High Speed Rail



Public Transit: Safety Should Never Be Compromised

Sometimes you forget how incredibly awesome and safe cable systems are – especially when entire systems are supported by a single cable the width of golf ball.

Note: this is a repost from an original article in 2012.

Last week, guest blogger Ryan O’Connor, wrote a brief analysis on the state of HSR (high speed rail) and the potential implications and lessons cable can learn from China’s recent love affair with rail. If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with transportation news in China, last Saturday a tragic accident occurred when two HSR trains near Wenzhou collided.

Having just recently traveled to China and experienced the comfort and convenience of HSR, I cannot imagine the pain and sorrow that the victims and their families are experiencing.

Built partly to raise national pride and joy, the entire HSR network is now under extreme scrutiny as members of the public are demanding immediate answers from the government. Unfortunately, as China continues to build and develop HSR at such an unprecedented and feverish rate, quality and safety most likely will continue to arise. Hopefully this recent tragedy will serve as a grim reminder and lesson that safety should always be the paramount priority.

While the pace of HSR and CPT development are not nearly on the same level, the fact is, cable will also continue to grow. Let us hope that the growth of CPT technology continues to develop and evolve without any major setbacks.

In fact (although I don’t have the official statistics on hand) the safety record of cable technology since its inception is  nothing short of a remarkable achievement – probably one that is neither praised enough nor one that’s given the attention it deserves.

Can you think of the last time someone died in a gondola accident as a result of mechanical failure? Last one that comes to my mind is the Peak2Peak Excalibur Gondola tower failure, but no fatalities resulted.

So to all the cable engineer dudes and dudettes that may read this blog and the supporting staff that work day and night to ensure the safety of CPT passengers, on the behalf of the Gondola Project and myself, my hat goes off to you.


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CABLEGRAPH: High Speed Rail

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High Speed Rail in China – Lessons for the cable industry? (Part 2)

Yesterday’s post High Speed Rail in China – Theft or Innovation? (Part 1) looked at ownership of ideas and innovation, specifically in terms of China’s role in the the advancement of HSR technologies. Following that train of thought (couldn’t help myself!) today I’ll look at what this means for the CPT industry, starting the discussion on the future of CPT transit and innovations.

Traditionally HSR manufacturers focused on incremental innovation. Today, however, Chinese manufacturers are pursuing large-scale disruptive innovations. Disruptive technologies tend to thrive in high growth markets where owners of existing technologies are slow to innovate — at least beyond the pace set by sustainable innovations which are in demand by a pre-existing customer base. Where as incremental innovation generally involves low cost and low risk, disruptive innovation means high cost and high risk since it requires significantly more R&D.

MARKET: As we’ve seen with HSR, and as discussed in yesterday’s post, if a growing market is not being effectively provided for by an existing technology, someone will find a way to improve upon that technology in order to satisfy the market need. While CPT has not yet experienced the same growth as HSR, it has certainly been fielding greater interest. With an increasing number of urban installations and proposed high profile systems the market does appears to be growing. Since all signs indicate that this growth will continue I would argue that CPT will be subject to the same market threats as HSR.

INNOVATION: In the instance of HST, Chinese engineers took a highly advanced technology and (in most cases) improved upon it through genuine innovation. One could argue that gondolas are also a highly advanced technology. While HSR had four major manufacturers, there are only two major ropeway manufacturers. Whether less competition has resulted in less innovation, that is a matter of speculation! Still, it is well known that competition in a growing market drives innovation and technology benefits from offering a faster, cheaper, more capable products. Is there room for significant innovation in the cable industry? I would think so, especially for urban applications.

COST: The Chinese have already dramatically decreased the price of HSR, which was originally being built for around US$100-200 per kilometre. According to Wikipedia the Chinese have completed 250km/h to 350km/h HSR lines for  US$6-32. Further investigation is required into these surprisingly low figures and what factors are attributed to these vast price disparates. Constructing anything at 70% the cost of your competitors would definitely be considered a competitive advantage. At less than 25% of the cost per kilometre, that’s a game changer!

Should the ropeway industry be concerned? I would think so. Is it helpless? Definitely not! What it can do about it is a post for another day.

What is your opinion?


This post was written by Ryan O’Connor. A planning and transportation professional based in Wellington, New Zealand. Ryan has been involved with Creative Urban Projects since March 2010.

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High Speed Rail Killed in Florida

Planned route of the Florida High Speed Rail link between Tampa and Orlando. Image via Florida High Speed Rail.

The big news in transit planning circles yesterday was Florida Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion (yes, billion) in federal funding for the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line.

While Florida would only have had to come to the table with an estimated $280 million to realize the project (approximately 10% of the total cost), Scott argued that potential cost overruns and operating subsidies could compromise the State’s finances.

For a good breakdown of the entire situation and the line’s history, check out The Transport Politic here, here and here.

To be frank, I was never fond of the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail link to begin with – and don’t worry, it’s not because I thought they should build it using gondola technology. My problem with the concept was that HSR seemed to be the wrong tool for the wrong job. Let me explain.

High Speed Rail is useful as a means to traverse medium distances between large population centers assuming a lack of intermediary stops. Yet while the Tampa-Orlando HSR would be only 135 km (84 miles), there would be four intermediary stops along the way. That prevents an HSR vehicle from reaching its ideal top speeds and cuts into travel times.

Furthermore, journeys don’t necessarily begin and end at rail stations. Despite the reservations I have about intermediary stations, travel times would be cut significantly. According to Florida High Speed Rail, journeys from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport would be cut from around 82 minutes by car (via ridership studies available for download here) to 55 minutes by HSR. But that doesn’t include the wait times involved. As the HSR was imagined to have 1 hour schedules, a person who misses their train due to any variety of reasons would have to wait for a period of time almost equivalent to the journey time itself.

Furthermore, the travel times given assume that everyone begins and ends their journey at those two specific locations. And yet the vast majority won’t. When making comparisons like this, it’s the total travel time that’s important. A potential rider isn’t going to make a decision based solely on the criteria of how long is required to get from the Tampa rail terminal to the Orlando Airport terminal. They’re going to ask the much more obvious question: How long does it take me to get from my door to the door of my destination?

As both Orlando and Tampa have severely underdeveloped transit systems, how one gets to and from the HSR stations muddy an already difficult picture. To solve this problem, authorities planned to include rental car, taxi, limo and bus facilities at each and every station – as much as admitting that before and after one arrives at an HSR station, one will require a second/third transit trip.

In other words: Unless your destination of choice is located within walking distance of the transit station, you’re likely to require some other form of transit in addition to the HSR. That means increased time (and money) spent getting to and from your respective stations as well as the time it takes to transfer.

Consider, for example, areas such as St. Petersburg and Clearwater, prime destinations unto themselves. Downtown St. Pete and Clearwater are both roughly 35 km (22 miles) away from downtown Tampa. So for an individual in Orlando wishing to visit Clearwater’s beaches or the new Dali Museum in St. Pete, the HSR becomes a non-starter.

So while the trip from Tampa to Orlando International Airport may have been faster by rail than by car, the actual time savings would have been negligible at best.

Lastly, given the nature of the region, the HSR was clearly targeted towards tourists. Unfortunately, aside from Disney World, none of the major tourist destinations in the area (and there are many) are located within walking distance of a station. Given how cheap rental cars are nowadays, what are the actual cost savings that the HSR line represents for a family of four?

Remember: It costs the same to rent a car whether you’ve got one person in it or five (notwithstanding gas). With the HSR, every individual must pay their own way. With one way HSR fares estimated to have been between $15-30 dollars, a single trip from Disney World to a Tampa Bay Bucaneers game becomes an expensive proposition – particularly when our hypothetical family has to include the cost and hassle of getting to and from each transit station.

Am I against high-speed rail? No. I think it’s a great technology suitable to connecting proximate centers of dense urban areas that suffer from major traffic congestion and have well-developed public transit networks of their own. Run a line from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles; or New York to DC; or Toronto to Montreal and I’m there in a heartbeat. Lines such as those make sense.

And while it’s regretful to see so much work put into a project such as the Florida HSR and see all that work wasted, maybe it’s for the best.

Maybe those funds will go to a better conceived project somewhere else in the Union.

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Our Outsourced Rails

A Chinese work gang for the Great Northern Railway, circa 1909. Source: Beyond the golden mountain. Via Library and Archives Canada.

Last week, the New York Times ran an interesting debate between several economists and urban scholars regarding the place and future of High Speed Rail in America. Generally speaking, the two sides that emerged from the conversation are as follows:

  • CON: High Speed Rail (HSR) is expensive and too risky. Americans drive (a lot) and they are unlikely to switch to HSR. Taxpayers will be left on the hook for both capital and operational expenses.
  • PRO: We can’t afford not to build HSR. Emerging mega-regions require high speed links within them.

Frankly, I have no opinion on HSR. Like all other transit modes and technologies, the merit isn’t within the technology itself. High Speed Rail isn’t latently good. Rather, the technology’s merits shine through when implemented in an environment where it makes social, environmental and fiscal sense.

Whether America is just such an environment isn’t for me to say.

Robert D. Yaro – one of the debate’s participants – does, however, believe America is just such an environment. Yaro is the President of the Regional Plan Association and is a professor of planning at the University Pennsylvania and had this to say about High Speed Rail:

“Throughout history, our nation’s leaders championed federal investments in infrastructure. Washington led efforts to build canals right after the Revolution, Lincoln led efforts to build the Trans-Continental Railroad during the Civil War…”

This is a not uncommon argument used in support of HSR. It’s a compelling, emotional argument because it invokes Lincoln and the can-do American spirit that helped propel that country to the forefront of the world. It also ignores a key part of the Trans-Continental Railroad’s history; it was built in great part by Chinese immigrants who were systematically abused and exploited:

“The Central Pacific’s Chinese immigrant workers received just $26-$35 a month for a 12-hour day, 6-day work week and had to provide their own food and tents. White workers received about $35 a month and were furnished with food and shelter. Incredibly, the Chinese immigrant workers saved as much as $20 a month which many eventually used to buy land. These workers quickly earned a reputation as tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers–“quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical.” Within two years, 12,000 of the Central Pacific railroad’s 13,500 employees were Chinese immigrants.

The work was grueling, performed almost entirely by hand. With pickaxes, hammers, and crowbars, workers chipped out railbeds. Dirt and rock were carried away in baskets and carts. Tree stumps had to be rooted out, tracks laid, spikes driven, and aqua ducts and tunnels constructed.

To carve out a rail bed from ridges that jutted up 2,000 over the valley below, Chinese immigrants were lowered in baskets to hammer at solid shale and granite and insert dynamite. During the winter of 1865-1866, when the railroad carved passages through the summit of the Sierra Nevadas, 3,000 lived and worked in tunnels dug beneath 40-foot snowdrifts. Accidents, avalanches, and explosions left as estimated 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers dead.”

Source: Digital History

Canada – Northern cousin to America and never one to shy away from a importing a good deal from their southern neighbors – meanwhile, wanted in on the action and did virtually the same thing:

“Between 1881 and 1884, as many as 17 000 Chinese men came to B.C. to work as labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Chinese workers worked for $1.00 a day, and from this $1.00 the workers had to still pay for their food and their camping and cooking gear. White workers did not have to pay for these things even though they were paid more money ($1.50-$2.50 per day). As well as being paid less, Chinese workers were given the most back-breaking and dangerous work to do. They cleared and graded the railway’s roadbed. They blasted tunnels through the rock. There were accidents, fires and disasters. Landslides and dynamite blasts killed many. There was no proper medical care and many Chinese workers depended on herbal cures to help them.”

Source: Library and Archives Canada

When people like Mr. Yaro invoke North Americans’ ability to historically tackle huge problems and build massive projects, they conveniently fail to include this detail. It wasn’t Americans and Canadians who bravely conquered the wild and built railways that would unite their countries and help them prosper. It was the Chinese. And for their efforts we underpaid them, discriminated against them, and were indirectly responsible for killing a few thousand.

I bring this up not out of political correctness or white guilt. I bring it up to point out the very different economic realities that existed 100 years ago.

100 years ago you could treat people like slaves and cattle and that’s how you got things done. You could put children in mines underground and if it collapsed on them, oh well – that was just the price of doing business. Paying manual laborers was practically optional. Adjusted for inflation, the $1.00 a day quoted above is equivalent to roughly $25.00 today – and that was before costs for food, clothing and shelter were deducted.

Infrastructure is easy when the workers are happy to toil away in the hell of your steel mill or subway tunnel instead of the worse hell of their abandoned homeland. It is quite fair to speculate, I think, that without this cheap and expendable labor, many major infrastructure projects would never have been completed.

When we invoke these historic projects to justify things like High Speed Rail networks, we forget that we accomplished what we accomplished only by riding roughshod over the rights of many, many people. Remember: Minimum wages are a fairly new phenomenon in human history.

When we point to countries like China and the UAE and proclaim “if they can do it, then so can we!” we don’t acknowledge that they’re accomplishing what they are by doing many of the same things we once did. China is a human rights disaster and Dubai is no angel either (check out Human Rights Watch’s report  Building Towers, Cheating Workers).

Do I long for a time when railroads and subways were actually built quickly and efficiently? Sure, but not at any cost. Our economic reality has changed. And until we are willing to find new ways to drive down the cost of mass infrastructure projects (that don’t trade in the exploitation of human misery and suffering), invoking our past infrastructure glories is dishonest, disingenuous and wrong-headed.

After all, we didn’t build the railroads. We outsourced them to China.

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