Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Grapevine study's potential

Grapevine high-speed train route could save $4 billion

Building a high-speed train route over the Grapevine instead of through the Antelope Valley could save up to $4 billion, according to a July progress report released Wednesday.

A conceptual study identified more than one feasible alignment over the mountain pass, prompting engineers on the project to propose a more in-depth study of the Grapevine proposal, originally rejected in 2005.

But missing from the conceptual study, as of July anyway, was a close look at what effect a Grapevine route would have on the project's overall economics.

"More detailed analysis of ridership and revenue figures is required to complete the analysis between the Grapevine and Antelope Valley Alternatives," engineers with Parsons Brinckerhoff wrote in the July update released Wednesday by Bay Area opponents of the project.

Board members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority are not expected to review the study's findings until October or November, at which point they could decide whether to launch a detailed study that would place the Grapevine in direct competition with the Palmdale route.
With up to four billion dollars in cost savings, this could definitely push the current initial operating system debate, whether Bakersfield-San Jose or Merced-Los Angeles, decisively in favor of at least south to Sylmar and possibly all the way to Los Angeles Union Station. This is, of course, predicated on actual cost savings. It could very well be that both options are tremendously expensive and that it is simply the case that the Grapevine routing is less "more expensive" than the Palmdale routing. Unfortunately, I have yet to find the actual report itself as of yet.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Possible joint powers authority for LOSSAN

More rail service could spring from new agency

A plan is in the works that could lead to a significant expansion of rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Regional transportation agencies are considering joining forces for a super authority that would oversee 351 miles of coastal rail between San Diego and San Luis Obisbo.

Among the many changes forged by that authority could be as many as 27 additional daily train trips along the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor, officials said.

Currently, Amtrak has 11 daily trains each way.

If such an agency comes into being by 2014, as supporters believe, Coaster trains could be running all the way to Los Angeles and Metrolink trains could run from Los Angeles to San Diego, in addition to Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains.

The Metrolink currently comes as far south as Oceanside, which is the northern terminus for the Coaster.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, endorsed the concept of the broad rail authority at its board of directors meeting Friday. Other agencies along the corridor are being asked to back the concept.

The San Diego-L.A.-San Luis Obisbo rail corridor — known as LOSSAN to officials — is the second-busiest in the country and is also a complex patchwork of fiefdoms that includes seven owners and five operators, while passing through seven counties.

All the various interests have a voice on the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Joint Powers Board, which strives to coordinate and support the numerous interests, but in 2009 its members began looking for a “new vision for the corridor.”

From the discussion at the Friday’s meeting, it appears the LOSSAN group needed to look no farther than Northern California for a role model: the Capitol Corridor between San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento — the nation’s third busiest rail corridor.

SANDAG officials were told Friday that a single administrative authority would create greater efficiencies in the rail corridor, better manage assets and carry greater clout in Sacramento and Washington.

SANDAG board member Matthew Hall, mayor of Carlsbad, expressed the concern of many, saying “I want to make sure we don’t end up with lots of control and no money.”

Nobody was underestimating the magnitude of the shift in power the creation of a super agency would require. SANDAG for example, currently is administering the $1.5 billion improvement project on the county’s coastal tracks, which are owned and operated by the North County Transit District.

“The group used to be the 800 pound gorilla,” observed Chris Orlando, chairman of the NCTD board and a SANDAG member. “Now the 800-pound gorilla is in Los Angeles.”

Still, the benefits of a super agency proves alluring and the board voted to back the process.

“We’re not getting married,” said SANDAG chairman Jerome Stocks. “We’re agreeing to date -- and so far it is only a lunch date.”
This would be a tremendously important move for the Los Angeles-San Diego rail corridor. As many as 38 daily trains would make it the second most frequently trafficked rail corridor in the country in terms of intercity trains behind Philadelphia-New York. With a single coordinating authority behind the wheel as well, upgrades to improve service frequency and train speed throughout the system rather than individual pieces (such as the Fullerton-Laguna Niguel OC Metrolink train expansion) are more likely. This may also result in the upgrading of the general system to permit 125mph speeds from Los Angeles to San Diego, eliminating the need for the highly expensive Inland Empire routing of the high speed rail system.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Domestic intermodal is on the rise

Intermodal seen closing gap with trucking

Domestic intermodal rail service is now service competitive in relatively shorter-haul traffic lanes traditionally dominated by truckload carriers, and after more than three decades is finally being regarded by shippers as a viable transport option, according to a long-time intermodal consultant.

Lee A. Clair, a partner at management consultancy Norbridge Inc., said domestic intermodal service can compete with solo truckers on stages as short as 500 to 550 miles, a distance usually covered by a solo truck driver in one day. Clair appeared on a Sept. 16 webcast sponsored by the investment firm Stifel Nicolaus & Co., which transcribed Clair's remarks.

Based on total freight spending, rail-based domestic and international intermodal represent only 3.8 percent of the total U.S. market, Clair said. However, intermodal is now the largest class of traffic moving on North American class I railroads, based on units moved, Clair said. The consultant defined units as containers, trailers, or carloads.

Domestic intermodal has grown to become nearly as large as the international segment, which has traditionally been most closely associated with intermodal service, Clair said.

Shippers looking to reduce their fuel spend and their carbon emissions are increasingly eyeing intermodal as a more cost-effective alternative to truckload carriers for domestic deliveries. Railroads, in turn, are investing more marketing dollars and operational resources into strengthening their domestic intermodal businesses.

The trend is a break from the past, when U.S. intermodal service was considered an extension of international service that involved a prior or subsequent ocean freight movement. For railroads to compete strongly in the domestic arena, however, they must deliver consistent and reliable service comparable to truckload operations at shorter distances. A typical intermodal move stretches anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 miles.

Domestic container traffic in the second quarter rose to 1.22 million containers, a 9-percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to data from the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA). International container traffic rose 5.4 percent in the same period to 1.88 million containers, IANA said.

With the future introduction by GE of hybrid locomotives reducing fuel consumption up to 15% and mullings by BNSF of electrification, this is a trend that I think will only continue to accelerate.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CA-241 job claims

CA 241 claims 17,000 jobs would be expected from a 16-mile, $1.7 billion extension of the toll road to the I-5 south of San Clemente. Such numbers help justify the CAHSRA's own job estimates of 600,000 jobs over the construction of the project. It is also interesting to note that the price of the 241 extension, $106.25 million per mile, is more expensive than current estimates for construction between Bakersfield and Fresno. While the Transportation Corridor Agencies will probably raise the funds on their own, any government funding would be far more profitably invested in upgrading existing rail service along the LOSSAN corridor paralleling Interstate 5, alleviating congestion via mode capture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A five billion dollar boondoggle in Texas

Alon Levy posted a few months ago on road boondoggles, but Texas is showing its determination to prove that everything is bigger, if certainly not better, in Texas. Witness a 5.2 billion dollar third beltway around Houston. To make matters worse, the renewed push for the project is largely to try and keep ExxonMobile's headquarters in the region, not of any actual congestion or other criteria which might present a somewhat rationale criteria for the construction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bakersfield to Sacramento?

An interesting, if unlikely proposal:

School kids don’t cope well with geography, tests show. But adults shy on knowledge of our own state’s heartland? What is there about California’s central valley they don’t understand? A lot, it would appear from those — media included — who call the valley “nowhere,” as in deriding federal support for state high-speed rail to begin with a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced link. They say it’s a “train to nowhere.”
Well, let’s see. For a century and a half, “nowhere’s” crops have fed and clothed (lately with China’s help) much of the known world. For good measure, valley wines pleasure international palates. The best rival French vintages.
“Nowhere” supports six universities awarding bachelor’s and higher degrees, among them the University of California’s Merced campus. College commuters are a mainstay of Amtrak valley service. Faster trains would boost their numbers.
What’s next hurts but must be said. “Nowhere” is an unthinkingly crude term. Valley people suffer high rates of asthma and other pulmonary disorders linked to automotive and agricultural air pollution. For them, fast trains spell relief. That’s an unsung part of high-speed rail’s rationale: Good transportation, competitive with cars and some flights, is a sound way to address tainted air.
A step-back, second-wind high-speed rail review is in order. Flexibility in confronting challenges is a hallmark wherever trains at 100-200 mph have proved their worth. Big question: Is insistence on Bay Area primacy truly the best route to a north-south rail alternative to congested air- and freeways? Airplanes also pollute, remember.
Peninsula resistance to high-speed rail has mounted. Neighbors fear losses to rail corridor widening. Recently proposed “blending” of high-speed rail with commuter rail, using the same tracks, may stem such fears. But only as a stopgap, pending corridor tweaking for higher speeds.
Grade separations, vital to speedy trains, present tough issues. San Bruno’s grade sep will raise rails 17 feet before they dive under Interstate 380. “Humps” and high speed don’t blend well.
While the Peninsula mulls high-speed rail, another scenario is emerging. It would have the California High-Speed Rail Authority consider, up front, extending new trackage from Merced to Sacramento. High-speed rail’s first operational stage would then embrace two-thirds of the Central Valley — almost a miniature of the entire system, of real value in and of itself, but poised to spread wings.
Sacramento is after all our state capital, worth more than second tier in high-speed rail’s vision. Making it an early destination could change minds among legislators who aren’t high-speed rail fans. It would boost the capital’s urban stature while benefiting valley travelers.
What a feather in CHSRA’s cap — making the valley a stand-alone segment of the whole, with trains running sooner and more affordably.
We have that opportunity. Sound arguments support its study, including these: Terrain north of Merced is largely non-urban and level enough for relatively rapid construction; conditions favor incrementally faster trains that could provide valley service within a few years (the incremental approach has worked well in France and Spain); CHSRA stands to benefit from early train experience — the valley would make a good lab.
Federal Railroad Administration startup funding would put trains within striking distance of Sacramento. It’s logical for California’s capital to be part of high-speed rail’s earliest loop.
Normally I'm fairly parochial about Bakersfield-Los Angeles being the next segment that should be constructed and the initial operating service being from Merced to Los Angeles. In fact, I would be harshly critical if San Jose were to receive the next construction segment. However, I would be supportive of building to Sacramento next (which, to comply with the law, would likely need to be a requirement of federal funds) for two main reasons. First, there is my conviction that, of all the cities that will be connected by the high speed rail system, Sacramento is likely to benefit the most, in terms of induced traffic, thanks to the greater availability of connections. Second, such an alignment would offer great weight to moving back to the far superior Altamont Pass alignment, not only saving money and speeding travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, but also capturing a very significant amount of ridership from cars between Sacramento and San Francisco which the Pacheco Pass option, taking two hours to go between San Francisco and Sacramento, does not.