Friday, January 06, 2012

California High Speed Fail

On the 3rd of January, the California High Speed Rail (HSR) Peer Review Group issued a report that essentially kills HSR in California.   In 2008, Californians authorized $9B bonds for HSR.  However, the measure requires that the Peer Review Group sign off on the feasibility and reasonableness of the plan to build the rail system before the state issues the bonds.  Thus it appears the report will/should effectively kill the project, which is probably a good thing.

The primary criticism the Peer Review report has to offer is that the California HSR plan isn't financially feasible, that private sector involvement should be accelerated, that demand forecasts have not been subject to external and public review, and that they "cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for the project."

This carefully footnoted Peer Review report says basically the same thing that Dr. Vranich (Big HSR Advocate and best-selling author of Supertrains) told the State of California in 2008.  Its worth it to watch his video hereAt that time Dr. Vranich said:
Vranich skewered every aspect of the HSRA’s proposal. He insisted that passenger estimates were wildly inflated—64 percent higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Center, as well as a thorough report by the Reason Foundation...“High speed rail in California may be salvageable after all of this poor work, but someone else must be in charge,” Vranich said. “If the authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, how will they ever effectively deliver a mega construction project on time and within budget?” His argument tracks closely with a May 2011 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which also suggests that the High-Speed Rail Authority be dismantled.
If the legislature fails to issue the next $3B in bonds, the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) just may close, and all the directors will lose their cushy jobs.  Roelof-Van-Ark the Chief Executive Officer makes $375,000.   So, in their defense, the California HSRA stated that following the recommendations of the peer review means California loses matching funds from the Feds, and that it is a "narrow, inaccurate and superficial assessment of the HSR program, it does a disservice to policy-makers who must confront these decisions." (Emphasis in original.)  Basically they said they stand by their numbers, reject the findings of the Peer Review, and that it isn't important to have funding sources for the $75 Billion that isn't funded.

I read the business plan, and I agree with the peer review findings.  You can read them both and make your own assessment as well.  I'll provide some of my findings here.

NOfP has covered the High Speed Rail (HSR) issue for the last several years.  HSR is a favorite project for politicians, and especially President Obama.  Not only does HSR and other public rail transport projects shift jobs from the public transportation sector to the government, and creating massive government bureaucracies in the process, it allows government to also redistribute wealth from taxpayers to HSR contractors, and to provide subsidies to the middle class and wealthy that ride the trains.  In short, HSR and other public transport put more power in the hands of the government, and provide less freedom of choice for the citizen. High Speed Rail is High Speed Fail:
Though a centerpiece of President Obama's recent stimulus plans, even the WaPo editors label high-speed rail "a lost cause."

Most proposed new passenger rail systems would require massive subsidies. Florida turned back Federal funding for fears of the necessary state spending. Wisconsin rejected high-speed rail funding, asking instead for reduced Federal monies to improve existing train service. California's high-speed rail -- mandated by a 2008 state ballot measure -- will bankrupt the state.
Most recently, Carl wrote that President Obama’s administration is providing $3B to fund California’s High Speed Rail initiative, even though CA is building the first section of rail not in an urban or even suburban area, but in the middle of the richest farmland in America -- where nobody actually lives.  This, despite the anticipated program cost tripling in the last three years.  As the LATimes puts it: "The bullet trains from Anaheim and Los Angeles to San Francisco will not cost $34 billion as originally estimated... but closer to $100 billion. Critics say the agency's new $98.5-billion estimate is low, and the authority admits it might go as high as $117.6 billion."

 In 2008, California voted authority to borrow up to $9 Billion to cover part of the capitalization costs of a high speed rail to connect San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco.  This initiative was sold to the voters through unsupported claims of costs and ridership made by the the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA).

Ridership:  At that time, the California HSRA predicted the system would have ridership in 2030 of 117M passenger trips. The 117M riders of a California rail system was absurd (and the HSRA knew it). The current annual ridership of the nations intercity rail system -- Amtrak -- is only 28.7M per year, nationwide, and Interstate 5, which stretches from Tijuana to Canada (including San Diego to LA through Sacramento and to Oregon and the main connector between LA and SF) has an annual passenger count of only 26M. So, does any reasonable person think rail travel between those cities is going to suddenly be a multiple of existing rail or road travel?  Let me add that the current Los Angeles to San Francisco air traffic is only 2.7M passengers per year

Capital Construction Cost: This year, the California HRSA changed its plan, creating Phase 1 to serve between LA and SFO, with service to Sacramento and San Diego and extend the lines by 1/3rd would be added later.  This smaller system, they admitted, would cost a lot more than the full system, at least $100B, which is more than triple what they forecast only three years ago for a much larger system.

The thing about both ridership and capital construction estimates is they are almost always wrong.  In the most comprehensive study of large scale transportation projects, a strategic misrepresentation bias underestimates costs by 50-100%, and overestimates ridership (and thus revenue) by 50-100%.  The report states:
[F]orecasters and planners deliberately and strategically overestimate benefits and underestimate costs in order to increase the likelihood that it is their projects, and not the competition’s, that gain approval and funding. Strategic misrepresentation can be traced to political and organizational pressures, for instance competition for scarce funds or jockeying for position, and to lack of incentive alignment.
(Hmmm... do you think that $375,000 salary paid the California High Speed Rail Authority CEO is an incentive alignment or misalignment?) 

So the costs are probably higher than $100B, and the revenue will not be enough to cover operating expenses.  Set that aside for a moment.  Recognize this:  For $100B we could fully subsidize air travel between Los Angeles and the Bay Area for the next 300 years.  A ticket from LAX to SFO costs about $100. So, for 100 billion dollars, you could buy one billion Air Fare tickets.  At 2.7M passengers a year, that $100B would last over 350 years.  Even at 10M passengers a year, it would last 100 years. 

How about this -- rather than spend $100B on rail service, lets just spend $27B on subsidized air service for everyone for the next 100 years, and invest the other $63B in bonds.  Preferably something conservative and profitable, like railroad freight bonds. Then we’d still have our $63B plus interest in another hundred years.

By that time, another technology (like gravity trains) will probably replace road and rail and air travel.  With transportation technology roughly doubling speed every generation (horse to rail to auto to propeller to jet...) who can say what technology will be available in 30 years?   It does not make sense to me to invest for 100 billion dollars in an infrastructure that could be obsolete before it is built, with a California HSR Authority that has no credibility.   It could be like another bridge to nowhere,  but just in the middle of nowhere.


Warren said...

California governor Jerry Brown warns that if taxes aren't increased, the state will have to cut $5 billion from public education.

Funny, no talk of High Speed Rail putting children's education at risk.

Brown Warns of School Cuts If Taxes Rejected

Bob in LA said...

Warren-- they never threaten to get rid of the worthless beauracrat making $400k a year, cuz you know we need those high-paying jobs on CA.

OBloodyHell said...

I haven't encountered the "Gravity Train" before, except in comic books (Seriously. Adventure comics, oh, ca. 370, the late 1960s, the Legion of Superheroes, one of the characters, "Karate Kid", travels through one from 30th century Metropolis to Osaka, Japan.)

I believe from my own cursory examination that it'd be more than "lurching", you're basically in free-fall for the entire trip. Essentially, you're in a parabolic flight through the earth itself.

Interesting idea, but, even back when I was 11 and that comic came out, I could see the real problems with them. You'd need the equivalent of very, very reliable "force fields" in order to even attempt one. I doubt if any actual material would do the job.

OBloodyHell said...

>>> The governor's office estimates the total general fund budget for the coming year at $92.5 billion, about $7 billion more than the current year.

"A billion here, a billion there. Sooner or later, it adds up to Real Money."
-- apocryphal quote attributes to Everett Dirksen --

Brown says the tax increases will be "temporary".

Really? Is he making sure an absolute expiration date is written into them? Or is that just a "politician's promise"?

OBloodyHell said...

Warren over at Coyote Blog (I've always assumed, without evidence, that this is the same Warren commenting above) has regularly written articles on mass transit rail boondoggles:

Rail and Mass Transit

Warren said...


Nope, that's a different guy.

Bob in LA said...


While you were reading comic books, I was reading Sci-Fi, so I'm claiming higher moral ground.

Set that aside, gravity trains don't need force fields. Just tunnels. Reinforced tunnels.

But set that aside--what will transportation look like in 30 or 50 years? Nobody knows! That's the point.

BTW I read all of CoyoteBlog especially on this issue and quoted him several times. Might Check the links, see how many link there. I hope one or two.

Are you still reading comic books or just collecting them?I can't read Sci-Fi any more just non fiction.

OBloodyHell said...

>>> While you were reading comic books, I was reading Sci-Fi, so I'm claiming higher moral ground.

LOL, sorry, no win for you today. I've been reading SF for almost as long as comics. My first "favorite" book (beyond actual kiddie books) was a factual book about conditions on other planets in the solar system, when I was six. I was reading SF juveniles not that long thereafter.

I recall a discussion when I was about 12 with another kid where I had read a book and a half out of a pile that I'd gotten from the public library only the day before. He didn't believe me until I convinced him.

I mentioned the comic book only because it was the only reference to a gravity train I recall having encountered before.

>>> Set that aside, gravity trains don't need force fields. Just tunnels. Reinforced tunnels.

AAAAnkkk!! And a loss for the challenger.

The physical stresses, to say nothing of the temperatures involved, would not and could not be satisfied by any known material, including theoretically suggested ones. You seem to fail to get the significance of:
a) The idea that the different layers of material deeper down are generally molten and thus move at a different rate than the rotational speed of the surface of the earth, which means sheer forces of a magnitude far beyond that which could be handled by spider silk or even some nominal extensions of bucky-tubes writ large.
b) The temperature gradient is significant in a lot of ways, not the least of which in that it gets very close to that of the surface of the sun, or about 6k degrees celsius, far beyond the melting point of any known solid. Even if you had a material able to withstand this, it would also need to either be a perfect insulator or it would be radiating vast amounts of heat into the interior of the tube, itself represents a major engineering problem, both to your transport mechanism and to your endpoints, which one way or another are going to encounter a lot of heat as things transit through them.

Note that I also haven't mentioned the pressures involved, here. That's not a trivial problem, either. Even with current engineering abilities, making anything which can handle just the water pressures of several miles of WATER at the deepest parts of the ocean are not easily done. And the pressures down THERE are sufficient to solidify the inner core despite that solar-surface temperature level.

Your "reinforced" material thus requires the capacity to
a) Withstand 6k C temperatures
b) Resist massive and differing sheer forces across thousands of miles of its length
c) Ignore crushing pressures that would implode an "egg" made of 24 FOOT thick walls of the toughest steel we know how to make, like a chicken egg in a 10-ton press.

This material isn't just unknown, it's downright magical -- not only can we not make it, we can't even guess how it MIGHT exist in the first place.

Force fields of an SF nature are far more likely to meet all the varied requirements AND be invented within a few human lifetimes.

Bob in LA said...

@OBH -- Ok Ok I declare uncle.

I didn't read The Look-It-Up Book of the Stars and Planets until age 7. I hereby bestow you the honor as officially having out-nerded me. I never read comic books though.

The gravity train can pass through the crust -- it doesn't have to pass through the core. An LAX-SFO train would be about 350 miles long and less than 10 miles deep. My rusty math says about 3.5 miles deep.

The temperature and pressure are not that extreme. There are mines that go to greater depths than 2 miles.

OBloodyHell said...

Oh, and by the way, note the significance of the core being *solid*. It also rotates at a different rate than the surface...

Which means you can't "drill through" the earth and penetrate that with your tube, it would have to hold the entire mass of the inner core in lockstep with the surface. Even if it was strong enough to resist the lateral sheer, the stress on the surface endpoints would be such that they'd be ripping along the surface rather than fixed in place, without some anchoring that is pretty insane.

So your tube has to actually arc around the inner core (about 1500 mi diameter), making it not a "pure" gravity train. It could still work with that arc, but there would be some interesting changes to the physics, without doubt.

I'm sure we'll have some interesting transportation techs in the next 40 years... but I doubt highly if gravity trains are even vaguely practical in that time frame, if ever, on the earth.

I'm partial to Stepping Disks, myself. I'm surprised no one has implemented them in a movie, they're such a freakin' cool idea.

OBloodyHell said...

Bob, I believe that the precise definition of a Gravity Train is that of one in a chord from one surface point to another. While some would not have to go deep, most of any distance would have to go quite deep. I'm not altogether certain about the physical behaviors of ones which don't go all that deep as being overly useful. It feels like there's some relevancy to the proximity to the center of the earth for most of the interesting properties to "kick in". I think some of that could be altered without major issue by turning it from a chord to an arc (avoiding the inner core), but that's only quick speculation, not something I'm stating as likely fact. And the temperatures, pressures, and sheer forces would still be beyond any known materials, even theoretical ones with a concrete conceptual definition (i.e., "scrith" doesn't count, as it is just defined, not described in principle)

Bob in LA said...

OBH The gravity train will work just fine in the Earth's crust. Here are the facts:
1. A gravity train would take about 42 minutes from place to place, anywhere on the earth, even between SFO and LA. A train going from LAX to SFO would go about 350 miles in 42 minutes, for an average speed of 500 miles an hour. It would be a 2.5 degree grade... do your own math if you disagree but that's plenty of grade for a vehicle, the acceleration would be about 2.5% of G or 0.27 m/s**2. Go to this website:

Plug in the following data points;
0, 0.27 m/s**2, 1260 seconds (21 minutes)

You get a speed of 761 miles/hour. That's the top speed

2. I never said to drill through the earth's core -- that would be ridiculous. There are engineering challenges which preclude us from drilling beneath the crust at this time. (Not to mention environmental havoc that releasing the sub-crustal world dwellers, ***the blind homonculi*** would have on our ecosystem.)

Staying within the crust still has engineering challenges, the train would break the sound barrier, for example, even setting aside the tunnel drilling and maintenance challenges. But, its doable.

See this webpage for additional information:


OBloodyHell said...

>> ***the blind homonculi*** would have on our ecosystem.

True, but Superman or The Incredibles would handle them just fine. :-D

OBloodyHell said...

I do believe that the essential problem with the idea of the GT is that, when you limit it to the short distances you're limiting it to, all its advantages are still outweighed by the engineering difficulties

The SF/LAX example, not the least of which is the tectonic questions. If you're staying inside the crust then you have to deal with the fact that both places are in very unstable sections of the crust, if not entirely different plates, and almost certain to be moving at slightly different rates. Even a few inches a year still adds up to a lot of shear (ehhh, note that I was using the wrong "sheer/shear" earlier. DOH!) over even a decade or two of usage.

Bob in LA said...

Spoken by like a true comic hero fan-boy.

Bob in LA said...


My calculations assume constant acceleration, which is wrong. Acceleration changes as a function of distance traveled, as the angle to the local horizon changes.

-- having said that, it doesn't change the basic conclusion that an SFO-LAX tunnel would be a difficult engineering challenge.

OBloodyHell said...

>>> -- having said that, it doesn't change the basic conclusion that an SFO-LAX tunnel would be a difficult engineering challenge.

I would tend to agree. For about the same energy budget over time, I think you'd probably be able to produce suborbital hops for about the same travel time and energy expenditure (obviously depends on the number of trips applied to the tunnel option to amortize its cost over time). The cost of "disaster" would be substantially cheaper, too. An earthquake or terrorist nuke could destroy/render useless a good chunk of your expensive tunnel, while a misperformed landing wouldn't be pretty, but probably no more expensive than tunnel failure by any means even in the worst case scenario.

I love the notion of an orbital tower, but the same sort of issues affect it in even larger terms. It's not even the general construction costs and engineering requirements that make it impractical in the foreseeable future -- the expense of its potential failure modes are nothing short of astronomical.