Monday, May 25, 2015

Who's Right on Elon Musk's Hyperloop, and Does it Matter?

Three years after first releasing his idea for a "fifth mode of transportation," Elon Musk is finally planning to test his Hyperloop system - a plan that has tech gurus fawning and economists gawking.

To the unfamiliar, Hyperloop may seem like something out of Matt Groening's "Futurama" - people glide safely and comfortably at high speeds through pneumatic tubes that carry them all over. And really, Hyperloop isn't so different: capsules containing passengers move through a continuous steel tube maintained at a partial vacuum. The capsules float on air-bearing "skis" across thin layers of pressurized air, never touching the floor or walls of the tube. No touching means no friction - and no friction means it can go really, really fast.

This impression of a Hyperloop capsule features an air compressor on the front, passenger compartment in the middle, battery compartment at the back, and air-bearing skis below.
Indeed, Hyperloop is predicted to be the fastest form of transportation since the Concorde, moving people up to 760 miles per hour. That's a heck of a lot faster than the 125 mph Amtrak's Acela train reaches in New Jersey, and also speedier than the best of high-speed rail - from Japan's shinkansen to France's TGV.

That last fact is particularly important since Musk is proposing Hyperloop as an alternative to California's high-speed rail project. That project has become bogged down in eminent domain cases, declining public support, and a lack of private financing. Hyperloop, Musk and his allies would have us believe, could be built much cheaper than HSR, move faster between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and recapture California's collective imagination.

But importantly, some of those assertions are debatable. On price, Musk says his system could be built for $6 billion, far below HSR's current price tag of $68 billion. Moreover, because of the low land acquisition (Hyperloop is much thinner than rail) and construction costs, tickets would be as low as $20 - about the same I pay to ride Metro-North from Connecticut to New York City. But economists - including one at UC-Berkeley - argue that this prediction is entirely unrealistic, and that construction costs and ticket prices would be closer to $100 billion and $1,000, respectively. As an Economist editorial points out, "Nor is there any reason to believe that Hyperloop would be immune to the hypertrophication of cost that every other grand infrastructure project seems doomed to suffer."

The five-mile test project, meanwhile, is slated to cost $100 million; how far off that prediction is from reality will give us a clue as to who's more right about the complete project's price point.

A rendering of the Hyperloop test track.

On speed, there's no arguing that Hyperloop would be, if successful, far faster than HSR. But it, too, may suffer from mission creep. In order to reduce costs, segments of California's HSR that were supposed to run on their own dedicated tracks will now share tracks with freight and existing passenger trains, thus slowing HSR down substantially for those stretches. Similarly, the Hyperloop may drop passengers off on the outskirts of the city, rather than in the middle of city proper, in order to reduce costs; this would increase travel time as passengers would then have to hop on a train or bus to get into the city.

And are Californians really excited about Hyperloop? I haven't been able to find any polling other than one showing 52% of the state now opposing HSR, but not testing it against the alternative. One thing's for sure: Hyperloop would not have the support of Governor Brown's office. Brown has been a proponent - the proponent - of HSR since the 80's. It will be interesting to see what happens to the project once the term-limited Brown leaves office, but until then Hyperloop will likely be without the kind of influential political champions that brought HSR to California.

There's one final aspect of Hyperloop that should give potential supporters pause: the actual experience of riding the thing. I'll quote Wikipedia directly, since they did a great job of synthesizing the concerns:

Some critics of the Hyperloop concept have focused on the possibly unpleasant and frightening experience of riding in a narrow sealed, windowless capsule, inside a sealed steel tunnel, that is subjected to significant acceleration forces, high noise levels due to air being compressed and ducted around the capsule at near-sonic speeds, and the vibration and jostling created as the capsule shoots through a tube that is not perfectly smooth or level.... At speeds approaching 900 feet per second (270 m/s), even 1 millimeter (0.039 in) deviations from a straight path would add considerable buffeting and vibration. With no provisions for passengers to stand, move within the capsule, use a restroom during the trip, or get assistance or relief in case of illness or motion sickness, the potential for a seriously unpleasant travel experience would likely be higher than in any other popular form of public transport.
Apparently Musk's design allows for lateral G-forces of up to .5 Gs, comfortably higher than the .2-G level at which most people start to feel nauseous. Disney's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Busch Garden's SheiKra have similar levels. Does that sound like something you'd want to ride for 35 minutes?

Ultimately the debate over Hyperloop won't be settled until we see it in action. Perhaps the test track will come in on-budget and present a safe and reliable alternative to our broken and inadequate rail system. Perhaps not. Either way, we have very real problems with our transportation infrastructure that we need to address now, not at some undetermined point in the future. Hyperloop is an interesting notion, but for now its feasibility is too uncertain to be a practical path forward.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Passing Short-Term Highway Extension, House Chooses Lesser of Two Evils

Despite having nine months' notice, Congress once again ran up against a deadline and forced itself to make a difficult and avoidable choice. This time, that choice was to either let the Highway Trust Fund run dry - thereby delaying or canceling highway maintenance projects across the country at the height of construction season - or pass a short-term extension that kept projects running but perpetuated the uncertainty and frustration over the fate of the trust fund and the projects it supports.

The House chose the latter, passing a two-month extension 387-35. This means Congress will again have to take up the issue in July. Given their track record - they've passed 23 short-term extensions over the past decade - one could reasonably expect they might again run out the clock this summer.

Just about everyone involved is disappointed, from House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) ("This two-month extension was not my preference") to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ("The consequences of not doing it [the extension] would be very, very negative"). Still, despite inching closer and closer to the deadline, the heightening sense of urgency never put a long-term deal within reach and just about everyone bit the proverbial bullet and voted for the short-term fix.

The ultimate goal here - the metaphorical Holy Grail that has eluded lawmakers for so long - is a five-year bill that puts the Highway Trust Fund on a stable long-term fiscal path. But this requires raising revenue, and as I've stated before, it's hard to find agreement between Democrats and Republicans on where that money should come from. (The bill passed tonight uses pension tax changes, customs fees and money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks to contribute $10.8 billion to the fund.) In lieu of sufficient revenue from the gas tax, Congress has had to borrow $68 billion from the General Fund since 2008.

To be sure, there's no shortage of ideas for a long-term solution, whether it's an increase in the gas tax, the creation of an infrastructure bank, or a reform of the corporate tax code as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) now wants to do. One might wonder if perhaps there are too many ideas on the table, and not enough discourse over the concrete ideas that have already been proposed. Congress must choose a path forward and begin working together on refining a proposal that is mutually agreeable to enough Members to get this done.

Meanwhile, 15 states - from Connecticut to Montana to Mississippi - have already delayed or canceled highway or bridge projects this year over uncertainty about the future of federal funding. This underscores the urgent need to tackle this issue. With 800,000 jobs and billions of dollars in desperately needed infrastructure projects on the line, we obviously can't afford to let the Highway Trust Fund deplete. But so too can we not afford to continue the political brinksmanship that has enabled Congress to neglect its responsibility to provide for the maintenance of our nation's infrastructure.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Amtrak Derailment: Inaction Has Consequences

This week's Amtrak derailment killed at least eight people, with several more still in critical condition. And while we do not yet have all of the facts, it is nonetheless important to start trying to figure out what went wrong and, more importantly, what needs to change to prevent these tragedies in the future. Failure to take action will only compound our problems and put more lives at risk.

What we do know: the train was going way too fast into the curve. Evidently the train was going at 106 mph, more than double the 50-mph speed limit in the curve and also much higher than the 80-mph speed limit shortly before the curve. What isn't known is how the train got to that speed - whether the engineer accelerated the train, or there was a mechanical failure. The engineer is currently saying he can't remember anything just before the crash, so it may be a while before we know what exactly happened, and what needs to change for the future.

Still, there's no shortage of suggestions. At the center of attention is Positive Train Control (PTC), the absence of which may have allowed this week's derailment and Metro North's in December 2013. PTC is a wireless communication system connecting with trains and their engineers that can slow down or stop a speeding train if the engineer is ignoring warning signals. In other words, had the stretches of track on which these derailments occurred had PTC up and running, it may have prevented the derailments.

Amtrak actually is rolling out PTC on the Northeast Corridor, but this is far more easily - and cheaply - said than done. Because Congress ordered railroads to install PTC in 2008 but didn't actually give the railroads the wireless frequencies they need to do so, Amtrak and others have had to negotiate with the private companies that own this spectrum. In a display of cruel irony, Amtrak was just months away from having PTC in the Philadelphia area where this derailment occurred, having been approved by the FCC to purchase the spectrum it needed. Amtrak says PTC will be up and running throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year and is credited for installing the system faster than most other railways that have yet to do so.

Other safety systems could be at fault, as well. The train was equipped with "alerters," a safety system that sounds an alarm when an engineer remains idle while the train is in motion. The National Transportation Safety Board's review of the train's black box doesn't mention any alerting sounds, meaning either the system wasn't working, or the engineer wasn't idle long enough to trigger it. What we do know is that the engineer applied the emergency brakes seconds before the derailment. (Side note: Metro-North is grandfathered out of the alerters requirement, though there is legislation to change that.)

Some have started floating the idea of seatbelts on trains, but this is probably DOA: many experts say it would be nearly impossible to force travelers to wear seatbelts at all times, significantly reducing their efficacy, and that at high speeds seatbelts may actually exacerbate injuries when a train comes off the tracks.

Then there are those who point to Amtrak's general state of disrepair. Apparently the stretch of track where the derailment occurred was laid during the Civil War, when trains were slower and lighter than today's (interesting fact: apparently passenger trains are now required to be heavy enough to withstand a collision with a freight train, which is part of the reason our trains are much slower and more expensive than other countries'). One could imagine 150-year-old infrastructure might not be up to the task of shouldering the burden of modern-day rail travel. As it is, countries whose tracks are relatively new - such as in Japan or European countries with high-speed rail - have far fewer derailments than we do. That would certainly make the case against putting high-speed trains on existing rail lines. But again, we don't know the tracks caused the problem here.

Regardless, when faced with a $21 billion state-of-good-repair backlog, it's hard not to think that shoddy infrastructure may play a role in these kinds of disasters. On the other hand, many Republicans think Amtrak has enough money but isn't spending it properly; their prescription would be for more accountability and transparency, not more funding.

Ultimately, it may be a while before we know exactly what went wrong on Train 188, thus any discussion about needed improvements are for now speculative. Still, it is crystal clear that a lot needs to happen to bring rail infrastructure up-to-speed with today's heavy demand and heavier trains. Positive Train Control, or something like it, should be fully funded and speedily implemented to help avoid derailments caused by excessive speeding. Amtrak's backlog of much-needed repairs needs to be dealt with, and old and outdated regulations requiring excessive weightiness should be reexamined. We can't afford not to address these issues: even as we wait for the rest of the facts, we already know we have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A National Infrastructure Bank - with a Republican Twist

As the clock continues ticking down to the depletion of the Highway Trust Fund, there is no shortage of ideas for funding our nation's infrastructure projects. As previously discussed, some have proposed raising the gas tax to make up for the funding gap. Now, Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) has introduced legislation to instead establish a national infrastructure bank to fund the projects.

The Build USA Act (S. 1296) would allow states to enter into three-year agreements with a new American Infrastructure Bank (AIB). Under these agreements, states have the option to remit federal transportation dollars, apply for a transportation project loan through the bank, or both. More specifically, a state remitting federal highway dollars would receive 90% of it back for core infrastructure projects (defined by the bill as a "federal aid highway or highway project") with the remaining 10% available as project loans at below-market rates. The bank would be capitalized with corporate dollars repatriated from overseas - another oft-floated proposal for filling the trust fund's coffers - and the bank's board members would have the authority to raise capital by issuing debt securities.

Interestingly, it is the states, not the AIB or another federal entity, who have the authority under this bill to determine whether its own projects comply with federal requirements for environmental approval, construction design, right-of-way acquisition, and so on. This is the so-called "Republican twist" alluded to in the title of this post: Fischer is selling the bill as "reducing regulatory burdens," a common theme in Republican talking points regarding large infrastructure or economic projects.

The idea of establishing an infrastructure bank to fund highway projects is not new: Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), for example, has introduced several times the National Infrastructure Development Bank Act, which similarly establishes an infrastructure bank but to fund not just highway projects, but all kinds of transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure projects. The differences between the two bills don't end there. Most notably, responsibility for regulatory compliance with the DeLauro bill is placed in federal hands, directing the Bank to "take into account the economic, environmental, and social benefits, and costs of each project under consideration... prioritizing projects that contribute to economic growth, lead to job creation, and are of regional or national significance." Fischer would likely say DeLauro's version "over-burdens" states looking to secure monies for their infrastructure projects.

In addition, rather than repatriating corporate profits, the bill appropriates federal money to capitalize the bank. DeLauro's bill also authorizes the Bank to sell America Infrastructure Bonds; it's not immediately obvious whether or how this is different from Fischer's issuance of debt securities. DeLauro's bill is generally much more specific than Fischer's, including processes for risk management and auditing, Davis-Beacon Act and Buy America provisions, and record-keeping guidelines.

Fischer asserts her proposal is more viable than raising the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since the 1990's and as a result has been outpaced by the rise in highway construction costs. So is establishing an infrastructure bank the way to go? The idea generally has bipartisan support, but the devil may be in the details as differing political parties have different views over what such a bank would look like.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Heat Kinks, or What I Learned Sitting on Amtrak for 10 Hours

After spending a few days in Toronto, I was on my way back to Syracuse via Amtrak's Maple Leaf service yesterday. We had just departed Niagara Falls after our customs inspection when our conductor informed us that, due to "heat restrictions," we would have to travel 20 mph below the usual speed limit; what's more, because of signalling malfunctions also related to the heat, we'd have to travel even slower than that for the first 10 or so miles. Because of this, we'd end up being delayed by an hour or more.

Now, frustrating as they may be, Amtrak delays are nothing new. Indeed, here in upstate New York, where Amtrak has to share tracks with gigantic freight trains that apparently always have the right of way over passenger trains, falling behind schedule is pretty much par for the course. But when your train is crawling down the track at 35 mph and you're watching cars zip by you on the highway, the whole thing just feels a little bit pathetic. (Once the signalling problems were resolved, we were able to go at 59 mph, the aforementioned 20 mph reduction from the usual 79 mph speed limit.)

But what exactly are these heat restrictions, and why are they necessary? Amtrak's own explanation is a bit lacking, so armed with an academic curiosity and several hours to kill, I took to the internet to answer this question. I ultimately found my answer at a forum called Amtrak Unlimited, which had a thread going 10 years ago on this very issue. According to the administrator of the site, him- or herself an engineer, many years ago train tracks were "jointed," meaning short stretches of track had small spaces between them to accommodate the fact that steel gets longer in hot weather and shorter in cold weather. But, as PRR60 writes:
Use of continuous welded rail (CWR) changed all that. Rail was now laid in 1/4-mile lengths and then those lengths welded together into continuous sections miles long. Physical spacing for actual expansion or contraction of the rail was no longer practical or even possible. So accommodation of the thermal effects had to take another route: stress. Push hard enough on a section of rail and it will shorthen: pull hard enough and it will lengthen. So take those miles-long sections of rail, tie them tight to the ties, anchor the ties firmly into the ballast, and ensure the ballast is heavy and well supported by the subgrade. If all that is done just right, when the rail gets hot it will not lengthen but instead will be resisted by high compressive forces (pushing), and when the rail gets cold it will not shorten but will be resisted by high tensile forces (pulling).
But when the weather is particularly hot or cold, the stress placed on the track by its inability to expand or contract can overpower these man-made forces:
If in the hot weather there is a soft spot in the track structure, particularly on a curve, the compressive force in the rails can cause the track to buckle: a heat kink. In the cold weather, the high tensile forces can find a weak spot or defect in the rail and cause a fracture. 99.99% of the time everything works as designed, but when extremes are reached, it is prudent to be cautious and increase inspections and reduce speeds to reduce track forces and lessen the potential severity of a failure.
Apparently slower trains put less stress on the tracks than do faster trains, hence the speed restrictions.

Avoiding heat kinks is a matter of public safety: the green line derailment in Washington, DC a few years ago was caused by such a kink, and Canada experienced one as well back in 2002. Not only are these heat kinks dangerous, but they also result in delays for thousands of commuters.

Which begs the question: if heat kinks are so dangerous, why put ourselves in a position where they're more likely? In other words, why switch from jointed rail to CWR in the first place? According to that same user, it's all about the maintenance costs:
Even though the installation of CWR requires some tender loving care and you have to be careful in temperature extremes, the day-to-day maintenance of well constructed CWR is much, much lower than jointed rail. Today's heavy trains just beat the track structure to death and CWR stands up much better to that abuse than jointed rail.
So CWR is pretty much here to stay, which means heat kinks and heat restrictions will continue to be part and parcel of operating rail wherever it gets hot. But are there ways of reducing the need for heat restrictions within this environment?

There's no shortage of suggestions, such as painting tracks white, hosing down the tracks when the temperature gets high (which seems like a tough sell when parts of this country are dealing with historic droughts), or changing the height of rail ties to allow for some rail expansion. MassDOT is undergoing a project to relieve some of the stress on its tracks, essentially super-heating each segment of track to test for heat kinks, and then trimming if need-be. If this is effective at reducing the frequency of heat restrictions - evidently the Framingham/Worcester line is plagued with them - then perhaps it can serve as a model for other parts of the country.

Monday, May 4, 2015

To Attract New Business, Invest in Mass Transit

Cities that are looking to attract businesses to their region should be sure to provide potential employees with an affordable way to access those jobs, according to a new Urban Studies report. (Note: access to the full paper requires a subscription.)

Researchers from the Center for Businesses and Economic Research at Ball State University examined Rust Belt counties with and without fixed-route bus systems and found an inverse relationship between transportation investment and employee turnover. In other words, counties that invested more in mass transit had lower employee turnover. This, in turn, means cost savings for businesses in the area, which can spend less on finding, hiring, and training new workers.

All this taken together, the report concludes that cities interested in attracting new businesses to the region should invest in mass transit, as these businesses want to expand in cities where workers can affordably and reliably get to work; this has the added benefit of helping low-income people access jobs, as these people might not be able to afford cars to get to said jobs.

While this is nothing new - it's a given that businesses need employees, and that mass transit helps employees get to work - it nonetheless provides further empirical evidence of the connection between investment in transit and economic development.

So, every city should have a bus system. This is easier said than done, though.  Imagine a city that doesn't yet operate a bus system. Starting from scratch, this city would have to make a huge capital investment in purchasing the buses they'd need to run the system. At $300,000 or more a head for diesel buses - those running on natural gas, or hybrid models, cost more - that's a pretty big expense for the type of small or mid-size city we're talking about. America's cities aren't exactly drowning in windfalls these days. And apparently it's standard to pay for the whole bus up front, rather than borrowing money and paying it back over time, likely meaning a revenue increase would be necessary to raise the required amount all at once. We all know how much everyone likes to see their taxes go up.

And lest we forget the typical bus's service life of 12 years, meaning this big investment isn't even a one-time deal. Not to mention personnel expenses to hire all the drivers, schedulers, human resources, admin, etc, etc. When you add up all these expenses, it's understandable that some of America's smaller cities may make the rational, if short-sighted decision simply to go without.

It's also not immediately obvious whom this applies to, anyway: most US cities already have some kind of bus system by now. Arlington, Texas, once (in)famous for being the largest US city without a bus system, finally got a line in 2013, and no city seems to have stepped up to take the title. Reliable mass transit for a city hoping to lure businesses to their borders has become more of a prerequisite than a selling point.