The difficulties of projecting costs for big tunnel projects

Cost overruns on big infrastructure projects are common but may be even worse for tunnel projects, as the case of the California high-speed rail project may soon illustrate:

“You have an 80% to 90% probability of a cost overrun on a project like this,” Flyvbjerg said. “Once cost increases start, they are likely to continue.”…

Although some large tunnels have been constructed elsewhere without difficulty, including the 3,399-foot Caldecott Tunnel in the Bay Area, others have encountered costly problems.

The 11-mile East Side Access tunnel in New York City, for example, is 14 years behind schedule, and the tab has grown from $4.3 billion to $10.8 billion. Boston’s 3.5-mile Big Dig was finished in 2007 — nine years behind schedule and at nearly triple the estimated cost.

Digging stopped on the 2-mile Alaskan Way tunnel under Seattle when a boring machine broke down in December 2013 and had to be retrieved for repairs, causing a multiyear delay with an unknown cost overrun.

The bullet train will require about 20 miles of tunnels under the San Gabriel Mountains between Burbank and Palmdale, involving either a single tunnel of 13.8 miles or a series of shorter tunnels.

As many as 16 additional miles of tunnels would stretch under the Tehachapi Mountains from Palmdale to Bakersfield.

All told, this is a major project that might just draw attention from the public and scholars for decades to come. Is it possible to even finish it? What will be the end cost? Will it enhance transportation and life in California? There is a lot at stake here and big costs will not help. From the article, it sounds like part of this is due to falling behind schedule – this adds more money as the project takes more time and costs tend to go up over time – and is also due to the unique geological features of California – fault lines and possible earthquakes – which produce additional complications.

I’ve seen numerous people suggest that projects like these illustrate how difficult it is for the United States of today to complete major projects. This may be needed and/or helpful but a lot of good things have to happen before the line even becomes operational.

How to define “high-speed” rail in the United States

High-speed rail may be expanding in the United States – but it is not be “high-speed” according to European definitions.

Does that make the new trains high speed? It depends on who you ask. According to the European Union’s definition, high speed trains must be able to travel above 124 mph on conventional tracks, and at speeds over 155 mph on tracks specifically upgraded for high-speed rail.

Although the Charger locomotives feature the latest technology, with emission controls and on-board diagnostics, they’re relatively conventional. The “new” trains are based on a popular European design, and top out at 125 mph. That’s as fast as the Metroliner that ran between New York and Washington D.C. in 1969. By that definition, the new Siemens trains don’t qualify as “high speed.”…

“It is also necessary to take into account those railways which are making laudable efforts to provide high speed despite a basis of old infrastructure and technology which is far removed from that employed by the railways of western Europe.”

In other words, because the American passenger rail system is so far behind the rest of the world, any improvement whatsoever could be considered high speed. It’s an important step forward, despite the appearance that the U.S. is rejecting HSR.

Maybe we should add a modifier: these are American high-speed trains, not high-speed trains by global standards. So much for American exceptionalism…

The article goes on to note how high-speed rail isn’t proving too popular to taxpayers in several states where it has been proposed. Proponents say this may not be too much of a problem: once Americans see the capabilities of truly high-speed rail, they would avidly use it. But, this is a difficult chicken and egg problem: people don’t want to devote millions/billions to a new project that may or may not succeed but they can’t truly know the possibilities until one is built. Perhaps everyone would benefit from seeing one really popular, speedy, and consistent spoke of a system (outside of the dense Washington-to-Boston megapolis served by the Acela Express – which can go over 150 mph but averages more like 80 mph) before trying to build numerous links?

A $3 billion funding shortage for relieving Chicago area railroad gridlock

A House hearing suggested there is a major funding shortage for the construction necessary to relieve railroad traffic in the Chicago region:

A potential drop of more than 60 percent in Metra delays.

That number alone makes an ambitious $3.2 billion fix for rail congestion in the Chicago region attractive in the eyes of area commuters. And railroads, with the backing of the business community, also support the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, or CREATE.

But where funding for the $2 billion worth of work remaining will come from is a question both U.S. congressmen and industry officials pondered at a Monday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

The Chicago region hosts about 1,300 trains a day — 800 Amtrak and Metra trains and 500 freights. But the outdated infrastructure and numerous street level crossings make it a major chokepoint for freight trains, not to mention the delays caused for drivers.

State dollars for the project run out this year and there’s nothing forthcoming in the federal government’s latest transportation plan.

Funding is hard to come by these days. Yet, these are infrastructure improvements that affect not only the Chicago area but perhaps the entire United States railroad system. A large amount of freight traffic in the United States moves through the Chicago region. The railroads as well as local, state, and federal government have been chipping away at this for years including moving intermodal facilities and switching yards further from the city and making at-grade crossings safer and rarer.

Another question that could be asked: should money be spent on high-speed rail if there are still significant problems in the regular railroad system?

The “world’s longest fast train line” for the day after Christmas: Beijing to Guangzhou in eight hours

While high speed rail continues to inch along in the United States, China continues to build. A new line opened yesterday connecting Beijing and Guangzhou:

The opening of the 2,298 kilometer (1,428 mile)-line was commemorated by the 9 a.m. departure of a train from Beijing for Guangzhou. Another train left Guangzhou for Beijing an hour later…

Trains on the latest high-speed line will initially run at 300 kph (186 mph) with a total travel time of about eight hours. Before, the fastest time between the two cities by train was more than 20 hours…

More than 150 pairs of high-speed trains will run on the new line every day, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Ministry of Railways.

Railway is an essential part in China’s transportation system, and the government plans to build a grid of high-speed railways with four east-west lines and four north-south lines by 2020.

When I see stories like this about infrastructure in China, I’m struck by three things:

1. The ability to construct these large infrastructure projects is remarkable. I wonder what China will do next. Faster trains? An even bigger rail network?

2. The contrast with transportation options in the United States is interesting. Our equivalent to high-speed trains is an extensive interstate network that connects all major cities. The interstate option plays on several American traits: it was built in the prosperous era after World War II, it allows more freedom for driving (which requires certain incomes and interest in driving), and it allows for more diffuse living patterns (meaning: suburbs).

3. I wish these stories were accompanied by ridership figures. Over 150 pairs of trains a day is impressive and these are two major population centers: Beijing has over 19 million people and Guangzhou has over 12 million people (and perhaps around 40 million in the Pearl River Delta). So are these trains going to be full? How much does it cost? Can the average Chinese resident ride these trains?

A world where people can travel between any two cities in two hours

Basic modes of transportation have not changed much in the last half-century. Sure, planes are bigger, cars are more fuel efficient and have more features/gadgets, and trains can go faster. But harnessing space travel could make it possible to move between any two cities in the world in two hours:

Michiel Mol, 42, a Dutchman who co-owns the Force India Formula One team and made his fortune in computer software, said over the weekend, “Being able to travel from London to Sydney in an hour and 45 minutes, that is the future. It is also the reason why KLM joined our firm [Space Expedition Curacao, or SXC] as a partner.”…

Mol intends to follow [Sir Richard Branson] in early 2014 and says he has already sold 35 tickets at $93,000 for flights from the Caribbean island of Curacao. Regulatory approval is still under negotiation…
Passengers, who will be entitled to call themselves astronauts if they reach an altitude of 62 miles (100km), will be required to pass physical tests which he says are no more stringent than would be expected of an air steward. The first generation spaceship will travel at 2,200mph (3,540kph), but the second generation will need to reach a velocity of 13,750mph (22,100kph) to achieve the desired orbit…
“Flying from London to Barcelona would still take an hour or so while London to Tokyo would be about one hour and 30 minutes and London to Sydney, one hour and 45 minutes. “

This sounds like something different than just space tourism where wealthy people take off, float weightless for a short while, snap some pictures of the earth while in a quick orbit, and then descend. This could be the basis for a new transportation system that makes traveling from New York to China just like a drive from Chicago to Milwaukee. It would take some time to set up a viable system, to put the infrastructure together, but this would be a big step forward from the Dreamliner and high-speed rail.

Is this the physical answer to the “instant” connectedness of the Internet? Currently, it still takes a decent amount of time to travel between major cities but it is still valuable for business, politics, and deeper relationships.

Beyond space commuting, what could be quicker? A mass-produced flying car? Teleporting?

What to do when development projects, such as HSR, encounter opposition from residents

This is a common story: a developer, community, or a set of politicians put forth plans for a new development. Some residents or citizens complain that the project will negatively affect them. What is to be done to balance out their concerns versus the plans that have been made? How do we balance the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community?

This is taking place currently in California as state officials continue to move forward with plans for high-speed rail (HSR). According to The Infrastructurist, there are several fronts for complaints: one community suggests the high-speed rail will alter the character of their community and farmers are unhappy that some of their land will split by the tracks.

Within this debate, several themes emerge:

1. A longer and/or bigger view helps provide perspective. In the California case, the start of HSR in the Central Valley looks like a boondoggle because it doesn’t yet connect the largest cities in the state. But it is the start of a network that will expand and eventually provide 2.5 hour travel from San Francisco to LA.

1a. This might help: show that the funding for the later stages in the project, where the Central Valley start is connected at both ends to larger cities, is guaranteed. Otherwise, there might be some worry that this first part will get built and the later funding will dry up or disappear.

2. The time for debate about whether HSR rail is good or appropriate for California is over – it is going forward, particularly since there are Federal dollars committed to this. Yes, these farmers and communities may be affected but they are not going to be able to stop the whole project (unless, perhaps, they get a whole lot more people on their side).

3. The key for those promoting HSR is that they need to continue to focus on the benefits that will come. Some of this is through city revitalization as the HSR serves as a new economic engine. More broadly, it will benefit the state in terms of reducing traffic, provide a quicker form of transportation that flying, and be greener. Yes, people will complain that these are just guesses but then the promoters need to follow through and ensure that HSR actually does benefit the state.

4. Change is not easy. Even if all Californians agreed that HSR was good and it should be pursued, there are always issues regarding making it happen. This is a long-term project that will affect a number of people. The hope is that in the end, it will lead to more good than harm.

Daley wants high-speed rail from Loop to O’Hare

Impressed on a recent visit by a 7 minute 20 second trip between Shanghai’s airport and subway system (with speeds up to 268 mph!), Mayor Daley wants a similar high-speed line for Chicago. Of course, the question becomes: who is going to fund such a venture?

This has been an idea of Daley’s for several years.

Freight trains vs. high-speed rail

The proposals for high-speed rail in the United States include running most high-speed trains on tracks owned by freight train companies. These companies are not thrilled about this arrangement:

But Norfolk Southern Corp., Union Pacific Corp. and other railroad companies are balking at sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with trains that would run between 90 and 200-plus miles an hour. They argue that mixing high-speed passenger trains with slower freight trains would create safety risks, prevent future expansion and cause congestion.

Cargo would be pushed to their competitors—trucking firms—the railroads argue, just as freight loads are picking up after the recession. Weekly average carloads in August were the highest since November 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main trade group.

My first two thoughts:

1. Is this safety claim legitimate or just a smoke-screen? A lot of arguments about “what the public needs” are often couched in terms of safety to make the argument more appealing.

2. It sounds like the freight companies are protecting their business interests. How does high-speed passenger rail help them? Since they control the necessary infrastructure (the railroad tracks), they have some leverage at this point. Perhaps the two best weapons the federal government has to fight back: public pressure (if the freight companies are seen to be holding this up and this is what the public and/or lots of politicians want, then they will look bad) or perhaps financial incentives (tax breaks?).

Quick Review: an Amtrak short trip

In order to visit family, I recently traveled by Amtrak from Naperville, IL to Quincy, IL and back. I haven’t been on Amtrak for years – and so I’ll share a few thoughts.

1. The advantages to Amtrak travel: larger seats than found in coach sections in airplanes, plenty of space for luggage, a quicker trip than driving (4 hours one way and 3.5 on the return compared to 5 hours driving), the ability to read/do other things while traveling (instead of sitting behind a steering wheel), a reasonable round-trip price (cheaper than the gas would have cost and no extra wear on my vehicle), a generally quiet ride.

2. The disadvantages: limited travel times (either very early in the morning or later in the evening), no car to drive once arriving at my destination plus need someone to pickup/drive to the train station, having to travel with more people, a snack car with very limited offerings.

3. The kind of route I traveled seems to be one where the train could be positioned to succeed: the train cuts down on the travel time, the price is reasonable, and there is no competition from airlines. At the same time, there can’t be too much traffic on this route – while there were more people than I expected (undoubtedly helped by the fact that the train was linked to the third largest metropolitan area in the country), I imagine it might be difficult to generate revenue.

Overall: it was a good trip but there could be a lot of factors that would push me to drive instead. Perhaps this is an American perspective: driving is the default mode unless another form of transportation is an overwhelmingly better option. I could see why there are proponents of high-speed rail (and there are major plans to have a network in the Midwest that centers around Chicago): it would offer a helpful and needed alternative to driving.

Debating how fast high-speed rail should be

Some legislators in Illinois are questioning whether plans for 110 mph trains actually are high-speed trains. However, as you might expect, working out the details and the funding is complicated with many involved parties:

Officials at Amtrak, which has minimal expertise in operating high-speed rail, don’t see a problem topping out at only 110 mph. An infusion of billions of dollars in federal and state funding will mean better Amtrak service in the Midwest — just don’t mistake it for true high-speed trains.

The genuine article, service at up to 220 mph, is being planned in California and Florida. It already exists to a lesser degree on Amtrak Acela Express trains that get up to 150 mph on small portions of the route between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

While 110 mph would be faster than current trains, there are some who argue that the speed must be dramatically increased from current levels to have the trains compete with airline travel and attract customers.