Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An example of Normal Speed Rail

In the UK, Virgin Trains cover the 200 mile distance from London to Manchester in about 2 hours (with the fastest express being 1:58), for an average end to end speed of 100 mph. And this is done on a railway that mostly runs on a 19th century alignment, and has a top speed of 125 mph, and which is shared with all manner of local commuter and freight trains.

In the US, that sort of speed would imply a travel time of somewhere around 4-4.5 hours for LA to San Francisco, 9 hours from New York to Chicago, 10 hours from Denver to Chicago. The latter two city pairs are particularly interesting: it's unlikely that high speed rail will be built over such distances, at least not anytime soon. But with enough incremental improvements, it's possible to get travel times down to a point where overnight trains are a reasonable option for getting across one-third of the country.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How to plan rail service

Those who have been following the California High Speed Rail process will have noticed that there's been quite a lot of recent controversy about the proposed route between San Francisco and San Jose. Leaving aside the propriety of a government authority board member deciding on train service to a station named after himself, there's plenty of worry that the High Speed Rail will bulldoze through towns, destroying homes and leaving huge ugly structures with noisy trains in its wake. Emotions are high on both sides, there's a lot of uncertainty, and not much fact to go on, so arguments are based on differences of assumption, and tend to devolve to name calling. Unfortunately, the High Speed Rail Authority hasn't done nearly enough in the way of planning, mostly because they haven't had money to until now. In particular, I haven't seen pretty much anything in the way of joint planning with Caltrain regarding track sharing, service levels, station design, and improvements to the line. This strikes me as a crucial omission, and I suggest Caltrain and HSRA work together to remedy this at once.

What would a planning process look like? I suggest the following:

  1. Start with ridership forecasts for both Caltrain and HSR. These already exist, the only potential caveat is to not double-count riders when combining them.

  2. Determine a service level that will adequately serve this demand, and make a conceptual service pattern for the line. This has been done on some level for HSR and Caltrain individually, but not jointly

  3. Find the minimal set of improvements to transform the service plan into an actual timetable. This is basically a matter of straightening curves to get sufficient line speed, and providing enough passing tracks to allow express trains to pass locals.

  4. Finally, this process might need to be iterated several times, to account for the fact that ridership is somewhat flexible and it might be much easier to produce a workable timetable if some riders are convinced to move to adjacent stations.

This doesn't seem like it would be that hard. The respective agencies already have ridership forecasts, they just need to combine them and produce a joint service plan, and start devising potential timetables. Caltrain should probably take the lead here, since they own the ROW and will still be the majority operator. And this is something that absolutely needs to get done, to make sure that all the agencies are working with a common set of assumptions. It would be bad if, for example, HSRA was planning for almost exclusive use of two tracks with only occasional incursions by Caltrain Baby Bullets, while Caltrain was planning more significant track sharing, or even a line that wasn't four tracks for the entire length.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


In computer networking, there's a heuristic known as Metcalfe's Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional not to the number of users, but to the number of connections between users, which is proportional to the square of the number of users. Each user gets some benefit from being able to communicate with each of the other users. Now that's not quite accurate when you look at the details, since not every pair of users is equally likely to want to talk, but it's still a super-linear function of some sort.

The same thing can be said of transportation networks. What matters is not the number of stations but the number of origin-destination pairs connected, or the number of potential trips served. In mass transit, it's impossible to take everyone directly where they want to go, since presumably different people want to go different places, and you can't give everyone their own vehicle. So the key to a successful mass transit system is providing good connections. Connections inherently require walking, waiting, and there's always a risk of missing your connection, so for an effective connection, they have to be minimized.

Switzerland is one place that gets connections very right. The entire rail network runs to a single hourly timetable, which is carefully designed to maximize the number of timed transfers between different services, including local and express trains on the main rail network, as well as a multitude of minor lines. Everything is absolutely coordinated, even across different rail operators, and connections are not only timed but in many cases guaranteed, with trains waiting for each other when possible.

The same applies to high speed rail systems all over the world. They all have either extensive through running from the high speed lines onto the conventional network, or else an extensive system of connecting rail lines. France's TGV network is extensive, but much of that extent lies outside the high speed lines themselves. The TGV trains run on the conventional network for part of their journey, and use the LGV as a shortcut to significantly reduce trip time on the final leg to Paris. Even in Spain, there is through running between the AVE high speed network and the conventional lines, with special gauge-changing trains to overcome the difference in track gauge. In Japan, there is only limited through running due to the incompatible track gauge and loading gauge, but the conventional rail network has very extensive and frequent service to provide connections.

Even the rather small intercity rail network in California is augmented by extensive connecting service (with through ticketing). This service is mostly provided by Amtrak buses, but in some cases also by local transit services, and even via the ACE commuter rail. Of course, much more can be done here, especially in terms of integrating Metrolink, Caltrain, and Coaster into the intercity rail system.

But what of High Speed Rail? From my understanding of the proposal, there is no thought at all given to through-running to non-HSR network, which is unfortunate, as it means that passengers travelling, for example, from Sacramento to Los Angeles will be forced to transfer until the line is extended to Sacramento. And those in Redding or Palm Springs are never going to get direct HSR service. There's also very little in the planning documents about how HSR will interact with the existing intercity rail system. Of course, it would help if the patchwork of existing rail services could be better integrated too, which is a matter for a future post.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

HSRA already in trouble

It's only two months since the bond authorization passed, and the high speed rail authority is already in trouble. They're running low on cash, since the state hasn't managed to sell any of the bonds yet. An interesting, and somewhat disturbing, factoid from that article is that the whole Authority has a staff of 6 employees, wedged uncomfortably between the governing board of 9 politicians, including Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon, and the vast engineering/construction companies who will presumably be doing all of the design, construction, and project management.

What is Normal Speed Rail?

Those of you who were paying attention to the ballot propositions in California should know that there was a ballot measure authorizing a bond for the construction of a High Speed Rail system from LA to San Francisco. This all-new rail line is estimated to cost $40 billion and promises an end-to-end time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Sounds great, right?

I am of the opinion that before trying to run, you should learn to walk, and that before attempting as grandiose a project as a high speed rail network, it would make sense to first build out a network of Normal Speed Rail. Normal Speed Rail would reach far more people than HSR, and unlike the current HSR proposal, it could be built incrementally as improvements to existing rail lines.

What do I mean when I speak of Normal Speed Rail? I mean the kind of rail service one sees in other developed countries, as well as in the Northeast Corridor in the US. It means conventional electric trains, running on conventional tracks, with a top speed of 125 mph. This should be the standard for intercity rail service on California's major intecity rail corridors. Only once we have that does it make sense to start working on high speed rail.