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high-speed hijinks

By enelson
Friday, March 21st, 2008 at 8:30 pm in Misc. Transportation.

You know people are getting excited about high-speed rail when legislators from Palm Desert are turning up in Japan, as I learned in an editorial from the Desert Sun (

Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, and Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, are part of a delegation visiting Japan over the Legislature’s spring break this week. They are using campaign funds _ not public money _ to pay for the trip.

We’re having a hard time seeing how a trip to Japan will make them better state lawmakers or benefit their constituents.

That difficulty comes from the fact that both legislators, who are going to see Japan’s legendary Shinkansen high-speed rail system, are terming out and there’s little chance that either of them will have a chance to introduce any legislation on the subject.

Not to mention, their constituents would have to travel all the way to Riverside to ride high-speed rail if such a system ever gets built.

I’ve also heard about Bay Area legislators making trips to Japan and France to see what successful high-speed rail looks like, but knowing that the Bay Area would be the primary beneficiary of California’s high speed rail system makes such trips easier to justify.

The question weighing on the minds of bullet train aficionados these days is will California also have a fabled bullet train or just a bullet train fable?

Busily working on a Bay Bridge story today, I was forced to brush off a call from a California Public Interest Research Group rep. She wanted to see if I wanted to do a story on college students spending spring break on a whistle stop tour via car an bicycle to promote HSR.

I looked on the calendar to see where they were going to have informational meetings, ceremonial bike rides to planned station locations and the like.

Here we go … Monday in San Francisco at UN Plaza with Aaron Peskin. That’s a key spot, to be sure. OK, San Jose with the mayor and Rod Diridon, member of the California HSR board and tireless advocate. Makes sense. Sacramento, where the money is. Stockton, Fresno, LA, Anaheim, San Diego…

Absentmindedly, I looked for Oakland on the agenda.

Oh, right. There won’t be a stop here. Well, maybe they could bike to the ferry, and catch a ride to San Francisco.

And when you get right down to it, the same decision that cut Oakland off the high-speed map also assured that places like Stockton and Sacramento wouldn’t be getting much use out of the system any time soon.

The CalPIRG lobbying effort seeks to educate Californians about the system and November’s scheduled ballot measure that would authorize the sale of nearly $10 billion in bonds to get the $40 billion system started.

Yesterday, I received a particularly enjoyable commentary from Martin Engel of Menlo Park, the last person in the Bay Area who would ever vote for a high-speed rail bond measure.

He brought up the subject of education cuts:

The state has an $8 billion budget deficit.

Solution? Cut $5.5 billion from the school and college budget.

We’re cutting $5.5 billion from the state budget, but … we’re going to vote to pass a $10 billion bond issue to build a high speed luxury train?

Will this be the state with the high speed trains and the low speed schools?

Not that our school systems are in such great shape anyhow.

$10 billion as a down-payment for a train we don’t need.

What the hell are people thinking?

I responded that there’s little chance that the bond will pass, even if it doesn’t get removed from the ballot first to make room for another budget bailout measure.

Engel believes that voters will get a snow job “about this miraculous train that won’t cost anyone anything” except $50 a ticket.

But as cool as it might be to zip down to Bakersfield at 200 mph, I just can’t see it happening. Passing the $20 billion transportation bond required a unified campaign by the governor and legislative leaders to sell it to voters. In a year when those folks are pleading poverty, it’s just not gonna happen.

BBC Top Gear clip from Google video.

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16 Responses to “high-speed hijinks”

  1. Robert Says:

    The problem with this framing is it assumes HSR is just some ultra-cool toy that only a few railgeeks and engineers will love. But that ignores some very important context. Taken a look at oil prices lately? Or studied up on peak oil? What that means is by 2018, when the system is slated to open, it is going to be extremely expensive to fly or drive from the Bay Area to LA. The expense may even be prohibitive for most Californians.

    Even if one wanted to deny peak oil, the way some used to deny global warming, we are then left with the fact that to handle the expected increase in passengers, we will need to spend nearly $80 billion to expand airports and freeways. HSR serves the same passenger demand for half the cost. Wouldn’t that be a smart investment?

    I agree that the plan is imperfect. But as anyone who follows mass transit knows – I am hoping you know this – the hardest part of a new system to build is the first line. Once that line is up and running it becomes MUCH easier politically to add new lines and extensions. Oakland may not be on the first line built. But it will likely be on the second or the third.

    Finally, I do agree that the state budget crisis is going to cause difficulty for the bond vote. But I think you’re also totally wrong in your framing of the matter. First, the HSR bonds do not come from the same funding pool as schools. Second, we can stave off the budget cuts to schools with some relatively easy and inexpensive revenue solutions – the only thing stopping this is Republican stubbornness. Third, an economic downturn and a fiscal crisis is actually a GOOD time to build infrastructure – the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were, after all, built in the depths of the Depression.

    We need to stop reacting to the state budget crisis as if paralysis is the only reaction. There is a growing movement and coalition determined to solve our budget shortfall this year. But regardless of how that turns out, we should not let a temporary crisis stop us from building a piece of infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for this state’s economic survival in the 21st century. Not building HSR would be like not building the bay bridges or not building the State Water Project. It won’t be an easy sell, but it is also a necessary sell.

  2. Martin Engel Says:

    These comments were added to the Cruickshank California High Speed Rail Blog:

    Robert, I enter this debate with some humility and am willing to learn what I don’t yet understand. To that end, I read your Sunday comments carefully.

    1. Why “dying print media?” Is it your intent to belittle Capricious Commuter’s comments by denigrating the medium in which he writes? BTW, he also, like you, writes a blog. “typical pattern?” “libertarian gadfly?” So far, your lesson to a student such as myself is that “Argumentum Ad Hominem” is the way to make your point.

    2. Erik Nelson’s (the Capricious Commuter) position regarding high-speed rail is far closer to yours than to mine. You are picking on the wrong guy. It’s me you should be after. I think that the high-speed train project, as presently conceived, sucks. Nonetheless, as a progressive liberal Democrat, I’m at the opposite end of the political spectrum of Libertarianism.

    3. You and I agree about “fundamental misunderstanding” in “our state’s media.” I find the media reporting on the HSR as not much more than the parroting of CHSRA press releases and their PowerPoint presentations. What I don’t read in the press is a critical look at the endless understating of development costs and over-representation of performance outcomes, which emanate from the HSR promoters. You need to read Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic researcher, who demonstrates the universal prevalence of this practice. I bet you can yourself find endless examples to validate this point.

    4. Unlike you and the rail advocates, I am very uncomfortable with 10 year long- range predictions in a world as volatile as this. We could get into lengthy discussion about commodity markets and oil prices, whether there is such a thing as “peak oil,” the development of energy- efficient transit technologies, the cost of electric power, the ecological/environmental destruction by the construction process, and so on. What will be “extremely expensive” in 2018 is really an open question. What do you suppose that the declining value of the dollar, the skyrocketing costs of construction materials and process, the severe decline in credit, the transfer of wealth to overseas investors, etc. will look like by 2018?

    5. You are quite right, that school funding and transportation bond funds don’t come from the same line items on the budget. But, you well know that all municipal bonds are a debt, like a mortgage. The question then becomes, what should the state be borrowing money for. After all, bonds require interest payments to their purchasers and eventually repayment of the loan/principle itself. And, you certainly can’t believe that this train, unlike any other in the history of the US, will generate enough revenue to make those payments. Therefore the money comes from where? You and me. More for trains, less for schools. Two pockets, same pair of pants!

    6. Let me for the sake of this discussion agree with you about infrastructure investment as a way of boosting the sagging economy. In that case, why would we not prioritize our transportation needs? Both the Bay Area and contiguous central valley, and the LA Basin and populous points East, are in dire shape regarding urban and regional mass transit. Without great systems in both population centers, we will never get people out of their cars. That’s where the transportation problems are, not on I- 5. The air carriers have not been complaining about air route gridlock. We need to put our money where our problems are, not build a rail system we don’t need. For that matter, a freight rail system might go much farther to achieve the environmental goals we all seek, but that’s another email.

    7. Finally, let’s talk costs. They now say $42 billion. We know, based on lots of other prior infrastructure projects, that this is not going to be true. So, let me ask you, is there an upper limit to the costs, in your mind; a point where you yourself will acknowledge that this is, indeed, too expensive? How about twice as much, say $80 billion? How about over $100 billion? Shouldn’t you, as a train promoter, be honest and up-front about this? Right now, the CHSRA is playing a bait-and-switch game with the voters of California. “Hey, folks, it’s only going to cost the state $9.95 billion.” Diridon says it won’t cost any additional taxes. Isn’t that $9.95 billion a foot in the door? A camel’s nose in the tent? What do you think?

    March 24, 2008 9:39 AM

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, I appreciate your comments, and yes, many would agree that this is a dying medium, even if we still do make a profit and people can’t seem to get enough of the content we generate.

    As for high-speed rail, I appreciate you’re mentioning the Bee story and its polling data. It would appear that the deal may give some weight to the bond measure and my grim predictions may have been ill-informed.

    I don’t oppose high-speed rail. I’ve said on many occasions that I’d be one of the first people to buy one of those $55 tickets to LA. My pessimism stems from California’s ability to spend money on things it absolutely can’t do without, like a new Doyle Drive approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, which we still can’t seem to find money for.

    I get the value of HSR in reducing emissions. But I also know that so much can be done to improve existing rail lines for a teeny fraction of the cost. Does that mean I think HSR is a mistake? No. It means that I think we’ll probably have to move from crawling to walking before we jump out of bed and run a triathlon.

  4. Robert Says:

    What you’re describing are political problems. Doyle Drive is a fight between Marin County, which doesn’t want to pay a congestion charge to enter SF, and the Bush Administration, which hates the idea of giving SF a roads project for free. Yet when the bids for the East Span of the Bay Bridge soared over budget, our state’s broken system did find a solution.

    With HSR, however, we have the solution staring us in the face – pass a bond measure at the November election. It’s not going to be an easy sell, but as those poll numbers should suggest, neither is it as difficult as you think.

    What exactly is “improving existing rail lines?” What does that entail? How can you provide service connecting LA to SF in 2.5 hours without HSR? Even if you “don’t oppose” HSR, do you really understand the case for its construction? If you understood how other countries have experienced HSR, would you really have made the “crawling to walking to triathlon” metaphor?

  5. Reedman Says:

    Unfortunately, capital investment into commuter rail will be a deal breaker if taxpayers understand the true burden. If CA puts $50 billion into HSR, at 6% annual opportunity cost this means $3 billion a year, every year, forever. (We could build a Bay Bridge every two years with that.) The $55 fare is just for operating costs. What would be the fare if the system had to be completely self-supporting, including capital investment (the way a business would have to budget it)?

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, what I’ve seen in those other countries is a traveling public that uses rail regularly, even when it isn’t high-speed. Adding high-speed service is a sure-fire winner with rail-oriented customers at the ready.

    If, like the Japanese, we’d started HSR in the 1960s, when men still wore hats and people could still remember regular, reliable rail travel, I think it would have taken quite well and we’d have a system similar to theirs at this point. Right now, however, we’re firmly wedded to our cars and any kind of new rail system is going to be a tough sell when money is tight.

    As for finding a solution for the Bay Bridge, we did that because very few denizens of the Bay Area could envision life without that bridge. The vast majority of people in this very progressive-minded town drive to work, and most of them have to cross a toll bridge on a regular basis.

    You could shut down all the commuter rail systems (excluding BART) tomorrow, and most people wouldn’t be too upset. When Amtrak’s Coast Starlight was shut down between LA and the Bay Area recently, hardly anyone batted an eyelash.

    What I’m saying is, once voters understand what the costs are and aren’t convinced of the benefits, that support is likely to erode. If the HSR authority does a good job of selling and the Governor publicly supports it, maybe the voters will approve it.

  7. Robert Says:

    I really don’t think you understand the transportation situation in this state if that’s your response to HSR. At all. Ridership on the intercity Amtrak California lines has been steadily increasing for a few years now – didn’t you JUST write about that w/r/t Capitol Corridor?!

    As to shutting down commuter rail systems, people screamed and howled a few years back when BART nearly went out on strike. Rail systems across the state are doing a booming business, and regional and local agencies are planning billions of new lines and services (if only they could get the money). The Coast Starlight is a poorly funded and poorly delivered service – but even with those constraints, in the summer months, it is close to capacity.

    I don’t understand how you can make these kinds of claims. They fly in the face of all available evidence. I’m sure my case for HSR has its flaws and weak spots, but you’re not bringing any actual evidence to the table. Instead you fall back on your obsolete assumption that Californians are firmly wedded to their cars. They’re not. Look around you. More and more are taking any chance they can get to stop driving.

    What prevents more folks from doing it is the lack of useful alternatives. But where those alternatives exist, as I said, ridership is rising fast. HSR would initiate a great deal of demand.

    And your comparisons to European countries also show a lack of knowledge. Spain was a car-centric culture for a very long time. When the first AVE line was built to connect Madrid and Sevilla in 1992 it was seen as a vanity project that would fall on its face. Instead, the car-happy Spanish flocked to it and the system was immediately profitable, and now has been extended to four new cities, with three more branches in the works.

    Ultimately, what this comes down to is whether or not Californians realize that the 20th century is over, and with it their car-dependent transportation system. Judging by the ridership numbers, I think Californians are grasping that point. And I am absolutely stunned that you are not.

  8. Robert Says:

    Ah, and right on cue: Acela increases market share in Northeast Corridor – they’ve increased their share on that route from 36% to 41% this year alone.

    And that’s a service that isn’t really HSR. It’s a modern intercity train with a few high speed segments. The CAHSR system would smoke Acela, by perhaps as much as 100 mph.

    Face it. HSR demand is there. If we build it, they will come.

  9. murphstahoe Says:

    If Caltrain shut down it would be a nightmare. While it does not have the ridership of BART, BART also has a lot of riders who take BART for short distances, Caltrain is a workhorse. 15,000 extra cars (in each direction, twice per day, on the 101) would be big trouble.

    The Corridor gets decent ridership with service that is miserable, ditto ACE. I have ridden the Corridor quite frequently – it is slow, *expensive*, and unreliable, other than that it’s great. Comparatively Caltrain is fast, cheap, and reliable – that’s why it’s bursting at the seams. If the Corridor were that level, it would be packed.

    I guarantee if they build SMART and do a decent job with it (the number of stops is not too high which makes me hopeful) it will be *packed*. The GG Transit buses from Santa Rosa get good ridership for service that will on the whole be slower.

  10. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, I don’t dispute and in fact celebrate the success of the rail lines we have now. But we’re still a far cry from systems enjoyed in Europe, in Japan and even not-so-rich places like India. The riders of the Capitol Corridor, a great bunch of people, are not going to carry a statewide bond measure. People who have never been on a train will have to appreciate it, too.

    I love the idea of having fast service to SoCal. I’d abandon Southwest Airlines if I could take the train for the same price or even a little more than flying. My doubts stem from the logic of piling Mom, Dad, Joey and Buffy into the family car to visit Grandma in West Covina rather than making your way from Vallejo to San Francisco, bags and kids in tow, paying $220 and getting on a lovely cool train (that might, I’ll concede, make it worthwhile for many passengers) to downtown LA and then taking a one-hour bus ride to somewhere within maybe a mile of their destination.

    That’s IF it gets built. But that’s where the “esoteric” part comes in. Most people in California have never experienced high-speed rail. I have. I love it. I get it. I just think the car-loving public (and yes, Californians do love their cars, for better or worse) will need a good deal of convincing that the benefits are worth the ever-increasing cost.

  11. MikeOnBike Says:

    CC said: “I’d abandon Southwest Airlines if I could take the train for the same price or even a little more than flying. My doubts stem from the logic of […] making your way from Vallejo to San Francisco, bags and kids in tow […] getting on a lovely cool train […] to downtown LA and then taking a one-hour bus ride to somewhere within maybe a mile of their destination.”

    If you fly Southwest, you still have to make your way to SFO/OAK/SJC, bags and kids in tow, etc. When you arrive at LAX, do you take a one-hour bus ride, or rent a car?

    If you’re going to compare HSR to Southwest, at least compare the same things (go to terminal at this end, rent car at that end).

  12. murphstahoe Says:

    Absolutely MikeOnBike. And you need to factor in the arrival time requirements for HSR vs. an airplane. Even if on HSR you need to book in advance (compared to say Caltrain), ticketing will be substantially easier for a train. No baggage checking (in Europe I have carried 2 suitcases and a boxed bike onto a train). No security lines – I am sure should HSR come to pass there might be some clamoring for some amount of TSA security, and the anti HSR crowd might surely try to leverage that. But you can’t fly a train into the World Trade Center, if it’s electrified there are not thousands of gallons of explosives on board to blow up, etc… the worst you can do is derail the train and kill some passengers and screw up the train line for a couple of days. Honestly, smart terrorists would find better targets.

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I just knew it! I was writing the bit about the bus trip and I thought, they’ll see this for the straw man that it is.

    You’re right, it would be a better comparison to use a rental car at one end. The problem is that when you drive your car down I-5, you don’t need to rent one when you get there, and the expense is similar no matter how many kids, dogs or cats you take with you. And don’t get me started about traveling with pets.

    I’m really not trying to trash HSR. I’m just saying the level of gas and gridlock isn’t high enough for most Californians to say, “Yeah. I’d use that and keep my car at home.”

    That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have healthy ridership, but healthy ridership and votes needed to pass a $10 billion bond measure are two different things.

  14. MikeOnBike Says:

    CC wrote: “The problem is that when you drive your car down I-5, you don’t need to rent one when you get there, and the expense is similar no matter how many kids, dogs or cats you take with you.”

    But that’s the same argument against flying.

    CC continued: “I’m just saying the level of gas and gridlock isn’t high enough for most Californians to say, ‘Yeah. I’d use that and keep my car at home.'”

    Been down I-5 lately? We drove down after Christmas and ran into gridlock at completely-unexpected places and times. We considered flying, but have you priced airline tickets lately? (Jet fuel comes from the same $110 barrel as gasoline, doesn’t it?)

    Yeah, I’d drive to a Bay Area HSR station, ride a couple hours, and rent a car at the other end. Instead of driving several hours and arriving stiff and tired? In a heartbeat.

  15. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I firmly believe that if HSR is to succeed, it will do so by attracting drivers, not so much airline passengers, for the very reason Mike lays out. I just don’t think that your average Joe making $39,000 a year would park his car and shell out money for four train tickets and a rental car when he can just get in the car and drive.

    And yes, I have been down I-5 lately, driving all the way to San Diego for Christmas. We hit traffic, sure, but not nearly as much as I expected, and we didn’t leave at 5 a.m. or do anything special to avoid it.

    If there was a reasonable train/bus combination to take instead, I’d have been on it. I thought a lot about how nice it would have been to take HSR on that trip, even if it meant taking a bus to Fresno, HSR to Anaheim and a regular train to San Diego.

  16. MikeOnBike Says:

    CC said: “I just don’t think that your average Joe making $39,000 a year would park his car and shell out money for four train tickets and a rental car when he can just get in the car and drive.”

    A family of four living on $39,000 a year, going to LA? I sense another strawman. The gasoline alone is 20% of his weekly wages. Forget about the Disneyland tickets.

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