November 01, 2011

California high speed rail cost estimates rise to $98.5 billion and new target completion is 2033 instead of 2020

LA Times - California has decided to stretch the construction schedule by 13 years, completing the Southern California-to-Bay Area high speed rail in 2033 rather than 2020. The price is nearly double any previous projection and one likely to trigger political sticker shock.

If this 800 some mile stretch of high speed rail gets built at this price (which it probably will not), then US high speed rail will be about seven times the cost of high speed rail in China and take 20 years longer. ($300 billion for 16,000 miles of high speed rail by about 2020. Already about half that money for half of the high speed rail lines in China.) The new price of nearly $100 billion would also escalate over the 22 years they are planning to take to build it.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the state agency running the project, plans to unveil the new business plan in a news conference Tuesday morning in Sacramento.

The authority's past two plans have been sharply attacked, not only by opponents but also by many supporters, for offering unrealistic construction cost and ridership figures.

The authority wants to begin construction next year and hopes to gain approval from the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown for appropriations from a bond issue that would build a $6.3-billion segment from Fresno to Bakersfield.

In the past, the California High Speed Rail Authority has estimated the cost of the system at $43 billion, based on finishing construction in 2020.

The system would run from downtown San Francisco through San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, and Los Angeles and end in Anaheim.

The higher costs projected in the new business plan result in part from the longer construction schedule and a higher estimate of future inflation. The authority is assuming inflation would average 3% per year through 2033, rather than the far more optimistic figure of less than 2% used earlier.

The price of the system has long been a moving target.

When the first business plan surfaced, it projected a $34-billion cost. By 2009, the estimate had jumped to $43 billion, in part because the authority included future inflation in the estimated cost of building the system over the next decade.

Federal Railway Administration Regulating passenger rail out of existence

Why is US high speed rail so much more expensive that high speed rail in Europe, Japan and China ? Besides the extra lawsuits and environmental project delays there is another key regulation.

What if the FAA required that jet aircraft be able to survive crashes into the ground?

Or if the FHA said automobiles had to survive any head-on crash at 60 mph into a tractor trailer without deformation?

Even if such vehicles could be engineered, they would be far too costly to operate. But for passenger trains, that is precisely what the FRA has been doing.

Amtrak's botched attempt at a high-speed train is a good case study in the problems caused by the FRA. As originally designed, the Acela was supposed to provide high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston, New York, and Washington DC with speeds as high as 150 mph.

In order to procure the world's best off-the-shelf train for the least amount of money, Amtrak decided to buy an existing design from a European or Japanese manufacturer, who have decades of experience building and operating high-speed trains. The winner of this competition was a consortium of Bombadier and Alstom (the French TGV builder).

Then, in 1999 with Acela planning fully underway,
the FRA pulled the rug out by issuing regulations for high-speed rail service requiring trains to withstand 800,000 pounds force without deformation. The 800,000 figure is an arbitrary number dating back to the 1920s; this mandate has since been increased to 1 million pounds.

The buffering requirement confounded Bombadier. Train weight is of crucial importance as it affects the amount of track wear, noise, and energy costs. To meet the buffering regulation, the train would have to be significantly bulked-up. The result was a highspeed train nearly twice as heavy as its European counterparts. As such, the Acela has been described variously as a tank-on-wheels and a bank-vault-on-wheels. Indeed, an overweight train like Acela would be banned from the European high speed rail network.

Because the extra weight put so much strain on the train body (which was never designed to handle suchloads) trainsets suffered excessive wheel wear, cracks in the yaw damper and brake rotors, and other problems which can probably never be completely fixed. Whereas the original contract called for trains to run 400,000 miles between equipment failures, the Acela can barely manage 20,000 miles.

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