track bridges in an area with only three tracks. New bridges need to be added for capacity reasons, and the originals eventually replaced, and another track added to help fully utilize the new capacity. Cost: high. Benefit: moderate.
  10. Central Maryland track additions - Most of the segment between Baltimore and DC has only three tracks. Another track would add capacity. Cost: moderate. Benefit: low.
  11. Wilmington bypass - The Wilmington station is in a very constrained area, has only three tracks, and is bounded by sharp curves at both ends. The solution here would be to bypass downtown Wilmington with two high-speed tracks. The existing track would remain, but through traffic would zoom on by. Cost: high. Benefit: low.
  12. North Jersey track additions - A short section of track from just south of Elizabeth north to Newark Airport narrows down from 6 tracks to 4. More tracks would help scheduling in a busy area, but the construction would be difficult due to the surrounding area of dense urban development. Two curves could be eliminated as well. Cost: moderate. Benefit: low.
  13. Northern Jersey viaduct - This 10 mile long structure from south of the Newark airport to near the Hudson tunnels entrances would bypass three stations (Secaucus Junction, Newark Penn, and Newark Airport), two movable bridges, and a rail yard. Cost: extreme. Benefit: low.
  14. 30th Street Station approaches - The track and switches on either side of the main Philadelphia station are a mess. Consensus opinion is that the situation needs to be addressed, but I have no idea about how large of an undertaking it would be. Cost: ? Benefit: ?

I think completing items 1, 2, 5, and 6 would shave 15 minutes off the trip. Items 3, 4, and 10 might save some time, but most likely they would just allow for more trains to be scheduled. But increased service frequency is a worthwhile goal, too, especially for the commuter rail systems. Items 8 and 9 might save 2 minute each, but the main purpose for undertaking them would be end-of-life replacement of the existing infrastructure. Item 7 is another project that is important due to age, though the time benefit would be negligible.

Completing tasks 1-10 would bring travel time to 2hr 25min. Not bad. Amtrak experimented with a limited service Acela train, which had only one intermediate stop at Philadelphia. The journey time on the offering was 10 minutes faster than regular Acela service. Completing item 11 would allow for another intermediate stop at Baltimore without changing the travel time. The rest of the projects - items 12, 13, and 14 - might wring a few more minutes out of the journey time, but 2hrs 15min for a limited service train would be pretty good. Northeast Regional trains would benefit, too, though the amount would be less because the catenary upgrades wouldn't change their top operating speed.

(Updated 9/28) How could I have not posted these links at the beginning?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I, For One, Will Welcome Our New French Overlords

According to the Transport Politic, SNCF has submitted proposals for several of the FRA designated HSR corridors. This is an interesting development because the French definitely know a thing or two about high-speed rail. However, even if the inevitable knee-jerk dismissals were surmounted and SNCF won a bid, cultural differences would make the implementation a disaster. Entirely stupid, but that's just the way things are. The French are more likely to win a contract in Canada, which is once again mulling HSR for the Windsor-Québec corridor.

Patterns on the Land

I've created two more maps of rail lines: one for New Hampshire and one for Southern Québec. I find it interesting how different the land-use patterns are between the two areas. Note that I'm working off a variety of old maps, some of which are merely diagrammatic. Thus the exact alignment of some abandoned lines is unknown, and I've certainly left out items.

As a side note, the mapping interface is pretty buggy (at least in my browser). When the number of items on the left side exceeds one page, the list starts doing weird things. The behavior makes sorting the items nicely a real pain in the arse. Hopefully Google will fix this soon.

Update 9/27: I found a very nice repository of old Canadian topo maps, so I'm now pretty confident the routes I've traced are accurate.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Baked Bean Breakdown

Another day, another high-speed rail analysis. Designing a line for Massachusetts was difficult for two reasons. In the eastern third of the state, sprawl is almost continuous. In the western half, there is again sprawl around Springfield, and then an area of very jumbled geography. None of the mountains are particularly high, but at the same time there are no large, level valleys that can be used to approach the highest peaks. Anyway, in the eastern half or so, the best solution was to parallel I-90. Following the current CSX alignment wasn't possible because it runs through the center of so many towns. In the west, because of the built environment west of downtown Springfield, a detour to the south was necessary. After that, it was a matter of finding the least bad route until the rail line could meet up with I-90 again. To keep speeds up, several tunnels and viaducts were needed.

I think the main takeaway from this exercise is how restrictive the sprawl around American cities can be on new transportation construction. Most existing rail lines were first laid out in the 1800s, and the Interstate Highway System was planned in the early 50s, when the population was half of what it is now, and much less suburban. Projects planned now, unlike those other two, have to deal with a built environment that is fully built up within a 20 mile radius of large city centers. And large city centers are where high speed rail lines need to go.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Capital of the Empire

Truth be told, my exercise in planning a high-speed rail station in Burlington was not very challenging. It is a small city in a very rural state, so I found it easy to get a line close to downtown without having to plow under hundreds of homes. So I decided to do another analysis

This time I chose the Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY Metropolitan Statistical Area, a.k.a. the Capital District. It is a much more populous area than the Burlington, VT MSA, being home to over 1.2 million people by the Census Bureau's estimates. And it is a major rail hub, with seven main lines radiating from the area. Albany is the top of the "Selkirk Hurdle," which is shorthand the detour trains must make due to the lack of freight rail connections across the Hudson below the city. Any freight destined for New York City or southern Connecticut has to either cross the river (which is really a long, narrow fjord below Troy) on CSX's Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge just below Albany, or be transferred to truck, usually at the Port of New Jersey, and driven into the city. A freight rail tunnel from New Jersey to Queens is being planned, but its opening will be many years in the future.

Before I started laying out track I created a number of requirements. One was that there would be four HSR lines converging on the area, one from each of New York City, Boston, Buffalo, and Montreal. However, only four of the six possible city pairs needed to be easily completed (BOS-BFX, BOS-MTL, NYP-BFX, NYP-MNT) as there would be better routes for the other two (BOS-NYP, BFX-MNT). Another was that the station(s) should be as close to downtown(s) as possible. A third was that the considerable freight traffic in the region not be permanently impaired. And of course minimizing destruction and disruption would be nice.

It turns out keeping the freight moving wasn't so hard for the five lines south of the city. But getting freight arriving from the north on CP or from the east on PAR to the five southern lines, along with the reverse, was much more problematic. Currently, some of it passes through Albany along the waterfront, but most of it goes through downtown Schenectady. Building a new line to connect the south end of CP's Mohawk Yard to CP's line south to Binghamton was key to untangling the knot of lines in Schenectady. I located this line on the north/west bank of the Mohawk, but a crossing further west could accomplish the same end.

With the Schenectady choke point gone, the rest of the pieces fell into place pretty easily. The most disruptive element would be the new station in Albany. The current station across the river in Rensselaer, while not very far physically, cannot be accessed from Albany on foot. A pedestrian bridge could be built over the Hudson, but I think most people would be uncomfortable using it at night. The station would also have to be reconfigured extensively to accommodate the much longer HSR trains and an extra set of tracks. The original Albany Union Station is in a great location, but the ROW has been mostly obliterated by the waterfront highway, so it can't be reopened. An alternative would be to excavate a tunnel, but that would be very expensive and disruptive. Plus, it could only be accessed by electricity-powered trains. I thought the best solution would be build a new station on the Albany side of the river in an area that consists mostly of warehouses and small businesses. I am not a fan of "urban renewal" projects that destroy acres of existing city fabric, but at least this project would allow expansion of the downtown area northwards once the existing lines were removed.

As for the rest, hopefully the map explains itself. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Just Passing Through

I was looking at my HSR network again and started wondering about having the NYC-Montreal line pass through Burlington. Here is a quick analysis of the area. I'll have more about it later.

Update: My mapping has succumbed to feature creep.

I've developed four "alignments" for where a HSR line might be run near Burlington. From west to east they are:

  1. Downtown Alignment - Of course, my first instinct was to put the line through downtown. It turned out to be the worst choice by far. It would cut the city off completely from it's small but developing waterfront, there would be no room for parking, it would create a lot of traffic through the city, it would have to share track with the local shortline freight railroad, and there would be no room for run-through tracks. The only upside is that downtown (which is up the hill from the station) would be within easy walking distance.
  2. UVM Alignment - Running the line near I-89 might be the best choice. The station would have good highway access, it would create little additional traffic through residential neighborhoods, it would be within walking distance of UVM, and it would be closest to the major hotels clustered along Williston Road. The downside is that it would be the most disruptive to existing buildings, and it would displace UVM's working farm. It might also be too close to Fletcher Allen, disrupting patients with noise and vibration, and it would not be within easy walking distance of downtown.
  3. Airport Alignment - Running the line near the Burlington International Airport would be the least disruptive to the existing built environment. Passengers would be close to currently operating rental car agencies, but not much else.
  4. Suburban Alignment - Locating the line and station out in the 'burbs (such as they are in Vermont) would put tourists a few miles closer to the ski resorts, but at the same time draw development well away from downtown. There would be plenty of room for parking.

Of those 4 alignments, my choices, in order, are: 2, 3, 4, 1. I wish that the downtown alignment could work, but it wouldn't. It would be so damaging that I'd rather see the line on the other side of the lake.

Just for kicks, I extended the downtown and suburban alignments to the Canadian border and all the way to Schenectady. The placement of each is strictly guesswork; I did it mostly to get a sense of what kind of disruption a line would bring to the Vermont countryside. I also populated the map with lots of other tidbits that only a railfan would find interesting. I'll probably move a lot of these to a separate map at some point.

Update: I've cleaned up the Burlington map. See the post above for railfan stuff. I've also made a high level map of the Federal High-Speed Rail Corridors for reference.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Need for Speed

I can't stop myself. Srsly.

After reviewing my first try at designing a HSR network, I realized I was somewhat over-eager in drawing lines. I decided to represent the top cities visually instead of working off a list.

Cities are colored as follows:

  • Red - top 20 metro areas, 37% of the population, cutoff at 2.67m
  • Cyan - next 20 metro areas, 50% cumulative total of the population, cutoff at 1.32m
  • Green - next 20 metro areas, 56% cumulative total of the population, cutoff at 830k
  • Magenta - next 40 metro areas, 65% cumulative total of the population, cutoff at 500k
  • Brown - next 100 metro areas, 75% cumulative total of the population, cutoff at 200k
  • Orange - next 82 metro areas, 80% cumulative total of the population, cutoff at 132k
  • Yellow stars - state capitals that are not top 100 cities
  • Cities in Mexico and Canada are classified according to where they would fit into the American rankings.

Rail lines are colored as follows:

  • Red - core national lines, track built to full HSR standards (180mph)
  • Cyan - important national lines, track to HSR standards wherever possible, MSR standards (110mph) otherwise (changed from blue)
  • Green - regionally important lines, track to MSR standards wherever possible, SSR standards (79mph) otherwise
  • Magenta - spur or infill lines, track to MSR or SSR standards

This map shows only the top 100 cities and the national lines. Most of the changes are in the Southeast, where one core line was relocated and several national lines were downgraded to the the third tier.

Here is a closeup of the Northwest from a map with all 282 metro areas and all four classes of lines. The main change in this region was the upgrade of the eastern Washington line to tier 4.

The main changes in the Southwest were the addition of a spur to Reno and an upgrade of the central coast line. There were several priority changes in the mountain region, but the segments remain isolated.

The relocation of the core route through Spartanburg instead of Columbia and Augusta was the biggest change in the Southeast. The Piedmont region saw a lot of changes, and it still remains in flux as I have more to learn about the physical geography in the area.

Routing in the Northeast was little changed aside from some priority alterations.

For comparison, I overlaid a map of the US national lines with a map of France at the same scale. French HSR lines are shown in dark blue, along with the Channel Tunnel and HSR1 in the UK. The comparison really underlines the scale of the undertaking that would be needed to build out a HSR network in the US. The distance from Lille to Marseilles is roughly the same as from Sacramento to San Diego, and Raleigh to Boston compares to the journey from Marseilles to London.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

High Speed Followup

Here are a few more maps to flesh out yesterday's post.

The network I developed previously is overlaid on a population distribution map in this image. Now, the map is from 1970, but as far as I know no entirely new cities have been built since then. Growth since then has been greater in the South and Southwest, so the sizes of the circles (urban population) and density of the dots (rural population) is somewhat wrong. But, in general, Americans are living in the same locations today that they did back then. As you can see, I've hit nearly every major city with a red or blue line, excepting those in the Mountain states. The green or yellow lines hit most of the rest. One area I need to investigate is the western Virgina/western North Carolina/eastern Tennessee region. There are a lot of medium-sized cities there, and I think I missed an important line or two.

Here is the network plus a whole slew of routes that might be considered for passenger rail if the country was to go all out on upgrading and electrifying the rail system. I've included every route that seems plausible. There are a few intentional omissions because of physical geography and size (Grand Junction, Medford), because of isolation and size (Roswell, Bismark), and because of geography and density (north of Lake Superior). I have also excluded the dense commuter rail networks that exist around Northeast Corridor cities and Chicago, which would get even denser if rail had a higher priority. There's probably a bunch of unintentional omissions, too. I tried to avoid filling the Big Empty Spaces out west with extra lines, as the area really is empty. Nonetheless, I ended up with a several routes that would be well-utilized only in a world where flying or driving was prohibitively expensive.

I also compared my plan to this plan from The Transport Politic. The blogger there did a very detailed analysis using a mathematical model to help decide on where to run the HSR lines. Nonetheless, I have a number of minor quibbles (marked in green) about gaps and spurs in the secondary network, and four larger questions (marked in blue) about the HSR lines.

Working west to east, the first is about the Los Angeles to Phoenix connection, where I think it might be a mistake to bypass Yuma. There are about 300,000 more people on a southern route, the geography looks easier, and there could be a connection to San Diego via two decent-size cities in Mexico (it's remotely possible). The diversion does cause a 30 minute time penalty, which pushes the duration of the downtown-to-downtown trip to about the limit. But LA is such a vast area that many of the trips would originate east of downtown, and those journeys would stay well below the limit. Next, the gap south of Macon seems like a missed opportunity. The key here is not to go straight to either Savannah or Jacksonville, but to hit a point between them and fork. Farther south, running the main line on the west side of the Florida peninsula would substantially increase the time to Orlando and Jacksonville from Miami. I think the importance of tourism to the state needs to be acknowledged, and running the line on the east side would pass more touristy areas. Plus doing an EIS for trackage across the Everglades is too horrific to contemplate. Finally, the kink to hit all the cities in North Carolina means the line won't really be HSR. The distances between them are just too small. That's why I bypassed Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point with the main HSR line between Raleigh and Charlotte. The branch route could be served with HSR track and trainsets. But station dwell and acceleration/deceleration times start to dominate with that many stops, so the track might be built only to MSR standards. I think there would be about a 40 minute time penalty for the western route over a direct connection.

That's it for now. I'm all HSRed-out.

Update: One last gasp. Here's the extended system overlaid on the population map.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Just Lines on a Map

One of the most pleasing parts of the economic stimulus bill (aka the clumsy acronym EGTRRA) - at least to us liberals in our decadent coastal enclaves - was the inclusion of several billion dollars of money allocated for high speed rail (HSR). This has prompted an outburst of proposals for HSR networks, conveniently presented in graphic form. Here's some of them:

  • The Federal Railroad Administration's designated HSR corridors with some criticism.
  • A proposal from The Transport Politic, with a followup.
  • US HSR has a plan that projects build-out through 2050.
  • America 2050 also has a plan that is based on the concept of megaregions.
  • The Infrastucturist has mashup of several different proposals.
  • The VHSR group has a nice map of existing Amtrak routes and population estimates of another set of megaregions.
I have my own proposal, but before talking about it let me back up a bit and cover some basics.

First, what is HSR? Internationally, it's defined as a fixed guide-way transportation system that operates regularly at speeds above 240 kph (150 mph). In the US it has been defined by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as railroad transportation that can travel in excess of 110 mph (175 kph). The international definition covers both conventional rail and magnetic levitation systems. For the rest of this post I'm going to define HSR as conventional steel-on-steel trains and track that allow for regular operation above 150 mph. I'm also going to add two other definitions that are unique to me: MSR as conventional rail that travels at speeds up to 110 mph, and SSR as conventional rail that that travels at speeds up to 80 mph.

Second, what kind of equipment does HSR require? All currently implemented HSR networks use trainsets powered by electricity provided by an overhead catenary system. This combination isn't the only possibility, but it's definitely the best one. Electric power is better for this application than a diesel-electric combination because hauling around a large prime mover (a railroad term for the engine, which is separate from the motors powering each axle) and its fuel supply isn't necessary. And with diesel power, more than one locomotive would be necessary to meet the required power. Electric power is better than a gas turbine-electric combination because turbines are very inefficient in this application. An overhead catenary is better for providing electricity than the only other option, third rail, for safety reasons. A trainset is better than a separate locomotive pulling independent cars because a trainset can be more easily made aerodynamic, access between cars is better, and they are more attractive. (Some HSR designs have two semi-permanent, integrated locomotives that push and pull a set of articulated cars, instead of being part of the articulated set.) For MSR and SSR, diesel becomes viable, though electricity is still better in many situations. A dedicated trainset is still best at all speeds, but legacy locomotives and cars work as long as they are well maintained.

Third, what kind of track does HSR require? A HSR trainset can operate on any electrified track provided the voltage is correct, but requires a separate, fenced-off, dedicated set of tracks free of grade crossings in order to operate at maximum speeds. HSR needs to be separate because the track has to be built to a much higher standard than for MSR or SSR, because mixing speeds slows down traffic substantially, and because heavy freight trains cause much more wear and tear than lighter passenger trains. A dedicated line can also have grades that are too steep for freight traffic. In most HSR networks the trainsets operate on dedicated track outside of city centers and merge with general traffic for the last few miles. MSR and SSR do not have to be segregated, but the track needs to be in better shape than for freight-only traffic. MSR needs to have an in-cab signaling system installed on the line, as does HSR, but SSR can operate on traditional trackside indicators. MSR also requires all grade crossings that can't be eliminated be protected with large, complex gates.

Finally, where should HSR go? Because of the high cost of building dedicated track, HSR is only viable between major population centers. Additionally, when compared to aircraft, HSR is competitive only for trips of up to 3 hours, or 300-400 miles. The number of stops must be limited in order for the average speed to stay up, as does the amount of time spent on low-speed lines, in order to have an advantage over cars.

So, there's a lot of stuff to consider when planning a HSR network even before tackling issues like geography and existing conditions. Let's look at a potential line.

Semi-randomly, I've selected Boston to Buffalo for this exercise. It's not an obvious route, but it does terminate in a top 10 city. From west to east, the cities along the route are (populations are for metro area, mileage is from Google Maps):

  • Buffalo, pop. 1,170,000, MP 0, MSA rank 47, Possible connections: Toronto, Erie, Cleveland
  • Batavia, pop. 16,000, MP 36
  • Rochester, pop. 1,037,000, MP 67, MSA rank 51
  • Seneca Falls, pop. 9,347, MP 117
  • Auburn, pop. 28,574, MP ?
  • Syracuse, pop. 732,117, MP 155, MSA rank 80, Possible connections: Binghamton, Philadelphia
  • Oneida, pop. 10,987, MP 180
  • Rome, pop. 294,862 (in Utica MSA), MP 196
  • Utica, pop. 294,862, MSA rank 155, MP 212
  • Herkimer, pop. 7,498, MP ?
  • Johnstown, pop. 8,100, MP 262
  • Amsterdam, pop. 18,355, MP 273
  • Schenectady, pop. 853,919 (in Albany MSA), MP 290
  • Albany, pop. 853,919, MP 303, MSA rank 57, Possible connections: NYC, Montreal
  • Rensselaer, pop. 853,919 (in Albany MSA), MP ?
  • Pittsfield, pop. 42,931, MP 338
  • Springfield, pop. 682,657, MP 386, MSA rank 74, Possible connections: Hartford, New Haven
  • Worcester, pop. 749,973, MSA rank 65, MP 434
  • Framingham, pop. 66,910 (in Boston MSA), MP 453
  • Newton, pop. 83,829 (in Boston MSA), MP 466
  • Boston, pop. 4,411,835, MSA rank 10, MP 476, Possible connections: Providence, Concord, Portland
When set out like this, most of the destinations are obvious (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston). Others aren't. Schenectady is too close to Albany to be added for a stop on its own merits, but existing conditions mean a stop would have a low penalty. I would also include Newton because Boston is such a big metropolitan area that traveling into the city center can be prohibitive. A similar suburban spot could be added near Buffalo, but the majority of the population lies to the north or south of downtown, making the added utility smaller.

But wait, you say, the line being discussed is much longer than 400 miles. That's true, and somebody going from Buffalo to Boston would most likely fly (at current prices). However, there are so many intermediate destinations with considerable populations that the entire line would be heavily utilized. The line also intersects with several others: HSR lines at Buffalo, Albany, and Boston; and MSR lines at Buffalo, Syracuse, Springfield, and Boston. Many trains could run on the corridor for only part of their routes before branching off, which would increase utilization even more. So, using my rather imprecise technique, this looks like a very good line to include in a HSR network.

Where else should HSR go? To answer that in a semi-methodical way, we could look at the US metro area rankings, and see if any groupings emerge. I've done that, and here is what I saw. I've used the Census Bureau's MSA definitions, so a few larger megalopolises have more than one entry. Marginally attached cities are in parenthesis, and logical extensions into Canada and Mexico are in brackets.

  1. Northeast
    • Top 20: NYC, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Baltimore
    • Top 40: Providence, Virginia Beach
    • Top 60: Richmond, Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, (Buffalo, Rochester, Albany)
  2. Southwest
    • Top 20: Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Riverside, San Diego
    • Top 40: Sacramento, Las Vegas, San Jose
    • Top 60: Tucson, Fresno, [Tijuana]
  3. Midwest
    • Top 20: Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis
    • Top 40: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, Columbus, Indianapolis, Milwaukee
    • Top 60: Louisville, (Omaha)
  4. Texas
    • Top 20: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston
    • Top 40: San Antonio, Austin
    • Top 60: (Oklahoma City, Tulsa), (New Orleans)
  5. Florida
    • Top 20: Miami, Tampa
    • Top 40: Orlando, Jacksonville
    • Top 60:
  6. Piedmont
    • Top 20: Atlanta
    • Top 40: Charlotte
    • Top 60: Birmingham, Raleigh
  7. Northwest
    • Top 20: Seattle, [Vancouver]
    • Top 40: Portland
    • Top 60:
  8. Non-corridor
    • Top 20:
    • Top 40: Nashville, Denver
    • Top 60: Memphis, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Albuquerque
The results are fairly encouraging, because 38 of the top 40 cities in America, which have populations of 1.3 million or more, can be organized into 7 different regions. The three strongest regions are the Northeast (where the MSR-ish Northeast Corridor already exists), the Southwest, and the Midwest. The groupings get a bit shakier over 40 due to distance and intermediate density. Four top 60 cities will never be on a national priority network due to geographic isolation: Honolulu (obviously), Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. Some people like connecting the last two, but there are very few residents between Pueblo, CO, and Albuquerque, and the geography is punishing. Nashville and Memphis are just a little too far from everything else to fall into any region.

Using the groupings above, a list of the top 200 cities, and various bits of specific knowledge that have lodged in my brain over time, I've come up with the network below. A few more comments are in order. Unlike most plans, New Orleans is a stub, not a hub. This is because I think the Gulf Coast line should be well away from the ocean whenever possible. In some places I have bent the route from straight in order to build a triangle that could connect more routes. One in Texas has already been proposed, and I added a small one in Illinois and a large one in Tennessee. I included some state capitals that are marginal, but that was for inevitable political reasons. Finally, the colors. Red is for the core national lines, all of which should be built to HSR standards. Blue is for nationally important lines, which would be best built to HSR standards, but could work as MSR lines. Green is for lines that are significant for a state or region, but probably merit only MSR standards at best. And yellow is for examples of MSR or SSR infill or spur lines, and is not meant to be comprehensive.

Kinda crappy looking, eh? I hope to find a better base map to work off.

Okay, time to step back again. The underlying assumption for this plan and most other plans is that we will be operating in a more-or-less business-as-usual (BAU) mode in 2050 or 2100. Most of our cities will still be car-centric and car dependent, gas (or other fuel) will be cheap, and airplanes will be affordable enough to dominate city-to-city traffic over 400 miles. That assumption could be entirely wrong. A lot of peak oil adherents believe that transportation will be entirely different by 2100, and that a program to electrify every existing rail line should be started immediately. Only after that should HSR be built. That plan does better reflect the reality of existing North American rail transportation: it is freight centric. As such, it operates quite well - if you are on a main corridor and need hundreds of carloadings per year. Most HSR plans, including mine, fudge or ignore the issue of freight. That's a big problem, because most MSR and SSR routes would run on existing right-of-ways, albeit with much improved track. If freight can't be kept moving at a good pace, a lot of it will end up on the highways, which would be a big negative.

Another major problem with most HSR proposals, again including mine, is relatively weak treatment of Canada and Mexico. That might sound like an odd criticism when the starting point of the whole discussion was funding from the US government. But America and Canada are heavily integrated economically and culturally, so the border there should not weigh too heavily on route planning. The US-Mexico border is much more problematic, to say the least. At this point, future HSR or MSR connections should be planned only at the high level. As for specific lines, the Windsor-Quebec City corridor is obvious and everyone includes it, but other lines should be considered as well. For instance, a small isolated MSR network might be viable in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. An isolated HSR line is being planned for the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, and there is potential for MSR connections to other western cities. Mexico is in desperate need of passenger rail, as very little exists. There are seven potential locations for crossing the border: San Diego, Yuma, Nogales, El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, and Brownsville. Beyond that I don't know much about Mexican cities or geography, but I hope to add lines for that country soon.

Finally, by their nature, no national plan gets down into the weeds. Some regional plans do; for instance, the California HSR proposal is quite detailed, and environmental reviews are already underway for some segments. Elsewhere, though, millions of devilish details remain undiscovered. The biggest problem will be acquiring the right of way. The endless sprawl that covers the country east of the Mississippi might lead to hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in order to develop reasonable routings. NIMBYism will reach new heights once a specific route is proposed, as there is no denying that a train blasting through at 150 mph makes quite a racket, even if it is brief. Every mile of every segment will have to go through an arduous approval process before a single tie can be laid.

So enjoy the pretty maps you see popping up all over. You won't be seeing actual HSR in the US until at least 2020.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bailout Ben Baffles Backbiters By Bagging Barak's Blessing

My position on the next Fed Chair has been: A.B.S. - anybody but Summers. Or Geithner, for that matter, but adding him to the acronym made it sound awkward. I side with those that say that Bernanke's role in creating the crisis and incompetence at detecting it outweighs his successful (so far) actions in helping to contain the fallout. But the two most obvious candidates would have been worse. Summers is a jerk and Geithner is a toady, and both had a hand in creating this mess, too. At the same time I admit that I don't really have any alternatives to suggest, except Yellin, who I vaguely remember saying some sensible things at some point. Hardly a resounding endorsement, eh? Well, it's Bernanke we're getting, like it or not. Let's hope he has some good ideas about unwinding the First National Hedge Fund Federal Reserve's balance sheet when the time comes.

Pulling a Nader

There was yet another dust-up over the role Ralph Nader in the 2000 election at BJ a few days ago. I didn't feel like jumping into the fray, so I'm putting my thoughts down here instead.

There are four reasons why Nader and - more importantly - Naderites should be ashamed of what happened in 2000.

First, until the election system is changed, voting for a third party candidate helps the other side. This is a straight-up math problem, and is easy to understand. Let's say there are three candidates: Far Left (FL), Center Left (CL), and Center Right (CR). If FL gets 3% and CL gets 48%, CR wins with 49% - despite more people preferring a left-leaning candidate. Unless there's a certainty of a blowout, voting for a third party candidate in an important election is dangerous and shouldn't be done. Now, if the election system was different - if runoffs were held, or IRV was used - then voting for a third or thirteenth or thirtieth party would be fine, as long as the leading candidate was supported in the runoff or included somewhere in the ranking of candidates. Multi-member districts or proportional representation would change the calculus, too, but neither exist to a significant degree in the US.

Second, voting is not an act of self-expression; it is about controlling the government and the resources it commands. It's about power. Some people like to feel they have a clean conscience by voting for a "pure" candidate instead of a moderate they feel is or will be too compromised. That kind of thinking is pure narcissism. It's been clear for a long time that bad elected officials can and do hurt a lot of people. Personal satisfaction can't possibly outweigh the harm that others might experience.

Third, executive positions matter. The POTUS really is the most powerful person in the world. He's in charge of the world's most powerful military. He sets the priorities for the spending of trillions of dollars. He can have a long-lasting impact on the legal environment based on who he nominates to the SCOTUS and the lesser courts. And so on. State executives matter, too, though by varying amounts. Ahnuld has had devastating impacts on California, while Douglas has merely kept Vermont in a holding pattern at a time when progress is needed. And what Bush has done at the federal level is tragic. So, even if the choice is between a bad candidate and a horrible candidate, every effort needs to made to put the least bad candidate into the office.

And finally, the two parties really are different. They may not be sufficiently different for some people, but the logic of the election system pushes the parties into being coalitions. The Democrats are an especially broad coalition, which frustrates the left wing of the party and dulls the party's effectiveness. But the notion that there is essentially no difference between the two promotes apathy and depresses voter turnout. Nader pushed this message in 2000, which also reinforced the media's habits of mindless even-handedness and general laziness. And by being a third party candidate he distracted from a feasible way of making the Democrats more progressive: working hard in primaries. The social conservative movement understood this. It took over many local and state parties, forcing candidates to at least give its issues extensive lip service, even though they never got around to passing much legislation to change things.

One standard retort of Nader defenders is that it was Gore's fault that he lost the election because he ran a mediocre campaign. This is partially true: Gore made mistakes by running away from Clinton and with Senator Droopy Dog, among other things. If he had run a better campaign, throwing away votes wouldn't have mattered. But this doesn't absolve Naderites of failing to notice it was a close election, or the signs that Bush would be awful, or how the electoral math works. For that matter, Gore's effectiveness as a candidate doesn't absolve non-voters of their laziness or stupidity, either.

The past is the past and personally I am not angry with people who voted for Nader. But I do get rather frustrated when people fail to learn from history. I think the arguments above make for a pretty convincing case that voting for Nader was a mistake. And if I can figure them out, then so should most other people.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gerrymandering and Arrogance

I ran across a couple of rants over the weekend that will save me the effort of documenting my thoughts on the two subjects. One is this article on how dysfunctional the US Senate has become. As a small state resident it's theoretically against my interests to argue for reform of the Senate, but as a progressive reform would clearly result in legislation more to my liking. Another is this article on the hubris of Cerberus, which clearly never should have bought Chrysler to begin with. However, to be fair, I think the newly independent Chrysler was doomed from the start because it was saddled with an awful product lineup thanks to years of mismanagement by Daimler. Even if Cerberus had executed perfectly, the business cycle would have caught up to it before any new products made it to market. At the time of the sale, I hoped Magna would buy Chrysler because it was a manufacturing company that already assembled Chryslers in Europe. The conventional wisdom was that Cerberus really wanted Chrysler Financial, and that sounded to me like Cerberus was going to just slash costs and then dump the car-making business. I thought Magna would take the product side more seriously (though I had no proof of that). Anyway, that's all ancient history - except the products, which still kinda suck.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bribes for Clunkers

The 'Cash for Clunkers' program (a.k.a. the wittily named Car Allowance Rebate System) has been declared a resounding success, with buyers and dealers loudly requesting more. Congress has satiated them for the time being with an additional $2B allocation on top of the original $1B. Even the net gas mileage improvement has been higher than expected.

But is the program really a success, meaning has it increased the common good? Or are the politicians just bribing voters with other people's money? Consider:

  • Has new demand been created or have sales been pulled forward? Pulling sales forward with ridiculous financing is part of the reason vehicle demand slumped so much in the first place. We won't know for 3-6 months whether the demand is lasting.
  • Was it wise to target only fuel economy or should have non-CO2 emissions been considered as well? New cars emit substantially lower amounts of toxic emissions (SOx, NOx, particulates, hydrocarbons) than before 1994-7, when the Tier 1 emissions standards were phased in. And there were other emissions milestones before that. Perhaps a different calculation could have been used for older cars.
  • Should every trade-in be destroyed, or should they each be analyzed and then sold or donated. Obviously, the latter. There's not much point in crushing a car that is in decent shape. If the vehicle has a fuel economy rating close to or above the median, it should be re-used. (Remember the 3 Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle.)
  • What will be the effects on the auto repair industry? The repair and aftermarket parts industry had been doing relatively okay because people were fixing old cars instead of buying new. Has demand just been shifted around?
  • What about the used vehicle market? The program might not be taking the very worst vehicles off the streets. Instead, it might be catching vehicles one step up from true beaters. These are cars that people who can afford a new car have been willing to drive until they were offered free money. Poorer people with worse cars are being bypassed.
  • Would spending $1B or $3B in a different way have a better effect? Could more oil be saved by building more roundabouts? Could more oil be saved by weatherizing homes heated with oil, or converting them to natural gas? Could the money be given to federal and state governments to upgrade their fleets? Or to transit agencies to buy more and more efficient buses? How much of the money will "leak" over the borders?

As I opined elsewhere on the tubes, I didn't really mind the program as long as it was temporary. To me, the main goal appeared to be to help dealers and, by extension, manufacturers, by clearing inventory. Adding another $2B to the program will make it hang around much longer, and the unintended consequences will increase to a point where they really should be taken into consideration.

But they won't be. Who can argue with success, or the illusion thereof?

Update 2009-08-11: Some non-mendacious funkiness with the reported numbers has given a slightly distorted view of what vehicles are selling. Explanation here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get Me Rewrite

According to this article, calling a constitutional convention in California has a broad base of support already. But this diary at Calitics shows that the concept of a clean constitution hasn't been widely adopted. Despite the post's title, the author lists a number of changes that are quite closely tied to the existing framework. Now, IANAL, so I don't know if a clean constitution is possible. An entirely new constitution may invalidate a huge number of existing laws, leaving governmental processes in limbo until the code can be re-passed with proper grounding in the new constitution. But we're bloviating on the intertoobs here, so arguendo is more or less a given.

What would I like to see in Cali's new constitution? Here are some of the elements:
  • A 2/3 requirement for constitutional amendments. Either voters or the legislature could put items on the ballot. No other referendums.
  • Same day voter registration.
  • Instant runoff voting.
  • Voting on paper and tallied using publicly available software and hardware mechanisms. Automatic recounts at 0.5% margin of victory.
  • A House with 2 year terms elected from districts of about 125,000 people. This would result in about 300 representatives now, and about 400 when the population reaches 50 million. Representatives would be limited to 8 full or partial terms. All legislation would start in the House. Bills rejected by the Senate could be passed with a 3/4 majority in the House alone.
  • A Senate with two overlapping classes of senators each with 4 year terms elected from regional multi-member districts. Each district would have a minimum of 2 senators, and the districts would have a minimum population of 750,000. Senators would be limited to 4 full or partial terms. The House majority leader would break ties in the Senate. (Acceptable alternative: two member districts consisting of 6 representative districts)
  • Majority voting in each chamber, with a typical veto override clause. No line item vetos. No omnibus bills.
  • A redistricting process similar to that used in Iowa. The regions for the Senate would follow Census Bureau definitions where they greater than 750,000.
  • State-wide elections for Governor, Lt. Governor, Atty. General, Treasurer, and Sec. of State. Terms would be for 4 years. Officials would be limited to 2 terms in each office and 5 terms total.
  • Appointment of top executive branch officials with approval by the Senate.
  • Appointment of all judges with approval by the Senate. Judges at the highest level would be limited to 1 full or partial term calculated as the number of justices times 2 (9 justices = 18 year terms). Replacements would serve until the next scheduled appointment of that seat.
  • The Senate could remove any statewide official or state judge with a 2/3 vote for any reason. No recall process.
  • Strong counties and weak municipalities. Counties would have a county-manager style of government.
There are a few policy-esque issues I wouldn't object to being in the new constitution.
  • Explicit reservation of all water issues to the state.
  • K-12 education would be funded by the state and administered by counties. Counties could further delegate operations. No funding levels or methods specified.
  • The state would fund and administer a system of higher education. Each level could develop endowments as appropriate. No funding levels or methods specified.
And that's it. All the other stuff - motor vehicle fees, property tax calculations, marine resources, medical research, intragovernmental borrowing rules - all of it should go overboard and be reimplemented as laws.

A closely related issue is redrawing counties. This would be even more controversial than a constitutional convention. But, really, a lot of California counties make no sense. San Bernardino and Riverside are just far too large, extending all the way from L.A.'s outer suburbs to the Arizona line. Others like Alpine and Sierra are ridiculously underpopulated. Yet another group are ones like Placer and Kern that range across geographically distinct and not well connected areas. Los Angeles County manages to be overly large, geographically disconnected, and over-populated. A neutral commission should be appointed to redraw the counties based on population, size, and geography. For instance, Riverside might be split into 3 parts - one west of San Gorgonio pass, one at the north end of the Coachella Valley, and one east of the Chuckwalla Mountains in the Colorado River valley (this piece would need to be merged with parts of Imperial and San Bernardino). Alpine should be merged with the western parts of Eldorado, Placer, and Nevada counties to form a new county. And so on. One can easily imagine how contentious the process could be. Communities or neighborhoods near borders might want to be in the other county; the residents might or might not want them. Residents of small counties accustomed to their independence (real or imagined) would object to being merged; other areas would want to break free of a entity perceived as too large or otherwise undesirable. This is why the reallocation would have to be done by a neutral commission operating on clear principles.

Update: Rough Senate allocation: LA region - 48, Bay Area - 20, San Diego - 8, Sacto - 6, everybody else - 18.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hoping for a Different Result

Once again, my blog has failed to post for itself during my period of neglect absence. Next week should be more productive.

Update 8/2/2009: It's summer and I just can bring myself to care about any of the data, even if it is less bad at the moment.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

3-D Green Eyeshades

This brief post by Salmon reminds me that TBTF is here to stay, despite numerous calls to break the big banks up. Given that, what should we do? The so-called "tax" in the linked article would be a partial fix, but I don't think its enough. I would like to see a multi-dimensional insurance fee (or tax if you prefer) based on risk, size, and leverage. Some qualitative measures could be thrown in as well - stability of funding (deposits vs. brokered deposits vs. credit markets vs. whatever), strength of internal risk analysis, corporate structure, over-concentration or over-diversification, and more I haven't thought of. The idea of making the fees counter-cyclical should be implemented as well.

Of course, such a wonderfully precise system is about as likely as breaking up the big banks - both are blocked by the fact that the banks "own" the Senate (per Dick Durbin). But I can still dream, eh?