The Washington Post’s Ignorant Attack on California HSR

Jan 11th, 2011 | Posted by

Misinformation has its consequences. After several flawed studies came out in 2010 that attacked the California HSR project, it was only a matter of time before some prominent publication picked up on them, took them out of context, and attacked the project. In this case, it’s the Washington Post, which is running an editorial in Wednesday’s editions titled “Hit the brakes on California’s high-speed rail experiment”.

Already you can tell the editorial is full of shit – high speed rail is no “experiment,” it’s a proven success all over the world, including in the Post’s own backyard. But that hasn’t stopped the WaPo from attacking our project:

In November, the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group informed the legislature that the project suffers from an undefined business model and the “lack of a clear financial plan.”

However, and this is important, the Peer Review Report added its assessment that this is NOT a sign that the project should be abandoned or that the project was flawed:

In fairness to the Authority, it would have been premature to make these decisions prior to the implementation phase of the project. The Authority itself has recognized, however, that the project now has to move beyond planning and promotion to implementation and that will require that the business model for implementation be selected.

What the Peer Review Report actually says is “it is now time for the Authority to decide on its business model, and we hope they do so soon, so that important other matters that depend on that choice can be resolved. The report took pains to be fair to the Authority and was offered in the spirit of ensuring the project would succeed. The WaPo’s right-wing editorial board either doesn’t know that or doesn’t care. They probably never read the actual report and so they are just assuming that the project’s critics are right – a problem I’ll return to in a moment.

The editorial continues:

Most damning, the report noted that official estimates of how many people might actually want to ride the system are so unreliable that they “offer little basis for proceeding.” Ridership is a crucial variable, because the law authorizing high-speed rail bonds included a ban on state operating subsidies once the system is up and running.

No, no, no, no, no. I blame Samer Madanat and his team at the Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies for tacitly allowing this deeply incorrect conclusion to be spread. We debunked much of that study back in July. But the key was that Madanat’s team only said that they disagreed with the methodology of the ridership studies – and that the projections could be accurate, or they might not be, with either one being equally possible.

Further, while the details of the ridership level matter, the WaPo should know from the Acela and other systems around the world that there’s no question ridership on the system will be high, and that most HSR systems do not require operating subsidies. Still, their editorial didn’t waste too much time trying to get its facts straight in their effort to attack our HSR project.

They continue:

The Peer Review Group’s report was only the latest in a series of skeptical blue-ribbon documents. But, undaunted, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced last month that it would at last begin construction – on a stretch connecting not, say, Los Angeles and Anaheim but two obscure locations in the state’s rural Central Valley. The 120-mile segment would cost $5.5 billion. Critics quickly dubbed it a “train to nowhere” – a bit unfair, since some of the towns along the way have expensively redeveloped downtowns that may now suffer from the frequent noise and vibration of trains roaring through them.

“A bit unfair”? Try “completely dishonest.” The WaPo cited the flawed NY Times article on the route, which as this blog explained left out the rather important fact that the tracks actually connect Fresno (900,000 people in the metro area), Hanford/Visalia (450,000 in the metro area) and Bakersfield (800,000 in the metro area), with Borden just happening to be a temporary northern stopping point so that any tracks built will have independent utility before construction resumes toward Merced and the Bay Area. Once again, misinformation has consequences.

WaPo does make passing mention of “expensively redeveloped downtowns,” presumably thinking of the NYT article’s description of Corcoran and showing absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the fact that Fresno and Bakersfield have major redevelopment plans that depend on the HSR project. Nor do they realize those cities have high unemployment, dragging down not just the state but the country, and that HSR would provide badly needed economic stimulus.

Unsurprisingly, it gets worse:

Given that California’s system has attracted zero private capital and has been unable to guarantee any source – governmental or private – for almost half the cost of completion, the obvious risk is that the federal taxpayer will be on the hook for billions of dollars worth of railroad track that may never serve its intended high-speed purpose. But the Obama administration sought the funds, as part of the 2009 stimulus package, and Congress approved them – and so they must be spent.

Wrong again. If they had actually read the Peer Review Report, they would know that private investment won’t come until a business model is chosen. And private companies have shown interest in California HSR, just as they have in Florida HSR. The WaPo makes it sound like private investors are avoiding the project like the plague, when in fact the Authority has not yet actually invited them to make bids, because it is premature to do so right now. There remains every reason to believe those bids and funding offers will indeed materialize.

Even if the rest of the project is never built – a huge if – the tracks that are built in the Central Valley will have “independent utility” and can be used by Amtrak services. The WaPo is clueless about this too.

Of course, behind every piece of HSR denial is a deeper belief that “nobody rides trains in America.” Sure enough, look what we find at the bottom of the editorial:

The president has a vision of a national high-speed rail network almost as grand as the interstate highway system. We have our doubts about the ultimate feasibility of this vision, in part because in much of the country passenger rail can’t compete with car travel by interstate highways. It’s unclear that the public benefits attributed to high-speed rail – reduced carbon emissions and less airport congestion – would outweigh the inevitable operating subsidies, as Amtrak’s experience suggests.

This is just nonsense that flies in the face of all the available evidence.

First, “passenger rail can’t compete with car travel”? Um, what?! In California, it takes about 6 hours to drive from SF to LA on a good day (without traffic). That trip time would be cut by more than 50% by high speed rail. And while driving is “dead time” – you can’t use a computer or smartphone while sitting behind the wheel – the train enables lots of productivity. No wonder HSR is popular with businessmen around the world. California HSR will compete very, very well with driving.

Similarly, the WaPo gives itself away with its obsession with “operating subsidies” – most HSR systems don’t need them, including the Acela, but even if they did – so what? Some things are worth spending money for, but the WaPo is in full-scale austerity mode, demanding government spending be gutted in order to let the rich get richer. Still, we should correct the record here – the Acela is extremely popular, running at 80% capacity and having over half the market share of travel options on the Northeast Corridor. And the Acela turns a profit.

The WaPo is apparently unaware of all of those facts. Along with their lack of other important facts about the California HSR project and not having actually read the reports in question, it’s no wonder they fell back on right-wing ideology and call for the California HSR project to be stalled. The project still has some details to work out, some important decisions to make, and lots of funding to secure. But there remains every reason to move forward, from the need to provide an alternative to costly and inefficient oil-based transportation to the need to create jobs in California to the simple fact that HSR has been a success everywhere it’s been built.

Californians should tell the ignorant and dishonest editorial board of the WaPo to take a hike, and proceed as planned.

  1. synonymouse
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:12

    Seem like a very generalized, relatively innocuous commentary to me. The Oakland Tribune has run much more damning editorials making the case that the CHSRA will rip off federal and state funds from BART.

    “Spend first, ask questions later” That’s the the California lifestyle to a tee. Lilo in LaLaland.

    Big question to ask first: who wants to go from SF to LA via Fresno?

    Matthew F. Reply:

    So you’re trying to imply that passing by Fresno would so offend your senses that you’d rather endure the hassle and expense of flying than take a high-speed train?

    I can’t remember if this is the particular hobby-horse you ride, but IMHO ANY route would beat passing through the Manure-villes that dot the I-5!

    synonymouse Reply:

    It is way the hell off-route. Nobody goes that way, at not in the decades since they build I-5.

    J. Wong Reply:

    Hmm, 6 hours driving the “direct” route down I5 to LA or 2:40 taking the train via Fresno. I think I’ll take the train. Except for you, nobody is going to care that it goes through Fresno. They’ll still take the train in preference to driving.

    wu ming Reply:

    trains carry people, ridership is a metric of success or failure. building a rail line that does not connect major population centers to save a couple minutes is idiotic.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    And looking up one more article, one of the reasons that the LA/SF corridor outperforms the LA/SJ corridor in the 2050 analysis is the direct connection of the main population centers of the San Joaquin Valley to downtown SF.

    Manu Reply:

    Keep in mind that it does not matter where it goes through, the final destination and time does. Plus, the trains in not being build just for you to ride. As stated above, there is 900,000 plus people living in the Fresno Metro area. Im pretty sure that they would like to ride the train too.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and for the millions north of Fresno it’s a really good way to get to Fresno. Or the ones south of Fresno……

    Bret Reply:

    When did this become the SF-LA high speed rail? I’m pretty sure this is the CALIFORNIA high speed rail and was intended to connect more than just two cities, but you’re right Syn, it makes much more sense for me to drive two hours south to LA to catch the train north to SF in less than two hours along the I-5 corridor…good thinking.

    Caelestor Reply:

    There’s more congestion along CA-99 than I-5 IIRC

    datacruncher Reply:

    Exactly right.

    Full traffic counts for any freeway measurement site is at (use the menu in the upper right):

    I picked a few more rural sites to reduce the impact of commuter traffic on freeways passing thru Valley cities like Bakersfield, Fresno and Stockton. These sites should give a better idea of long distance vehicle traffic.

    2009 average daily traffic counts per CalTrans:
    I-5 at the highway 198 interchange (Coalinga area) = 33,000
    99 at the highway 198 interchange = 52,000 (that is a few miles east of the Hanford/Visalia station site)

    I-5 at the highway 152 interchange = 31,000
    I-5 at the Fresno/Merced County line south of highway 152 = 35,000
    99 at the highway 152 interchange = 53,000 back/37,500 ahead

    Notice those figures for 99 near highway 152. I am not a traffic engineer so someone who is one can correct my interpretations if I’m wrong. I understand that “back” means south of the interchange and “ahead” means north of the interchange.

    If I interpret that data correctly it indicates to me that there is a lot of traffic coming north out of Fresno and exiting 99 to go west on 152 to San Jose/other points or vice versa.

    The difference on 99 north and south of 152 is about 15,500 vehicles diverting to 152 or almost exactly half the traffic levels travelling ON I-5 thru the Valley.

    Traffic equal to 1/2 the vehicle counts of I-5 going between Fresno and the Bay Area or other points on the coast? That is a lot of traffic for a way “nobody goes”. ;)

    Elizabeth Reply:

    Compare this to the 580

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Not everything has to be about Altamont vs. Pacheco. After all, the 405 has even more traffic than 580…

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Bad analogy. The planned route runs closely parallel to the 405, whereas Pacheco is nowhere near 580. And traffic counts on 152 aren’t even remotely comparable to 580 either.

    James Fujita Reply:

    wait, the planned route runs parallel to the 405? which part?

    wu ming Reply:

    syn’s point is that people who live in the valley are nobodies.

    Bret Reply:

    well, when this “nobody” drives from Bakersfield to Sacramento, it’s actually a bit quicker to just stay on 99 than to spend 15-20 mins driving west to the I-5, then turning north and taking 2 lanes of freeway all the way up (battling truck traffic) at little to no greater speed than I can take 99 north through cities with 3 or 4 lanes of traffic and lighter truck traffic (and places to stop if need be). And that’s at the south end of the valley, I don’t know how far out of the way Fresno citizens would have to go to get to the I-5 toward Sacramento….undoubtedly easier to stay on the 99.

    wu ming Reply:

    this “nobody” from davis agrees with you.

    James Fujita Reply:

    One could argue that the benefit of a bullet train would be as great, if not greater, for a town such as Fresno, which has poor air service, over Los Angeles or San Francisco.

    That is, the millions living in the Central Valley would prefer to take the train for the first leg of a long distance trip, then make a Metro Rail transfer to LAX for the trip from California to Tokyo.

    Meanwhile, Fresno and Hanford should set up national park shuttle service for city dwellers wanting to visit the Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite.

    Manu Reply:


    Bret Reply:

    I second that. The only flight from Bakersfield to LA is currently aboard a turbo-prop, which Airline analysts are saying will likely be phased out soon, and will likely be underserved to justify a 70-seat jet, which means that the only way to get to LA from Bakersfield will be to drive. Granted, the Grapevine isn’t closed that often, but if it happens to be on a day that you need to get to LA to catch a flight, or you don’t know how much traffic you’re going to hit once you get south of Santa Clarita, it sure would be nice to have a rail option to connect us to LA.

    James M. Reply:

    Synonamouse asked…
    Big question to ask first: who wants to go from SF to LA via Fresno?

    I have travelled that route, LA to SF via Fresno many times. I also expect to do it many more times with or without HSR, but I would prefer to take the train were that option available. I, for one, am looking forward to 1: Enjoying the trip while not worrying about all the other drivers on the route, 2: Making better use of my 2.5 hours on the train instead of not being able to do anything for 7+hours on the road and 3: Arriving at my destination relaxed and refreshed, ready for the day (which I do not feel after flying….).

    Jim M

  2. Alon Levy
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:25

    The first four words of the title are all that matters. The rest is redundant.

  3. Brandon from San Diego
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:26

    98% of those that are geographically literate will understand the need to serve Fresno… if not for geograghy and population draw, for politics and equity.

    I certainly will not have an issue with an alignment via Fresno, and, I am quite glad there will be…. because Fresno will provide ridership. Those will be riders that will buy tickerts and contribute to a prosperous system. Those riders will also mitigate some of the need to provide for the alternative… roadways.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Your project is a government-run regional electric rail not a genuine hsr directly linking the 10 million of the Bay region to the 20 million of the LA region. Its perennial red ink ensures it will be dumped on Amtrak in short order.

    Upside is the ideal alignment is still nicely and neatly available for maglev, thanx to the pandering, myopic apparatchiks at PB.

    brandon from San Diego Reply:

    Richard, is that you?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    When did Richard ever support not serving Fresno? (Note: asking that the HSR station for Fresno be placed just outside the urban area, which means about 10 km from downtown Fresno, is not the same thing as supporting an I-5 maglev.)

    Caelestor Reply:

    What’s the benefit of putting the stations in downtown? As long as it’s close enough to town, the people will come. It’s not like they can’t haul themselves to the stations like they already do to the airports.

    Spokker Reply:

    Caelestor Reply:

    It would take much longer for people in Fresno to drive out of the valley than the train.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:35

    Hmm–poor research (i.e., relying on those deffective criticisms Robert has pointed to), no questioning of the highway alternatives, apparently thinking the road system is all we need, no concern about highway finance or peak oil, and most interestingly, no byline. I wonder who wrote this who is not placing his name on it?

  5. Matthew F.
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:38

    I tried to post a comment on the WP article this afternoon, but there was a problem with the registration process. That editorial was such a horrible little pile of lies.

  6. jimsf
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 21:53

    Why does the east coast media think they have any relevance in california? What goes on here is none of their business, for one, and two, no one here is interested in any of their opinions. WE haven’t cared since the pioneers watched the east disappear in the rear views mirrors on their covered wagons.

    Really. The washington who?

    brandon from San Diego Reply:

    Federal funding comes from Washington DC

    jimsf Reply:

    no, the u.s. would sink into global irrelevance without us.

    jimsf Reply:

    and that money thats coming to california from dc, came from california.

    wu ming Reply:

    it goes through DC, but does not originate there. it’s our money coming back to us.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    Brett Arends (Wall Street Journal):
    What happens in America is that essentially, the high-income, high-productivity and high-costs states pay much higher federal taxes than they get back in federal spending. California has probably transferred about $600 billion to the rest of America in the last quarter-century. America has been an enormous beneficiary of the Californian economy. And if you want to use the European analogy: they are Germany, they are not Greece. They have been pouring money into the system. The idea that somehow this state is on welfare, that the rest of us are “propping it up,” is nonsense.

    Whole Marketplace article

  7. jimsf
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 22:09

    There was talk years ago about creating some kind of symbolic statue to put on alactraz in the bay, the way the statue of liberty is is on that island in new york. But I’m leaning towards this for the top of mt whitney.

  8. jimsf
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 22:11

    A while back there was talk of putting some kind of symbolic statue on alcatraz, like the statue of liberty is on that island in new york. But I’
    m leaning towards maybe this on mt whitney.

  9. MGimbel
    Jan 11th, 2011 at 22:15

    America 2050’s report on the viability of various high-speed rail projects in the country:

    Donk Reply:

    Wow, this is great seeing somebody try to quantify the potential of each rail corridor. Some interesting points, but that are mostly obvious to most of us here:

    -NYC-Wash scored highest
    -LA-San Diego was very high
    -FL sucks
    -Nowhere else in the country is the potential to divert regional air travel to rail greater than in California.

    If you don’t want to read the report here are the scores:

    Short Corridors – 150 Miles or Less
    Origin Destination Length Score
    New York NY Philadelphia PA 91 19.86
    Los Angeles CA San Diego CA 150 19.62
    Chicago IL Milwaukee WI 86 19.38
    Washington DC Richmond VA 110 18.31
    Sacramento CA San Francisco CA 139 18.21
    Tampa FL Orlando FL 84 13.63

    Mid-Length Corridors – 150 – 300 Miles
    Origin Destination Length Score
    Washington DC New York NY 224 20.15
    Boston MA New York NY 231 19.87
    Portland OR Seattle WA 185 17.68
    Chicago IL Saint Louis MO 282 16.19
    Birmingham AL Atlanta GA 164 15.93
    Atlanta GA Charlotte NC 257 15.68
    Dallas TX Houston TX 243 16.12
    San Antonio TX Houston TX 211 13.92

    Long Corridors – Greater than 300 Miles
    Origin Dest Length Score
    Washington DC Boston MA 455 19.81
    Los Angeles CA San Francisco CA 453 17.98
    Los Angeles CA Las Vegas NV 338 16.94
    Chicago IL Minneapolis MN 423 16.66
    Washington DC Charlotte NC 376 15.16
    San Antonio TX Dallas TX 312 14.75
    Tampa FL Miami FL 319 13.93
    Charlotte NC Richmond VA 369 11.88
    New Orleans LA Houston TX 362 11.27
    Denver CO Albuquerque NM 476 9.91

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Its only benefit side, its not cost. Florida’s benefit, on their scoring, is nowhere near the top of the ranking ~ but on the other hand, the cost per route mile of the Orlando/Tampa leg is well below what many other Express HSR alignments would be.

    Donk Reply:

    The problem with this data is that it does not include intermediate stops in the corridor scores. If I interpreted this correctly, then the LA-SF route only included LA and SF. What they should have done was summed all stop combinations along a route, ie LA-SF, LA-Bako, LA-Fresno, Bako-Fresno, Fresno-SF, etc together. This analysis is then more of a Synonymouse analysis because it only takes into account the endpoints and not the ridership you pick up along the way. If so, this study is a good start, but it is flawed.

  10. brian
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 04:31

    It seems that the North Eastern media is making an effort to derail HSR in other parts of this country. The NY Times just published an article with a headline saying FL HSR lacks riders, yet 2/3s of the way into the story acknowledges that the report from America 2050 did NOT take into account the large amount tourist traffic that FL HSR has always planned on having! I think they are just mad that the NE corridor did not get much money. article at:

    bleh Reply:

    It’s their own damn fault that the NEC (North Easterners) didn’t get anything. The Nimby capital of the US with half a dozen states and hundreds of counties and towns, each with their own local potentate reigning his little fiefdom with a iron fist and ready to raise hell. Those are the tree huggers who opposed *over the horizon* offshore wind farms. Why oh why wouldn’t you wanna invest $60bn (rest of the world prices) to $170bn (Amtrak prices + inevitable overruns from tunnels and gold plated catenaries) to not build (by the time the lawsuits are resolved we’ll just beam from NYC to DC) HSR there?

    Obama&Co would have been crazy to start there (you can do it later on when it’s a proven concept in the US, perhaps).

    Victor Reply:

    Actually beaming anything may be possible, If this story Here is true. But It may be a long time before a trip this way can be done.

    Jerry Reply:

    But if we teleport, do we still go thru Fresno? :)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Only the Time-Warner teletranporters. The Comcast teletransporters will go via St. Louis, Birminghma and Fargo.

    Victor Reply:

    And If Banks have their way with Steering people who want to buy homes to the Sellers Mortgage Company(some Listing agents are asking for a FICO Score or an offer will be rejected), Then one will be beamed through HELL 1st.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Rest-of-world prices are $10 billion, not $60 billion. You severely overestimate Amtrak’s ability to control costs.

    Donk Reply:

    What’s wrong with the article? All it does is discusses the details of the study, which overall was pretty fair. FL should have actually gotten a lower score: Since the study only compared endpoints and not midpoints of the lines, FL would have only picked up a few riders from Lakeland. The other routes in CA and NEC would have gotten much higher scores if they included the large intermediate cities.

    The tourist traffic might add on a point or so, but it isn’t like this will get them anywhere near the CA or NEC lines. At least they mentioned the point about tourism and therefore got their facts straight.

    brian Reply:

    @ Donk
    My issue with the article is if one were to read the NYT headline alone it gives the impression that the FL HSR ridership numbers were way too low to be successful. And the America 2050 report seems to have its own parameters (or biases?) on what is required to make HSR successful. The fact that America 2050 even compared FL to other city pairs without factoring the tourist ridership (which is unique to Florida city pair routes) into its final score seems to imply that America2050 project was not looking for a fair comparison list. The whole point of America 2050’s report was to equally compare all routes, was it not? In my opinion, Tampa to Orlando and Orlando to Miami routes should not even be on the list as it does not account for all possible ridership. That would be like ignoring people commuting to work between Phila and NYC who happen to take Amtrak.

    The report even admits to as much, saying “tourist destinations such as Disney World and the Orlando Convention Center, connected by high-speed rail, could act as significant generators of rail ridership not accounted for by our methodology.” My point is that city size and employment density near the HSR stations do not always account for most potential riders. I understand you do not agree with the FL HSR project but rememeber, Tampa to Orlando is similar to Fresno to Bakersfield in terms of it being a starting segment for a larger (and much busier/viable) system here in Florida.

    And the report did take into account mid-route cities – “The data was collected spatially, using geographic information systems (GIS) analysis, by establishing 2-mile, 10-mile,
    and 25-mile service areas for the intercity rail station in each metropolitan area along the rail corridor, or in the absence of a train station, the center of the central business district of the
    metropolitan area. Data was collected for every metropolitan area along the route for a dozen variables, shown below.”

    Donk Reply:

    Thanks for clearing up the point about the mid-city routes. I did not have a chance to read the report thoroughly yet.

    Regarding tourism – sure there is a lot of missing tourism data, which might tip the scales more for FL relative to some of the other routes, such as the ones in the Southeast or TX. But if tourism data is missing, then I would think that NYC, DC, SF, and LA should have scored higher as well, since we all know there is tons of tourism in these areas. If tourism data was included, you might see gains against the regions that are not big tourist draws, but not against CA or the NEC.

    The article may be slanted for the NEC and against FL, but in comparing this to many of the other HSR pieces out there, it is relatively fair in its assessment. Based on your argument, you should fault the report and not the article.

    brian Reply:

    I guess maybe I (like many others) am so tired of reading articles that always somehow or another find a way to report negative things about HSR in general. You are right that compared to other recent articles this was rather benign for FL HSR. Still the way the headline was written a casual reader would have had another seed of doubt planted in his head about HSR. I see CA and FL HSR as being built for mainly the same reasons but with some important differences (like tourists here more so than CA, and business travelers in CA that fly more so than the business market here) but to achieve the same desired results. In that sense, we can both agree I think that having 2 successful HSR systems running asap is better than just one being built.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Certainly in a dictation model of reporting, its the report that would be faulted, but in an actual reporting model of reporting, or on a fact-based editorial model of editorializing, the fact that the Florida system is primarily on an already reserved alignment and therefore is much cheaper per mile than most other Express HSR corridors would be is something that would be pointed out.

  11. jim
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 06:41

    Actually this is a good sign. It shows that there’s active debate on the surface transport re-authorization and that people are lobbying for and against inclusion of HSR funds in it. John Mica and Barbara Boxer sat down last week to discuss the re-authorization. It’s a safe bet she pushed for HSR funding to be included. The release of the America 2050 report this week is another signal that HSR funding is on the table for the re-authorization bill. If no-one in Washington cared, the WaPo wouldn’t be writing editorials about it.

  12. Weatherman
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 07:03

    ‘ “Spend first, ask questions later” That’s the the(sic) California lifestyle to a tee.”

    synonymouse, when did you move to California? And what state did you move from?

  13. Paul Dyson
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 08:32

    You still seem to be clinging to this “independent utility” notion regarding Fresno to Bakersfield. I doubt if you’d find any responsible person who would support investing $5 billion in “improving” Amtrak service between those cities. There is simply no benefit. With upgrades and PTC on the BNSF route the Amtrak service will be faster and more reliable, without taking a detour to access this new line. There is really only one segment with “independent utility” that might justify such an investment and that would be the link from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, where no passenger service currently exists. That should be the starting point, and if nothing more is added for years (or ever) at least we’ll have something for our money.

    Peter Reply:

    No one I know will disagree with you that improved Amtrak San Joaquins service using the Bakersfield-Fresno HSR tracks is a booby prize. However, independent utility in and of itself is not the point. The point is to complete the ENTIRE system. If $5 billion gets us Fresno-Bakersfield, do you really think that $5 billion would be enough to complete the Bakersfield-Palmdale HSR segment? Where would we be left then?

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Like any other megaproject boondoggle, they picked the most inutile segment first. That way, they get their foot in the door and can claim $5 billion will be ‘wasted’ as ‘sunk cost’ unless the whole project gets done. That is how it is always done.

    Scott Mercer Reply:

    And thank God that it is. Otherwise, nothing would ever get built.

    Why do you think the first segment of the Insterstate highway system was built in the middle of low population rural Missouri?

    Or, do you have a problem with the money that we’ve invested in the Interstate highway system over the last 60 years?

    spokker Reply:

    It’s a good strategy in a rail-hostile nation. We get what we want and the public votes for every bond measure that comes before them anyway.

    Victor Reply:

    So then pray tell, Tell US how to get HSR to go from LA to SF without laying track in between?? And more importantly what Tooth Fairy is going to do this for nothing to accomplish this feat?? Without track in between It would be a waste of money and unlike most who say no one lives there, So It’s a necessary cost that has to be done, Several million people do live in those areas and more than that would after HSR is finally built(Heck I lived there for a bit as a child in Tulare CA), People would want to relocate to these No Where areas cause of initial lower property costs. Property in Los Angeles County and up North near San Francisco isn’t cheap, Nor are rents in those areas.

    spokker Reply:

    No matter where they start, it would be easy to make the case that their evil strategy is to start construction and then say, “We can’t let this all go to waste!” when they ask for more money.

    So might as well roll with it.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If the HSRA had been willing to prioritize based on usability, it would have pushed for LA-Bakersfield first. This means completing the environmental studies there before the studies for the Bay Area to Central Valley segment, and building there before building anywhere else.

    If money runs out after LA-Bakersfield, then at least the gap in the statewide rail network will have been filled – and the difference between the speed of LA-Bakersfield and the slowness of everything else would be stark and create demand for more. If money runs out after Bakersfield-Merced, then all California will get is a really expensive Amtrak upgrade, giving people no taste of what real HSR is.

    J. Wong Reply:

    The reality is that no one would approve the initial costs of the entire project up front. Do you think Congress would have authorized the Apollo project if its full cost over its lifetime had to be allocated at the beginning? I don’t think so.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    This seems to be common no matter what the project. The Interstate highway system certainly cost much, much more than was originally planned, other projects cost more, and, in relation to our project here, it must be noted that Shinji Sogo, who was nicknamed “Old Man Thunder” for his temper, and who is also considered the father of the Shinkansen, deliberately understated the cost estimates for the new railroad to the Japanese Diet for just the reasons J. Wong has suggested above.

    This lead to his dismissal as the head of JNR at the time for these “cost overuns,” a position to which he never could return, yet he was decorated a year after the opening of the original Shinkansen by Emperor Hirohito with the Grand Coron of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an award reserved for extraordinary service to Japan.

    These comments suggest to me that the main problem in our political system, and apparently others, is timidity on the part of the politicians. They get scared of the fantastic costs of doing worthwhile things, yet are shortsighted on the benefits. This is most notable in recent months with the decision by Scott Walker in Wisconsin to cancel their railroad project, returning the money to the Federal government, short-circuiting eventual through service beyond Wisconisn, costing Wisconsin the Talgo plant, running up additional bills to return money already spent on the project, and still leaving Wisconsin residents stuck with driving on roads that are not affordable to maintain at current gas tax rates, and at the same time forcing them to continue supporting terrorists of both the bullet-and-bomb and the oil-company varieties.

    James Fujita Reply:

    A shame that Sogo-san did not live to see his vision stretch from Kyushu to the snowy mountains of northern Honshu. (Imagine linking San Diego with Redding, and still having track left for Los Angeles to Las Vegas)

    spokker Reply:

    Damn dude, you are hardcore.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Why not, J. Wong? SNCF was upfront about the costs of the TGV, and got it built. And SBB was upfront about the costs of the Gotthard Base Tunnel and not only got it built, but is also sticking to a budget that was published in the early 1990s. When the government doesn’t think it’s acceptable to lie to the public about the costs, the public can be remarkably understanding and vote for its projects.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I agree, Alon. The problem may not be the public, though; it’s the cowardly, dishonest, demagogic, shortsighted political class, or more properly, the members of the political class that fit that description, and who unfortunately seem to lack technical ability but do have the ability to worm their way into positions of power. It’s the Peter Principle writ large, but with the caveat that the people who do rise to this level of incompetency are not completely incompetent, just that their strongest level of competency is not in the most useful of fields.

    Again, consider Walker of Wisconsin. He had most of the rail money handed to him, almost as good as Florida; the operational subsidy was to be around $7 million per year, a tiny fraction of the transportation budget there. Like California’s Central Valley line, this was to ultimately be the part of something larger. Wisconsin, and Walker, like the rest of us, face the consequences of peak oil, and of underpriced roads. Yet he takes this money, the jobs in construction and operation, a new Talgo factory, development plans by business men in his own state, and the opportunity to help get a little bit of us off the oil diet, and he throws this all away. Indeed, he made this a centerpiece of his campaign, and he won an election at least partially with it. Ditto for Kasich in Ohio, and possibly for what could happen yet in Florida. From what I’ve read here, some on this forum would include Ron Diridon in this group in terms of his area of competence.

    I do wish things were different. I myself attempted to sell a light rail line with honest accounting, as you have suggested the French and Swiss have done. This was not just with logic, but with personal respect and diplomacy as well, coming out of being an auditor who sometimes has to deal with potentially hostile clients. Much of the time, I am successful in dealing with the clients, because I want them to do the right thing, and that includes not overpaying their taxes.

    This didn’t work for my light rail line–yet lies, or at best faulty analysis, combined with a lack of vision and/or a lack of technical expertice, has built sports stadiums, runways, two new air terminals and a dinosaur road in my neck of the woods–and got me rewarded with insults.

    So much for honesty.

    How I wish things were different.

    jimsf Reply:

    its time to retire the word “boondoggle” THe only meaning it has now is “we’re just anti government sheep and everything we don’t like that my taxes have to pay for is a boondoggle just because I don’t like it whether or not there is any real proof, no, not conjecture, but proof. If we call it a boondoggle its a mating call to all the other sheep to jump on the bandwagon too and start braying, you know, because our brains are programmed to be completely reactionary”

    Peter Reply:


    jimsf Reply:

    It was a revelation to me after attending a recent gathering on the peninsula. They just kept using the word boondoggle over and over.

    Peter Reply:

    You were feeding the sheep at the meeting, too?

    jimsf Reply:

    but the be e e e e r r r r m m its too h i i i i g g g h h h. and so is the a a a e e r r i i a a a a l .

    James Fujita Reply:

    “Four wheels gooood. two tracks baaaaaaad.” – Orwell, sort of.

    synonymouse Reply:

    @ Paul Dyson

    Your point is well made but remember there is no service over this corridor at present and there has been no sustained effort from the state or Amtrak to induce the UP to at least operate a token train. The traffic potential is being seriously overstated and a substantial part of that has an easterly orientation, as in Amtrak long haul towards Flagstaff, etc.

    I agree this segment has much greater relevance and utility than Borden to Corcoran but it would have to be constructed as to be compatible with basic Amtrak, probably including accommodating diesels.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There aren’t going to be any tunnels, it could accommodate steam trains. For that matter it could accommodate rail bicycles and handcars.

    Peter Reply:

    No tunnels between Bakersfield and Palmdale? Huh?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    He’s yammering on about Fresno to Bakersfield.

    thatbruce Reply:

    @Paul: There is really only one segment with “independent utility” that might justify such an investment and that would be the link from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, where no passenger service currently exists.

    The problem is that, for better or for worse, the federal contribution to the initial segment came with strings attached restricting the applicable region to the Central Valley. The CAHSRA chose to put forward segments within the Central Valley which are much further forward in their respective EIS processes than other segments, such as Bakersfield up to the Antelope Valley (Palmdale), and thus can meet the deadline for expenditure of said federal funds.

    Regarding ‘no (rail) passenger service’ between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, and disregarding the existing Amtrak Thru-way bus service that bridges the gap, you are aware that the gap exists because no funding has been put forward to increase capacity on that link?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The federal contribution came with strings attached because van Ark asked for them, in order to force the board’s hand. Ray LaHood doesn’t care enough about California politics to decide which segments to fund first on his own.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    UP has made it quite plain (see cost estimates for Sunset Daily and Pioneer) that they don’t want more passenger service so forget about Tehachapi. It makes much more sense to build an Amtrak compatible but upgradable to HSR route to link Bakersfield and L.A. with the funds we have, and would provide significant benefits to those SJV towns by providing a through service to Southern Cal. You can still change the decisions, until the money has been spent.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Good idea but PB will never do it unless forced to by budget cuts.

    And that is not likely to happen as the Repubs look likely to break ranks and cave to Brown’s shell game. The pols work for each other, much like the lawyers. Time for a more than 2 party system., euro style. At this juncture a waste of time to vote for any Republicrats, as they are always swayed by money and intimidated by power. Just vote no on all the spending props. All you can do to protest the waste and imbecility.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    With $900m in bonding? But that is allocated by formula, it can’t all be put into a single upgradable Amtrak compatible corridor.

    Its not possible to spend a significant amount ~ it any at all ~ of the $9b in bonding on a upgradeable Amtrak compatible corridor, so “California ought to” on that line is one more “abandon the Prop1A(2008) bonding authorization and go back to the drawing board” proposal.

    synonymouse Reply:

    “Didn’t I learn anything from Ralphie?” – Tony Soprano, to himself as he decides to get an old, obdurate made guy thrown back in jail.

    Back to the drawing board is hopeless and useless. Wind up the CHSRA again and they’ll just crank out another Stilt-A-Rail in the back country.

    Time to go full-bore gadgetbahn privately conceived, constructed and operated.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It is impossible for a link from LA to Bakersfield to be Amtrak-compatible and HSR-upgradable at the same time. Amtrak-compatible means strict limits on tunnel length and ruling grade, at the expense of curve radius; HSR-upgradable means strict limits on curve radius and axle load, and much laxer limits on tunneling and grade.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    But there’s no reason why an HSR grade track couldn’t be traversed by an Amtrak train. An electric one in the case of long tunnels. There’s gotta be a few M2s laying around CDOT could palm off on unsuspecting Californians. Some new upholstery and a fresh paint job, they’d be all agog.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s weird even for EMUs to climb 3.5% grades, unless they’re high-speed. It happens all over the world, even with much higher grades, but it’s unusual, and I don’t know if the M2s specifically can do it.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They’d have to have a major overhaul, they could do anything they wanted to the power system.
    NJTransit has a lot of ALP44s going on the block. Amtrak is going to have a lot of AEMs and HHP for sale too… ALP45s! they would only have to electrify the tunnels. They’d only be able to go 100 outside the electric territory but that would be faster than Amtrak diesels now go….

    synonymouse Reply:

    Go with the Amshack parameters – it’s the retarded route anyway.

  14. Nadia
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 16:35

    OT – Wanted to let this group know that CARRD has obtained the Progress Reports that PB turns into the Authority.

    You can find them here:

    There’s a lot interesting info – for example – June 2010 report pg 17 – discussing using Dumbarton rail for freight.

    Also, Oct 2010 (pg 38 of Progress Report) – they are running ridership models for business plan and AA that include Full system, 50% without RWC stop and Bakersfield to Bay Area with limited service north of SJ at speeds forseen for electrified two-track line – 83% fares.

    Peter Reply:

    Yay! Thanks for badgering them enough about those…

    Peter Reply:

    The Dumbarton discussion is on page 17 of the July 2010 report, actually.

    Also very intriguing on that page is the discussion of using the Caltrain corridor as a short-line freight operation using electric locomotives. This is essentially what others, including myself, had suggested a long time ago.

    Peter Reply:

    So, they are in fact considering running HSR on a 2-track system north of SJ, albeit with limited service north of SJ? That’s quite intriguing. I wonder how many trains they would squeeze through and what the effect of that would be on Caltrain’s operations.

    Peter Reply:

    BTW, is CARRD going to update its page on “Incompatible Offices” to reflect the fact that Katz is gone and Pringle no longer holds Incompatible Offices?

    Leaving it the way it is implies that there is still an issue with this.

    Elizabeth Reply:

    Are you volunteering to do some website maintenance for us?

    Peter Reply:

    Hah! I’m already wasting enough time on this website as it is. I’d volunteer for it otherwise. Should be studying for the Bar.

    spokker Reply:

    Maintenance? It’s not that hard to edit some text.

    Peter Reply:

    Wow, I just noticed that CARRD actually has counters for “Days since – Board Members told they have a conflict” and since “Attorney General asked to take action”. These are still up, despite the fact that Katz is gone and Pringle no longer holds what could be considered an “incompatible office”.

    I thought the failure to update the Incompatible Offices page was bad, the failure to take those counters down is just pure, calculated misinformation.

    Reality Check Reply:

    Depending on CARRDs point of view and/or priorities, they may find it harder to find time/energy to remove negative information vs. adding more of it …

    Joey Reply:

    From September ’10, page 17:

    Coordinated efforts on operation planning at TTC. Agreed that TTC as configured could
    handle five trains per hour with no delay.

    Only 5 trains per hour? That’s pathetic. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re talking about HSR only, but still, that’s ridiculous.

  15. D. P. Lubic
    Jan 12th, 2011 at 20:11

    Hello, Alon,

    I must apollogize for not being around the Infrastructurist of late, and letting you counter that Dillon fellow alone. He apparently hasn’t seen my past posts there on the true cost of gasoline and roads, otherwise he might not make the noises he has, or at least would try a different tactic. I may have to put my old Highway Statistics material back up, and hope other readers don’t get bored with comments that amount to TV reruns.

    I’ve noticed that you have also said he was formerly a fellow posting a Mixner, and your most recent post suggested he is one of Wendell Cox’s paid trolls. I’m curious, how do you come to this conclusion? Can you offer any suggestions on an appropriate response other than what I have done before?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The original set of evidence – before he posted on The Infrastructurist – was arguments used by Gordy on TTP, garyg on Streetsblog, and Watson on Human Transit, wich were identical almost word for word. I noticed the choice of subjects was also similar to that of Mixner. I emailed some people and they all agreed, though they disagreed on how dishonest this is by itself.

    DillonS in particular repeated an argument Mixner tried to make a few years ago, verbatim, trying to play definitional games to weasel out of the reality that New York City outgrows its suburbs. (The argument is that Brookings defined “core counties” for the region to include everything except one fast-growing exurban county, so by that standard the exurbs outgrow the core.) It was a dead giveaway.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Anyway, as for what to do – I don’t know. I try to ignore him. He goes remarkably silent when people point the multi-name shapeshifting.

    Another way is to ignore him and reply to other people instead, but that doesn’t always work with unthreaded comments.

  16. Eric M
    Jan 13th, 2011 at 10:39

    Here is a nice article refuting the Washington Post editorial. Nice to see other people look favorably at the California project.

  17. Ken
    Jan 13th, 2011 at 15:57

    When the average price of gas reaches $5/gal or more, you’ll have more people screaming why we didn’t build them in the first place and will be envy that CA and the NE Corridor has a reliable alternative to driving. So far we’re at $3/gal. So, I hope the naysayers keep riding those gas guzzlers; hope you’ll love them when they hit $5!

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