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closing the record on high-speed rail

By enelson
Tuesday, July 8th, 2008 at 8:37 pm in driving, Environment, fuel, Funding, global warming, high-speed rail, Transit vs. driving.

Some of you may be wondering why I went to the California High-Speed Rail Authority board’s final hearing on its environmental impact documents and didn’t write a story. There will be a story, but only when the board votes to approve the final EIR-EIS tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.

Of course, if they vote it down there will also be a story, but improbable tale will be on page 1.

But here’s the scoop on high-speed rail, which I found in a British newspaper article today, which describes the crush of passengers trying to get to Paris through the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station in London:

The airline industry has been crushed by the price of kerosene and deserted by passengers fed up with delays. After decades of disappointment, false dawns and virtually bankrupt Channel Tunnels, we have finally arrived at the age of the train and the evidence is in the crowd at St Pancras.

Only eight months after opening its doors in November, the new station is choc-a-bloc at peak hours, an exciting but slightly nerve-wracking development for Eurostar and its biggest shareholder, SNCF, the French state railway.

Traffic growth on Eurostar is accelerating like an Alstom locomotive, increasing by 21 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the same period in 2007, and revenues are up by a quarter. Those figures were no flash in the pan, a boost from all the hooplah at last year’s opening of St Pancras. Traffic in the second quarter has grown at similar rates, insiders say.

Say what you want about how the California bullet train enterprise has operated until now, but it’s difficult to deny the spot we’re in.

High-speed rail has become the only viable alternative to short-hop airline trips. And you can’t run airplanes on wind, nuclear or coal-fired power. Yes, a million unemployed journalists could, in theory, spend their days turning hand cranks to generate power for high-speed rail.

In the end, all that matters is that it’s one of the few modes of mass transport that doesn’t require some sort of petroleum or distilled foodstuffs to make it go.

On the other hand, you could buy 450,000 Teslas for the current top estimate for the HSR system. Granted, they can’t go quite as fast, what with speed limits and traffic jams, but they’d be loads of fun.

So at today’s hearing I saw the usual chorus of supporters ticking off the reasons we need such a system and the usual counter-chorus of people who don’t want the thing shattering the tranquility of their peninsula neighborhoods, who don’t like the choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass or who simply say they don’t believe the authority’s estimates that this grandmother of all public works projects is going to turn a profit.

I will single out David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a.k.a. TRANSDEF.

Here’s a guy who cares enough about transportation in the Bay Area to start up a website, print out business cards and, most importantly, spend more time poring over the draft environmental impact study for high-speed rail than just about anyone.

He was the only person at the hearing to notice that the final impact statement didn’t show what changes had been made as a result of comments people made during 10 public hearings. His conclusion: It didn’t matter what anyone at those hearings said, because the process was more political than public.

While I may not share his conclusions about the project, I think he deserves points for caring enough to not only show up, but to show up with something relevant to say.

So what does he get for his trouble? He gets the chairman of the authority’s board, Judge Quentin Kopp, questioning his credentials.

“How many dues-paying members to you have?” the judge asked as Schonbrunn was introducing himself. Not to be cowed, he jousted briefly with Kopp, telling him that if he wanted a list of the group’s board members, he could find them on file with the Secretary of State.

Good answer, I thought.

I must admit that I’ve never met anyone else who gives out TRANSDEF business cards, but what of it? Do Schoenbrunn’s comments deserve to be slapped down because he’s not accompanied by the Verizon network?

Too much of the public’s business is conducted with no one watching. Not because it’s necessarily done behind closed doors, but because no one cares enough or has time enough to show up to the meetings.

Lord knows, I get paid to go to these things and I’m selective about which ones are worth going to. But there are a few people like Schonbrunn who do show up, self-appointed representatives of those of us who can’t be bothered.

I probably don’t quote them in stories as much as others who represent organizations with sizeable constituencies of dues-paying members or perhaps people who were even elected to represent a constituency.

In spite of my neglect, these concerned citizens perform the very useful function of alerting me and people who are paid to serve the public to important developments that occur when the rest of us are looking elsewhere.

Not long ago, I got a call from the vales of Yosemite from one Ken Gosting. He has an interesting voice and finds it necessary to announce whenever the road to the park is in danger of closing even though most of the reporters in the Bay Area couldn’t care less.

But something in the back of my mind told me that one of these days, this concerned citizen and transportation activist of Mariposa County might come up with something critical, and I kept listening.

That call back in late May was just that. He found out that Union Pacific Railroad had told the High-Speed Rail Authority that it wasn’t going to give up any of its right-of-way for HSR track.

So important was this development that it came up in a Senate Transportation and Housing Committe report on the work of the authority. Judge Kopp said it’s not a big deal, but the news raised some serious issues that the authority has yet to lay to rest.

The judge has a distinguished career in public service and I tip my hat to him for that. I just want to point out that there are other ways of serving the public that deserve our respect, if not our agreement.


Photo from Renewable Energy Journal.


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13 Responses to “closing the record on high-speed rail”

  1. The Overhead Wire Says:

    As much fun as that let’s see how many cars it costs to spend as much as (rail line here) it’s completely bunk and ignores the costs of new road capacity, upkeep, and parking spaces for all of them. I know its a fun comparison but its also Wendell Cox’s favorite, you know, that guy that tries to kill rail in every city, fails, then hops to the next one paid up by the oil and asphalt lobby.

    Another interesting thing. Schonbrunn is the name of the Hapsburg’s Vienna summer palace. Just came to my head, thought others would appreciate the strange relationship of names.

  2. Robert Cruickshank Says:

    Just missed you at the meeting – I showed up just after it ended; as such my voice wasn’t part of the familiar chorus. If only there were some sort of high speed train to get me to SF more quickly…

    Folks like Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon are strong personalities. But the system’s strength, value, and effectiveness doesn’t depend on them. It depends on the details. Some complain about Kopp’s response on UPRR, but as far as I can tell, there’s no there there – the Authority never planned to use UPRR right of way, the issues had been known to the Authority for some time, and the whole thing was overblown by the usual HSR deniers who were responsible for the original leak.

    Still, it is good to see you writing about the airline crisis. It’s getting a lot of coverage in the business press, but few in the media have made the logical connection to passenger rail. Good on ya!

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Ohw, I wasn’t seriously suggesting buying Teslas for everyone. We’d need a lot more than that. What I did want to point out is that electric rail isn’t the only means of transportation that can run on coal burned in Utah and Arizona or wind harnessed in Suisun.

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Robert, I’m sorry we missed each other. I’m afraid there may not be another chance unless you’re going to be there (and I’m running late as it is) this morning. I’m looking forward to contending with those personalities this morning.

  5. Martin Engel Says:

    Erik, how many people fly between SF and LA each year? How many people drive between LA and SF each year? I mean, real independent numbers and not those from advocates. Then, we should ask, who are those people; are they business travelers, tourists, what? Since $50 dollar tickets are nonsense, we certainly can assume high prices like those on other high-speed rail lines. And, in 12 years when the train will be operational, what will the ticket costs be then? What I’m getting at is, what is the market for this train? The well to do business class with laptop in hand? In which case, is this a job for the government and are we subsidizing the corporate travel budget? Or, is it a build-it-and-they-will-come approach? You and I can certainly agree that this project has been outrageously oversold. Even if the train is a good idea, how would we know? We have only been fed pabulum and, especially from Kopp, a trust-me-we-know-what-we-are-doing attitude. That sets of my crap detector.

    Finally, you say, “the usual counter-chorus of people who don’t want the thing shattering the tranquility of their peninsula neighborhoods.” Is that “usual?” And if so, why? Should they (we) want the thing to shatter the tranquility of their (our) neighborhoods? Would you? Are you saying that the ends justify the means? Tough nougies for us? Thanks.

  6. ex-Capricious Commuter Says:

    Martin, I’m not saying tough luck. Just because you’re the usual suspects doesn’t mean you ought to be ignored or you ought to give up your right to speak.

    I don’t think if they will build it they will come, but I think if they build it and gas costs $7 a gallon, they will come big time. Southwest will go out of business, plain and simple, if ordinary people can’t afford to fly intrastate.

  7. Mike Says:

    Martin, Your reference to Field of Dreams (i.e., “build it and they will come”) doesn’t make any sense. In Field of Dreams, the protagonist lives in rural Iowa, at least 2 hours from the nearest major city. It’s a legitimate question where all of the spectators will come from if he builds his baseball field.

    In sharp contrast, with CAHSR, the system is anchored by two metropolitan areas with populations of 17.8 million (LA) and 7.2 million (SF) respectively. The two spurs will serve metropolitan areas of 3.1 million (SD) and 2 million (Sacto) respectively, and the core line will pass through metro areas of 1 million (Fresno) and 780,000 (Bakersfield). That’s 32 million people – over 85% of the entire California population and 10% of the entire US population. I think it’s abundantly clear where the passengers will come from. I mean, how is that even a question?

    For reference, the Paris-Southeast line of the TGV runs between two metro areas of 12.1 million (Paris) and 1.8 million (Lyon) and carries over 20 million riders/year. The Taiwan HSR runs between metro areas of 10 million (Taipei) and 3 million (Kaohsiung) and is currently averaging 31 million passenger/year (it’s still in its ramp-up phase).

    Keep in mind that trade between areas roughly increases as the product of the populations, so the potential SF/LA market is roughly 6x larger than the potential Paris/Lyon market and 4x larger than the potential Taipei/Kaohsiung market. Even if you assume that CA HSR will be a massive failure in comparison to TGV and THSR, attracting only one-half or even one-third as many potential riders, you will still get ridership of 40-60 million on the core line, and 60-90 million on the whole system. For reference, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento, and Santa Ana (Orange County) airports combine for a total of 80 million trips. Taipei + Kaohsiung handle 15 million trips; Paris + Lyon airports handle 46 million trips (the vast majority are international flights at Charles de Gaulle).

  8. johnny Says:

    Well Mike just how big a circle are you drawing around SF and that citadel of urban sprawl LA. The population density really isn’t there. The line will never begin to produce those kind of ridership numbers and other studies clearly show that. Cambridge just produced what CHSRA wanted to show. The revised business plan if really peer reviewed by a competent panel, will clearly show how absurd those numbers are.

    Now if Californians want to build the project and are given real cost numbers, not numbers that are underestimated by at least 1/2 and ridership numbers that are overblown by a factor of 3, than that’s ok. What’s is not ok is the devious nature of this bond issue and promotion being carried out by this group. The Senate clearly pointed out their disgust with what has gone on in the past and with their extensive, although in-adequate revisions to AB-3034. Remember Lowenthal is a Democrat and for him to lead this charge really points to major problems in the CHSRA. SB-53 now revived in the assembly would really put the CHSRA where it belongs, perhaps completely out of business.

  9. The Overhead Wire Says:

    What does population density have to do with it? Do we need to have more population density to support airports?
    It seems to me that still too many people just don’t get what HSR is for.

  10. Ex-Capricious Commuter Says:

    TOW, I believe that airports do require a certain density nearby, or at least within a half-hour’s drive. As for what HSR is for, I wish I had a dime for every time one of the CHSRA board members touts the benefits for “commuters.” I don’t make these arguments. They do.

  11. Hayden Says:

    I don’t understand complaints about CHSR being “oversold.” As far as I can tell, the history of almost every significant US public works project–and processes like SF’s recovery from the 1906 ‘quake–are replete with feats of overstatement and boosterism. It’s almost traditional!

    At the same time, the idea that high-speed rail must somehow pay for itself through passenger, freight, and ancillary revenue also seems mistaken to me, because it ignores very significant costs and benefits external to economics–not to mention the subsidies to all sorts of other transportation systems discussed in part above, which also include US housing policy (and California state law) favoring single-family dwellings (and car transportation). There are plenty of worthy social and environmental goals that can be advanced through CHSR, whether or not it can pay for itself.

  12. Hayden Says:

    FWIW, I think one can look at airports as having catchments, or service areas, and the size of those areas depend on where the competing airports are and what sorts of service they provide. Folks in the Midwest regularly drive 90 minutes or even up to a couple hours to get to major airports so as to avoid the high costs of feeder service from a local airport that may be only 30 or 45 minutes away, or because there is no local airport. In cities like Chicago, the distances may be much shorter, but the time to get from start to gate-at-airport may not be that much different.

    Where I live in the East Bay (West Oakland), I’m 25 – 90 minutes away from SFO depending on time of day and mode of transportation to SFO, but I’m still considered within their service area, which extends up into the North Bay and East Bay counties.

  13. Hayden Says:

    Finally, it strikes me that last week, my job paid a $227 contract fare round-trip to Southern California. Southwest Airlines’ current OAK-LAX or SFO-LAX refundable fare, by comparison, is $279 r/t.

    Martin is right to question what the range of fares may be–and as we’ve seen with Deutsche Bahn’s and the SBB’s efforts, among others, it may not be as simple as “just one fare” or “one set of fares.” If things move forward with a carbon tax, that may further alter the car/train/plane cost balance. There’s plenty of uncertainty to go around.

    On the Peninsula (or for that matter, the Tri-Valley), where could the train alignment go that is currently tranquil? The west side of the hills (i.e., 280 and parts immediately east and west) on the Peninsula is fairly quiet now, but would the train go there?

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