Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘high speed train

Travel comparison

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I have just booked online a train journey between Rome and Florence – and back. That’s 284km and will take about 90 minutes each way, on one of these.

And just to compare I asked Google how long the trip from Vancouver to Seattle would take. That’s 227km and it says 3 hours and 10 minutes “in traffic” midday and ignores the line up at the border. By train the Amtrak Cascades schedule says 4 hours and 25 minutes.  Or 3:45 on the bus!


Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm

California’s Bullet Train Hobbled by Fresh Legal, Fiscal and Political Uncertainties

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This post is taken from an email newsletter I subscribe to. In very small, pale grey italic print at the bottom of each issue appears the following statement “Please feel free to forward or reprint this item with appropriate citation” So that is what I am doing.

Much of the rest of the “first world” enjoys High Speed Rail. Japan lead the way – still does – China is building lots of it. France has been very successful – and has pretty much eliminated internal passenger air traffic. Electric trains produce a lot less ghg than jet aircraft – and they are competitive both on time and price. Only North America seems immune. About the closest we can get is the Acela service Amtrak provides in the North East Corridor – though nowhere else would regard that as “high speed”. Ken Orski provides insight into why changing this situation looks very much like Mission Impossible. California HSR is not dead yet. But it sure looks like it faces some formidable obstacles.

Amtrak Cascades, being operated by Spanish Talgo trains could be a lot faster than they are – but they are on freight railways. Given their own right of way they could be very competitive with I5. There are good cases for high speed trains between several city pairs in Canada including Calgary – Edmonton, Toronto – Ottawa – Montreal. Possibly even Toronto – Chicago or Toronto – New York. But given this analysis, I am not going to expect to ride one of these on my lifetime. Pity.


Barely recovered from the damaging effects of the Sacramento Court ruling denying the California High Speed Rail Authority access to Prop 1A bond funding, the bullet train project has had to face fresh challenges.

First came the news that Congress has zeroed out any funds for high speed rail in the FY 2014 omnibus appropriation bill, the fourth straight year no new monies have been provided. This put to rest any lingering hopes of a future resumption of congressional funding for the California bullet train. But it has not deterred the California High Speed Rail Authority from officially still expressing a hope for federal subsidies. “We believe that it is reasonable for the federal government to continue investing in intercity and high speed passenger rail systems, like California,” Authority Chairman Dan Richard stated in his recent congressional testimony.

Next came a House Subcommittee on Railroads hearing on “The Challenges Facing California High Speed Rail.” Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) wanted some “straightforward answers to straightforward questions” as he put it in his opening statement. Specifically, how was the Authority going to match the $2.25 billion the Federal Government has provided to the project, now that the court has foreclosed the possibility of using Proposition 1A bond funds? And where would the remaining funds to complete the entire 300-mile Initial Operating Segment (IOS) come from?

Cap-and-Trade Funds as State Matching Contribution

Authority Chairman Dan Richard had some straightforward though not necessarily satisfying (to Rep. Denham) answers. Governor Brown, Richard said, has sent a letter to FRA reaffirming the State’s commitment to honor California’s obligation to match the federal spending. The matching money would come from the cap-and-trade pollution trading funds.

Richard confessed he could not predict whether the state legislature would approve the use of cap-and-trade funds for the project. Even if those funds were to be approved, they would not become available by the April 1 deadline when the state must start matching the federal grant. The Chairman did not elaborate how the Authority would handle its obligation, come April 1.(However, in the Governor’s proposed new budget there is a provision to advance $29 million to keep the project moving. The loan, which would come from the state transportation account, could presumably be used as a first down payment in the required matching funds).

Nor did Chairman Richard mention the strong opposition by environmental groups, notably the Sierra Club. “The problem with taking that money and applying it to high-speed rail,” said Kathryn Phillips, head of California’s Sierra Club, “is that we don’t anticipate that we’re going to get the benefits of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. … It is irresponsible to not apply that money to those programs that will get you greenhouse gas emission reductions now.” Other critics alleged that the HSR project does not meet the legal test that it would result in reductions of greenhouse gas emission that are “real, quantifiable, verifiable and enforceable” as the law requires. Editorial opinion of some California newspapers (San Jose Mercury News, U-T San Diego) echoed these criticisms.Even the LA Times, a steadfast supporter of the project, expressed some doubts (“Yet the delays, the rising cost, the judge’s ruling and the waning public support should give pause to even the strongest advocates. Can the rail authority line up a financing plan? Is the project still viable? We hope the answer is yes. But the state shouldn’t spend a dime of cap-and-trade money on it until we know for sure.”)

A Re-defined “Usable Segment”

Chairman Richard did not address the court ruling requiring the Authority to identify sources of funds and show completed environmental clearances for the entire 300-mile Initial Operating Segment extending from Merced to San Fernando Valley. Instead, Richard testified that the Authority’s revised funding plan will consider the 130-mile construction section from Merced to north of Bakersfield to be the new “usable segment.” By connecting to existing Amtrak service at Bakersfield, the Chairman said, this stretch will have operational utility, hence it will qualify as a “usable segment” within the meaning of Proposition 1A. The judicial rulings pertaining to the longer 300-mile stretch from Merced to San Fernando Valley are thus no longer relevant in his opinion.

But longtime critic, attorney Michael Brady does not see this as a meaningful solution. The re-defined Merced-to-Bakersfield usable segment will be conventional rail only, he told us, whereas Proposition 1A requires that a “usable segment” be electrified, with all the attributes of a genuine high speed rail system. Moreover, Proposition 1A says a usable segment must operate without an operating subsidy and must have adequate ridership. The Authority’s redefined usable segment will flunk both tests, Brady said. “Hooking it up to an existing Amtrak line will not get them out of these requirements.”

Long-Term Funding

As for long-term funding, a precise funding plan for the entire system is not possible, Richard testified. However, the Governor’s budget proposal “establishes an ongoing state commitment of cap-and-trade proceeds to the project.” The measure includes an initial $58 million for planning and $191 million for construction and right-of-way acquisition in the first phase of the project. Once the line to San Fernando Valley (Palmdale) has been completed and operational, the opportunity for private investment will be ” greatly increased” according to Richard.

“This is an internationally proven investment model and is common to almost all recent high speed rail projects in the world, where capital investment begins with the public sector and then becomes shared with the private sector” to pay for further expansion, Richard testified. As an example, he cited high speed rail systems in France, Spain and The Netherlands which, he said, attracted private investment once ridership was established. However, the parallel is not quite correct. True, European high speed rail systems were able to attract private sector interest after EU opened up cross-border rail passenger services to competition in 2009 . But the public-private partnerships took the form of running private high speed rail services (such as Thello, Westbahn and NTV) on publicly-owned rail infrastructure—they did not involve private capital contributions to expand the physical facilities of the high speed rail networks.

Despite Chairman Richard’s reassuring statements, the prospect for future private investment in the California HSR project still remains very much an open question.

Federal Railroad Administration Position

At the hearing, the Federal Railroad Administration and its Deputy Administrator, Karen Hedlund also came in for some sharp questioning. Why has the agency not suspended reimbursements until the High Speed Rail Authority presents a viable plan to identify a new source of the required state match, Chairman Denham wanted to know. Given so much uncertainty around the project, why wouldn’t FRA take the prudent step to hold off spending more taxpayer dollars until they are satisfied that California has remedied these legal setbacks?

Hedlund chose not to respond directly to the Chairman’s questions. Instead, she stated that “at this time,” the Authority was not in violation of the grant agreement. However, she conceded that should California fail to match the federal grants as required by the funding agreement (i.e. beginning April 1), the government could collect the owed matching funds by withholding other federal grants. Rep. Denham followed this up by introducing a bill, with the support of every member of the state’s Republican delegation, to suspend federal spending on high speed rail “until sufficient non-federal funds are available.”

The Governor’s Surprising and “Desperate” Move

On January 24, in an unusual move, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration petitioned the California Supreme Court directly to overturn the Superior Court ruling that barred the State from selling the Proposition 1A approved bonds The state’s request to skip the appellate court review is considered as unprecedented. “In my 47 years of appellate practice, I have never seen something like this,” said Michael Brady, one of the attorneys for the Central Valley landowners who sued the Rail Authority.The Governor’s move is “an act of desperation,” observed the respected California columnist Dan Walters. The State in its brief argued that the normal appeal process could take years to resolve and the delay would cause “irreparable injury absent immediate intervention by this Court.” The brief is asking the High Court for an answer by March 1.

As reported above, the Authority is facing an April 1 deadline to begin matching the federal grant with state funds. There are speculations that, threatened with a cut-off of federal funds in the event of non-compliance with the deadline and having concluded that using cap-and-trade funds might be politically risky given the strong environmentalist opposition, the Brown administration concluded that it had no alternative but to take this drastic step in an effort to gain access to the bond funds.

The Authority’s move has caught observers by surprise. Just ten days earlier Chairman Richard gave the impression that the Authority would comply with the judge’s ruling and re-do the funding plan. “My view is that we go back and do exactly what the Judge has said,” Richard testified before the House Railroads Subcommittee. .

Back in December, we wrote that further delays in the project’s groundbreaking (already more than a year behind schedule), the prospect of multiple challenges over bond validation, a likelihood of drawn out negotiations over right-of-way acquisition and expropriation and, most importantly, the Authority’s inability to identify credible sources of non-federal money to complete the entire 300-mile line to the San Fernando Valley, “all add up to a very problematic future for this transformative project.” The events and disclosures over the past month have done nothing to lessen this impression.

Kenneth Orski
Innovation NewsBriefs (celebrating our 25th year of publication)

Written by Stephen Rees

January 29, 2014 at 11:41 am

Electric Car2Go

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These electric Smart cars have been part of the Car2Go fleet in Vancouver for a while now. I have not actually seen one until today. I was taking a look at my Android car2go app after getting an email this morning. Car2Go had been “experiencing a partial disruption in service” this morning, so I was curious what the app would show. Turns out that not only was there an available car right outside but there was a little electric logo on it. ⚡

By the way the Car2Go app for Android is much better than any other I have used (iOS or Symbian)

Smart EV rear

The vehicle looks much like any other car2go. I think the term “electric drive” could easily be confused with a hybrid, which while it has an internal combustion (IC) engine does indeed have a final electric drive. But this is a real EV – a battery only electric vehicle.

Smart EV front near

Actually this is one of the nicer variants of the Smart car that has a glass roof and electric motors to control the door mirrors. And, as seems to be common practice, the roller blind across the ceiling had been left open, and the car parked in full sun. So it was a nice little oven to get into – with extra frying on the seat and seat back. Cloth upholstery would be so much nicer.

Smart EV front off

Smart EV interior

Everything about the car is as similar as possible to the IC car. It has an “ignition” key – just nothing much seems to happen when you turn it except the radio comes on and you can open the windows and turn on the fan. It also has air conditioning. I turned that off as soon as it was comfortable enough, and drove with the windows down. At city speeds, that is more energy efficient. Using a/c and keeping the windows closed works better at highway speed.

The pick up on any electric vehicle is always better than any IC since the torque characteristics are quite different. You can easily leave everyone else standing at the lights if you want to. Some of the older IC Smart cars are quite sluggish, especially from a standing start, and with a distinct lag after each gear shift.

Smart EV two extra dials

I am not convinced that these are actually necessary, since the conventional fuel gauge on a Smart car – just under the speedometer – is easily readable. What is noticeable is that this car has regenerative braking, so power is fed back into the battery when braking. In fact even if you just take your foot of the accelerator. This is a pity but common to every EV I have ever driven. I think that imitating engine braking to make the car feel familiar is not needed. Better would be the ability to coast. I found that even the lightest pressure on the right pedal caused battery drain, and driving feet off meant the car slowed. In fact the slowing was more noticeable than some IC cars I have driven

Plug it in, plug it in

Although I did take it around the houses so I could try it on the hills of Kerrisdale (nothing to report there) and traffic was light, the whole journey was easy and used hardly any juice. I think the needle must have gone down a bit but for most around town use I should not think that range is going to be an issue. I know you get can a charge at City Hall. Maybe there’s something on the in car navigation system about charging stations – I forgot to check. There is a key fob for charging. I didn’t notice if there was a credit card.


In other news

I found the hype of Elon Musk’s “HyperLoop” easy to resist. On twitter, Jarret Walker seemed to hit the right note of skepticism, as you would expect. The problems of human transportation being mostly about the basic physics and geometry issues. The greatest weakness of the analysis is not so much Musk’s assessment of potential number of trips but a lack of appreciation about how much network connectivity is going to matter to make the low density sprawl of southern California work to feed his point to point service.

Personally I would far prefer a High Speed Train, though I can easily understand the frustrations of those who feel let down by the tentative approach being taken in California. I much prefer to look out of a window (though in an HST keeping your eye on the distant horizon is important for comfort) but most of all I like to get out of my seat and walk around when under way. This is not exactly encouraged on planes or buses – but is at least feasible. I find the idea of remaining seated in a windowless vehicle claustrophobic. Even if it is only for half an hour.

Recent news from Britain about ever more fare increases for the privatized railway show once again how wrong headed that approach to public transportation is and has been throughout. There is a growing lobby there in favour of renationalization. But David Cameron’s former speech writer thinks they are fantastic 

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Speed matters for Edmonton-Calgary train: report

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On the Vancouver Sun website there is a report from the Edmonton Journal.

A 500-km/h high speed train that could travel between Calgary and Edmonton in an hour would attract nearly six million riders by 2021, says a report commissioned by the Alberta government and released Monday.

The report makes no recommendations on the feasibility of the project or whether government money should go into it, but suggests the possibility of a private-public partnership, also known as a P3.

Alberta Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette released the February 2008 report in advance of Monday’s federal-provincial Conservative caucus meeting in Calgary.

Well actually the report says a great deal more than that – and it looks at a variety of possible speeds from the UK style 125mph High Speed Train, US style Acela,  French TGV and the German MAGLEV. The good thing is that the full report is available at – from where you can download the hefty pdf files. They make interesting reading.

A disclaimer of my own – I was recruited by Dr Alex Metcalf in 1988 from the UK to come to Canada. So we have some history – and I want to be very careful to be objective in my comments. He is one of the lead authors of the report: one his earlier projects was the demand forecast which supported the construction of the bridge to Prince Edward Island.

Secondly, I wonder why this report has taken so long to emerge: February 2008 to July 2009 is a very long time indeed to consider a consultant’s report.

The study is refers to itself as “Investment Grade”  (“meets the requirement of Investment Grade Analysis as proposed by the High-Speed Rail Association”) – in other words it was intended to examine whether or not a private sector investor would put money into the project. What this means is that it is concerned with familiar issues of mode choice – and would enough people be willing to pay enough for a faster trip between the two cities. The answer is yes, and the faster the train runs the more would be willing to use it.

There is a lot in the language of the report which contrasts quite strongly with all the other things I am reading at the moment. The report is very optimistic about the economy of Alberta – after all that province has lots of oil and the rest of world is going to be increasingly short of it so there will continue to be economic growth for the foreseeable future – subject to the cyclical nature of a resource based economy. The words “peak oil” or “climate change” do not appear in it – so far as I can determine. Nor is there any sense that our perception of the world changed dramatically between then and now. So it is bit like reading BC government studies of the need for new highway and port expansion. Much of the stuff I read these days talks about the end of “business as usual” and the need for a steady state, no growth economy – or even the inevitability of dealing with the need to reduce our per capita energy consumption. Quite a lot of macro-economics seems to be turning away from GDP as a way of measuring how we are doing,and recognising that exponential growth is unsustainable.

I am not going to challenge the demand forecast – I am just going to suggest that there are other reasons why the Governments of Alberta and Canada should consider the case for building a new electric high speed rail line between Edmonton and Calgary. The idea of utilising the existing tracks or just upgrading them is not a good long term proposition. The private sector railway companies in Canada have little or no interest in running passenger trains and do not normally afford them priority. Freight railways have a rather different configuration to high speed lines – and the best separate them out. Since that means a new right of way, an electric railway is not that much more expensive, but gives a great deal of flexibility for the future as well as significant operational and environmental advantages for the present. Electricity can be made from a variety of sources: Calgary’s LRT runs on wind power.  Both France and Japan determined early on that a dedicated track was a prerequisite for high speed rail and both countries  now lead the world in the field.

One thing the current report seems to accept is that the line would not be integrated into the airports. This is a profound mistake. While a lot of business travel is city centre to city centre, the report recognises the need for suburban stations: that is, after all where most people live. But there is also a significant synergy to be had from integration with national and international travel which at present is by air. Of course air travel has seen significant declines – for economic reasons – and it long term future is highly uncertain, since it is currently completely dependent on oil as its energy source.

It is a bit depressing that the only way we seem to be allowed to think about these projects is if they are commercially feasible – not desirable from an environmental or quality of life perspective. One argument that Alberta should consider is the extent to which a new service would reduce the need of highway expansion in the future – and also the much better safety record per passenger kilometre of rail over road. The reduction in the demand for health services alone – even if the lower death toll is not thought good enough reason of itself – should appeal even to conservatives.

On the whole I am not persuaded that there is a good case for MAGLEV. It seems to me to be one of those “best is the enemy of the good” cases. I would be reluctant to recommend a technology that is not widely in use. French style TGV, on the other hand, has shown itself to be very successful and is being steadily expanded in the countries where it has been adopted. The British have tried Italian tilting trains on existing sinuous track (Pendolinos on the West Coast Mainline) but the success of the first French style TGV line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel has now got them thinking of new dedicated french style high speed lines.

I think railways should be a priority for our governments – if only because we know that relying on air and highways has brought us a whole lot of unintended consequences. Hopefully, now that this report has finally seen the light of day, the discussion can start in earnest.

Oh, as an afterthought, perhaps check out the newest Japanese shinkansen too.



Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Railway

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California High Speed Rail

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gas 2.0 is reporting

the California High-Speed Rail Authority. After getting a green light by State environmental impact assessors, they’ve begun implementation of an 800-mile bullet-train system that will connect Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County and San Diego. Trains traveling at 220 mph on the systems are forecast to carry up to 100 million passengers per year by 2030.

And that is where I got this image from. The site is worth visiting for the huge number of images and videos available for download alone.

Of course, California does take EAs seriously – unlike BC which has reduced the process to a sick joke. And the funding still has to get through a bond measure on the November ballot. But that is also a process I approve of. Actual democracy at work: trusting the people, and allowing them a say in how their tax dollars are spent. Again in very sharp contrast to the way we get told what we are going to be taxed for, whether we approve of it or not.

And I also like the fact that it is an electric train with a very clear association with wind power. BC of course has recently ripped up its only main line electrification and had the locomotives scrapped.

Given where we are now and where the future will be, California’s investment in this mode looks a lot more sensible than its hydrogen highway (which, I suspect, will be left to just wither on the vine) – or BC’s obsession with widening freeways.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Posted in Railway

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Train in Spain sets out to beat the plane

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The Guardian

Oh the subs at the Grauniad are having fun today. The last time I posted about high speed trains I got lots of hits. So I am going to do it again. A new high speed line will open this month from Madrid to Barcelona

I found a much better image than they did anyway (but the site is in Spanish, not surprisingly). The trains are German, where they are called ICE (InterCity Express) and like the French TGV need special tracks to get to their top speed. 220 mph

The aim is to have 10,000km (6,200 miles) of high-speed track in Spain by 2020, meaning that 90% of the population will be no more than 30 miles from a station through which the train passes.

The Barcelona line is to be extended to Perpignan in France, making the Catalan capital just four-and-a-half hours from Paris. Work to join Madrid and Lisbon is under way.

December saw the opening of lines connecting Madrid to Valladolid and to Málaga, which have slashed journey times and proved hugely popular. Carrillo describes the success of these two lines as “unprecedented and well ahead of what we expected. Traffic has doubled on the Málaga line, and grown by 75% on the Valladolid line.”

The distinction between the Spanish and British models of investment, says Christian Wolmar, the author of a history of Britain’s railways, comes from conflicting philosophies of rail’s worth.

“We ignore the social values of trains,” he says. “Just as we don’t expect motorways to pay their own way, we shouldn’t expect trains to.

Actually AVE is expected to be profitable. And another way to correct this imbalance is to charge road users for their use of road space. And charge more to use the road at peak periods.

At these sorts of speeds even Canadian distances look conquerable.

“Time spent in a train is time won, while in a plane it is wasted,” he [Aberlado Carrillo, the director general of the state rail operator Renfe’s high-speed service] says. “In a train you can work, read, talk, use the internet, eat, or simply relax and enjoy the journey. With a plane, the only objective is to arrive.

“Personally, I am not bothered if the plane arrives 20 minutes earlier than the train. The question is how that time has been used.”

And of course if we were really serious about greenhouse gas emissions, we would be seriously looking at ways of getting people off planes and into electric high speed trains.

UPDATE February 18 2008

A story in the travel section of the Guardian has a very different looking AVE train

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2008 at 9:17 am

Posted in Railway

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