Tag Archives: high-speed rail

A Monument to Optimism

“When you build a high-speed rail line,” says Washington governor Jay Inslee, “you are building a monument to optimism.” He is 100 percent correct except that he thinks that’s a reason to build it when in fact it is a reason not to build.

Inslee made the statement at a joint press conference with British Columbia premier John Horgan announcing that B.C. would contribute to the costs of a study of building a line from Seattle to Vancouver. Governor Inslee no doubt meant that spending money on high-speed rail represented optimism for the future of the Northwest. But what his statement really meant is that he is clueless about the extensive planning literature associating optimism bias with strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying.

The other half of Inslee’s phrase — monument — accurately describes the real purpose of high-speed rail. It’s not meant to be a mode of transport. Instead, it is a monument to the egos of politicians who get it built. Continue reading


California High-Speed Rail Update

Finishing the high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles is now expected to cost $77.3 billion, says the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest cost estimate. This is a big jump from the 2016 estimate of $64.3 billion and an even bigger jump from the $25 billion estimated in 2000, which was the only one available when voters approved the project in 2008. Completion has also been pushed back from 2020 in the 2000 plan to 2029 in the 2016 plan to 2033 in the latest plan.

While the cost increase has gotten a lot of media attention, less noticed is the fact that this $77.3-billion plan is for trains that will go at “speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour” and “typically” take “under three hours” to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The 2000 plan called for trains going 220 miles per hour and taking two-and-a-half hours from LA to San Francisco.

Of course, 220 “exceeds” 200 and two-and-a-half hours is “under” three hours, but the softening of the language makes it clear that the authority doesn’t expect to meet the original 2000 targets. This is partly because of a 2013 law effectively limiting speeds in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. A further quibble is that the “under three hours” estimate is for non-stop trains, and most trains “typically” won’t go non-stop. Continue reading


Washington High-Speed Fantasies

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it will release its latest cost estimates today, which most expect will be much higher than previous estimates. “It’s going to be bumpy,” the rail authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, promises reassuringly.

Meanwhile, up north, the state of Washington is planning its own high-speed money pit, including a leg from Seattle to Spokane. A lobby group has already formed to agitate for such a project, based on the slogan “You deserve slower.” Oops, the slogan they are using is “you deserve faster,” but since the fastest high-speed trains are slower than flying, they will actually be slower. The Antiplanner wonders how many contractors and unions are a part of this coalition.

An initial study projected that the Seattle-Spokane route would cost $25 billion to $50 billion. The study predicts that fares will cover operating costs by 2055, but it fails to account for driverless cars, increased airline efficiencies, and other technical changes. The truth is that it would probably cost less to just give everyone a free airline ticket. Continue reading


More Costly and Later Than Ever

The head of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, Brian Kelly, says that the train will take longer to build and be more expensive than anyone ever thought. He almost says it like those are good things. The authority plans to publish its latest cost and construction estimates next week.

The authority recently admitted that the first section of the project, which was supposed to cost $6 billion, is now expected to cost $10.6 billion. That’s the cheapest segment of the line because it is flat Central Valley of the state. Getting from there over the mountains to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area will require expensive tunneling at both ends, including a 13.5-mile tunnel that is expected to cost anywhere from $5.6 billion to $14.4 billion.

The total cost of a truly high-speed line all the way from L.A. to San Francisco is almost certainly going to be more than $100 billion, and it won’t be complete until sometime in the 2030s at the earliest. A representative of the airline industry pointed out that, for just $2 billion and eighteen months, the state could start a high-capacity airline service between the two cities — and sell the planes if it doesn’t work out. Though rail proponents say that downtown-to-downtown train times will be comparable to flying, the Los Angeles area has five airports and Bay Area has four, so far more people live near one of those airports than to downtowns. Continue reading


A Horrible Way to Be Proven Right

Yesterday was not a proud day for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The agency spent close to $800 million of federal funds on a so-called high-speed rail project between Seattle and Portland–only “so-called” because top speeds would be just 79 mph, which is conventional rail. Much of the money was spent upgrading existing tracks to give passenger trains a shorter (but less scenic) route through and around Tacoma.

As you probably know, the very first train to use this route derailed on an overpass over Interstate 5, blocking half the freeway and killing at least three, and probably more, passengers. It so happens that Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington–about 10 miles north of the crash–warned WSDOT on December 5 that it was not taking safety seriously enough. “This project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he declared.

To be fair, Mayor Anderson was worried that grade crossings in Lakewood were inadequately protected for 79-mph trains. But his comments more generally suggest that WSDOT was putting the goal of saving Seattle-Portland passengers ten minutes of time–increasing average speeds by just 2.7 mph–ahead of safety. Continue reading


Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.

Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading


How Do You Define “Feasible”?

Democratic Party hopes to retake Congress soon have been buoyed by this week’s election. Whether it is in 2018, 2020, or later, whenever they eventually regain control, federal funding for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects will likely be back on the table. Since the sole criterion for funding such projects in 2009 was whether they had completed an environmental impact statement, numerous states are currently working on or have recently completed such statements.

An example of the Texas Department of Transportation, which just announced that its final environmental impact statement showed that a high-speed rail line from Dallas to San Antonio was “feasible.” A conventional rail line from Oklahoma City to Dallas and a higher-speed line from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico were also considered feasible. This is good news for rail buffs, as it means Texas is eligible for federal funding to do more detailed studies.

Before you buy your tickets for a high-speed ride from Dallas to San Antonio, it is worth asking what the state means by “feasible.” According to table 3-4 of the alternatives analysis, the Oklahoma City-Dallas segment would cost $650 million to start up, none of which would ever be recovered from fares. In fact, fares would only cover 27 percent of operating costs. That’s feasible? Continue reading


The Future of Brightline

Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico is acquiring Florida East Coast Railway for $2.1 billion. This raises questions about the future of Brightline, FEC’s planned moderate-speed rail line that was previously called All Aboard Florida. Brightline is scheduled to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in July, and extending to Miami in August.

Phase two of Brightline is to be an extension to Orlando, which would require construction of about 40 miles of new rail line that would be used almost exclusively for passengers. FEC estimates this will cost more than $1.0 billion.

Brightline claims its trains will operate at 80 to 125 miles per hour. But it is promising to deliver people the 65 rail miles from Miami to West Palm Beach in 60 minutes. That’s an average speed of–let me see–65 miles in 60 minutes (counts on fingers) works out to just 65 miles per hour. That’s certainly faster than existing commuter trains, which require about 100 minutes for the same trip (making many more intermediate stops). But it’s not significantly faster than driving, which Google says takes about 70 minutes.

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CO2 Glut Threatens High-Speed Train

Jerry Brown’s brilliant plan to fund the California high-speed rail line out of greenhouse gas emissions allowances appears to be coming to a screeching halt. California’s most-recent sale of such allowances was expected to bring in at least $600 million; instead, it earned just $8.2 million. At the projected average cost of $200 million per mile, that’s enough to build about 200 feet of rail line.

The problem is that there is a “glut of emission allowances on the market” because so many entities, including various European nations and, in California, various public utilities, are trying to earn money selling them. On the other hand, potential buyers are unsure about whether the program will continue; if it is cancelled, the allowances they buy will be worthless. The California law is supposed to sunset at the end of 2020, and if revenues remain so law the legislature is not likely to renew it.

The other problem is that Brown was counting on emissions sales to fund projects the state can’t really afford. While the efficiency benefits of cap-and-trade are proven, it is far from efficient to use permit revenues to fund boondoggles. Even the Pope questions the morality of selling the right to pollute.

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Texas High-Speed Rail Still Not Viable

A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reviewed the proposed Texas Central high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston and concluded it was not viable. Last week, the Reason Foundation released a much-more detailed review that reaches the same conclusion.

Reason’s report notes that Texas Central officials claim they won’t need any subsidies, but still plan to ask the federal government for government-guaranteed low-interest loans. While Reason joins with the Antiplanner in supporting private rail projects, the desire for government-backed loans, says Reason, makes it “critical to assess the viability of this project.”

Reason’s assessment concludes that Texas Central officials have overestimated ridership and underestimated costs. As a result, ticket revenues are likely to fall almost $100 million per year short of operations & maintenance costs. Of course, that means there would be nothing left over to repay the government-guaranteed loans, so lenders would be out about $18 billion. That’s based on a construction cost of at least $20 million per mile based on the fact that the only high-speed rail lines that have been built for less had cheap or free right of way. Since the line in Texas would go over mostly private land, the right of way isn’t likely to be cheap.

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