Monday, July 21, 2008

Slow Boat to China

Another day, another China HSR expansion post somewhere in the blogosphere. When are we going to learn? Why are we sitting around doing nothing? What are we waiting for? I got an email from a reader a few weeks ago about our sloooow timeline for projects in this country. So here are some of his thoughts: J.M. Carter and the Slow Boat to China (Slightly edited for continuity and links to projects included)


I would like to comment on the sad state of affairs that exists in this country re: the time it takes to get things done. There was a time when we could rebuild a battered and bloodied aircraft carrier in a matter of days and send it back into battle. Now, with the light rail "industry" generally we seem to be falling farther and farther behind other nations when it comes to constructing anything to do with rail transit.

Couple of examples right now:

Phoenix, Valley Metro light rail. The line running north on 19th Av. is to be extended an additional 3 1/2 miles with 3 new stations. This is less than 20,000 feet of wire and rail and maybe a substation. How long to do it? From mid '08 to sometime in '12 or as much as 4 1/2 years!

Salt Lake City, UTA Trax light rail. Just announced the start of construction on the 5 mile line to West Valley City with 4 stations. This is less than 30,000 feet in length. How long? This is maybe a joke from John Inglish, the top guy, but would you believe he actually says by '15? That's 7 1/2 years, depending on how far into '15 they go with it.

I would seriously consider applying for a job as timekeeper on both of these projects. Almost any other country could do either in less than 2 years, using the standards now applicable in the trade. The problem in public transit today is not just the knuckleheads in the FTA but rather the lack of funding and slow construction timelines in cities that already have plans for expansion. China is building heavy rail subways all over the place while India is doing the same as a close second to them. Any doubt as to where the wave of the future is now?

This really is something both the "industry" and the nation should feel frightened about. In an area where the feds -with their total overview of things-( as well as having the moneybags as leverage) really should be demanding and setting some standards, nothing is being done about absurd costs and time spans. Again and again you hear the refrain "local conditions" and "prevailing supply and demand." Have you ever heard of any US project taking a look offshore to see how others do some of these things that we are so slow with? Hell no. We just laugh at "the French" and ignore any and all innovations others have made and used successfully.

Take the proposed extension of Charlotte's new light rail line. Won't be ready until 2014 or even later (the date keeps changing) but it is at least 5-6 years away. 300 miles to the northeast in Norfolk, one of the very few bright spots in the current light rail scene, they are building a new line that- while a bit shorter than Charlotte's- is very similar to it in many ways and will even use the same S70 LRVs. Scheduled to be completed in 2010 at a cost only about a quarter of the Charlotte's Line.

If the FTA had any brains at all they would be waving this one around and demanding that it become a kind of standard for other systems. Norfolk shows it can be done quickly and right and some of these other buffoons should pay attention and maybe pay a visit.


PT: Seems to me that we should be allowed to put light rail and streetcar lines back into streets that had them before. Why we need all these crazy huge environmental impact statements to put streetcars back in the streets many of them created is beyond me.

Thanks again J.M.


Anonymous said...

To some extent it's a matter of project management and deciding how much work you're willing to do at the same time and how much money you're willing to spend in a given unit of time. Money getting spent faster generally gets stuff built faster, and building railroads can be a nicely parallel process. Heck, back in the 19th century, the Illinois Central changed their track gauge in a single day (using an absurd amount of labor).

But there's also something else at work here: the time that is left from when the line is "finished" to the grand opening for revenue service is quite long, often several months. Now, on a brand new system this makes sense, because everything is brand new, operators have to be trained on the new equipment and so on. But when the line is just an expansion to the existing system, why not train the newly hired operators on the existing system, then just leave a short time for familiarization with the new line, which is at the same time the shakedown period for power and signal systems and such. In Moscow, it's usually about a week from the handover from the contractor to the Metro to the first revenue train. Why do they need six months here?

cosmoflanker said...

I have had a window overlooking light rail construction in Phoenix for about a year and 7 months now. I have been amazed at how long a section will sit with no work being performed. A crew will come in and do one step, and then there will be a lull, possibly of weeks, before other workers (or the same ones?) will come along and do the next step. Individual steps (like track laying) are often completed quite radiply. It's like if you could hire say 60 workers and get a job done in 1 month, instead you hire 20 and take 3 months. On the other hand I can say that there was a LOT of utility work done on Central Ave. in Phoenix. They figured that as long as the street was going to be torn up, everyone who has something down there had better get in and replace it so the street doesn't have to be torn up again. After that was done, the actual light rail track went in fairly quickly.