Friday, January 27, 2012

OCTA launching bike share program

Fullerton is to be the location, starting with 15 stations and 150 bikes.

With college students in mind, transportation officials are envisioning installing the first bicycle-sharing station in the city of Fullerton to offer a band of bikes for short trips in the area.
"Fullerton appears to have more overall demand given the nearby downtown, proximity of destinations to the Metrolink station, three local colleges in the area, and a network of bike-friendly infrastructure," Orange County Transportation Authority officials said in a report.

This week, the agency's board approved putting out bids and is expected to choose a contractor for the project by May. OCTA's budget for the pilot program: $921,000.
So far, the plan is to install 15 stations with 150 bicycles serving an area of about two square miles. Officials expect that the program will grow at the Fullerton pilot location and launch in other areas of the county as funding and demand warrant.
Wes Parsel, bikeways coordinator for the agency, said the rental bicycle program is aimed toward commuters traveling fewer than 30 minutes and less than three miles, whether to get to their jobs or to run short errands.
"Especially the first and last mile from work ... from your bus or the train," said OCTA spokeswoman Laura Scheper.
The initial focus is to connect local colleges and universities with Metrolink stations, so the customers will be college students, staff and faculty.

This is a rather pleasant surprise given Orange County's poor reputation on transit. On the other hand, OCTA was responsible for the introduction of bike cars on Metrolink if memory serves. I would be more surprised by this failing than it succeeding (with the caveat that I'm not familiar enough with bike share programs to spot any glaring failures with implementation), especially in south county where bike lanes are prevalent and there are a number of destinations near Metrolink stations.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Complete contractor control of CA HSR

As if it weren't bad enough that Parsons Brinkerhoff, the Authority's contractors, are not forbidden from bidding to build the system (leading to atrocities like the latest Grapevine study since inflating the cost is in their interest), there's the following fun tidbit in the state audit of the Authority, noticed by morris brown at the CAHSR Blog.

For example, one board member disclosed on his statement of economic interests that he was a consultant for Parsons Transportation Company—the regional contractor responsible for the San Jose‐to‐Merced portion of the program— and was paid between $10,000 and $100,000 annually. Although this board member appropriately reported this economic interest, if he were to take part in a decision involving the Authority and Parsons Transportation Company while he had this financial interest, and if certain other conditions were met, he could be in violation of the political reform act, which bars public officials from using their positions to influence government decisions in which they have a financial interest.

Page 32. This is apparently Dan Richard, the new chairman of the board. The inherent corruption and conflict of interest that this represents should be blatantly obvious. Quite frankly, it's beyond me why it was even legal for him to go to work with PB following his work on BART's board of directors. The revolving door from procurement to contractor has been a source of endemic corruption for the military (see for instance the KC-767 scandal); one would hope that state and other governments would be a bit stricter.

The immediately following section regarding the lack of oversight and control that the Authority itself retains over the Project Manager and the inaccurate and misleading information contained in their progress updates is also instructive of the degree to which the high speed rail program has been taken by its supposed contractors.

Honestly, at this point, I think the best thing that could be done for high speed rail in California is to jettison its entire management and sell the franchise to the highest (or lowest subsidy) bidder. If we're going to let the designers potentially build it, let's put them on the hook for running it and making money off its operations as well.

Wildfires another automotive externality

Nitrogen emissions from car exhaust and industrial sources might be increasing forest fires across the California desert by fueling the spread of invasive grasses, according to a new report by the Ecological Society of America. Agricultural nitrogen is also causing groundwater contamination in the state, the report concluded.

Most nitrogen in the atmosphere is trapped in an inert form that is unusable by most plants and animals. In nature, bacteria in the nodules of nitrogen-fixing plants, such as soybeans, must convert this bound nitrogen into a form that plants and animals use to grow.

But cars and power plants emit a form of nitrogen and oxygen called NOx, which falls to the ground when it rains or snows, said Eric Davidson, a soil ecologist and executive director at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., who led the study [PDF]. Unlike atmospheric nitrogen, NOx emissions deposit nitrates, which are readily taken up by plants.

In California, weedy, non-native grasses are edging out native plants in desert areas such as Joshua Tree National Park, and NOx is likely to blame.

"The native plants in the desert were not adapted to have that extra nitrogen, so they don't really grow all that much better, whereas these exotic grasses have evolved to make use of that nitrogen," he said.

The grasses are highly flammable, unlike the bare rock, soil and islands of shrubs that used to predominate, Davidson said. As a result, "an ecosystem that once hardly ever had a fire in it now has fire more routinely."

More at the link. A significant and increasing portion of it comes from fertilizers however. Obviously transportation isn't an answer to that, but it would be an interesting move if the high speed rail authority or other rail agencies dealt with farmer complaints on eminent domain by building hydro or aeroponic systems to make up for the lost farmland and increase overall production. If that's done instead of a straight cash payment for the land, it may very well be cost-neutral or even beneficial, as well as killing two birds with one stone.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New CAHSRA board chairman claims a surprise in the revised business plan

Quoth Dan Richard:

Rail Mix — I’m in an eighth-floor office at 770 L St. on a blustery day chatting with the bluster-free Dan Richard. Since Richard is the new board chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority , I ask him if the new-and-improved business plan that Gov. Jerry Brown wants on his desk any minute now will have any surprises in it. “Yes, there’s a very big surprise,” Richard says, calmly removing his classes and rubbing his eyes. And that is…? “I think it will surprise everyone that we’ve actually listened to our critics for a change,” he says with a fraction of a smile. About what, specifically? “We simply can’t ignore urban areas when we build this thing,” he says.

A return to the bookends perhaps? Or perhaps a straight build to IOS rather than ICS? His background doesn't fill me with too much confidence, certainly it won't be anything half as sensible as Clem's proposals.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Amtrak files a claim against Canadian National

Amtrak has filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board asking for intervention with CN dispatching and punitive damages sufficient to ensure that CN changes its ways.

According to Amtrak, Canadian National is the single worst railroad in the United States when it comes to following the law on prioritizing Amtrak trains. Given the data and incidents which Amtrak sets forth in its, I can't help but see CN getting slapped silly, and deservedly so. Two in particular struck as especially damning:

72. In July 2011, in response to a request from Amtrak for a schedule change that would have addressed issues on another host railroad on this route, CN asked Amtrak to make its Wolverine trip schedule longer to accommodate what CN unabashedly declared was the "increased likelihood of FTI." One of the route segments on which CN anticipated increased FTI delays was the segment between Pontiac and Vinewood, which has so little freight traffic that CN is currently planning to remove one of the two main tracks. This express request to incorporate CN's statutory preference violations into Amtrak's schedules is reflective of CN's approach to its statutory duties.
105. CN fails to communicate with other host railroads about the location of Amtrak passenger trains on multi-host-owned routes, and refuses to cooperate with other host railroads to minimize delays to Amtrak's passenger trains on those routes. This intransigence contributes to the high instances of delay that Amtrak's trains experience on CN's rail lines.

Should the STB uphold Amtrak's complaint and CN is actually forced to treat Amtrak appropriately, Chicago-termini trains should see a major increase in OTP and likely a reduction in scheduled times to reduce currently needed padding.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chinese toll roads default on their loans

It's not just the Railways Ministry who was concerned about debt evidently

China Daily is reporting that a bunch of state toll authorities in China are defaulting on bonds by announcing an "extension" of their loans. And the country's regulator says it's OK. As an example Hunan Provincial Expressway has suspended payments of interest on Y3.11b, $491m in a unilaterally declared "loan extension." Next biggest toll operator Guangdong Provincial Communications and two others among total of eleven expressway companies are "delaying payment" of interest on some Y30.16b, nearly $5b of debt.

The debt was incurred in connection with highway projects advanced as economic "stimulus" in 2009, and apparently they have not attracted the expected traffic and toll revenues, and find themselves unable to service their borrowings

A senior official of the China Bank Regulatory Commission Zu Mubing is quoted as saying recently that local government entities like tollroads can have a one-time extension of their loans, apparently saying that a delay in making interest payments is acceptable to the country's major regulatory body.

In the absence of an independent judiciary to which creditors can appeal, the regulators' word is law.

Many of the state companies with loan "extensions" are apparently in the loan markets for more borrowing because the "extensions" are cited in prospectuses issued for new loans. Lei Wanming, a Party official at provincial tollroad Gansu Highway is quoted as saying that his company's interest payment deferrals should not cause concern: "Our company can pay our interest and our principal payments with no problem."

Quite why they would breach their contract with lenders and cease paying interest if they are able to pay it with "no problem" probably requires the special logic possessed of a communist party apparatchik to explain.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Amtrak shouldn't own the NEC

Russ Jackson points out for RailPAC that Amtrak's ownership of the Northeast Corridor has resulted in severe myopia when it comes to what is notionally a national railroad corporation.

Well, it’s January, 2012 and the sounds of silence appeared in “Amtrak Moves Aggressive Agenda for 2012,” where they say “America’s Railroad is building for the future.” That future appears to be a withering of the long-distance trains by neglect while the company pretends to “strengthen current services.” What is in this “Agenda”? As expected, the already announced order for 70 new electric locomotives (NEC), 130 new single-level long-distance cars (Eastern routes only), plus a high-capacity next-generation high-speed rail system (NEC), upgrading tracks, bridges and other infrastructure (NEC) (which he claims are essential for supporting our national network), expanding Acela Express capacity (NEC), additional capacity into Manhattan, NY, (NEC), improving ADA station accessibility (not specified), development of the on board e-ticketing and the next generation reservation system (NEC and Corridors first), new technology for onboard food sales (NEC and Corridors first), 160 MPH HSR upgrades along a 24-mile section in New Jersey (NEC) , Positive Train Control (NEC first), and expanding the Amtrak Police Department (NEC). Oh, they throw in a Seattle, Washington Maintenance Facility (for the Cascade Corridor).

While he focuses more on the long-distance trains, it's important to note that much of that money could be quite well used on the corridors as well. The catenary upgrade in New Jersey is $450 million in exchange for about one minute of actual time saved. There are quite literally dozens of far more worthy projects across the nation that could greatly raise Amtrak patronage and lower its costs were they to be funded instead of this catenary upgrade. Depending on the particular report, that would pay in full or in part for the Miramar tunneling outside San Diego, for instance, which is quite likely the single biggest bottleneck and contributor to lengthy trips on the LOSSAN corridor.

Is the NEC important? Of course. But Amtrak is national and several other corridors have the potential to be just as important if Amtrak can simply disengage from its current focus on the NEC and instead invest in the entire nation rather than merely the one area where it happens to own the tracks. The Federal government needs to strip away the NEC and establish a national joint powers authority for the network, which is predominately used by commuter agencies anyhow.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The times they are a changing

Governor Brown moves to revamp CA high speed rail project

ELK GROVE, Calif.—Gov. Jerry Brown said Friday that his appointees to the board overseeing California's embattled $98 billion high-speed rail project will fix its problems and offer a revamped business plan after the rail authority's director and its board chairman resigned a day earlier.

The Democratic governor told reporters in Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, that he will not join the "defeatist crowd" that believes the project is impossible.

"We're going to build, but we're not going to be stupid. And we'll listen to the critics, and we'll fix things and we'll do the right thing," Brown said. "We're not going to go overboard. We're going to be very careful and build incrementally as we go."

This really strikes me as being an indication that the general direction of the project is going to change. I expect that the ARRA funds with a 2012 construction start timeline will be forfeited due to the need for a revamped business plan, but will find their way back for the first segment to actually be constructed. I also firmly expect that the initial construction segment will be abandoned to go straight for an initial operating segment. Accordingly, the CV will be abandoned yet remain as it will simply be part of the IOS.

Less firmly, I suspect Altamont will receive more study and possibly a switch to it, especially given Brown's Oakland connection. I don't anticipate a proper Grapevine study however, as it is too new in time, unless a major traditional media outlet does a story on it.

Electrifying on the quick and cheap with a train

Somewhat older news, but Network Rail in Britain has ordered a £35 million 23-unit train to speed electrification of British routes.

While only a mile per 8 hour shift (and one shift per day) doesn't seem terribly fast on the face of things, ordering such a vehicle for California would permit the electrification of the LOSSAN-South corridor within six months of starting work (assuming of course that the substations and autotransformers were built equally as quickly). The main obstacle, of course, is that without the planned tunnels through areas such as San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, and Del Mar there is likely to be significant NIMBY opposition on aesthetic grounds (as well as some misguided environmentalists in those areas who believe that wooden or steel poles are more harmful for the environment than are diesel particulate emissions).

Two possible solutions arise that permit partial electrification of the corridor while the other enabling projects lurch forward; they may even be possible to do simultaneously:
1. The first, and less ideal solution, is to purchase dual-power locomotives such as NJT is doing (ideally, just changing the paint job and in-cab signaling system) for the Surfliner and Metrolink, both of which are planning on purchasing or rebuilding locomotives as it happens. Alternatively, a hybrid multiple unit such as Bombardier's Autorail Grande Capacité could be bought. The latter option is preferential as it can take advantage of funding for additional coaches for the Surfliner and multiple units have both a superior acceleration and public relations appeal compared to a normal locomotive and car consist (being as they would be new to Southern California and thus generate plenty of free advertisement through their novelty).

2. The more preferable option is to make this a mainly Metrolink project. The Orange County Line's additional service has its southern terminus in Laguna Niguel, ending before any aesthetic or environmentalist NIMBY concerns would arise. Being a stunningly unattractive corridor, the only real opposition I foresee is from those concerned about potential health hazards from overhead wires, a false concern which should be easily addressable, as well as potential takings for substations and transformers (however, those should fit within stations or in industrial parking lots fairly easily). If at all possible, the electrification should also be extended along the San Bernardino Line, fulfilling the initial promise of Metrolink two decades ago. At the same time, Metrolink ought to beg, whine, plead, and threaten to hold their breath until the FRA gives in and grants a waiver for the use of UIC compliant EMUs for their superior acceleration capabilities. This would provide a ten minute reduction in travel time to Los Angeles for both Laguna Niguel and San Bernardino as well as aid congestion reduction on LOSSAN.

Ignoring for a moment the cost of train sets to take advantage of the electrification (as rolling stock replacement is already scheduled), this ought to be a a fairly cheap endeavor with rest of world electrification costs in the realm of 1.5-2 million USD per track-mile. In terms of capital cost then, this should be on par with Metrolink's Rotem car purchase. Network Rail quotes a 33% reduction in maintenance costs for electric rolling stock (page 5) and a fifty percent reduction in fuel costs (plausible given the proximity of San Onofre nuclear power plant, however I suspect that the difference diesel and electricity prices is greater in Britain than in California). Combined with the greater patronage the new service might expect, especially with fares that can hold steady or even drop during times of gasoline price increases, it seems reasonable to posit that electrification would pay for itself over its replacement lifetime.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

All hands abandon ship

In the past three days, the California High Speed Rail Authority's press secretary, CEO, and chairman have resigned. While Robert Cruickshank's reaction was essentially "Meh", this has major importance for the future of the project, especially given the timing, right after the horribly flawed Grapevine alignment study was released. A few unorganized thoughts:

1. I don't believe there is a single person who actually believes a major executive when they say that they resign to spend more time with family or on personal issues. This was either in protest or he was essentially forced out.
2. The Authority isn't going to survive this unscathed. Given Senator Feinstein's recent support for the bookend approach to building CAHSR in a letter to Governor Brown, I consider it highly likely that the Authority will not receive the funding appropriations this year that they are seeking. While this will rule out the use of some ARRA money, it frees the remainder to go back into more sensible route build outs, such as the Los Angeles-Bakersfield section.
3. Given the above, CAHSR is going to live or die on the Authority's response to a funding delay. Appropriately spun, they could play it up as taking more time to get a better plan set out (skipping the ICS and go straight to the IOS for instance) which would have a far better PR appeal.
4. The recommendation of Dan Richards, a former BART director with a less than stellar record when it comes to cost and contractor control, as chairman of the Authority's board, does not inspire confidence that the Authority will manage to salvage their position.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Record ridership, but falling far short of expectations

Amtrak likes to trumpet record levels of ridership over the past ten years, but these numbers should come with an important caveat: In a very real sense, they are a complete failure. Released in 2001, Amtrak California's 20 year vision plan, for instance, predicted ridership levels nearly double their actual levels in 2010.

In the case of the Pacific Surfliner, a partial explanation may be found in the studies which show that riders see no difference between Amtrak and Metrolink; it is possible then that a significant portion of what would be Surfliner riders are captured instead by Metrolink's Orange County and Ventura Lines. I find this doubtful, however, given the similar failings in Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin ridership.

Another reason for the major shortfall could be a failure to complete work which would expand capacity or decrease travel time which would be necessary for the validity of the ridership projections. Certainly not all of the projects which were planned for were completed within the past ten years and there has been no time reduction between San Diego and Los Angeles in contrast to the 30 minute time travel reduction expected by 2005. Additionally, the loss of the planned Los Angeles-Las Vegas train almost certainly cut Surfliner ridership since 19% of current PSL revenue is derived from connecting to long distance trains (page 5). Still, a significant fraction of the ridership gap is almost certainly due to overly optimistic projections, even taking into account failed improvements and an economic downturn.

It is a sad reality that what gains Amtrak has made in terms of ridership has come almost solely from degradations in service and speed by air and automobile. The forthcoming creation of a LOSSAN joint powers authority may allow for local funding sufficient to fund these improvements via a variety of means, including selling the PSL franchise to another operator. Given that Amtrak has become myopically focused on the Northeast Corridor, to the near total exclusion of investment plans in the rest of the nation's passenger rail network, this does not strike me as a poor solution. Indeed, that focus helps demonstrate why, though the overall purpose and tack is wrong, Republican arguments for the privatization of Amtrak and a degree of free market competition in passenger rail service have an element of truth and public good to them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More insanity from the high speed rail authority

The report on the Grapevine alignment has been released and, unsurprisingly for those with a low degree of trust in the Authority and Parsons Brinkerhoff, it continues to support the Palmdale alignment. How does it do this? By arbitrarily refusing to study the easiest and cheapest Grapevine route on the grounds that it would cause problems for a yet to be built housing project with a maximum value of $500 million dollars. Yes, just like in Millbrae, billions of dollars are being intentionally wasted rather than cooperate with other agencies or simply use their inherent powers of eminent domain. It is especially egregious since, while in Millbrae, there is a half-assed excuse available in the existing BART facilities, the Tejon Ranch Company does not have anything more than an environmental impact report yet. Absurdly, in order to avoid the use of eminent domain and cutting through a nonexistent property, it cuts through an already existing community, that of Lebec.

Additional lengths and costs have incurred to the I-5 routing thanks to diverting to the east of Bakersfield rather than the more appropriate west, for this we have the increasingly obviously flawed "Central Valley first" approach pushed by the Obama administration to thank. However, given what looks strongly like corruption on the part of the Authority's board, one wonders if the Federal requirement to start in the Central Valley was actually requested by the Authority in order to give it political cover.

Automobile pollution helps spawn tornadoes

Tornadoes and hailstorms may take the weekends off during the muggy summer months, according to a new study that reveals new ways human activity can inadvertently sway weather.

Scientists analyzed summertime storm activity in the eastern U.S. from 1995 to 2009 using data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.

They discovered that tornadoes and hailstorms occurred at a rate of about 20 percent above average during the middle of the week. In contrast, the phenomena occurred at a rate of roughly 20 percent below average on the weekend.

The findings proved statistically significant—not just a random pattern—and matched up well with similar cycles seen in other kinds of storms, the study authors say.

The team then investigated Environmental Protection Agency air-quality monitoring data and noted that human-made, summertime air pollution over the eastern U.S. peaks midweek. The cycle is linked to more human-made pollution created during the five-day workweek, such as commuters driving to and from work.

More at the link. I'm joking, of course, about it being the best argument for the midwest high speed rail plan, however, it strikes me that it is still a good one. With annual damages from tornadoes resulting in billions of dollars in damage and numerous fatalities, the positive externalities of even a minor reduction in number and severity would, over the life of the system, more than repay the public investment cost.