Y’all aboard

Texas bullet train

I admit I was surprised to learn that a private company is planning a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, and construction is expected to start as early as this year:

  • Texas Central Partners could begin construction on its $12 billion Dallas-to-Houston high-speed rail project in late 2019 or early 2020, according to The Houston Chronicle. The developer also has tentative plans for a midway stop near Texas A&M University in College Station or Bryan.
  • The bullet train will be modeled after Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed train system because of its safety and efficiency track record. Texas Central says that the train’s two-track system — one northbound and one southbound — will not share tracks with freight lines.

This looks like a far better place for America’s first high-speed rail line than, say, LA to San Francisco, as the land between the two Texan cities is mostly flat, making the construction far simpler and therefore cheaper than the $77-98 billion California project.

From developer Texas Central’s website:

The main challenge, as noted in the press releases, is connecting the Central Valley to the main centers of population in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. This is why the current range of expected cost in California is between $77 billion and $98 billion. Out of this figure, the tunnels required to link the valley to San Jose (Pacheco Pass) and Los Angeles (Tehachapi Mountains) collectively, could cost well over $20 billion with significant underground risk.

To put this in perspective, the potential cost of these tunnels alone, is more than the total projected cost of Texas Central’s 240-mile project to link Houston and North Texas.

More about the project:

Nearly 50,000 Texans, sometimes called “super-commuters,” travel back and forth between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth more than once a week. Many others make the trip very regularly. The approximately 240-mile high-speed rail line will offer a total travel time of less than 90 minutes, with convenient departures every 30 minutes during peak periods each day, and every hour during off-peak periods – with 6 hours reserved each night for system maintenance and inspection.

[…]

Capable of operating at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour and moving passengers between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes

[…]

JRC’s Series N700 rolling stock features 16-car trains running between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. To serve the Texas market, Texas Central anticipates an eight-car train with seating capacity for an estimated 400 passengers, and the room necessary to provide them the comfort, amenities and service options they will expect and deserve.

And more background on the selection and financing of the project:

Our project is in Texas intentionally. After reviewing over 90 pairs of cities to determine the most commercially successful place to deploy a high-speed train, Houston to Dallas was the answer. The Houston to Dallas/Fort Worth region is by far, the most rapidly growing region in the nation. In 2018, Dallas and Houston combined added 224,700 jobs, compared to number two city, New York, at 115,500 jobs. No other region even comes close.

This generates significant congestion in roads and air travel infrastructure, which gives rise to a third choice: high speed rail. At the right distance, with the right economic links between Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley, and without the complexities now evident in California, our approach is more financially feasible.

As an investor owned project, not a government project, our financial discipline is rooted in the economic model and timelines for significant, public use infrastructure. Given economic realities, this is the right way to build this large-scale infrastructure for the public good, at the right time, to alleviate the growing congestion growth is bringing to our area, and so reduce public investment in other infrastructure.

We know the market and economics between North Texas and Houston match and exceed those of successful train routes globally. We are confident the Texas line will provide the ridership to sustain the operations, repay the debt and provide a return to the investors.

Sounds great. I hope they actually build it.

Rail of fail

Nearly 420 million people are reported to have used China’s high-speed rail system during the annual Spring Festival holiday that has just wrapped up. Late last year, China opened the Vibrant Express, Hong Kong’s first bullet train, which zips passengers from the Special Administrative Region to Guangzhou in 48 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the US:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday he’s abandoning a plan to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a project with an estimated cost that has ballooned to $77 billion.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The idea long championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion is 2033.

Newsom, though, said he wants to finish construction that’s already underway on a segment of the high-speed train through California’s Central Valley, arguing it will revitalize the economically depressed region. He’s also replacing Brown’s head of the state board that oversees the project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.

One can’t really blame the new governor for this, as the promise of an LA-to-SF bullet train, which California voters approved in 2008, has always been a huge scam:

When California voters approved construction of a bullet train in 2008, they had a legal promise that passengers would be able to speed from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

But over the next decade, the state rail authority made a series of political and financial compromises that slowed speeds on long stretches of the track.

The authority says it can still meet its trip time commitments, though not by much.

Computer simulations conducted earlier this year by the authority, obtained by The Times under a public records act request, show the bullet train is three minutes and 10 seconds inside the legal mandate.

Such a tight margin of error has some disputing whether the rail network will regularly hit that two-hour-40 minute time, in part because the assumptions that went into those simulations are highly optimistic and unproven. The premise hinges on trains operating at higher speeds than virtually all the systems in Asia and Europe; human train operators consistently performing with the precision of a computer model; favorable deals on the use of tracks that the state doesn’t even own; and amicable decisions by federal safety regulators.

And let’s not even get started on the New York City subway.

Actually, let’s.

The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

Full steam ahead

China bullet train countryside

This is what a serious country looks like:

China plans to build 3,200 km of new high-speed railways in 2019, with the total length expected to exceed 30,000 km, the country’s top railway operator said Wednesday.

For all the ‘Muricans reading this, that’s nearly 2,000 miles of new track – roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Phoenix – with a total of more than 18,600 miles. Incidentally, the peak year for US rail-building was 1887, when more than 13,000 miles of track were laid down.

The 3,000-plus km of high-speed railways are part of the planned development of 6,800 km of new railways for the new year as the country will keep fixed-asset investment on railway on a large scale, Lu Dongfu, general manager of the China Railway (CR), told a work conference.

6,800 km = 4,225 mi

The country saw an expanding high-speed railway network over the years, with a total length of 29,000 km by the end of 2018, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total high-speed railway in the world. China aims to build 30,000 km of high-speed railways by 2020.

China’s railways are expected to transport 3.54 billion passengers and 3.37 billion tonnes of goods this year, the general manager said.

[…]

Lu said the CR would facilitate the investigation and research of Sichuan-Tibet railway and try to start construction by the end of the third-quarter of 2019.

Never let it be said that China isn’t ambitious. I’d love to have me some high-speed rail on the Acela corridor (Boston to DC, with stops at New York and Philly) and – what the hell, as long as we’re dreaming – between New York and Los Angeles.

Imagine if the US were an advanced country and had the wherewithal to build a high-speed superconducting maglev train that could rocket people between New York and LA in under seven hours, following in the footsteps of China, Japan, and South Korea, which all operate similar systems on a much smaller scale.

Here’s my account of taking the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing back in 2013.