Sunday, August 23, 2009

The National Debate on High Speed Rail Reveals Pitfalls of Old Steel-on-Steel Rail Technology

The International Maglev Board has published an series of short and informative articles of the advantages of magnetically levitated train and questions USA’s inertia and conservatism in thinking about steel-on-steel medium speed rail. They begin by asking: Why is America embarking on a high-speed rail initiative that is so prejudiced against maglev and so weighted in favor of 45-year-old “proven” technology? With minor edits I include below several important highlights of their positions that point to the direction that America is poised to make a bad choice. My own comments are in [brackets].

For the record, maglev is not traditional train technology. It is basically a long electric motor when accelerating and cruising, and a generator when decelerating. The 267 mph system in Shanghai has been running for over five years with 99.97% on time reliability.

Traditional high speed rail has very high annual operating and maintenance costs associated with a system subjected to repeated pounding and vibrations. [Expensive maintenance is required of all steel-on-steel systems to avoid excessive noise and derailments, particularly for systems like the one proposed in Honolulu which includes sharp turns that apply large lateral forces on rails and ties.] The yearly maintenance costs of the proposed DesertXpress would be 3 to 4 times higher than a maglev system and make economic sustainability problematic; e.g., desert sands sticking to oil-lubricated moving train parts, windblown sand damaging steel rails in.

“Steel wheel on steel rail” means wet and slick steel tracks. This is why trains typically do not travel on grades much more than 2%. [This is why Honolulu’s proposed steel on steel rail cannot go to Mililani.] To build a rail line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles through the mountains would require extensive tunneling and/or extensive use of switchbacks for a train to climb through mountainous terrain. Maglev is capable of climbing 10% grades regardless of how slick the surface conditions.

Why build a slow, noisy, polluting, and expensive to maintain train – a throwback to the 19th centurywhen we can build a sustainable high-tech bridge to the 22nd century? [Why indeed do so in Honolulu when a 10-mile HOT lane reversible expressway combined with an extensive Bus Rapid Transit system can offer much shorter travel times to many more people, reach twice as many riders and cost roughly half of the 20 mile steel-on-steel elevated rail?]

America is still trying to figure out what high-speed rail really means. For the record, the internationally recognized standard for high-speed rail is a cruising speed above 150 mph. [The current proposals for U.S. consider speeds around 100 mph.]

The CJR’s Tokaido Shinkansen or “bullet train” that runs between Tokyo and Osaka is not only the world’s oldest high speed rail line, but also the busiest, carrying over 150 million passengers per year. In operation since 1964, the 317-mile Tokaido line now operates 309 trains per day with sustained cruising speeds of 168 mph.

Shinkansen’s stellar safety record is not a happy accident, but the result of excellent civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, painstakingly thorough and dedicated maintenance. [It’s worth repeating that stellar infrastructure performance requires excellent engineering and consistent maintenance. Honolulu’s engineers pass muster, but "consistent maintenance" in not in the local government’s vocabulary.]

In 1987, CJR purchased its fixed facilities from the Japanese government for $38 billion, which netted the government a tidy profit from the 1964 construction costs of about $1 billion. CJR, which is one of six rail operators in Japan, refutes American conventional wisdom that no passenger railroad in the world makes a profit. Each year CJR has a ~10% rate of return. [This is all good but it takes 150 million passengers a year and a steep ticket price to reach this level of financial performance.]

The latest technology CJR will use on their newest Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya is the MLX01 superconducting magnetic levitation train. Tokyo and Nagoya are approximately the same distance as New York City and Washington, DC. The MLX01 will make the trip in only 40 minutes. CJR is funding this entire line without Japanese government participation. [The Boston to Philadelphia corridor is probably the only place where the U.S. should invest in true high speed rail. The population is so high, the airports are so crowded,and the competition from Amstrak's Acela is so minor that a public-private partnership is also likely.]

Could it be that America’s transportation “experts” are not really experts in HSR or maglev, and are themselves “unproven” in deploying such systems? [Case in point is the transit technology expert panel of Honolulu in which 4 of the 5 members were experts in steel-on-steel technology and the technology vote was 4-1 in favor of steel-on-steel technology!]


UPDATE: On August 24, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post wrote A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed, in which he quotes Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser's analyses (Is High-Speed Rail a Good Public Investment?) and CATO Institute analysis (A High-Speed Rail Mirage). Also of great interest is the summary of The Guardian of analysis done by Booz Allen about high speed rail proposals for the UK. The conclusion is the article's title: "High-speed rail strategy not so green, report says." When construction energy impacts are factored in, high speed rail proposals become boondoggles.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Light Rail v. Prius OR Denver Post v. Honolulu Advertiser

This article from one of the members of the editorial board of The Denver Post is a breath of journalistic fresh air:

In the article it is made clear that light rail is more polluting that regular sedans and far more polluting than hybrid cars. In fact, that article is titled: Prius effect: Energy-efficient cars undercut the appeal of light rail.

Note that Denver produces electricity from coal and natural gas. Honolulu produces electricity from coal and diesel. Honolulu's electricity is dirtier than Denver's. Worse yet, Honolulu is proposing a massive heavy rail system that will be far more energy demanding than a light rail. Not only because the trains are larger, but because of the elevators, escalators and lighting of the elevated structure and stations. Add to that the huge energy draw for the construction of the massive project and compare it to laying rail on a street.

The article concludes as follows: "The Prius Effect means that unless Xcel weans itself dramatically from coal and natural gas, further expanding rail in metro Denver would be an outrage."

Now compare this Denver Post editorial opinion with the Honolulu Advertiser editorial opinions about rail. At best, the Advertiser opinions have been advertisements for elevated rail. Advertising elevated heavy rail for a Hawaiian island; for an island full of tourists who go mostly where the rail does not go; for Honolulu which is five times smaller than Denver; for Honolulu where a lot of people have multiple jobs and need a private mode to go from job to job; for Honolulu where students are driven to schools; for Honolulu's overtaxed population who is now asked to pay an extra $4,000 per head for rail.

I look forward to the Honolulu Advertiser editorial board, and other local media to catch up to the evidence presented by Sean Hao, Cliff Slater, myself and others as to what the rail proposed by Mufi Hannemann really is: Not pretty, not useful, not green, not practical, and a monumental waste of our money; now in order to build it and forever in order to
subsidize it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

230 miles per gallon

We seem to have set the bar quite low with our expectations for advanced compact vehicles delivering anywhere between 50 and 80 miles per gallon (mpg). Popular hybrids such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius deliver about 50 mpg in mixed traffic. Some European and Asian diesels reach 80 mpg. But 230 mpg?

That's the news for General Motors and its anticipated (late) 2010 Chevrolet Volt which has an all-electric range of 40 miles. Then its on-board gasoline generator needs one gallon to provide enough electricity to propel it for another 10 miles. Unlike regular hybrids that have a sizable internal combustion engine and a small electric motor, the Volt is more like a GE diesel-electric freight train locomotive that uses a small engine to generate electricity for the electric motor that exclusively propels the car.

And propels it does, as early accounts of pre-production samples show that a Volt pulls of the line with four adults in it stronger than a well-tuned V6 car. See a video here. Volt's electric motor is powered by batteries which are charged at home overnight with cheaper off-peak electricity.

As seen in the link above, a large Internet community has spawned around the Volt and some commuters in the U.S. (the all important "early adopters") are ready for an all-electric vehicle. The news of a 230 mpg all American vehicle made national headlines. Here is a sample from the New York Times.

Does a Volt make sense in Hawaii? Let's analyze this by using HECO prices and regular gas prices on Oahu for the past 12 months. The table below sums up the calculations. Three scenarios are shown for the Volt: (1) Use it for up top 40 miles per day in which case it is operated in "all electric" mode and needs no gasoline, (2) Use it for up to 50 miles per day in which case it uses battery power for the first 40 miles and then the generator consumes gasoline to provide electricity for another 10 miles, and (3) Use it for 80 miles per day, so battery and gas usage have a 50-50 share. The results show that the most economy is achieved at the "all electric" mode even at Hawaii's very high cost per KWh.

So does a Volt make sense in Hawaii? One positive aspect is that the limited range of electric vehicles is much less of an issue on a small island, although even nationally, almost 8 out of 10 commuters use their vehicle for no more than 40 miles per day.

On the other hand, Hawaii's electricity is all dirty (coal and oil) so green benefits will be rather minimal. A Volt would make a difference in greenhouse gas production in cities which receive hydroelectric or nuclear power.

A Volt would make good economic sense for someone who drives a large, heavy but fairly efficient SUV which in Oahu's sluggish traffic outputs about 16 miles to the gallon. But if the choice is between a $40,000 Volt or a $28,000 loaded Prius III, then the answer does not favor the Volt. (A Volt without its battery pack will be priced at around $25,000.)

However, energy prices fluctuate and in the long term fossil fuel prices have only one way to go: up. So if in a few years from now gas is at $5 per gallon and you live in the mainland where a KWh costs 10 to 15 cents (as opposed to 20 to 30 on Oahu), then over five years the Volt has a $8,000 advantage over an SUV and a slim advantage over a hybrid.

Plug-in electric vehicles are economical to maintain by having minimal maintenance requirements, basically limited to tires and brake pads.
However, Volt's roughly $10,000 battery pack may need replacement sometime between year 6 and year 10 of the car's life.

Overall it is interesting to see where transportation technology is going. Only in 2009 car buyers had the choice of two fully competent hybrid cars, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. These two are joined by a number of lower-end hybrids which offer smaller improvements to the fuel efficiency.

Come 2011 there will be two competent full-electric vehicles: The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. And there are many more electrics and other alternative energy vehicles in the works, such as fuel cell and biodiesel powered vehicles.

Green transport is here and on balance its features and limitations make it suitable for a large number of households.

[Revised August 15, 2009]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Honolulu's Pavements Among Nation's Worst

It is no secret that the roads on Honolulu are generally in mediocre to poor condition. A 2009 report of the American Association of State and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) makes this negative distinction official: Honolulu is 4th worst in the nation.

As a consequence of this, the average vehicle in Honolulu suffers about $700 in annual road damage in tires, suspension, etc. The analysis of this report does not include the cost of additional accidents and crashes that roads in poor condition cause.

The report states that when a road is good, the investment of $1 to keep it in good condition averts the expenditure of $6 to $14 in payments necessary to bring it from a poor condition to good condition. Unfortunately for Honolulu, the habitual raiding of the Highway Fund by the Legislature and the habitual neglect of the roads for 10+years of the Harris and Hannemann administrations could not have come at a worse time, since now we are in a belt tightening mode.

However, I need to remind our reader that on Oahu, it is not a priority to fix our roads or to reduce congestion on our roads or to provide work for projects our laborers can do (fix and build roads.) The priority (for now) remains to waste five-plus billion dollars on a rail system with 20 stops, for which specialized imported labor will be necessary.

A summary of the report and the report itself can be found here: The pavement quality table is shown below.