Obama’s high speed rail plan


in Politics, The environment, Travel

Ukrainian Easter bread

Obama’s high speed rail plan is appealing in many ways. It has considerable scale, $13 billion of funding for the next five years, and it includes connections to Canada, for instance. That being said, rail will only really be a sustainable when it is powered in a zero carbon way. While trains with diesel locomotives do generally produce less CO2 per passenger mile than aircraft, the real reason air travel is so emissions intensive is because people travel greater distances by plane. If we want to be able to travel those distances while shifting towards a low-carbon society, better options are necessary. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is one option. It has the advantage that it would not require major modifications to either tracks or rolling stock. The downside, of course, is all the limitations of biofuels: from land and water use to effects on food prices to the use of fossil fuels in producing most of them. Also, if sustainable biofuels were available in quantity, it might actually make more sense to use them in aircraft.

To me, it seems like the best option is the progressive electrification of the rail network, with the power coming from renewables and perhaps nuclear. Ideally, the electrified tracks could also be electricity transmission corridors. That way, new renewable stations like wind farms and run of river hydro stations could feed into the grid from the closest rail line. Because of its variety in both sources and uses, it seems that electricity will be the principal energy form in low- and zero-carbon societies, both for private vehicles (in the form of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids) and for both urban and intercity forms of public transit.

Such a deployment would probably be hugely expensive. That being said, it seems like the way to establish a sustainable, zero-carbon system for intercity transport. It’s a goal that doesn’t need to be met instantly and which can be worked towards piecemeal, with intermediate steps like using high speed rail to displace short-haul flights and fuel switching to genuinely sustainable and low-carbon biofuels. As with the current plan, the focus can start off with the most commonly used routes, then branch out to the rest of the network gradually.

{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

. April 22, 2009 at 10:37 am

eight billion well spent dollars
April 17, 2009

it’s hard to believe, but the american government has taken a bold step to reduce america’s dependence on fossil fuels. as part of the economic stimulus package, $8 billion is being earmarked to improve regional and intercity rail transportation. he is doing something that, for over forty years, has been allowed to rot and decay.

alison b April 22, 2009 at 12:22 pm

You’re right that electric is the way to go, even though it’s costly. What we need is the foresight to invest in sustainable solutions.

Milan April 22, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Mere electrification isn’t enough. Something like 20% of all American emissions come from coal power plants.

For electric trains to be worthwhile, the power for them will need to come from zero-carbon sources.

Tristan April 22, 2009 at 1:57 pm

“Mere electrification isn’t enough. Something like 20% of all American emissions come from coal power plants.”

I guess there are two ways to look at this. You could say this would mean the trains would be running on 80% non-coal fired power. But, you could also say that if the coal is producing the marginal power, not running the trains would mean 100% of the energy the train consumes would not be generated at all, so the train’s power is being generated entirely by the coal plants.

Unsurprisingly, the plan isn’t very intelligent: “The plans in California call for trains with top speeds of 220mph”. 220mph requires massive construction projects to build tracks that can take that sort of speed. Alot of existing railbed can take 100mph, and above that the increase it cost for the rail bed goes up exponentially given what speed you want to run. Also, the amount of energy consumed goes up exponentially, but not neccesarily by a large exponent (I don’t know the factors, although before the days of electricity, getting a train to do even 120mph required a highly specialized engine, and no more than 126mph was never achieved, which suggests that the amount of power needed to exceed that speed is a lot).

It would make much more sense to concentrate on electrification and slight trackbed upgrades. This would allow freight traffic to also begin to run on electricity (it is, incidentally, extremely simple to convert diesel engines to run off electric wires – the motors that power the engines in a diesel locomotive are electric already. They are literally “hybrids” without batteries).

. April 22, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Coal power in the United States >> Carbon footprint: CO2 emissions

Emissions from electricity generation account for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gases, 38.9% of U.S. production of carbon dioxide in 2006 (with transportation emissions close behind, at 31%). Although coal power only accounted for 49% of the U.S. electricity production in 2006, it was responsible for 83% of CO2 emissions caused by electricity generation that year, or 1,970 Tg of CO2 emissions. Further 130 Tg of CO2 were released by other industrial coal-burning applications.

Litty April 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Happy Earth Day!

Keep up the blogging.

Matt April 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

“which suggests that the amount of power needed to exceed that speed is a lot.”

Although the power to over-come air resistance generally goes up proportionally to the cube of your velocity, there are quite a few more factors that limited steam locomotives’ speed. For one thing, they didn’t have transmissions and the pistons (through a connecting rod) powered the wheels directly. It’s very hard to optimize a steam engine to have a wide power band and so the performance of the trains is largely tied to the poor performance of steam engines. Also, the machines then weren’t at all aerodynamic. Anyway, I just don’t think it’s a complete argument to bring up 100 (or more) year old technology and then focus on one part of it. Similarly, cars 100 years ago weren’t very good, but it wasn’t only because they weren’t as powerful.

The reason you basically need to make the trains high speed is because they have to be as appealing or more so than an airplane in a variety of areas: speed, cost and convenience. If you look at them as offsetting flights and car trips, then you can’t argue that 100% of the energy they use wouldn’t need to be generated at all if they didn’t exist. Also, the trains don’t care where the electricity comes from, so if they’re 80% coal fired now it doesn’t mean that in the future they will be. Hopefully other efforts targeting fossil fuel consumption at power generation plants would allow the trains to be ‘greener.’

I agree that electrification of current infrastructure should be an area of concentration, but I think building high speed infrastructure for passenger routes should be a goal as well.

Milan April 22, 2009 at 7:19 pm

That makes a great deal of sense.

It is necessary both to switch people to modes of transport that can ultimately be made sustainable, as well as to actually undertake the actions that will bring that about.

Given that trucking is an area of rapidly growing emissions (at least in Canada), rail for freight needs to be considered as well.

Tristan April 23, 2009 at 12:29 am


“Also, the machines then weren’t at all aerodynamic.”

That seems right (has a high degree of “truthiness”. Unfortunately its the exact opposite of the truth – not an uncommon problem.

Steam Engines were not at all in a similar phase of development as cars a hundred years ago. They had been common for over fifty years, whereas cars had been common for, well, they weren’t exactly common yet. Between 1850 and 1904, the record to speed of trains rose only 40mph, because it was already 60mph in 1850 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_speed_record_for_railed_vehicles#Steam). Whereas, the speed record for a car rose from 4omph in 1898 to 128mph by 1909 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_speed_record).

Anyway, if we care about emissions reductions, we shouldn’t be so concerned where they come. Electrifying freight lines would mean freight could be shipped by rail in a future carbon-free economy. I can’t run the numbers myself, but considering how much cheaper it is to electrify existing tracks than to build new tracks, I can’t imagine it makes sense, from a dollars-to-Co2-reduction standpoint to build new tracks until almost all existing tracks are electrified.

The demand that we “must” build electric trains stands only if we take for granted our rich-nomadic lifestyles. If we just tax carbon appropriately, then flying will reduce just like any other thing that expends Co2 will. In fact, if we value flying a lot more than something else which uses the same amount of Co2 – why should we stop flying rather than stop the other thing? And hey, what if the other thing were boring mainline rail freight?

Matt April 23, 2009 at 1:23 pm

While I don’t presume to know what the drag co-efficients of the locomotives you posted are, I can guarantee they are significantly higher than that of a modern high speed locomotive. They have a streamlined look, but with closer inspection you can see they’ve got a lot of features which would cause a lot of drag. For one thing, they all have enormous frontal area. I stand by my original claim.

I also stand by my claim that steam engines are a poor way to try to make a fast vehicle, and this is not only because the power required to move the train at fast speeds is large, but because at high speed a steam engine has trouble making power at all. Like an electric motor, steam engines have a torque peak at or around zero RPM. Unlike an electric motor, steam engines have trouble “breathing” at high RPM and their torque falls off rapidly. I suspect, but admit I am not totally sure, that this was probably as big a hurdle as aerodynamics to having a high speed steam locomotive. Also some of the biggest technological gains in high speed rail have to do with track quality and electrical pickup.

Milan April 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm

For the sake of comparison, here are the fronts of some Japanese Shinkansen trains.

They seem to be electric, powered by overhead wires.

. April 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm

On The Rails

“Transient accelerations basically refers to traffic and hills. Trains have right of way so they don’t have to stop and yield to other traffic at any time. Their rail lines also tend to go through or around hills rather than over them. As such they do not waste energy by speeding up or slowing down unnecessarily. Regenerative braking can mitigate this issue to a large extent.

Trucks are less aerodynamically efficient than cars for a variety of reasons: their blunt front-end, many exposed turning wheels, gap between the cab and trailer, and the sharp back end. I don’t really know how aerodynamically efficient a train is but I can guess that it basically creates its own wind. On rolling resistance trucks have a minor advantage over cars because they operate at higher pneumatic pressure. The steel wheels on trains don’t deform at all so they are considerably superior.

The train normalized drag coefficient is dramatically lower at 0.01. Essentially because the front cars will push the wind the remaining cars get a free ride against air resistance. This reduces the overall air resistance on a train per unit mass of cargo regardless of its aerodynamic shape.”

. April 23, 2009 at 1:44 pm

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tristan April 23, 2009 at 1:48 pm


My point was, people in the past knew what drag was. They knew that to make a train go over 100mph, you needed to streamline it. Reducing the frontal area wasn’t really an option (where are you going to put the boiler?), so you got extremely raked fronts like on the Mallard. Aerodynamics was so much more important than say, weight, that to run high speeds hugely expensive and heavy aero covers were fitted over entire engines.

You are right about the problems of high speeds and producing torque. One solution is to make larger wheels – one of the reasons why Brunell’s large gauge was such a good idea at the time. Another solution could be to fit gearboxes, as ACE did in its attempt to build a profitable coal burning steam engine for freight in the 1980s (discussed here: http://northernsong.wordpress.com/2008/11/04/the-un-romantic-return-of-steam-locomotives/)

Still, there are many reasons why not to run trains over 200km/h, and only one of them is the direct power consumption of the locomotive. The more important one is the opportunity cost of the more expensive railbed, when that money could be spent electrifying freight lines elsewhere.

. April 23, 2009 at 1:55 pm
Milan April 23, 2009 at 2:02 pm

It should be noted that it is possible to run relatively high speed lines on existing tracks, provided they can tilt. The Acela Express between Washington and Boston can operate at up to 240 km/h, though it averages 138 km/h.

For true high-speed trains, it does seem necessary to eliminate ground-level crossings and build tracks with smoother turns.

. April 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

So What Does Obama’s High Speed Rail Plan Mean, Anyway?
by: Robert in Monterey
Sun Apr 19, 2009 at 14:30

High Speed Rail works be being fast enough so that it can offer competitive trip speeds, and then leveraging the other competitive advantages of rail over air and car transport to carve out a successful market niche.

How fast is fast enough depends on the distance between two cities….

Raise the top speed to 110mph and the effective trip speed to the 80mph-90mph range, and for most non-insane drivers a train trip begins to be faster than driving. This is the “Emerging HSR” class of HSR. When you take an existing rail corridor and upgrade it to take faster than conventional trains, this is the first step up from there. 110mph here is a limit for a specific class of upgraded level crossings.

Raise the top speed to 125mph and the effective trip speed to the 90mph to 110mph range, and for all non-insane drivers, a train trip of 2 to 3 hours begins to be significantly faster than driving. This is the “Regional HSR” class of HSR. 125mph here is the limit for trains relying on conventional signaling with lights and information next to the track … beyond 125mph, signals have to be brought into the cab.

R.K. April 23, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Perhaps today’s rail advocates should be taking the 40-year construction history of the American Interstate system as a kind of model.

Both electrification and speed upgrades are important, but it will take a long time to roll out both nationally, even with both carbon pricing and other incentives. What is necessary is good prioritization and the recognition that the system being built will help shape the development of economics and demographics in America for many decades.

Matt April 23, 2009 at 4:46 pm

“My point was, people in the past knew what drag was.”

Fair enough. I guess my point is that we have better technology now and that although they aren’t necessarily clean right now due to the source of their electric power, trains can viably be made ‘green.’ We need the infrastructure to run them, though, and I think it’s wise to start building it immediately. Similarly it’s wise to start building the infrastructure to harvest clean energy sources immediately. The economic downturn provides an excellent opportunity to do this because stimulus dollars could be spent here.

Tristan April 24, 2009 at 12:29 am

“it is possible to run relatively high speed lines on existing tracks, provided they can tilt.”

Originally, the Turbo train between Toronto and Montreal hit speeds of 200km/h, although was later reduced to 160km/h due to poor track conditions.

It’s important to recognize that the main limitation on train speed, even with existing railsets, most of the time is track condition. However, it’s a lot cheaper to upgrade existing tracks to 200km/h capability, than build fancy tracks with fancy expensive turns so they can handle 300km/h.

Also, again, if we care about emissions reduction, it makes more sense to concentrate on electrifying the freight rail system than building high speed passenger services.

oleh April 24, 2009 at 1:04 am

I agree that Obama’s high speed rail plan is a progressive step, especially if electrified. I realize that 20% of US electricity is coal generated. However, almost 100% of the private ground transportation that the trains will replace
is fueled by fossil fuels. This would represent a significant improvement in fuel source alone and falls within the probable.

Train travel would also be much more pleasant and humane for the traveller.

Milan April 24, 2009 at 9:45 pm

My unconditioned cycling legs are testament to the power of drag.

15km/h is a cakewalk. 20km/h feels easy. 25km/h feels natural on level ground. 30km/h is tough to maintain for long distances. 35km/h on flat ground requires real effort. All out, I can maintain about 40km/h for a while.

Tristan April 25, 2009 at 9:24 am

Make sure your tire pressure is up to spec. It can make a real difference to rolling resistance (although, a linear one).

Mike Kushnir April 25, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Tristan, it’s true that the cost of HSR in California would be quite expensive. However, keep in mind that this is a political moot point: California voters approved this expenditure in a referendum.

In a lot of corridors, such as in Windsor-Quebec, the problem of track geometry is, of course, a concern. But rail lines are subject to congestion as well. New lines should be built – and if we are going to go to the extraordinary expense of building a new rail line, why not build it with the future in mind and make it capable of high speed? I don’t think there’s much of an argument to electrify a cross-country route. Also, I’m under the impression that the $8 billion is to help shovel-ready projects and plan for a wider network.

The point isn’t to instantly eliminate all carbon emissions. The goal is to remove as many as possible. Since the private automobile and air travel contribute overwhelmingly to the problem, it’s a goal to take away some of the market share…not just through the share-shift, but also through creating intelligent land-use changes.

Reminds me of a G&M article from last weekend that suggested that “mortgaging the future” in terms of public spending is just political spin. Sure, previous generations have borrowed and will leave us with the mortgage, but we got a house (i.e. infrastructure and a social safety net) attached, didn’t we?

Furthermore, while I agree that short distances don’t require trains running at 300 km/h or higher, the goal is to get rid of short- to medium-haul flights.

I agree that electrification doesn’t help the environment directly, especially if the energy comes from coal, but isn’t transmission-line power more efficient than having diesel engines in trains?

Milan, I’m thinking back to where you said that any clean energy scheme must include a variety of sources. Perhaps this is one of those times that we ought to look at nuclear energy without demonizing it. Imagine if we started to fund a whole whack of research on how to eliminate the negative by-products of nuclear power production? I could go for that in a second.

Tristan April 25, 2009 at 5:07 pm

“and if we are going to go to the extraordinary expense of building a new rail line, why not build it with the future in mind and make it capable of high speed?”

The answer is depressingly simple. The cost of a 200km/h rail line is obscenely cheaper than a 300km/h line. The cost of running a train at 300km/h rather than 200km/h uses four times (I don’t know the numbers, but you could look it up) the energy.

What is the point of 300km/h rather than 200? It’s just excess.

Tristan April 25, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Oh, and by the way, I shouldn’t even say 200km/h – Bombardier’s JetTrain is made to run 250km/h on existing tracks. So, really the difference is between 250km/h tracks, or 300km/h tracks. The high speed tracks cost oodles more to build, and are 1/6th faster.

Great plan. We totally need than extra 1/6th of speed. And we can totally afford it before we’ve electrified our freight rail network.

Tristan April 25, 2009 at 5:12 pm

“Furthermore, while I agree that short distances don’t require trains running at 300 km/h or higher, the goal is to get rid of short- to medium-haul flights.”

So, how many extra short haul flights will 300km/h eliminate rather than 250km/h? Less – because the higher standard means less lines can be built, and less corridors can be upgraded.

I resolutely stand opposed to the construction of passenger-only high speed rail lines. The benefit is simply too thin given the alternatives. It’s useful here to think about alternative presents – we’d likely already have jet train service in the eastern Canadian corridor if it weren’t for the Liberals balanced budgets of the 90s.

Milan April 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Given that the US is building a high speed rail system, it seems pretty worthwhile to connect major Canadian cities to it. It would be pretty good to be able to go from Montreal to Buffalo to Seattle to Vancouver, all on high speed lines.

Tristan April 26, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Certainly, we should build more lines, and they should be electrified.

I think we are too attracted to the idea of high speed “electric” passenger rail, however. If what we care about is just the reduction of reliance on fuel – then it might make sense to run diesel high speed rail and electrify freight rail, if that happened to be the method that reduce our reliance on non-electric rail energy by the greatest extent.

I’d like to see money for converting existing freight engines to run on either diesel or electric wires, and the electrification of existing lines. It’s not glamorous, but it could make a big difference to the sustainability of long term travel.

Incidentally, if you care about sustainable transportation, you need to realize that the amount of money being spent on the Gateway project, which has the hidden intent of making it possible to continue increasing the throughput of the Port of Vancouver over the next 20 years, could have been spent improving track infrastructure and/or electrifying the railyards/lines.

It’s also absurd that they would spend money to increase the road capacity when the skytrain runs at trains across the bridge at capacity during rush hour, but only runs a third as many trains as the system can accommodate.

The idea of a highspeed rail network is noble, but it is so expensive that it seems to me a distraction from the real infrastructure improvements we need.

Milan April 26, 2009 at 6:38 pm

All I mean is, if the US is going to be building extensive and expensive high speed infrastructure, the extra cost to connect Canada’s three biggest cities to it would probably be quite reasonable. Projects like the Windsor corridor would probably require a lot more investment.

Tristan April 26, 2009 at 7:33 pm

That is certainly correct. I can’t think of where one would actually put a high speed rail line between Blaine and Vancouver, but I suppose its possible. It would be excellent to be able to clear customs in Vancouver and be in Seattle in an hour, or less.

Mike Kushnir April 26, 2009 at 10:33 pm

but tristan, i’m sure that you can appreciate that the difference between trains running 160-200 km/h and trains running 350 km/h.

also, trains running above about 200 km/h need electrification. i’m not sure of the mechanics, but only bombardier has built a high-speed, non-electrified train.

however, bombardier’s jet-train has attracted a grand total of zero buyers. why? they run into the same troubles as they would in the corridor: namely, old track that is congested with freight trains.

the freight trains don’t need speeds that fast. intercity passenger trains do – a run at 350 km/h would make the run from montreal to toronto in just under 2 hours, possibly including a stop at kingston. running at 200 km/h would be nearly three hours.

listen. high speed rail isn’t panacea for anything. but i find it a bit of a daft proposal that – looking at TGV in france, AVE in spain and shinkansen in japan – we would automatically say that it wouldn’t work, period.

that’s why i’m saying that we should be funding research into how to make existing nuclear technologies cleaner and safer. if we could reduce the externalities of nuclear power to more reasonable levels, it could be one part of a new sustainable energy regime.

(sorry for the poorly-constructed arguments. i’m trying to catch up on some work and it’s killing me.)

Mike Kushnir April 26, 2009 at 10:36 pm

ps. i’m aware of gateway and how ridiculous it is. that’s why carole james deserves to be seriously turfed in this election, and why BC needs to elect its first green MLAs.

Mike Kushnir April 26, 2009 at 10:45 pm

also, just for comparison’s sake:

cost of the canada line (subway from downtown vancouver to the airport and richmond): about $1.5 billion for 19 km, including rolling stock.

cost of the LGV est line (high speeed line between paris and the german border): about $6.5 billion for 400 km, including rolling stock.

so, really, while the costs of high speed rail are certainly not inconsiderable, they are also far from obscene.

Matt April 26, 2009 at 11:32 pm

“If what we care about is just the reduction of reliance on fuel – then it might make sense to run diesel high speed rail and electrify freight rail…”

I’m not sure I agree. If I assume you’re talking about the kind of high speed rail that needs dedicated infrastructure, I can’t imagine the cost savings of not electrifying the route would be worth it. That is if they build it, they should build it right the first time.

“also, trains running above about 200 km/h need electrification.”

There’s no technical reason that this is so. It just so happens that all current successful implementations of fast rail are fully electric.

Tristan April 27, 2009 at 12:28 am

““also, trains running above about 200 km/h need electrification.”

This just isn’t true. Technically Matt’s repsonse,

“It just so happens that all current successful implementations of fast rail are fully electric.”

is correct, but only because the French “Turbotrain” was decomissioned in 2005 – 4 years ago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbotrain), and the Bombardier Jet Train (top speed – 186mph), has never been put into production.

My point about electrification is simply that its cheaper to electrify 2km of rail than build 1km of electric highspeed rail. It’s probably more like 15km of electrification to 1 km of high speed rail. Anyway, the point is if we care about carbon reduction full stop, it probably makes sense to electrify the whole freight system before we start building extremely expensive high speed lines – or depart on a project of total electrification at the same time as building high speed lines. My point is just it seems unlikely that it would ever be a carbon-reduction-maximizing move to spend a single dollar on high speed rail.

Tristan April 27, 2009 at 12:55 am

“however, bombardier’s jet-train has attracted a grand total of zero buyers. why? they run into the same troubles as they would in the corridor: namely, old track that is congested with freight trains.”

So, build new track to the same standard and don’t clog it with freight trains. Don’t build absurdly expensive low radius curves – use the tilt of the jet train instead. Run at 300km/h when possible, and 200km/h when not. The difference in cost, compared to TGV style equiptment, will be massive – and the difference in performance will not.

The main reason the Jet Train has not sold (it still might be sold to Australia) is that no one is in the market for a cheap high speed solution. Either people are willing to make no infrastructure upgrades, in which case the JetTrain is kind of a waste, or they are willing to make massive ones, in which case you live in Europe and electrification is life.

. April 27, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Porter confirms Toronto airport expansion

Canadian Press

April 27, 2009 at 12:24 PM EDT

TORONTO — Toronto’s controversial downtown airport is expanding, much to the chagrin of some residents who have vehemently opposed the project since Day 1.

Porter Airlines is investing $45-million into a new 14,000-square-metre terminal and will add more capacity to beef up its flight schedule.

The company says the expansion of the island airport, located just off the Toronto shoreline, will include 300 infrastructure jobs and boost Porter’s workforce to about 1,000.

. May 1, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Taken For A Ride

Excellent documentary by Jim Kleina and Martha Olson that shows how the automobile industry killed trolleys in North American cities and rail travel in general. It is the historical backdrop for all mass transit issues today.

Peter May 25, 2009 at 4:32 pm


Why trains run slower now than they did in the 1920s.

tristan May 26, 2009 at 10:09 am

That article doesn’t actually explain “why”, only points out some facts, “that” trains run slower now than in the 1920’s. Good link though.

I think trains run slower now due to track congestion and poor track condition – since the railbed’s main purpose is freight. But, presumably the railbed was largely for freight back then too.

Trains do not run slower because we don’t have high speed rail. Even the bog standard via diesels have no trouble pulling a long passenger train at 100mph. Sure tilting would mean higher speeds around corners, but the main reason the train isn’t faster than driving is how often it stops, and how often it slows down.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 5:20 pm

This is a neat system for making trains a bit more efficient:

Braking energy can be stored as gravitational energy by driving the vehicle up a ramp whenever you want to slow down. This gravitational energy storage option is rather inflexible, since there must be a ramp in the right place. It’s an option that’s most useful for trains, and it is illustrated by the London Underground’s Victoria line, which has hump-back stations. Each station is at the top of a hill in the track. Arriving trains are automatically slowed down by the hill, and departing trains are accelerated as they go down the far side of the hill. The hump-back-station design provides an energy saving of 5% and makes the trains run 9% faster.

I wonder if it costs significantly more to build subways this way.

. July 7, 2009 at 1:56 pm


Calgary-Edmonton train on the slow road to approval

Link between Alberta’s largest cities supported by latest report that found enough people would use the service, and the faster it is, the more riders it would have

It’s one of the most studied capital projects in Alberta history – a bullet train that would zip up and down the province, linking Edmonton and Calgary.

The popular idea was revisited Monday after the Alberta Progressive Conservatives released yet another government-commissioned study on whether a high-speed passenger train would attract riders and make economic and financial sense. This latest investigation found that enough people would use the service, and the faster the train, the more riders it would have.

Some of the trains on the route could stop in Red Deer.

Proposals for the more than 300-kilometre rail line have been around since the early 1970s, when the Tories first took power.

. July 10, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Trains like Spain’s won’t come without pains

If a fast train ever started in Canada, there’d have to be a subsidy. The question is how much

Jeffrey Simpson
Last updated on Friday, Jul. 10, 2009 02:50AM EDT

Madrid, population 3.5 million, and Greater Seville, population 1.5 million, are connected by a high-speed train.

The Spanish AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) train, essentially the French-designed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), does the 540 kilometres between the cities in 21/2 hours, better than half the driving time.

The AVE system, now extended to Malaga and Barcelona (with future lines planned to Lisbon and the Basque country in the north), offers clean, comfortable and reliable service. And wait for it: If an AVE train is more than five minutes late, passengers get their money back. Imagine that, Via Rail

The AVE, unlike Via, runs on its own track specially built for a train that can go as fast as 300 kilometres an hour. It does not share a track with freight trains, as does poor Via. It’s also operating in a country and on a continent where governments have made major financial commitments to fast trains – unlike Canada, where Ottawa keeps patching and filling the Via system.

Would an AVE/TGV-type system work operationally and financially in Canada in the Quebec City/Toronto corridor? What about from Edmonton to Calgary?

. July 23, 2009 at 11:43 am

£1bn plan to electrify rail line

A £1bn plan to electrify the main rail route between London and Swansea has been announced by the government.

A second line between Liverpool and Manchester will also be converted from diesel to electric.

Ministers say electric trains are lighter and more energy efficient, cutting the running cost and environmental impact of train services.

The Conservatives welcomed the move but said the government was leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Milan July 23, 2009 at 11:47 am

According to this BBC map, the UK already has a fair bit of electric rail:

It connects London, Bedford, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, and Edinburgh.

Other European countries also do even better:

Switzerland: 100%
Sweden: 77%
Netherlands: 73%
Italy: 69%
Germany: 56%
Spain: 56%
UK: 40%

. November 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm

VIA Rail is beginning construction of segments of a third main line track and other upgrades between Toronto and Montréal, which will improve reliability, reduce trip times and increase the frequency of VIA Rail services.

Milan November 3, 2009 at 2:59 pm

The biggest problem with train travel between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto is how much it costs relative to the bus, not how fast it is.

Tristan November 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm

To some extent the issue of bus/rail cost might come down to subsidization. How much does the bus company pay to use the road and to insure against costly disaster? How much of the cost of road-wear and safety is absorbed by the taxpayer? How does that compare with the subsidization of rail?

I would suspect that the major cost of running a train between Toronto and Montreal is the track time – trains are just as fuel efficient as buses, and require fewer staff per passenger (I think).

So, for reducing the cost of rail travel, building a third line could theoretically decrease the cost of rail travel by decreasing the opportunity costs of running the train. If now a train can only be run by displacing profitable freight traffic, that is expensive. I’m not sure how VIA purchases track time from CN rail (I’m not sure if any VIA trails run on CP lines anymore – the Canadian certainly does not) – but if it’s at a market price then that price will go down as the supply increases.

Tristan November 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

As for speed, I think this is an important draw – especially amoung people willing to pay the higher cost for rail travel. In the 70’s the express ran Montreal to Toronto in 3 hours 59 minutes – and since the current diesels are as fast (at least in the straights) as the old Turbo, a new mainline might be able to trim some of those 37 extra minutes off the current express’ time.

Milan November 3, 2009 at 4:05 pm

The train is already a bit faster than the bus, and far more comfortable. The Greyhound may well be the developed world’s least pleasant fossil-fuel powered means of intercity transport.

Personally, I would be happy to pay a modest premium to go by rail. Unfortunately, the cost differential seems to be quite large, especially for non-students.

Tristan November 3, 2009 at 4:11 pm

“Unfortunately, the cost differential seems to be quite large, especially for non-students.”

Sure – and at the current cost they can about sell-out all the trains they run. If they want to run more trains, they will likely have to lower the cost. And, if they have more tracks, they can run more trains at lower opportunity cost (without taking up the space of freight trains).

Milan November 3, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Here’s hoping that comes to pass.

When Emily returns to U of T, one or the other of us might be making the Ottawa-Toronto trek every couple of weeks.

. November 19, 2009 at 4:08 pm

High Speed Rail in Canada
November 19, 2009 by northernsong

High Speed Rail in Canada is characterized by being in the past. It’s something that was (the Turbo, the tilting LRC), or never was but perhaps could one day be (the JetTrain). It’s also characterized by existing, but not really existing (many Via trains hit 100mph in normal service, but their overall schedules are hardly “high speed”). It could also be part of the future, if certain lobbying groups get their way. It is not the only option, however, for a future, expanded vision of passenger rail in Canada.

. January 28, 2010 at 5:02 pm

A railway bonanza in China
Trouble down the track
China’s love affair with high-speed rail is a boon to foreign suppliers—for now

Jan 14th 2010 | HONG KONG | From The Economist print edition

IN SHARP contrast to the usual smooth collaboration between political and business interests in Hong Kong, thousands of protesters are expected to surround the territory’s legislative council on January 15th. They are hoping to deter the councillors from approving funding for the final 16 miles (26km) of one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, a high-speed rail network linking one end of China to another. They think it is too expensive, will involve the forced purchase of too much private property and will demolish too much of the territory’s heritage.

The same may be true of the rest of the epic project to expand China’s rail network by nearly 19,000 miles by 2015, 8,000 of which will be tracks for high-speed trains. But the media, at any rate, portray it as a point of national pride and as a huge stimulus to the economy and employment. While Hong Kong grumbles, nothing is allowed to impede this $750 billion civil-engineering juggernaut on the mainland. Indeed, last year it accelerated and, according to Jiong Shao, an analyst with Nomura Securities, the high-speed portion of this network should be finished by 2012, three years early. Urban metro lines will also expand dramatically from 620 miles to 2,800 over the next ten years, as the number of cities boasting such systems doubles from 11 to at least 22.

. October 21, 2010 at 3:00 pm

High-speed rail sought for B.C. to U.S. run
Last Updated: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 | 6:25 PM PT
The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire promise to get moving on a high-speed train that could transport passengers far down the U.S. west coast.

“We hope it will go not just from Vancouver to Portland, but on to California,” Gregoire said in a joint news conference in Vancouver Wednesday.

Washington state has already won a $600 million grant from the U.S. government to amp up their rail line from Oregon through Seattle, and that also includes money for the track to Vancouver, she said.

But Campbell said he still has to convince the federal government to help out with the “significant investment” required north of the border.

“We have not had the same kind of aggressive approach in Canada as they have in the United States with regard to high-speed rail,” he said, adding that he’s working to get Asia-Pacific Gateway Minister Stockwell Day on board.

. November 20, 2010 at 8:13 pm
. January 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Running out of steam

Don’t sell your car just yet

“IMAGINE,” Barack Obama instructed Americans last year, “boarding a train in the centre of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be, to rebuild America.”

For the citizens of Ohio and Wisconsin, at least, this vision seems destined to remain in the realm of the imagination for some time to come. Despite the enticing picture painted by the president, the incoming Republican governors of those two states see nothing but red ink when they hear the phrase “high-speed rail”. Their Democratic predecessors had seized on plans for whizz-bang new services and even persuaded the Department of Transportation to pay for most of the construction. But the incoming governors both argue that the projects are expensive boondoggles and have vowed to scrap them, even though that will mean the loss of $400m in federal funding in Ohio’s case and $810m in Wisconsin’s.

In several other states where the federal government is showering down money for high-speed rail, sceptical Republicans have denounced the idea. Rick Scott, the governor-elect of Florida, has said he will allow a planned line between Tampa and Orlando to proceed only if the state does not have to pay the final $300m needed for construction (the federal government is stumping up $2.1 billion). In California, Meg Whitman, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, said the state could not afford a planned line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite an offer of $3 billion in federal help. But she lost, so the link will at least be started.

. April 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm

CHINA’s high-speed rail network is probably the world’s most ambitious public-works project, a 21st-century equivalent of America’s Interstate highway system. Officials crow at each new speed milestone and each dramatic reduction in intercity-travel times. But after the disgrace and sacking of the railways minister and a series of other corruption investigations, the construction of the system itself may be shunted onto the slow track.

In 2008 China had only 649km of high-speed railway. It now has nearly 8,400km, four times as much as the next-largest network (Japan’s). The total will approach 19,000km by 2014, according to analysts at UBS, a Swiss bank (see map). That would be ten times as extensive as Japan’s. China is also adding copious amounts of traditional track and upgrading lines, mostly intended for freight. Estimates for the bill range from $530 billion to $750 billion in today’s money—comparable to America’s interstate system, which cost over $400 billion in 2006 dollars.

. July 30, 2011 at 12:12 pm

High-speed rail in China
Tracking slower
A showcase line, but throttling back

THE heart of China’s national railway policy has been the pursuit of speed. And having built the world’s longest high-speed network from scratch, this week the country proudly launched its showcase project, the 1,318km (820-mile) Beijing-Shanghai line. Running at speeds of over 300km an hour, the sleek electric train cuts the travel time between China’s two most important cities by nearly half, to four hours and 48 minutes.

The service is designed as a rival to air travel. Indeed, at Beijing South station, the ultra-modern facility resembles an airport. The other terminus, meanwhile, actually is at Shanghai’s domestic airport. But that means travellers lose the benefit of a downtown arrival, often touted as an advantage of trains. Even on intermediate stops, stations are far from urban centres.

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