California High-Speed Rail in Trouble

New reports have raised questions about and spurred opposition to California’s grandiose high-speed rail plans. First, last April, the California state auditor reported that the state’s high-speed rail authority suffered from “inadequate planning, weak oversight, and lax contract management,” which is not exactly what you want to hear about an agency that is about to build the most expensive state-sponsored public works project in history.

Second, a new report from the University of California found that the state’s ridership forecasts “are not reliable.” Based on a re-assessment by economist David Brownstone (who is fast becoming one of the Antiplanner’s favorite economists) and two UC engineering profs, the fares needed to cover the trains’ operating costs would have to be more than double the original projections, which is also more than the cost of flying. Since the measure approved by voters in 2008 forbade any state operating subsidies, such high fares would doom the project.

Many questions had been raised about the state’s ridership forecasts prior to this report. Of course, the Reason Foundation questioned the numbers as long ago as 2008. More recently, several California groups argued that the state rail authority developed a peer-reviewed model, then discarded it in favor of a questionable model that produced higher numbers. Some groups have gone so far as to sue the state for lying about the numbers.

The University of California report has led several newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune and San Diego Union-Tribune, to argue that the high-speed rail authority has lost its credibility and that the state should “abandon the high-speed train fantasy, spend the $2.25 billion in federal funds on more realistic rail projects and not sell any of the [$9 billion worth of] bonds” that voters approved in 2008.

In response, high-speed rail advocates complain that the media has given so much attention to the University of California report while it supposedly ignored a report from CalPIRG claiming that high-speed rail has been “successful” all over the world. (Update: It turns out the blogger who complained also happened to write the CalPIRG report — something he never mentioned in the blog post that purports to objectively review the report.) The reality is that, as one commenter notes, the press has given high-speed rail a “free pass” until recently, notably ignoring the Reason Foundation critiques when they were published two months before the 2008 election.

As for CalPIRG’s report, its definition of “success” is apparently, “if we subsidize it enough, they will come.” They note that heavily subsidized trains in selected markets managed to capture market share away from heavily-taxed autos and unsubsidized airlines. They also repeat Amtrak’s claims about its share of Boston-Washington travel without mentioning that Amtrak ignores intercity buses, which carry more travelers in that corridor than Amtrak.

In counting “successful” rail lines, CalPIRG ignored the line in China that was recently shut down because it could not compete with slower, lower-fare trains. It also ignored the line in Taiwan that went bankrupt late last year. Nor did CalPIRG bother to ask how much subsidy was needed to make the lines it did consider appear “successful.”

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the GAO just published a report arguing that federal high-speed rail plans were hastily drawn up and not well thought out. Unfortunately, the GAO mainly looked at high-speed rail as a part of the stimulus package and not on its own merits. As a result, it missed several important points.

For example, it divides rail into “conventional” (up to 79 mph), “higher speed” (80-150 mph), and “high speed” (150-plus mph). But the critical distinction should be at 90 to 110 mph, which are the maximum speeds that most railroads will allow passenger trains to run on the same tracks as their freight trains. Anything above that, whether 120 mph or 200 mph, will require construction of new tracks that will cost at least 10 times as much as improving existing tracks to run at 90 to 110 mph.

One major problem is that high-speed rail advocates want the public to pretend that capital costs don’t count, only operating costs — and then want the public to believe that fares will cover operating costs, when they won’t even in the most populated corridors.

Trains operating at top speeds of 90 to 110 mph (meaning average speeds of 60 to 75 mph) will not attract enough riders to make a difference in any market. Trains operating at top speeds of more than 200 mph (meaning average speeds of 140 mph or so) might attract more riders, but their extremely high cost makes them just as infeasible.

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118 thoughts on “California High-Speed Rail in Trouble

  1. Andrew

    “you said 102 million trips and then ran off a list of cities that aren’t within 200 miles of a proposed HSR train station to boost your numbers. When you deduct your bogus cities, the count drops to 19.8 million. Then you tried to double that number.”

    The city pairs below total 51 million ROUND trips per the BTS data = 102 million ONE-WAY trips. I’ve broken them up by the main line and various spurs. Please note the list does not include city pairs with less than 300,000 round trips, therefore, total travel from these cities is higher than is shown, and it does not include travel to more rural areas near these cities. The LA-SF-SD-Sacramento system proposed has nearly 33 million round trips on its own ignoring any spurs or exterior travel to non-system points.

    Main Line LA-SF – 11.534M round trips
    Los Angeles San Francisco 7,049,954
    Bakersfield Los Angeles 1,135,519
    Fresno Los Angeles 1,070,261
    Los Angeles Modesto 694,280
    Salinas San Francisco 677,352
    San Francisco San Francisco 335,487
    Fresno San Francisco 571,533

    Spur to San Diego – 12.882M round trips
    Los Angeles San Diego 10,466,883
    San Diego San Francisco 2,415,188

    Spur to Sacramento – 7.928M round trips
    Los Angeles Sacramento 1,631,660
    Sacramento San Diego 302,194
    Sacramento San Francisco 5,337,613
    San Francisco Stockton 475,895
    Fresno Stockton 451,925

    Desert Xpress – 11.753M round trips
    Las Vegas Los Angeles 9,120,296
    Las Vegas San Diego 2,213,871
    Las Vegas San Francisco 418,797

    Spur to Santa Barbara – 3.141M round trips
    Los Angeles Santa Barbara 2,036,605
    Salinas Santa Barbara 341,478
    San Diego Santa Barbara 362,563
    San Francisco Santa Barbara 399,637

    Spur to Reno – 3.016M round trips
    Reno Sacramento 644,983
    Reno San Diego 344,230
    Reno Stockton 324,960
    Reno San Francisco 1,704,123

    I would insist on including spurs off the main high speed route because just like is done in Europe (and also on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor), high speed trains in California would eventually serve those places either via connections, or via through trains that exit the dedicated high speed tracks and run to their final destination on shared trackage.

  2. the highwayman

    Andrew, SCOTT LOVES BIG GOVERNMENT!

    If it weren’t for big government he wouldn’t have FREEways along with a network of other socialist roads to drive on. =)

  3. Scott

    Highman loves double standards & generalized exaggeration & false postulates?

    Big gov is not needed for roads.
    A limited gov is sufficient to provided protection & basic, general infrastructure.

    Big gov has redistribution, from the the producers to specific groups. That’s not even close to roads.

    Highmy, you’re again making the false binary of big gov or no gov.

    There are tollways that are freeways. The freeways are free of traffic lights, being grade-separated. Most areas call them expressways. Interstates mostly fit to, but those are a certain type of freeway.

    Would you prefer that freeways are fully user-funded, say by a $0.50/gallon higher gas tax? That would be just.
    Property taxes pay for certain related infrastructure, such as local roads. Buildings cannot exist without roads.

    You must be against public education & all sorts of other gov programs for the general population.

  4. Andrew

    the highwayman:

    What constantly amazes me is the unblinkering support given by the supposed advocates of the free enterprise system to a transportation system where:

    1) the government owns the means of transportation (roads and airports)

    2) the government controls all movement on those means (traffic signal systems and air traffic control)

    3) the government tightly controls your personal movement on those means (licensing of drivers for roads, airport security control)

    4) the government tightly controls the private vehicles available to move on those means (registration of motor vehicles and airplanes, annual testing of vehicles for permission to continue using your supposed private property, private vehicles confiscated at the drop of a hat for trivial invented offenses like overparking a meter or driving without insurance).

    Its all quite Orwellian when you step back, consider first principles of liberarianism, and examine the actual system for what it is. Slavery = Freedom.

    What is truly disturbing to me as a libertarian is that the advocates of this system of transportation lobbied for it and created it with raw government power when there was already a parallel privately owned system of personal movement created by the free market – the railway, interurban, and trolley systems.

    Roads for example, are presented as some sort of natural outgrowth of free enterprise supplanting the railroad, when in reality, private roads of the 1700’s and 1800’s were uniformly a financial failure superseded by the private rail system.

    The most hypocritical part is that the true first advocates of this modern transport system of roads and planes who thoguht the whole thing out to its modern logical conclusions were committed socialists like Le Corbusier, who wanted it to create a system of waste to provide employment for people in jobs that would not exist without the motorized highway system and people racing about 20+ miles back and forth to work every day.

  5. the highwayman

    Scott; Would you prefer that freeways are fully user-funded, say by a $0.50/gallon higher gas tax? That would be just.

    THWM: Yo douche tard, GAS TAXES ARE NOT HIGHWAY USER FEES, THEY ARE TAXES ON GAS!

    Tolls are highway user fees.

  6. the highwayman

    Andrew said:
    the highwayman:

    What constantly amazes me is the unblinkering support given by the supposed advocates of the free enterprise system to a transportation system where:

    1) the government owns the means of transportation (roads and airports)

    2) the government controls all movement on those means (traffic signal systems and air traffic control)

    3) the government tightly controls your personal movement on those means (licensing of drivers for roads, airport security control)

    4) the government tightly controls the private vehicles available to move on those means (registration of motor vehicles and airplanes, annual testing of vehicles for permission to continue using your supposed private property, private vehicles confiscated at the drop of a hat for trivial invented offenses like overparking a meter or driving without insurance).

    Its all quite Orwellian when you step back, consider first principles of liberarianism, and examine the actual system for what it is. Slavery = Freedom.

    What is truly disturbing to me as a libertarian is that the advocates of this system of transportation lobbied for it and created it with raw government power when there was already a parallel privately owned system of personal movement created by the free market – the railway, interurban, and trolley systems.

    Roads for example, are presented as some sort of natural outgrowth of free enterprise supplanting the railroad, when in reality, private roads of the 1700?s and 1800?s were uniformly a financial failure superseded by the private rail system.

    The most hypocritical part is that the true first advocates of this modern transport system of roads and planes who thoguht the whole thing out to its modern logical conclusions were committed socialists like Le Corbusier, who wanted it to create a system of waste to provide employment for people in jobs that would not exist without the motorized highway system and people racing about 20+ miles back and forth to work every day.

    THWM: I’m all for civil liberties, though I’m also for civil responsibilites.

    People like O’Toole, Cox, Scott, Karlock, etc. aren’t really libertarian as much they are fascist & conformist.

    They’ll tread on your liberty as fast as they can!

  7. Scott

    Highmy,
    As normal you have avoided most of points.
    You are stuck on semantics & did not contradict me though.
    Reread your post.

    Let me explain how gas taxes are user funded fees.
    People drive cars, buy gas & drive roads.
    There are very few user-type fees/taxes in gov.
    It would be more just to have much more spending related to use.
    Lawnmowers, snowmobiles & such are inconsequential.

    There is a difference on tax money paid/per vehicle mile, but that is good to favor higher mpgs.

    Pleas try again on the topics & questions that you missed.
    Hey, are you still studying for a GED?
    Or have you given up since your Stanford-Binet score is too low to be let out?

    Oh, why do you equate roads as big gov?
    It’s only 3% of all gov expenses?
    Would you be happy if all travel was monitored & one had to pay accordingly?

  8. the highwayman

    The road infront of your home is there regarless if you drive on it or not and is paid for by property taxes. In some places instead of taxes people could provide labor instead for local road work at one time.

    Gas taxes are sales taxes on gas, so gas burned on property taxpayer funded roads/streets is then a subsidy for expressways.

    Tolls are user fees, not gas taxes.

    Though gas taxes make more sense as carbon taxes now.

  9. Scott

    Highmy,
    What about Amtrak? All the wasteful gov spending adds up to many meals/capita & many more private jobs.

    What’s your point about roads existing?
    As I said, structures cannot exist without roads.
    Think about the construction & the occupants’ needs (ie goods delivery).
    It doesn’t matter if there are a few that don’t drive.
    Should non-parents not have property taxes paid for schools?
    That’s much higher than road expenses. Just because you somehow avoided public school doesn’t meant that others should.

    Not sure how you can understand that gas taxes are suppose to be for the purpose of paying for the roads, paid for by users.
    You avoided answering the question about people paying for each mile of road & sidewalk by monitoring.

  10. PlanesnotTrains

    On July 17th, 2010, Andrew said:
    The city pairs below total 51 million ROUND trips per the BTS data = 102 million ONE-WAY trips. I’ve broken them up by the main line and various spurs. Please note the list does not include city pairs with less than 300,000 round trips, therefore, total travel from these cities is higher than is shown, and it does not include travel to more rural areas near these cities. The LA-SF-SD-Sacramento system proposed has nearly 33 million round trips on its own ignoring any spurs or exterior travel to non-system points.
    Spur to San Diego – 12.882M round trips
    Desert Xpress – 11.753M round trips
    Spur to Santa Barbara – 3.141M round trips
    Spur to Reno – 3.016M round trips
    I would insist on including spurs off the main high speed route because just like is done in Europe (and also on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor), high speed trains in California would eventually serve those places either via connections, or via through trains that exit the dedicated high speed tracks and run to their final destination on shared trackage.

    ++++++++++++
    There is no “spur” to San Diego, there is no “spur” to Santa Barbara, there is no “Spur” to Reno and DesertExpress does not exist, nor are any such spurs or systems included in the current cost of the system – as such, the ridership is irrelivant. Therefore, your suggestion that they are relevant is disingenuous and intentionally done to skew facts.
    In other words, you are a liar. Chew on that for a while.

  11. PlanesnotTrains

    On July 18th, 2010, Andrew said:
    What constantly amazes me is the unblinkering support given by the supposed advocates of the free enterprise system to a transportation system where:
    1) the government owns the means of transportation (roads and airports)
    2) the government controls all movement on those means (traffic signal systems and air traffic control)
    3) the government tightly controls your personal movement on those means (licensing of drivers for roads, airport security control)
    4) the government tightly controls the private vehicles available to move on those means (registration of motor vehicles and airplanes, annual testing of vehicles for permission to continue using your supposed private property, private vehicles confiscated at the drop of a hat for trivial invented offenses like overparking a meter or driving without insurance).
    ************
    1. Local government owns airports to ensure full access to everyone. Tthe means of air transportation – a private, not public form of transportation – are owned by private persons and/or private corporations.
    2. The government controls the movement or aircraft in the airspace and on some airports which are public use to ensure a safely functioning mode of transportation with adequate government oversight.
    3. The government ensures the safety of passengers who use the air transportation system, it does not control the movement of persons nor does it set schedule, routing or price.
    4. The government regulates the safety of air commerce; it does not tightly control what is available. Anyone can order and aircraft at anytime and start and airlines provided the aircraft is certified to standards established to ensure public safety and the aircraft is operated by qualified and competent crew members.

  12. the highwayman

    PlanesnotTrains said: There is no “spur” to San Diego, there is no “spur” to Santa Barbara, there is no “Spur” to Reno and DesertExpress does not exist, nor are any such spurs or systems included in the current cost of the system – as such, the ridership is irrelivant. Therefore, your suggestion that they are relevant is disingenuous and intentionally done to skew facts.

    THWM: Just as 30mph arterial roads feed trafic to 60 mph expressways, it would be the same sort of thing with HSR. Trunk lines with 200+ mph track conditions, with trains continuing on to or coming from lines with 80 mph track conditions & etc.

  13. PlanesnotTrains

    On July 22nd, 2010, the highwayman said:

    THWM: Just as 30mph arterial roads feed trafic to 60 mph expressways, it would be the same sort of thing with HSR. Trunk lines with 200+ mph track conditions, with trains continuing on to or coming from lines with 80 mph track conditions & etc.
    ***********

    1. Not included in the cost, therefore irrelivant.
    2. No one in their right mind will take a three hour train ride to connect to a 2 hour train ride to cover what they can in their car in 6 hours or by air in 2.

    Use some common sense.

  14. the highwayman

    PlanesnotTrains said: 1. Not included in the cost, therefore irrelivant.
    2. No one in their right mind will take a three hour train ride to connect to a 2 hour train ride to cover what they can in their car in 6 hours or by air in 2.

    THWM: People are not changing trains, they are through running.

  15. PlanesnotTrains

    THWM: People are not changing trains, they are through running.

    ********

    There are no through trains from the cities he mentions. Santa Barbara, Reno and San Diego are not in the budget – there is no funding for LOSSAN. DesertExpress doesn’t exist and there is no funding. Furthermore, Santa Barbara and Reno aren’t even part of the proposed system. Therefore, you will have to connect from a slow regional train or bus to HSR.

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