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California: Another high-speed step backward

“The problem is there are currently no plans — or the necessary funds — to build the tracks needed to support high-speed rail.” – CBS News, June 19, 2017 California loses out again. Writing for the Business Journal last week, John Lindt reminds us: “More than two years ago Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced a formal agreement with the developers of Quay Valley, a new town planned for Kings County, to develop an installation of the Hyperloop along a five-mile stretch of the town running alongside Interstate 5.”

Construction was to have begun last year, and I’ve been searching for progress reports since last summer. There haven’t been any.

None of the Internet links to HTT have news about the project, and there have been no hearings on the subject according to the Kings County Board of Supervisors’ website. Because I’ve been fascinated with the idea of the Hyperloop since the concept was introduced by Elon Musk in 2013, I even considered driving to the site to find out what’s going on. But, no site is shown on Google or any other search engine, except for a vague indication that it is located somewhere west of Hanford and Lemoore and (probably) east of I-5. I suppressed the urge to go driving aimlessly through the badlands for a dream, and merely sat in wait, wondering about the model city and its futuristic transportation system.

Lindt’s article brought some degree of resolution to the mystery. He wrote that, at a conference in Singapore, HTT’s CEO Dirk Ahlborn told CNBC that the first section is “unlikely” to be located in Quay Valley. Lindt quoted Ahlborn as saying, “(It) is a commercial project that makes sense when the city is there. Until they start construction, it doesn’t make sense for us to start there.” But, according to Kings County planner Sandy Roper, the Quay Valley construction company continues to work on the environmental documents, and the earliest public hearing is still months away — at best. Meanwhile, Ahlborn is negotiating with other countries.

This information has been very disappointing to me because I was hoping if our state legislators (who seem to lack imagination) could see an actual working model of the Hyperloop, they might mothball the whole California High Speed Rail project and redirect the money toward a transportation system for the future, with the “extra” money being used to supplement our water storage and delivery systems.

Estimates for a Hyperloop connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco have consistently been in the area of $6 billion. But, let’s say that, once the project gets put into the hands of state engineers, the cost doubles. That $12 billion would still be less than one-fifth the current estimate ($64 billion) for HSR and close to the amount that was originally approved by California voters in 2008 ($10 billion). Meanwhile, the current HSR project continues to accumulate additional expenses. HSR trade-offs

"There are many trade-offs that have to be made, and somebody in the Legislature didn’t want the engineers making those trade-offs." – Steven Ditmeyer, rail-safety consultant (cited by Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times)

Designers of public transportation systems have to consider such factors as safety, performance, and cost. Often, this involves making certain trade-offs from the initial design plans. However, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Ralph Vartabedian informs us that California’s high-speed rail planners have little freedom to negotiate trade-offs. State law dictates that its bullet trains need to get passengers from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in no more than 2 hours and 40 minutes.” Because the California HSR Authority makes safety its top priority and the velocity of the already slow trains cannot be further lowered, the only possible trade-off involves cost.

The slo-mo train is most likely to hit its top speed of 220 mph as it cruises through the Central Valley, and it will be traveling alongside lines that carry every kind of freight from toxic chemicals to military weapons. So, contractors began building barriers around the HSR tracks for about 30 miles in and around Fresno. The additional price tag is $140 million. And this may be just the first add-on to the already ridiculous cost of the project.

One trade-off that has saved an additional $30 billion is sharing track with the Caltrain commuter service between San Francisco and San Jose. However, that path crosses 42 highways where there have been 13 fatal collisions between standard-speed trains and cars, annually. The HSR Authority has proposed building elaborate gates to fully block the intersections, and the cost of that sub-project has not yet been calculated. Other Issues

As Vartabedian points out, “Aside from the debris barriers, the range of safety issues includes how bullet trains will operate in dense urban environments where they cross highways, how to contend with the possibility of fires and other mishaps in the long tunnels they’ll pass through, and the type of brakes necessary to slow them on steep downhill grades.” It is a near certainty that as these considerations are taken into account, the cost of the entire project will rise again.

Between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, the trains will have to travel through long tunnels traversing about 40 miles of the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains. Methods to control smoke from potential fires or for the removal of debris is still under consideration. And, those costs have not been included in the current estimate.

According to an internal email that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times under the public records act, chief engineer Scott Jarvis wrote that the money “simply does not exist for these change requests.”

We can summarize what we’ve learned from these various sources with a two-item quiz:

1. Q. What do you get if you cross a World War I biplane with a Model T Ford and a bottle of Heinz (“the S-L-O-W”) Ketchup?

A. The California High Speed Rail System.

2. Q. What do you get if you cross a North American X-15 jet plane with a rail gun and an air hockey table?

A. The Hyperloop.

"In a thousand years, archaeologists will marvel at the engineering and effort that went into a 118-mile stretch of gravel, concrete, and steel in Central California, which had no discernible purpose, no evident reason for its beginning and end — a mystery as inscrutable as Peru’s Nazca Lines.”

—Chuck Devore, National Review

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