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A blueprint for HSR on the East Coast May 26, 2010 at 3:53 am

Last week I stumbled across something I’ve been seeking for a few years now: a list of the 100 busiest air travel routes in the United States, complete with passenger numbers from March 2009. Not having anything else to do on that particular Tuesday, I set to work putting the numbers to some use and built several nice big charts, which you’ll find embedded at the bottom of this post.

If you find the spreadsheets overwhelming or just want the analysis, here’s what I found interesting:

  1. 24 of the 100 top air routes in the USA are between city pairs on the East Coast (specifically, the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami; see maps at right).
  2. NYC-Miami leads the pack, with nearly 9 million passengers per year between the 3 NYC airports and airports in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. In the last 5 years this route has gained nearly 10% in passenger numbers. And 30% in the last 10 years.
  3. In total, over 60 million passengers travel by air between these 11 East Coast cities every year.
  4. Nine of these routes are between cities less than 500 miles apart (less than 3 hours travel time with the average speeds achieved by high speed trains in Europe and Asia); with a total of nearly 17 million passengers between them.
  5. Another 8 routes are between 500-1000 miles (including the fairly popular Miami-Atlanta [5 million/yr, 3rd nationally] and Atlanta to NYC [4.5 mil/yr, 5th nationally] corridors), with another 21 million passengers between them.

You can probably tell where I’m going with all this: building a less than 2000 mile High-Speed Rail system up the East Coast from Miami to Boston (with a small spur from Orlando to Tampa) has 60 million reasons why it makes sense. The skies in this part of the world are some of (if not the most) congested in the world, and instead of simply praising the Boston-Washington Acela Express “high-speed” train (which averages less than half the speed of what HSR trains in the rest of the world average) for taking 3 million passengers out of the skies and instead of working on a better air traffic control system (both of which are good things to do in general) we should be moving forward with another, much bolder, two-part plan:

  1. Upgrading the Acela system to State-of-the-Art speeds that rival those seen recently in Europe and Asia (imagine cutting the 4.5 hour trip from Boston to Washington down to only 2.5 hours (470 miles divided by 190mph average speed), or even shorter? Or NYC-Washington’s over 2.5 hour trip to under 90 minutes?) Could we bring the number of people who fly within this 500 mile corridor from 8 million people down to zero, freeing up terminal space at all the major airports in these 5 cities for more profitable long-haul flights? It was several years ago and I’ve lost the source, but I think I heard from a congressional hearing that this type of thing would cost ~$10 billion (or just over $20 million/mile for a doubling in speed). Not bad considering that the California HSR system is promising to cost at least 5 times that for a system less than double the size.
  2. Seriously pursuing the viability of building HSR from Washington D.C. to Atlanta and on to Miami. If a serious HSR system (a system on par with those currently being built and in service in Europe and Asia with average speeds of 180-190mph and cruising speeds of 200+ mph) would take even 20% of the passengers from the skies, that’s more people than currently ride the Acela Express every year and my guess, based on nothing but the Acela’s profitably success in the USA and the runaway success of HSR in the rest of the world (the Eurostar, for example, has basically killed the air traffic corridor between London and Paris while averaging a relatively modest ~135mph along the 300 mile route), is that, done right, an HSR system up and down the east coast could grab more than 20% market share (and this 60 million passengers per year market is nothing to sneeze at).

Of course, it’s that little phrase “done right” that’s the rub. Here’s my idea:

  • Super fast. There’s a difference between the definition of “high-speed rail” in the USA and the definition in the rest of the countries that have HSR. That difference needs to be addressed, and I think we need to adapt a policy and definition more in line with what Europe and Japan have (I would suggest raising our definition of HSR from 110mph to at least 150mph, which would unfortunately mean the Acela Express would no longer qualify, but that’s sort of my whole point). Aside from what we define it as, I think we need to be aiming to rival the speeds seen in Europe and Asia; meaning cruising above 200mph and average speeds of 170mph or more. The California HSR system is set to cruise at 220mph.
  • Involve the private sector. Yup. There’s a common argument against HSR that “if it were worth doing, some corporation would have already done it”. Ignoring politics for a minute and setting aside the whole big government vs. big corporations debate I have a straightforward answer to this argument: it’s folly to expect companies to put up the costs for rail infrastructure when every other infrastructure system in this country is government owned (I blogged extensively on this late last year), and with the exception of some of the farthest out libertarians, I think we can all see the sense in that. So here’s the idea: destroy the clause in Amtrak’s charter that says it has to approve every passenger rail system in the United States and bring private companies into the conversation about building rail systems (because frankly, I don’t believe that Amtrak knows any more than a lot of private companies how to do HSR right). Put up government dollars for the tracks and signaling systems and open up the role of operator to private companies (for Pete’s sake, Europe is even doing this). I think an argument against this is that it’s not guaranteed that any private companies would step up to operate trains. But I can see two ways around this: A) get a firm signed contract from a company prior to the start of construction, and/or B) have plans for a government-run system to step in if no private companies want to tackle the market. Also, nearly 20 years ago a group of companies agreed to do the entire thing (billion-dollar tracks and all) in Texas (because Texas only wanted HSR if they could avoid spending any tax dollars on it). The system never came about due to missed deadlines with the financing and opposition from Southwest Airlines, but that shows that it’s likely that basically offered “free” tracks (the biggest cost in getting an HSR system up and running) upon which to run a train business, a lot of companies would probably jump right in. Another possible private sector involvement is light cargo transport. If freight companies were included in the design phase and had tracks running right to their warehouses, who knows how many would opt to ship things via high-speed train rather than air, at least regionally. All of these uses could be charged (basically running the trackage system like a tollroad, only fair since it’s a premium transit option) and if managed correctly the government could actually come out ahead (or at least not totally behind) on their infrastructure investment.
  • Work with airports, not against them. In other words, downtown stations are invaluable, but stations at airports are too. This is something few HSR systems do, but which a lot of people have begun talking about and I think it makes a ton of sense. Not only are airports already linked into the local transit system (including car rentals, bus lines, taxis, etc.) this would automatically turn an HSR system into a feeder system for the airport system, possibly cutting out the need for shorter hop regional flights (the least efficient type of flight and one that loses the airlines money), and given the number of annual flights in America, I imagine that the “airport feeder” system would be quite a big market.
  • Code sharing. Related to the last two points I think it would make a lot of sense to work closely with airlines when setting up an operator(s) on the system and either invite the airlines to be rail operators, or at least encourage code sharing between the new rail operators and the existing airlines, this type of project is gonna be seen as a threat by the airlines, and rightly so; the best way to avoid a repeat of the Texas TGV-Southwest Airlines debacle of the early ’90s is to involve the airlines this time around, rather than working against them. Code sharing and/or trains operated directly by airline companies would make it possible to book a trip that takes you via train and plane all on one ticket/purchase, including luggage check-through, etc.  This is basically a win-win for everyone, except maybe anti-big business people who don’t care about having a seamless transit system (yes, that was sarcasm).
  • Express trains. I don’t have exact numbers as for how much time stopping at a station adds to an HSR journey, but with slowing down, speeding up and time spent sitting at the station (I would think at least 5-10 minutes for this) I imagine it adds up to half an hour or more. For this reason I would suggest every station on the route be “off-line,” meaning if an operator decides to run express trains and skip a certain station, but a different operator decides to stop there, they can both do that and the express train can just pass the “local” one by. The idea of express and local trains is obviously not a new one, but I think that having the off-line stations (perhaps even with several miles of off-line track for slowing down and speeding up trains) is pretty important. This would mean, for example, that if an operator wanted to try to capitalize on the nearly 10 million people who travel from NYC to Miami every year, but didn’t want to slow down the trip at all by stopping at any other stations, they could run a nonstop train and, depending on the train and track technology, could possibly do the 1600 mile trip at an average speed over 200 miles an hour, making it a nice, calmer, and not-too-much longer trip than by air (when you take into account airport security time, delays, etc.). This comes back to the idea of keeping competition open, as well: if all the stations are basically optional, that makes it more possible for a potential operator to mix and match what they want to do on the system.

Running the numbers for a quick (really, really rough) cost estimate based on how much the California HSR system is projected to cost per mile, and going off that number I’m remembering about how much it would cost to upgrade the Acela system to European speeds, we come up with upgrading the Washington to Boston trackage costing $10 billion (or ~$20 million/mile), and the other 1500 miles (Washington to Miami and Orlando to Tampa) costing roughly $56 million/mile (makes sense given that in Acela’s case land acquisition and most railbed work is already done) or a total of ~$85 billion, so around $100 billion for both the upgrades and the new. Now before you freak right out, keep a few things in mind: we’ve spent seven times that amount of money on the war in Iraq, and nearly three times that on the war in Afghanistan. I hate to play the “defense budget” card, but it’s really quite handy. The $100 billion for East Coast HSR would be spent over a period of perhaps a decade or more as impact studies are done, construction contracts are awarded, and the like. So let’s say we’re looking at $10 billion/yr for 10 years. The Department of Defense’s budget this year is $663.8 billion dollars. That’s one year. That’s 66.38 TIMES what we’d be asking for HSR per year. Either you think that every drop of that defense money is well spent, so then why would you care about an amount that’s only 1.5% of it? Or you think the defense budget is just too darned high, in which case I’d argue that we should skim some off the top and give it to HSR. Either way, I’m gonna argue for giving HSR it’s day, and starting with a transit corridor, that, it turns out, is quite a big market.

Edit (4am May 26): I just discovered that Florida received $1.25 billion for their recently revived HSR system from the Federal Economic Stimulus, this is said to cover half the cost of the Tampa-Orlando segment ($2.4 billion) meaning they’re budgeting it at ~28 million/mile, half of what California is budgeting for their system. At first blush I’d say the Florida number might be a little low because it’s several years dated, but I think it’s also possible that the California system could cost more per mile because of the more mountainous terrain in that state. All this to say that I now have another data point to base my EXTREMELY rough total cost estimate on, so it might very well be lower than the $100 billion number I came to above. Perhaps more along the lines of $70-90 billion. A quick look at a terrain map doesn’t show many or any mountain ranges that this system would need to cross, so my guess is that it could indeed be a fair bit cheaper than the CA HSR system. On the other hand, the Tampa-Orlando line is being built in the Interstate-4 median, meaning no land costs.

The Ignored Step in the Lobbying Process January 12, 2010 at 10:14 am

Something has been nagging at me for years. Political lobbying is something we all know about and all hear about in terms of why a bill died in committee or why it’s so crazy so-and-so is now running such-and-such a federal agency because they used to work on K Street or what have you. And I don’t disagree that corporate political lobbying is out-of-control and needs to be checked, but the way we go about doing it, with so-called tougher “ethical standards” leaves out an important part of the lobbying process in my mind.

It’s that pesky word “ethical”.

I understand that nobody is perfect and everyone is bound to have lapses in judgment. But if you were staring at a disfigured child, say from some chemical spill or something, and a congressional bill that would regulate the types of chemical plants that hurt the child and make sure it NEVER, EVER happens again, what would you do? Rip up the bill, or sign it?

I pity anyone who even pauses in answering that question (unless it was to reread the question to make sure you didn’t answer incorrectly, than it’s OK). It’s a no-brainer, you rip up the bill, crumple it up and burn it. Then you take care of the child.

My point is thus: everyone (most everyone) has a pretty good moral compass and, as far as I can tell, is fairly ethical in such an extreme situation (though I’ve never actually met anyone standing in a field with a sick child and a congressional bill, that’d be weird). It doesn’t seem to me that most people that I know (normal “all-American folks”) really need to pause for very long when asked about how someone should be treated, but take that person to Washington, show ‘em a few suitcases of money, and suddenly they don’t give a shit about hard-working people having their houses foreclosed on them, polar bears drowning in ice-free waters, banks and credit cards charging fees loan sharks envy and generally doing a bum job of “representing the people”. Even the “good” ones are corrupted within days. President Obama passed new ethics rules his first week in office, only to break them two days later (it was important to have a former lobbyist running one the federal agencies he was just lobbying, apparently). That’s our knight in shining armor for all things good and noble [/sarcasm].

We make all this noise about how evil and bad corporate lobbyists are, but they’re just part of the political system just as an irate voter at a congressperson’s town-hall meeting is part of the political system. Both are lobbying for things. The corporate lobbyists use large sums of money (very, very large sums of money) and the voter lobbyist uses anger and emotion. I know the example of a voter is much smaller scale, but it’s the same principle and it serves to make a point: most of the time, the congressperson is going to nod, agree with the voter, spout some sound-bites vaguely related to the issue, maybe even say something about “looking into it” and then forget about the whole thing within days if not hours. One “lobbyist” taken care of. That lobbyist (voter) spent a lot on the lobbying effort (lot’s of emotion/anger and energy) and got zero return.

But suddenly it’s a bit of money being spent by a lobbyist (from K Street now, wearing a nice suit) and the congressperson is all ears and all understanding.

That, fair readers, is not ethical, moral or anything else.

It’s not really the lobbyists fault (although I don’t think former lobbyists should EVER be allowed into government until they’ve been through some sort of rehab and perhaps some spiritual confessions), it’s really not the corporations faults for HIRING lobbyists. It’s the fucking congresspeople who take the money AND THEN DO WHAT K STREET WANTS. They take our letters and phone-calls and e-mails and send us nice form letters that say “fuck you” in flowery language. They take our money, and unless we’ve given a fair amount, they don’t call us up and discuss the issues with us, most times we get an automated e-mail that says “thanks” (I’m not saying every $30 donation should be personally thanked, but my point is: we give money, lots of money, and we give feedback, lots of feedback, and it’s politely ignored).

I vote we disallow anyone in high-level government positions from using the words “ethical” or “moral” until they actually, you know, start acting that way.

Maybe this isn’t new, but it just seems to me that in the whole national conversation about “ethics reform” (WTF does that even mean? Ethics are ethics, you can’t “reform” how ethical someone is, only throw them out on their ass if they’re not. End of story.) and “lobbying reform” focuses only on the lobbyists and not at all on the zero will-powered folks who are being lobbied. Isn’t that why we elect these “leaders”? To, you know, lead? At this point it seems to me that we’ve got a whole lot of not leaders running our government, but followers, who see a shiny penny hang from a string and happily follow it without noticing that: A) they’re prancing in the opposite direction from the majority of average Americans, and: B) they’re following a corporate lobbyist who’s paid millions of dollars a year to hold that shiny penny on a string.

What’s in the water in Washington that seems to remove all true ethics and morality from our elected leaders?

Lobbying is only a problem as long as our elected leaders have no willpower. The day that they “just say no” is the day America’s will begin trusting our government again.

On sexy, sexy rail infrastructure December 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

I have a little purple sticky-note half stuck to the shelf above my laptop on my desk that says “Europe has it right: disconnect track from train service”. I often leave myself such notes in the middle of the night (in those few minutes between when I put my computer to sleep and when I put myself to sleep), sometimes reminding myself to do things (I’ve had a pink one up for the past week that says “laundry” that I can remove now, actually), sometimes ideas for screenplays (two lime green notes have been up for the whole semester with ideas for my current project) and, sometimes (as in this case) ideas to turn into blog posts.

Not as many make it into blog posts as should.

But in this case, I was reading, for about the millionth time, some of the Wikipedia pages for several European high speed rail companies and remembered something I was going to blog months (or even years?) ago (and maybe I did, but I don’t recall doing, and can’t find any place where I did, so): the idea of treating rail infrastructure/tracks as completely different from the trains that run on them. The European Union is just getting into doing this by making their member states’ various HSR agencies and companies separate the ownership of tracks and the service of running trains into two different agencies/companies (using France as an example, this means that the ownership of tracks has been transferred from SNCF (the agency that owns the TGV) to an new agency, the RFF, but both agencies are still owned by the French government), the benefit of this setup is that it will allow new companies to directly compete on the level of train SERVICE, without having to build their own (entirely useless and wasteful) track systems. So now (or, in a couple years, since the new rules don’t actually go into effect in the EU for another year or two), for example, a new company could form, buy some train-sets and give the TGV service in France a “run for its money”, using the same tracks as TGV, but not having to be at the mercy of TGV/SNCF (which perviously owned the tracks in what anybody could see was a conflict of interest) in terms of scheduling and track use fees, since all that is now (or will be) handled by a separate company whose sole purpose of existence is to manage, maintain and otherwise oversee the tracks, but nothing more.

tracksAnd I think that’s what we need in America: federally owned and maintained tracks and signaling infrastructure and private companies using that track for freight, cargo and passenger services. (To be fair Amtrak already uses tracks it doesn’t own across most of the country, so this is not an entirely new concept.) Aside from a toll road here and there (my state’s local toll road, the 80/90 Indiana Toll Road was recently sold into privatization on a 99-year lease) and possibly a few airports (I haven’t done an exhaustive study of them all, but Google searches on several big ones revels them to be owned by the local city government) all transit infrastructure in the USA aside from rail infrastructure is government owned. Given my belief that transit infrastructure should be publicly owned (how else are we to get to stores to spend and keep the economy moving? Or to play, work, travel, etc.? It’d be laughable if ever time I stepped into the street outside my home I had to pay someone) I find it strange that a huge component in America’s shipping and even passenger travel system is privately owned. I think that, just like in Europe, if the tracks were owned by a third party (I’m voting federal or at least state governments, but there might be an argument for it being a private company…anyone want to try to persuade me?) I think that would foster better competition in the rail freight industry, take some strain off of rail freight companies (if all they have to focus on is their own trains rather than also having to maintain trackage it would make those businesses more streamlined and probably more efficient at their core business: quickly getting freight to the end users, which down the line is you and me, the consumer) and possibly, by extension, remove some strain from the Interstate highway system (if we can use federal dollars to improve the rail system rather than waiting for rail freight companies to do so it could conceivably speed up the rail system and remove the need for as many trucks on the roads) and, lastly, as much as the freight companies are told they have to give Amtrak the right of way (by way of a federal law) it sure seems to me (after sitting on more sidings than I care to remember on the one and only Amtrak trip I’ve ever been on [I was really excited to take the train before that, now I'm still excited to take a REAL train, but after comparing experiences on Amtrak and the Eurostar in Europe I've come to the conclusion that Amtrak does not represent real train travel in any way more than the tracks the trains run on]) that a third party managing the traffic would make Amtrak’s trips smoother.

This is all to say nothing of the need for high speed rail in America. But I think that the same model could be applied to higher-speed trackage, and, in fact, that federal ownership of the nation’s tracks could make upgrading those tracks to support higher-speed travel much easier than it is now (just look at the fastest trackage in America: it’s owned by Amtrak in the Northeast).

Memo to Obama: "yes we can" be positive about the economy October 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Today the BBC is reporting that the US recession is over as the economy grew 0.9% from July-September (CNN is reporting this as well, but not as the headline story that the BBC is making it). That’s awesome news (not lost on investors, who’re making today one of the larger gain days in the last few months) and much reason to celebrate. After all, this has been the worst recession in decades (technically the National Bureau of Economic Research hasn’t declared it over yet, so maybe I should say “is the worst”).

But what’s getting my goat on this fine October day is the reaction from our president:

President Obama said while “welcome news”, the US was still a “long way” from recovering from the “deepest downturn since the Great Depression”.

A “long way” huh?

Now before anyone flames me and points out that both articles cite numerous economists direly telling us not to get excited, I’d like to point a few things out:
1. I’m not an idiot.
2. are these the same economists who predicted a stock retreat in September, or who all summer kept telling us that the recent stock gains were not gonna continue? ‘Cause the Dow has jumped 25% since early July and gained about 200 points in September, so I’m not so inclined to believe these folks.

Now I know that the economy is still in the crapper, 1 in 10 people are without jobs and all that stuff. But isn’t the president supposed to lead and also inspire? Especially this president? Remember all the “hope” and “yes we can” when he was running? Or was that just “yes we can” get him elected? Telling us that we’re still a “long way” from seeing anything good in the economy while a whole pound of good news is staring us in the face seems somewhat less than hopeful or inspiring or “yes we can”ish. I wanna hear him calling out the companies that we’ve begun buying stuff from again to start hiring us again. Investors have been showing since July that if it were up to them we’d be out of this recession and they’ve been pumping money into the markets. And sometime in the last quarter consumers caught the same bug and increased spending:

Consumer spending rose at a 3.4% rate, the biggest increase in nearly three years. Spending by consumers accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.

Wow, 2/3 of the economy is increasing at a rate above what was expected. Sounds good to me.

Let me repeat those two things:
1. investors are pumping money into companies.
2. consumers are pumping money into companies.

Just because the government is gonna stop pumping money into companies, it doesn’t mean those other two things are gonna stop.

Oh, and you know that housing market that crashed?

Other reports in recent weeks have shown that housing sales, home prices and new home construction rose during the quarter.

Hampel said that the gains in housing go far beyond the impact of the tax credit, however.

It’s time to stop being depressed about the economy. Things are turning around. Sure there’s still stuff that’s not good, 9.8% unemployment is totally not awesome, but stocks are rising, consumer spending is rising, the housing market is recovering, and the numbers look good enough that we can probably say it’s not all entirely the government stimulus money talking. Wouldn’t it be more “hopeful” if our president said some of those things, instead of telling us how awful things still are? Wouldn’t it be more “yes we can”ish if he got out there and reminded companies that people are buying things again and it’s their responsibility to start hiring again?

I think it would.

You give love (and Podcars) a bad name August 11, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Most of my blog reads probably know of my interest in PRT/Podcars, so today I was surfing around on links off a blog post about PRT and I ran into a website called PRTProject.com. Naturally, I was excited. It’s always fun to see new and interesting websites about the concept.

When I stopped being excited and started understanding, for the first time, half of the arguments against PRT is when I read the second section on the main page. The part where the website author informs us that rather than compliment existing road-based transit (the car, the bus, the taxi, etc.) PRT replaces said systems.

Oh. My. F’ing. Goodness. I am truly panicked about the fact that, according to the site counter, 8717 people other than me have read that site and been so entirely mislead about an amazing transit concept as to turn entirely away from it for life (I’m assuming that part, because if I had no understanding of PRT I’d run screaming from the idea based on the information on that website).

I am not a huge car fan, but even I can’t fathom having it completely taken away from me in favor of tracks built into the street carrying publicly-run Podcars. My skin crawls at the thought.

AND I LOVE PODCARS.

OK, background for those confused: PRT is not meant to replace ANY type of transit, rather it’s a concept (that will be proven or disproven at London’s Heathrow Airport in the coming months) that solves quite a few problems that current transit systems don’t (the problem of how to get to a lightrail stop 5 miles away, for example, or how to get across a large corporate/university campus or a large airport or a small town that can’t support any larger transit systems*). Podcars are a beautifully scalable concept, but never in a million years will they, should they, or could they replace ALL cars on the streets of a town. (Masdar City being an exception to this rule whose successfulness is still to be seen.) The beauty of having lots of transit options is just that, OPTIONS. People who enjoy driving should be able to drive. A PRT system should not take that right away from anybody.

[*I used a bunch of small-scale implementation possibilities as examples because I think that's the way PRT will first prove itself, but I think it does hold the potential to cover an entire city. I just think that any kinks will need to be worked out on smaller systems first.]

For some reason (that quite frankly does escape me) it seems that PRT/Podcars is a much more controversial topic than other transit systems (although there’s quite a bit of bickering over HSR in the US, too, I guess) and that’s why I think that a website that blindly positions PRT as something to COMPLETELY replace automobiles, including the roads they travel on (without a word of what roads emergency vehicles [that’s not true, apparently] and other non-automobiles would use) is really dangerous (and naive). Anybody who really understands transit in America understands that you can’t take people’s cars away from them. You can give them more transit options so that those who don’t want to be tied to a car don’t have to be, but you just can’t remove the roads and expect people to take it. And implying that all versions of PRT (the website never stipulates that the idea presented is an extremely far-out version of PRT) involve taking away people’s cars, well, that’s just rude and extremely counter-productive to the cause of getting people to take Podcars seriously.

Badly done, PRTProject.com, BADLY DONE.

That is all.

-j

Obama's HSR plan is not good enough April 17, 2009 at 12:41 am

I was really excited to see the CNN headline “Obama unveils high-speed rail plan” this evening. Anybody who knows me or has read this blog can probably attest to my great interest in this topic, so I was very pleased to see that Obama would be coming through on his campaign promise to bring HSR to America.

Except that’s not at all what he’s suggesting. It is High Speed Rail in name only, and from what I can tell most of what he’s proposing would be slower than the “High Speed” Acela service that Amtrak currently runs between Washington D.C. and Boston.

Now I understand that definitions of what constitutes “high speed” rail differ from person to person and I know that my definition is up there, but CNN informs us that Obama “cited the success of high-speed rail in European countries such as France and Spain” while at the same time presenting a plan that would have “some trains traveling at top speeds of over 150 mph.”

Let me enlighten you, Mr. President: the trains you speak of in France and Spain cruise at speeds up to 186mph or even 199mph. And I believe even faster trains are in the works (can’t find the link right now, but I think France is planning a 220mph train to be launched sometime in the next few years).

And so, having gotten fairly familiar with the trains in Europe (the 186mph Eurostar is an amazing, fun and smooth ride from London to Paris) and the struggles to bring that type of train technology to American shores and seeing what went wrong I have this to say about your HSR plan, Mr. President: scrape it until you can go all out. The last thing we need is a “sort of” version HSR that nobody rides because it’s just not quite fast enough, but that cost enough to get every single taxpayer in America mad at the government, you AND (worst of all from my viewpoint) the idea of HSR. If we don’t do this correctly right out the gate, America might not give us another chance. Americans are going to be tough to sell on HSR already: we’re wary of it because it’s European, we’re wary of it because it’s really, really expensive.

But I’ve noticed something: America is not totally averse to the idea. California just passed the proposal to build a $40 billion+ 220mph High Speed Rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and with gas prices creeping ever higher and Al Gore still on his global warming campaign Americans are seeming to slowly change our minds about HSR.

On the third hand I think that just means we have ONE chance now. Before we had no chance and quite a few HSR proposals have been killed in the past in various states and regions (Florida, Texas, etc.).

Mr. President, don’t be an idiot and dishonest. You promised us High Speed Rail last year, but your proposal of sub-150mph trains on outdated routes for $13 billion over 5 years is a joke and should be treated as such. Do you think we’re that stupid and gullible? If you and the Vice President are really so concerned about HSR for America you need to remember just two things:
1. lots and lots and lots of money. California is building a system that is currently budgeting in at $40-50 billion for 700 or so miles. That means that for national HSR we’re looking at an amount of money that can be measured in meaningful fractions of a trillion dollars. Sounds bad, but you’re giving Wall Street that much money unsupervised, can’t our nations failing transit infrastructure have some, too? (I mean, more than the laughable-in-comparison $13 billion you’ve proposed for HSR thus far?)
2. 200+ mph. Don’t try to pass off Acela-type trains on the whole country and call it HSR. It will fail. If done right, super-HSR (what France and Japan have crisscrossing their countries) won’t fail, but your brand of HSR-lite will fail. And it will bring billions of our dollars down with it. Don’t patronize us by pretending it will work.

Now I should really be working on my research paper, which is interestingly enough on this exact same topic.

Cheers.

-j

Colbert pwns NASA, NASA returns the favor April 15, 2009 at 10:24 pm

This is beautiful:

A few months ago NASA held a contest to name the new wing of the International Space Station. They allowed anybody to submit whatever name they wanted, but said that they wouldn’t absolutely commit to naming it the winning name if they didn’t like it. So, Stephen Colbert, in typical fashion, called on all his fans to vote for his name in the contest. And he won. (Let nobody say that Stephen doesn’t have a load of very loyal fans!) This, as is well imaginably, created a little bit of a problem for NASA: the name won and it would be…unpopular for them to just ignore that fact, but always talking about “the Stephen Colbert” wing of the ISS does present some odd issues (is NASA endorsing a sudo-politic figure? Etc. Etc.).

So what did NASA end up doing? Well, they didn’t name the new ISS wing after him…but they did name a treadmill after him. Win! Literally. Everybody wins. Stephen and all his fans who voted for him get something on the ISS named after him, but NASA gets to call the new ISS node “Tranquility,” which is more in line with the names they give other space-faring vehicles, anyway. (Although I’m sure every Firefly fan out there is very disappointed that the #2 winning name, Serenity, didn’t get chosen by NASA either.)

And that, folks, is the story of how Colbert (and the Colbert Nation) pwned NASA, and how NASA pwned him (and them) right back.

I hope this made your day a little bit better like it did mine.

Cheers.

-j

Electric cars just around the corner (for real this time?) March 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm

The BBC is reporting that researchers may have found a way to make lithium-ion batteries that are lighter and smaller than current li-ion batteries and that can change in a fraction of the time of current li-ions (perhaps as little as 5% the time).

This will not only make charging cell phones and other portable devices a lot simpler (no more having to remember to plug it in the night before, because you can just plug it in for 5 or 10 minutes in the morning) but it will remove the final huge technical problem that currently is impeding the large-scale development and deployment of electric vehicles: the problem of hours-long charging times. (The all-electric Tesla Roadster takes 3.5 hours to charge, but if this breakthrough is as big as it seems it is, a car like the Roadster could charge in possibly as little as 12 minutes. Not much longer than it takes to fill a gas tank today.)

The BBC article mentions that “because there are relatively few changes to the standard manufacturing process,” “the new battery material could make it to market within two to three years.”

That means that if these new li-ion batteries are found to be able to scale up to the size needed for vehicles and still be charged in mere minutes, within 5 years we could see mass-produced electric cars that can be charged in as little as 15-20 minutes anywhere there’s an electrical outlet. And if that happens it will only be a matter of months before gas stations, restaurants, and even possibly rest stops (although those will probably take several years) start installing outlet boxes fashioned after gas pumps with a meter and credit card reader for people to stop and recharge for 15 minutes on long road trips.

Gotta go to class.

Cheers.

-j

My beef with Meghan McCain's writing March 11, 2009 at 3:41 pm

How exactly did Meghan McCain graduate from Columbia University and work for Newsweek without ever learning to write well?

I was actually really interested in reading her take on why Ann Coulter is bad for the world and/or the GOP, but I had to keep taking breaks from reading it because of her terrible writing.

I don’t by any means consider myself an expert on writing (I’m the king of run-on sentences), but I’ll [albeit somewhat jokingly] quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and say “I know it when I see it”. And that blog post is not it. Maybe she was just having an off day, but I would think someone of her fame would think twice about posting a major blog entry that could very well be quoted by CNN on an off day.

Huh. I’m somewhat confused.

Anyway, cheers!

-j

P.S. after a quick look at mccainblogette.com I’ve decided that she’s probably not an awful writer (how forgiving of me, right? *grin*) but just a simple writer. She doesn’t go out on a limb and use any complex sentences very often. That’s what I do most of the time, and even though I land on my ass on the ground a lot of the time, I much prefer that to simple writing. I still don’t think it’s very good writing, but I think I understand why she passed her writing classes at Columbia: I think she’s probably following most of the rules of writing (I don’t know jack about the rules of writing, any ability I have is purely natural and the product of two English-major parents) but in a completely uncreative way. Drives me crazy.

HSR wins big in final stimulus bill February 13, 2009 at 3:52 pm

CNN.com today has a story about what stayed, what got cut and what actually got increased funding in the final stimulus bill (which still needs to be passed by the house and the senate, but the conference committee seems to have agreed on it which is good news), and the biggest winner in terms of percentage increase of funding from the original house or senate bills is High-Speed Rail funding which went from $0.3 Billion in the House version and $2.25 Billion in the Senate bill to $8 Billion in the final bill!

Given that that’s not even what California alone wants from the federal government to complete it’s $40+ billion HSR system this is not a terribly large amount of money, but it’s a huge start and wonderful that we’re finally addressing this issue on the federal level.

I am worried that the money won’t be spent wisely, however, since I think HSR has the huge potential to tank and take billions of public dollars with it if it’s not done exactly right. HSR needs to be part of a larger public transit system as it is in Europe and Asia (where it’s doing very well) but if we just kinda install some tracks randomly and generally do HSR like we’ve done Amtrak it’s not going to work. Many people have expressed concern about HSR proposals in the US because we’re far less densely populated than Europe and Aisa and I think those are valid fears. I don’t think HSR is impossible to make work in the US, but I do think it needs very careful planning, the type of planning I’ve never seen any transit planner in the USA display.

Eh. I could go on, but I have class in 10 minutes and haven’t completed the weekly homework. (I don’t think that’s gonna happen.)

Cheers.

-j