Saturday, January 30, 2010

High Speed Rail - Geoduck!

Port Townsend, today. So here we go again, with our brightest and best politicians gathered together rejoicing in the announcement from the White House that federal funding will be made available to develop “high speed rail corridors” in 10 different locations around the country, including the Pacific Northwest.


I doubt the bureaucrat who decided the dollar amount to be made available has a clue as to what “high speed rail” is, unless they ride Amtrak’s “Acela” between Washington and New York. And running at an average speed of 85 miles per hour, the “Acela” is stuck in second gear, when compared to true “high speed rail” systems around the world.

Defining High Speed Rail

Right off the chocks, there is no agreed upon definition as to what constitutes High Speed Rail (HSR.) At one time, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) defined four classes of HSR:

Express HSR: Top speeds of at least 150 mph on completely grade-separated, dedicated rights-of-way, with few stops between cities.

Regional HSR: Top speeds between 110 to 150 mph on completely grade-separated with some shared tracks and some intermediate stops.

Emerging HSR: Top speeds of between 90 to 110 mph on shared tracks with protected grade crossings.

Conventional rail: Traditional intercity passenger rail traveling at 90 mph or less over shared tracks with multiple grade crossings, which includes the "Cascades" with an alleged 70 mph average speed. (Ridden it lately?)

Yet another definition of HSR, contained in PL 110-432, P 26106(b)(4) defines HSR (sic) "as any train running over 110 MPH."

Amtrak’s “Acela ” running in the New York Washington DC corridor is the closest we’ve come to fielding an HSR rail link. I’ve never ridden the train, but there is any number of accounts concerning the health of the “Acela” available on the Internet, including this article:

From Chelsea Green, November 12, 2009:

“Because of Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety requirements, an Acela train is nearly twice as heavy as France’s TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse— French for high-speed train), which is also manufactured by Alstom.

Acela’s floor is reinforced to protect against debris on the tracks. Unlike Europe’s high-speed corridors, the Northeast Corridor is only partially fenced; it even crosses some highways at grade. Amtrak wanted to run a push-pull configuration, but the FRA under the Clinton administration said a cab car did not meet crashworthiness standards, so another locomotive was added at the other end.

The train is overpowered. Even with a single locomotive, the Acela can run at 200 mph, but FRA rules do not allow speeds above 150 mph on tracks shared with freights and slower passenger trains. Acela averages just 80-some mph, and rarely goes faster than 130 for small stretches. Its speed is limited by curves, tight confines in tunnels—especially in Baltimore—freight traffic, and other drawbacks that make true high-speed performance impossible.

The high-speed corridors in Europe and Japan are straight, level, sealed from intrusion, and set aside solely for fast passenger trains. To create such a corridor in the Northeast with its dense population would cost tens of billions of dollars and require the purchase or condemnation of more land and neighborhoods.”

Further investigation of the Acela program demonstrates further squabbling with the Federal Railroad Administration, when an “off the shelf” train configuration was suddenly trashed.

Grade Separation

From my observations on the subject of HSR, one point is abundantly clear. Grade Separation is an uncompromising requirement for HSR. Simply put, keeping things off the track. And keeping vehicular traffic from crossing the track.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to have ridden the “Eurostar” from Paris, through the Chunnel, to London. Speedometers are mounted on the wall at the front of each car. We pegged 185 miles per hour on several stretches. Passing an opposing train is very dramatic. With a closing velocity of 370 miles per hour, all you see is a grey blur. All you hear is a loud “whoomph!” The sensation of riding the train is similar to riding in an airliner down the runway, without taking off.

At 185 miles per hour, a train is covering almost the length of a football field in 1 second, 271.33 ft/sec to be exact. Put another way, 3.08 miles in 1 minute, 1.54 miles in 30 seconds, ¾ of a mile in 15 seconds.

If you decided to pull out around a crossing gate to drive across the tracks when you first made out the train, you’d probably never make it. And the engineer, recovering from the shock and realization that he actually hit you, would be 3 to 5 miles down the track before he had time to react and begin emergency braking.

I would encourage you to take a few minutes to educate yourself on the problems grade separation, particularly in the 30 miles between Seattle and Tacoma. The air horns blare almost constantly from the time the train heads north from Tacoma up to Seattle.

Bring up either Google Earth or Google Maps, and exploring the corridor between Seattle and Tacoma. Look at all the grade level crossings. If you live near the other corridors, you can conduct your own aerial survey.

The FRA’s goal for high-speed grade crossings is to achieve an acceptable level of grade crossing risk. Regulatory requirements for high-speed grade crossings are:

· For 110 mph or less: Grade crossings are permitted. States and railroads cooperate to determine the needed warning devices, including passive crossbucks, flashing lights, two quadrant gates (close only 'entering' lanes of road), long gate arms, median barriers, and various combinations. Lights and/or gates are activated by circuits wired to the track (track circuits).

· For 110-125 mph: FRA permits crossings only if an "impenetrable barrier" blocks highway traffic when train approaches.

· Above 125 mph: No crossings will be permitted.

How to Separate Grades

Grade separation can be accomplished. But is expensive, takes forever to complete, and is ugly. Either the rails have to be elevated above vehicle traffic, or lowered below vehicle traffic.

This can be accomplished with fly-overs or under passes, but both solutions would involve purchasing properties and home and business displacements. Or something more definitive, like a trench!

You may or may not be aware of the massive civil engineering projects that have been completed, and are still underway, in the Los Angeles area to achieve grade separation between rail and highway systems.

Years ago, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific were absolutely stymied trying to move freight from the container facilities at Long Beach and San Pedro. Unbelievable traffic congestion was created dragging a 7,000-foot train through more than 200 grade level crossings in Los Angeles.

And repeating that up to 25 times a day!

To address this traffic separation problem, the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority brought together creative problem solvers from city governments, and both the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific Railroads.

Obviously the railroads are in competition, but their common goal was to move freight off the docks without destroying the quality of life along that transportation corridor. The centerpiece of ACTA is a twenty-mile long project featuring a 10-mile long trench, 51 feet wide, and 31 feet deep to accommodate double stack container trains.

“The Trench” took several years to complete, passing its first train on April 15, 2002. But my god, what an ugly blight on the landscape.

[Click on > for cab ride through trench]

Monies to pay for this on going project come from a variety of sources, including shippers, as reflected in this current tariff posted by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. And while that project is now complete, it is only a piece of a greater on-going plan to separate rail and road, with the much larger, more complex Alameda Corridor – East (AC-E) project!

Yet another unsightly trench, part of the AC-E complex, the 2 mile San Gabriel Trench is slated to begin construction next year, 2011.

And what is the impact on society brought about by these railroad trenches? Are the "Trenches of California" seem a likely scenario in the Duwamish Watershed? There is no other way to place HSR in the Northwest.

Where are we now?

If you live here in the Pacific Northwest, and haven’t treated yourself to a ride on the “Cascades, ” you cannot make an informed judgment on the “state of rail travel” in the Pacific Northwest.

On my first trip north, we got up to a nosebleed speed of probably 50 miles per hour (judging by the adjacent I-5 freeway traffic,) when the unmistakable lurch of a brake application came on. I asked the trainman I was chatting with, “What gives?” His response “We do. Freight.”

In addition to the nightmare alignment between Seattle and Tacoma, long stretches north of Seattle along Puget Sound continually slide onto the tracks. A situation that goes all the way back into the history of the Great Northern Railroad' s construction era. A definitive solution would be required for HSR to exist.

In Conclusion
Last year, the Washington State Department of Transportation along with the BNSF and others, identified a number of immediate what I call “reality based” improvements that would allow Amtrak and freight operations operate more harmoniously with each other, and increase efficiency of both, in a realistic manner.

If some of this money could at least get that Toonerville Trolley up into the 90 percentile range for an on time arrival performance, that alone would be worth the money! Last year, Eurostar, despite the disastrous equipment failures in the Chunnel, posted a 95% on time arrival performance.

The last numbers I saw stated that the Amtrak “Cascades” has a 62% on time track record. And that was up from the high 50’s when I last tortured myself between Vancouver Washington and Seattle.

If the recently released dollars were to be applied to achieving the “reality based” improvements identified by the WSDOT/BNSF document, that would be good enough for me!

But it won’t be High Speed Rail running at 180 miles per hour!

The notion that a true High Speed Rail corridor will be constructed between Eugene and Vancouver British Columbia is so far beyond fiscal reality, that all this hoopla about HSR coming to the Northwest is so much geoduck!

3 Comments - Click here:

Eric said...

Similar Express HSR plans abound for a Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto line. Massive amounts of land would have to be expropriated...will it ever happen? Meanwhile, I've been railfanning and watched a tractor approach a gravel farm crossing, farmer looks both ways, and hauls a loaded haywagon across CN's double-track Kingston Sub, followed minutes later by an 8-car VIA train going 90 mph. Talk about grade separation...not.

Dave said...

Robert wrote:

If some of this money could at least get that Toonerville Trolley up into the 90 percentile range for an on time arrival performance, that alone would be worth the money!

Dave responds:

Well, I suppose it's a good thing that that is exactly what this appropriation will do. WSDOT isn't just going to randomly throw money around to build some stretches of track where Amtrak trains can run at 110mph for short distances (which can't happen at all until the signal system is upgraded; see: PTC). Instead, they have -- and have had for more than a decade -- a plan to fund incremental improvements to the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver corridor which first improve reliability and later permit higher-speed running. (True HSR is beyond the scope of this program because, as you note, that would require a dedicated R/W which the state is not in a position to fund.)

I invite you to read more on WSDOT's overall plans for the PNWRC. For the goals of the current investments, check the Seattle Transit Blog's discussion of the topic.

The major projects this investment will likely fund are the Point Defiance Bypass (gets Amtrak out of the way of freight trains and cut six minutes off the schedule), completion of the Vancouver Yard Bypass (gets freight trains out of the way of Amtrak) and construction of the Kelso-Martins Bluff third main track segment (combination of both prior results). Numerous other smaller projects will also get funding.

Nobody is making the claim that $590M is going to bring HSR to the state; it's just another step in the process to developing a passenger rail system which, in its completed form, will be directly competitive with travel times by rubber-tired vehicles (both those that stay on the asphalt and those which hop from one stretch to another with a bit of Bernoulli Principle in between) from city center to city center in the PDX-SEA-VBC corridor.

Robert in Port Townsend said...

Dave: Good comment. However, while many of us realize a Bullet train is not on the table, many people do. And it doesn't help when uninformed news types throw graphics on the screen of that type of vehicle, when doing this story. That is why I tried (poorly?) to demonstrate the lack of a solid definition of HSR, in addition to the problematic rights-of-way.
Eric: Keep an eye on that guy, you may end up with a prize winning photo of straw pellets in the making! :)

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