I’m launching new series here I’ll be running indefinitely. Technically, solar was my first in this series for big idea and why, but I wanted to continue to write more about “big ideas”. Questions out there that have no really great answer to. The question is extremely important. I’ll put my thinking cap on and try and wrap my head around some of these things and provide some possible solutions. Some of the big ideas out there I don’t have very much practical experience with – and with that, I will still ask the questions, but I might pose you differing opinions from thought leaders out there and not necessarily myself.

The below was inspired by a Happy Hawaiian tweet a few days ago…

Part 2: high speed rail

In grad school, I think for my cyber master’s, was a book I read called “Finding Jefferson’s Moose”. For those of you who don’t know, in my real profession when I’m not up all night writing on coffee-fueled rants, I’m an IT manager. With that, comes an understanding of networking. This is more at the bit/byte level than at the BGP type of thing.

In this book, they talked about how people like Jefferson studied networks.

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Oh…not THOSE networks. Networks as in “interconnected things”.

Like bodies of water. Thinking about the path one might take for shipping might provide a lesser cost (and safe way) for shipping goods back in the 1700s.

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When you look at a network through this lens, you can see all of the interconnected items. This is the same for all networks. Think about how streets are connected like this. When you put something in to your Waze or other GPS, the tool uses networks to find your way up to the largest volume roads that move you the quickest, and THEN break you off to smaller streets to get you to your final destination. If you go to a social media app, if you connect to someone with a million connections, you now have a network to them, to an extent.

What we did in this country as ass backwards with Amtrack and their high speed. Let’s take a look at the “high speed” offering we see in the USA.

What you see here is about 16 stops in about 457 miles (according to the wiki I saw). It seems that the train can get to speeds up to 150 mph. This is not bad for a decent try with high speed here. According to sources, the average Amtrak train goes about 50 mph. For those of you not from the northeast United States, this corridor is highly populated and has a significant amount of commerce along it with major cities.

To put that into perspective, Japan has trains that routinely go 200-300 mph and have Mag Lev that now hit about 350 mph.

The problem I see with the map above is too many damn stops, along with a train that cannot go faster. If I was to do high speed?

Let’s first look at a “proper” network design.

With networking, this is sort of the hub and spoke design.

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This is essentially how the internet is setup on a more complex scale. And in theory, this is how our transportation networks at HIGH SPEED should be set up. Why? When you have 300 miles between stops, and you can crank up to 300 mph, with no stops – you can get to that major hub very quickly. In my world, that is Pittsburgh to Philly in an hour. Driving that, you are looking at 5-6 hours, but then you always run into traffic somewhere. Imagine living in Pittsburgh and Saturday morning you want to take your family to Philly to see the Liberty Bell and the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Get there in an hour. Get home in an hour.

But no…we want our high speed trains to not be high speed because we need milk and cookie stops every 20 miles. Just as we are finally getting up to good cruising speed, we then have to start slowing down for the next stop. Infuriating.

So what if we ONLY focused on the biggest cities as stops, and then from these hubs, you could have the Acela 100-150mph trains? What does that look like? Funny you should ask, I have been up since 2AM so on a pot of coffee I decided to draw this out in paint – hitting most major cities.

Meaning, if I wanted to use a high speed train going 200-300 mph, THIS is how you do it. You get the major hubs defined.

From each of these hubs, you can then build out the spokes. For example, this could be my region.

You see the big red lines are those going 200-350 mph. They aren’t stopping by me where the black pin is. So if I wanted to get on to a high speed hop, I’d have to take a spoke to go to one of the major hubs close to me in Philly or between Baltimore/DC, probably at BWI airport. These major hubs should also be pretty close to major airports.

If I wanted to drive to Philly now, without traffic, I’m looking at an hour and 35 to 40 minutes. If I use the train, I have to drive 25 minutes to Lancaster, then wait for a train, then get on it and it takes an hour an 7 minutes to get there with stops. I’m better off just driving. Then, I end up in Philly with no car and no easy way to get to my Eagles or Phillies.

Commerce

Right now, I don’t like the idea of going to new York City. Been there once on a visit, intentionally, and once accidentally going somewhere else and stuck in traffic on Broadway on a Friday at 4PM in holiday traffic over the summer with no mapping (before GPS for you young ones). I can drive TO NYC in 3 hours. Or, I can drive to a train station an hour from there, hop on, etc. Any which way you scramble those eggs, I don’t have a train station in York, and any solution to get to NYC has me dealing with driving a distance – whatever that is, then doing a train.

What I would promote to the powers that be, that when you are dreaming up the high speed rail using the major hubs, that you then design out the hub and spoke system at the same time to have the spokes attaching to smaller cities with minimum stops.

My county has over 400,000 people, yet I have no access to a train station. There’s a bus station, and that can get to NYC in 3 hours. But I’m looking for faster travel and perhaps more convenience.

If I’m looking to go to NYC, perhaps I can drive 8 minutes to a train station here, then take a SINGLE train to NYC. The trains will be the same and use the same tracks – they just can get to much higher speeds on the major spokes between the major hubs. Meaning, my train from York might stop in Lancaster and Media for 3 mins each with the 150 mph Acela, but once it gets to Philly, it is then on the super highway and the speeds can hit 300 mph. Philly to NYC on the super highway at 300 mph is 96 miles. Meaning, you could get from 30th st station in Philly to Penn station in NYC in roughly 20 minutes. York to Philly at 30th st station is 101 miles. Traveling at 150 miles per hour, that is roughly 40 minutes.

If I never have to get out of my train and we have two small stops, I could get to NYC in roughly an hour from anywhere in central Pennsylvania, give or take 15-20 minutes.

What this means, to me, is that I could leave my house at 3PM, get to NYC at 4:30 with someone else driving, get to a restaurant, watch a show, and be back by 11PM.

To me, what this now REALLY does, is open up commerce and entertainment more to the surrounding areas of major cities.

Additionally, major hubs for me then can be weekend trips. I could hop on a train in York and be in Chicago in 3-3.5 hours. I could take the family, leave on a Thursday after dinner, check in to the hotel by 9PM, and do a 3 day trip there. Take the train back. Kids have entertainment devices for the trip. Done. I always wanted a Chicago deep dish pizza. By using a form of travel like this, it then becomes very easy for us.

The alternative is I would have to drive to Philly or BWI for 90-120 minutes, get there 2 hours in advance, take the plane for 1-2 hours, then arrive 6 hours plus after departing my house. Waiting in an airport with small children. Parking my car at the airport for $50 a night.

I don’t think the powers that be understand how this opens up most of the United States to major cities, which aren’t easily accessible today.

Telework

I once worked at a place from 2013 to 2017 where I was teleworking 3 days a week, and my customers were teleworking 4 days a week. They were using an idea of hoteling, where you might have 1 cubicle that is used by 5 different people during the week.

With COVID happening, I wrote a piece in May 2020 or so addressing how this could be the end of commercial real estate as we know it. If you think about the big skyscrapers in NYC and their leasing costs, firms like Merrill Lynch discovered they could work with 97% telework. What will that do to leases when a lot of these companies then determine they can save millions a year by not leasing all of that space? What happens to all of the surrounding restaurants when no foot traffic is there for lunches?

The idea here then is that many who lived in NYC fled, for a lack of a better word. They may have moved within the region or perhaps even to the midwest. If you no longer have to be in the office, why would you then pay stupid high rents in Manhattan? Think about what that then does to the real estate value of these places.

Anyway – now imagine you are perhaps in a situation where you are a company and do not want FULL telework. What about the idea of maybe coming into the office for a few days every few weeks, or perhaps once a month? My mother passed away 2 years ago – she was one of 8 compliance officers for one of the top 5 big banks in NYC. She started this company in Delaware driving 90 mins a day. Eventually, that company was taken over and their offices moved to NYC. Her health had declined a bit, and the company really wanted to keep her – so they offered her a FT telework gig about a decade ago, as long as she came to NYC once a month or quarter or so.

I could see a scenario post COVID where you have a lot of these types of companies then able to recruit from a region for lower costs. Why do you have to pay crazy high wages for NYC if you can get someone like me for 70% the cost living in York? If you ask me to come into the office 3 days a week, I can’t do that. If you want me up there once a month or so, that’s doable. It’s a 3 hour trip one way – so I could drive up after dinner, stay in a hotel, and then go to work that day and drive home that night. That’s a lot to put on someone.

Now imagine a scenario 10-20 years from now where my high speed hub and spoke is complete. A company from NYC can hire me and suggest I can be full time remote, but I might have to come in to the office every now and then to work in a server data center or meet with a team for planning onsite. If I can take trains and be there in an hour, SIGN ME UP!

What this then does for major companies in these big cities is be able to then competitively hire from the region and drive down costs. You could even hire from much further away. Huh?

Well, if there’s a major influx of people moving out of NYC, that will crater real estate prices. Many might go under. This is where your Blackrock comes in to play. Or, perhaps property companies. It’s possible a lot of these Manhattan apartments 20 years from now could be modified to a form of AirBNB.

Where a hotel room in NYC now might top $300-$400 a night, imagine a time where all of these people moved out. However, IF we had the high speed rail, you are looking at a LOT of people that might need affordable overnight accommodations. During the week, you are looking at business people coming in to spend a night or more to come in and visit their company. On the weekend, you are looking at perhaps regional travelers coming in for dinner and a show or more.

Air travel

At a young age, it was an honor to be picked for travel to another location in your business. It was a responsibility! People were counting on you. All of that soured for me on one trip to North Carolina when I worked for Vanguard. 3 people quit on a Friday, and I was sent to our Charlotte office to leave that Sunday night. I had no wife or kids, was 23, and had a background in desktop and server work. I showed up on day one and got a Homewood Suite for $107 a night. My company, EDS, would reimburse $100 a night. This had a bedroom and a kitchen, and I had just lost 25 pounds on Atkins. I loved the kitchen and my idea was after my first day of work there, I’d go to the grocery store and get my low carb food. The site manager there balked at my expensive room and relocated me to another hotel for 3 weeks at like $20 less. But no refrigerator or kitchen. I ended up ordering pizzas and eating out all the time then for the per diem. Gained all the weight back over 3 weeks there.

When you travel to foreign locations, you arrive with no creature comforts from home. Luckily when I was there, I had my Jeep. If you fly somewhere, you are then looking at rental car hell. Been through that a few times. Where do you eat on your specific diet? What do you do when not at work?

I can tell you that the days of NEEDING to be onsite at places quickly changed with COVID and zoom or MS Teams. I once drove 9 hours through a snow storm from York, PA to Columbus, Ohio (should have been a 6 hour drive) to meet 16 of my cyber security techs on a contract I was running remotely. I wanted to avoid a plane at all costs. I was also over 3 bills at the time (300 pounds for the non-native English speakers) and getting into plane seats was extremely embarrassing. But you cannot tell your employers this. I found air travel eventually to be a nightmare to be avoided at all costs.

Well, with COVID, air travel became less frequent for people who want to travel, and obviously businesses cut back on the need for air travel over the years before all of this.

Conclusion

Right now, you hear a lot of buzz with how much this one rail in California is costing – with perhaps a price tag of $100 billion. My first reaction immediately is that it’s the same screw up they did in the northeast. They should be running something from San Fran to LA, and have zero stops between. I know this might piss off a lot in California, but again – if you need milk and cookie stops every 10 miles, you can never really get to cruising speeds for a sustained amount of time.

So again – we are trying to build super highways where you hit 350 mph and sustain that for as long as possible. I would have a direct connection from LA to San Fran, and then have regional hubs that could get you to those cities. This shows up about 376 miles, or about a 6 hour drive. Maybe you figure out stops every 100 miles or so with your major hubs.

As a FIRST STEP, you’d build the major hubs – but perhaps when you build these major hubs at 376 miles apart, your track has you within a few miles of a smaller hub with the rail. For example above, perhaps your high speed rail goes right outside of Bakersfield. AFTER the major hubs are put in place, you can then build your intermediate hubs at places like Bakersfield. Meaning, you want to go from LA to Bakersfield. Those on the train want to all go there. This train uses the super highway from LA to Bakersfield, then exits and STOPS in Bakersfield. Those at Bakersfield all want to go to EITHER LA or San Fran. The train that just dropped off from LA then turns around and takes those from Bakersfield back to LA. NO STOPS. This then becomes a 20 min train back and forth. Consider now how terrible the traffic is in LA at the moment, but a lot of people then move to a cheaper Bakersfield suburb and commute to LA using this train daily?

Additionally, perhaps an intermediate hub then added to Fresno, where the capital is. You could have silicon valley guys moving from San Fran to Fresno suburbs and have a 30 minute train ride in.

Today, I believe these costs are so crazy because you are building in 100 milk and cookie stops everywhere to justify your high speed rail. When you add all of these stops, you are not building a high speed 16 lane highway. You are building a 2 lane road with higher speed limits with stop lights every 4 blocks. Makes no sense.

Overall, most foreigners to the Unites States don’t realize how much we need our cars. While half of our populations live in cities, the other half live in metropolitan and rural areas of these cities and have 30-90 minute commutes to go to work daily. Our public transportation system is horrible, at best. Part of it I believe is because all of these things are designed at the local level, and it’s all patch work to connect everything.

If they looked at this like you do IT and telecommunications, you would first build out the backbones with a lot of lanes at great distances – with scalability in mind with the design. You then add on over 5-50 years as budgets and technology allow.

Today, systems that claim “high speed” and have 40 stops are destined to cost too much and never live up to the hype.

Getting to the big picture future of 300+ mph high speed, I believe, starts with connecting major hubs and THEN building out regional hub. If you are mired in milk and cookie stops every 10 miles, you will never reach your bullet train goals.

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