Monthly Archives

July 2011


eNewsletter for July 25, 2011

This graphic from March 2011 shows the current planning between Sylmar in the north San Fernando Valley and Palmdale, a distance of about 50 miles. Original planning assumed 13 miles of tunneling on this segment. Recent engineering work has raised this now to a possible 28 miles of tunneling. It is largely due to the increased projected costs between Sylmar and Palmdale that has the Authority looking at bypassing it for the I-5 to save money and running times. Some of the problems with bypassing Palmdale include the fact that Palmdale is listed on the route in Prop 1A Ballot measure, Palmdale and northern Los Angeles County wants the HSR trains there and the Tejon Ranch Company which owns the land where an I-5 Grapevine alignment would run has no great desire for the trains to run through their property. July 25, 2011


eNewsletter for July 18, 2011

Central Valley Business Times – ?Jul 14, 2011? “Even before the full California High-Speed Rail system were built, enough could be completed to run trains in a “cash-positive” operation, the Authority’s board says. The segments represent lengths of track that connect significant populations and may …”July 18, 2011

We can’t afford not to spend money on Transportation

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

When people in the San Joaquin Valley talk about the High Speed Rail Project there is very little talk about how quickly they will be able to get to Los Angeles or San Francisco or about the cost of the project. If you are a farm owner in the San Joaquin Valley the issue is about what impact construction of High Speed Rail will have on their property. For most everyone else the issue is how many jobs High Speed Rail will create. No wonder considering that the recorded unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley ranged from a ‘low” in Madera County of 15.3 percent to a high of 18.9 percent in Merced County compared with a Nation average unemployment of 9.7 percent as of  July 2010. Jobs or lack there of is the most pressing issue for most people in this county, not that you would see it on TV news.The United States has a large backlog of construction projects in the trillions of dollars. We don’t need many new roads, but the roads we have are in poor shape, particularly the bridges on many of these existing roads.

Transportation is at the heart of an healthy economy. Any study of geography shows that major cities are always at major junctions of transportation. This includes harbors, rivers. rail and roads.California voters have shown their support for transportation spending with the passage in 2006 of Prop. 1B for almost 20 billion dollars for transportation construction with bonds; with just over half for highway construction and over 20 percent for rail project. Again in 2008 the public passed Prop 1A with almost 10 billion dollars of bonds for High Speed Rail and improved rail service state wide. Also in 2008 several counties in California passed by over 2/3 majorities increases to local sales taxes for improved transportation. In Los Angeles County the sale tax was increased to a full 1 percent to help pay for major construction projects, much of it for rail transit. Much of this support for transportation projects in California was both recognition of the terrible shape of our transportation infrastructure and the stimulus effect of construction on the economy by the voters.

Congress recently proposed cutting Federal spending on Transportation by 30 percent. At the same time there is also bi-partisan support for the creation of  a Transportation Infrastructure Bank. In the case of  Los Angeles County this bank will be good news. Los Angeles has a program called 30/10. Los Angeles’ goal is to build 30 years of projects in 10 years while paying for them over the next 30 years with borrowed money. The need is now and construction cost most likely will increase in the next 30 years. The problem with a bank is you need money to pay it back.The problem for most local government is their tax revenues are way down. The reason for that is the economy is down because most people have less money to spend. It will be difficult for many local governments to qualify for loans no matter how important the projects are. In those states that have cut spending unemployment has gone up for both public and private sectors.The local economies and tax revenues as a result have sunk. By comparison states that have increased spending have seen job and economic growth. In 2008 Moody’s the Wall Street rating service calculated that for every dollars spent on infrastructure that the economy would get a benefit of $1.59. For personal income tax cuts the amount was 29 cents, for corporate income tax cuts it was 30 cents and for capital gains cuts the figure was 37 cents.

Spending money for infrastructure is nothing new during bad economic times.When we think of the Hoover Dam many think of it as a great engineering achievement from the depths of the great depression of the 1930’s.The reason it is called the Hoover Dam is because the project was started during the Administration of Republican Herbert Hoover. Many of the public works projects built by the Roosevelt Administration had its roots during the Hoover Administration. Historically tax supported public works projects like  transportation have been a non-partisan issue and should continue to be.


Theories about how the Nevada Amtrak crash happened

Compiled by Russ Jackson

How did the terrible incident involving Amtrak’s California Zephyr and a speeding truck traveling on US 95 in the Nevada desert happen? There are many theories out there. We have compiled four theories advanced by some rail writers we know. Because two of these writers prefer to be anonymous, we will not disclose who wrote any of them. It’s interesting reading, and none of these theories should be interpreted as being exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Theory 1. “Just for fun, here’s my hypothesis for how the accident events came about–it fits all of the facts I am aware of at this time (again, just for exercise). “Jake” the truck driver (we don’t know his real name yet) has been employed for only a few months out of the Battle Mountain base of the trucking company. His recent record includes driving out of the Reno area and in California. He is familiar with the rail lines across central Nevada and crosses them probably daily at locations from major highway crossings (like the last one ever) to private crossbuck affairs. He has been stuck occasionally waiting for some of the 9000 ft stack trains and considers such delay a nuisance and interruption to his work. That Friday the three empty rigs were heading out to a job location when he spots the headlight of an approaching train about as far from the crossing as he is at that point. Being totally uninterested in trains as anything other than a bother, his first reaction is, ‘I don’t want to be stuck for several minutes for a 9000 footer, let’s gun it and get across before the gates come down.’ Pedal to the metal he kicks the empty rig up well above the 70 mph speed limit, but he soon realizes that the train is approaching the crossing much faster than he expected. As he realizes too late that the gates are coming down and he is still several hundred feet short of the crossing his only option is to jam the brakes and skid over 300 feet (!!!), helpless to do anything else. (The NTSB will, of course, eventually conduct tests that will fairly accurately determine the speed of the truck required to leave a football-field of skid marks and still have enough velocity to penetrate the side of a railroad car rather than being spun off tangentially with only superficial damage).

“He hits the dorm directly behind the baggage car still skidding 20-30 mph with enough force to embed the cab into the car and set off a firestorm. Throw in a little illegal spice, perhaps, that dulls the judgment but helps pass the boring miles of central Nevada day after day and we see the result. Now, coming up, throw in some lawyers who realize that the trucking company is headed straight for bankruptcy before the first $million is even awarded from their insurance company and the need to find deep pockets becomes obvious. Amtrak did nothing wrong–legal speed, all crew tests negative for contraband substances (we hope). UP did nothing wrong–excellent recently-upgraded right of way for the stack trains, all signals and warnings working properly. Nevada department of Highways did nothing wrong–proper signage at the required approach distance, no visibility obstructions, everything properly posted. Add the Nevada DMV and its commercial licensing division to the top of the list of deep pockets for failing to recognize an incompetent and risky commercial driver. The challenge is to convince an ignorant jury, assuming that the case even merits going to trial, that it was obviously mostly the truck driver’s fault but maybe, just maybe, the horn wasn’t quite loud enough on the Amtrak locomotive, maybe the crossing flashers were 1 degree out of alignment, and maybe there was some mud on the RR X-ING sign that could have made it less visible than optimal. Yes, “Jake” is 97% responsible, but Amtrak, UP and Nevada Highways all could have contributed 1% to the accident–now isn’t that only fair? Bingo, deep pockets if an unnecessary trial can be jockeyed and an ignorant jury can be paneled. We hope things never get that far, and nothing will bring back the dead from the tragedy.”

Theory 2. “Go to MapQuest and look at the map and the satellite view of where US 95 crosses the UP north of Fallon, NV. The road coming north where this clown was driving, in the mile and a half before the grade crossing, is facing directly into a three-mile or so tangent track. That driver was staring at the oncoming headlight of #5 almost directly face-on for two minutes or so before the crash. The road in the last 1/4 mile swings left to cross the track at about a 30 degree angle. He still has the oncoming train almost directly in his line of sight, now only approximately 30 degrees to the right in open, flat desert. And the skid starts just 100 yards from the crossing.

“It looks to me like that driver was deliberately racing the train to the crossing, and chickened out at the last moment, when it had already become too late to stop. He also could have turned slightly to the right and taken the truck off the road into salt flats to avoid the collision. One other thing that the map explains is how this truck failed to derail #5—it is simply because the angle of impact is oblique, (I’m guessing) about 30 degrees, almost like a sideswipe. If it had hit at a 90 degree angle, you have to wonder if the train would have been knocked off the rails.”

Theory 3. There is no doubt that sleepy drivers are as dangerous as drunken drivers and have almost as many accidents. Another possible explanation is the monotony of driving often causes drivers not to pay attention as they drive: the so called “white line fever”. But a common problem at grade crossing is people speeding up to beat the train to the crossing. An optical illusion makes large items such as jumbo jets or trains look like they are going slower than they are at a distance. This misjudging of the speed of a train causes many people to be killed at grade crossings even when gates and warning bells are working. A greater mystery to me is how did 2 Superliner cars get destroyed by fire from this accident? More people are killed by fire than collisions in major accidents. It is hard to believe that diesel fuel from this truck could have caused so much fire. The only thing that might be flammable would be the upholstery in the Superliner cars. We may not have answers for over a year while this accident is under investigation. One point that might be made is the type of trucking this driver did, hauling dirt, is paid by the load and not the hour. The result is some of the worse driving by truck drivers is with trucks hauling dirt and waste.”

Theory 4. The tractor part of the tractor-trailer, including its diesel fuel tanks, wound up INSIDE the Superliner Transition Sleeper. Probably vaporization of some diesel fuel at impact caused it to flash into flame immediately. Once that fire got hot enough, it was all over for that car (it was structurally destroyed by the impact, anyway). I doubt that the flammability standards for the upholstery, carpets, trim, and the duct tape that holds many neglected Amtrak cars together meets those on airliners…even airliners from twenty years ago. As for fire completely engulfing the second car and spreading to the third, I’d like to see from the NTSB’s findings, how much LIQUID fuel spread backward from the point of impact, already ignited by the fire in the first car. Those trucks carry a LOT of diesel.

“A quick look at Google Earth suggests that the driver had a lot of time to see the train coming across the flat terrain. Not only that, but at the angle of the highway approaching the tracks for at least two miles before it curves toward the crossing, the truck driver would have been looking almost straight at the train, with its bright headlight. Now, a lot of people are willing to say he may have been tripped up by a mechanical failure, that he was a great guy, that he would have done anything to avoid a crash, that he loved small rodents and would never hurt an insect. But to me, it “feels” like he saw the train coming, decided to race it to the crossing and show his buddies in the two trucks behind him a thing or two. Too late, he realized he had misjudged.

“At least his last moments on earth were full of indescribable terror. Where he’s going, that’ll be his legacy forever.”


eNewsletter for July 11, 2011

There is no doubt that sleepy drivers are as dangerous as drunken drivers and have almost as many accidents. Another possible explanation is the monotony of driving often causes drivers not to pay attention as they drive: the so called “white line fever”. But a common problem at grade crossing is people speeding up to beat the train to the crossing. An optical illusion makes large items such as jumbo jets or trains look like they are going slower than they are at a distance. This misjudging of the speed of a train causes many people to be killed at grade crossings even when gates and warning bells are working. A greater mystery to me is how did 2 Superliner Cars get destroyed by fire from this accident? More people are killed by fire than collisions in major accidents. It is hard to believe that diesel fuel from this truck could have caused so much fire.The only thing that might be flammable would be the upholstery in the Superliner Cars. We may not have answers for over a year while this accident is under investigation. NB   July 11, 2011


eNewsletter for July 5, 2011

What RailPAC is about is seeing the creation of a coordinated transportation system with good rail connections for airports, intercity bus, and urban transit. We also seek coordination and seamless ticketing between intercity rail, corridor rail and regional commuter rail for easy transfers. In other words using a nation such as Switzerland as a model we foresee being able to travel from almost anywhere in California to anyplace in this Country or the World without having to drive a personal car.   July 5, 2011


Is the North East Corridor a good candidate for 220 mile per hour High Speed Rail?

Opinion by Noel T.Braymer

The urban area between Washington D.C. up through New York City to Boston is heavily populated at around 38 million people. This is also roughly the population of California. Because of the population density in this area it is clearly a good candidate for good rail passenger service. Many people for years have felt that high speed rail is the answer for this region. This corridor already has the fastest scheduled running times of any passenger trains in the United States. The question is will faster service be affordable in the region to build and will faster speeds greatly increase ridership. To answer these questions we should compare the NEC to other High Speed Rail projects.

The original French TGV line from Paris to Lyon looks like a poor candidate for High Speed Passenger Rail service compared with the NEC. The Paris Metropolitan Area’s population is “only” 10.4 million and Lyon’s is 1.4 million while the two cites are 299 miles apart. California by comparison has the Los Angeles region including Orange County and the Inland Empire with 19 million people. The Bay Area has 6.4 million people and the distance by road is 382 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The San Diego region has a population of 3. 5 million and is 504 miles from Sacramento which has a regional population of 2.5 million. When we look at the North East Corridor we find two thirds of the population is in the New York region at almost 20 million and in the Philadelphia region with 6 million only 91 miles apart. Combined the Washington/Baltimore region is 8.2 million and is 226 miles from New York City. That leaves Boston with 4.5 million people 231 miles north of New York City.

When speaking about revenue and transportation distance matters. Revenue is based on passenger miles since most transportation is charged by the mile. The further you travel between 2 points the more passenger miles you generate. Also for High Speed Rail average speed is more important than top speed. The fewer times you have to stop and the greater the distance between stops the higher your average speed. Most people have seen this in action on long road trips by either car or bus. You will often see drivers going very fast passing the vehicle you are in. After a few hours you notice that it is often the same drivers that are speeding past you over and over again. They are driving very fast.  But when they pull over for a break you catch up and pass them. The result is the average speed of most vehicles on a highway is very close. Between the urban areas of the Bay Area and Southern California you have the largely rural San Joaquin Valley. You have over 340 miles between Los Angeles and San Jose and about 500 miles between San Francisco and San Diego. While the NEC is 457 miles long, most of the population is centered in the middle so that most of the travel at best for high speed rail is around 230 miles on the NEC. To raise average speeds on the NEC, eliminating stops would accomplish more than running trains at higher speeds. The problem with that is which cities lose service? Amtrak has tried to increase ridership several times by reducing station stops without success. By comparison there are roughly 9 million people in Northern California who are 400 or more miles from the 22 million in Southern California. On the NEC you have about the same population but most of that population is only 226 miles apart at the most.

What is the best answer for improved rail passenger service on the NEC? The problem with speeds above 120 miles per hour is you usually need dedicated trackage for it. Unlike a freeway, a railroad needs crossovers for trains to go around each over. The greater the difference in speeds of trains on a line the more complicated it is organizing trains passing each other. On the NEC even though Amtrak owns most of it, it must share it with 10 rail commuter agencies and 50 freight trains a day. Amtrak is proposing to build a 220 mile per hour railroad on the NEC over the course of 40 years for 117 billion dollars. To accomplish this would require a largely new railroad separate from the existing line and built in largely urban areas which is very expensive to build often requiring viaducts or tunneling. The highest price estimate for the Anaheim to San Francisco High Speed Rail leg is 62 billion dollars by critics of that project which sounds like bargain compared to 117 billion between Washington and Boston.

What would be a better solution to increasing ridership and revenue on the NEC? Look at the original TGV line between Paris and Lyon which are the 2 largest cities in France. The French National Railroad built a bypass rail line for high speed with few stops between most of the distance between these two cities in a rural area were construction costs were low. As of 2008 eleven TGV trains an hour run on this line out of Paris. Of these 8 trains an hour make it to Lyon. Three trains an hour branch off before getting to Lyon to other cities.Of these 8 trains that get to Lyon each hour 5 trains continue past Lyon with 2 an hour going to Marseille and the other three branching off to other cities. Something similar to this can be done can on the NEC. Why do this? This would open up many new markets and riders to the NEC while taking advantage of existing rail lines.

The extensions are rather obvious and have been proposed by others. A good place to start would be extending service to Richmond and Charlotte. At New York City there is possible service extension to Albany, Montreal and or even Buffalo. Direct service on Long Island or at least an Amtrak Station on Long Island to connect with local commuter trains would be a start. Direct service from Harrisburg or better Pittsburgh to New York City and to Boston is a good candidate. Such services would require some track upgrades but at less cost than largely building a new railroad between Washington and Boston. Full electrification wouldn’t be necessary; diesel locomotives have been added to TGV trains to operate on non-electric lines.