How The Media Gets High Speed Rail Wrong

Jul 2nd, 2010 | Posted by

There were two important high speed rail reports released this week in California. One of them, by CALPIRG, showed how HSR is a clear success around the world, having no trouble meeting its ridership goals and improving transportation. The other, by the Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies, questioned some of the assumptions of the HSR ridership study.

Guess which one got covered breathlessly by the media – and guess which one was ignored.

If you guessed “the study that questioned HSR ridership assumptions” as the one that got breathless coverage, with the pro-HSR study being ignored, you win! You may collect your prize, a $6 gallon of gas, at some point in the near future.

The media’s reaction to these two reports reveals how deep the anti-HSR bias runs in the California media. Repeating a trend we’ve seen nationwide, the media here prefers not to provide accurate reporting on an event or, in this case a report – they instead tell readers how that event or report fits into a set of preconceived notions. Specifically, many in the media are using the ITS report to bolster their own belief that government always screws up, that people never ride trains, and that HSR is at best a suspicious and dubious idea that is likely to become a boondoggle.

In contrast, the near silence about the CALPIRG report shows that the media really has no concept of how HSR works. Sure, you get the occasional “HSR is a huge success” article, but it’s usually relegated to the Travel section. The San Francisco Chronicle is a notable exception to this, having sent their main transportation reporter, Michael Cabanatuan, to Japan so he could write a very informative article on HSR.

Most others in the CA media therefore see HSR as something that is foreign, uncertain, and not all that likely to succeed. Even though the ITS report merely said that they disagree with some of the methods used in the HSR ridership study, and even though they did not say that HSR definitely won’t attract enough riders, the media is making it sound as if they did. Because the media doesn’t really understand HSR, they’re selling the public a distorted view of what the study said, and therefore, what is actually going on with the project.

Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage of the study, and explain how they’re getting this so wrong – and why a bit of common sense, as well as some familiarity with HSR around the country and around the world, would make all the difference.

We’ll start at the top – in Sacramento, where the Bee’s Dan Walters, a longtime opponent of high speed rail, clearly gets it wrong in his column on the study:

If the projection is unrealistic, the bullet train could become an expensive sinkhole.

From its inception, the project has appeared to be a political boondoggle – a solution in search of a problem. The UC report is the latest bit of evidence to that effect. Unless the gaping holes in its viability can be bridged, the bullet train should be derailed.

As you can see here, Walters has no concept of things like high gas prices, traffic, or the green dividend and job creation HSR will provide. Walters is one of the classic examples of someone who is stuck in the 20th century, who cannot and will not believe his own eyes, which should tell him that the car and the plane will not always be the only way people get around California. Ironically enough, Walters is very forward-thinking on reforming state government, showing a willingness to be quite creative and open to new ideas about how to fix Sacramento. But when it comes to transportation, his blind spot is large.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, where their print article does a good job on the story (more on that below), their Bay Area Transit blogger, Nathanael Johnson, shows a stunning lack of knowledge of HSR that, in my mind, should cause the Chronicle to question whether Johnson is qualified to write on transit-related topics:

But if you wade into the report, which can be found here, it’s clear that much of the professors’ critique has to do with assumptions made by Cambridge Systematics (CS) which seem to defy real-world experience.

Only if your “real-world experience” doesn’t include HSR. An example:

Here’s a good example of the problems they are talking about – and this gets a little complicated, but it’s interesting: CS assumes that people will show up at train stations and wait for the next train to arrive. If that’s what people do, then the time between trains, or headway, will really impact its usefulness. But when I make a long distance trip I plan ahead, check the schedules, and arrive a little before the train or plane departs.

Johnson makes the same error Samer Madanat makes, which is to assume people’s behavior with a bullet train will be the same as a plane. It won’t. In the comments to yesterday’s post, Matthew wrote that people actually do just show up at an HSR station and wait for the next train, at least in his experience in Germany:

Having the schedule reasonably redundant made up for this pretty well, and I was rarely delayed by an hour or so, and usually not delayed at all. Pleasant cafes made the wait not such a problem. I usually would coordinate with the schedule, but occasionally would just show up at the station, especially if I was just going to a nearby destination.

I’ve heard of this happening on the Acela as well – people going to Union Station in Washington DC and just grabbing the next train out. It is an entirely plausible model – because it happens around the world. Madanat has a history of ignoring real-world HSR examples in favor of his own theoretical views, even when his theories clash with real-world realities.

Johnson makes a much bigger error – one that I believe should cause us to question whether he is suited to write on transit issues at all – when he questions the HSR ridership numbers in comparison to the Acela:

Planners assumed that trains would travel less frequently on Altamont option, which would increase wait times, and decrease ridership. A lot.

“The sensitivity to train frequencies penalized the Altamont routing by 20 million riders per year. The entire ridership of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak service is approximately 10 million riders. The report suggests that the sensitivity may have been over-inflated by 4 to 5 times.”

The northeast corridor, which runs from Washington D.C. through New York to Boston, is the busiest passenger rail line in the United States. Is it really reasonable to expect that having trains run twice as often would produce 20 million new riders?

Yes, it is reasonable to expect that, and if you do not believe that is reasonable, then you have no business writing about transit for a major newspaper, even as a blogger.

Johnson and Madanat trade on the notion that “the Acela only does 10 million, so obviously anything higher than that is just not credible.” That is quite simply a bullshit argument. The Acela is actually a limited form of HSR that does not achieve the speeds or the capacity of California HSR. HSR systems around the world routinely carry more than 10 million riders. California’s will too, assuming we build trains that can cover the SF-LA route in under 3 hours and connect city centers to city centers with frequent service.

Any argument that says “the Acela is the best the US can do and any projection higher than that is not worth taking seriously” is a dishonest argument that flies in the face of logic and the evidence.

Johnson also writes about a quote Mike Rosenberg got from Alan Lowenthal in his own article in the Mercury News, which is overall a good article with an unfortunate headline. We’ll deal with Lowenthal tomorrow; he deserves a post all to himself.

Another article comes from a serial offender – Tracy Wood of the Voice of OC. In an article illustrated with a picture of empty train seats (get it? because supposedly this report means nobody will ride the trains?), she buys hook, line and sinker the criticisms made of the HSR project:

But under the state law that voters approved in 2008 that authorized construction of the system, it must pay for itself once it is finished.

To do that, according to the ridership study released earlier this year, the high-speed system would actually have to rely on a large number of local commuters and compete with existing commuter rail systems for fares.

Its business plan estimates almost one-third of the expected 41 million annual riders will stay within the Los Angeles basin or in the San Francisco Bay area.

Wood writes this with an attitude that indicates “of course this expectation is absurd.” But is it?

Within the SF Bay Area, it would seem logical to expect a lot people turning to HSR to complete a journey from SF to San José – it would be significantly faster than even the fastest Caltrain service. Similarly, anyone looking to go from central Orange County to central LA (or to areas connected to central LA by Metro Rail) would likely take HSR, same with people going from Riverside/San Bernardino to central LA. It’s a plausible concept, and if Wood wants to bash it, she should provide evidence, instead of just assuming we all share her view that nobody rides trains. (Has she been on a Metrolink or Pacific Surfliner train in OC before?)

Not surprisingly, having some experience with HSR leads to a more balanced and accurate report. Michael Cabanatuan of the SF Chronicle offered this fair assessment in today’s paper, making it clear that this dispute is not about whether the books were cooked:

Madanat said, however, that the report’s conclusions and criticisms should not be seen as evidence Cambridge Systematics rigged its report to show higher ridership figures, as some high-speed rail opponents have suggested.

“This is the best firm in the business,” he said. “They have a reputation to protect. I would not say, and I would have a hard time believing, that they skewed the numbers. And there is no evidence of that.”

And as I mentioned, Mike Rosenberg did a good job too.

One common feature in all these articles: Senator Alan Lowenthal. His quotes are, quite simply, shockingly inappropriate. As I said, he deserves his own post, and he’ll get it tomorrow.

  1. political_incorrectness
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 11:34

    That quote about any ridership above Acela means it is unreliable is just a buch of bullshit. As long as certain people don’t get there way and a true HSL is built, it will most certainly be higher than Acela.

  2. Emma
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 12:05

    We need more media that actually talks about the huge advantages of high-speed rail. I’m sick and tired reading newspaper articles from people who haven’t even seen a high speed train in real life.

  3. Rafael
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 12:18

    O/T: interesting TED talk on Retrofitting Suburbia. It explores the generational divide between baby boomers’ concept of low-rise suburban sprawl, fueled by decades of cheap gasoline, and emerging Gen-Y demand for higher density “downtown” areas with taller buildings, transit, fewer grade-level parking lots and more shrubbery.

    HSR isn’t going to do much to foster such retrofitting directly, but it fits in with the general thrust toward an urban/suburban lifestyle with more – and cleaner – transportation options. It will go hand in hand with increased local transit because using public transportation even when you can afford not to is about choosing a different lifestyle than your parents or grandparents did.

    Gen-Yers don’t have land lines or write columns in stuffy newspapers. They’re too busy blogging, twittering or checking up on facebook to bother with pre-Internet communications technologies. From there, it’s a short step to also questioning the established transportation paradigm. Last not least, they’ve seen the wars associated with depending on oil, they’ve seen the oil spills, they’ve heard about climate change.

    Missiondweller Reply:

    That’s an interesting Point. It may very well be the reason HSR often doesn’t get a fair shake. More a reflection of the demographic.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Neat talk! I’ve been thinking along the same lines for a couple of strip malls in my area that are no longer in the best of health, and of course light rail (connecting with our existing commuter service and eventually whatever we will get in HSR in the east) would be an important part of it. Of course, there’s the question of convincing the bean counters that bankers are to see this, and there the generational problem rises up again (I think the typical bank president is 70 years old). . .

    One of the comments in this story lead to this video link you may find amusing, or at least interesting.


    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Thanks for this link – looks like a very interesting talk, can’t wait to write about it.

    As you know, you have before you a classic example of a Millennial who doesn’t have a land line or a newspaper column, who spends his time on the blogs and social networks to not only question the established transportation paradigm, but to point to the obvious evidence that the paradigm has already failed.

    The problem is that in our society, only those with newspaper columns and lots of money seem to get taken seriously by the politicians. That’s not a problem faced by we Millennials alone, but we appear to feel it more acutely since virtually all of us are shut out from power and influence, whereas older generations have had more access to both.

  4. Dennis Lytton
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 13:07

    Thanks for staying on top of the issue Robert. Your posts the last several days have been great!

  5. GoGregorio
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 13:30

    The people who don’t believe that a system can double its ridership by doubling its frequency should check out the problems Caltrain is having. They’re realizing that cutting service means reducing ridership, which means reducing revenue. Caltrain knows that if they cut service in half they’ll cut ridership in half; likewise, they expect that as they increase service, so too will ridership. It’s not just a fair assumption, it’s a fairly indisputable one.

    I was talking with someone yesterday and he was talking about the importance of spontaneity in his transit rides. Of course, transit advocates are well aware of this issue, but he doesn’t follow transit issues, and only rides BART or Caltrain every once in a while. He was telling me that he prefers BART because he doesn’t have to check a schedule, which he often does for Caltrain. He can just show up and go. I know this is how many, many casual riders of transit feel. If a train is running every ten minutes or so, you’re not going to bother to check the schedule before you show up at the train station. You just grab your things, show up and hop on. I have every bit of confidence that CAHSR ridership will work the same way.

  6. HSRforCali
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 15:29

    How ironic, the Mercury News writing a fair article on HSR. Robert, have you ever thought about asking these newspapers if you could write a pro-HSR article for them?

    Caelestor Reply:

    That is true. Newspaper articles (even in their decilne) are still currently more mainstream than blogging.

    Dennis Lytton Reply:

    I’ve had occasional success getting op-eds in print dailies re: transit/train issue. (Google “Dennis Lytton” and you’ll see). Newspapers’ space for the print/online version is limited. They usually now have some online only opinions pieces so this is a possible fruitfull area.

    If you’re actually typing a comment into here, you should know that blogging is fully mainstream now. It gives a chance for opinion journalists to crank out lots of work that adds to the debate. It is read by policy makers.

  7. Steven Vance
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 15:37

    Thanks for writing this. I like to keep up on CAHSR news, but it’s really hard because of all the low-quality “journalism” that populates the small town papers. You do a decent job taking all the media players to task.

  8. morris brown
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 16:41

    Amazing what is being put forth here about the media.

    I didn’t read these kinds of objections here, when Prop 1A was being promoted by the SJ Mercury and LA Times. The Times probably the reason why it passed.

    You want more articles to scream about, I suggest this from Wendell Cox:

    Here is a real goodie from that article:

    The evidence is so condemning that Dr. Flyvbjerg has referred to the planning processes for such projects as consisting of “strategic misrepresentation” and “lying” (his words) to advance projects that might not otherwise be implemented. “

    Peter Reply:

    Dude, are you seriously arguing there has not been a decline in the quality of journalism? That’s why my wife got out in the first place.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    For Cox to call other people liars is projection. It’s on the same level as Osama Bin Laden calling the US a terrorist nation.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    You cannot be serious, Morris.

    One of the primary reasons this blog was founded was to push back against the avalanche of misinformation being peddled about HSR in the state’s newspapers. In the fall of 2008 it reached epidemic proportions, and yet voters *still* approved Prop 1A in spite of it.

  9. jimsf
    Jul 2nd, 2010 at 17:59

    The comment about Acela and the extra 20 million is just nonsense. First of all who’s to say that you couldn’t add another 20m per year if you doubled the frequency. It works about to 54k per day or 2300 per hour over a several hundred mile, 13 station stretch. Not unrealistic. And second, the NEC is not California. The NEC has well established population, transport lines/options/layers where California has far more potential for future pop. growth as well as a huge backlog of need. Out west we have been choking on congestion for decades and with extremely limited options for all modes. That’s why each of the three existing state trains had such big success despite slow travel times. There is gigantic pent up demand. Building out this high speed rail system as planned will be like pouring drano down a clogged drain. So long as they keep the express times around 2.5 hours and so long as they create an on board experience that caters specifically to the never ending fussiness of californians ( that will be a key factor in not just competing with airlines but leaving them in the dust) the system will be a smashing success. YOu don’t need a model or a bunch of numbers and studies to know that. Its a great big “no duh dude” to most people.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    But see therein lies the irony. On the NEC you have a bunch of cities that are the same size that account for varying levels of population. For CAHSR, you have a majority of riders who are going to the Bay Area or LA….and not in between. But……….in order to generate enough ridership to justify the route, you run the the route through a bunch of small town in the Central Valley which then diverts the route…..

    I do agree though, that if done right the system will be smashing success. (If it’s a 3 hour or less trip for all travellers…and if the service is good) But that would require a political and economic system that actually wants to INVEST in infrastructure as opposed to building “boondoogles”.

    EXCEAR Reply:

    I’m going to disagree with you about riders not going to stations in between SF and LA. Yes, those cities are the anchors of the system, and a large portion (perhaps majority, as you say) of riders will be traveling between these cities (evidenced by the huge number of flights between the two), but cities such as Palmdale/Lancaster (~475,000 and growing), Fresno (~1,000,000 in metro area), Gilroy (proximity to places like Salinas, Monterrey, and Santa Cruz), and San Jose (the entire Southern part of the Bay Area) will also be huge O/D points with significant ridership, to LA or SF, AND also to each other.

    Since we are comparing the NEC to CHSR, we can imagine the NEC as a slower, but shorter (distance-wise) version of the NEC. Think of not in terms of physical distance between places, but in terms of the TIME between them, and then you see that they are actually quite similar. It takes 2:55 to travel from WAS to NYP, both cities as anchors. Similarly, it would take 2:40 to travel LA to SF, also the anchors. But as in the NEC, for CHSR you will have plenty of people travelling to or between the midpoints in the route. In the NEC, we know that Washington, New York, and Boston are the big “hubs,” or destinations (and naturally New York is a midpoint stop on the entire line). However, large cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, and smaller cities like Wilmington, Trenton, and Providence also account for the huge ridership, comparable to the cities on CHSR that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

    The beauty of the CHSR system is that it will generate NEW trips, that people in present day do not take due to inconvenience in time, or cost. Can you imagine flying directly from Fresno to Palmdale today? Driving would take over 3 hours, but a similar trip on HSR would take just over an hour. Plus, shorter trips like LA-SD (similar to NYC-Philadelphia) and SF-SJ (Washington-Baltimore?) will definitely account for significant ridership.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    Which is why looking at the NEC ridership of 10mm is relevant to the discussion, as well as a guaranteed way to send Robert into a tizzy.

    BTW, we were only using the NEC ridership as a way to give some scale to the LOSSES of riders ascribed to somewhat less frequent service via Altamont – losses that were twice the entire ridership of NEC corridor, which whatever its issues is still a very heavily used mode.

    As a reminder, Pacheco to just San Jose projected to have 80 million riders. Altamont to just San Jose 94 million riders (even considering 15 minute slower travel time via Altamont).

    Add service via Pacheco to RWC, SFO and San Francisco going up Peninusla -> GAIN 13 million riders

    Add service via Altamont to RWC, SFO and San Francisco via a branch at Fremont -> LOSE 7 million riders.

    Question: How is it possible you add service to the downtown area of the city most prime for HSR and LOSE 7 million riders?

    Answer: You make a bunch of bad mistakes that add up to an unreliable and wrong model

    Travel times to those stations very similar, except to Sacramento where Altamont creams Pacheco.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    Palo Alto is home to the biggest venture capitalist firms in Northern California. Sand Hill Road is the West Coast version of Wall Street. Google, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, and the like are HUGE players in this economy too. SF attracts plenty of important business travellers, but it is important to understand that P.A. COULD be the busiest station on the whole line.

    And I say this acknowledging that no model is perfect and that indeed, political forces have probably tilted the report you criticize. But that said, you have to look UP and see where the money is at.

    Peter Reply:

    And ps: You’re hardly a neutral party, given that a Pacheco alignment would run through your town.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Travel times to those stations very similar, except to Sacramento where Altamont creams Pacheco.

    Six of one half a dozen of the other when you consider travel times between San Jose and Sacramento via Altamont or the Capital Corridor route. Altamont sucks if you want to go from Sacramento to Oakland. Sucks even more if you want to go from Davis to Sacramento or Oakland.

    It’s would be about six of one and half a dozen of the other for Stockton to Oakland but it seems that no one ever considers what happens if the Capitol Corridor route, which is supporting a train an hour right now, versus Altamont that has three a day and none to Oakland.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Elizabeth, you can’t on the one hand say the NEC is a good comparison and on the other hand ascribe major differences in ridership to Altamont versus Pacheco. It’s inconsistent. If LA-SF should be comparable to NY-DC, then SJ-Sac would be a minor city pair.

    What you’re saying about the 7-13 million difference is that you don’t believe frequency matters. Fine; show us the models you’re using that say it doesn’t matter. It’s circular logic to say that a difference of 7 million people is implausible because frequency doesn’t matter, and frequency doesn’t matter because it’s absurd that it implies a 7 million difference in ridership.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    I am not saying frequency doesn’t matter at all. I am saying that the inflated value ascribed to it in this study completely obscures the actual differences between Pacheco and Altamont and goes against many other assumptions this study made, the actual data from the study, the global experience, the previous CHSRA studies and all research that has ever been done on the topic of long distance travel. To make matters worse, this study had a bizarre combination of some short headways, some very long headways, no station selection model and no ability to adjust service levels to the strengths and weaknesses of the different routings that exercerbated a poor judgment call.

    Most people are not intimately familiar with all of these subjects but are familiar with the NEC, so I am using the NEC to give a scale to the impact of a decision to use a sledgehammer to fix an unrelated problem in their study.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Your invocation of the NEC is demagoguing. First, the NEC is entirely irrelevant. It’s a medium-speed line whose average speed is even with that of 160 km/h diesel loco-hauled limited express trains. And second, in this forum, people are more familiar with those other subjects – and even elsewhere, the Northeasterners I’ve talked to know that the Acela is not in the same league as the TGV.

    And so far you haven’t provided any real argument why the lower value of frequency is the correct one and the higher is incorrect. Everything you’re saying is qualitative: “frequency doesn’t matter as much as XYZ.” This doesn’t cut it in this case, especially considering that the total swing is about 10 million annual passengers.

    As for as San Jose goes, the difference between Altamont and Pacheco is that Altamont connects it better to Sacramento and Pacheco connects it better to Los Angeles. There are multiple good reasons to ditch Pacheco in favor of Altamont, but if San Jose were one of them, the city’s leaders wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about Pacheco.

    Peter Reply:

    Agree with Alon Levy. It seems to me that the frequency issue is simply a value judgment. Some people ascribed different values to the frequency than you do, Elizabeth. You say the value that Cambridge chose was wrong. Cambridge says that they were right. If it truly was a matter of professional judgment, then your criticism of them is, well, irrelevant. People, especially professionals, are allowed to use their own judgment. If that judgment was informed, and not randomly chosen, then it deserves deference.

    At this point, anything you or Berkeley ITS says that disagrees or casts doubt on Cambridge’s judgment call is simply suspect. Neither you nor ITS can be considered a neutral party in this matter.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I don’t think it’s just a value judgment. There are multiple competent operators in the world, which use different operating strategies and different ridership forecast models. Some frequency coefficients come with more evidence behind them than others. It’s a quantitative question; my counter-criticism of Elizabeth is that she doesn’t deal with this or even tries to deal with this quantitatively.

    Peter Reply:

    You’re right, it’s not a value judgment. That’s the wrong term. It’s a matter of professional judgment. Different professionals will come to different conclusions. We cannot tell in advance which judgment will be correct.

    No matter which turns out to be correct, in my lay opinion the system will be a wild success. Which is why this overly academic debate seems to be a waste of time. Although delay of course is part of the opposition’s FUD toolbox.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    It seems to me that the frequency issue is simply a value judgment.

    Cool. I choose α = 1/ 150. That ought to be OK with you, right?

    And I choose the US national debt to be $0. It’s all a social construct anyway.

    Next I choose brains to be more important than beauty. It’s just a value judgement, after all, so I decree that everybody’s judgement fall into line with my decree.

    And I choose that (as it does for me) minimizing CO2 emission trump personal transportation convenience and now nobody drives. It’s just a value judgement, so we should feel perfectly free to ignore real world measurements and empirical data on the social behaviour of humans in human societies.

    Facts are stupid things.

    Peter Reply:

    Oh right, Richard, I forgot that you’re right about everything.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    For God’s sake, Alon, she’s making a perfectly acceptable example which, unlike anything I could say about Germany or other furrin parts, might be familiar to insular blog commenters (not you).

    It doesn’t matter if NEC runs at 100kmh or 160kmh or 300kmh; what matters is that it is intercity, competes with well developed road and air alternatives, and that it shows that 7 minute headways (seven minute headways!!!!!!) are NOT necessary to get non-trivial ridership.

    If you wanted an example of Germany, there are plenty of two hour headways intercity pairs, and most are at best one hour. Yet somehow, the rich intercity network functions well (out-of-this-world well, by US standards), ridership is high and consistently growing, and the network returns an operating profit. And just try to find a 15 minute headways high speed corridor in Sweden, which is blogger example-of-the-minute-except-when-it-isn’t.

    CHSRA’s ridership model is pure, unadulterated, crack-smoking, outright fraud, and saying that California isn’t New England — or that California isn’t Japan, or that California isn’t Spain, or that California isn’t Switzerland, or that California isn’t Taiwan, or that California isn’t Italy, or whatever the know-nothing look-the-other-way we’re-so-special goalpost moving might be — doesn’t change that.

    Bringing up the NEC, with its ridership and headway is perfectly valid as an exemplar of some actual real world train ridership, and how it is or isn’t sensitive to realistic headways. There are a multitide of other real world examples, but this is one, and it isn’t an outragously inappropriate one.

    As for “you haven’t provided any real argument why the lower value of frequency is the correct one and the higher is incorrect” … the reality is that nobody in the entire world assigns anything like the weight to intercity headway that CHSRA’s self-serving, self-profiting, rent-seeking consultants have. It doesn’t apply, anywhere. (Note that where HSR operates at close headways are places where there is extremely high demand and/or branching-trunking; this is exactly the opposite of what the CHSRA is fabulating.)

    Nobody thinks: “I’d like to go to LA, but the train doesn’t come for 50 minutes, so I guess I’ll go to the airport instead.” Once the headway is below an hour, even at peak travel times, you are effectively at “show-and-go” level for intercity, airline-surrogate trips.

    In the same way that show-and-go for a metro is ~5 minutes yet show-and-go for a suburban regional transit line can be 15, 20 or even 30 minutes, while show-and-go for inter-regional lines in dense parts of Central Europe (where they are inter-city, but not by US sprawl geography standards) is 30 to 60 minutes, raw train frequency becomes less and less important as trip time rises. This is universal, everywhere in the world, and applies everywhere outside the consistent book cooking of CHSRA’s consultants.

    Just remember: their job is to deliver the numbers that maximize their own corporate profit, not to deliver the numbers that maximize project cost-benefit. The incentive to cheat is overwhelming, and the cost for doing so, and even for being found out, is zero.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Just remember: their job is to deliver the numbers that maximize their own corporate profit

    Isn’t Pacheco the cheaper alternative that can be built quicker?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Isn’t Pacheco the cheaper alternative that can be built quicker?

    No. Higher construction cost, more track miles, more tunnelling, lower ridership, vastly higher costs in the urbanized SJ-SF corridor (you ain’t seen nothing yet), worst effects on regional transit (bye bye worthwhile Caltrain), and, to top it all off, highest construction risk. It’s a win-win synergy.

    All that’s all completely ignoring the $12 billion PBQD-sponsored PBQD-promoted PBQD-profiting BART line from Fremont to San Jose which is the sole point of killing Altamont and always has been. BART extensions are what we do around here, and nothing ever, ever gets in the way.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    If you are unable to see the words Northeast Corridor without having foam come from your mouth, let’s use the Spanish high speed rail system.

    The frequency penalty to Altamont was more than the entire ridership of the Spanish High Speed Rail system in 2007.

    Peter Reply:

    If we’re both looking at page 22 of the document you linked, I’m looking at 18.7 million (presumably, the units are not given) in ridership for 2007. I don’t know where you got that their ridership was 7 million.

    Peter Reply:

    Actually, it’s listed as 18.8 million on page 28.

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    First Peter writes, No matter which turns out to be correct, in my lay opinion the system will be a wild success. Which is why this overly academic debate seems to be a waste of time.

    (Richard responds with a characteristic acerbically witty comment.)

    Then Peter writes, Oh right, Richard, I forgot that you’re right about everything.

    Peter’s a funny guy.

    Peter Reply:

    I know, I crack myself up sometimes.

    Peter Reply:

    My issue with this discussion is that it is likely to be moot, anyway (hence why it’s overly academic). As has been pointed out a number of times previously, the ridership estimates were only one of the many factors that went into deciding the alignment to be chosen. Factors such as environmental impacts, local support/opposition, etc are likely to play a much greater role than bare ridership numbers.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I’ll grant you that nobody switches to air over one-hour headways, but that doesn’t matter much most projected HSR ridership is diverted from cars, not air, and at low frequency people might well drive if they came to the station by car and just missed their train.

    What I won’t grant you is that “nobody in the entire world assigns anything like the weight to intercity headway” as CHSRA. In fact, Asian systems try to concentrate frequency. It’s not just about heavy ridership. If it really didn’t matter if the effective frequency were 10 or 30 minutes, then JR Central, JR West, and Korail would have specialized service patterns, with nonstop or nearly nonstop runs, like the TGV. Instead, they have more or less consistent express patterns. JR Central has actually gone the other way in the last few years, making all Nozomi trains stop at both Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama.

    Even for metros, some systems try to go for sub-5 minute headways even when capacity doesn’t demand it. One of the selling points of driverless metros is that they make this economic off-peak.

    CHSRA is actually going against this model with its hodgepodge of a service pattern. It may plan on 8 tph from LA to SF, but for any given trip, only 1-2 would be of interest. Nobody is going to travel from LA to SF on a limited express taking 3:15, just like nobody travels from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on a Hikari, except tourists with a Japan Rail Pass. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say the real advantage of Pacheco given this plan is that it allows more special intermediate stopping patterns (gotta have those nonstop trains from Bakersfield to SJ)… or just that CHSRA doesn’t understand the implications of its own EIS.

    My complaint about Elizabeth’s NEC invocation isn’t that it’s a bad example of a more-or-less successful rail corridor with very low frequencies. (Amtrak, after all, segregates passengers into Regional and Acela trains, which means that the effective frequency is 1 per hour or worse. A few times I got discouraged from going to Philly over this.) It’s that Elizabeth on the one hand says that a change in ridership of 13 million based on station placement or service plan is implausible because it’s more than the entire NEC gets, and on the other argues for a swing of 10 million coming from Altamont vs. Pacheco.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    The swing is 20 million riders. (pacheco gained 13 million, altamont lost 7 million).

    Peter Reply:

    What would the numbers have been for Pacheco and Altamont respectively, before the adjustment for frequency was made versus afterwards?

    Elizabeth Reply:

    The frequency “tweak” was made before they ever did any forecasting. Because they happened to do forecasts for Pacheco to just San Jose and Altamont to just San Jose, if there had been no frequency penalty you would have expected Altamont to probably add somewhat more riders than Pacheco when you added service to RWC, SFO and SF TBT, given that travel times to the added new stations were similar for the two routes to Fresno and SoCal and much better for Altamont to Sacramento region (in the actual model they used SF – Sac as 1 hr 14 mintues via Altamont and 2 hr 1 minute vs Pacheco).

    What actually happened is Pacheco gained 13 million riders and Altamont lost 7 million -> so the penalty in this study was more than 20 million riders.

    If there is anyone out there who thinks it is reasonable that Altamont lost riders when adding direct service to RWC, SFO and SF TBT, I’ve got a megaproject to sell you.

    Peter Reply:

    So is there no way to follow their footsteps back and determine what the numbers would have been before the tweak?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative here, I’m just trying to figure out this really complicated issue.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Sorry, 20 million. What you’re saying is that a certain frequency coefficient is implausible because it differs by an amount you consider too big from another frequency coefficient. Who’s to say the first coefficient is the correct one, anyway?

    Clem Reply:

    What is most stunning is that Altamont to SJ only results in greater ridership (using their flawed model) than Altamont to both SJ and SF. This simply should not pass anyone’s smell test, even the most die-hard HSR apologists’.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    The primary problem is that you are operating from a default assumption of “people won’t ride bullet trains in California,” despite the changes in travel, urban geography, oil prices, and economic activity that are already under way. People are assuming that the status quo will last forever, which is not a credible position to argue from.

    You compare California HSR to the NEC instead of the more accurate comparison, which as we have repeatedly demonstrated, is to Spain.

    Not every train will stop in all Central Valley cities – there will be express trains – so again the NEC comparison is flawed.

    At what point will you stop assuming the status quo will last forever, and at what point will you start making more accurate comparisons rather than using a different kind of HSR system to undermine the California HSR system that you oppose?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The default assumption is that Americans won’t ride trains. One of out of six Americans lives along the NEC. People along the NEC ride trains. Overwhelming number of them on trains not operated by Amtrak but Amtrak does a brisk business. As for Californians not riding trains it can’t all be foreign tourists on the Amtrak trains in California. Or on BART or on Metrolink or….

    There’s 77 stations along the NEC if I remember correctly. Amtrak doesn’t stop at all at most of them. Acela only stops at some of the stations served by Amtrak. This whole local/express concept is very familiar to a Northeasterner or a Chicagoan.

    rafael Reply:

    “For CAHSR, you have a majority of riders who are going to the Bay Area or LA….and not in between.”

    Says who? It’s the folks living in-between who don’t have affordable flight options and who face the longest drives. Most likely, they will be using HSR more intensively than those who live in the Bay Area or in the LA basin.

    Population data alone is a very imperfect predictor of ridership.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    I agree with your thought that a person in the CV may utilize more than a Bay Area or Southern California denizen. But the reason I said what I did is that if you look at pure population distribution, its so unbalanced that the CV rider would have to do a LOT of travel to compensate for just the normal flow between north and south. That’s not to say I’m in favor of the ‘racetrack” alignment down I-5, just to say that it’s going to very tough for anyone to be satisified by the model.

    Peter Reply:

    But that also ignores the many people who will also be taking the train between the CV and the Bay Area, for example. Many people in the Bay Area or LA have families in the CV, and vice versa. They like to travel home frequently.

    jimsf Reply:

    The central valley is going to absorb the vast majority of California’s future population growth. Thus the central valley routing. The population of SF/inner bay and LA will remain far more static as those areas have gone to great lengths to slow down growth. In the majority of the 9 county bay area, you will be hard pressed to find many communities including sf itself, who are gung ho for more people. The central valley has the room, the water, and the prices, that will attract the bulk of of the middle class and working class newcomers. Those communities out there, at least the ones in the central and southern portions of the valley ( north of sac you get into a whole other world/ other type of no growth anti urban/ ultra conservative attitude) realize the need to create more livable downtowns and transit. The towns in the central valley, the merceds, hanfords, fresnos, etc, have the most potential to shape attractive futures and they will. Just the stretch of hsr – sac-mod-mcd-fno-hnf-bfd will be huge by itself in tying that world together. A lot of those folks won’t even be thinking about sf and la.

    John Burrows Reply:

    I live in a TOD next to Diridon Station. From my window I see the three buildings of Adobe Systems and the two buildings of Riverpark Towers less than one half mile from the train station.

    If the TOD where I live were next to the future Fresno HSR station and I had a job at Adobe or in Riverpark, I could walk to the train station in less than 10 minutes, make the 51 minute trip to San Jose, and then walk (most of the time) to work in 15 minutes. One hour and sixteen minutes from front door to work, not too bad considering that Fresno and San Jose are 145 miles apart. Just one example of what HSR can do.

    Clem Reply:

    You forgot to mention that you could work on the train, or have breakfast over a newspaper while checking your e-mail. In Tule fog, no less.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    That’s probably not true. Population growth estimates are at best 1% a year. Even if all that growth is in the CV (which it has not been previously) the CV is going to be much smaller. Plus if we reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, the Valley’s agricultural potential will outweigh more sprawl in those cities.

    But I am not saying that the CV doesn’t deserve HSR and that it isn’t good for them. It’s that the population imbalance is going to test the ability of the model makers to create something believable quantatively but also qualitatively.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Taking the UP’s position at face value – that it would run passenger trains at 110mph – could bring some decent service to the 99 corridor between Sac and Fresno. You would probably have to funnel some baksheesh to the UP to add trackage but considering lots of local stops it consittuite a big improvement over today.

    Meantime you could still have an initial hsr branch off the I-5 trunk to proceed as far as Bakersfield and Fresno. And in due course build a “greenfield” true hsr north from Fresno to Modesto, etc.

    jimsf Reply:

    Ever since the 80s, and into the 2000s the pattern looked pretty much like this EVerything cali has done including the hsr planning, seems to take this pattern into account as it is expected to continue.

    Of course total numbers will always favor sf-la regions, but its the amount of change, and the impact of that change, in my opinion, that makes hsr most vital in the areas that will see the most dramatic changes. Especially considering that those are the same areas that have always been and continue to be underserved all around.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Sshh, you aren’t supposed to go find the charts that show population growth in excess of 1 percent a year. Definitely don’t go dig up the ones for the state since the end of World War II. and don’t mention that it will have as many people as the Northeast corridor by 2050.

    jimsf Reply:

    and I”m not saying the percentages were that high, every year, but the pattern of faster growing counties has been fairly consistent with traditional urban centers remaining constant and outer areas seeing the most growth. Hell, sf has been around the same pop. for nearly its entire modern existence give or take 100k. There is this utopian dream among certain younger, educated, folks that there will be some huge paradigm shift in our way of life. Me and my peers thought the same way back then too. The reality is that things stay the same a lot more than they change because people don’t change even if technology does. So instead of a grand and revolutionary new lifestyle, what we’ll end up with is a smattering of trends here and there, some intermittent “the latest things” and “end all be alls” and californian that looks a lot like today’s with people living day to day pretty much like they have for generations. Of course I’m not going to point it out cuz its not my place to rob young folks of their idealism, that infusion of energy and ideas is important. But in the end. things don’t change much and Americans, even the new ones arriving from the third world, eventually want that elbow room, the open space, their own little piece of paradise and they don’t want to find it in a concrete cube.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    …well for generations, eons even, people lived in places that look like San Francisco or Oakland. Three bedroom detached houses with a two car garage on a half acre lot spread out over miles and miles of former farmland is a post World War II aberration.

    jimsf Reply:

    even now, most of sf and oaklands housing outside downtown, are those very same homes with garages on 50×100 lots with backyards. huge swaths of sfs neighborhoods are still single family homes with yards.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Nice round numbers 50 x 100 lot is an eighth of an acre. Huge swaths of New York City are single family homes with a yard…

    James Reply:

    So at 50 x 100 what is a reasonable distance between light rail branch lines?
    10-20 blocks? 1 or 2 miles? Enough 50 x 100s to keep a light rail busy. Given that
    the light rail takes them someplace and is sufficiently connected to attract riders.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    I suspect the median single family house in SF is on a 35 by 75 lot or a 35 by 100 lot. The streets where the trolley used to run don’t have single family housing or maybe single family over the store.
    People who are more familiar with trolley burbs would be better able to tell you. I grew up in a trolley burb in New Jersey, some of the highest densities in the country, denser than SF and most people lived in single family or two family houses. … you can have a single family house, a place to park the cars off of the street and a patch of backyard at densities much higher than the stereotypical post war subdivision.

    jimsf Reply:

    actually youre right 50 is too large. I think 35 and even 25 would be a more accurate width. the lots with the standard victorian homes are only 25 wide and I think that may be true of most of the sunset and places like the excelsior.

    jimsf Reply:

    most of the city looks like this and like this single family homes with yards and they will stay this way. So back to my original point in defense of the central valley routing, most new growth will be in areas that are either not yet developed and that are willing to be developed , and most of the people in the bay don’t want any more. The valley cities do hav the advantage of being able to start nearly from scratch though as far as creating dynamic cores and hsr should help with that. I think what is best about hsr is that it will allow california to distribute its population more evenly over time.

    James Reply:

    Thanks adirondacker. Checking the New Jersey transit maps, it looks like parts of New Jersey light rail along the Hudson are divided by waterways. Similarly parts of the bay area are between the bay and the hills.. Checking the Boston map between U. Mass and Boston College the distances between the branches of the Red, Silver, Orange, and Green lines vary from 1000ft to 2 miles with an average closer to 1 mile. Taking Boston as an established example, heavy rail fed by light rail fed by buses can fan out by population density and appears to want to diverge to more than 1 mile spacing.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    There is this utopian dream among certain younger, educated, folks that there will be some huge paradigm shift in our way of life. Me and my peers thought the same way back then too. The reality is that things stay the same a lot more than they change because people don’t change even if technology does.

    I wish I was a young utopian idealist, but I’m not. I’m trying to make the point that while it’s oh so easy to build in the exurbian wilds of California…it’s not easy to get the population to follow en masse. Otherwise, why would Los Angeles County have 6 million people in 1960 and over 10 million now. If you look at a map, the County didn’t get this way by building sprawl it got that way because of density….

    Sure you can point to the fact that Sacramento’s suburb’s grew like blockbusters while San Francisco inched along…but overall trend this decade even in the midst of a huge building boom was 1% population growth per year. Unemployment is higher in the CV than on the coasts. What jobs are these people supposed to take?

    The reason to build HSR isn’t because you think we will have 50 billion people in CA in 2100. It’s because it’s a competitive advantage that will serve the state very very well in the years ahead by making us not as vunerable as say, Texas, to disturbances in the “endless growth” model of suburbia swallowing up more and more territory.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Early late 1940s-1959 suburan track housing was alot denser. after the freeways came in the big lots came then the mcmansion types in the late 80-90s.. and most of the BayArea has denser housing than say Texas or AZ new homes

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    “For CAHSR, you have a majority of riders who are going to the Bay Area or LA….and not in between.”

    Says who?

    Umm… your buddies at CHSRA, Rafael.

    You can’t have it both ways: either they’re perfect and infallible and nobody must every question a single detail of their projections, or … they aren’t.

    Population data alone is a very imperfect predictor of ridership.

    In the real world, as a first level approximation, it’s almost perfect. Except when Rafael doesn’t want it to be, of course.

    Bianca Reply:

    After the AVE was completed between Madrid and Barcelona, the city of Zaragoza experienced a bit of a boom as an in-between meeting point for people from either end. Business meetings can be held at a shorter travel distance for all parties and on neutral ground for all. It’s not hard to envision a similar outcome for Bakersfield or Fresno.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    And when the AVE line from Madrid to Sevilla was opened in 1992, Ciudad Real – previously a small out of the way town on the La Mancha plains – became a major commuter suburb for Madrid.

    Yet apparently we’re no longer allowed to bring international comparisons into this discussion.

    Because, you know, California’s…different. Somehow.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Acela was mostly just new trainsets NYP-DC and slightly better timing and look at the great results..wait till we open a brand new 220 mph train line..the questions/woories about ridership will then look very silly

  10. Drunk Engineer
    Jul 3rd, 2010 at 07:54

    If the media did “get it wrong” — it is where they have yet to figure out that illogical train frequencies in the ridership models are driving insane cost blowouts in this CHSRA mega-project.

    In every other high-speed rail project in the Western world, we find 1-2 tph for intercity travel, whereas this ridership model has nearly 10 times that amount. Because the Model dictates the amount of concrete poured that means:

    -unnecessary amount of quad-tracking (particularly in places like Menlo Park) infuriating the locals
    -unnecessary crowding at the SF Transbay Terminal
    -billions for new track to Anaheim, and ridiculously overbuilt Anaheim station

    The Berkeley report points the way to solving public’s concerns regarding both cost and neighborhood impacts. It is too had the CHSRA attitude is “circling the wagons” rather than make necessary changes.

  11. Donk
    Jul 3rd, 2010 at 09:30

    O/T – Is this good news, or is this old news?

    US House Panel Approves $67.4 Billion Transportation Bill

    “…would appropriate $1.4 billion for high-speed and intercity rail programs for the fiscal year that begins in October….That’s on top of $2.5 billion that Congress provided for high-speed rail in this year’s budget…”

    Read more:

    Read more:

    jim Reply:

    No it’s not good news. We wanted $4B.

    rafael Reply:

    So $3.9b rather than $4b would be bad news?

    The unfortunate truth is that what the House passes is fairly irrelevant. The real decisions are made in the Senate, thanks to the filibuster nonsense. Only a small fraction of what is negotiated away there can be clawed back in conference.

    jim Reply:

    No, $3.9B would be OK. $1.4B isn’t. And it’s unlikely the Senate will provide more than the House. 2010 the House came up with $4B, the Senate with $1.2B and they compromised on $2.5B. If the House is starting with $1.4B, we’re likely to end up with even less by the time this is all over.

    political_incorrectness Reply:

    $67.4 billion and only $1.4 billion for HSR? That is just ridiculous!

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Yes for 2011 its proposed 1.4 for HSR….a cut of 1billion form 2010 ..thou it might go up or down in the Senate…also that 4 billion increase..went to roads

    HSRforCali Reply:

    Why bother giving any money for HSR? 1.4 won’t do anything! This is completely ridiculous, if not pointless!

    YesonHSR Reply:

    It just underscores the reason we need that transportation bill with HSR funding in it to come thru in early 2011 or a kind of HSR bill that Sen Kerry had propsed right after the election.

    Emma Reply:

    Totally agree with you. $ 1.4 billion is nothing when you consider what the feds could spend on high speed rail. It is ridiculous that they still procrastinate while additional military funding slides through Congress like hot butter. No. They must be joking!

    thatbruce Reply:

    Not supporting (additional) military funding would be unpatriotic and/or non-supportive of businesses in their electorate.

    Now if HSR equipment could be sourced from traditionally military suppliers, there might be more support for HSR. Spending.

    Clem Reply:

    Now if HSR equipment could be sourced from traditionally military suppliers

    Let’s have a little perspective. HSR is small fry compared to your average military program. One F-35 costs about $90 million, and the expected production run is about 3,000 units. One HSR trainset costs about half that, and the entire California fleet will number a mere 100 trainsets. Even including other states, there’s an order of magnitude difference!

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Not good news at all. Will have more on this on Tuesday.

  12. John Burrows
    Jul 3rd, 2010 at 12:50

    Don’t newspapers feed on controversy? And wouldn’t some columnists be tempted to write their columns to do just that? Maybe they are graded on how many times the “submit” button gets hit in response to their columns.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    Yes that does seem to be the main marketing point/culture,quite a change from news from a generations past when something like HSR or any large project was for the most part looked at with a viewpoint of its SOMETHING has got to be wrong .

  13. Emma
    Jul 4th, 2010 at 10:58

    Honestly, I don’t care what they say. I think most Californians know that high-speed rail is the right step into the future. That’s why we approved Prop 1A despite the state deficit and the economic crisis. There are a lot of folks in big media that actually support high speed rail. All candidates for Governor strongly support high speed rail. Obama supports high speed rail. It is common sense to get behind high-speed rail and I simply don’t understand why those newspapers prefer to spread lies instead of a detailed analysis.

    Reality Check Reply:

    Emma wrote: “all candidates for Governor strongly support HSR” … so how and when did Meg show support?

Comments are closed.