The proposed electrification of the San Jose-to-San Francisco commuter-rail line, which the Antiplanner briefly mentioned last week, looks to become a bellwether for Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao. On one side are California Republicans who don’t want to see dollars going to the high-speed rail boondoggle. On the other side are rail proponents who think that any money spent on trains is a good thing.
Currently, the rail line is powered by “aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives,” the New York Times objectively reports. Are those similar to the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power most Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor? Or the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power America’s freight trains that, rail supporters love to report, are hundreds of times more energy efficient than trucks?
The Times tries to make it appear ironic that cutting-edge Silicon Valley engineers are forced to rely on primitive technologies. Yet electric trains are actually older than diesel. Electrification dates back to the nineteenth century and the Pennsylvania Railroad first electrified some of its lines more than 100 years ago. The first Diesel locomotive was made just over 90 years ago and the first really important Diesel, the FT–the one that convinced the railroads to switch from steam–was made less than 80 years ago.
Electricity sounds all green-like, but the sad fact that two-thirds of the energy used to generate electricity is lost between the generator and the end user. So, if you want to go green, it is much better to apply still scarce sources of renewable electricity to uses that don’t have alternative sources of power, such as homes and industry. Transportation can be more efficient using directly generated power such as diesel and gasoline engines, both of which are cleaner and more energy efficient than they were a few years ago.
What’s really going on here is Jerry Brown wants his legacy high-speed train, and that train will run on electricity. The state doesn’t have enough money to make the portion from San Jose to San Francisco into a high-speed route, but it still needs electrical power to run to San Francisco at conventional speeds. The feds don’t have any more money for high-speed rail, so the state asked for the money for Caltrain electrification (which would eventually be used by the semi-high-speed trains) as a way of getting around that limit.
The commuter trains won’t really benefit from electrification. Electric power would allow the trains to accelerate a bit faster but the difference would probably have almost no effect on ridership. Caltrains has 20 locomotives that probably need to be replaced as they are more than 30 years old, but a new Diesel locomotive costs about $3 million so it could replace all 20 for less than a tenth of the cost of electrification. Electrification, says Caltrain director Jim Hartnett, would also “create thousands of jobs,” but then, so would just about any expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. Unlike many other projects, electrification would produce almost no new jobs (meaning income) after the work was done.
That didn’t matter to outgoing Federal Transit Administration administrator Carolyn Flowers, who made a last-minute grant of $647 million to the state two days before Trump took over. A few days later, Flowers took a high-paying job with AECOM, a company that has been a major contractor for both Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority. This led the Wall Street Journal to call California’s state capital “America’s western swamp.”
Meanwhile, Fresno’s mayor is a Republican who supports high-speed rail. “The city of Fresno can enjoy a major benefit” if people in the rest of the country send it billions of dollars, he told the New York Times. The Antiplanner would enjoy a major benefit if everyone else sent me money, too, but that doesn’t mean people should do it.
Secretary Chao has not killed the project but only deferred the decision to give Caltrain the money pending an audit of the high-speed rail project. Such an audit would especially look into a recent Federal Railroad Administration prediction that the short segment of high-speed rail that is currently under construction will cost around 50 percent more than claimed. Based on that, the final cost of a true high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco will be around $150 billion, which is something like four or five times the amount promised to voters in 2008 and about ten times the cost projections in the late 1990s.
This just illustrates the basic problem with the political system. Politicians get sold on an idea when the cost appears almost reasonable (though even in the 1990s the line was projected to cost more to use than flying or driving), then stick to it no matter how high the real costs go. While Gavin Newsom, who once favored high-speed rail but is running for governor in 2018 on an anti-rail platform, appears to be an exception, for other politicians such as Jerry Brown, there appears to be no cost so high that would lead them to withdraw their support. That’s how well-intentioned programs become cesspools of waste and corruption.