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why high-speed rail isn’t viable

By enelson
Tuesday, April 1st, 2008 at 4:13 pm in Misc. Transportation.

gnome.jpgAs many of you have noted, I’m not smart enough to argue that high-speed rail has some serious hurdles to overcome. Today I found a story that high-speed rail opponents will no doubt use to side-track November’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond measure. Click here.

And for those of you who are serious about getting the system up and running, there’s a meeting of California High-Speed Rail Authority board members tomorrow in Sacramento that I plan to attend. It’s to be held at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments Board Room, 1415 L St. Show up and you can upbraid me on the public record. 

Here’s the agenda:

Legislation: Staff will brief board members on pending legislation affecting the proposed high-speed rail system.

Financing: The Infrastructure Management Group will update board members on the request for expressions of interest in public-private partnerships (“P3”) work as well as an overview on the scope of work for an economic impact study.

Bay Area and Central Valley Station Development Policies:

Staff will present a briefing on the policies to be included in the “Station Area Development” chapter for the Bay Area to Central Valley environmental impact report/environmental impact study.

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20 Responses to “why high-speed rail isn’t viable”

  1. Erik Says:

    I am a college student in Sacramento and I regularly read your blog. Your coverage of transit in the bay area and occasionally Sacramento is very well thought out and insightful. However, I have noticed that your opinion on CAHSR has drawn ire from advocates. Of course commenters will be abrasive towards your opinion because they have no accountability, and I apologize on their behalf.

    I think that you need to look at the big picture of High Speed Rail in California, though. Infrastructure upgrades have always boosted our economy during difficult economic times. For example, public works projects were beneficial during the depression. In the even greater picture, what will keep California’s economy running when peak oil takes its toll? Hopefully this project will make inroads to solving our transportation problems.

    Personally, I would greatly appreciate something like this to provide an alternative to going to the bay area to visit friends, go to concerts, etc. Being likely faster and cheaper(or at least comparable) to driving is all the incentive I would need to utilize this infrastructure, and I am sure many Californian’s will have the same attitude.

    Please don’t get caught in he trap of cutting services to solve a recession. There are alternatives, albeit counterintuitive.

  2. Reedman Says:

    Based on some Internet searching:

    Paris to Marseilles is about 700 km/440 miles
    Lowest TGV fare one way on April 10 is 131 dollars (first class is about double this).
    Travel time is about 3 hours 18 minutes.

    The Southwest “Wanna Get Away” web-only fare from San Jose to Burbank for April 10 is $39.

    I have taken this train and route, amongst others (Shinkansen, Korean Express). This situation is similar to my personal experiences (fast, but not cheap).

  3. Tony Says:

    In regards to Reedman’s comment re: TGV pricing, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison:
    1. The Euro/Dollar exchange rate has thrown this out of whack. Take the price in Euros and add a dollar sign.

    2. That price is through EailEurope, a booking agent that takes a sizable cut. Booking through SNCF (French National Railways) in June during the work week offers fares of Eur 57- 72 for second class.

    3. As with US Airline Fares, European rail fare structures are somewhat difficult to understand. There are many discount cards/ programs (ie BahnCard in Germany or CartaViaggio in Italy) that can be purchased, giving a discount of 10%, 25%, or 50%. The majority of regular travelers purchase these as they provide year-long savings.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Erik, I appreciate your concern about people on the blog beating me up over a perception that I don’t like high-speed rail. It’s ok. That’s what blogs are for and the lack of accountability helps keep the discussion freewheeling.

    As for building infrastructure, I couldn’t agree more. It does help the economy, as we will no doubt see as the state goes about spending $20 billion in bond proceeds from Proposition 1B. Don’t forget that we have to pay that back, however.

    Did someone tell you that high-speed rail was going to help you get to the Bay Area from Sacramento? You may want to take another look at the final map. Because of the CHSRA’s decision to use the Pacheco Pass rather than Altamont Pass, you’d have to go to Fresno to get to the Bay Area on the bullet train. I’ll admit that it might still be quicker than the Capitol Corridor to San Jose, but getting to Oakland (where the bullet train won’t go at all) would probably be a wash at best.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Tony, Reedman corrected his price because it was listed in dollars to begin with. I edited his comment to reflect that.

    You raise a good point about complicated fare structures, however.

    What I want to know is, do you think that migrant workers will use high-speed rail rather than drive, as the CHSRA people claim? (the idea being that it will be that cheap)

  6. Erik Says:

    I am pretty sure that the trip(even through Pacheco Pass), would take about an hour and a half. I wish I could get to SF in that time. As for Oakland, wouldn’t taking the BART across the bay be feasible?

    Oh and on the migrant workers(forgive my sweeping generalization), I assume you mean people working on farms. Considering there are no light rail lines to grape orchards, the inherent outward expanse of farms would require a car on at least the terminating end of their trip. Therefore, unless the Mexican population uses the train to return to Mexico(that would be awesome actually), I highly doubt they would utilize it.

  7. mike Says:

    CC – Tony’s comment about exchange rates is related to the fact that the Euro/Dollar exchange rate is extremely unfavorable right now (for Americans looking to travel abroad). Given that the operating costs of HSR will use local labor, a more accurate comparison would be to use purchasing-power-parity adjusted exchange rates, which would reduce the implied price by about 30%.

    To take an extreme example – city bus fares in Xiamen, China are as cheap as 1 yuan. Reedman’s formula would thus imply that we should expect US bus fares to be on the order of 15 cents ($1 = 7 Yuan). Using PPP implies it would be closer to 50 cents (still too low, but not nearly as ridiculous).

    TGV fares purchased directly from SNCF (not with Rail Europe tacking on a 50-100% surcharge) on the route Reedman suggests are as low as 22 Euros one-way (before discounts). As with airline fares, it is highly dependent on when you book and when you travel. (Also not sure where he gets the $39 SWA fare from. Lowest fare on that route is $49.50 inclusive – the RailEurope and SNCF fares already include fees/taxes.)

    Finally, it should be noted that TGV (and HSR in most other countries) is expected to generate so much profit as to offset losses on operating local/regional rail service. CA HSR would, for better or for worse, not have to deal with that burden.

  8. Reedman Says:

    France has one intrinsic advantage over us: they are self-sufficient (in fact are exporters) of low-cost electricity generated without greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. they use nuclear). When BART pulls away from a station, we are talking about 1000VDC at 15000 amps going into a train to accelerate, with 1500 amps operating current at speed (makes the electrical engineers in the crowd weak in the knees thinking about it). The utility meter is spinning pretty fast at that level of power consumption.

    Sorry about the dollar/euro issue in my original post. I caught it, but Erik was nice enough to pretty things up a bit more.

    One other complicating factor for an airline/train comparison is that we in the US have had deregulated air travel for a long time. Our air fare structure is very lean and competitive.

  9. Martin Engel Says:

    One of the major arguments offered by the Democrats of California in support of the high speed train bond measure is that it will pump resources into the state’s economy; that it will create thousands of jobs just when they are needed, and that infrastructure construction always benefits economies during recessions and economic downturns.

    Is that really so?

    Will these bond-generated funds stay (get spent) only in the state to benefit the economy? Will this new job market recruit only unemployed Californians to work on the construction of and subsequent operation of the train? Even if it is true that the economy benefits from large infrastructure projects during downturns, doesn’t the state have a choice of which infrastructure projects it wishes to pursue? That is, for this amount of borrowing, is this high speed train the best we, in California, can come up with?

    My biggest concern is that since the pump is being primed with $9 billion in state municipal bonds, and ostensibly supplemented with massive private borrowing, doesn’t the state incur even greater debts than the present $16 billion? We are told by the high speed train promoters that these debts will be quickly repaid, and then some, with profits from the operation of the train. In effect, they are saying it will be a great investment promising big returns. OK. But, what if it isn’t? What if the train doesn’t generate the promised revenues? Then what? How has the state benefitted then?

    Just asking.


  10. murphstahoe Says:

    Another argument for rail vs Airlines. Talk to the ATA and Aloha customers now holding the bag. Obviously you can’t take a train to Hawaii, but they also had mainland flights to Vegas from Oakland. ATA also had service to Oakland. OAK has lost 2 carriers in the last week.

    Public owned rail would theoretically not be subject to such woes.

    Overall, the airlines have always been hit and miss, their business model will continue to get more sketchy over time, the fuel efficiency of air is way below that of rail. Tying ourselves to air travel may even be a bigger folly than tying ourselves to the automobile.

  11. Mike Says:

    Reedman – Internal European air fares are, if anything, even cheaper than internal US fares. For example, I can fly from London to Glasgow or Belfast or Dublin for as little as 10 pounds ($20) each way, or London to Marseille for 15 pounds ($30). But note that airlines often do not even bother trying to compete on routes that are served by HSR with running times of under 3 hours.

    Martin – we will spend around $150 billion on roads at just the state level during the same period (plus tens of billions more at the local level). So if the debts are repaid more slowly than forecast, we will spend slightly more than that. If the debts are repaid more quickly than forecast, we will spend slightly less than that. The state will benefit over the next 100+ years from a high speed system between its major population centers that is faster, cleaner, and cheaper than driving or flying. If you place positive utility future generations, then it’s a pretty open-and-shut case. If not (i.e., you are the private sector, looking to make a return in the next 10 to 20 years), it’s not so clear.

    It is unlikely that, if built today, the Bay Bridge could pay for itself using private financing – you’d literally need to charge a toll in excess of $20. Does that mean that we should not build a new one as the lifespan of the current one expires? (which we are effectively doing on the eastern side) Maybe, but I wouldn’t argue that.

  12. murphstahoe Says:

    Mike – you are being a little sneaky with your fare notes. It’s $20 each way on airlines like Ryan Air, but there are a lot of extra charges, for checking bags/etc…

    Meanwhile I have taken a full size bike in a bike box – 1x3x4 feet in size on TGV, along with 2 bags.

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Ryan does have all-included 10-pound teaser fares, but flipping through, day-by-day, the fares with taxes and fees tend to run from 23 to 33 pounds from London to Glasgow.

    On the subject of HSR fares, I have it on good authority (of the high-speed rail kind) that the newest fare projection from Anaheim to San Francisco is between $55 and $60. This summer, however, the authority will do a much more thorough study of likely fares, and those estimates are likely to go up.

    That’s not to say it won’t be competitive with airlines, I’m just pointing out that the dirt-cheap fares we hear about from the authority won’t stand up to careful study.

  14. Reedman Says:

    What was the news from the CHSRA meeting that started this discussion?

  15. Mike Says:

    Murph –
    Ryanair claims that those prices are inclusive of taxes and fees (but they do charge you to check baggage and such). Of course, like cheap US airfares, you can only get those on particular times and dates. But the basic point remains – internal fares on cheap European airlines are at least as low as Southwest, and sometimes even lower.

  16. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, I’m suprised at you.

    You want NEWS? What do you take me for? A newsman?

    Yes, I did attend the CHSRA meeting, but you’ll have to wait ’til this weekend to read the story. As was pointed out at the meeting, the media have been all over high-speed rail lately, including people who get their paychecks from the same place I do.

    One of the more interesting sideshows brewing was nicely covered by my colleague Dana Yates at the San Mateo Journal:
    If the link is broken into two lines, you may need to paste it back together in your browser (sorry).

    Anyway, they were going on about how there should be all this smart growth in Fresno and Visalia and other places where growth just doesn’t come that way. Apparently, the vibe from those two towns is that they are toying with the idea of moving the stations to virgin, undeveloped soil outside of town. This is anathema to HSR’s environmentalist supporters, but as the board’s Valley member noted, there’s not a lot they can do, post-EIS, to make these places increase density around stations and prevent sprawl from blossoming outside of town.

    I’m thinking of Chicago’s exurbs on steroids, of a million Waynes and Garths in the basements of the Central and Antelope Valleys….

  17. Hayden Says:

    Above, there is a note that: “Our air fare structure is very lean and competitive.”

    This is certainly true–particularly compared with pre-deregulation fares! However, it’s also worth noting that with the current cost of fuel, it’s actually uncompetitive (i.e., below cost). In the 4th quarter of calendar 2007, Southwest Airlines actually lost $200 million, not counting its gain of $300 million from fuel hedges. That’s a story on the good side of the news for domestic airlines for that quarter! This is only to point out that systemwide, Southwest’s fares don’t cover its costs, and it made up the difference elsewhere.

    That said, Southwest has a fair amount of pricing power intra-California, and typical intra-California fares are significantly higher on a cost-per-seat-mile basis than fares on the most competitive routes (e.g., San Francisco-New York, SF-Chicago, LA-New York, etc.).

    An appropriate comparison price to use might be the intra-California yield per seat-mile (times the number of miles) plus applicable fees, taxes, etc. This wouldn’t give you the lowest possible fare. Referring to time-limited Ding! fares may get close to that. However, it should give a decent sense of the average fare an airline is getting for a filled seat (plus taxes and fees). Of course, I don’t think information is usually available broken out in that way…

  18. murphstahoe Says:

    09-Apr-2008 04:28:36 PM (GMT) DALLAS (AP) – American Airlines canceled
    more than 1,000 flights Wednesday – more than one-third of its schedule
    – as it spent a second straight day inspecting the wiring on some of its
    jets, the same issue that caused the nation’s biggest airline to scrub
    hundreds of flights two weeks ago.

  19. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Coming to this WAY late, but it seems to me that the Capricious Commuter’s objection to HSR boils down to the fact that he rides the Capitol Corridor and the current HSR plan isn’t going to involve an upgrade of that route in the initial phases. Anyone who covers a transportation beat should a) be able to put aside their personal preferences and b) take a look at the bigger, statewide picture.

    As to sprawl, moving the stations to the edge of towns in the Valley would be moronic. Those stations need to be placed in the center of town. But sprawl is not a force of nature. It’s the product of cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use laws. The first is gone forever. The second is gone for likely the next 5-10 years, perhaps longer. And while the Valley may still have favorable land use laws for sprawl, that alone cannot make up for the lack of cheap oil and cheap credit.

  20. Capricious Commuter Says:

    RC, lighten up. Listen to your inner gnome. As I’ve said before, I’m not against high-speed rail and I’m not advocating for a particular alignment or plan. The “why high speed rail isn’t viable” refers to the gnome on the tracks in the April Fool’s Day story I found online. You’re absolutely right that I should be able to put my personal biases aside in my coverage. I try, but on the blog, I like to push a button now and then to spark a conversation like this one. As far as the statewide picture, that’s certainly important, but my readers don’t live in Simi Valley. What I write has to be relevant first to Bay Area residents.

    I’m really intrigued by your assertion, as I understand it, that the new economic reality has sprawl by the throat. Sounds kind of like the Soviet Union collapsing of its own weight.

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