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News flash: now it’s an 800-mile bullet train

By enelson
Monday, June 23rd, 2008 at 4:25 am in Altamont Commuter Express, Environment, Funding, global warming, high-speed rail.

I was somewhat surprised to see that overnight, California’s high-speed rail enterprise had grown by 100 miles.

Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s governing board, penned an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee responding to  the paper’s editorial raising questions about the authority’s baby.

To be fair, I’ll start by quoting the usual benefits:

High-speed trains use one-third the energy of air travel and one-fifth the energy of automobile travel. High-speed trains will reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 22 million barrels a year. Moreover, they’ll operate at a profit (just like the European and Asian systems), without taxpayer subsidy. And, the system wil be as safe as other worldwide high-speed rail systems, which haven’t incurred a single operational fatality.

California can’t build enough new freeways and airport runways to accommodate steadily increasing transportation demands…

But the problem for the $42 billion program of late is that the State Senate’s transportation committee put out a report saying the authority hasn’t expended enough energy examining the potential risks of borrowing the $10 billion down payment on the system that voters are being asked to approve on November’s ballot.

Kopp addresses this:

 A comprehensive current risk management program to guarantee the state will not sustain unexpected project costs beyond its foundational investment represented by the bond measure is embodied in the authority-sponsored Assembly Bill 3034 which passed the Assembly 60-3 and will be heard in the Senate Transportation Committee this week.

AB 3034 contains the Department of Finance and gubernatorial staff recommendations to enable bond fund availability for the 800-mile route, including the Altamont Pass corridor between the Central Valley and Bay Area. It requires that 90 percent of the bond proceeds be spent on construction, mandates specified financing plans for each system segment before construction begins, establishes criteria for the most cost-efficient segments to be built as highest priority and removes any possible legal obstacles to private investment and federal funding.

 Ok, but here’s the part that got my head spinning:

 The California High-Speed Rail Authority has developed and continues to improve plans for an 800-mile system from San Diego to Sacramento.

I know that I’ve yet to win a Pulitzer, but am I such a sloppy journalist that I didn’t notice that the plan for the bullet train system was being expanded? Hadn’t I been there when Kopp’s own board gave its assent to the preferred alignment into the Bay Area? Didn’t I hear members of the board take pains to separate the rejected Altamont Pass route from the approved Pacheco Pass route, saying any help the Altamont got would be in the form of improved commuter service, not high-speed rail and nothing that could be confused for part of the statewide system.

There is language in the bill that would commit the authority to helping beef up the Altamont corridor’s rail transportation, but that murky vision included only vague possibilities of speeding up the Altamont Commuter Express or maybe helping extend BART to Livermore.

Now it would seem that an unflattering Senate committee report and some negative newspaper editorials from the Northern California communities left off the authority’s initial San Francisco-to-Anaheim plans have put Altamont back on the map, at least rhetorically. 






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13 Responses to “News flash: now it’s an 800-mile bullet train”

  1. Morris Brown Says:

    Also in that rebuttal, Judge Kopp again re-iterated a statement he has made many times. It simply is not true. Kopp writes “And, the system will be as safe as other worldwide high-speed rail systems, which haven’t incurred a single operational fatality.” Most notably are fatal accidents in Germany (over 100 killed) in and a new fatal accident very recently in China. Judge Kopp must know better than this. High speed rail is indeed safe, but fatal accidents have indeed taken place.

  2. Martin Engel Says:

    Erik, you may wish to read the comments on this guest editorial penned by Mr. Kopp, that I sent you yesterday. If you look over the archives of articles about the high-speed train over the past several years, articles in which Kopp, Diridon and Morshed are often quoted, you will be struck by the inconsistency of their data and numbers.

    Sometimes the numbers simply don’t add up. For example, $9 billion and $7 billion and $10 billion, referring to the bond issue, private investments and federal funds respectively, total $26 billion for constructing the SF to LA leg or the route which, as it happens, they have priced at $30 billion.

    It’s not the missing $4 billion that’s so important as the fact that these numbers seem improvised and inconsistent. This appears to be a pattern. They make things up as they go along. 700 miles. 800 miles. Whatever.

    You could say, in their defense, that these are all projections and subject to change. Costs, profits, subsidies, distances, ticket costs, speeds, # of passengers, etc. Name them as estimates. But that’s not the case. These are promises. Same with evironmental impact; cars off the road, CO2 savings in tons or pounds. Also, number of people to acquire lifetime employment. And and forth. Why does no one question their insistence on pricing a ticket at $50. and then follow that with the claim that the train will be profitable and will require no subsidies from the State? And this is to be 12 years from now.

    Even the train advocates ought to acknowledge the degree of eyebrow-raising hyperbole in all the sales and marketing rhetoric of the brochures and Powerpoint presentations.

  3. rafael Says:

    There has definitely been a degree of lackadaisical sloppiness in CHSRA’s public communications. They all broadly stay on message but the details are all over the place.

    For example, in the course of a KQED Forum panel discussion, Quentin Kopp suggested the SF-LA one-way fare would be $55 in 2020 dollars. The Authority’s ridership study says it’s $56 in 2005 dollars – still aggressive but more believable. At 2-3% inflation, 15 years makes a lot of difference in the raw numbers. My take on that particular instance is that the good judge just got it wrong.

    For reference, a one-way ticket for Paris-Strasbourg (2h19 at 200mph top speed, roughly SF-LA) can cost anywhere from EUR 19 for second class to EUR 60 for first class, incl. sales tax.

    As with airline seats, the exact price depends on how far ahead you book as well as the date and the time of day at which you want to travel. SNCF also provides an EcoComparateur tool if you care about CO2 emissions – note that the trains in France run primarily on nuclear power.

    Note that Paris to London is about the same distance, but costs a whopping EUR 232 one-way because the only alternatives are flying and taking a ferry. That situation does not apply in California.

    CHSRA never claimed that every SF-LA trip would cost ~$60 in today’s money, just that some tickets will be offered at that price level. It will be up to the operator who wins the tender to develop an optimal fare structure.

  4. rafael Says:

    On the vexed issue of Altmont vs. Pacheco: the southern route has an SF-LA linea haul time of 2:38. The only eastern route in which every train serves both ends of the SF peninsula without a new Bay crossing comes in at 2:46 (if Santa Clara/SJC is the South Bay station) or 2:52 (if San Jose Diridon is). CHSRA claims 3:17, but that implies forcing trains to wait almost half an hour in San Jose for no good reason.

    Construction cost projections – if you choose to believe at least their relative ratios – are comparable. Note that the estimates for the Pacheco options include the Central Valley section between Chowchilla and roughly Stockton airport.

    What is different is that Altamont does a much better job of serving the future Northern California megaregion in addition to nearly comparable performance into Southern California. There’s absolutely no need to build any “HST commuter overlay” for an extra $8 billion if Pacheco is abandoned. Of course, Parsons Brinkerhoff want to maximize the business opportunity…

    The problem appears to be that CHSRA has held fast to its original remit of an SF-LA starter line. It grudgingly accepted project bloat to include Sacramento and San Diego, in order to build a broad enough base of support for the bond measure. However, expanding the network definition wasn’t just about letting more people benefit from the north-south link.

    It was also – indeed, primarily – about serving passengers traveling within California’s two emerging mega-regions. Indeed, that concept never really entered into the Authority’s thinking, even though it has come to see the car – not aircraft – as the primary competition for high speed rail. For evidence, look no further than the fact that CHSRA is not even considering a shortcut for travel between San Diego and Anaheim, e.g. along highway 57 south and west of Pomona. It merely noted that upgrading the Amtrak/freight coast line to dual track might be useful and then promptly scoped it out of further consideration.

    CHSRA’s own ridership study suggests that total inter-regional trips between the megaregions forecast for 2030 are dwarfed by more local travel there and within the Central Valley. IMHO, it would make sense to switch from a single SF-LA starter line to two smaller ones linking SF-SJ-Sacramento via Altamont Pass and San Diego-LA-Orange County, respectively. The north-south link is definitely needed and, network growth should proceed as rapidly as possible toward Tehachapi Pass in phases 2 and 3.

    Exploratory tunneling in Soledad Canyon and at Tehachapi Pass should start early, though – the geology there could hold a few nasty surprises.

  5. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    And yet nobody is discussing the cost of not building HSR. Neither the state senate, nor this blog, nor the HSR deniers are discussing the financial risks involved with the project – they assume the only risk comes with building it, and are willfully ignoring the far larger risks of not building it.

    The quibbling over numbers is specifically designed to obfuscate that. At least the CHSRA is providing some guidelines – the HSR opponents have literally nothing else to offer the state for a solution to our mobility problems and fuel prices.

    It’s as if HSR is being assessed in a time warp, where it’s forever 1995. It is not a credible way to deal with the project.

  6. timote Says:

    Am I missing something?

    Cal HSR website:

    Sac -> SD: 588 miles
    SF -> Gilroy: 79 miles
    Norwalk -> Irvine: 38 miles

    So that’s 705, and that’s NOT including the not-immediately-obvious (cause they don’t hit right at a station) branch distances. So let’s estimate:

    Gilroy -> Merced: 115 miles
    Fresno -> Merced: 56 miles

    So that’s at least another (115-56=) 59 miles, probably more like 85. In a similar vein, the segment between the LA branch and Norwalk is probably say another 7 miles.

    So 588 + 79 + 38 + 85 + 7 = 797. I don’t know where the 700 miles came from, but it’s quite easy to get to 800 without discussion of Altamont. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

  7. timote Says:

    errr… That was supposed to be

    Gilroy -> Fresno: 115
    Merced -> Fresno: 56

    Central CA gets the short end of the stick again 😉

  8. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Excellent catch, Timote. It’s a shame folks are so quick to seize on any possible flaw with the HSR project they don’t do the basic calculations first.

    Of course we’re used to this – I still haven’t seen any effort by anyone in the state media to calculate the cost of not building HSR or the financial risks to the state of not constructing the project.

  9. rafael Says:

    @ Timote –

    good catch indeed. According to my trusty Google map, the network with only Pacheco comes to 810 miles. Not sure where the figure of 700 came from.

    However, any “HST overlay” through Altamont Pass would then be over-and-above those 810, adding another unfunded $5.7-8 billion to the tab – the higher numbr applies if a spur to West Oakland BART is included. That’s why Altamont-only would be preferable. However, if Pacheco it absolutely, positively must be, let’s take it. A bird in hand is worth ten in the air.,-117.79541&spn=3.21117,4.630737&z=8

    Note that the 220 miles of additional track to Las Vegas shown are *not* part of CHSRA’s proposal or even under consideration. They’re purely my personal suggestion of how the completely separate and incompatible maglev project to Anaheim could be avoided IFF California voters approve the HSR bond.

    Either way, Nevada would have to raise the funds for any high-speed ground link into California all by itself, the *state* of California would not chip in – though the federal government, individual counties in California and private investors would be free to do so.

  10. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, on the cost of not building HSR, I believe this is certainly a valid point, one that I was pitched this morning on an unrelated project. What is the cost of not building a new Doyle Drive to access the Golden Gate Bridge? You need $1 billion, and neither San Francisco nor the Golden Gate authority wants to pay the last few hundred millions that aren’t funded. If that tired old structure were to collapse in an earthquake, what kind of economic damage would result from having the main access to the bridge cut off?

    There are a thousand such stories up and down the state, such as, what if we don’t spend $7 billion on new prison medical facilities? What will that cost us? What if we don’t retrofit hospitals? What if we continue to skimp on our schools?

    Those are the kinds of things that will be competing in voters’ minds when they go to vote on the HSR bond measure in November. The difference is, those other things are things we already have and can understand the need for, while HSR is a new thing we’ve done without for all our lives.

    Again, I DO see the need for it, and I DO understand the costs associated with not doing it. But you and your fellow boosters have your work cut out for you.

  11. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Anything that gets Californians to start realizing that a few tax cuts here and there is costing them their economic security and future is fine with me. I’m not an HSR booster – I’m someone who realizes California is up the proverbial creek and without investments in our schools, our health care, and yes, our transportation, we are going to become Mississippi. We must, and we can, make all those investments. It’s not nearly as difficult as folks assume it is.

    HSR is just something I felt needed some love. Californians are embracing passenger rail so I’m not convinced the unfamiliarity of HSR is going to be a problem. It’s a simple concept that most Californians easily grasp. Fast service that allows people to get around the state without the airlines using a sustainable system that is independent of oil prices and helps the climate for an affordable cost.

    In fact it usually comes up in conversation unprompted. I was at San José Diridon Station last weekend waiting for a Caltrain to SF and a woman and I were talking about travel. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bullet train to LA?” she asked.

    Music to my ears.

  12. Morris Brown Says:

    Wow!! Doesn’t it make you wonder if anything is accurate about the numbers CHSRA throws around. Now we have the route mileage calculated incorrectly. No wonder the Senate report is so critical of the management, and perhaps the revival, in amended form, of SB-53 is meant to replace this management team.

    The project simply is not ready for prime time, ever after 10 years and $58 millions being spent.

    The bond measure should be pulled from the fall 2008 ballot.

  13. murphstahoe Says:

    Erik – as my father in law says – This thing will pay for itself… but it won’t write a check…

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