Last week the High-Speed Rail Authority issued an internal memo that says they can make the time requirement of two hours and forty minutes between Los Angeles and the San Francisco TransBay Terminal as set forth in Prop 1A, yet it lacks details, relies on a list of assumptions, and in some cases defies physics.
This memo is in response to a Public Records Act (PRA) request for the data backing up the 2:40 travel time for the "blended" system which was presented to HSRA Board, and the 3 hour "blended" system travel time which was in the Board-approved April 2012 Final Business Plan. I initiated the PRA request in April, 2012 and -- despite countless rounds of reminders – it remains unfulfilled. This is longer than it takes to give birth to a baby.
Just to make another point very clear, the High-Speed Rail Authority admitted that they had no back up information at the time the board certified the business plan even though they had a conflict in the board materials and in the business plan. While one slide showed 2 hours and 40 minutes, back-up materials showed a minimum of 3 hours for an express train. In fact, the newest report was created after the funding of over $8 billion dollars in federal and state money for a small portion of the first phase in the Central Valley.
As part of the public records request they acknowledged this:
On May 31st 2012 CHSRA records department responded to my inquiry on what information Chair Richard used to substantiate his statement on April 2, 2012 in Fresno when he announced the publication of the new blended April 2012 business plan. Here was there answer:
“Ms. Hamilton – "The answer is that no document exists. These were verbal assertions based on skill, experience, and optimism and so Dan Richard went with the expertise of the engineers offering these assertions. I have been informed that a memo is in the process of being drafted on this very issue and I will provide that to you as soon as it’s complete. Their best guess is that by end of next week it may be ready. I apologize for the inconvenience in waiting so long only to find no documents existed.”
It was disclosed in January 2013 that the Authority’s records desk was trying to get the information and here’s what Parsons Brinckerhoff answered on May 23rd:
A Principal Consultant of Parsons Brinckerhoff offered apologizes for the delay and said:
“As you know this is a very sensitive matter, Jeff Morales and Hans van Winkle [Vice President, Parsons Brinckerhoff] have required from the team to produce a technical memo on how to achieve the 1A journey time under the Phase 1 Blended system. The memo is currently is being reviewed by Hans. You will receive the information from Hans directly today or tomorrow."
No memo was received until this memo was sent February 13, 2013. This information was also sought after by Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) and David Schonbrunn, President of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF).
See the memo posted on the Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design’s website. http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Memo-Phase-1-Blended-Travel-Time.pdf-Adobe-Acrobat-Pro.pdf
At first glance, the memo has experts scratching their heads –it appears to have very optimistic assumptions, not enough detail and takes a futuristic approach.
According to Rich Tolmach, California Rail Foundation (CRF) they use “dreamliners" rather than actual demonstrated feasible technology and they use representative alignments and in fact they defy the laws of physics with their ski slope approach in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Rita Wespi, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) says that without the rest of the data, specifically the accompanying operations plan, this is simply a proof of concept – under what conditions can they make the 2:40 travel time – unlike the studies Caltrain conducted which show how those assumptions can actually be put into operation. She points out that, "It's the difference between 'designed to achieve' vs. 'designed to operate'. Although technically Prop 1A's fine print may arguably allow the HSRA to design a system with no intention of operating under those conditions, anyone who cares about using California's high-speed train system should hold the Authority to a higher standard.
Understand there are time requirements system wide, for instance Los Angeles Union Station to Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, 2 hours and forty minutes. Then there are city to city time requirements such as San Jose to San Francisco Transbay Terminal in 30 minutes.
Regarding, San Francisco to San Jose, Clem Tillier, a rocket scientist, yes a real rocket scientist, well respected for his study of train issues for years says sums it up.
“While a special one-time midnight Cannonball Express run could be achieved in 30 minutes and 22 seconds without violating any speed limits or laws of physics, this figure is not operationally feasible in everyday service and boils down to nothing more than a stunt. Under the same stunt assumptions, a decrepit old Caltrain diesel could rush from SF to SJ in just 39 minutes.”
For his whole analysis with the limited facts available see http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/
Why do we care about how long the train will take? Besides the fact that it’s a requirement of Prop 1A, studies have shown that once travel time hits three hours, high-speed rail is no longer competitive with planes. High-speed rail loses riders dramatically between two and a half and three hours. Fewer riders produce less revenue and leads to the real possibility of a subsidy unless there is a spike to extraordinarily high ticket prices to make up for the loss in market share. Other countries subsidize, but because of Prop 1A, California can’t.
Authority’s own management disputes the newest claims:
Ex-CEO and engineer Roelof van Ark, April 28, 2011 said this, “Purely technically, we couldn’t even travel between San Jose to San Francisco in 30 minutes.” Later he says in order to do so you’d have to rebuild the alignment to achieve that. They would have to make alterations to bridges, alignments, tunnels, and straightening curves. Van Ark also admits they won’t go 125 mph or even 120 mph.
There's an interesting dialogue at a Senate hearing with Senator Simitian’s attempt to get the project scoped down to a smaller size because they may never build phase 2 in the peninsula. Start at around the 19 minute mark; Van Ark’s comments are around the 21 minute mark. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6x_OtTZBobY&noredirect=1 He has other concerns about the blended plan meeting legal requirements other than speed.
Seamus Murphy, spokesman for Caltrain, confirmed that Phase 1 is limited to electrifying the tracks, installing positive train control and buying new rail cars. It will be decided later in Phase 2 if straightening of the tracks, grade separations and passing tracks are needed.
He explained that Caltrain’s focus has been running the simulations for a blended system -- in other words, how many high-speed trains can run with Caltrain’s six trains in peak commute hours and occupy the same infrastructure.
He offers that High-Speed Rail Authority takes a different approach with their focus on complying with 1A, namely going from San Francisco to San Jose in 30 minutes. However, Murphy does not believe these are mutually exclusive. He says in 2029 when the high-speed rail service is ready to go, maybe there can be a schedule in the future for San Jose to San Francisco if the system is designed to achieve a 30 minute travel time. He explained it was about customer demand. Caltrain says they have been and continue to be committed to working with CHSRA to design a system that is fully compliant with Prop1A. It's encouraging that HSR is starting to assess what's needed to achieve this.
Now former CEO and engineer Roelof van Ark had a different view when he wrote a formal response to the Legislature in response to an Assembly bill which required a formal response and analysis of the blended system.
In his response, van Ark concluded that they could not make 30 minutes between San Francisco and San Jose. “Specifically the Authority will need to accept: That the high speed trains will not operate at 125 mph as originally envisioned for the SF to SJ corridor and consequently not be able to make the 30 minute travel time goal between SF and SJ as stated in Proposition 1A." Later in the report van Ark writes that the Authority is awaiting word from the Attorney General’s (AG) office about the legality of the blended system speed and other items that make the new system problematic. It’s been nearly two years and no opinion has been announced by the AG’s office.
The HSRA's report in response to AB 115 can be found at http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Response-to-ESG-statement-RvA-FINAL-OCR.pdf.
It appears from the testimony Roelof van Ark and from Caltrain’s statement that there is no shot at 30 minutes in real life until Phase 2 Full Build of the program. The billion dollar question is will the High-Speed Rail Authority find the money to build Phase 2 in the Bay Area when it doesn’t have the money to finish one segment going South into LA? Phasing does not exist in 1A and Authority board members continue to talk about when they build the full system, which is four tracks. They always are "on the way to compliance" with both 1A and the environmental laws of the state.
However Dan Richard, High-Speed Rail Chairman is in dispute with what Van Ark says. He says this on April, 18, 2012 in Assembly Budget Sub-committee chaired by Assemblyman Gordon, “There is nothing about using the existing tracks on the Peninsula in Northern California that prevents us from making the two hours and forty minutes. That is our plan. That is the law. That is what we are planning for and that is how we will operate. The express trains will go from LA Union station to the TransBay Terminal -- also known as the TransBay Transit Center -- in San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=ZPR6VAnfmKw#t=6828s Yet no information was available at this time verifying these claims.
So the question remains: must the project be compliant with Prop 1A and CEQA at all times, especially when there is no money on the horizon to be compliant in the future? This was discussed in the Response to AB115 report. It’s a question mark. In many legislative hearings, this was referred to as "on the road to compliance". How long, under Prop 1A and CEQA, is the road allowed to be?
What about LA to San Francisco?
Rich Tolmach, president of California Rail Foundation adds his prospective to the overall Phase one system, Los Angeles to San Francisco. First he says, “the blended Peninsula adds about 20 minutes, Sylmar-LA blended adds at least another 15 (they previously assumed 130 mph 7 miles out of LA Union Station), so right off the bat they are at least 3 hours 15 minutes."
The Model heading South to LA- through the Tehachapi Mountains:
In the south, there are break-neck speeds going through the Tehachapi Mountains. The new plan the rail authority lays out, according to Rich Tolmach, rail planner and President of California Rail Foundation says it defies physics.
There is proof within the PB ranks that the speeds they propose now cannot be achieved if they want the train wants to be called the Safe, Reliable Train for the 21st century. See the transcript and you tube of the August 6, 2009 meeting and the trip slide.
See the transcript and in particular the train chart on page 2. http://www.calhsr.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/CHSRA-Board-Operations-Workshop-Transcript-Aug-6-2009.pdf
Remember at this time, the full build four track system was the only option and it barely made the time requirements, some say it was a good 10 minutes too optimistic.
Here is an 8 minute You-tube which contains a few of the highlights of that meeting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjNfh1L7gB8
In the memo of February 11, 2013, it says, “a speed restriction to approximately 150 mph may be required to mitigate a safety issue related to wheel adhesion in the downhill direction at very high-speeds."
After a first glance at the memo, Richard Tolmach says this about the February 2013 plan.
“The prior admission by Tony Daniels was that a 140 mph top speed would be required (“no mean feat for a high-speed train”), to the anger of Mr. Diridon and Mr. Pringle in the board meeting of August 6, 2009, no existing high speed train runs on a sustained grade of this length either uphill or downhill more than about 10 miles because “stair-stepping” or “recovery sections” are required to gain speed on the uphill and protect against runaways on the downhill. Despite claims to the contrary by Parsons Brinckerhoff that they would put in stair-steps, PB has revived its 1991 plan of a “ski-slope” section approaching Bakersfield, in complete defiance of physics. In the above sentences, the Authority only admits there is a possible northbound problem.
In reality no train except the 2007 TGV-Est World Record holder could maintain average speeds above 80 mph on a 29 mile upward slope without breaks. In reality, the additional time required appears to be at least 10 minutes in each direction accounting for the difference between the claimed 200 mph average over the 29 mile steep section (10.5 minutes) and the actual 20 minute time with an achievable 100 mph average speed.”
Questions and assumptions:
Bottom line many facts are missing and model runs are needed to compare to previous work. They use top speeds going up mountains and top speeds going down; futuristic technology needed for both; 220 mph through every city from the Tehachapi’s to Pacheco Pass and hit 220 mph past most stations. The train only has 5 cars running from SF to SJ; the chart declares it has unimpeded access to Caltrain’s tracks. It doesn’t say where it stops in San Francisco, Transbay or Fourth and King. It doesn’t say if on the peninsula there is track straightening needed for higher speeds. Charts are labeled strangely- though the first page of the memo says Phase 1 Blended, 2 charts behind the memo say full build for instance on SF to LA and LA to SF. No legends are provided to explain more details.
Lots more information needs to be obtained to consider this a serious effort by the High-Speed Rail Authority. With what information has been ascertained, at first glance it appears highly unlikely that in real life the train will meet the requirements of 1A.
Governor Jerry Brown was recently quoted that the train project is much like a children’s story book. He compares it to the “Little Engine That Could” chugging up the mountainside with, “I think I can, I think I can.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=075ApRAzpak&list=UULpiKaBjaacPw7g5K1nkRXw&index=4
This 2:40 travel time memo maintains that theme. It is the Little Engine barreling down the mountain side quite literally at 220 mph with a fear of being able to stay on the tracks to the bottom, "I hope I can, I hope I can."