Posts Tagged ‘federal railroad administration’

Environmental Smackdown – Aviation v. High Speed Rail

Monday, February 14th, 2011

by Mary Ellen Eagan

I’m inspired by a few recent events to pontificate on this subject; those events are:  (1) Joe Biden’s recent remarks on high speed rail (HSR) in the US, (2) Greg Principato’s response, and (3) a recent session at the TRB Annual Meeting: “Environmental Tradeoffs of Aviation and High Speed Rail”.

First, let me be clear:  I do not think that one mode of transportation is “better” than another.  In fact, I’m quite sure that we have a need for both and our focus should be on complementarity, not competition.  That said, high speed rail advocates in the U.S. are making statements that unequivocally claim that high speed rail is “better for the environment”.  But let’s check the facts, as far as I’ve gathered them (admittedly, a somewhat cursory review):

  • Capacity:  Matt Coogan and others have prepared a comprehensive case study of the impact of high speed rail on aviation capacity in ACRP 31:  Innovative Approaches to Addressing Aviation Capacity Issues in Coastal Mega-regions.  They conclude that while introduction of Acela Amtrak service between Boston and New York has reduced passenger traffic by about 1/3, the number of flights between the two cities has dropped by only about six percent – shuttle operators have just adapted by substituting smaller aircraft on those routes to meet the schedule demand.
  • Noise:  Noise assessments for aviation and high speed rail both rely on Day Night Average Sound Level, but the similarities end there.  The FRA’s HSR Guidance Manual determines impact on noise sensitive communities by comparing project levels to existing noise levels to determine two categories of impact (moderate and severe), while the FAA’s Order 1050.1E determines impact by identifying noise-sensitive land uses that are projected to experience an increase in noise of 1.5 dB or more in those areas already exceeding DNL 65.  To make matters even more complicated, people appear to respond differently to aircraft noise than rail noise (they are more annoyed by it); on the other hand, if the rail vehicle in question is moving fast enough to cause startle (i.e., HSR), it’s not clear whether annoyance reaction is more like aircraft than rail.  Ruth Mazer and I gave a presentation at TRB comparing aviation and HSR in the Boston-New York Acela corridor, using both the FRA methodology and the FAA’s Integrated Noise Model.  We estimated that the number of people exposed to Sound Exposure Levels (SELs) from aircraft flying BOS-NYC high enough to cause speech disturbance (85 dB) ranges from 1,000 to 1,500 (depending on runway, flight path, aircraft type, and airport); whereas the number of people exposed to the same level on the BOS-NYC route is 12,000.  On the other hand, there are close to 30 shuttle flights per day in each direction and only 10 trainsets.  Is it better to expose the same 1,000 people to excessive noise 60 times per day or twelve times as many people only 20 times per day? 
Source: EU Position Paper On Dose Response Relationships Between Transportation Noise And Annoyance, 2002

Source: EU Position Paper On Dose Response Relationships Between Transportation Noise And Annoyance, 2002:

  • Air Quality:  Mikhail Chester from UC Berkeley also gave a presentation at TRB entitled, “Life-Cycle Assessment of High Speed Rail:  Total Environmental Accounting”, in which he compared the total air quality outputs from automobiles, aviation, and HSR.  LCA includes not just the operation and maintenance of the vehicles, but the infrastructure development and energy production.  Two interesting figures are presented below, which demonstrate that although emissions per passenger kilometer traveled (PKT) is highly dependent on vehicle loading, HSR consistently produces less CO2 than aviation only when it is assumed that the HSR uses “clean” fuel, and is not a clear “winner” over aviation when comparing NOx.  More detail on Mikhail’s research is here.
Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Source: Mikhail Chester, 2011

Lifecycle NOx Emissions, Source: Mikhail Chester, 2011


Lifecycle NOx Emissions, Source: Mikhail Chester, 2011

Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Source: Mikhail Chester, 2011

I look forward to your responses, and to seeing some real data – especially noise – on this subject.

Railroad Environmental Conference

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

by Lance Meister

I attended the Railroad Environmental Conferenceat the University of Illinois last week.  The conference is a good one, but quite focused on the freight rail industry.  Chris Barkan and Kim Hagemann do an excellent job of planning the conference every year.  The presentations are more technical than at many conferences, and there’s a good mix of people from across the industry.  In addition to the University of Illinois Railroad Engineering program, the conference is also sponsored by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Railway Engineering & Maintenance of Way Association (AREMA).

The conference attendance is comprised of freight railroad environmental staff, consultants in the field and academics.  The focus of the conference has shifted somewhat over the years, from one focused on hazardous waste and remediation to air quality, greenhouse gases and sustainability.

Freight railroads (along with transit) have been promoting their “green” side, focusing on removing cars and trucks from the roads, and the inherent advantages in rail transportation of bulk commodities.  If you have time, here’s an interesting report discussing freight vs. trucks in significant detail.  The railroads are also being required to introduce locomotives that reduce diesel emissions.

While noise and vibration are not central issues to the freight railroads, HMMH has participated in this conference for a number of years, presenting papers, chairing sessions, or participating on the planning committee.  Last year I took over for Carl Hanson of HMMH on the planning committee and chaired the noise and vibration session.  This year I presented a paper on noise and vibration considerations in shared use corridors. The presentation deals with the noise and vibration issues that arise on corridors where freight and transit either share the tracks or the right-of-way.  Planners are looking at freight corridors more and more as potential locations for transit projects, so this topic is becoming more of an issue.  HMMH has worked on a number of these projects around the country and experienced many of the challenging problems that can arise on these types of projects.

The conference will be held again next fall in Champaign.  If you are interested in participating, keep watching the site.  The call for papers usually goes out in March/April, and the hotels always fill up fast!  The conference organizers are hoping to get more involvement from passenger railroads and consultants in that field, so if you think you have something of interest (not just in noise, but any environmental topic) you should consider submitting a paper.

High Speed Rail Acceleration

Monday, February 1st, 2010

by Lance Meister

In what was, I think, widely regarded as something of a surprise last year, President Obama announced that $8 billion dollars would be allocated to high speed rail (HSR) projects around the country.  This was a complete and fundamental about-face from previous policy and totally unexpected.  The next several months were spent by the administration and the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) trying to determine what projects would qualify and how the money would be allocated.

The late summer and early fall was a frantic time for project sponsors, trying to meet the requirements for the grant applications.  HMMH was involved, in a small part, in a number of those applications, including in Florida, California, New York and the Mid-West.  Since then, it’s been a waiting game.

On Thursday, January 28, President Obama made the announcement regarding the grant awards.  The full list of awards is here.  Given that he was making the announcement in Florida, it came as no surprise that the Tampa-Orlando project was one of the big winners.  Other big winners were the California HSR project, New York-Albany-Buffalo and the Mid-West projects, including Chicago to St. Louis.  Many of the projects on the list are not really high speed rail projects, but are really just upgrades to existing lines to improve speeds and safety.  However, Florida and California are dedicated HSR projects, and if implemented as proposed, would represent real HSR in this country that would compete with systems around the world.

It’s clear that the $8 billion is not enough to build a complete HSR system, even if the entire amount had been given to one project.  However, it is very symbolic, and it’s a jump start at getting projects moving, and hopefully attracting more money at all levels to get the projects built.  The administration is also committing money each year to continue funding of HSR projects.

It’s been a long time coming in this country, and for those who have been advocating HSR for decades in the US, it’s a sweet victory.  Our own Carl Hanson has been involved in virtually every HSR project in the country over the last 30 years, and he’s as excited as I’ve ever seen him at the possibilities.

Now the fun really begins.  It’s time to get HSR moving in this country.  My hope is that one day we refer to the Obama High-Speed Rail System, much like the Eisenhower Highway System.   This may very well be the enduring legacy of the Obama administration.