Slower Than a Speeding Bullet

Anthony Pignataro: The California High-Speed Rail Authority really needs to work on its social media skills. On Aug. 2 the authority tweeted a link to this Washington Post story on the influx of federal stimulus money into big bullet train projects.

The tweet was clearly meant to boost California’s 800-mile proposed bullet train network. But far from singing the praises of California’s proposed bullet train, the Washington Post story very simply explains the problems that lay in the high-speed rail authority’s path. Specifically, the story deals with the inability of bullet trains to use current freight train tracks:

  • BANKED TURNS – “A stout freight train, which typically cruises along at about 60 mph, can handle those changes in track conditions. But modern passenger trains that streak over rails at more than 200 mph can’t. Everything has to be precise, or the train could derail with disastrous results.”
  • TRACK LAYOUT – “U.S. rails run across roadways at lots of places. Because a collision between a car and a super-fast train would be catastrophic for everyone involved, high-speed rail simply cannot cross roadways.”
  • SLAB TRACK – “Most high-speed passenger trains travel along a completely different medium called slab track, in which the rails are bolted into sections of concrete. The concrete holds the rails still, assuring safe travel at high speeds, but it simply can’t handle the tonnage of a freight train. It’s also extremely expensive to build, about 50 percent more than typical freight tracks.”

According to the story, France faced the same problem as California. Their solution? “In the countryside, French trains surge along newly constructed, pin-straight rails. But when they head into metropolitan areas and switch to old rails, their 21st-century locomotives have to creep along at 20th-century speeds.”

And that’s precisely what the California High-Speed Rail Authority is proposing here. Sending the bullet trains down Union Pacific Tracks around and in Los Angeles (at UP speeds) and then shooting them north of Los Angeles on shiny new dedicated tracks. How they will be able to do all that and still cross the state in the two hours and 42 minutes mandated by their 2008 $10 billion bond has yet to be seen.

Sound bad? It doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down: on July 30 the authority announced that it’s asking for another billion dollars in federal stimulus money.

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