California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail

HSR in CA, NV, and TX

For whatever reason, the Christmas holiday brought news about a variety of major high-speed rail projects around the country. Here’s the roundup:

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that California‘s High-Speed Rail planners are hoping to get $15 to 20 billion out of the coming economic stimulus package. This money, in addition to the $10 billion tax payers approved in November, as well as a few billion more from municipalities and private groups, would allow for the completion of the first stage of the project, from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The potential flaw in this plan to take some of the federal stimulus money is that those funds are intended to “ready-to-build” projects, which the California High-Speed rail system certainly is not. In fact, current plans have construction on the project beginning in 2012 – and presumably (hopefully!) we’ll be out of the recession by then. One possible alternative, however, is to begin construction on grade crossings in identified segments of the corridor, individual projects that could be easily designed and built within the next year.

Nevada and California are simultaneously pushing forward the long-held idea of a maglev train between Anaheim and Las Vegas. The system, described on Wikipedia, has been appropriated small preliminary funds from the federal government, but those few millions are nothing compared to the billions a 269-mile long line would cost. They’d like to see this project, too, garner money from the economic stimulus bill.

We’ve never discussed this project on the transport politic before, but let it be clear that there are several reasons why its current form makes little sense:

  • Maglev is far more expensive to build than regular HSR, and it’s not even that much faster. So what’s the big deal about it?
  • As long as we know that California’s traditional HSR line is being built, isn’t this line to Nevada an obvious candidate for expansion? By using maglev technology, trips could only occur between the two cities at each end. If traditional HSR were used, however, direct trains could connect San Francisco and Vegas, or Vegas and San Diego, rather than just Vegas and Anaheim.
  • The route’s terminus in Anaheim is completely nonsensical. Such a huge project deserves a connection to the biggest city in the Western United States, Los Angeles, not a secondary city.

We’ll keep the tabs on this project, obviously, but let it be known (if it matters to anyone), we will oppose it vehemently in its current form.

Meanwhile, the AP brings us news that the state of Texas is looking into taking advantage of the federal high-speed rail request for proposals that Secretary Mary Peters and Representative John Mica announced just before the holidays. The state’s major project, which has been labeled the “T-bone,” would connect Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and of course the capital Austin. This would be an ambitious project but would dramatically improve the connections between these cities, which are just the right distance apart to make HSR a valuable alternative.

8 replies on “HSR in CA, NV, and TX”

It’s a little disappointing, your plan to keep tabs on the maglev project and to oppose it vehemently, given your seeming lack of knowledge behind the technology’s history in the U.S. And maglev does matter, at least to those in the community who have been promoting it for the past few decades.

Your questions prompt further questions and comments:

* Since you ask, “what’s the big deal about maglev?” you probably don’t know the basic background of the arguments, pro and con, which have been going on for nearly twenty years, so where’s your evidence that maglev is “far more expensive to build than regular HSR”?

* We really don’t know that California’s traditional HSR line is being built. All we know so far is that the initial $10 billion bond measure passed.

* The line to Nevada has never been an obvious candidate for expansion for the California HSR project.

* The route’s terminus in Anaheim may be completely nonsensical at first glance, but it was determined in the early 1980s that connecting Anaheim and Las Vegas was the logical route approach for following I-15 north and south.

Maybe scanning the site at could enlighten you to the history and obvious charms of maglev. But if your mind is already made up to oppose maglev for the Las Vegas-Anaheim route, then maybe not.

Thanks Laurence for your comments.

We do know a little something here about Maglev technology, and we’re not entirely against the idea in every circumstance! We agree that the phrasing “vehemently oppose” was a bit exaggerated, and we’ll try to tone it down here a bit… including being willing to reconsider our initial feelings about the Las Vegas-Anaheim route.

But, in response to your specific points:

1. Maglev trains are faster than conventional high-speed rail – especially over short distances, because of their high acceleration. As a result, there are advantages to using magnetic levitation, notably in terms of speed. However, there is quite a lot of evidence pointing towards maglev’s higher cost, starting with its inability to work with existing track systems. As a result, maglev systems cannot take advantage of existing stations, nor can trains travel on maglev and non-maglev lines. Second, while maglev does have lower operating costs that conventional HSR, actual construction of maglev line (such as in Shanghai) has proven more expensive than an HSR alternative would have.

2. California’s HSR program is not guaranteed – you’re right. However, it’s $10 billion closer to achievement than any other HSR system in the U.S., and it looks to have the strong backing of the federal government, as that article we link to above demonstrates.

3. It makes little sense to us to have two separate technologies for routes in the same area, when having the same technology would allow for interconnections and multiple routes! Maybe we should make the line to Nevada an obvious candidate for expansion of CAHSR… just because it hasn’t been before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it in the future.

4. The early 1980s choice to connect Anaheim to Las Vegas was a poor one. If the route used traditional HSR technology like CAHSR, however, this wouldn’t be an issue! Trains could connect San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Anaheim with Las Vegas. Incompatibility is the key.

Thanks for the reasoned response… including being willing to reconsider your initial feelings about the Las Vegas-Anaheim route. In my experience most blogs cling tenaciously to their initial positions for effect, if nothing else.

To prolong the dialogue a little, here are some further responses:
• Maglev trains are faster than conventional high-speed rail over short AND long distances, because their high acceleration and braking rates, when coupled with their high cruising speeds, result in higher average speeds and less time lost servicing station stops. Coupled with maglev’s environmental benefits – reduced noise, vibration and electromagnetic fields, all of which have been documented in expert field tests — there are many advantages to using magnetic levitation systems.
• In my exerience, the anecdotal evidence pointing towards maglev’s higher capital cost is usually created and perpetuated by rail consultants, who think maglev’s inability to work with existing track systems should be a cost penalty. In reality, maglev can bank and climb at rates three to four times higher than HSR, so a careful maglev alignment can avoid lots of turns and can tackle obstacles head-on, resulting in shorter/cheaper route alignments.
• Maglev systems can service existing stations, as has been proven by pre-construction planning studies across the USA, so the notion of interoperability with trains is a non-starter.
• Maglev needs dedicated corridors to maintain its high speeds safely, so the lack of compatibility with low-speed tracks is a bogus issue promoted by rail enthusiasts as a penalty.
• Actual construction of a maglev line (such as in Shanghai) at $60 million per mile might have been more expensive than an HSR alternative would have, but the total effect – a world-class technology showcase, 7.5-minute trip times, top speeds of 267 miles an hour, on-time reliability of 99.98%, 18 million paying passengers, operation and maintenance costs covered from the farebox with no subsidies – would not have been achieved.
2. California’s HSR program has taken a big step in the recent bond vote, agreed. The road to construction, though, will no doubt be a long and difficult one.
3. It might make little sense to some to have two technologies for routes in the same area, but given the tough reception maglev has had in routes planned around the U.S., it seems logical to devote a short stretch for a maglev demonstration line to answer the many questions that naysayers have raised to date. Las Vegas to Primm, Nevada presents a unique opportunity to do such a thing. If it fails, the CA HSR line – or the Desert Xpress – could always build an extension to handle the traffic.
4. The early 1980s choice to connect Anaheim to Las Vegas with maglev was the right one. If the route had used traditional HSR technology like CAHSR/TGV back then, there wouldn’t have been any initial excitement over building the line at all. Say what you will about maglev, it excites people’s imaginations in ways rail never does.

Regarding point 4:
As Schiller said: “Passion goes – Love has to stay”. People’s excitement can be aroused fairly well by “technologies of the future” but people get used to new technology very quickly, the passion dissipates and then it needs to prove itself.
Innovations in traditional rail/air technologies have made maglev a niche technology. Which is not to say that maglev is useless. It could still be suited for short/medium-range applications such as airport-to-city connections (speed depending on the modal split).
Interoperability across borders, system continuity, freight capacity are not the strong suit of maglev.
In the end, the respective advantages/disadvantages of HSR and maglev cancel each other out. And that’s the reason why there is only one commercial maglev line in operation. For widespread adoption there needs to be a decisive systemic/economic/etc advantage to maglev. That advantage could still come if cost come down significantly. I hope it does. But I’m not seeing that.
In Germany the notion of a white elephant has subtly sunk in. This month the Transrapid consortium announced that their testtrack in Emsland will be closed by June next year. So unless a concrete project comes along, maglev is mothballed for the future. There is still a project in Japan but there a questions regarding cost effectiveness. Ironically, those could be ameliorated if they used German technology. But that’s not going to happen; they are using their j-maglev.

Your points are thoughtful and well taken, even if I don’t agree. For the time being, maglev seems to be in a niche, but I see it because it’s still making its entry into the market, not because of any competing innovations. Time will tell if the closing of the Emsland test facility has any bearing on the future implementation of maglev.

I saw a presentation on the state of maglev in the world of HSR at the Transportation Research Board in 2007. In short, the Europeans have declared Maglev an expensive, though fascinating experiment that has no future on the continent.

I asked the European presenters if that meant the US should scrap its maglev program. They demurred, laughing slightly, as if they did not want to make a political statement or embarrass their American colleagues.

Setty and Demery have covered this pretty well in the past.

What the TGV model of HSR has proven is that HSR at its best is not simply about moving at incredibly high speeds on the ground. It is about moving at incredibly high speeds as much as possible, while slowing down to penetrate old urban centers on narrow rights-of-way that can be shared with legacy systems, providing the best access to the urban centers where HSR integrates well with local transit (rail, bus) and the most pedestrian-friendly environments.

Getting maglev into a station in Vegas is probably not a big deal. But getting maglev into, say the Transbay Terminal in San Fran, is probably next to impossible, and makes little sense because maglev cannot share a platform with other intercity or commuter trains, as is the case with TGV-style HSR.

Too bad your view of maglev comes from the world of European HSR. Even some people at Siemens, who should know better, can sometimes limit the benefits of their own product — Transrapid maglev — in certain venues, such as a TRB rail presentation. Saying that maglev has no future on the European continent is a prediction, not a reality. We can wait a few more years before conferring last rites.

Likewise, Setty and Demery have indeed covered this in the past, although their “Conventional Rail vs. ‘Gadgetbahnen'” piece was a little over the top. I remember that exchange from 2002. It was provocative enough to warrant an input from yours truly, among many others, on November 27, 2002:

“The authors’ overheated points about the abilities of high-speed rail systems are misleading and self-serving. The portion of 225-mph train travel along the TGV network hovers around zero, and is unlikely to change without significant expenditures to upgrade the infrastructure and rolling stock. In Shanghai, the Transrapid maglev construction project will feature operational speeds of 430 kph/267 mph for a two-station run of 30 km/19 miles in length with 10-minute headways in each direction. This is for 18-hours-per-day operation. A similar project would never be considered for a high-speed train.

Maglev has been designed from the outset to overcome the limitations of steel-wheel systems. It’s too bad some consultants don’t recognize any such limitations.”

Things haven’t changed much in the last six years.

The only real prospect for an intercity maglev line is the Chūō Shinkansen, traveling from Tokyo to Osaka. They are building it because the existing right of way is at capacity. It will travel faster than the existing convential high speed train route and cost 82 billion dollars. The high cost is mainly because a lot of it must be built underground. Although unrealistic to think these will be built everywhere, they have a place in the future. We can imagine a day when the existing high speed routes in Europe and future high speed routes in the US will operate at capacity. What will happen then? The government will have to build new routes. If you are going to build a completely new route, interoperability is not as important. Initial construction costs are not that much higher than high speed rail and maintenance costs are lower. Along newer, straighter routes, maglevs would be the fastest option.

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