Richard White Doubles Down on his Flawed Attack on HSR

Sep 20th, 2011 | Posted by

This just gets more depressing. Richard White, a renowned historian at Stanford University, made a flawed attack on the high speed rail project last spring that had a series of errors and was rooted in flawed evidence. Unfortunately, White has continued to press his attack, this time in a post at Zócalo Public Square titled “Why Not Blow $9 Billion on a Cool Train?” Like his earlier attack, this one is also rooted in evidence that is flawed:

I’m a historian. I’ve written a book on the transcontinentals (Railroaded). I know that the first thirty years of the old relationship between train and California were more than bad. They were horrid.

The transcontinentals promised us everything, and they lied. Much of the growth they promoted was dumb growth that came with high social costs. They corrupted our politics and our press and ruined our economy more than once. We fought the railroads for the rest of the nineteenth century.

California should have learned something from this. Do not build large railroads ahead of demand. Do not quickly fund those things that we might be able to do at less cost, more efficiently, and with improved technology later when we really need it. Do not funnel huge amounts of public money into private hands on the basis of only promises of benefits. Remember to calculate capital costs accurately.

I’m a historian too, though not nearly as accomplished as White. He’s right that the first 30 years of relationship between train and California were horrid.

But he goes off the rails when he implies that the HSR project, being planned by the democratically elected government of California and the democratically elected Obama Administration, is somehow corrupting the state. There’s no evidence, at all, for that innuendo.

Further, White assumes that the financial case for the project is flawed. Here he makes his core mistake, misreading the evidence and coming to conclusions that are totally unsupported:

Californians have already voted $9 billion in bonds toward their new life with high-speed rail. It is only a small part of the cost of the system. The federal government supposedly was going to pay most of the rest—but now, apparently not. And once the system is up and going it will pay its own operating costs. We can live happily ever after.

Promises, promises, promises. Sometimes it is better to consult an accountant rather than one’s heart. Listen to the promises, go to the California High-Speed Rail website, but then talk to the accountants. In this case the accountants have a webpage. It is at the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail.

This is serious. California has its children and their future to think about. The accountants say that the California High-Speed Rail Commission has underestimated the cost of the project, overestimated the willingness of investors to put private capital at risk, overestimated the ridership, and miscalculated the cost of servicing the immense debt that will be accrued to build it. They have the system meeting its operating costs, when it most likely will not do so for years and perhaps forever. Servicing the debt alone will put an immense burden on state and local governments when the money is desperately needed elsewhere.

White doesn’t tell his readers that “the accountants” are biased – one of them is a self-declared NIMBY who opposes the train because, and I quote:

An elevated railway would be hideous and intolerably noisy. We like to eat outdoors in the summer, but with such noise we would not be able to hear each other talking. And it would wake people at night. It would transform our pleasant semi-rural environment into an ugly urban environment.

White holds up “the accountants” as conveyors of truth. He expects us to believe that “the accountants” are correct in attacking the ridership numbers.

Except they’re not. White never mentions, and may not even be aware of, the independent peer review of the HSR ridership numbers that said the projections were sound.

White’s other claims are similarly flawed. He says that the willingness of private investors to step up was overestimated, but that misreads what is going on. The private sector has shown a great deal of interest in the system. They have been consistent in saying that they will not yet step up until there is a significant state and federal contribution.

White argues that the federal government won’t step up, even though Barack Obama has shown consistent support for federal funding, as have Democrats in Congress, and despite polls showing Democrats are likely to retake the House.

White claims that the system will never cover its costs, even though virtually every other HSR system in the world does so, including the Acela.

Of course, when we cite successful HSR systems around the world, White is ready to counter that claim too:

High-speed rail can be happy without us. It still has Paris and Tokyo. It may very well find a future between Boston and Washington DC. But it is too rich for our Californian blood and not suited to our conditions. We have plenty of other challenges.

In the end, Richard White is simply just one more person who is convinced that somehow Californians will never ride trains. He completely ignores all the evidence that disproves such a claim – including high ridership on existing intercity trains and data that shows California’s HSR route compares favorably to other successful routes, implying that the ridership base and the demand do exist.

And of course, White also commits the same error that virtually every other HSR critic makes: he never asks what is the cost of doing nothing. Even if HSR costs $60 billion, the cost of not building HSR could be as high as $100 billion.

White argues that HSR will only suck away value and money from other priorities, but in fact it will create a green dividend for California that could be as high as $10 billion a year for Los Angeles alone.

Richard White is a very good historian and a good intellectual. If he wanted to engage in a serious debate on HSR, he knows how to marshal evidence and have that discussion. That’s why it’s such a shame that he prefers to rely on flawed evidence and disproven claims to attack high speed rail.

  1. Joe
    Sep 20th, 2011 at 21:53

    Paul Krugman refuses to argue based on his credentials.

    White has an obligation to his profession and integrity to get his facts straight and stop relying on his diminishing reputation.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    On the contrary. Krugman reminds people of his Nobel at frequent intervals. He says he refuses to argue based on credentials, but he does this from a position in which everyone already knows that he has credentials. See his explanation from 6 months ago.

    White does get his facts straight, when it comes to his expertise. The Transcontinental Railroad really was a money grab by Gov. Stanford and the rest of the Gang of Four, and the people portraying SP as an octopus were right. I don’t think the same is true of CAHSR – for one, the corrupt local politicians can only get their hands on a fraction of the budget – but Californians owe it to themselves to answer the question of what the difference is.

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    Actually, White explicitly says they weren’t an octopus, in that they did not have the control everyone thought they did, even if they did make off like bandits.

  2. swing hanger
    Sep 20th, 2011 at 22:05

    Since when have historians have had any traction when commenting on HSR development? I think Mr. White is banking on his gravitas and Stanford associations too much. I would respect the opinions of an acknowledged expert on railroads and economics, such as Prof. George Hilton, of UCLA, much more. This is coming from one who has studied both history and economics.

    Joe Reply:

    Just to pile on, Stanford professors are offered subsidized housing. Not all use it but the point is the lifestyle is often highly insulated. I know many exceptions and he may be one but from the tone, I doubt Dr White is familiar with 20% unemployment and the consequences on CA communities.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Yes, Stanford’s “faculty ghetto” is anything but. In fact, it’s indistinguishable from a typical Menlo Park neighborhood and nicer than the adjacent Palo Alto neighborhood of College Terrace.

    joe Reply:

    First, the point is that it is very easy to get lost or a insular view of the world while working as a senior faculty at a well off University that provides housing. I do not know Dr White. I am puzzled by his analysis.

    With a faulty salary, anything off campus is going to have be very modest. So a comparable home off campus in PAMPA isn’t obtainable.

    Here’s faculty in less dense, larger homes, including homes in the hills off foothill expressway.,-122.165008&spn=0.009782,0.021629&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&t=h&z=16&vpsrc=6

    synonymouse Reply:

    That(Hilton) would be the same academic who argued that GM was being unfairly criticized for campaigning against streetcars. Indeed an excellent candidate for PB apologist.

    Eric M Reply:

    So genius, since you hate Parsons Brinckerhoff so much, what other company do you suggest do the planning and engineering for the CA HSR project?

    Peter Reply:

    LTK, of course!

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    It’s really really really REALLY simple: English as a first language(*) = outright disqualification.

    That criterion leaves 97% of the world’s competent professionals in the running.

    (*)Yes, it’s mine, OK?

    synonymouse Reply:

    I’d turn it over to Caltrans and let them hire their own staff. Of course, the route would be simpler – Tejon-I-5-Altamont.

    Bako north, I would give the UP lots of money and see what they can do. Hey, you want to create jobs, right. Calculated risk but let us see if they are serious about 110mph.

    I would query both the UP and the Santa Fe what California railroad improvements they would covet in an ideal world. I would ask entrepreneurs of the Branson stripe if and where there is any profit potential, in their frank, politics aside opinion, in any hypothetical hsr routes in the Golden State.

    Finally no matter who does the engineering they cannot be allowed to hijack the project. Hold the perfunctory stilts – think like a freight railroad. On the other hand don’t be afraid of a genuine game changer and strategic asset like Tejon.

    Eric M Reply:

    And who do you think Caltrans hires?

    synonymouse Reply:

    I would have Caltrans with an ongoing railroad engineering staff. And I would solicit proposals from the likes of Herrenknecht, etc.

  3. Donk
    Sep 20th, 2011 at 22:12

    Another good argument to start HSR in the Central Valley:

    UCLA: Dismal outlook for California’s inland areas

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Sep 20th, 2011 at 22:14

    White is 64, which puts him about at the border, or slightly higher, than the low-break point for the pro-car generation. What is surprising is that he still falls into that pattern, despite his being a historian who should have been looking at this generational pattern we’ve been seeing along with everything else he’s seen.

    All it should have taken for him would be to take a train ride and notice everyone around is a good deal younger. I wouldn’t expect him to be convinced right away, of course–indeed, I wasn’t sure about this myself until I got confirmation from an Amtrak marketing man–but if he had been at all observant, it should have made him curious, and sent him looking.

    VBobier Reply:

    Clearly White needs to retire, I think senility is setting in.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    When we’re talking about someone whose experience with railroads is studying the history of their corruption, there are better explanations for why he’d get HSR wrong than age.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Well, I wouldn’t say that age would be all of it, although it is likely a strong part of it. And it still puzzles me that such a rail historian would come to these conclusions. You would think this background would cancel out the age effect.

    Alon, what would be your guess?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The man studies rail corruption. He is a rail historian, in the same sense Owen Gutfreund is a road historian.

  5. synonymouse
    Sep 20th, 2011 at 23:50

    Perhaps the good professor would have opposed the construction of the Tehachapi Loop as part of the 19th century railroad boom he apparently decries.

    But if he is seeking tabloid railroad scandal he doesn’t have to go back that far. BART and Bechtel were and are about as cunning and conniving and villainous as any Gilded Age railroad baron.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Do BART and Bechtel make one of their own the state’s Governor and shoot farmers who protest them?

  6. Jack
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 08:01

    Does he have a house near the tracks like Morris and Elizabeth?

    Peter Reply:

    I’ve looked on white pages, but wasn’t able to find a Richard White near Caltrain.

    Eric M Reply:

    Here is an R White that lives Pretty Close to the Caltrain tracks in Santa Clara:

    Peter Reply:

    That’s pushing it, distance-wise.

    Eric M Reply:

    Maybe so. It’s just shy of a half mile

    joe Reply:

    Most senior, long time faculty bought homes either on Stanford property – or in PAMPA when prices were affordable. Others bought in readily accessible parts of SF like Noe Valley/Bernal Heights. Santa Clara is a town too far.

    The economic and infrastructure problems HSR addresses in the CV are not readily visible to an academic in the coastal areas of CA toiling at their desks unless their studies take them to these places in the US and elsewhere.

    There is a responsibility for faculty to do more than write scholarly works and train clones for tenure jobs at top tier institutions. White needs to do more than draw parallels to historical data.

    20% unemployment is horrendous.

  7. joe
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 10:18

    Cough Cough.

    According to the report, ten metropolitan areas – Houston, TX, the Washington, DC area, Baltimore, MD, Philadelphia, PA- NJ, Riverside-San Bernardino, CA, Visalia-Tulare-Porterville, CA,  Bakersfield, CA, Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA, Fresno, CA, , and Atlanta, GA – rank worst in the country for smog pollution based on the number of unhealthy air days they experience.

    HSR is part of the solution, and as population increases HSR will allow economic growth without as many new cars. Rail gets people out of cars and into electric powered transportation where the power generation is centralized and can be cleaner than operaitng gasoline or oil based engines.

    Que PAMPA to hand-wring about pollution during HSR construction.

    And poor air quality will impact Ag. Yes, the EPA will need to reduce pollution which means they will impact Ag. Almonds growers and etc will need to upgrade their older polluting diesel motors and possibly change or curtail practices.

    Jack Reply:

    Tread Carefully;

    People here think our poor air quality is because of the Cow’s, and not because all the crap air gets blown in an trapped here from other areas.

    joe Reply:

    Tread carefully?

    Old Farm equipment is notoriously polluting as are some framing practices. The Ag Orgs. know CV air pollution will trigger the EPA to act using science driven studies that will target the most point source polluting sources, so they are concerned.

    HSR is part of the solution for CV reducing air pollution.

    Peter Reply:

    I just heard yesterday in a podcast from a Chinese environmental law scholar that 25% of the smog in LA is caused by pollution originally generated in China.

    joe Reply:

    Hmm. I know we can measure air pollution, and particulates from dust storms originating from China in California’s air, probably upper atmosphere, but the smog we suffer is local.

    Peter Reply:

    I don’t know where she got that number from, or whether it’s accurate.

    joe Reply:

    It may have come from here but this particulate isn’t smog.

    Lead Isotopes Tag The Origins Of Particulate Air Pollutants
    Air Pollution: Study finds that 29% of the Bay Area’s particulate air pollution comes from across the Pacific

    I think this is the case, Asia contribution is measurable but small. Also, this study did not account for natural sources.
    Ozone blowing over from Asia is raising background levels of a major ingredient of smog in the skies over western US states, according to a new study appearing in today’s edition of the journal Nature.

    The amounts are small and, so far, only found in a region of the atmosphere known as the free troposphere, at an altitude of two to five miles, but the development could complicate US efforts to control air pollution.

  8. James
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 12:20

    HSR is “Too rich for California’s blood”?

    World’s Top 10 Economies in 2005
    U.S. $12.5 trillion
    Japan $ 4.5 trillion
    Germany $ 2.8 trillion
    China $ 2.2 trillion
    UK $ 2.2 trillion
    France $ 2.1 trillion
    Italy $ 1.7 trillion
    California $ 1.6 trillion
    Spain $ 1.1 trillion
    Canada $ 1.1 trillion

    Based on the above pre-recession reference, the US econonomy is approximately equal to the combined economies of the HSR nations Japan, Germany, UK, France, and Spain. These countries represent what, 80 or 90% of the world’s HSR systems? California itself is in the ranking. And we cannot afford HSR?

    James Reply:

    A quick check: looks like the above countries represent more like 60% of the world lines above 250 kph.

    joe Reply:

    FWIW: EU sez any new line with speeds above 150KM qualify as HSR, 125KMH on existing track.

    We might include Uzbekistan with a GDP of 32.1 Billion US dollars. They’ll be running at 125KMH

    Imagine if the US tried to to this?
    We can’t – it’s too hard, too expensive and would take money away from our freedom highways and police.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Kilometers per hour or miles per hour? Acela’s average speed between NY and DC is 128 kilometers per hour. ( Or 80 miles per hour )
    125 MPH is 200 KPH
    150 MPH is 240 KPH

    joe Reply:

    From September 16th, 2011 at 7:44 pm
    BBC sez:

    There is no single globally agreed definition of what constitutes a high speed rail line, but the European Union defines them broadly as:

    Recently-built lines designed specifically for high speed travel, where speeds of at least 250 km/h [150 mph] are attained

    Upgraded but generally older lines where speeds of at least 200 km/h [124 mph] are possible.

    Max Wyss Reply:

    Another “down to the earth” definition would be to make it into Table I of the World High Speed Survey by Raiway Gazette International… To do that, on operator needs a train averaging 150 km/h start to stop according to published timetables. FWIW, according to that, the US is at rank 14 with some Acela Expresses between Philadelphia and Wilmington and Baltimore and Wilmington, averaging 168 and 161 km/h.

    Showing that maximum speed is not everything is Norway at rank 16, where the trains to Gadermoen airport station average just above 150 km/h, with a maximum speed of 180 km/h, over rather short distances, or the UK, where the Class 390 Pendolini are not much slower on the WCML than the Class 395 sets on HS1.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Does the 150 km/h average speed definition require this speed to be sustained between two anchor cities, or can any pair of beet field stations work? Because the average speed in Norway is between Oslo and the airport, whereas in the US the most important NEC city pairs have much lower average speed than 150.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Get Acela to make it between NY and DC in 2:20 you’ve broken the barrier. 94 miles per hour if I did the arithmetic correctly. That would drag along all the city pairs in between.
    Too bad it’s never been funded reliably. We were promised 2 hours between NY and DC more than once.

    Max Wyss Reply:

    The tables are based on published timetables. So, if you have a high speed train between two beetroot stations, its schedule is published, and its average is faster than 150 km/h, and it is among the five fastest of the country, it will make it into the list.

    In fact, the fastest train in France is between beetroot stations (although, it would more be choucroute stations, to be honest): TGV 5401 and 5488 between Lorraine TGV and Champagne-Ardennes, doing the 167 km in 37 minutes, giving an average start-to-stop speed of 278 km/h (values rounded by yours truly, as you will notice when looking at the original article).

    I am not familiar enough with the Norvegian system, but I would not be surprised if Gadermoen is among the top 10 stations, when it comes to passengers. The reason for such a high average is that the station area (with very slow speeds) is short, allowing the train to acellerate quickly.

    To adirondacker12800: the above paragraph counts even more for the NEC: make the slow sections faster, and you can shorten travel time considerably (being able to do 1 km with 60 instead of 40 gives you directly half a minute, and if you take into account braking and speeding up, you gain a minute or even more.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There’s all sorts of things laying around that buy you 30 seconds here and 45 seconds there and by the time you get between NY and DC, it’s 15 minutes. The ARC project along with the rebuild of Portal Bridge would have bought 5 minutes. Replacing the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel saves a few, they have to be replaced before they crumble. Foamers claim constant tension catenary would save 15. Other foamers claim that tilt trains would save 15. Though combined it probably wouldn’t be 30. All relatively cheap.

    Joey Reply:

    Re: Uzbekistan. That’s average speed. Top speed is 250 km/h.

    joe Reply:

    So I had thought until I checked – see the link.

    Peter Reply:

    Information from joe’s link:

    Uzbekistan’s trains are rated for 250 km/h, but the tracks are in such bad shape that the trains are limited to 125 km/h.

    Joey Reply:

    Read carefully. I was mistaken about the 250 km/h part, but the article clearly states that the tracks limit the average speed of 125 km/h, implying a top speed higher than that.

    Peter Reply:

    You’re right.

    Seems like they maybe should have spent the money on the tracks instead of the trains. Then they could run their regular trains faster…

    joe Reply:

    Uzbecks have a 34 mile segment that is compatible with HSR speeds. The rest isn’t. So they are still ahead of California.

    Peter Reply:

    Hahaha, that’s very true. Sadly, so.

    James Reply:

    The 60% at 250 kph came from here

    The list of economies came from here

    I was simply doing a ROM reality check on White’s “Too rich..” statement, not a comprehensive expression of all fast rail systems.

  9. J. Wong
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 14:39

    In an a Salon interview with Jennifer Granholm, ex-Governor of Michigan, she describes the reaction of a Chinese official to her response that the U.S.A. is nowhere near or ever going to have a national energy policy:

    She leans over her desk, looks me in the eye, and demonstrates how the the Chinese official rubbed his hands together like a kid unable to contain his glee right before unwrapping Christmas presents. “‘Take your time,’ he tells me,” says Granholm. “‘Take your time.'”

    The same can be said about our national policy with respect to HSR or practically any technology of the future. Somehow the Republicans and people like Richard White believe that the U.S.A. will continue to be a leader in the world without the government having to do anything based on that assumption that there is something intrinsic in capitalism and the American free-market that will keep it so. Instead, China is quickly becoming the world leader in green technology, rare-earth technology, HSR, manufacturing, etc., all the technologies of the future.

    joe Reply:

    China has the rare earth.

    The rest is avoidable except our banker dominated economy isn’t about doing or thinking anymore. Can we send them Bob Rubin?

    We’re also seeing job loss move up the technology food chain and impacting Silicon Valley – yes PAMPA workers are as vulnerable as Flint MI.

    Howard Reply:

    We have a compromised energy policy: No Conservation and No Drilling. The Democrats demand all conservation and no drilling in the USA, but do not know (care) where will we get the oil we need from even with conservation. The Republicans demand no conservation and to allow drilling anywhere in the USA, but do not know were enough domestic oil is to meet our demands without conservation. It would be best if they compromised a logical policy of vigorous conservation and drilling for realistic energy independence, but no, they always compromise to do nothing and let us become even more dependent on foreign oil.

  10. Andre Peretti
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 16:57

    Suppose you show an engineer with no historical prejudice the maps of France and California. Then, ask him: which of these two countries is best suited for HSR?

    – France? Hum… it’s hexagon-shaped, with one big city near the center and not-so-big ones at each angle. Half a dozen lines will have to be built to cover the territory and ridership will be spread too thin. Not a very good candidate for HSR.
    – California? Long and narrow with a big city at both ends. Only one line is needed and the potential ridership is huge. Add a few short spurs and you cover the whole country. It’s a no-brainer. California is a far better HSR candidate than France.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    …show him a map of the Northeast. Four big cities along a narrow corridor with the biggest one more or less in the middle with dense development in between all of them. Radiating out from it dense corridors clustered around existing railroads. Hmmmm.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    Of course. I picked California because it’s the state this blog is concerned with.
    If HSR works in France even though it’s not ideally shaped for it, it should work even better in California. Unless an unusual amount of incompetence is deployed in designing the system.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Neither of them would work. Real Americans don’t ride trains. Anyway Real Americans don’t live in places like California.

    joe Reply:

    Time to take the pulse of depopulated, rural Kansas and find out.

  11. KEG
    Sep 21st, 2011 at 20:21

    I’m a long time lurker here, but I felt compelled to comment on Dr. White’s statements and historical analysis comparing the current CAHSR plan to the old transcons. I am also a historian by training, and I see him making the classic mistake in our field: that is drawing a conclusion from our research that we are convinced is the right narrative (and may even be so for that particular context), and then trying to explain a current-day phenomenon with it.

    When you include the fact that he uses very few sources to build his analysis for the current context (and really, as a historian, providing an narrative comparison for current events, you’ve got loads of primary sources to work from), the analysis falls apart.

    This is precisely what is NOT meant by learning from history. And no respectable historian I know or trust for advice would ever state any lesson so conclusively or try to predict policy conclusions in this fashion.

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