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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rail fares are worth it for the safety benefits alone

This past weekend, I attended a college football game at the LA Coliseum with family to watch USC beat UCLA by an enormous margin. With a kickoff at 7:15pm, the game didn't end until around 10:30pm. That means we did not hit the highway to leave LA until 11:30pm, for the 4 hour drive back to Fresno.

During that drive, a realization hit me like a wall. A wall of fog. Bad fog. Those who think it gets foggy in San Francisco or London have no idea what it's like to experience the Central Valley's Tule fog, which can decrease visibility to zero.

The visibility in Tule fog is often less than 1/8th of a mile, about 600 feet, but can be less than 10 feet. Visibility can vary rapidly in any area, with sudden decreases to near zero in only a few feet. It is situations like these that often lead to multi-car accidents where one car follows another into a fog bank.
NOAA

It's hard to understand what zero visibility means until you've actually been in it. And what's worse, these aren't brief patches. The thick fog can cover the entire valley, essentially the length of 99.

In our case, it meant driving on a highway, with already reduced visibility due to it being night, that was like a racing video-game from 1984.

This red line is as far as we could see. I know, because we could only see a single white lane-dividing line at a time.

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In practice, it meant looking into this.

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I tried to take a picture, but it turns out that it was very hard to do so. During a gap in the fog, I was able to take this picture.

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That's right, that's a lighter patch of fog, as you can actually see other cars. Two of them anyway. You'll note the car in the left lane is tapping its brakes, as there is a car in front of it which we can't see.

It's easier to take pictures during the day. Here are some I took back in January of this year at around 6am showing how poor the visibility can be even when the sun is out. Again, imagine the pitch darkness of the agricultural valley at 3am.

Under an overpass, see the other car?

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Signs are useless, where's the exit?

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This is why California places traffic signals on both sides of an intersection. The far-side light is simply not visible. I also learned why California places streetlights at highway exits. Without them, it would have been impossible to know at what point the exit began.

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We got home last weekend at 3:30am. The 4 hour drive wasn't terribly long, but it was nerve-wracking, and potentially fatal. We passed these sections of the highway:

In February 2002, two people were killed in an 80-plus car pile-up on State Route 99 between Kingsburg and Selma. The visibility at the time of the accident was zero. On the morning of November 3, 2007, heavy tule fog caused a massive pile-up that included 108 passenger vehicles and 18 big rig trucks on Northbound State Route 99 between Fowler and Fresno. Visibility was about 200 feet at the time of the accident. There were two fatalities and 39 injuries in the crash.
Wikipedia

And that's all south of Fresno. North of Fresno, 99 still has grade crossing, where smaller roads must cross the entire freeway without a traffic signal or overpass. Left turns are allowed as well, in all directions. When visibility is 10 feet, there's nothing you can do but hope for the best when embarking upon the suicide mission known as crossing the street (freeway)....at an angel!

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Wouldn't there be nice if there was a safer option....that, as a bonus, could have gotten us home by 1am? Something like....high speed rail, which is not delayed by fog? It would have turned 8 hours of highway time into 3 hours.



A frequent argument by critics of high speed rail (and other rail) projects is that when accounting for a family of four (or more), it's cheaper to drive. That makes sense. Gas, and maintenance, are fixed costs. Adding another passenger or two adds an insignificant amount to your cost of gas for a trip. If those additional passengers are friends that will chip in, your costs actually go down. With rail, as with all transit, each additional passenger pays the full cost of the fare.

Someone doing the most basic of math, may come up with the following:

Fresno-LA = 220 miles
At 22 mpg, 10 gallons.
At $4.00 a gallon, $40.00 each way.

Throw in some maintenance (nobody ever calculates the true amount) and the person will call it an even $50 (each way).

So this math would show that rail can compete with a car in price for such a trip for a single person. Amtrak currently charges $33 for the Fresno to LA trip on most days. But make it a family of 4, and the car cost is still ~$50, while the fares will be well over $100.


So, yes, Mr. Critic. You can pile your family into the minivan and save some money.

But at what cost? Is saving $50 worth an added 2.5 hours of travel time (each way) AND the risk of driving your family into the backside of a truck?

We look at statistics such as "30,000 Americans killed in road accidents every year" and sort of shrug it off because naturally, we're amazing drivers.

But there's nothing an amazing driver can do when visibility ends at the front of the car's hood. Even driving cautiously (we were going 35mph on the 70mph freeway) means little if someone doing 50mph slams into the back of your car. Freeway accidents aren't exactly uncommon, and the 99 is well patronized even at 3am.

It takes just a minute of driving in the worst of the Tule fog to convince any rational person that we need options when it comes to transportation because the status quo may not always be the best thing. So next time someone complains that the price of a ticket may be more than the cost of driving, ask them how much they value the lives of their family.





Bonus picture:
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(The point was the score, not the ironic ads)

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