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.