High Speed Rail Problems in China and California

1. Washington Post – Part of a high-speed railway line collapsed in central China following heavy rains, state media reported, jolting railroad shares and reviving worries over safety.

About 7 kilometers (4 1/2 miles) of track were being removed after it sank at points where the line runs across a floodplain, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday. Initially the agency reported that only 300 meters (984 feet) of track had been affected by the collapse Friday near Qianjiang city in Hubei province. The railway line is due to open in May.

“We discovered the problem during the evaluation phase, and invited experts to reinforce the rails,” it quoted Wang Zujian, a director for Hubei’s provincial railway construction bureau, as saying.

China has 13 high-speed railways in operation, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned. Much of the system, similar to that in Japan, is built on elevated tracks.

Engineers working on some projects have complained of problems with contractors using inferior concrete or inadequate steel support bars. A report last week by the state-run magazine Time Weekly reported allegations that builders on another section of the same Wuhan-Yichang line may have compromised safety by substituting soil for rocks in the railway bed.

Since the Wenzhou crash, there have been reports of problems with brakes, signaling systems and faulty construction. In one case the Railways Ministry ordered almost all of a $260 million railway line in northeastern China redone after finding contractors had farmed the work out to unqualified construction companies that filled railway bridges’ foundations with rocks and sand instead of concrete.

A report by World Bank experts issued last week lauded China’s success in rapidly expanding the system, which is due to grow to 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track by 2020 from 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) as of last year.

That report said it was unclear whether the speed of the buildup had compromised safety, but noted that the Wenzhou accident showed there was “room for improvement.”

In an interview with Xinhua, Huang Qiang, chief researcher with the China Academy of Railway Sciences, said Beijing is continuing a safety overhaul of high-speed railways that includes development and improvement of signaling equipment, train maintenance and protection against lightning and earthquakes.

“China’s high-speed railway development has been aggressive in previous years, in which some important links were missed,” Xinhua quoted Huang as saying.

Still, the government says it intends to push ahead with the program.

China is due to spend 400 billion yuan ($630 billion) this year on railway infrastructure, down from 469 billion yuan in 2011 and over 700 billion yuan in 2010.

2. Mercury News – Promising “improvements” to the state’s controversial bullet train plan, the new head of the project told a Senate hearing in Silicon Valley on Tuesday he now believes building high-speed rail would cost less than the alarming estimate of nearly $100 billion.

“I believe the number’s coming down,” Dan Richard told a packed auditorium Tuesday night. “Obviously the $98 billion was sticker shock for a lot of people.”

Using existing tracks like Caltrain and speeding up the construction schedule would bring down the costs of the project, Richard said in defending the much-criticized plan that Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed him to revive. He also promised quicker upgrades to Bay Area and Los Angeles commuter lines that would share the track and upgrading the initial leg of track in the Central Valley.

Richard said the project’s first segment in the Central Valley — dismissed by some as a $6 billion “train to nowhere” — will be tweaked to offer more “immediate benefits,” but he offered no specifics.

He also vowed to spend some $750 million in state funds in the next few years to help electrify the Caltrain line and $1 billion for similar commuter rail upgrades in Southern California, laying the foundation for bullet trains in those regions. The state’s new plan will call for launching train service sooner by breaking the 520-mile line into “bite-sized” segments that can be built quicker. Previous estimates had delayed full service between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 2034.

Richard did not shed light on the fact that California does not have about 85 percent of the funding needed to build the train.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority in the next two weeks will release a final business plan that will give a more detailed look at everything from costs to funding to rider estimates. Major changes are expected after the preliminary plan included huge cost increases and steep drops in expected rider counts. That led to a slew of criticism from nonpartisan analysts and a drop in support in polls among a majority of likely voters.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office said Tuesday that it is still concerned about the lack of funding, the need for upgrades in major metro areas and that officials haven’t accurately compared the huge cost of the bullet train to alternative investments.

Will Kempton, who leads the project’s independent peer review group, said the state should start building in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, not the Central Valley. That way, if California receives no more funding, it could at least upgrade popular commuter lines.

Caltrain electrification and system upgrades can get the speed faster than BART. Caltrain could run just as frequently, or more frequently than BART if funds were provided to operate the extra trains and if it is electrified to allow the trains to run more quickly.

BART is a one-off system that requires custom-made trains that are incompatible with the worldwide standard that Caltrain electrification will follow. This decreases competition to build BART trains and increases BART’s cost. Caltrain, on the other hand, can operate off-the-shelf equipment produced by a variety of manufacturers worldwide. In fact, some of the nicest amenity-filled high-speed trains in Europe cost less to build than a BART train does.

Recent BART extensions are estimated to cost over $200 million per mile. By contrast, the total costs for electrifying the existing Caltrain line, enabling it to provide service both faster and more luxurious than BART’s, is between $4 million and $5 million per mile, or about one-fortieth the cost! In contrast, an upgraded Caltrain could provide as good or better level of service, be ready to run in just in three years, cost a tiny fraction of BART, and happen while existing diesel Caltrains continued to carry more and more passengers.

In 2010, Caltrain received an important waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration that permits the agency to use European-style light weight equipment. This waiver is essential as Caltrain is pursuing electrification and replacement of the current fleet.

The $1.5 billion project would electrify Caltrain line by 2015 for the first phase and 2020 for the second phase. Electric trains can stop and start faster than diesel trains, which will reduce the time it takes to travel between San Francisco and San Jose by 13 percent.

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