Federal DOT Projects 2013 to be a Good Year for High Speed Rail

The federal Department of Transportation is optimistic about the future of high speed rail growth in 2013. 2012 was one of the most successful years for high speed rail (HSR), and they expect 2013 to be even better for the transportation system, according to the DOT’s year end review.

High Speed Rail systems have been a major policy platform of the Department of Transportation since 2009, when President Obama took office. He and the DOT envision “safe, efficient, and convenient high-speed intercity train service,” as an idea which could greatly aid a faltering economy, producing jobs and new corporate arenas.

HSR systems offer many advantages to both the environment, and travelers, as well.  Few of these systems operate using fossil fuels directly, and have much better per-passenger efficiency than planes, buses, and traditional trains. In a study by Arpad Horvath and Mikhail Chester (of UC-Berkeley and Arizona State, respectively), data showed that a train moving an average of 80-180 passengers would have equal emissions of a 35 mile per gallon sedan carrying 2.2 people.

A recent New York Times article noted that over distances around 200 miles, HSR would would be a significantly faster mode of transportation for travelers. For arguments sake, the article used a hypothetical line of 240 miles.

“A train going from Dallas to Houston at 150 miles an hour would take 96 minutes. Southwest Airlines takes an hour for the same route, but the need to arrive early could add on an extra hour. I’ll add on an extra 36 minutes for the driving time to the airports, which means that the train saves an hour.”

But the benefits don’t stop there. As far as cost-per-passenger rates, the Times article points out a large discrepancy in cost between planes and HSR. According to their (admittedly simplified formula) a transportation company operating an HSR system for the hypothetical 240 mile trip would save around $70 a per-person per-trip when compared to an airline’s operating cost.

Many of the advances in high speed rail during 2012 have been focused in California, where Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill ensuring $5 billion of state funding for an ambitious HSR project. This investment will be matched by $3 billion in federal aid, according to the DOT’s official website. If all goes well, the DOT says, the California HSR system will be under construction as early as this year.

According to the DOT, passengers traveling between Chicago and St. Louis are already seeing the benefits of HSR, as trains on that line reach speeds approaching 110 mph.

With $10.1 billion dollars of the DOT budget dedicated to high speed rail projects, the department hopes to see a rise in the construction of HSR in the coming year in areas other than California, as well.

2013 Undergraduate Research Fellowship Seeks Applicants

CTLS is pleased to announce the third year of the Transportation Undergraduate Research Fellowship (TURF) program. The TURF program at the University of Connecticut (UConn) is an intensive summer research experience designed for junior and senior undergraduate college students who are preparing for careers in Transportation. Fellows receive $2,000 to pursue individual research projects (beginning in early June and ending mid-August) under the guidance of university faculty members and CTLS-affiliated researchers.

Fellows gain experience in proposal writing, research techniques, research project planning and research project execution. The program introduces students to projects of the sort encountered during postgraduate research training and fosters an understanding of the planning, discipline, and teamwork involved in the pursuit of answers to critical questions in transportation systems and planning. At the end of the program fellows have the opportunity to present their research to an audience of their peers and advisors.

Submission Deadline: 5:00 PM, Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Application Guidelines

Do CSX Trains Really Move 1 Ton of Cargo 400 Miles on 1 Gallon of Fuel?

It may seem odd that CSX – a freight train company based in Florida – has been placing advertisements across television airways in recent weeks. Companies whose main clients are other companies (like freight movers) don’t often engage in television advertising. They avoid the cost because they don’t rely on individual consumers as part of their business model (Memorable exceptions include ads representing Siemens, and Tyco).

Regardless of their motives, CSX’s advertisements make a seemingly improbable claim: that their freight trains move 1 ton of cargo 436 miles on 1 gallon of gas. Is this possibly true?

While these numbers may seem far-fetched, they may be based in fact.

CTLS Director Dr. Nicholas Lownes – a Civil and Environmental Engineer at the University of Connecticut – said in a recent interview that he “always understood that this type of claim is in line with reality.”

He continued to say “[CSX’s] idea is that steel wheels, on steel rail are the most efficient way to transport cargo. This method has the least amount of friction possible. Once a train is rolling, it takes the least amount of effort to keep it moving.”

When you compare the friction of steel-on-steel to the friction of rubber tires on pavement, there is a large difference in the amount of energy dissipated due to friction, Dr. Lownes said.

Because a rubber tire riding on pavement causes a large amount of friction “the engine has to make up for that lost energy. The efficiency comes down to how the physics behind the transportation modes work,” he said.

So, the physics behind CSX’s claims of 436 ton-miles-per-gallon seem to be valid, but Dr. Lownes notes that “this average value masks a lot of variability across the country.”

Though the Association of American Railroads (AAR) – a group which advocates for safety and environmental concerns – announced in 2010 that the average ton of railroad freight in the U.S. moves 480 miles on a single gallon of gas, Dr. Lownes suggests that these kinds of numbers may not reflect the true efficiency of trains across the country.

“Not all trains achieve that kind of efficiency,” he said. “When you have a giant train with 50 cars behind it, and you get it rolling over Nebraska and Kansas where there is no elevation change, and nothing to stop for, it doesn’t take that much additional energy to keep those thousands of tons moving.”

On the other hand, trains traveling across the Appalachian Mountain Range will probably have worse efficiency.

It is important to remember that these numbers are averages, and the efficiency of trains moving in perfect conditions can skew this number to be misleadingly high. This is an issue common to the use of averages, as is explained here.

The AAR acknowledges the ‘averages problem’ in its report: “480 [ton-miles per gallon] was the average last year for all rail traffic across all Class I railroads – that means for some trains and some rail traffic, the corresponding figure will be much higher, while for others it will be lower.”

The questionable validity of the specific statistic of 436 miles on 1 gallon of fuel does not detract from CSX’s overarching point: that trains are more efficient ways of transporting freight than traditional truck-and-trailers.  But, whether CSX and other freight companies truly transport 1 ton of cargo over 400 miles on a single gallon of fuel is a relatively hard fact to verify.