High Speed Rail

The California Senate voted another tranche of financing yesterday , keeping the state’s high speed rail project alive. There’s a cartoon to be drawn in which the program is a maiden tied up in the middle of a freeway with the highway/automobile industry approaching, or maybe it’s a train being switched off a track leading to a washed-out trestle…
I don’t entirely trust my judgment on this issue, because I love trains, an affection acquired in youth going to high school (and everywhere) in New York on one of the only two (IIRC) 24-hr public transit systems in the world, and deepened riding all sorts of trains, especially in Europe. You can read, eat, write, get up and walk around or to the dining car for a snack, or sleep, and you don’t have to park it when you arrive.  What’s not to like? Keeping a car between two white lines is a very low-grade use of a human, even with a radio or a passenger for conversation. My instinct is to be a fan of California HSR. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk for us.

When the greenhouse gas (GHG) releases of all that steel and concrete and digging are counted, it needs very high ridership diverted from cars and airplanes. The California electric grid is pretty green (a lot of nuclear and hydro, plus gas and some wind but no coal), but HSR is not a climate home run, even trip for trip and even ignoring capital “investment” of GHG.
What would make anyone take those trips? On the plus side is the comfort described above. But you can drive your car when you want and have it when you arrive, while HSR in California does not link the kind of dense local public transportation networks that make it so easy to get from your house in Paris to your friend’s house in Brussels or London. If the only way to get to the HSR station from your house in Lafayette or Menlo Park is to drive downtown and park expensively for several days, and you have to rent a car at the terminal in LA to get anywhere, just driving out to I5 and firing up the CD changer looks better (especially for a population that doesn’t have a train habit in the first place). It starts to compete with HSR on door-to-door time, and even if you’re willing to wrangle luggage in and out of your car a couple of times and accept the home-to-terminal trip, car rental, and parking, flying is a couple of hours faster.

Even if we’re going to build HSR in the US, California is probably the wrong place to start; other corridors, especially Boston-DC, are better suited to it and will yield more riders.
All that said, the whole system of getting everywhere in a one-or-two-occupant car is on its last legs.  We can’t lane-mile ourselves out of local traffic congestion, and sprawl forced by parking and roads is broadly ungreen as well as deadly to social capital and community, bad for our health (ever notice how many fewer fat people are around and about in cities where people walk to the tram or the metro?), and enormously wasteful of our most constrained resource, time to do what we want to do. We have to replace the system somehow, and presumably not all at once. My choice would be to spend the whole HSR budget on local public transportation first, so HSR would connect nodes that people can actually get to, but HSR is what’s on the table. It will cost about $75b, which is something like $100 per year per Californian. Including those who won’t ride it, but it’s hard to think of any single piece of infrastucture that everyone uses; my neighbors and I hardly ever drive on the roads north of Sacramento, and we don’t have UC Davis experts help us make money growing tomatoes.

I think $100 a year to get started on a transportation system that has a future is a bargain. Even if what’s coming down the track is the wrong train in the wrong place, it’s what’s on the table now, and i take Cole Porter’s view.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

12 thoughts on “High Speed Rail”

  1. This monstrosity will likely get built, if it ever does, about the time self-driving vehicles become prevalent. Then the only thing to do will be to rip up the rails and turn the roadbed into a bicycle trail.

    1. I have some doubts about the proposed line including the longer (politically motivated) routing via Bakersfield and Fresno rather than by a more direct route following, say, Interstate 5 on the east side of the Central Valley. Shorter is quicker and quicker than driving or flying (door to door) is needful for HSR to be competitive.

      Nonetheless, I don’t see how the entirely speculative self-driving vehicles will have any effect unless SDVs won’t take up road space or use fuel.

      1. If the idea is to get riders, you have to go where the riders are. Despite the 5, the population centers in the Valley are Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, Sacramento. The ridership issue is questionable enough as it is. Run the train alongside the 5 and no one will ride it.

        Why should they? If I’ve got to get in my car and drive 15 minutes to get to the train depot, and the train depot is alongside the 5 why shouldn’t I just keep driving?

        1. After you see the train pass you along the 5 like you were standing still a couple of times, you might think about it on the next trip.

          1. The population centers in California are S.Cal which has around 20 million people and Bay Area which has six or seven million (both depend a bit on how you choose to define the areas). http://www.us-places.com/California/population-by-County.htm (2006 figures). Total population of California is currently around 38 million.

            Much more important way to increase ridership is to reduce travel time from S.Cal to Bay Area–providing direct service to Bakersfield et al adds stops and dramatically reduces average speed. Faster service brings in more S.F.-S.Cal riders which is where the volume will be.

          2. I’d ride it to avoid driving it, Michael. I’m in Cincinnati at the moment. My wife and I intend to go visit her brother in southern Illinois. I suggested we take Amtrak rather than driving it. I changed my mind when I found out that we would have to leave Cincinnati at 1:30 AM to catch a train to Chicago. If everything went on schedule, we’d catch a train bound for St Louis about 1 PM, and get into Carbondale on a bus from St. Louis about 11 PM. That sort of schedule combined with the uncertainty about whether Amtrak will actually make its schedule made us decide to pass on the opportunity.

  2. And self-driving vehicles will be affordable for…?
    Trains are for everybody. That’s why the right hates ’em.

  3. But you are assuming the continued viability of our air travel system. I don’t think that’s a good assumption, especially for relatively short distances of, say, <500 miles.

    Air travel is misery: delays, cramped seats, airports located much farther from where you want to go than train stations, and taking much more space. Further, it's a system that is vulnerable to far-away weather problems – storms in Atlanta or Chicago affect the whole structure, and we know it breaks down for a few days every winter when blizzards hit.

    I routinely take the Boston-NY train – usually the Acela. It's a pleasure for the reasons you mention, and it's popular.

    One additional, purely personal observation: when I'm waiting at the airport departure gate the other passengers seem tired, lifeless, bored, and resigned to their fate. Train stations give off an air of life and energy. Maybe that's just my perception, or it might say something about the two modes of travel.

    1. Byomtov

      The urban density pattern is traditional and European in the NE corridor. When you arrive in NYC at Grand Central or Penn Station, you are *somewhere*. That’s not true if your destination is San Jose (the heart of Silicon Valley) nor downtown LA. In fact the San Diego-LA route makes more sense (connecting 2 overlapping urban areas).

      The long distance solution which is not rail is buses. Yes massive class resistance to taking the bus, it’s not something middle class people do– buses in America are for poor people, usually of a different race. But in fact a luxurious coach system could work and do so cheaply. Yes people would still fly (there’s also a need for sale of landing rights in an open option market to get efficient pricing– the problem at the moment in the US is the allocation is clearly economically inefficient by being too cheap).

      The workable HSR solution in the USA is that Boston-NY-Washington corridor where, in fact, Amtrak alrady has high market shares (and its own network: a key distinction from the rest of the USA).

      California? You’ve got 2 spread out supermetropoli, a long way apart, with not a lot in between. Not a lot of compelling reasons for business to travel from one to the other (their main trading partners are not each other). Each with massive *internal* traffic and congestion issues which could benefit from ore subways, better Caltrans etc.

      Driven in part by the Chinese, and France, (and Japan) we are in a world of ‘High Speed Train envy’. But the economics of many of the lines built in all 3 countries are sub optimal and the head of the SNCF( ie France) has called its local and regional train networks a ‘disaster’ and praised the *British* system of same (whereas we in Britain view our trains (correctly) as the most expensive in Europe and (incorrectly) as the worst service). The Chinese are building HSTs that are unused because they are too expensive (not to mention falling off the tracks: build quality of everything in China appears to be low, I hope they crack that before they build too many more nuclear plants). Japan we know: massive construction led to things like the HSR to Hokaido, so uneconomic it has seriously been proposed that the tunnel be sealed uand used for oil storage (the longest under sea tunnel in the world I believe).

      There is lots we can do for mass transport. In California, spending c. $100bn on a ‘High Speed rail to nowhere’ is not going to help the cause.

      Agree with you btw the romance of train travel vs. flying, imagine my discovery that it is easier to fly London-Dulles-Charlottesville VA than to fly & take the train (I wound up taking the train *back* to Washington for a meeting and Amtrak had to put us on buses to do it).

      But let’s not blind ourselves as to what is possible and what is sensible in CA.

  4. It’s odd to see a UC faculty member respond to the high-speed rail vote with a shrug of the shoulders.

    As every serious financial analysis has shown, from the Legislative Analyst on down, the state doesn’t have a clue how it will pay the cost of this project, which will likely yield an increase in global warming gases over its first four decades.

    One possibility is that it will be paid for at the expense of funding of those urban transit projects already on the drawing board, the ones we need both to deal with congestion and climate goals. But the trades and the building lobby have a lot of juice in Sacramento and will fight to keep what’s theirs.

    The more likely loser will be higher education, the least well politically defended portion of the budget, as the last decade has shown. If so, I hope the dollars come first out of the pockets of those who shrug their shoulders at policy mistakes of this magnitude.

    1. Dear MP,

      Rather exotic to argue that a UC prof should cut his opinion on a matter of great public importance to somehow protect the University budget which you incorrectly claim is the very least defended part of the California budget (remember the very recent complete elimination of dental care in Medical?).

      And maybe even more exotic to argue that those who don’t agree with you should be financially punished.

      In any event, very interesting L.A. Times page 1 story this morning on how the high speed rail proponents dumped the French TGV operatoers offers of help (apparently Japanese HSR help was also rejected) because the French dared to say that, among other things, the Fresno route was not feasible and would cost way more than the better Interstate 5 route. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-rail-advice-20120709,0,4539140.story

      Why would genius Californians need any input for the world’s two most successful HSR operators when we can get input from inexperienced Americans such as Parsons Brinckerhoff?

      1. And Parsons Brinkerhoff (see Kevin Drum at Mother Jones) has huge financial incentives to overstate benefits of this project.

        The reality is that this is far, far down the priority list for public transport (or any other public infrastructure project, eg community colleges and universities) in California.

        Most likely it will proceed for some time, spend a few billion or tens of billions, and then get cancelled when the state next elects a right wing libertarian GOP governor (which by the law of elections, will happen one day or another).

        What can be justified is the land assembly. Buy the rights of ways, and let future generations make the choice.

        We are proceeding on the same marginal economic grounds with High Speed 2 (HS1 is London to Paris, which never made sense in economic terms and far underperformed revenue forecasts made pre construction, but which we could define as being ‘in the national interest’).

        HS2 runs London-Birmingham by 2033 (?) and then to Manchester and Glasgow, with a fork to Leeds. So linking the nation’s largest urban centres.

        The projected benefits are almost entirely in the out years (ie post 2030) and benefits to costs are about GBP 1.30 to 1.00.

        The normal rule imposed by Her Majesty’s Treasury on public infrastructure is a minimum of 2.5 to 1 (a c. 20% ‘optimism factor’ is included in all forecasts to reflect past overestimates of benefits/ underestimates of costs). A new road will require 4:1.

        So in essence even on ‘cooked’ numbers, HS2 breaks all the economic rules. I’d love to see what your benefit to cost ratio is for HSR!

        And what will we gain? 30 minute reduction time to Birmingham over existing rail (down to about 40 minutes). 90 minutes to Manchester (off about 3 hrs 20). 2.5 hours to Glasgow (off about 5.5 hours from memory). For c. 10% of the traffic between the cities– basically executives and professionals travelling to business meetings, plus upper middle class leisure travellers.

        HSR smells the same way. It will be useful to professionals travelling between the 2 cities. The rest? It will be too expensive relative to driving.

        If you want economical intercity travel, usable by poor people, you have more luxurious motorcoaches (buses) and dedicated lanes for them at choke points.

        It’s not a good argument that ‘this is the only High Speed Rail we will ever get’. There are so many other useful things that could be done with the money, transport or otherwise, that building a limited use yuppie speedway is basically pointless. There’s no global warming saving (neither is there with HS2).

        Contrast that to extending the existing commuter rail and subways in the Bay Area and in SoCal, which hundreds of thousands or millions of people could use *every day*. Realistically, how big is the likely business travel between SoCal and NorCal? The vast majority of the business links run globally not regionally: the largest trading partners of the 2 areas is not the other, but Asia.

        What is justifiable is buying the land. Someone in a future generation with better technology may have a different view or need. Leave it to the Californians of 2030 to make that call, for their needs in 2050.

        And please have a proper independent cost-benefit study run. I doubt you will get benefits to costs of 4 to 1, or even 2.5 to 1.

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