Monday, October 12, 2009

High Speed Rail - Challenges and Opportunities for California

While in California last week I attended a high speed rail seminar organized by the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies and the Global Metropolitan Studies Center. The seminar consisted of six UCB professors talking about challenges and opportunities associated with the proposed California high speed rail system. The seminar was excellent.

Professor Carlos Daganzo gave the first presentation. He showed convincingly how high speed rail can bring down the total cost of travel given the expected increase in travel demand combined with the HSR's decreasing cost per passenger model. This means that there is a very strong case for subsidizing high speed rail in the early stages of development, since it will improve the overall transport system.

Daganzo also believes that high speed rail can have a transformational effect on local public transport. This means that cities will seek to improve public transport linkages to the HSR stations creating a positive feedback loop leading to better integrated local-long distance public transport systems.

Professor Mark Hansen spoke next. Hansen looked at the relationship of HSR to air travel. He believes that with HSR the air travel market will become less competitive and that the reduction in flights will be most evident in secondary airports (only a small share of SFO, LAX and SAN flights are intra-state ... although they use more than their share of capacity since they are generally smaller planes).

Hansen described research on proximity of Japanese HSR stations that shows that small differences in accessibility make a big difference in demand; therefore stations need to be very carefully located and highly accessible. Finally, he suggested that the best strategy for airlines is to fully integrate their systems with HSR by adopting an intermodal strategy. Interestingly he suggested that this strategy could be ad-hoc, for example, when there is bad weather airlines could shift passengers to HSR.

Professor Robert Cervero spoke third and described the land use impacts of high speed rail systems and joint development. He reflected that there have been many studies of the impact of rail on development. Most of these have shown that rail increases development of downtown areas (it would be impossible to have such dense downtowns without rail systems bringing in workers), increases commuter sheds (people are traveling longer distances to access jobs) and that transit oriented suburban development is very hard to accomplish (it needs very strong political support).

Cervero proposed four lessons for California: (1) station siting is critical, building stations in freeway medians or surrounded by free parking will lead to more sprawl development and greater driving; (2) feeder systems are important for solving the "last mile" problem, extended TOD corridors are a good solution; (3) TOD as a necklace of pearls (e.g. like Copenhagen's approach) would be excellent, but California's current planning regime does not support this approach; (4) joint development must be high quality and pedestrian-oriented, studies of joint development in Hong Kong show that these types of joint development can be much more effective than the alternative basic systems.

Cervero ended with the warning that, the high speed rail planning must carefully consider land use or it will simply fan the flames of sprawl development. California needs institutional reform to make effective land use planning possible.

Professor Elizabeth Deakin was the fourth speaker. She described results of a study she had done for the California High Speed Rail Authority for several Central Valley cities on how they could use HSR to revitalize their city centers. Her presentation was fascinating because she was able to show how these cities could use infill to grow into much more sustainable places while maintaining local building styles and character. Her drawings and planning maps helped illustrate the great potential HSR has for creating livable and environmentally sustainable cities.

Professor Arpad Horvath talked about the full life cycle environmental impacts of HSR. His main point was that HSR needs to be well used to be a more sustainable form of transport than automobiles or airplanes. However, if well used, HSR would be good for the environment. Another important point was that much of the electricity generated for California has a high level of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which means that HSR would generate more SO2 than driving or flying (on a per passenger KM life cycle basis), therefore, as part of the California HSR project, the state needs to develop alternative sources of electrical energy (not a bad idea).

Professor Samer Madanat, Director of the ITS, summed up the main points and moderated the question and answer period. He emphasized the fact that most of the speakers emphasized the need for good feeder systems and improved land use planning to make HSR successful.

The seminar was an excellent overview of ideas for making high speed rail in California more successful. The ITS is trying to develop an organized center for continuing and expanding this interdisciplinary research, I hope that they are able to attract the funding and support necessary to create the center.


Erik said...

Thanks for the write up! Is there a podcast of the seminar available?

Andy Nash said...

They said it was being taped for broadcast, I am checking with the organizers for a link. Tune in tomorrow! Thanks

Rafael said...

@ Andy Nash -

thanks for the summary. Prof. Hansen's claim that airlines will be able to switch their customers to HSR if the fog rolls in at SFO strikes me as ivory tower theory. Seat capacity utilization on those trains will need to be comparable to that achieved in Spain (65%) or France (75%), in any kind of weather. I see no reason why US airlines couldn't leverage their massive investments in booking systems etc. to retail train seats - not as an emergency supplement to short-hop flights but as a replacement. Planes are for places you can't reach by train before you need to shave again.

P.S: in case you haven't done so yet, check out the HSR Summit that UK consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave organized in the context of plans for HS2 from London to the north of England and on to Scotland. Listening to executives of railways that actually operate HSR trains, what a concept!

Andy Nash said...

@ Rafael - I agree completely with you regarding HSR replacing short haul flights all the time, and systems like Lufthansa's for booking HSR trains instead of flights are great (see the TRB presentation I co-authored on improving multimodal ticketing options ( and creating integrated HSR networks (

(If you need a break, check out my music video about high speed rail on YouTube:

On the other hand, I also think that there will always be short flights (e.g. San Francisco to Los Angeles). If airlines can transfer passengers to HSR (and there should be room for them even with load factors of 75% on HSR) when experiencing delays, it would really improve airport/ airline efficiency and passenger convenience.

Rafael said...

@ Andy Nash -

did Prof. Horvath mention that CHSRA decided over a year ago that all of the electricity for running the trains would come from renewable sources, i.e. wind, solar, geothermal, small hydro, perhaps biomethane? None of those generate SO2 emissions, whereas gas-fired power plants as well as marine and off-road diesel engines still do.

From the Authority's web site:

"On September 3rd, 2008, the HSRA Board adopted a policy 'to power the train with clean renewable energy, making it the first true zero-emission train in the world.'"

Here is the Navigant study that served as the basis for that decision. The renewable electricity would be purchased from utilities, rail operators would not construct nor operate their own generating capacity.

In terms of AB32 goals, all that matters is that the total number of GWhs consumed by the HSR network over the course of e.g. a year is matched by an equal number of GWhs generated renewably that would otherwise not have been. It's not necessary for supply and demand of renewable electricity to be perfectly matched every minute of every day.

Rafael said...

@ Andy Nash -

afaik, CHSRA hasn't requested any IATA codes for train stations yet. Getting those might be a worthwhile investment, if only to pitch HSR to airlines as an opportunity to evolve their existing business model. Texas HSR died because SWA perceived it as a threat.

By convention, railway stations can share the airport's IATA code if they are co-located with the terminal or else accessible via a short courtesy shuttle service (bus or people mover). That way, the reservation systems will not add a leg to the overall trip just to reflect the transfer between air terminal and railway station.

However, the booking system set up to reserve sufficient time for letting passengers take care of baggage drop-off/pick-up. Integrated baggage handling - cp. CAT in Vienna, Austria - only works for point-to-point shuttle trains operating on suitable side spurs at either end.

The multi-modal option is an interesting idea, but for every passenger taking the train from A to B and the plane on the way back, operators need to attract a second one using the available capacity in the opposite direction.

On a related note, a standard-speed (~65mph tops) night train composed of a locomotive/tractor car, some sleeper passenger cars and bi-level autorack cars for automobiles could reduce CO2 emissions due to long-distance freeway trips and associated congestion. Such a consist could be permitted onto HSR tracks if all of the axle loads were at or below 17 metric tonnes.

Steve VB said...

Just stumbled upon this, thanks. I agree with most of what is written here except the point about intra-state air travel. It is, in fact, a large share of the market for airports such as SAN, SNA, OAK, SJC and even for SFO (with the competition going on). Points about intermodality right on, but one of the principal barriers is U.S. transportation policy which puts barriers in the way of seamless connections.

Steve Van Beek