Saturday, March 20, 2010

The real future of transportation

Randal O' Toole has such a great essay in the Wall Street Journal this morning, I have to pass it along (with my own highlights). Its main theme is about the self-driving cars of the future, but it also brings up a lot of inconvenient facts about the alternatives, like inter- and intra-city rail - which are the emerging themes of the next federal transportation bill. This fits into my ongoing thesis that personal vehicles are now a permanent and integral part of our culture. They may change propulsion technology to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, or - as he points out below - have a revolution in navigation technology (which will radically reduce congestion), but they are here to stay - and cities that make life hard for cars by under-investing in roads and freeways (or over-fantasizing about rail and TOD) will lose out in the national and international competition for jobs, talent, and growth.

Taking the Driver Out of the Car
Why robocars, and not high-speed rail, could revolutionize transportation in the next decade
By RANDAL O'TOOLE

'Your grandchildren will snap across the entire continent in 24 hours on a new kind of highway and in a new kind of driverless car that is controlled by the push of a button," futurist Norman Bel Geddes promised in 1940. Mr. Bel Geddes designed Futurama, the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which in many ways inspired the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

Driverless cars have so far remained the stuff of science fiction. Seventy years after Mr. Bel Geddes's promise, they are finally close to reality.

Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.

Yet the potential for advanced personal mobility is being ignored in debates over surface transportation. These debates come to a head every six years, when Congress hashes out how to spend federal gas tax revenues. Congress has increasingly diverted the funds—$40 billion a year by last count—from highways to transit.

The Obama administration and House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D., Minn.) want to go even further in the next reauthorization, now scheduled for 2011. The administration has focused on a new national high-speed rail system, as well as streetcars, light rail and other projects, to reduce driving and congestion.

Yet driverless cars could render the hand-wringing over roads versus rail needless. Driverless technologies were demonstrated in 1997 on a California freeway when eight cars without drivers successfully operated just one car length apart at 65 miles per hour. In 2007, six cars negotiated the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Urban Challenge, following all traffic rules in an urban environment with other vehicles.

Volkswagen says enhanced global positioning systems can keep cars within two centimeters of their desired location on streets and highways. This summer, the company will demonstrate its technology by running a driverless Audi at racing speeds up the twisty Pikes Peak road.

At the 2007 event, General Motors vice president of research Lawrence Burns predicted that completely driverless cars would be on the market by 2018. He added that the primary obstacles were legal and bureaucratic, not technological.

Driverless vehicles offer huge advantages over current autos. Because computer reaction times are faster, driverless cars can safely operate more closely together, potentially tripling highway throughput. This will virtually eliminate congestion and reduce the need for new road construction.

Toyota's recent recalls naturally lead to worries that computer glitches could cause serious accidents. Since each car will be independently controlled, a failure in one would simply lead others to avoid that car. Modern cars already have numerous built-in computers that do things, such as anti-lock braking, far more reliably than humans, even those who are not texting or inebriated. Any serious problems could be quickly corrected through wireless software upgrades.

Driverless cars and trucks will be safer. They will also be greener, first by significantly reducing congestion, and eventually because vehicles will be lighter in weight due to reduced collision risks.

Perhaps most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to everyone, not just those able to pass a driver's test. While many people will still choose to own a car, increased numbers may rely on car sharing. Outside of ultra-high-density areas such as Manhattan, driverless cars will render urban transit and intercity passenger trains even more obsolete than they are today.

The American automobile fleet turns over every 18 years, so if Mr. Burns's prediction that driverless cars will hit the market by 2018 comes true, we could have a completely driverless system by 2036. State highway officials could accelerate this timetable by working with auto manufacturers to set standards and a transition path. State and local highway agencies could install wireless communication systems at major intersections and highways—a much less costly undertaking than building new roads, much less high-speed rail.

President Obama's so-called high-speed rail plan mostly consists of moderate-speed trains running at top speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, speeds attained by many railroads in the 1930s. This will attract few people out of their cars. The proposals for trains running at 160 to 220 miles per hour in California and Florida will cost at least 10 times as much to build as the 110-mph lines, but they are not likely to attract 10 times as many passengers.

As Burlington Northern Santa Fe CEO Matt Rose testified to Congress last April, building a national network of true high-speed rail lines would cost roughly $1 trillion, more than twice as much as the inflation-adjusted cost of the Interstate Highway System. While interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other road user fees, all the capital and billions of dollars of annual operating costs of high-speed rail will be borne by general taxpayers, most of whom will rarely ride the trains.

America's population distribution makes passenger trains here less effective than in Europe or Japan. Yet even abroad, the average residents of France and Japan ride high-speed trains less than 400 miles per year, making up just 4% to 6% of all passenger travel.

France and Japan have each spent roughly as much per capita subsidizing their high-speed trains as we spent building our interstate highways. Yet the average American travels 10 times as many miles on the interstates as the average French or Japanese travel on high-speed trains.

Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington cover most of their operating (but not capital) costs. To do so, fares are some 10 times greater than many relatively unsubsidized bus services that carry about three times as many passengers in the northeast corridor as the Acela.

Claims that trains are environmentally friendly may apply to freight trains, but not passenger. A 50-ton railcar can carry 100 tons of cargo, making freight trains highly energy-efficient. However, a 50-ton passenger car carries only about 15 tons (170 people), and more typically carries about 2 to 3 tons (25 to 35 people), resulting in average weights per passenger that are several times greater than for cars or buses.

In January, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood eliminated Federal Transit Administration requirements that federally funded streetcars and other rail transit be "cost effective" relative to buses. The FTA then funded costly streetcar projects in Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans and Tucson despite the fact that low-cost investments in traffic signal coordination, buses or many other projects would do far more to relieve congestion and improve mobility.

A return to rails would turn the clock back to a time when only the wealthy had access to easy mobility. The 19th century witnessed several amazing transportation breakthroughs, including steamboats, steam trains and electric streetcars. Yet in 1910 most Americans enjoyed little more personal mobility than they had 100 years prior. High fares for steamboats and passenger trains mainly limited such travel to the wealthy. Streetcars served only urban areas and were popular with the upper classes.

The revolution that finally brought mobility to the masses was Henry Ford's low-cost Model T, which most factory workers could afford. Since 1910, individual travel has grown from an average of about 3,000 to well over 18,000 miles per year. Cars contributed to a seven-fold increase in personal incomes.

Automobiles continue to maintain a huge cost advantage over passenger rail. Counting both subsidies and personal costs, Americans spend less than 25 cents a passenger mile on autos, nearly 60 cents a passenger mile on Amtrak, and more than 90 cents a passenger mile on urban transit. No wonder 85% of all our passenger travel is by automobile.

The call to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to build the world's finest, 1930s-era transportation network would benefit the wealthy and those willing to live and work in expensive quarters near rail stations.

In contrast, the driverless scenario relies on new technology, not old; and will largely be self-funded by users rather than paid out of tax dollars. Most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to almost everyone.

—Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It."

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35 Comments:

At 4:08 PM, March 20, 2010, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

Why not just ink and lightly excerpt instead of violating copyright?

Or did I miss the Creative Commons label?

 
At 4:29 PM, March 20, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I used to be able to get reliable links behind the WSJ paywall, but not anymore. And I don't think they care too much about opinion pieces. Plus I'm certain Randal will be posting it to his blog, but it's not there yet.

 
At 1:01 AM, March 21, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Robocars? Okay... I don't really know how to get a hold of him, so could you please shoot him an email and tell him I have a bridge to sell just to him, for really cheap?

 
At 8:34 AM, March 21, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My personal opinion based on my technology background: cars will be able to self drive on the freeways this decade. But surface streets are much harder. Cars may have an automatic mode that works on surface streets, but I imagine it will be ultra-conservative and too slow to be acceptable to most - so it will only be used by people who otherwise can't drive (very old, very young, etc.).

 
At 10:00 PM, March 21, 2010, Anonymous George Vogt said...

It will certainly be more relaxing to let your car drive itself to Dallas, but a drive-on, drive-off train like the Eurostar will cut the time from 4 hours to less than 3 even at the moderate speed of 90 mph. And at 120 mph, two hours there and two hours back turns an overnighter into a day trip.

Of course, knowing the way Texas rail systems are managed, there will probably only be a couple of trains per day, making the wait for a train departure longer than the time it takes to drive to Hobby Airport, park your car, survive TSA scrutiny, get on the half-hourly flight to Dallas, find a rental car, conduct your business, and perform the reverse process to get back home.

 
At 8:24 AM, March 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Call me a wet blanket but I think the technology for driverless cars (even on the freeways) is several decades off. This reminds me of people saying cheep abundant fusion power will be upon us in 20-25 years (they have been saying that for 50) or individuals claiming that speech recognition software will be perfect and actively used in a matter of years.


The truth is there are so many unforeseen obstacles that you, I, and Mr. O’Toole cannot see that to plan our transportation infrastructure on this concept simply irresponsible.


--I will say this though, the day society perfects an automatic driving system is the day the personal owned vehicle will become useless for the vast majority of the population. Why own a car when you can walk to any street corner and order one to pick you up and bring you to your destination? And for those rare trips to rural areas they can be rented. This concept though is something I think Mr. O’Toole would not like to think about.

 
At 9:06 AM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, I think he'd be fine with that. It still supports his main point: people will be using cars to get around for the foreseeable future (whether personally owned or not), so let's get past the fantasy that rail transit can remake society.

 
At 9:24 AM, March 22, 2010, Anonymous Garry G said...

Tory - had your post forwarded by an old mutual acquaintance!

I am a believer in both systems -- and agree that the highest impact (change to the system) will be the emerging era of assistive and autonomous vehicles.

And then I also believe the global competitive pressures related to connected cities and localization via mega regions also provide support for high speed rail corridors.

Re: assistive technology - we are certainly at the beginning of a sustained path forward. And it is becoming easier to develop roadmaps and forecasts.

'Connected Cars' is a meme that will soon become mainstream- and the off the shelf commercialization of autonomous systems does give support to dropping costs.

For now, I think we need to focus on 'assistive' and smarter drivers - as a way of bridging cultural challenges associated with autonomous vehicles. Based on current product-service line and path I suspect most new cars sold by 2017 will have some sort of standard embedded 'smart' 'assistive' features. And most cars will have some sort of retrofitted mobile device for connecting cars by 2020.

The 'grow with flow' potential of informed drivers is very tempting!

Then we will need to reframe the role of the human. My preference is to avoid the battle of 'oh, you want to take away control' - and instead frame it around empowering the driver to become a 'captain' based on situational awareness systems.

Two posts you might find of interest:

http://www.garrygolden.net/2010/02/26/future-of-auto-industry-telematics-and-connected-cars-will-transform-the-driver-into-captain/

http://www.garrygolden.net/2010/01/25/beyond-the-military-a-bright-future-for-situational-awareness-systems/

Trust all is well in Houston!!

Regards
Garry G
Brooklyn, NY

 
At 10:17 AM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>people will be using cars to get around for the foreseeable future (whether personally owned or not), so let's get past the fantasy that rail transit can remake society.

If they aren't personally owned, and you just walk to the corner of Westheimer and 610 and get in an autonomous vehicle, then I think you basically have arrived at Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. I think that is likely a couple decades away, but I'd be happy with that outcome - it would still be a revolutionary change from what we have now. In any case, mass transit won't go away either - and rail will likely play a strong role in that - there will always be scenarios, as in air travel or bus travel, where it makes sense to transport multiple people via the most efficient means possible. Dallas to Houston, for instance, should have a high speed rail connection. If many people use PRT when they arrive in Dallas or Houston - great - then you've just solved the last mile problem - and that just makes the rail connection better.

If you could make your PRT system all electric, all connected to renewable sources, and capable of traveling at 200 mph, then I'd be fine with not having a rail component - because I think that would be an extraordinary step in the right direction towards clean, efficient travel.

 
At 1:56 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The only way you can pull off 200 mph is by having the vehicle run as a train. The friction coefficient for rubber tires on concrete/asphalt is too high, and so is the stopping time at high speed. (Trains have an even longer stopping time, but they can seat 1,300, not 5.)

So in summary, the ideal intercity transportation system needs to have a low friction coefficient, automatic supervision to prevent accidents, and train-like running to increase capacity. In other words, it's high speed rail.

Seriously, this discussion reminds me of Asimov's discussion of the ideal features of a reading machine, concluding that it's a book.

 
At 2:32 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>The only way you can pull off 200 mph is by having the vehicle run as a train.

Not necessarily - this car goes 1000 mph:
http://www.bloodhoundssc.com/

If you could just power it from wind energy instead of jet engines, and make it drive itself, I'd have no problem driving that bad-boy up I-45 to Dallas! Just watch out for my sonic boom!

But in all likelihood, yes - high-speed rail is the better idea, and more likely in the relative near-term :)

 
At 3:09 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Well, there are rocket trains that go at 10,000 km/h... but for conventional, mass-produced vehicles, the current upper limit for trains is 350-380 km/h.

Cars are more complicated, because a lot of existing high-powered models can do 300; however, they're really expensive and inefficient, and the capacity issue is brutal. Most people aren't going to be driving Porsches anytime soon. For conventional mass-produced cars sold at affordable prices, the limit is about 160-200.

 
At 6:04 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Cars don't have to be anywhere near as fast as high-speed rail to be more than competitive, because they take you directly where you want to go, solving the expense and hassle of the last-mile problem (or really more likely the last 20-miles problem) - whether it's transit or renting a car. As Randal pointed out, a *lot* more people ride cheaper, slower buses in the NE corridor than Acela.

And then for distances where the high-speed rail would substantially outpace 100+mph cars, at that point you're in airplane territory - which, btw, have none of the collision risk that high-speed trains do (absolutely nothing can be allowed to get on the at-grade tracks: fallen trees, power lines, cows, cars, trucks, terrorists with metal-cutting torches...)

 
At 8:32 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>As Randal pointed out, a *lot* more people ride cheaper, slower buses in the NE corridor than Acela.

I don't see him claim that in this article, but in any case even if that is true, which I don't doubt, that doesn't change the fact that Acela gets something like 3 million riders per year and has significant market share. Ridership is down in 2009-2010 but then - so is nearly everything else. When the economy recovers expect ridership to continue rising. And Acela is *barely* high-speed rail.

>>solving the expense and hassle of the last-mile problem (or really more likely the last 20-miles problem) -

That may be true in most cases. Then again, maybe I want to do some work on my way up to Dallas and I have a friend picking me up or I don't care about renting a car for a couple days once I arrive - maybe high-speed rail would work better for me. What percentage of the time might this be? I'd say a substantial percentage, especially for business travelers.

>>And then for distances where the high-speed rail would substantially outpace 100+mph cars, at that point you're in airplane territory

You are in airplane territory. But high-speed rail dominates on routes of distances like Dallas - Houston, Houston - San Antonio, or Houston - New Orleans.

Sure, there are still going to be people that drive, fly, or take the bus, just as occurs in the Northeast Corridor or in Europe. Nobody is arguing that rail will become the only option for people - just that it is an option that should also exist for those that it will serve.

>>which, btw, have none of the collision risk that high-speed trains do (absolutely nothing can be allowed to get on the at-grade tracks: fallen trees, power lines, cows, cars, trucks, terrorists with metal-cutting torches...)

If you are really trying to convince someone like me that you are right, an argument like this costs you nearly all your credibility. Was 9/11 a train accident? Was Pan Am a train accident? Was TWA flight 800 a train accident? Now, name one case where a high-speed rail line was impacted by cows. You are arguing that there is a statistically greater risk to trains than planes, so prove it - don't just claim it.

Meanwhile, *AMTRAK* has something like 90% on time performance (really, Amtrak??) versus planes at something like 75%. In Europe I'm pretty sure high speed rail runs at >95% on time performance regardless of weather, and can be made as reliable as you want pretty much - you can achieve 99% on-time fairly easily, as opposed to plane travel.

So if I want to get to Dallas on-time and in under 2 hours, it really is a no-brainer. Factor in winter weather, hurricanes, ice, and huge thunderstorms like we have down here and it's maybe not a slam-dunk, but an easy layup for high-speed rail.

The fact that we are building HSR in Florida to me means this is going to be everywhere in the next 20 years. So you better hope Florida and CA fail miserably... because people generally like these systems once they are built out.

 
At 10:12 PM, March 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, the NEC has slow, unreliable trains, so it's not a good example of the power of HSR. A better example is the Shinkansen and TGV networks.

First, the Shinkansen and TGV have never had a fatal accident while running at high speed. Even while running at lower speed on lines with grade crossings, accidents almost never happen. For example, JR East's entire network, both high- and low-speed, has barely one thousandth the fatality rate per passenger-km of the US road network.

Second, both the TGV and Shinkansen are the dominant carriers in their respective intercity markets. For example, between Tokyo and Osaka, the Shinkansen has about 50% of the total market. Amtrak has either 6% or 14% of the NY-DC market - I've read different numbers in different reports. It's so weak it quotes numbers for the air/rail market only, which makes its performance look much better than it actually is.

Third, the highway competition to HSR often does support high speeds. Modern highways should be able to support any speed the cars on them are capable of. Until the government started seriously enforcing the speed limit in 2007, traffic flowed at 160-200 km/h on many French highways. But that itself was only possible due to low demand; on more congested road networks, for example in Germany and the US, traffic rarely permits higher speed than 100-130, regardless of speed limits.

 
At 9:14 AM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've already argued in the past on this blog that that the niche middle travel market between cars/buses and planes is too small to justify the cost of HSR. Now I'm saying that niche just shrank a whole lot more if you can assume automated cars on inter-city freeways going anywhere near 100mph (and, as he points out, automation will vastly increase throughput and reduce congestion). Yes, HSR makes sense in dense and transit-oriented Japan, Europe, and the NE US corridor. But not in the rest of the US, and certainly not in FL or TX.

As far as security: I will point out the bombing of the trains in Spain a few years ago. And plenty of disastrous crashes and derailings: inter- and intra-city, freight and passenger. Germany had several people killed in a HSR crash recently. And as hard as airport security is today, it's clearly a hundred times easier than securing hundreds of miles of track through the countryside. That's the beauty of planes miles up in the sky - no obstacles, no collisions, few risks.

 
At 9:34 AM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>Now I'm saying that niche just shrank a whole lot more if you can assume automated cars on inter-city freeways going anywhere near 100mph (and, as he points out, automation will vastly increase throughput and reduce congestion)

That doesn't increase efficiency of the single auto vehicle - it still makes more sense to transport 200 people per vehicle than 1 person, as Alon and I have noted.

And as I've said if we have true PRT systems in 10-20 years as well then I think this switches the balance back even more strongly towards HSR. Take a 200 mph train to Dallas, then hop in your DART-owned PRT vehicle once you get there for a minimal cost - much less than taxis or renting cars - b/c you are not paying a driver and you pay only for the time of the trip you need (then someone else hops into the same PRT auto and starts using it) - plus it may be heavily subsidized.

 
At 10:49 AM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'll repeat this paragraph:

"Claims that trains are environmentally friendly may apply to freight trains, but not passenger. A 50-ton railcar can carry 100 tons of cargo, making freight trains highly energy-efficient. However, a 50-ton passenger car carries only about 15 tons (170 people), and more typically carries about 2 to 3 tons (25 to 35 people), resulting in average weights per passenger that are several times greater than for cars or buses."

If the PRT happens, then you're right that it helps HSR (as any local transit improvement does), but I certainly don't see fixed-guideway PRT happening. Maybe automated car taxis will be a sort of PRT? Maybe. Even so, I think most people will find it far more convenient to point their 100mph automated car (which has been customized to their preferences) on the freeway to their exact destination than go park, catch HSR on a schedule, and then pay for both it and PRT - esp. to reasonable distance destinations like Austin and DFW. The transfers at each end will eat up all of the time saved by the faster HSR.

Another note on automated car PRT: it's unclear if it will be like a taxi (no personal responsibility/control/insurance) or like renting a car (some control/responsibility/insurance). I suspect more towards the latter (esp. early on), with all of the attendant hassles. If it happens as I suspect, car automation will come on freeways way before surface streets.

 
At 3:58 PM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

As far as security: I will point out the bombing of the trains in Spain a few years ago. And plenty of disastrous crashes and derailings: inter- and intra-city, freight and passenger. Germany had several people killed in a HSR crash recently.

First, Germany skimped on safety. I know it's not the usual stereotype of German engineering, but DB has been sloppy a lot lately, leading to an immediate recall of 75% of the Berlin S-Bahn rolling stock.

Second, terrorists don't target HSR anymore - it's not as densely packed as local traffic. Carlos the Jackal bombed the TGV once, but the death toll was in the single digits, as a train failure isn't as catastrophic as a plane crash. Since then, terrorists have targeted local transit. The Spanish attack was on a train station, not HSR, and ended up killing about an order of magnitude fewer people as 9/11.

Look up accident statistics on the TGV and Shinkansen. They're safer than air, and much, much safer than driving.

(and, as he points out, automation will vastly increase throughput and reduce congestion)

On a local road, it might. On a freeway, it's useless. The capacity on a freeway is limited by stopping time, which at highway speeds is dominated by braking time and not reaction time. The increase in braking time from driving at 100 mph is much, much larger than any savings in reaction time coming from positive automobile control.

 
At 4:59 PM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Everything I've read says it can up to triple the capacity of a freeway. Cars can drive much closer together, and communicate down the line to coordinate braking. I doubt it would go anywhere near 100mph inside the city - probably more like 70mph. The 100mph would be in the countryside, where congestion is much less of a problem.

 
At 8:36 PM, March 23, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I'll believe it when I see it. A lot of PRT advocates drool about half-second headways, but so far the headways remain stuck at about 2-2.5 seconds, the same as on freeways but at lower speed. They've had decades of test lines and projects for it, but so far their fully automatic, track-bound, 100% computer-controlled system can't do better.

 
At 9:24 AM, March 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From someone who was stupid enough to drive over 120 mph per hour in the past, I think that the focus on stopping time (that is, down to 0 mph) is not the important factor on a rural interstate, but rather a slowing time (down to a cautious speed like 50 mph) and reaction time.

On Texas's rural interstates at least (and not something like this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monteagle_Mountain), a computer could easily detect a traffic jam up ahead based on any number of technologies: line of sight, radar, sensors in/next the road, GPS/satellite signals, communication with nearby cars, etc., etc.

When I drive on a rural interstate, and traffic at a standstill ahead, I usually see the traffic stopped 1 to 2 miles ahead, and I start slowing gradually. The vast majority of people don't seem to adjust (or adjust very little) their speed until almost 1/4 mile from the traffic jam. I see a lot of room for improvement; this is really low-hanging fruit.

I could foresee the technology being good enough to detect a black truck tire on a black asphalt road 1/2 mile ahead in the middle of the night. Certainly humans can't do that now. Hence, the speeds will be higher.

Plus, in this case, the car might only have to slow down to 85 mph to change lanes to avoid hitting the obstacle, not stop to 0 mph.

If there's an obstacle in front of a train (a cow, stalled car, warped track), what are its options? I'm not saying that these obstacles occur that often, but it's certainly somewhat of a disadvantage for the train.

 
At 12:27 PM, March 24, 2010, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

I love how everyone seems to think that a cow or some animal on track of a high speed rail train would somehow be a problem but fail to mention the same scenario in terms of automobiles.

If a high speed train hits a deer that's not going to be much of a problem (likely wouldn't even notice it). If you hit a deer going 120 in a car, truck or SUV (computer controlled or not), you're dead meat.

Anyway, this whole discussion is silly. It's simply stupid to plan transportation policy around a technology that is unproven and unavailable. Hell, why didn't O'Toole just talk about flying cars or teleportation while he's at it?

This is simply another attempt by him and his supporters to try and stop REAL transportation options for this country.

 
At 2:00 PM, March 24, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The relevant comparison for track blockages/damage are airplanes, not cars. When it comes to cars, we're talking about 100mph or less, nothing like the 200+ mph trains.

 
At 2:41 PM, March 24, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>The relevant comparison for track blockages/damage are airplanes, not cars. When it comes to cars, we're talking about 100mph or less, nothing like the 200+ mph trains.

Hmm... it seems like if we are comparing the dangers for surface transport, the relevant comparison would be cars. It seems like your ideal car would go just fast enough to make HSR unnecessary, but just slow enough to be completely impervious to any surface dangers - in other words - it would be completely perfect - am I right or am I right?

In any case, the fatality rates on HSR are something like 0%, comparable to air. Much better than cars. Hypothetical dangers from cows notwithstanding. The danger of cows to HSR is probably much less than the danger of 2 planes having a midair collision near LaGuardia.

 
At 2:44 PM, March 24, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>The danger of cows to HSR is probably much less than the danger of 2 planes having a midair collision near LaGuardia.

I mean probability of a fatal accident, just to be clear.

 
At 4:40 PM, March 24, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

If there's an obstacle in front of a train (a cow, stalled car, warped track), what are its options?

In developed countries, i.e. not the US, the cow wouldn't wander on the tracks in the first place. The tracks are physically separated from other traffic. A sensor system detect objects falling onto the tracks, or cars stalling at grade crossings, and then a positive train control system stops the train before it hits anything.

All this is part of the existing cost of high-speed rail, which is still about $15-30 million per km, comparable to US Interstate widening projects. Brand new low-speed rail costs about $10 million/km in Europe. Unlike the various futuristic car gadgets O'Toole cooks up, it's not an extra that drives costs further up.

The "What if?" questions are really wearing, considering that we're talking about transportation that's three orders of magnitude safer than roads. This is not hypothetical; all of this is existing, decades-old technology.

 
At 5:16 PM, March 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I love how everyone seems to think that a cow or some animal on track of a high speed rail train would somehow be a problem but fail to mention the same scenario in terms of automobiles."

That wasn't even the point of the post, and I even conceded that it was not often a problem for trains, i.e., a low accident rate.

A stalled vehicle or purposely placed vehicle like in the 2005 Glendale crash or warped track or other mechanical/logistical problem (e.g. Chatsworth train collision) with the track are certainly problems for the train, ones that it can only avoid by coming to a stop.

The first paragraph inthis article is exactly what I'm talking about (though it appears no one died in this one). The problem was detected, but the only option was to stop. Unless you're proposing to have brakes that stop the train much more quickly, the result would be the same.

And I would bet that with a nationwide HSR system put in place, that it would suddently become a more attractive target for terrorism. Though the casualties might be a lot lower, the resources needed to pull off such an attack and the probability of ANY practical, conceivable security system along the routes of thwarting such an attack is also much lower. Unless terrorism suddenly drops as a global phenomenon, I would expect this threat to increase with nationwide HSR, not remain constant.

But even with these limitations, I haven't claimed that this limitation makes rail have a higher accident rate than automobile travel.

The point was that saying the car has to slow to 0 mph from 100 mph as quickly as possible is not a good metric. The car can change lanes, move 12 inches to the right within its lane, swerve onto the shoulder -- basically use lateral movement to avoid a collision. For the car, automatic detection of hazards ahead, coupled with a computer-controlled response has the potential to bring enormous improvement in the fatality rate.

With these improvements, the fatality rate of automobile accidents will likely not be as low as that of high speed rail for decades after the technology is introduced -- but it doesn't have to be. People don't choose air travel because it's the safest; they choose it because they want to get somewhere quickly. People also travel at a speed on the freeway which optimizes (in their mind) speed, lack of stress, fuel usage, probability of getting a ticket, and safety. We obviously know that not all people weigh the same factors the same way, and even the same person will make different "caculations" every time they drive.

So while I realize that this technology is not ready for use on the roads yet, I also think it's short-sighted to discount it because of simply "stopping distance" (without all of the other considerations and detection systems) when evaluating this technology.

 
At 5:18 PM, March 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"calculations", I meant.

 
At 5:23 PM, March 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, briefly, if O'Toole is proposing to stop all HSR plans in order to wait for this technology to become viable, I would have to disagree. I think overall, a few of the lines are just a huge waste of money, but that they should be defunded based on their own merits.

Maybe some of the money - just a fraction - from a de-funded Louisville, KY to Indianapolis line or Dallas to Texarkana to Little Rock line could be used for a pilot test of this proposed technology though. Just a thought.

Why should one mode of transport get all of the government goodies?

 
At 12:04 AM, March 25, 2010, Blogger Jeremy said...

I like how cars driving themselves en masse at 100 mph+ speeds is being spoken of as if it's right around the corner and will be perfectly viable and safe option in the near future, but automating the detection of hazards along high speed rail lines is all but impossible.

 
At 5:38 PM, March 26, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Anon at 5:16, the problem with making "I bet" comments is that HSR has been around for decades. It's not new technology. Terrorists have attacked targets in Europe and Japan, but have chosen not to bother with HSR, because of the low passenger density. They attack planes and local transit.

As for the Chatsworth accident, think of it as a steam train accident. Modern trains, which run frequently in most other developed countries but do not exist in the US, have a train control system that makes those accidents not happen. JR East has had fewer accidental deaths in the last 5 years than Metrolink, even as it's carried about 400 times as many passengers. Chatsworth is as relevant as the car accident rate in third world countries.

The lane-switching issue is irrelevant at high throughput. The outer limit of the capacity of a single freeway lane is 2,400 cars per hour, which assumes 60 mph running speed and cars using all lanes. You can't switch lanes easily at even two thirds this capacity.

 
At 3:27 AM, March 28, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

By the way, even without the robocars, O'Toole's article is criminally shoddy. Two random examples I plucked out:

"Cars contributed to a seven-fold increase in personal incomes." The evidence he cites for this? None. At least he's confusing correlation with causation (so, the fact that Hong Kong and Singapore enjoyed even higher increases in personal income means that...). Usually those articles don't even get the correlation right.

And, "Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington cover most of their operating (but not capital) costs." The Acela is highly operationally profitable - it makes about $1.70 in revenue for every $1 in operating costs. Check Amtrak's monthly performance reports.

 
At 8:30 AM, March 30, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So are anonymous comments allowed here or not? None of my posts contained ad hominem attacks or foul language. What standard are you using to accept posts? Will I increase my chances if I just set up a random Google account?

 
At 8:53 AM, March 30, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon comments should be fine. Almost all comments I delete have spam links, although very rarely I'll remove one with ad hominem attacks or foul language (and I can't remember the last time I did that). If your comments aren't appearing, I need to investigate if Blogger is doing some blocking I don't know about.

 

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