Trying to Find the Truth in the Latest LA Times, NY Times CA High-Speed Rail Pieces

California High Speed Rail San Joaquin River Viaduct under construction in Fresno in 2018. Photo via CAHSRA
California High Speed Rail San Joaquin River Viaduct under construction in Fresno in 2018. Photo via CAHSRA

Earlier this week, both the New York Times and the L.A. Times published articles on California high-speed rail.

The NYT tells the overall story in an informative and fairly balanced way.  The L.A. Times continues its long history of misleading high-speed rail articles by Ralph Vartabedian.

For Vartabedian’s latest piece, ‘Calculations show bullet train can complete the route within 2 hours and 40 minutes. Reality may prove slower,’ the newspaper used the public records act to request raw data on scheduling simulations from the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA). These simulations show that CAHSRA has designed its system to complete a two-hour, 40-minute trip between L.A. and San Francisco, which is the trip length approved by voters in 2008.

Hmm… Agency promises schedule. Voters approve. Computer simulations show that the designs meet the promised schedule. Shouldn’t this story be about a government agency making good on a pledge?

Well, not if it’s the L.A. Times reporting on high-speed rail.

There’s a rail vs. cars double standard here. Delivering on pledges is something that California’s freeway-builders routinely fail to do. Caltrans, using discredited Level of Service predictionsrepeatedly boasts that its multi-billion dollar freeway widening projects reduce congestion and improve air quality. The Times gives rail projects hell for cost overruns and performance predictions. Freeway expansion projects apparently don’t merit anywhere near the same scrutiny from the Times.

Vartabedian, using a playbook common among lazy, biased transit journalists, quotes rail critics such as Robert Poole, a transportation “expert” at the Reason Foundation–which is a ‘think tank’ (that is, a lobby group) funded by the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil, among others.

Vartabedian cites a 2015 report from the Spanish firm Sacyr Concesiones S.L., which, he says, states that “220 mph is higher than most if not all standard commercial speed for HSR, since it goes beyond the operating speed of similar HSR currently operating anywhere in the world.” He goes on to write that:

Many transportation experts, including state staff and independent analysts, have long dismissed the probability that any operational California bullet train will meet the two-hour-40-minute timetable. A state-appointed peer review panel warned the legislature in 2013 that “it is unlikely that trains would actually be scheduled to run during normal hours of operation within … 2 hours 40 minute limits.”

Let’s clear a few things up.

On page 11 of Proposition 1A, which voters approved in 2008 and the legislature affirmed in 2012, this statement appears: “maximum nonstop service travel times for each corridor. . . shall not exceed the following: (1) San Francisco-Los Angeles Union Station: two hours, 40 minutes.”

Key there is “maximum nonstop service travel times.”

So, yes, it’s likely that few trains will make it in two hours and 40 minutes. The CAHSRA would probably operate one peak morning train and one peak evening train to get business travelers between S.F. and L.A. in time for morning meetings and then home again for dinner. That’s the letter and the intent of the voter-approved Prop. 1A.

But most other trains would make intermediate stops, say in Burbank, Fresno, and San Jose, and a few local trains would stop at smaller stations as well. Those runs would take closer to three hours from L.A. to S.F.–still very competitive with air travel, when one factors in the trip to the airport, delays on the tarmac, etc. Train systems in Asia and Europe that have similar run times have taken huge market share from airports. This is how they operate.

Vartabedian goes on to write that:

The Japanese Shinkansen, the inspiration for all of the world’s high speed trains, operates between Tokyo and Osaka, a distance of 344 miles. The fastest trip takes two hours and 22 minutes, yielding an average speed of 145 miles per hour, according to Japanese Railway schedules. The French Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV, operates the Paris to Lyon line over 243 miles and takes one hour and 59 minutes, according to TGV schedules. The average speed is 121 miles per hour.

But the Los Angeles to San Francisco route, which would traverse three mountain ranges and five of the 10 largest cities in the state, is supposed to travel 438 miles in 2 hours and 40 minutes — requiring an average speed of 164 miles per hour.

These numbers are valid, but let’s get a little perspective.

The Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen, although it has since been upgraded, was originally built in the 1960s. The French TGV line that Vartabedian has chosen to highlight was designed and built in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Why not look at a newer line? Such as, say, the Chinese Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway, which runs at 220 mph (speeds were lowered temporarily but resumed this top speed last year). The French TGV, in tests, has reached a whopping 357 mph. That still holds the record, set in 2007, for a train on steel rails. Many other rail manufacturers have greatly exceeded the speeds referenced by the L.A. Times.

The newest French-built high-speed train, seen here operating in Italy, is capable of fulfilling the speed mandates of California's plans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The newest French-built high-speed train, seen here operating in Italy, is capable of fulfilling the speed mandates of California’s plans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

That said, there is a trade-off between how fast a train can go and how much it will cost in electricity and track wear.

In order to make higher speeds more economically feasible, rail manufacturers are constantly improving their equipment to reduce weight and power consumption. Off-the-shelf trains already exist that can fulfill that 220 mph speed requirement within the economical threshold of power consumption and weight. China has them, as noted above. There’s also the French Automotrice à grande vitesse, (AGV), which can cruise at 220 mph while consuming the same or less power than France’s current fleet. Manufacturers in other countries also have trains in operation that should be able to handle California’s mandate.

Vartabedian also writes that CAHSRA will depend on “human train operators consistently performing with the precision of a computer model.” Well, that’s already done around the world, since high-speed rail trains are basically controlled by computers–the train driver is in the system to make sure nothing goes wrong. In fact, there’s a famous case of a Japanese Shinkansen driver who fell asleep, and the train continued along at 170 mph, eventually pulling itself into the next scheduled station without incident.

There is no doubt that the first train to use California’s high-speed track spine in the Central Valley will not fulfill the speed requirements right out of the gate. Opponents of the project seem unaware–or deliberately obfuscate–that high-speed trains can (and do) slow down and use existing tracks.

If there’s a criticism to be made of the CAHSRA, it’s that it has not yet spelled out plans for intermediate services that could run while Californians wait for the full build-out of the system. For example, there are tracks–currently used by Amtrak–connecting Oakland to the northern end of CAHSRA’s 119-mile Central Valley spine. High-speed trains could use those tracks–towed by conventional diesel locomotive for part of the trip–to offer a much-improved Amtrak service.

That type of stepped approach is how high-speed rail was built in many places.

One example is the Eurostar train between Paris, Brussels, and London. From 1994 to 2007, this high-speed train went around 186 mph from Paris to the Channel Coast. When it popped up on the British side, it slowed to 90 mph or slower, and shared tracks with commuter trains–much as CAHSRA plans to do with shared Bay Area Caltrain service–because the UK originally didn’t want to spend the money to build a dedicated high-speed line to the coast. Specially designed trains could run on both France’s dedicated high-speed lines, which have overhead lines for power, and the UK’s third-rail-powered tracks. The total trip from London to Paris with this ‘blended approach’ took around three hours. Over time, more high-speed segments were built and train speeds increased. The Eurostar now takes about two hours and 20 minutes to do the same trip. And the newest trains go 200 mph. There’s also the Sables d’Olonne service in France, which uses a TGV towed by a diesel locomotive to provide a one-seat ride from Paris, traveling at high speed for part of the trip, and then at low, Amtrak-like speeds on other portions.

Vartabedian concludes with a Reason Foundation quote asserting that Florida’s future Brightline higher-speed rail would be a better, cheaper model. Brightline opened in January, expanded in May, and is operating successfully. It’s not news that building a ~100 mph facility is cheaper than a 220 mph one. The comparison is apples to oranges–or perhaps house-cats to cheetahs. Basically, Brightline is running at similar speeds to some of today’s Amtrak lines–albeit with more up-to-date trains both inside and out.

But the difference is true high-speed trains are transformative–on most corridors in Europe and Asia, airplanes are now the discount, low-ball way to travel, because high-speed rail has taken over the business market almost entirely. Perhaps that’s why an oil-backed group such as Reason is willing to throw a bone to Brightline–it’s nice, but it’s no threat to the dominance of petroleum-dependent, heavily subsidized transportation (mainly cars and airplanes).

Back to this week’s other HSR article, the New York Times ‘A $100 Billion Train: The Future of California or a Boondoggle? ‘ by Adam Nagourney.

If you only read one high-speed rail article this week, we recommend the piece in the NYT, which paints a much more balanced picture of a project that has faced a lot of adversity, but is getting built anyway.

Nagourney’s recap of the project’s tortured finances is an important recap for readers not steeped in the intricacies of CA high-speed rail funding. In 2008, voters approved $10 billion as a down payment on the rail system, under the assumption that, as with highway projects, the federal government would be an investment partner in this key transportation infrastructure. From the NYT:

The cost was originally supposed to be split among the state, the federal government and private business. But that arrangement faltered, as hopes for federal dollars faded with Republicans in power in Washington, and businesses shied away from such an uncertain venture. As of now, the rail authority has come up with less than $30 billion…

Nagourney’s piece includes plenty of project criticism. He quotes former Fresno mayor, now state assemblymember Jim Patterson, as saying “This is going to be the most expensive and slowest form of fast rail imaginable.” This is just hyperbole from someone who has always opposed the project. There’s no way that California’s high-speed rail will be the “slowest” anything.

But, in contrast with the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times at least attempts to find a balance. Nagourney ends the piece on an optimistic note, quoting Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute:

Approximately two dozen other countries have found HSR feasible, including Uzbekistan… there is no reason it can’t be done here.

177 thoughts on Trying to Find the Truth in the Latest LA Times, NY Times CA High-Speed Rail Pieces

  1. You’re ignoring the biggest subsidy of all to both flying and driving, namely the cost of wars in places like Iraq to secure oil supplies. Electrification of road vehicles may eventually partially fix that, but there’s no solution in the near future to use anything but oil for aeroplanes. At a few trillion and counting that’s money which could have gone to build a world-class HSR and local rail transit system which could have largely made driving and most air travel obsolete.

    And you keep mentioning “high-speed buses” as some wonderful alternative to HSR. That’s sort of like telling people who want steak that Ramen soup is just as good. Buses suck, plain and simple. That and the fact they pay for none of their right-of-way directly are why they cost less. They run on our wonderful potholed roads which aren’t likely to be fixed anytime soon. I’ve yet to hear of any concept bus which can go 220 mph, never mind seeing an actual working model. And that’s beside the point because potholes aside, probably none of our highways are straight enough to go 220 mph. A vomit-inducing ride in a cramped bus at perhaps 80 mph tops, more likely 20 mph in a traffic jam, is hardly a substitute for even conventional rail, never mind high-speed rail. And your continued assertion that rail transit is obselete is ridiculous. It’s simple physics. Steel wheel on steel rail has 1/10th the rolling resistance of rubber tyres on asphalt. A train of carriages has far less air drag per seat than a bus. Rails can be made much smoother than roads, and maintained in that state. Rail is much more amenable to electrification in that it doesn’t require heavy, bulky batteries. I could go on and on but given your posting history it’s a waste of time.

    You know what’s obsolete, or will be soon? Automobiles. When I look at alternate solutions for short, medium, and long distances, I invariably find the alternatives are better on one or more of cost, speed, efficiency, or use of space. About the only niche where automobiles make much sense is very rural areas where any type of public transit isn’t cost effective and trips are typically too long to use a bicycle.

  2. Keep in mind most of the benefits of autonomous vehicles, particularly the speed and safety benefits, can’t happen unless we outlaw human driving on public roads. If we don’t, the AVs will still get in collisions with incompetently driven non-AVs. They will still be subject to traffic jams caused by human drivers. I’m all in favor of eliminating human driving once AVs prove themselves. This might be as soon as 2030 or thereabouts. Unfortunately, that might be a hard sell politically. My only hope is that insurance rates for human-driven vehicles skyrocket to the point most people can’t afford to continue driving.

  3. Maybe world standard HSR isn’t justified in most of the country, but ditching diesel locomotives for electrification is, even on freight-only lines. The problem is the freight railroads don’t want to pay for it. Not because it wouldn’t eventually give them nice returns (i.e. electric locomotives cost less to operate and last at least twice as long as diesels). Rather, the return won’t come during any one CEO’s tenure. It’s really this type of short-term thinking which keeps us from investing in anything in this country.

    Once electrified, you can get top speeds to 125 to 135 mph on a lot of lines. Moreover, by using electric locomotives and/or EMUs, the trains will actually spend a lot of time at those speeds. This is unlike the so-called 110 mph diesel trains which in reality only finally hit 110 mph just before they need to start braking for the next station.

  4. In theory you could with a new ROW in a tunnel but unless we invent very low-cost tunneling technology the cost would be prohibitive.

  5. HSR trains do not always run at maximum speed, like an established urban where the rail corridors wiggle.

    Initially, the idea was to widen Caltrain and have two tracks dedicated to HSR, running up to 110mph.

    The “blended system” plan widens segments of caltrain with additional passing tracks, allowing HSR trains to reach up 110mph.

    The drawback of the blended system with Caltrain isn’t the speed, it’s the 10 train/hour limit without more passing tracks.

    It strikes me as a practical approach to get running.

  6. On the LA end, unless you place an extremely high value on saving money, you’re going to take an Uber or Lyft to LAX. That’s easily $20-$30. On the SFO end you can take BART, but that’s a slog to get into SF proper, so unless you arrive when the traffic is really bad there’s no guarantee you won’t wind up in another Uber or Lyft. So it’s really easy for that $88 airfare to turn into $150 once you actually account for all of the costs associated with the flight.

    Compare to train travel where it tends to be city center to city center, meaning you’re far less likely to find yourself in the situation of shelling out for an Uber/Lyft being your best option for getting to/from the station.

  7. To try to help give some perspective on how slow the NEC trains are, pre-9/11, the Amtrak NEC route wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it is now. When you could show up at the airport without a lot of time to spare, maybe even first buy your ticket on the spot, and basically waltz right onto the plane, it was still way faster than the train even accounting for getting to/from the airport (typically LGA for NYC). It took all of the added time at the airport that resulted from post-9/11 airport security to make the NEC competitive with flying even for the DC-NYC segment.

  8. the sarcasm is directed at those who think that they are subsidizing rail in big cities, when in fact – the most urbanized part of this country is subsidizing rail for the most rural parts. many times, those complaining about subsidies are in places receiving the largest subsidies.

    But, on a serious note, why should my 150 miles Amtrak ticket (at regional rail speeds) cost $64 when a the Chicago > St. Louis train is twice the distance and only $29?
    Amtrak is extracting as much as they can from the urbanized NE to pay for their legally required long distance routes that lose millions.
    So, at times I do wish the NE could simply create a regional rail multi state compact to run our trains. PA, VA, MD, DE, NJ, NY plus the 6 New England States.

    Outside of the NE, the Chicago Hub Mid West, California and possibly Texas and Florida – true, world standard HSR is likely not worth the investment.
    But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be upgrading diesel locomotive routes to EMUs. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be improving 65mph top speeds to 110/120.

  9. The tipping point for this HSR project will be the successful construction of the tunnels between Gilroy and Madera. Once those tunnels are complete, the project will have enough momentum that it can’t be stopped.
    Before those tunnels are built, even if the 119 mile segment between Madera and Bakersfield is completed and put into service, it won’t be possible to make a rail trip between the Central Valley and the Bay Area without two transfers (assuming a shuttle bus connection through the Pacheco Pass), with total travel time of 4-5 hours. Aside from rail fanatics willing to endure this, the only markets served by the HSR system will only be competing with auto travel, and will only provide significant travel time benefits for a small number of riders, certainly not enough ridership and revenue to be sustainable. The low performance of a “train-to-nowhere” in the Central Valley would discourage large segments of the population and reduce the political will to continue the project.
    However, after those tunnels are built, HSR will be able to provide a one seat ride between the Bay Area and Central Valley markets in less than 3 hours. This will make the system competitive with air travel for these markets and will provide a legitimate level of sustainability. Although the system won’t be profitable at this point, it will attract enough ridership, revenue and good will to find the funding necessary for the vital next steps – the tunnels between the Central Valley and LA County – to complete the Phase 1 (“Bay to Basin”) system.

  10. No, I don’t know the exact number of delays on Caltrain. In my limited experience (1-2 trips per year) Caltrain has been more reliable than other rail services that I use. Most (80-90%) have been on time, and I can’t remember any delays over 15-20 minutes.
    However, I do know how often my flights between LAX and the Bay Area have been delayed. I take these flights 10-15 times per year, and estimate that 20-30 percent include cancellations or delays of at least 30 minutes.

  11. Do you know how often Caltrain is delayed by suicides, mechanical problems, or other issues? New electric trainsets should drastically reduce mechanical problems, but other delays will still happen. Keeping six Caltrains and four HSRs on schedule will be challenging.

    Also if you don’t already know how many years and how much money Caltrain wasted on the CBOSS signaling system, google Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog CBOSS

    It was $150 million.

  12. From the LA Times editorial:

    “One key assumption is that trains will move through the urban Bay Area and Los Angeles nonstop, even while sharing track with trains that make multiple stops at stations along the way.

    Has the author really never heard of limited, express, or skip-stop service?

    “It would involve using parallel tracks, which only exist along limited segments of rail, to bypass commuter trains,”

    I wonder if the plan to add more passing tracks for HSR trains has anything to with the limited segments of passing track?

    “During rush hour, the puzzle would require as many as four bullet trains to weave around six commuter trains per hour while relying on a sophisticated new signaling system.

    I’m pretty sure there are a few railroads who’ve figured that one out.

  13. I love (don’t love) when people exaggerate beyond what’s likely into unlikely fantasy. It makes them sound like they’re too dumb to see what’s actually going to happen so they have to leap to unrealistic conclusions.

    I said nothing about going faster on city streets.
    Multiple simulations and small scale studies have shown self-driving vehicles can smooth out the flow of traffic while mixed with human drivers and remove phantom traffic jams even without traveling closer together. When they eventually reach 25-33% market penetration and get a dedicated lane on 4 and 3 lane freeways, yes they’ll be able to keep closer together, and go faster in that lane, only on the freeway, not on city streets.

  14. I see that sarcastic comment as precisely why rail is the way it is. Too many Americans never want to aim for anything better, just lower the bar until you can step over it without effort.

    In order to make Amtrak profitable, we need to make a cash investment to make it happen. Instead, you’d just cut service down to what’s profitable.

    Never mind the middle-Americans who depend on the money-losing long-distance routes to even get to a major airport to get anywhere?

    Don’t take anyone’s service away, make that the design goal: come up with capital projects which will bring Amtrak to a level it sustains it’s operating costs. Yes, in the short term we spend a lot of money improving Amtrak on top of the subsidies, but those subsidies decline as the projects are built out.

  15. I love (don’t love) this idea that people have that with driverless cars all of a sudden cars will be going 80 miles an hour down city streets with half-second headways and like that won’t make our cities even more terrible places than we’ve already made them. It’s fantasy.

  16. We could also cut unprofitable Amtrak lines the the NEC pay for so Amtrak could use those NEC profits to improve service on lines that could achieve profitability – like those around Chicago – or those that split off of the NEC (Springfield MA, Pittsburg PA etc. etc.)

  17. “The introduction of a high speed train connection invariably accompanies the elimination of a slightly slower, but much more affordable, alternative route”
    Not even remotely true.
    Sometimes? Yes. Spain is good example there western Gauge AVE trains lines have led to reduced Iberian Gauge slow services in some areas.
    But, there is now a re-introduced, slow, cheap, route mirroring the Thalys Paris-Brussels HSR (and rather expensive) route. Its called IZY. Its 19 Euros and takes 2 1/2 hours. Still 1 hour less than the bus for an almost identical price.
    FlixBus is now running cheap, slow trains in Germany.
    Your idea that HSR invariably leads to the removal of affordable, slow routes is laughable to anyone who has ever left their mom’s basement in Baltimore.

  18. Let’s have a look at Acela…

    – That 6% figure you found is likely both Acela Express and the Northeast Regional local service combined, but a 6% share of the overall travel market despite the lower cost alternatives (like Megabus) is very high. Even packed into a Megabus that’s hundreds of millions of buses.

    – If you take buses and cars out, Acela and the Regional have about a 50/50 split of the rail/air market between NY and DC. This isn’t uncommon for that kind of distance where you spend as much, if not more, getting to and from the airport, through TSA, and long boarding times, than you do in the air. In its first two years, the Barcelona – Madrid HSR line captured 50% of the air travel market as well.

    – You criticize the high prices, but there enough travelers are willing to pay that much that Acela is running at capacity. New trains are under construction which are longer and can carry more passengers.

    – It’s the public which labels Acela “Express” as high-speed rail. The fact it barely qualifies is probably why Amtrak shies away from “high-speed rail” term.

    – While we do indeed spend billions in subsidies on Amtrak, Acela and the Northeast Regional are very profitable. Those two lines combined generate 1/4 of Amtrak’s annual revenue, and much more than paying for themselves they significantly subsidize the rest of the Amtrak network.

    So here’s my argument:

    If Acela Express is running at capacity, does it really matter if it’s “true” high-speed rail? That’s just branding. Caltrain’s “Baby Bullet” never goes more than 79mph, but that cut more than 10 minutes off the trip time, it also doubled ridership.

    You might even agree with me here: If Acela and the – even slower – Northeast Regional are both profitable, why even bother with speeding them up any further at all?

    There are several other lines on the verge of profitably and forget HSR, just make the upgrades needed to bring them into profitability. Pretty universally new and longer trains add capacity and cut maintenance costs through more efficient designs and technology.

    Rather than continually complaining about subsidies, we could invest in making Amtrak pay for itself.

  19. No it’s way too high. It assumes airlines won’t buy gradually larger planes, which is a continuation of the trend they have been doing, and Boeing and Airbus have been developing. It also has no consideration of the multiple ways self-driving vehicles will change travel patterns, in terms of time shifting it, as well as passengers per vehicle, and smoother traffic flow.

  20. Where it exists it’s falling apart at a rate faster than can be rebuilt. Rail infrastructure has a life expectancy of about 30 years, once it hits that age, you either have to replace it or painstakingly refurbish it of which most transit agencies have done neither as the dilapidated stock in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco have demonstrated. New York’s subway system went through such a crisis in the 1980s, but it fixed the problems by spending billions of dollars and going heavily into debt. Now, roughly 30 years later, the debt remains, and the delays and breakdowns have returned. By the end of 2016, the MTA was saddled with $37 billion in long-term debt and double that in total liabilities, leaving it in a poor position to fix the problems. Rather than reduce this, New York spent 10 Billion building the East Side Access Line, 4.5 Billion on the first miles of the 2nd Ave Subway and 2.5 billion extending the 7 Subway just one mile. Now the Governor is pandering hat in hand for federal funds to fix the Hudson tunnels…..Contrary to what people might think, one of the main causes of the maintenance crises is not a shortage of funds, but too much money spent in the wrong places. Since transit systems rely on tax dollars for most of their funds, politicians have a major say in how to spend that money. Such politicians tend to favor “ribbons over brooms”—that is they prefer glitzy projects to critical maintenance.

  21. Not when California has 400 Billion dollar debt and 1.3 Trillion in unfunded liabilities

  22. $100 billion dollars (high estimate, but I’ll buy it)… let’s see, that’s 3.7% of California’s GDP…. spread out over 30 years of construction… maybe 50 years + with the life of the bonds …. for an infrastructure improvement that will last several generations. I think we can afford it.

  23. Except passenger rail (over both long and short distance) isn’t obsolete. Where it exists, people ride it.

    It’s true it went into decline in the middle of the century in the United States (and to a much lesser degree, parts of Europe). But the reasons for this are much more complicated and nuanced than “they were overtaken by superior technologies.” There are political, economic, sociological, AND technological reasons at play here.

    I’m not saying you can build any passenger rail anywhere and it’s a good investment. But proclaiming it’s useless everywhere is equally extreme and flies in the face of reality on the ground. Where good systems are built, they are used and demand further investment.

    For the public good.

  24. I’m from Baltimore, I’ve ridden the subway and the Light rail. I’ve rode buses too………The transit industry will move to co-opt the robocars as their own to justify the tax dollars. The industry will survive, the mass part of it will not. The short term solution to transit isn’t to subsidize the agencies, but the passengers, give them transit vouchers, like food stamps to use what transit option is available and failing that ride hailing services; and transit agencies will immediately switch to buses. It’s difficult when a new technology advances to overturn an established industry, E-commerce over retail stores, DVD/Blu Ray over VHS, online streaming versus cable subscription. IBM went from making typewriters to PC’s to IT and cloud data solutions. Short distance passenger trains were rendered obsolete by buses and cars in the 1920’s, long distance passenger trains were rendered obsolete by planes in the 1960’s. As cars on the road continue to electrify the price of charging for a full days driving will be cheaper than a tank of gas and rising gas prices once the savior of the transit industry the way it was during the Obama years can no longer encourage riders when car fuel economy increases or simply being electric are cheaper to operate.

    The transit industry will either evolve with the technologies as they present themselves or inevitably sink into oblivion.

  25. Driverless cars don’t do anything to solve the main inefficiency (among many) of cars: the space they take up. It’s a geometry problem.

  26. HAHA. It’s pretty hard for a government to run out of its sovereign fiat currency. Now we’re REALLY off topic… but that’s not how money works.

  27. You really have some problems dude. Get outside! Take some of these transportation systems you purport to know so much about. Analyze your personal experience on them.

  28. They’re coming eventually. While many people are still skeptical about whether driverless cars will
    be successful anytime soon, Waymo is driving its autonomous cars a million miles a month. It took Google six years to rack up the first million miles in its driverless car prototypes; now it is driving them 25,000 miles a day! It doesn’t even matter if driverless autos go mainstream in 2025, 2030, 2040 why would the average person pay 80-150 dollars to ride high speed rail when they can ride a bus with nearly the same amenities whose beginning fares are a dollar. With a family of four, it’s four train fares (80-150 per ticket, not accounting children price reductions) versus four bus fares….. or one car. At it’s cheapest a family of four can ride a Greyhound for 20-40 dollars; Megabus…..a family of four can ride for 4 bucks. At it’s cheapest the same family would have to spend nearly 300 dollars to ride the train. Even without competition from autonomous ride hailing, transit ridership
    is rapidly declining almost everywhere else in the US. In the face of such declines, not to mention the
    fact that municipalities fail to maintain the transit systems they currently have, it is
    foolish to spend more money building new transit infrastructure when California already has a massive infrastructure deficit and the fact that other than a few urban areas, transit will go extinct by at least 2030.

  29. Demand for rail service in California is actually exceeding its supply. Why wouldn’t people ride a faster, better option if provided? Show me the new high speed rail line in Europe or Asia, OR NORTH AMERICA for that matter (your much maligned Acela) that had to compete with existing infrastructure, that isn’t full? Sounds like you don’t like trains and are trying to justify this preference economically. To be fair, many of us on this blog like trains and are trying to justify that… but you seem to fail to realize that there are people who LIKE trains and use them when they are available. A lot of people. I am forced to wonder if you’ve ever tried them out.

  30. You know, people don’t like taking the bus that much. Especially over long distances. It’s more of a thing where they do it when they have to.

  31. Man I can’t get over “public goods do not generate wealth” as the greatest blind spot in this nonsensical screed. (Well, there’s a lot of competition, but this one sticks out to me). Like, a city builds a park, or a state builds high-speed rail- is that city or state not wealthier? Was ancient Rome not wealthier for its coliseums, bridges, or aqueducts (and yes, roads)? Seems to me you can only reach this conclusion if you narrowly define “wealth” as meaning “private wealth.” And maybe even narrower than that: “privately held currency and capital.” But this distinction has forever been less clear than the liberal economist would have you think. Is the King’s wealth public or private? (L’Etat, c’est moi). But even then: if Caltrans subcontracts out a mega-project to Kiewit, or to Elon Musk, or better yet the Federal Transit Administration issues grants to pay for them, and the profits increase their private equity, wasn’t private “wealth” created? AND you get new roads or (fictitious) Hyperloops for the public! It’s a pretty big misunderstanding of what “wealth” actually means in my mind.

  32. ah, the libertarian understanding of the economy. So well thought out and pure… and so utterly incorrect. But I’m sure the streetsblog comment section will be a great place to finally settle the Marxist vs. Neoliberal understanding of our economic and political world.

    I do wonder though about this one little rhetorical maneuver you made that I see libertarian diehards often make: person A says “I’m a socialist” and the Libertarian person says: “No you’re not. Let ME define what socialism is to you, person saying that you are that.”

  33. Mostly, because I don’t like driving long distances. The 6-7 hour drive to the Bay Area is too much for me.
    But thanks for asking.

  34. Um… back to the top of this nonsense post.. but Acela, despite its huge deficiencies is actually wildly popular and captures 75% of air/train commuters between New York and Washington, and 54% of the air/train market between NY and Boston… the sh*tty slow part. It generates 25% of Amtrak’s total revenue. People don’t want decent trains? And don’t even take Acela… ride the Surfliner or Capital Corridor trains in California. They are full. The cost of putting someone on a high speed train line is FAR cheaper than the cost of moving someone on a bus or an airplane. Trains are by far the most cost-efficient and space efficient means of moving people. People want it- it’s just not available to them.

  35. Interesting. And sorry if I missed it, but how does the balanced-force pantograph/catenary navigate across switches?

  36. Yeah I’ve seen that page before. Since ACE is still diesel powered, it won’t be going 220 mph. Federal regulations require full grade separation where trains go faster than 125 mph. That section won’t be getting full grade separation. I’m just speculating, but a crossing or two might get grade separated as part of improvements. At-grade crossings on the Peninsula are gradually getting this too, but very gradually, and at great expense.

  37. There’s no environmental benefit to HSR. The emissions supposedly saved don’t matter if no one rides it. And analysis ignores the huge emissions produced during rail construction. One study
    found that the operational savings will recoup the construction costs
    only if a line carries 10 million passengers per year,
    a threshold reached by very few lines. Moreover, in Europe, many
    high-speed train riders would otherwise be riding low-speed trains, and
    high-speed trains produce far more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer than conventional trains. Plus to keep HSR viable in tip top shape, it must be maintained which is also a emissions heavy activity. So Europe has spent tens of billions on high-speed rail lines and
    accomplished almost nothing. High-speed trains haven’t gotten people out of their cars or noticeably slowed the growth in air travel. On
    average, such trains have probably increased greenhouse gas emissions
    relative to conventional trains and air travel. The only real return
    from high-speed rail construction is to serve the egos of the
    politicians who fund them. US greenhouse gas emissions are at 1995 levels with annual 1.1% reductions, Europe they’ve grown despite heavy investment. And I’m not getting into a debate regarding whether or how much infrastructure the government should pay for. 90% of all megaprojects go overbudget and underperform. Infrastructure plans should have a golden rule. NO spending on any new
    infrastructure until whatever current systems they have are repaired.
    Since DC’s Redline will never be repaired, we’ll never have to worry
    about DC ever spending money on rail ever again. Since New York’s IRT
    never will either.

    And stop using that word socialism.
    1st, Socialism is not the proliferation or being bequeathed with a given
    2nd, Socialism is a politically maintained economic system where by the
    means of production and given resources are handled/owned by the public or state entity; and the private acquisition or utilization is either
    curtailed or prohibited….last I checked private libraries or roads were
    not illegal.
    3rd the financial efficiency of roads is superior to passenger rails.
    One of the more common arguments that has worked its way around the country is that roads, public services, and schools are socialism. This
    argument is created in an attempt to slap capitalists in the face and
    make them realize that they do indeed appreciate the things that
    socialism has established for them in their day-to-day life including
    the things that they utilize in their capitalistic enterprises like
    roads if they run a transportation or freight business. A road is a
    public good. An item whose consumption is not decided by the individual consumer but by the society as a whole, and which is financed by taxation. A public good (or service) may be consumed without reducing the amount available for others, and cannot be withheld from those who do not pay for it. Public goods (and services) include economic statistics and other information, law enforcement, national defense, parks, and other things for the use and benefit of all. No market exists for such goods, and they are provided to everyone by governments. Public goods are not socialism, First, they typically do not generate wealth; there may be nominal user
    fees for such things as the post office, but these are not as much
    wealth generators as they are upkeep fees. The government does not
    create wealth based on the use of roads, police officers, or public
    libraries. There is little to no market for such goods. Even though the
    government oversees the means of production, it does not control the
    means; the government has not taken over the factories that produce
    concrete or asphalt or streetlights or street signs. They contract the
    company to produce such things. It’s also ironic that socialist
    countries..also build pretty comprehensive road systems even if they
    discourage automobile usage or ownership, if for no other reason to put
    people to work. Public services…….no matter how individualized are not
    socialism. Socialism is about means of production and property
    allocation, not means of utilization

  38. Why not just use the car the whole way. As noted that the costs and time for completion of the bullet train project
    were vastly understated, and as additional station stops were added to
    meet political demands, the costs and delays would increase while the
    “high-speed” was bound to be reduced. It’s already 13 years behind schedule and 300% over it’s initial budget. It’s a matter of too little too late. For roughly $2 billion, the state could launch frequent, low-cost,
    widebody air service between LAX and San Francisco International Airport
    within a year to 18 months. Moreover, if that service is not
    successful it can be shutdown effortlessly, the aircraft could be sold or leased, resulting in the state
    recovering a substantial portion of its investment. Companies like Megabus which offer inter-city travel for prices starting at a dollar, albeit for a longer ride time. But offer wifi entertainment, air conditioning, reclining seats. By the time high speed rail opens for it’s ribbon cutting ceremony, it’ll already be obsolete.

  39. You didn’t have to quote Thomas Sowell to inform me that you’re a libertarian. That was obvious from the tone of your arguments from the beginning.
    I believe that government should be obligated to provide the infrastructure ans services that we need to both survive and flourish, as well as to compete with other countries. This obligation is especially true when private enterprises show that they either have no interest in fulfilling those needs, or they’re willing to lobby against those needs for their own selfish interests.
    We’ve had half a century to learn the lessons from the rest of the world, who have proven the value of HSR to serve these markets. Obviously I’m a socialist at heart, and I have no problem with asking the government subsidize rail travel, especially given the huge environmental benefits of HSR over auto and air travel modes.

  40. Phase 1 is San Francisco to Los Angeles. Bond funds from Prop. 1a could be used on the Sacramento to Stockton to Fresno segment only if the authority finds that there would be no negative impact on the construction of Phase 1 of the project.

  41. Air travel industry isn’t finagling the government for 100 billion dollars of taxpayer money, there are subsidies to flying, most of which goes towards small airports. That can be eliminated. And thanks for bringing up rental cars, why not just rent the car and drive it to your destination. HSR’s 2nd weakness is in order for it to be fast it requires, Brand New From scratch railway. New Infrastructure from scratch. And that costs minimum of 50 million dollars per mile in the flat or outskirts and as much as 100 million in the suburban/urban areas. California it’s gonna cost over that because they in order to save time need to also build over 400 bridges, overpasses and tunneling thru mountains. In an area that already has transportation infrastructure, any transportation technology, no matter how new fangled or innovative looking…. that requires new infrastructure to be built is doomed to fail because it will be unable to compete against technologies using existing infrastructure. The automotive fleet turns over every 12 years which means by 2030, cheaper high speed buses, driverless cars and smart highways will be readily available by the time high speed rail even cuts the ribbon.

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