One More Nail

The Washington Post editorialized against spending any more tax dollars on California’s high-speed rail project, saying “California should have to fill in its project’s economic and logistical blanks” before more federal or even state dollars are spent. While no one is surprised to see fiscally conservative papers such as the Washington Examiner come out against high-speed rail, the fact that the traditionally liberal Post is against it suggests that the end is near.

Naturally, rail advocates accuse the Post of being “unfair,” but they miss the Post‘s point, which is that the California High-Speed Rail Authority only has a tiny fraction of the money it needs, no private investors have offered to contribute (despite the Authority’s predictions that they would provide at least $6 billion in funding), and the Authority has been accused of mismanagement and optimism bias by, among others, the California State Auditor, a peer committee of transportation engineers, and experts at the University of California at Berkeley.

Orange County was planning to spend a whopping $184 million on an Anaheim “transit center,” 90 percent of whose customers would arrive or depart on a high-speed train. But with it looking more and more likely that train will never arrive, county officials are backing off this grandiose plan.

In Florida, lobbyists are working furiously to keep that state’s high-speed train alive. The state’s governor says he will decide whether or not to kill the line in the next few weeks. Even a major high-speed rail advocacy group, America 2050, concludes in a report that high-speed rail doesn’t really make sense in Florida because the state lacks any concentrations of people.

Recently, there were reports that many in China are questioning that nation’s high-speed rail program. In response, a Chinese-American analyst writing for The Atlantic argues that, “a network of high-speed rail can generate the kind of economic organization and development that the interstate highway system produced in the US.”

Sadly for rail buffs like the Antiplanner, he is wrong. Even in a country like China, where auto ownership is still rare, high-speed rail simply can’t produce the same benefits as the Interstate Highway System for several reasons.

1. High-speed trains carry no freight. By sharing the same facilities with both cars and trucks, interstate highways reduce the costs to both.

2. High-speed trains don’t go door to door. The advantages of door-to-door service provided by the automobile outweigh the speed advantage of high-speed trains, which is why autos are getting to be very popular in China.

3. High-speed trains are convenient for only a small group of people. Unless you live or work near a train station and your destination is also near a train station, other modes of travel will work better.

4. High-speed trains are very expensive. Fares on China’s high-speed trains are several times greater than on conventional trains, which further limits the market to a narrow elite.

Instead of building more high-speed rail, China should work to relieve the traffic congestion that is certain to increase as more people buy and drive automobiles. Of course, if China’s goal is to bankrupt America, one way to reach that goal would be to encourage us to build lots of high-speed trains, especially if we also buy Chinese technology for those trains.


75 thoughts on “One More Nail

  1. Andrew


    “Light rail doesn’t work anywhere.”

    The initial San Diego Trolley system was a near-break even proposition wtih respect to operating revenue vs. cost. It also seems quite successful in Edmonton and Calgary, and the older systems in Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco also all have their merits despite union knee-capping.

    There are plenty of flaws in how “Light Rail” which are really what we used to call Interurban lines have been reconstructed in this country and Canada since those intital systems to ensure that San Diego’s success is not replicated. Costly gold-plating of infrastructure, lines to nowhere, slow operations causing high O&M costs, the drive to be unique with respect to each car order, the urge to be noncompatible with the general freight rail system, etc. I think these flaws were adequately discussed for years by Paul Weyrich and Bill Lind in the New Electric Railway Journal, they are obvious to anyone examining how these systems are constructed, and I have no intention of rehashing them with you.

  2. Andrew


    “Andrew, re: your #s on Acela, one thing stuck out, $440million in annual revenue. … Consider a ~10X factor (per annual revenue & sunk), in covering cost, the Acela figures are far short.”

    It would be wonderful if you would use plain english so we could all understand what the heck you are saying. Feel free to expound a bit. Obtuse brevity does nothing for comprehension of your point.

  3. Andrew


    “CP – you’re right, I was thinking of non-regional travel, but said international travel. Everyone agrees that trains become increasingly unattractive when the trip gets over a thousand miles, or even less. Nothing will displace long distance air travel.”

    The average length of travel on Amtrak’s long distance overnight trains is around 900 miles. This only looks unattractive as a mode because so few of these trains are now offered to the travelling public to ride on.

    Airplanes only become a dominant mode of choice over cars for trips over 1500 miles – i.e. two full days driving. Even from 1000-1500 miles, 1/3 of trips are by car.

    The BTS notes that long distance trips are defined as trips over 50 miles in length. Cars have had 90% of these trips since the time of the Great Depression.

    More to the point, 90% of trips are under 500 miles in length, and 95% of these trips are by car. This is why autos seems to have an inordinately dominant position in travel compared to air, rail, or bus.

  4. msetty

    Andrew, I think one of the reasons that autos have dominated short distance intercity travel for so long is after the Depression wiped out the interurbans wholesale, we’ve never had effective planning of passenger rail networks, nor even a passenger rail network at all to speak of, except in a few exceptional cases like the outer legs of Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, plus a few accidental, not really planned legs feeding the Northeast Corridor.

    To reiterate one of my earlier points, the chief reason Canton Graubunden in Switzerland is able to achieve 146 annual rail/bus rides per capita is that they operate a region-wide network of coordinated rail routes and local bus lines covering all urban and rural areas. Each rail route operates hourly the same time past the hour for 16 hours seven days per week (e.g., 6:00 a.m. to at least 10:00 p.m.), and these routes have timed connections with one another with all local and rural bus lines in the canton, as well as mainline SBB trains to Zurich and the rest of the country.

    You can literally get from the smallest village served by Swiss Postal buses–with a minimum of 5-6 bus trips per day–to any other small village in Switzerland, even on the other side of the country, with minimal delays. Such rural bus routes have timed connections with the rail network at the nearest station, which in turn, has timed connections to other rail routes, up to and including the huge central stations in Zurich, Bern, Basel, and Geneva.

    For an example of this, I’ve chosen the example of Bonfol-Silvaplana, Switzerland. Bonfol is a small town in Northwest Switzerland, Canton Jura. Silvaplana, is the next town just west of St. Moritz, the famous tony ski resort in Canton Graubunden.

    According to the Google trip planner, this 340 km. route requires about 5 hours by car, though this includes two border crossings, a portion where tolls are required, and driving through Zurich, the most congested part of the country. Ironically, the directional recommendations also include putting cars on an RhB rail shuttle in the tunnel under the Albula Pass, which is one of the most treacherous Swiss passes in the wintertime. So this trip would be reasonably reliable, given the rail shuttle portion of the trip!

    In contrast, this trip completely by rail and bus requires 4 connections and about 6.5 hours of travel time, and a total of 42 minutes connecting/waiting time. In Switzerland, this sort of intercity trip via transit is the “worst case” scenario, involving a rural branch rail line, many transfers, winding rail routes through a mountain pass (Albula) and rural buses. The time ratio is 1.3, somewhat slower than driving but acceptable to many people.

    On the major Swiss rail routes, travel times are quite competitive with driving, thank you. All routes run at least hourly, and the busiest every 30 minutes or more frequently. Even on trips between secondary cities such as Schaffhausen to Chur, the SBB trip planner shows competitive travel times of 2:13 on the best combination of trains, vs. 2 hrs, 6 or 7 minutes via car, including driving through Canton Zurich. On the busiest routes, such as Zurich-Geneva, the train is by far the fastest mode, with travel times of 2:42 via train, vs. 3:08 best time driving–and again, through the most congested parts of Switzerland. Certainly access times for rail add to this, but on the other hand, more than 90% of the Swiss population lives within a 5-minute walk of a bus stop or train station; one source I couldn’t confirm claimed that 80% of the population lives within a kilometer of the 1,000+ train stations and stops, but I suspect this number includes “all” rail, e.g., including the trams in Neuchatel, Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Geneva.

    The reason I mention this is that the Swiss have managed to grab a very high modal share for rail, about 18%+/- of ALL passenger miles traveled, due to their nation-wide system of service coordination. They have not drunk what I am now calling the “High Speed Rail” kool-aid, by investing huge sums in 180 mph+ route segments. Instead, they have made incremental improvements designed to fit various route segments into 30 or 60 or 90 minute travel time blocks between the major stations, all on lines with maximum speeds of 125 mph.

    One can also buy ONE ticket from any point within Switzerland to any other point, unlike, say, Britain, which is obsessed with transport privatization and one cannot do the same there.

    This approach has huge public support, because virtually everyone is able to use the network easily, with the minimum service standards mentioned before, and the knowledge that in most cases, the timed connections at all significant connecting points, rail or bus, minimize waiting times. In all but the most rural locations, local buses run at least every hour 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, connecting to similarly scheduled trains. The Swiss consider this strategy so successful that their next goal is to undertake the capital improvements needed for incremental reductions in travel times, but also to incrementally upgrade currently hourly services to half-hourly, and to every 15 minutes all day on the busiest routes.

    By providing such a usable network, the Swiss have avoided concentrating resources on rarified markets such as the small potential market for HSR between Zurich, Bern and Geneva, the only route where HSR a la 180-220 mph could possibly make sense. Come to think of it, this Swiss strategy sheds some light on why some people have reacted they way they have to HSR, because they see they’d be paying for it, but wouldn’t get any benefits.

    Now the reason I’ve gone on about Switzerland is that the Swiss model is highly relevant to the various “mega-regions” identified by America 2050 and many others. Most of the U.S. mega-regions are as large, or much larger, than Switzerland (7.9 million, 15,000 square miles). In California, we have the equivalent of two Switzerlands in Northern California, three in Southern California, and a smaller “medium region” of about 2 million focused around Fresno. And these areas are more densely populated overall than Switzerland. The essential strategy would be to apply the Swiss model to each mega-region, connected by 220 mph HSR lines where potential ridership–including all the various connections made possible by the Swiss model–is high enough to justify the expense. In some cases, it may make sense to connect one mega-region to another, such as Northeast Corridor-Atlanta, and Northeast Corridor to Midwest across Pennsylvania.

    Now, one thing is also clear about my proposed strategy: it simply would not work under the “privatization” canard of those who put faith in “free market” religion. For example, since Britain privatized bus operations in cities outside London, ridership has plummeted by about 50% despite very high gasoline prices. British Rail was privatized, split up into several “train operating countries.” ‘Fu’get about it’ if you want smooth connections or coordinated fares. The saga of “Railtrack” in Britain also cost taxpayers there a lot more than if they had taken BR and converted it to the Swiss model. This is ironic, because Britain is much larger and densely populated than Switzerland, resembling Japan in this regard.

    One minor point. One poster here pointed out that geography may explain some of the differences between Europe, Switzerland, and the U.S. In Switzerland, based on what some sources have told us, many marginal rural railways have been retained because it would have been very costly to widen the parallel mountain roads to accommodate buses. Some have probably also been retained for tourism reasons, and perhaps some for the passenger kilometer contribution they make to the overall Swiss network.

  5. Scott

    Andrew, thanx for admitting & mentioning that you (along w/many others) have lack of knowledge in accounting, business, banking & econ principles, in your typing “use plain English.”

    You figs of the Acela showed that not enough revenue is generated. Various factors needing to considered, including the high density & demand in the NE & the much higher cost for HSR.

    I was assuming the read reports about the HSR. How silly of me.

    Cox & O’Toole have done extensive analysis. Search for those, plus here are some articles:

  6. Andrew


    I’m going to ask again for a translation of what you are writing into English using complete sentences according to the standards of proper writing.

    “Andrew, re: your #s on Acela, one thing stuck out, $440million in annual revenue. … Consider a ~10X factor (per annual revenue & sunk), in covering cost, the Acela figures are far short.”

    The first sentence lacks a conclusion of the thought. It says the revenue value sticks out but doesn’t explain any further about why it sticks out. The second sentence references a 10x factor and sunk something or another. 10 times what? Sunk what? The Acela figures are short of what metric?

    Do you understand why I am asking you to explain yourself. Half of your thought is some assumed understanding that no one possesses except yourself, because you have not shared it with us.

    “Andrew, thanx for admitting & mentioning that you (along w/many others) have lack of knowledge in accounting, business, banking & econ principles”

    I fail to see how you are demonstrating anything from such principles. And what would those principles be, pray tell, since you fail to actually mention them? Karl Marx and Adam Smith both had principles in these matters, as have every other economist and business writer ideologically in between. Maybe if you would explain the ones you want me to consider we could further the discussion.

    “You figs of the Acela showed that not enough revenue is generated.”

    Not enough revenue is generated for what? You just continue to pile up incomplete thoughts and assertions.

    “Various factors needing to considered, including the high density & demand in the NE & the much higher cost for HSR.”

    What various factors? And why do they need to be considered? What higher cost are you referring to? The higher cost of what? High density compared to what? Demand for what at what level?

    “Cox & O’Toole have done extensive analysis.”

    Extensive analysis of what? How is an article by Robert Samuelson, who has an education in Government, not economics or business, some sort of expert analysis? His article includes such idiocies as:

    “Suburbanization after World War II made most rail travel impractical.”

    And this assertion is proven by what? Are railroads are physically incapable of making a stop in suburban areas? Are existing suburban rail stations (Rt. 128, Stamford, Metropark, BWI on the Northeast Corridor as a simple example) somehow failures? Were suburban rail stations of the past when rail was successful, such as Croton-Harmon, Paoli, Sewickley, Aurora, PAsadena actually failures?

    He also writes: “In the Northeast Corridor, with about 45 million people, Amtrak’s daily ridership is 28,500. If its trains shut down tomorrow, no one except the affected passengers would notice.”

    The same numeric arguement could be made regarding the air shuttle between NY and BOS and NY and DC – it serves relatively few people in a huge region. So if National, Logan, LaGuardia and the Air Traffic Control System were shut down tomorrow to save money, no one except a few affected passengers would notice, and surely they could just drive, right? In fact, there are only 2 million air passengers per day in the US between different permutations of about 100 major airports. In any given pair, the travel demand is only around 400 people per day on average. Therefore, following the same reasoning you are endorsing, most of the US air system is totally superfluous.

    Here’s a sample of “stunning” extensive analysis you are citing from Mr. O’Toole:

    “Improved bus service: So-called Chinatown buses are offering increased competition to Amtrak’s Northeast corridor. Aided by Internet ticket sales, these buses offer very low-cost travel and often provide city-to-suburb or suburb-to-suburb service (thus going people actually live). Even confined to highway speeds, they can be competitive because different buses serve different city pairs, thus avoiding the delays of intermediate stops. Such buses can provide transport to today’s decentralized cities in ways that fixed rail cannot.”

    So let me ask, if these buses are really providing increased competition, how is Amtrak ridership higher today than ever?

    If these buses are offering city-suburb and suburb-suburb service, what do you call the service offered by Amtrak at New Carrollton, BWI, Aberdeen, Wilmington, Downingtown, Exton, Paoli, Ardmore, Trenton, Princeton Jct., Metropark, Newark, Yonkers, Croton, Poughkeepsie, New Rochelle, Stamford, Kingston, Rt. 128, and Woburn? How is it not comparable to this wondrous bus service?

    How are bus speeds competitive when they are 30-100%+ slower than NEC rail?

    How is rail not providing service to today’s decentralized cities by stopping in the suburbs at stations previously cited, while the magic buses are?

    In other words, how is any of this not total nonesense of ipse dixit?

    Also, I fail to see how any of these citations relate to your cryptic 10x and sunk in covering costs.

  7. Scott

    Sunk costs are, basically, the capital investment.
    Forgive me for using an accounting/economic term that many are unfamiliar with.

    Ticket revenues are [or will be] too low to cover the costs for Acela & for HSR.

    Crunching numbers should not be tried by those lacking knowledge.
    Even those who claim to know, make rosy projections.

    If you read more analysis of HSR, it becomes more clear.
    Sorry, I am not more wordy.
    It’s frustrating to no be understood, while trying to keep typing to minimum, & even then maybe not read.
    Like I’ve typed before, it’s like talking math to someone who just learned the alphabet.

    For the CA HSR, to cover the $50 billion+ cost, a minimum of $5 billion ticket revenue (annual) will be needed, probably double. Even the official CA HSR reports, don’t cover that.

    Yes, it would be “nice” to have HSR, but not worth it, plus inducing travel.
    Personally, in 6 years living in SJ (Bay Area), I have not had the need to go to Sac or LA, & fast rail would still be a low choice.

  8. Borealis

    I don’t find data from small unique European countries to be very applicable to other countries. Whatever one finds in Norway, Sweden, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Holland, etc., those countries have small homogeneous populations, unique geographies, and their economies are centered around just a few industries. Just because something works for them, it doesn’t indicate much about whether it will work anywhere else.

    It is like drawing US-wide conclusions from data in Hawaii, Manhattan, Alaska, retirement belt of Florida, Cape Cod, Aspen, Hollywood or Silicon Valley.

  9. Andrew


    “Sunk costs are, basically, the capital investment.”

    You didn’t say sunk costs. Just “sunk”. I didn’t want to presume what you meant.

    “Ticket revenues are [or will be] too low to cover the costs for Acela & for HSR.”

    Most of the sunk costs of Acela were incurred around 1840-1930 when the right of way it operates on and stations it serves were built. Obviously they would be very high in current dollars if built today, but that is irrelevant to how Aclea is operating today, because those dollars were funded and paid for eons ago and won’t be recurred.

    The Northeast Corridor route for Amtrak as a whole is pulling in over $1 billion per year considering ticket revenue, commuter rail access and power payments, freight rail access payments, and accounting charges to the Amtrak long distance trains that use it. This should be adequate to cover its operating and capital needs provided foolish decisions aren’t made.

    “Sorry, I am not more wordy.”

    Please be wordier to make sure you are understood.

    “For the CA HSR, to cover the $50 billion+ cost, a minimum of $5 billion ticket revenue (annual) will be needed, probably double. Even the official CA HSR reports, don’t cover that.”

    Usually I’ve seen a value of 12X for converting a perpetual income stream into a current value. Not recalling the mechanics of the calculation right now, I do remember that involving an interest rate around 7-8%. Municipal bonds are around 4%, so Iw ould think this value would be different – but then again, I haven’t done those calculations recently.

    “Yes, it would be “nice” to have HSR, but not worth it, plus inducing travel.”

    When I worked in the bay area 12 years ago, HSR was being sold on the ability to avoid paying billions of dollars to expand SFO, LAX, etc. for regional travel. If that were still the case, it could make sense to invest the money in an alternate method of transportation to avoid that expense.

  10. MJ

    Or are you like Peter Gordon of USC, who actually made the claim, in his eyes, that light rail would be a failure regardless of how high ridership might be?

    He suggested that this would be true of any US light rail system. Actually, he did look at the data. Guess what he found?

  11. msetty

    How can Gordon’s numbers be trusted, when he doesn’t even get Charlotte Lynx ridership correct and up to date?

    Gordon’s performance here leaves much to be desired for someone who “earned” a PhD. He misinterprets Charlotte’s NTD data for FY 2008, when Lynx only operated for 8 months, e.g., starting up in November 2007. Adjusting for this incredibly stupid oversight by an allegedly “competent” professor, one gets startup ridership upwards of 14,000 per weekday.

    According to this source,, Lynx carries about 20,000 daily riders, as of the 3rd quarter of 2010 (e.g., summer lull July-September). In the 2nd quarter of 2010, Lynx was carrying a bit short of 22,000 daily riders (

    This sort of b.s. proves, for the umteenth time, libertards like Peter Gordon and other right winger transit opponents are sloppy and unreliable opponents, whose conclusions are usually 98% pure unadulterated b.s. At least The Antiplanner checks his work!

  12. MJ

    This sort of b.s. proves, for the umteenth time, libertards like Peter Gordon and other right winger transit opponents are sloppy and unreliable opponents, whose conclusions are usually 98% pure unadulterated b.s. At least The Antiplanner checks his work!

    Awfully defensive, aren’t we? Your ad hominem attack does little to change the material results of the findings.

    First of all, if you look at the date stamp of the post it’s hard to imagine how they would have had access to 3rd quarter 2010 data, since the publication by APTA tends to lag by a couple of quarters. Secondly, I don’t see any reference to weekday ridership in the original post — the numbers referenced were from annual data. Newer annual data have since been released by NTD, as announced on this blog.

    If we use 2009 annual data, CATS light rail ridership is listed at about 3.55 million annual boardings. Gordon estimates about $1 million per year in non-user benefits from ridership of 2.26 million. Suppose we update this with the ’09 data and assume proportionately greater benefits (around $1.5 million per year). Now the net social cost is down to $44.5 million instead of $45 million. Wow, night and day.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss one’s results based on preconceived notions of biases.

  13. Scott

    MSetty is basing his disagreement w/Peter Gordon on one little awkward stat?

    Sounds like the same lack of credibility & fault reasoning that Media Matters has.

  14. msetty

    I’m basing my disagreement with Gordon on seeing 20 years of his “work” and my 30+ years of experience in this business. That particular post by Gordon is typical of his work.

    “Media Matters” is so unfair to the right wing wingnutsphere…it QUOTES them! Yeah, very unfair!

  15. metrosucks

    Media Matters quotes out of context, often misunderstands the point, often avoids the points, focuses on fallacies, sometimes focuses on minor items irrelevant to point.

    Of course they do. All leftists do this, since leftist arguments rely on smearing, point out grammatical/spelling errors in their opponents’ work, appeals to emotion, anything but using real numbers, logic, or true financial cost/benefit analysis or reason. Can’t have choo! choo! on the public dime, if you look at the real cost/benefit analysis of the choo! choo!

  16. Scott

    Learn about Leftism, how deep it is and what all is involved.
    Social Justice is not what it sounds like.
    See Saul Alinsky and his principles in Rules for Radicals.

    The Media Matters is funny, but sad, since the lefty readers are hung up on inequity, and short on how reality operates (ie motivation, business operation, Dem real agendas) that they believe so much crap, and they are very susceptible to believing Logical Fallacies and most whatever their people say, without analysis or critical thought.
    The goal of the left, for redistribution, control and for personal power will cause even worse disaster, than it already has, while somehow (ignorance, distortion) blaming free markets for gov intervention.

  17. Scott

    A free market does not mean anarchy. I’ve explained that & many other concepts to you, which you never understand.
    Although you did help invalidate the claim that the free market caused the recession–it was excessive gov intervention that heavily distorted housing decisions. People forget that during Bush, big-gov increased, including many regulations.

    You might learn from reading some material. Then again, you have demonstrated no ability to learn.
    Even if you can comprehend new princilpes & concepts, you are so far behind, that it will take a long time to grasp many basics.

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