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HSR, You Are My Density

May 25, 2011

Quick, what’s this?


I was going to be an ass and make you wait until tomorrow, but I’m in a good mood. If you guessed the relative lengths of high speed rail lines, you’d be correct. As for which is which, behold population density maps, to scale, of four parts of the world:


(Population density maps via the very nice Gridded Population of the World browser by SEDAC/Columbia University.)

I rotated them to align the routes, so you’re may to have to think about it a bit, but

Top left = France Sud-Est (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) / Top right = CAHSR (SF-LA-SD)

Bottom left = Tōkaidō Shinkansen (Tokyo-Osaka) / Bottom right = Ave (Madrid-Barcelona)

I decided to make this map after the rather ridiculous article in The Economist suggesting that only Japan has the population density to do HSR. My favorite part is where they laud California’s road network — they clearly haven’t driven on I-5 on a Sunday. And despite car ownership, I don’t know anyone who WANTS to drive to LA. (But let’s just say this isn’t the first stupid thing they’ve said — let’s remember that The Economist supported the invasion of Iraq.)

Anyway, Japan is so densely populated that it was obviously the best place to start with high speed rail. But it’s foolish to say it’s the only place that makes sense to keep doing it.

I also saw an interesting discussion in the comments a Washington DC blog that linked to me — one commenter claimed that since Paris has seven times the population density of LA, it can’t support HSR. But the French TGV is really a hub and spoke model. That being said, Lyon-Paris used to be one of the busiest flight corridors in Europe, but TGV pretty much took all that traffic. In fact, you can actually buy tickets on Orbitz that combine trains to Paris and flights out of Paris!

Once again, the best analogy to California is AVE in Spain between Madrid and Barcelona — two nodes of relatively the same size, with a few cities in between. Once again, it was one of the busiest flight corridors, but rail has picked up the majority of passengers. Not only to the Bay and LA have higher population bases than Madrid and Barcelona, but guess what’s another of the busiest flight corridors in the world? SF-LA.

While I’m at it, a few additions to California HSR are obviously necessary:

  • Good food, both wine & cheese, along with the taco & beer. I’m thinking also a Fort Mason style Off The Grid car, no?
  • No TSA bullshit. Despite legitimate terrorist threats, France and Spain have no security theater on trains. (I’m talking to you, Charles Schumer.)
  • Why not have a couple of train cars that could carry electric cars? Roll your authorized Nissan Leaf / Chevy Volt style vehicle onto the train in SF and roll off in LA. And charge your car on the drive, no less.

I will meet you in the taco car, Big Daddy in hand.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2011 5:31 pm

    You know, your California map looks stretched… there isn’t all that much density through Pacheco Pass. This is even truer for the maps of France and Spain, whose cities don’t form neat linear corridors.

    As you say, it’s crucial to ensure HSR has no security theater, repeated queuing, and other airline-grade harassment. Decent food service at train stations and on-board food carts (not cafe cars – these are space hogs) is also important. But, fast auto trains are impossible. Auto trains are mixed passenger/freight trains, and have the axle loads of freight trains. They can’t use high-speed rail infrastructure, and don’t in Europe.

    • May 28, 2011 6:37 pm

      They’re straight off the SEDAC map which is a Robinson projection, so if anything European and Japanese maps are going to be squished. But the relative lengths still all seem to work out.

      The alignment of the lines on the maps is admittedly a wag – not the easiest exercise with no labels – but there wasn’t supposed to be anything along the PP, just a straight shot to north of Fresno and south of Merced.

      Noted on rail car axle weight, but as we see more lightweight electric cars I think it’s worth investigating. (Also, I seem to remember talk of high speed cargo trains?)

    • May 28, 2011 9:54 pm

      First, the straight shot goes through Merced, Modesto, and Tracy.

      Second, electric cars aren’t as lightweight as they need to be to be light freight; they still weigh a ton or more. The high-speed freight people talk about is goods that are very valuable for their weight and need to be shipped quickly, such as mail. Cars don’t cut it.

    • May 29, 2011 12:51 am

      Gilroy – Pacheo Pass joins up north of Merced and south of fresno on every HSR map I’ve seen. (Unless you think I mean to Sacramento, which I don’t.)

      Let’s say a car takes up space equivalent to the space of 8 HSR seats, and with 1 ton = 2000 pounds, that’s equivalent to 250 pounds per seat. I’m no train engineer, but from an axle perspective that doesn’t seem all that different that a the weight of a train car fully loaded with passengers. And I’d imagine our empty auto car would weigh less than an equipped passenger car.

      Now, I admit that how you price that is a different matter entirely – people obviously aren’t going to pay 8 tickets worth of people fares for their cars, though I bet there’s a balance somewhere compared to renting a car over a certain amount of time.

  2. May 29, 2011 9:17 pm

    Well, yeah, the HSR line is going over Pacheco Pass. But the population density doesn’t – the densest concentration of people between the Route 99 cities and the Bay Area is along Altamont Pass.

    Cars don’t just take seats. They need to be loaded and unloaded, and the only realistic way to do that is to treat the autoracks like regular freight cars, with higher axle load than 17 tons. As I said, there’s a reason nobody in the world has done this. If there were a way to do it, SNCF would’ve already put such trains into service on the Paris-Nice route in order to be more auto-competitive.

  3. gregory, mister permalink
    June 10, 2011 11:26 am

    all we need is a well-stocked zipcar lot at the train stations at either end, and smaller ones all along the way. i can not wait.

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