Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

Category: High Speed Rail

High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Joseph E. Petrillo Presentation to the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, December 2003.

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...

Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you very much, Ms. Duffy.

I want to thank The Commonwealth Club for inviting us and holding this panel discussion, because this is a most appropriate and auspicious time for such a discussion. We will soon begin the Environmental Impact Report review process. Therefore, we expect that the profile of California’s program for high-speed rail will be much higher among the public throughout the state as a result of those hearings and the studies. It’s also auspicious because, as Ms. Duffy mentioned, the vote on the bond act to fund the system is scheduled for November 2004.

Before introducing Mehdi Morshed, I’d like to make a few comments about my thoughts about high-speed rail. I’m a new chairman. I was just elected and started my term on the first of July. The invitation was issued to my predecessor, Mr. Rod Diridon, and I want to thank him for the work that he did during those two years in bringing this program to the state that it is today, on the verge of actual implementation.

Now, some of my thoughts on high-speed rail: First, what we’re trying to do. This is a statewide program. It’s designed as an intercity program to transport people at high speeds between large population areas in Northern and Southern California. It is not a solution to short-haul commuter transportation problems. Sometimes we get confused and think that they’re one and the same; they are not. To have high-speed rail, it could take as much as 40 miles to bring [a train] up to speed and slow it down. So, by the nature of it, the stations have to be long distances from one another in order to make the system work at the maximum efficiency.

On the other hand, one of the most important things in any system like this, especially the high-speed system, is the location and the ability of the stations on the high-speed rail to connect with all of, or as many of, the regional and local transportation systems that exist so that ridership is increased, but basically so that people can go from car or commuter train or bus to the long-distance transportation provided by high-speed rail.

The high-speed rail system, in my opinion, when implemented will become the backbone of the future transportation system here in California, taking people long distances at very high speed to locations where they can transfer and travel around to regional and local destinations.

I firmly believe high-speed rail transportation will change the face of California the way the California Water Project, the freeway projects, and even the initial railroads of the last century did.

But in addition to those vast economic changes and growth that will be generated by high-speed rail, the high-speed rail system that we’re looking at here in California is one of the few public works projects, certainly that I know of, that has been designed from the beginning with environmental benefits as one of its core values. We believe – and I think our studies are beginning to show that and will be exposed more in the final Environmental Impact Report – further residential and commercial development necessitated by the natural growth of population in California, which is slated to be much more than 50 percent over the next 35 years, that the high-speed rail system will use up less land to accommodate that growth than any of the transportation systems that we have studied. Air quality obviously is one of the things that will be enhanced over what the air quality would be were we to continue the growth in traveling through these air and automobile transportation corridors at the same growth rate that we have seen in the past. These and other environmental benefits, as well as social benefits, will be detailed in the Environmental Impact Report.

These types of benefits are equally important, but often unappreciated benefits to a program such as this, and are often not calculated in the traditional cost/benefit analysis. For all of you that I assume will look at the high-speed rail Environmental Impact Report and the plans, please try to keep in mind that there are more than local cost benefits to a high-speed rail system; there are huge, subtle benefits to the state as a whole.

Again, I thank you for having me here, and now I’d like to introduce the Executive Director of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Mr. Mehdi Morshed. Now Mehdi told me that he didn’t want me to mention much about him, because it embarrasses him, but I’m an attorney. Although I promised my fellow Authority Board members that I would not talk too much at our meetings, I didn’t say that I wouldn’t talk a lot at speeches and meetings, and so I will embarrass Mehdi to some extent.

I think of Mehdi as a Mr. California Transportation, because for the last 20 years in the Senate, everything, literally every policy change and direction in financing for transportation in California, passed through his experienced hands. Many of the initiatives that he worked on during that period really affect us today, from driving rules to vehicle safety and emission standards. He also has assisted in creating what we consider this state’s major transportation agencies: the California Transportation Commission, which coordinates most of the transportation in the state, and the High-Speed Rail Authority, whose program you are going to be discussing today. Mehdi will give us a presentation on where we are today in the development of California’s high-speed rail system.

Comment on Los Angeles Times Editorial of November 9 2011 regarding High Speed rail

The LA Times recently editorialized in favor of High Speed Rail in spite of the tripling of its estimated costs and 13 year delay in its completion date. During my tenure as Chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, from about 2002 through 2005, I repeatedly warned that the estimated costs in the projections at the time were dependent upon project implementation commencing on the planned dates. Unless they did so then the estimated costs would escalate rapidly, as they have. Each year’s delay raises costs substantially as it does in all infrastructure investments whether or not they are HSR, the building of bridges or new freeway lanes.

Nevertheless, I maintained then as now that establishment of a realistic high-speed rail system was the single most significant thing that California could do by itself to stave off the looming economic (jobs) and environmental disaster that even in 2003 I believed we were inevitably plunging into. Here’s why:

1. High speed rail is the least expensive means to provide mid-length transportation in California. The cost of new freeways to carry the same number of people greatly exceeds that of High Speed Rail.
2. Unlike freeways,  capacity of High Speed Rail is greatly expandable by simply adding more cars to each train or increasing the number of trains, over the four per hour projected. On the other hand, a freeway lane once at capacity can take no more automobiles leaving the only options  forcing people to increase occupancy of each vehicle or building additional prohibitively expensive lanes.
3. The rebuilding of degraded infrastructure or even the building of increased road capacity increases jobs, but not economic growth (New technologies, new factories and the like) to the extent  HSR  done in every place it has been tried.
4. HSR substatially reduces carbon pollution into the atmosphere irrespective of the electric generation source used. In Japan this was enough for that country to meet its Kyoto treaty obligations. And, these are real reductions not merely moving the emissions around to other aspects of the production chain, such as to some extent is the case with nuclear energy.
5. The only realistic mechanism for restoring deteriorating city centers (and reduce local and regional car trips) is by creating viable transit centers there with HSR stations as its hub. ( I made sure California’s HSR plan included this in its design, resisting intense pressure by many urging us to avoid city centers on cost and political grounds.)
6. California lacks a transportation backbone system that ties local, regional and long distance transportation. HSR is the only transportation system in the world that can provide this today.
7. HSR construction and operation has provided a substantial increment to GDP in every country where the trains operate.

The ABCs of High Speed Rail

From the reports that I read recently about High Speed Rail(HSR)

Taiwan High Speed Rail Shinkansen 700T at plat...

Taiwan High Speed Rail Shinkansen 700T at platform of Banciao Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and the public reaction to it, I have been most concerned about the lack of understanding of HSR, what it is and what it can be expected to do. So, I thought I would prepare a few posts on the ABC’s of HSR in hope that it may provide some clarity and aid in the public debate.

As a former Chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, I sometime still follow the news reports about the world-wide High Speed Rail industry. I also served as a director of the California State Coastal Conservency an agency created as part of  California’s massive Coastal Program. In addition, I wrote several sections of the California Coastal Plan and consider myself one of the principle drafters and consultants on the legislation setting up the program.

I mention this by way of demonstrating that I hopefully have absorbed at least a modest understanding of High Speed Rail and regional planning.

HSR What it is and What it is not.

A once and future governor of California, Jerry Brown, referred to HSR as a Buck Rodgers thing,” implying that it is some complex high technology system beyond the ordinary person to understand. It definitely is not.

It is actually an amalgam of two old technologies with which we all are familiar.

The first technology is well over two hundred years old. We all know it as the technology of almost all railroads the world over, steel wheels riding on steel rails. (Note: a version of HSR powered by magnetic levitation is in fact a high technology system but it exists only in a few experimental and operational examples. Almost all HSR remains the tried and true wheel on rail system. Later on I will explain why this is so.)

The second concept, if not precisely a technology, relied upon by HSR is more or less the same as that represented by national highway systems instituted in the US and other countries beginning in the 1950s, for the most part. That was not “Buck Rogers” either.

Before creation of the modern highway systems, it used to take a long time getting anywhere by car, not because the car couldn’t go fast, it did, but because of the roads. The roads of the time required a traveller to often stop at almost every intersection and there were many many intersections. The roads often meandered and curved in ways that were not optimum for efficient higher speed driving. Finally the roads were often poorly and inconsistantly graded and made with materials that puckered or rutted (pot holes and the like) causing vibrations that reduced the speed at which you could drive, not to mention the increased wear and tear on the automobile and its occupants.

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...

Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a result, if one wanted to cross the country by car at that time, it took several weeks. Faster than by horse but not optimum for the machine one was riding in.

So the US commenced upon a construction program to run four or more ribbons of high strength concrete across the country from east to west and more crossing the country from north to south. These ribbons of concrete were sturdy, relatively smooth, straight with gentle banked curves for optimum traveling and absent pesky at grade crossings. As a result now a person could drive across the country in about four days, not because his automobile suddenly got faster but because it could travel continuously at designed speeds. In fact the cars of that time could cross the country at about the same time as cars do today. Automotive technology, in response to construction of the Highway Systems, then moved not just to make cars faster but also lighter and more streamlined to save on energy as well as more comfortable for passengers during longer trips.

All HSR does is to take a traditional railroad, straighten out its right of way, flatten its road bed to reduce vibration and eliminate at grade crossings. If this is done, even existing equipment could reach speeds qualifying for the lower reaches of HSR. In fact, I estimate if the road bed were appropriately designed existing equipment could reduce the current travel tome between San Francisco and Los Angeles from the current 10 to 12 hours to about 4 to 5. But existing equipment remains too heavy, uses the wrong fuels and lacks streamlining to operate at maximum efficiency, just like old cars ceased  being optimum for freeway driving.

(Note, for many valid reasons the rolling stock [trains] of modern HSR require construction of overhead transmission lines to provide power to move the trains. The reason for this and its impact will be discussed later on.)

However, just as the highways were more expensive to build per mile given the materials and tolerances required so is HSR more expensive to build by mile than old style railroad

English: Map of designated and eligible high-s...

English: Map of designated and eligible high-speed rail corridors in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In 2006 the cost to construct a 4 lane divided highway, according to some estimates, could range from almost $20 million per mile to almost $300 million per mile. The costs for high-speed rail have been variously estimated as falling between $35 and $50 million per mile depending upon many variables. All these numbers obviously are highly volatile and depend upon specific conditions. It is however probably safe to conclude that given equivalent conditions the cost of constructing one mile of HSR is more than adding a single lane to an existing highway and generally less expensive than to construct a 4 lane divided highway.

I future posts I will discuss, rolling stock, relative costs, relative benefits, economics and the nature of some of the criticisms leveled at American HSR efforts.

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