Tuesday, August 24, 2010

HSR, TX growth, help bring a Space Shuttle to Houston, and more

Another week to clear out some smaller items:
"Based on our comprehensive review of possible locations, Victoria's proximity to our supply base, access to ports and other transportation, as well as the positive business climate in Texas, made this the ideal site for this project," Gary Stampanato, Caterpillar vice president for excavators, said in a statement. 
The Victoria plant is Caterpillar's second major recent investment in Texas. The company moved its engine-manufacturing operations to a new plant near San Antonio early this year from Illinois.

Finally, a plea to help support Houston, and it'll only take a minute of your time:

     Help Bring a Space Shuttle to Houston!

When NASA retires the Space Shuttles next year the three orbiters will be decommissioned and placed on permanent display at selected museums or science centers across the United States. The competition is stiff. We know that one will go to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center thereby leaving only two vehicles for the more than 15 locations, including Space Center Houston, that are vying for an Orbiter. Time is of the essence; your help influencing key decision makers is immediately needed. You can support Space Center Houston’s acquisition initiative by visiting www.bringtheshuttlehome.com . Here, you can send a letter to your congressmen, senators and President Barack Obama urging them to select Space Center Houston to receive a retired Space Shuttle. Let them know, the right home for one of these orbiters is the very epicenter of human spaceflight – Houston, Texas. Let all of your friends and family know about Space Center Houston's effort.  Letters from outside of Houston are very important too.  It shows that there is broad support for the effort.  We expect the decision to be made very soon so please send your letters today.

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At 8:18 AM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

The pro-rail groups always clamor that they want to funding levels similar to highway funding and now when the feds do that they cry? Highways have been funded on the 80/20 setup for pretty much as long as federal highway funding has existed.

The reality is that very few states can see justifying the 20%

Also, I've been thinking a lot about why Houston hasn't been linked to the rest of Texas in the rail maps. I'm thinking that when the numbers are run, they found that passenger service from Houston to other Texas metros (particularly DFW) is currently quite well served by air travel. Houston to the east is a big passenger corridor with limited air service, a worthless Amtrak line, and an extremely loaded freeway. The numbers must work out that more passenger trips from Houston are heading east.

I roughly confirm this by looking at TxDOT's plan of interstate improvements. The I-35 corridor from San Antonio north to DFW is in various stages of being 6-8 lanes of freeway to cope with the level of traffic along with a parallel toll road (SH 130). There is no need for I-45 to be expanded north of Conroe to the south of Dallas. I-10 to San Antonio is busy, but no to the level of I-35. I-10 to Louisiana is jammed or traveling below the posted speed limits in many places. TxDOT and LaDOTD have been aggressively rebuilding and adjusting the freeway to be 6-lanes to cope with the traffic.

Travel patterns and currently efforts to adjust to them seem to back the inclusion of Houston with New Orleans versus linking it to Dallas.

At 9:02 AM, August 25, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Interesting analysis, and I do agree I35 is in much worse shape than 45 or 10 in Texas (another one of the advantages of living in Houston vs. the rest of the TX Triangle!), but I suspect the map is all about politics to get the most congressmen (esp. senators) on board. There's no way Houston to NOLA or Little Rock to Dallas can justify HSR - or most of the rest of the map for that matter (I suspect much of the I10 LA traffic you mention is going beyond NOLA to the east and beyond Houston to the west, so HSR relief would be neglible).

At 9:35 AM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Agree, HSR won't likely reduce any traffic. The increased capacity offered by rail (any form) hasn't been shown empirically to help ease traffic congestion. So much so, my transportation textbooks from college have a whole paragraph on the subject.

From a transportation/traffic standpoint, rail reduces the need for parking facilities at destinations and is a feasible choice when other modes can't achieve a shorter travel time.

At 9:56 AM, August 25, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A whole paragraph, eh? ;-)

At 10:22 AM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just some numbers along the lines of what kjb mentioned:
-Traffic counts between Lake Charles and Baton Rouge are consistently (for all 20 or so sites) 35,000-40,000 vehicles/day for rural interstate locations. The areas that are being/have been upgraded between Houston and Lake Charles are a minimum of the high 40,000s.
-Traffic counts in 2008 at rural locations for I-10 between Columbus and Seguin are about 25,000 vpd.
-Between Huntsville and Corsicana, it dips down to 25,000 vpd in places. And there are no alternate routes by car to get to Dallas, so this is pretty much it.

These numbers would suggest that rail makes more sense to NOLA and not Dallas.

However, what would be interesting is to compare the number of flights between DFW/Love - IAH/HOU and compare to flights between MSY - IAH/HOU. I bet the number of flights and total passengers between Houston and Dallas far exceeds the numbers for Houston to New Orleans.

Does anyone have these numbers?

Another factor against rail to NOLA would be that more business trips might not be to the city center. I have traveled to Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Covington, New Orleans, Harvey (the Westbank), Leeville, Port Fourchon, Intracoastal City, Morgan City, Houma, New Iberia, Robert, Opelousas, and Venice for work. The area is much more decentralized in terms of job centers because of the nature of industry there.

How is high speed rail going to help somebody do a day trip to some of these places?

Dallas, on the other hand, might have a lot of options for a train, then a shuttle or taxi to an office 5 miles away.

At 6:01 PM, August 25, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The Interstate program was 90/10, and 95/5 in some rural Western states.

At 7:33 PM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous Gratt said...

I am not quite the critic of HSR as Tory. I do think it would be an asset to Texas, but I agree budgeting is a big issue.

States should be required to put up at least 20% (and cites should pay for the stations and their upkeep) This will make sure only serious projects move forward.

That being said I will quote Tory on one thing, let's wait till others try this first if California, Florida, and others show they can do this and do it well. We need to be right behind them doing it better.

At 7:38 PM, August 25, 2010, Anonymous Gratt said...

Just to add one more thing, If a HSR is to be built in Texas lets focus on the stretch between San Antonio and north of Austin. If done well (by well I mean four tracks) It could stand alone as a high speed commuter system that has traffic in both directions. From that point we can expand it to the rest of the triangle if we want it to.

-As for Houston if we are going to do rail, could it be one to Galveston? That one is long overdue.

At 12:37 AM, August 26, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Gratt, high-speed rail works best as an intercity system. Short-distance commuter services don't justify the investment, because the travel time difference isn't large once you include station access time. In fact, the only unprofitable high-speed rail service in the world, Javelin, is the only one that just provides commuter service.

If Texas wants to build high-speed rail, it has to start at intercity distances. It doesn't need to build the entire T-Bone at once, but it should at least build the primary leg, Fort Worth-Dallas-San Antonio. At the very least, it should have continuous service on this corridor, even if it's on dedicated high-speed track only between Dallas and Austin and on low-speed legacy track elsewhere.

At 10:04 AM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...


You are wrong in your numbers on the amount of federal funds provided to finance interstate highways. The federal government provides 90% of the funds, while the state provides 10%.

So, it is not surprising that states would be uneasy with having to essentially double their commitment for new high speed rail lines when those lines are going to complement much of the travel currently exclusively absorbed by the interstate system (i.e. short to medium point-to-point travel).

At 10:09 AM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...


Sorry. Just noted that you had already pointed out kjb's inaccurate information regarding funding.

At 10:20 AM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

90/10 was in the beginning. Many projects fall under 80/20 funding currently.

If a project currently received 90/10 funding, it has been placed in the high priority category.

I would see I-35 getting the level because of the truck traffic and it's critical position as a NAFTA highway.

It was only a paragraph because it was a lower level transportation course. Master's and doctorate level transportation/traffic courses go into much more detail. My emphasis was in hydraulics and hydrology and I took some electives in transportation/traffic.

Essentially, it boils down to the point where rail should be considered when current operating modes are take longer than the rail trip. Outside of California and the northeast, HSR is a tough sell.

At 11:18 AM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...


Even so, the current high speed rail system is "in the beginning" as well. We are talking about the construction of the initial lines.

High speed rail is primarily for short to medium range travel. You are not going to travel from here to LA on high speed rail. But you may travel from here to Dallas.

With that in mind, there are many areas outside the Northeast and California where high speed rail would fit nicely as a complement to the current transportation infrastructure. The Pacific Northwest corridor comes to mind (Vancouver, Seattle and Portland). The area in and around Chicago. The line connecting Tampa to Orlando and eventually down to Miami (while connecting the beach communities along the way) would work as well.

I also think a line connecting the major Texas cities would work but part of the reason it gets so little attention from the federal government is that this state is so far behind in terms of planning and preparing the groundwork for such a line. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, Texas needs to "get its act together" before the feds are going to show any interest. Given incompetence and head-in-the-sand mentality of many of in state leadership, sadly, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

At 12:12 PM, August 26, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

The state is behind because it realizes the citizens of Texas don't want to waste their money on a train relatively few will use.

Most of the HSR lines are targeting existing tracks (that will need upgrades) to lessen the costs. This will be problematic for freight rail. And the costs to implement are still astronomical.

How about this question:

What is better?

Improving existing tracks and track capacities to handle more freight which would greatly reduce truck traffic


Improving existing tracks and track capacity to have HSR which will due little to alleviate passenger vehicle congestion and still not tackle the issue of increasing truck traffic.
Within Texas, HSR would be a replacement for existing flights. Not a solution to a transportation problem. Outside of building it because "it's neat!" or "it's like other countries!", there are not solid reasons to spend money on this in Texas.

At 9:08 PM, August 26, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

There are tons of projects that would upgrade both legacy passenger and freight rail. The most cost-effective is creating grade-separated corridors in Chicago and maybe a bypass south of the city; this has the potential to cut half an hour of travel time on all Amtrak routes entering Chicago from the south, and hours or even days from freight travel time.

The pretend-HSR routes using legacy tracks aren't actually cost reductions. They're regulatory headache reductions for people who are unfamiliar with modern railroad operations. Although the worst of the globally unique FRA regulations, the buff strength rule, is going out in 2015, the various state plans still call for trains compliant with this rule. This increases train weight, acceleration time, and maintenance costs, ensuring those projects are the least cost-effective possible.

If the FRA starts reforming regulations to be in line with the first world, then the freight/passenger rail equation changes dramatically. For one, regional rail becomes a serious option in most cities. Given adequate regulations, you could restore regional rail operations for $1-2 million a mile, making even small-city passenger rail viable.

At 5:24 PM, August 29, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not related to Houston, but I wonder if you saw this story, Tory.

At 5:45 PM, August 29, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I did not. Thanks for the heads up. Not surprising with govt mgt of transit.

At 8:47 PM, August 29, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The switch was scheduled for replacement. It broke down about a year before it was due to be replaced.

At 11:43 AM, August 31, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...


I'm very aware of the grade separation projects in Chicago. The engineering firm that designed and managed the construction of that project is working with freight rail operators in the Houston region currently. Many track alignments in Houston with 1 are going to 2 and many with 2 or going to 3. These aren't small projects. All this is done with no consideration of future passenger rail capacity. UPRR pretty much said not commuter rail in Houston on it's lines by imposing impossible to achieve standards for METRO and Harris County meet.

At 3:18 AM, September 01, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

UP is UP. Nobody I know from the passenger rail websites knows why it's so hostile to passenger rail, where CSX, NS, and especially BNSF are more accommodating.

More to the point: by and large, freight and passenger rail improvements don't compete. There are exceptions, where track space is constrained, but otherwise the only competition is for funds, and both passenger and freight rail are mainly competing with highways.

The problem is that the government doesn't think in terms of "$X to urban passenger transportation, $Y to freight, $Z to intercity passenger transportation," and then allocates X, Y, and Z between different modes. Instead, it thinks in terms of "$A to roads, $B to rail and buses, and $C to air," and then allocates A, B, and C between different uses. The issue is that the overall spending levels are determined by lobbying, which is based on modes, not types of transportation. Lobbyists for road, rail, and air don't particularly care what traffic their mode carries, as long as it's built.

At 4:01 PM, September 01, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

While your taking funding, I'm talking benefits. Most of these HSR lines will provide little benefit over existing modes. Cost savings doesn't even enter the picture. A HSR trip from Houston to Dallas will likely be much more expensive than a flight.

A worse situation would be if the passenger rail service was subsidized. Then it will instantly be a money pit quickly turn into AmTrak where it's constantly asking for a bailout.

At 5:09 PM, September 01, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

There isn't a single intercity HSR line in the world that runs operating losses.

You can't talk about benefits without talking about funding, not when you compare HSR to freight rail. They don't compete; HSR (real HSR, not the Emerging HSR crap the FRA likes) runs on separate tracks.


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