Saturday, December 06, 2008

French TGV vs Amtrak's Acela Express

A comparison:

TGV from Paris to Lyon 245mi, 2 hours, ~345 seats, $64

Acela from Boston to NYC 229mi, 3 hours, ~303 seats, $100

Sure, this is not the whole picture. The TGV has coach seats, and the Acela only has business and first class; the Acela shares track with freight trains and the TGV got its own dedicated tracks. Still, is this the best that Amtrak can do? Of course, I don't know much about trains, but it seems like a high speed train should be able to make the trip from Boston to NYC in 90 minutes. It should also be cheaper than an airplane ticket. Right now, Acela costs about as much as airfare!

Here's a thought. A big benefit of trains is the scaling. Why not add a coach car to the Acela train that can fit 80 people (5 in each row). The costs to run the train should be almost the same. Charge $50 per seat, that's $4000 extra revenue per trip, just between Boston and NYC (add more for the DC leg). Assuming they make 40 one-way trips per week, that's more than $36 million in extra revenue per year. How much could an extra car possibly cost? I'm only talking about 20 extra cars in total, and no additional engines. An entire trainset including maintenance and engines only cost $40 million in 1996. Revenue in 2007 was about $400 million from Acela. An extra $36 million per year would be a big increase in revenue (I should actually double that number since the new cars could be used between NYC and DC as well). The new cars would quickly pay for themselves in ticket sales, leading the way for more rail investments like track upgrades to make Acela run at its full 150mph which make the Acela faster and even more attractive to travelers.

This kind of investment works whether or not the government does it or the private sector does it. What's worrisome is that our politicians keep talking about rebuilding the US "infrastructure", but they always say "roads and bridges". The reason to investment money is to get a return on investment. I have a hard time seeing what the return on investment is for rebuilding roads and bridges except that we won't have to repair them later on; it's still the same inefficient, car/truck based infrastructure that we have today, just less bumpy. Perhaps the problem with road maintenance is that there are too many roads; they're too big and too expensive to maintain. I would like to see smarter investment in efficient transportation like rail.

By investing in a passenger rail transportation network that is fast, practical, and affordable, the US can reduce the traffic on the roads, reduce the time people waste driving, reduce the costs to maintain roads, reduce road accidents, and more.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sqirrels, Bikes, and Acorns

In the last couple years, I've read a number of Internet stories about cyclists who crash because a squirrel got caught in their bicycle's spokes. Often these stories come with a set of photos that show a squirrel's body, between two spokes of a low spoke count wheel.

Some long time cyclists remark that the increase in squirrel caused crashes is a recent phenomena and some blame it on the larger space between spokes in a low spoke count wheel. The logic is that the squirrel can fit through the larger space, get stuck, and lock up the wheel; in a 32-36 spoke wheel, the squirrel would just bounce off the spokes.

This seemed like a reasonable theory to me, except that there's also a story about an opera singer (I think) that crashed due to squirrel on his hybrid bike that probably had a high spoke count wheel. The existence of this crash suggested to me that squirrels can in fact get caught in high spoke count wheels, but it didn't rule out the possibility that squirrels are more likely to get caught in low spoke count wheels.

Today, I read a news story about a smaller than normal acorn crop this year, and how it is affecting squirrel populations. Then I read that this year's squirrel population has boomed.

According to biologists, acorn crops vary each year which causes fluctuations in squirrel populations, but the effect on squirrel population lags by one year, so when oak trees make many acorns one year after making few acorns in the previous year, there are not enough squirrels to eat all the acorns, and more of the acorns grow up to be trees:

"Squirrels eat acorns," he said. "These trees live hundreds of years and they make acorns to produce new trees, not to get fat squirrels. So if they produce regular seed crops, you get a buildup of squirrel population. But if they fluctuate the crop, there are some years where they're loaded with acorns and squirrels can't eat them all, and in other years there are no seeds, and the squirrel population goes down.

So what's my point? Perhaps it's just coincidence that there has been a large squirrel population the last couple years, and low spoke count wheels have become more popular at the same time. Maybe it's the high squirrel numbers that are causing more accidents, and not the wheels themselves. If this is true, perhaps next year after squirrel populations have fallen, we will see fewer squirrel caused crashes, despite even higher numbers of low spoke count wheels on the road.