Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Compare & Contrast

President Obama, in his January 25, 2011, State of the Union Address:
To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information -- from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet.

Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. . . Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a "D."
Washington Post editorial, July 27, 2011:
For months, it has been increasingly obvious that China’s shiny new high-speed rail system is not the triumph of national planning that Beijing or Western admirers claimed. The Chinese government this year fired top rail officials for alleged wrongdoing, an implicit recognition that corruption and debt plague the project. Many of those who questioned the economics of high-speed rail in China also argued that authorities were cutting corners on safety in their rush to build the world’s largest bullet-train network. Those accusations, too, received tacit confirmation when China announced in April that it would cut the trains’ top speed by 30 miles per hour.

Too late: Last Saturday, China’s high-speed rail produced the long-feared catastrophe. Two bullet trains collided in the eastern province of Zhejiang, leaving more than three dozen people dead and scores more injured.

The terrible collision is not only a human tragedy but also a major blow to the credibility of the communist government, which had hoped to sell its trains to other countries -- including the United States. Authorities blamed a lightning strike for causing one train to stall out, after which a second train rear-ended it, causing four cars to plunge off a bridge. Unlikely on its face, this scenario does not explain why no fail-safe mechanism halted the second train after the first stopped.
We should not copy China.

(via Planet Gore)


suek said...

Only 36 people died. 36 isn't nothing, but when you think of the "usual" train crash in many parts of the world, the numbers are usually in the hundreds, and the trains are traveling much slower. So why only 36? Not a lot of travelers? That says something right there.

I wonder what the cost of a ticket was...

Warren said...

Tom Friedman could not be reached for comment.

Whitehall said...

The corruption angle should be better understood as a feature of such government-sponsored infrastructure programs.

The ChiComs may have learned from US history. Check out "Credit Mobilier" for our scandal in building the Transcontinental Railroad.

Here in the US, after some research on my part, I'd say that high speed rail is not a wise investment although "higher speed" rail might be. We have some real bottlenecks (Cajon Pass in CA is one) where the cost/benefit ratio might be adequate.

In 1890 it took 83 hours from NYC to SF (Oakland). Today, it takes 76 hours although maximum speeds are lower due to a federal limit of 79 mph. Circa 1900, passenger trains regularly ran at 90+ mph.

Carl said...

Sue: I think you're right to suggest that China's high speed rail, like most such schemes, are based on wildly optimistic forecasts of passenger traffic that -- when the numbers fail to materialize -- can lead to enormous financial stress. On the other hand, to Warren's point, perhaps Friedman was on that train. . .

Whitehall: I agree with the first part of your comment. And there may be areas where higher speed rail makes sense. But I think it's less about the geography and more about the population distribution and density--which is absent virtually everywhere outside the Boston-Washington corridor.

Whitehall said...

I agree about population density re high speed rail.

I was trying to say that government regulations hold back higher speed long-distance rail operations in the US. Either relax the regulations or make capital investments (and improve railway maintenance) to increase speeds and improve productivity for rail transport. For example, a regular unit train running at 40 mph needs half the rolling stock and man-hours for the same volume running at 20 mph.

Living in the West, I'm more interested in long distance rail. The Megalopolis Corridor in the East seems to be our best market for high speed passenger rail. It could be improved too but I'm not sure that's a necessary or productive investment.

The California LA/SF project doesn't make sense. Neither does the Orlando/Tampa project in Florida.

OBloodyHell said...

Whitehall, where the f*** do you figure rail is going to work if not those two rather obvious venues?

The Orlando-Tampa and Orlando-Miami projects both have clear and obvious clientele. They're stupid projects not for lack of a concept clientele, but because their presumed clientele fails to understand human nature.

People on vacation want to be able to explore, to go out and do things, and the fact is that Florida, like much of the USA outside New England and the general Eastern Seaboard north of DC is spread out considerably compared to, say, 90% of Europe.

In particular, lacking ANY natural boundaries to funnel structures together, Florida has grown out, not up, and the size of areal space used by any entity (corporation, company, service, person) is generally notably higher than Europe. Most Americans would be annoyed at being forced to live in the kind of cramped living space that is standard in Europe.

The entire corridor down I-4 from Daytona to Tampa is largely "built up" to 20-30 miles on either side of it (slightly weaker north of Orlando, but certainly almost one contiguous "city" from Orlando to Tampa... and you might even consider extending THAT southward along I-75 to Ft. Myers much as one would up to Daytona.

Likewise, South Florida, from Miami north along I-95 to at least Jupiter (arguably up to Ft. Pierce, much as one includes Daytona along I-4) is one giant, contiguous semi-suburban megalopolis, with very little undeveloped land for 30+ miles inland from the ocean, along much of its length.

The general point when listing all the above is this: Yeah, people DO want to go from Miami to Orlando to Tampa and so forth on their vacations as well as their work junkets.

WTF are they gonna do to get around when they GET THERE?

Ride the local trains? Ride the buses?

GET REAL!?!?!?!?

You're on VACATION, you want FREEDOM, not more mindless BS -- get to the bus stop 5 mins early, wait for the bus, ride the bus taking 2x as long to get to your destination as a car, don't buy anything too bulky lest it be a pain in the ass to tote back, etc., etc., etc.

Work junkets? "Hey, I'm here at notable extra expense to DO BUSINESS, I don't want to waste my limited time here riding on some dumbass bus. Besides which, the company is paying the expenses, so I'm DAMNED sure not giving them extra unpaid "salary" time out of my life just because some corporate dumbass is too damned cheap to spring for a rental car!"

..And if the company is going to spring for a rental, why the hell would they pay through the nose to send someone via "high speed rail" and THEN rent a car, when the cost of just renting it locally (usually with a company you're familiar with and have a steady contract with) and letting the employee drive there, is probably a fraction of the cost of this high-speed rail ticket?

The entire LOGIC (remember GIGO) of these "high speed trains" is based on a moronically simplistic idea of "people need to get from A to B", while ignoring what they plan to do when they get to B in the very first place...

Q.E.D. there's a REASON these projects fail, and fail dismally.

There's a REASON passenger is a losing proposition outside of the NE corridor. Three things killed it in the last 50 years:
1) Reliable cars
2) Interstates
3) Passenger Jets

#3 takes care of people in a hurry.
#1 and 2 take care of people with less hurry but wanting more freedom to explore without paying for a rental car.

Trains are for mid-volume FREIGHT: Too big for individual trucks, and not near enough to a river, lake, or seaport to use a cargo boat.


Whitehall said...

Mr. OBloodyHell,

A closer reading of my comments will show that I am not an advocate of "high speed rail." I did note that there are capital improvements to be made in the existing rail system that could improve the productivity of the overall rail system, including Amtrak.

I defend Amtrak because I like and use its long distance Western services. It's overall operating subsidy is about 87% which is darn good for public transit and could be better if the rail unions weren't so powerfully politically. It serves a public niche as a strategic alternative to other passenger modes.

Ride the train sometimes and you'll see it serves as an alternative to those too obese to fit in an airplane seat or too neurotic to face flying. I've seen the old and feeble on the trains too. On 9/12/01, holding a reserved seat ticket was priceless.

Lastly, one sees a lot of tourists who ride for the scenic beauty of the USA, foreigners especially.

Yes, it takes more time on most trips but it is easy-going, relaxing, and sociable. The subsidy is minimal so I don't feel guilty. It needn't cost much more than air travel although that varies widely with specific markets.

I was just in Orlando on business and really don't see how one could live or visit without a car.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we had better focus on upgrading our own transportation systems, e.g., improving highways, bridges, deepening harbors, improving airports, railways. Feeling smug about others' failures is a waste of energy and pretty negative. There is much we can do to improve our own transportation systems. It might even generate a few new jobs. There are some functions that government does that are vital to the growth, development and well-being of our society. Let private industry get back to manufacturing products within the borders of the USA.