LA Times Reports on HSR Controversy, Not HSR Facts

Feb 28th, 2010 | Posted by

When I hoped that more California news outlets would produce insightful and factually-based assessments of the HSR project, today’s LA Times article was not what I had in mind. It is a sad example of the American media’s tendency to report the controversy instead of reporting the facts. Too many journalists seem to believe that if someone makes a criticism, the criticism is therefore valid and can be repeated in newsprint, even without basic fact-checking.

Rich Connell and Dan Weikel’s article is essentially a repeat of the common HSR critics’ talking points, without any independent assessment of the facts. It is a misleading disservice to the Times’s readers and to the people of California.

They begin:

Despite a new $2.25-billion infusion of federal economic stimulus funding, there are intensifying concerns — even among some high-speed rail supporters — that California’s proposed bullet train may not deliver on the financial and ridership promises made to win voter backing in 2008.

While there is always the chance it may not deliver, that “chance” must be assessed with respect to facts, and in comparison to other HSR systems. Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that every HSR system around the world generates an operating surplus, covering its costs. Nowhere is it mentioned that HSR systems successfully entice passengers to switch from flying and from driving. The often baseless criticisms quoted in the article aren’t assessed against those realities. The result is an article full of speculation and assumptions taken out of context.

Estimates of ticket prices between Los Angeles and San Francisco have nearly doubled in the project’s latest business plan, pushing ridership projections down sharply and prompting new skepticism about data underpinning the entire project.

Nowhere is it explained that one, the higher ticket prices are a scenario; two, that it would remain cheaper than a flight; or three, that the rise was fueled by the inflation-adjusted costs. That shift in accounting is mentioned but not directly linked to the higher estimate, nor is it clearly stated that even under the higher ticket price, the system is projected to cover its costs. Instead it is left ambiguous and even implied that the higher fares might make it difficult for HSR to cover its operating costs and repay investors.

Unfortunately, Senator Alan Lowenthal is also given space to make his totally indefensible and evidence-free claims about the ridership numbers:

“This just smells funny,” said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a supporter of high-speed rail and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

As you can tell, this statement that Lowenthal repeatedly makes gets me extremely angry. It is a dishonest thing for a member of the California State Legislature to keep claiming. If he has evidence that the ridership numbers are flawed, he owes it to the people of California to produce it. If he has no such evidence, he owes it to the people of California to not make such wild speculation. State legislators should be expected to be straight and honest with the people of California. Lowenthal, by his repeated insinuations that something is wrong with the ridership, is not delivering on that expectation.

Much of the article deals with the issue of whether there should be a government revenue guarantee to private investors:

And some government watchdogs are concerned that a linchpin commitment to taxpayers in the bullet train’s financing measure — that no local, state or federal subsidies would be required to keep the trains operating — may be giving way.

High-speed rail planners recently advised state lawmakers that attracting billions in crucial private financing will probably require government backing of future cash flow. “Without some form of revenue guarantee from the public sector, it is unlikely that private investment will occur at [the planned] level until demand for California high-speed rail is proven,” project planners wrote in December.

That is feeding fears that a larger state commitment, beyond the $9 billion in construction bonds approved by voters, could be sought to complete the 800-mile project. “To now put in that we have to [give] some kind of revenue guarantee . . . is totally unacceptable,” Lowenthal said. “That’s not what we agreed to.”

This is a legitimate issue. And I share many of the concerns being raised about such a revenue guarantee. I don’t believe it is at all necessary, and it is something worth discussing even if the final outcome is to reject the concept.

But it is misleading to frame that discussion around an assumption that the ridership numbers are flawed, that the costs are soaring out of control, that in short there is something wrong with the HSR project that makes this revenue guarantee likely to be triggered. If there is evidence of that, by all means let’s discuss it. So far, no such evidence has yet been presented. All Alan Lowenthal has is gut feelings and assumptions, which are significant given his political position but are also not a stand-in for evidence.

The article does break some important news about what the CHSRA board might do about the ridership numbers, and what the state legislature might do about the Authority:

“I think the [ridership] numbers should be scrubbed,” said authority board member Richard Katz, adding that doing so could help the project.

Katz is echoing points I have made before, that a new ridership study would likely benefit HSR since the earlier studies rely on numbers from 2000 to 2005, before the sustained statewide increase in passenger rail travel experienced since 2007. I would not be surprised if the Authority did order some form of updated ridership numbers, in part to appease the legislature – and if the Authority doesn’t, I fully expect the legislature to order such studies itself.

Lowenthal hinted that, as I’ve predicted, the legislature might reduce the Authority’s independence by moving it under an existing Executive Branch department:

But lawmakers are likely to overhaul the high-speed rail agency and move it more directly into state government, Lowenthal said. “It’s not going to be out there on its own,” he said.

This is probably a good move – with the Authority “out there on its own” it has fewer institutional and legislative defenders than it deserves.

Other elements of the article indicate the authors did not do their fact-checking when it comes to reporting on critics’ claims:

But some analysts point out that almost all U.S. rail systems — and a number of foreign operations — have required large government loans or cash infusions to keep running.

This line should not have been included in the article. The whole thing requires a citation needed tag. First, “some analysts” is a vague claim. Who exactly are we talking about here? Second, this does not distinguish between HSR and other forms of passenger rail – and as the evidence shows, that is a key distinction. SNCF, the French national rail operator, makes “fat profits” on the TGV and uses that to subsidize its other rail services. Fares cover the operating cost of every single other HSR system in the world, from Europe to Asia to the Acela here in the United States.

Even Taiwan, which needed a government bailout for its HSR system, generated operating surplus. The bailout was due to the over-reliance on private financing, an issue that would have been worth exploring in the context of the discussion of the revenue guarantee. The LA Times article needed to include those rather important facts here.

The article further insinuated few people will ride the line:

Some smaller cities, like Gilroy, Merced and Bakersfield, show numbers of nonlocal trips equal to or greater than Los Angeles. “We’ve never understood their models,” said Lowenthal, whose panel is delving deeper into the projections.

I’ve not seen those particular numbers. If true, there may well be reasons for it – Gilroy would be a gateway to the Monterey Bay region, Merced would be the transfer point to Sacramento, and Bakersfield has lots of people who want to go to LA. This notion of “nonlocal” is unclear, and as we know, Alan Lowenthal simply doesn’t think people will ride the trains for intercity trips despite a mountain of evidence that they will.

Still, I suspect this claim is another misreading of the stats. Overall LA Union Station will likely have far higher ridership than Gilroy or Merced. And the attempt to point to a specific ridership stat to try and paint it as so incredible that the whole thing is flawed strikes me as a classic case of the Chewbacca Defense.

The article continues:

Some transit advocates say predictions of private participation aren’t realistic. “A lot of it’s still magical thinking,” said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition.

As much as I like Bart Reed, he is wrong here, and the LA Times again failed its readers by not fact-checking this claim. Over 30 companies responded to a March 2008 Request for Expressions of Interest the CHSRA put out to the private sector, ranging from operators like SNCF and Veolia to train builders like Alstom and Siemens. Private financial participation is and has always been very realistic, but the details matter.

The article also threw in a separate discussion of a dispute in Buena Park between city officials and the CHSRA over the corridor:

Conflicts are brewing in Southern California as planners step up efforts to squeeze trenches, viaducts and extra tracks into a crowded rail corridor cutting across the region. Problems remain over how the bullet train will pass through Los Angeles’ Union Station transportation complex. Existing buildings, freeways, rail lines and overpasses around the station make it an extremely tight fit.

In Buena Park, city officials recently learned that part of a new award-winning transit-oriented residential project tied into the city’s 3-year-old Metrolink station may have to be ripped out.

A high-speed rail representative told local officials, “We either take the condominiums or we take your station,” recalled Councilman Art Brown, who has generally supported the bullet train. Planners are reexamining the issue, but it remains unresolved.

Not knowing much more about the details than this, it strikes me as an issue that does need to be examined more closely and resolved. I know Clem has discussed a San Carlos TOD project that is apparently being planned without any real coordination with the HSR project. The CHSRA and local officials need to work together more effectively on situations such as this.

Still, while an examination of the Buena Park issue would have been worth an entire article, what the LA Times offered instead was a badly flawed rehash of HSR criticism that is often lacking in evidence or running directly counter to the evidence. Times readers and Californians deserved better.

  1. Roger Christensen
    Feb 28th, 2010 at 11:44

    LA Times reportage on all things transit has been particularly abysmal in recent years. What little is reported or written about is very lazy. It is very disturbing to see what has devolved. Don’t be surprised to see future pieces canonizing nimbys in LA County.
    Unfortunately Bart Reed’s Transit Coalition has an alliance with TRAC and Tolmachian sludge is starting to appear in it’s newsletters.

    Aaron Reply:

    I actually sent him an e-mail when his Transit Coalition newsletter first started reprinting that garbage telling him how disappointed I was.

    Spokker Reply:

    I put together most of the Transit Coalition newsletter though Bart Reed has final say on what gets put in.

    It’s not an organization that acts as a hive mind, where there is one opinion and one opinion only. If you come to the monthly meetings you will find people who would prefer investment in local transit over high speed rail. You will also find rabid high speed rail nuts who are crazy for fast trains. This isn’t the Bus Riders Union where you have to attend an orientation meeting and they kick your ass out if you aren’t toting the party line. At one meeting I got into an argument with a guy who was dead set that FRA-compliant trains were much safer than European designs. That’s life.

    As far as the newsletter goes, we released one weekly newsletter where we expressed concerns over the coefficient drama. In the same issue we also attacked an opinion piece where someone stated that they would not feel safe riding high speed rail without the rampant security theater that air travel is burdened with. I think I wrote something like, “You can feel safe riding on planes as long as you and your fellow passengers are willing to take down the terrorists yourself.”

    There are times when there are disagreements. I expressed to Bart that the opinion piece on HSR that incorporated comparisons to the TV show Human Target was really awful in that it spreads nothing but fear, uncertainty and doubt, and that there are better anti-HSR pieces out there. But if he wants it in I have to respect that.

    So if we have an organization with members that hold a wide range of opinions, do I as the idiot that puts the newsletter together get to suppress those opinions? Hell no. There is as much pro-HSR shit in that newsletter as there is anti-HSR shit. The stance was “Yes on 1A,” but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to call the CHSRA on their crap.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Thanks for this, it’s a very fair and helpful explanation.

    As I said in the post, I like and respect Bart Reed, and he did some important work in 2008 to get HSR approved by voters. I think he’s wrong about private investment – it’s far from “magical thinking” but there are definitely issues that need to be sorted out.

    Roger Christensen Reply:

    Fair enough. The newsletter certainly does a better job than the Times!

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Should add that Bart solicited and included an article from me about HSR in Cal Rail News about a year ago. So it’s further evidence he isn’t stacking these publications with hit pieces, he’s fair about this.

    Victor Reply:

    I tried to leave a comment about the Article being Tripe, So far there are 31 Comments, I registered, But leaving a comment doesn’t look like It will stick.

    A Good portion of this tripe and I do mean Tripe is not even fact checked, The Los Angeles Times needs to fact check this article as It is horribly wrong and comes only from those who want no HSR in California, HSR in the Northeast Corridor is profitable, As is the TGV in France, etc, As the LA Times couldn’t hit the broadside of a Barn when It comes to HSR coverage(High Speed Rail).

    Like so, I could have called them much worse of course.

  2. Matthew F.
    Feb 28th, 2010 at 11:51

    What can you say: Facts bore, controversy sells.

    It’s one of the main reasons why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

  3. Aaron
    Feb 28th, 2010 at 12:12

    This article astonished me for how bad it was. My suspicion is that the reporters who wrote it weren’t even familiar with the project before starting it and didn’t do adequate preliminary research – I stopped taking it seriously after it described Lowenthal as an HSR supporter.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    I do love the types that say they support HSR in the media and try and kill it behind the sceens! why ?they know that taking the blame for outright killing HSR will come down on them like a 10 ton block of granit.

  4. Andre Peretti
    Feb 28th, 2010 at 14:06

    I’m always surprised at the way some American journalists quote speeches, and reactions to them, without ever checking facts or figures.
    In 2006, a US senator thought he had found the ultimate weapon against France’s unruly behaviour: “Let us stop drinking champagne and we’ll put France on her knees”.
    Many news sites quoted the speech and published readers’ reactions, mostly “yeah, let’s do it and they’re dead!”. None bothered to check official figures.
    I looked up, US French imports 2006, and found:

    – $7.37 bn: civilian aircraft, aircraft engines
    – 4.7 bn: pharmaceutical & medical products
    – 1.3 bn: wines (of which champagne is just a fraction).

    I suppose the smell test made figure-checking quite superfluous.

    jimsf Reply:

    no doubt the same folks who made them change “french fries” to “freedom fries” in the cafeteria

    Victor Reply:

    No doubt, But then that didn’t last too long I don’t think, Just a passing fad.

    Jathnael Taylor Reply:

    I was in the military when all that “Freedom Fries” BS went down…even we thought it was stupid.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    What surprised me was not that a boycott was proposed, but the fact it was based on the assumption that champagne was a very important part of US imports from France. Simply clicking on would have shown it wasn’t, but no-one made the effort.
    I cited that ridiculous example because it illustrates the type of sloppy journalism that HSR has to face. Certain assertions are presented as self-evident truths that don’t have to be proved. Example:
    “Everybody knows HSR is heavily subsidised everywhere in the world”.
    Questions (unfortunately never asked):
    – Who is “everybody”? Could it be people who have special interests?
    – “heavily subsidised”? Any figures to prove it?
    – “everywhere in the world”? Which countries? Which lines?
    That’s what I would expect from a journalist. Am I too demanding?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Well, SNCF has just complained that 1 in 5 TGV services is unprofitable. The horrors!

  5. Risenmessiah
    Feb 28th, 2010 at 20:10

    Not a day goes by, I would think, that Otis Chandler doesn’t roll over in his grave over the state of the Times…

    I read the Chronicle reporting on HSR regularly and they don’t seem to get let around by the nose like this.

  6. Luke Moritz
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 06:57

    There is some good discussion going on in a local Fresno blog about the proposed plans for Fresno. I’m doing my best to create discussion. These kinds of conversations are important to have throughout the state (as long as their is good representation of fact-based arguments)

    Kiel Famellos-Schmidt Reply:


    I appreciate the link. And thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  7. jimsf
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 08:47

    some facts and figures on energy use … I suppose these weren’t mentioned in the article.

  8. Elizabeth
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 09:21

    Another tight spot will be Burbank where it looks like Metrolink will have to be moved to accomodoate the 6,000 foot station footprint. We put some links up –

    If anyone is local, they should be sure and add their feedback to their council

    jimsf Reply:

    i would think downtown burbank would be a good spot in order to help revitalize it with tod etc.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    I think city staff is favoring the downtown option, although they note “However, while a Downtown station would be close to Downtown Burbank, it would still be isolated from the city center. Much like the City’s existing Metrolink Station, a high speed rail station on the Zero property would be physically separated by Interstate 5 on the east and by a flood control channel and sewage treatment plant on the west. Walking and transit connections to the core of Downtown on the east or to the North Victory neighborhoods on the west would be difficult to construct.”

    Sounds like they could use CSS!

    jimsf Reply:

    CSS? Is that context sensitive solutions? (Think I’ve read that here before.) What part of burbank would be considered sort of the heart of downtown? San Fernando Rd? Burbank Town Center? Alameda? Magnolia? okay I’m going to go with this… a station at approx. the existing station, but witha covering over of a portion of i-5 that connects and expands downtown E Olive or E Angelino sort of like this…. or actually – cover the 5 between olive and magnolia here and situation the elevated station stucture with tod uing air rights over the freeway to make it fluid with downtown like this

    jimsf Reply:

    like this i mean

    Elizabeth Reply:

    The place the CHSRA is currently looking at is north of the current Metrolink stop – just west of the Burbank town center. Metrolink would also move here – it is currently a vacant lot.

  9. Alek F
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 10:18

    Media is infamous for making errors, being biased, being bought-off by Car propaganda, and being anti-rail. Media can’t even distinguish between High-Speed Rail, Light-Rail, or Metrolink.
    I recall, KTLA channel, when talking about the HSR project, kept saying “light rail”. When talking about Metro subway, they said “Metrolink”, etc… Media needs to be educated, to be a good start!

  10. L Barlow
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 11:39

    I took some issue with the plan at a conceptual level, which I posted with a map on my blog.

    In summary, local regional transit should be developed in dense areas that feed the two ends of the HSR from the Bay area to LA. The scale works that way, and the HSR would be very fast down the central valley. Just like the TGV works in France, it was delightful to use. You can’t use a big system like that to make puddlehops all along a string of stops.

    Local regional rail is much less expensive to build out, and because it’s smaller and slower, can accommodate the urban connectivity required. It also doesn’t have the same problems with a massive infrastructure inside of a city that would rip out huge chuncks of the existing infrastructure to put in.

    Scott Reply:

    Just because there are many stations along the route doesn’t mean that the service will be as slow as BART outside of the central valley. Each train does not need stop at every station. I would expect there to be express trains that run between major stations without stopping at intermediate stations in between (Caltrain baby bullets, for example).

    Matthew F. Reply:

    No “If” about it – the current business plan calls for 6 expresses SF – LA-Union Station, 6 more almost-expresses from SF – Anaheim.

    Transfers kill ridership. If all trains ended at Union Station, you’d lose a lot of ridership.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If all trains ended at Union Station, you’d save X billions of dollars on cost overruns to Anaheim. You wouldn’t even lose the ridership – people would take Metrolink to HSR, just like people living on all other Metrolink lines.

    And if Metrolink were electrified and a few HSR trains were sent to Anaheim at lower speed, you’d gain ridership because of the improvement in connecting transit.

  11. Marcus
    Mar 1st, 2010 at 13:09

    Probably doesn’t mean anything, but the LA Times was also one of the leading voices against building a subway for Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s.

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