A Melodious Tenor of Optimism

Mar 13th, 2013 | Posted by

Over at the excellent California Economic Summit blog Niki Woodard argues that there has been a notable shift in the media coverage of the California high speed rail project – that “hostility and doom” has been replaced with “a melodious tenor of optimism”:

Have you noticed that news headlines seem to be taking a friendlier approach to California’s high speed rail system, which is slated to begin construction this summer in the San Joaquin Valley?

Whereas a year ago the buzz about the expensive train system rumbled with hostility and doom, today’s buzz bears a melodious tenor of optimism.

Amtrak California has seen significant rises in ridership. In the last 15 years, ridership has grown 66 percent on Amtrak’s San Joaquin line, which basically overlaps the backbone of the planned high speed rail route.

Editorials around the state, particularly in the Central Valley, are using such data to rationalize support for high speed rail. “Figures for Amtrak and passenger rail service on the San Joaquin line — from Bakersfield to Sacramento — indicate that ridership in the valley is increasing, a welcome sign for supporters of high-speed rail,” wrote the Bakersfield Californian on March 7, 2013.

I’ve been at this blog for five years now (our fifth anniversary passed last Wednesday) so I may be a bit jaded, which is why when I first read that I thought “huh? That doesn’t seem right to me.”

But as I thought more about her post this afternoon, I find myself in agreement. Doom and gloom is by no means gone from the media, especially if you turn on Fox 11 news in Southern California. Yet that is outweighed by coverage that increasingly treats the high speed rail project not as some unfamiliar and risky novelty, but as a fairly typical infrastructure project that is going to be built while still dealing with the usual issues any major project faces.

I would also credit the fine work being done by the California High Speed Rail Authority in recent months to resolve issues that have come up over the years so that the project can be in a strong position to start construction. It starts at the top, with chair Dan Richard and CEO Jeff Morales, but the entire staff has been working hard at everything from settling lawsuits to conducting successful community outreach. Anti-HSR attitudes are still out there, and they’ll never go away completely. But there has been a shift in how this project is being viewed and the Authority’s work is a big part of it.

Another factor is that because the opponents of California HSR lost their last hope of stopping the project when the legislature voted last July to release the bond funds, they have stopped placing negative stories about HSR in the media. For the first half of 2012 Ralph Vartabedian at the LA Times had one or two articles per week detailing this or that supposed failing of the project. Usually his reports were flawed, and they were always biased. But he got fed the information and the framing for those articles by Sacramento insiders who were trying to build public opposition to the project to help them round up votes to deny funding. They lost that battle, and with two of the anti-HSR ringleaders termed out of the State Senate (Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal), there’s no one left to continue the fight.

I don’t think we should ever expect HSR to get media coverage that is consistently fair or even positive. The media still likes to treat big government projects as inherently risky and a source for “omg waste!” stories. They also still have a general bias toward treating rail as something that is itself risky and uncertain, even though as Woodard’s post explained, the statistics of high ridership and high public demand for rail in California has become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Once HSR is under construction, the overall tone of critical stories on the project will shift from “this is a bad idea” to “this is being badly executed.” That latter attitude brings its own set of challenges, but is a much better place to be than the former.

All we need now is a different party in control of the US House of Representatives to deliver more federal funding. But even without that, I think it is safe to say that as of now, the worst is behind us in terms of media coverage for California HSR. A lot of work remains to get the project fully built, but that’s the fun part. Really.

  1. joe
    Mar 13th, 2013 at 20:26


    Jeff Morales pushes back at Modesto Bee Editorial.

  2. Ryan
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 05:48

    I’m still getting a little bit of pessimistic push back from friends and family who are convinced the project will fail because no one will use it to go from Merced to Bakersfield. They think it needed to start in the Bay Area or So Cal and then expand. The best I can tell them is to look at where the Interstate Highway system started. Missouri and Kansas. Not exactly population central either.

    That said, I do wish they had done SF to SJ early in the project. The 13 min Diridion Station to SFO would be an amazing demonstration of what HSR can do for the state.

  3. Ryan
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 05:52

    Congratulations on the Five Year Anniversary. We definitely appreciate the work and time you spend commentating on the progress of the system.

    Andy M Reply:


    Jo Reply:

    Appreciated by me also. Thank you.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 06:14

    I tend to concur with both Robert and Ryan, and not just for California HSR. Overall, there seems to be increasing demand that we bring back rail in general, and Amtrak’s growth figures cited in the Niki Woodward piece would seem to bear this out. Comments following articles seem to be more positive than negative when compared with the past, although I can’t say I’ve actually done a measurement of that (would be interesting to find if someone is doing that, and what their results are). Equally important, at least to me, is that it seems the naysayers are largely the same people posting over and over, often with the same posts (an excellent example is some fellow who goes by “Davide Florezze,” or something like that), while the pro-rail crowd seems to have a larger number of individuals with various writing styles and points.

    I can’t help but wonder if (a) a lot of the naysayers are finally wearing out, and (b), given that most of them tend to be older, that at least some are passing away.

    And a possible corollary–again, not scientific, but it seems the only place Wendell Cox gets published of late is on right-wing websites; I haven’t seen anything by him in a main line periodical or paper for some time, although I can’t say I’ve gone looking for him, either.

    Roger Christensen Reply:

    Before we get all warm and fuzzy with optimism, remember that LA’s Metro was shut down in 1998 after more than a dozen years of construction. Every change over and adjustment to plan will consistently be reported as failure by the enemies. They don’t go away. Incremental improvements will be painted as bait and switch to impatient low information voters. Advocacy needs to stay vigilant.

    joe Reply:

    Advocacy needs to stay vigilant.

    Yes it does. I can envision the LA Fox Affiliate run a “ride to nowhere ” news clip when the CV section is finished.

    Trends favor HSR; higher car ownership costs, greater road congestion and demographics and tiered service with reserved seating.

    HSR will meet needs of the middle class with reserved seating, quite coach cars and business class cars. Subway’s don’t have reserved seating.

    Anyone see the difference in ridership between an express bus vs local bus ? The VTA 68 and 168 both run the same route San Jose Caltrain to Gilroy Caltrain but the more expensive and express 168 is a far more pleasant ride with better clientele. VTA is pushing to add more express service, offer more like wifi and charge more to attract the car the commuter with premium pricing.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yes, the local buses generally get far higher ridership because they’re run all day and make stops in a variety of neighborhoods. Limited-stop buses, i.e. buses that are identical to locals except the distance between station stops is longer, also do very well. Express buses in the sense of New York (and apparently also VTA) – premium-branded, usually peak-only, making a few local stops in a neighborhood and then expressing many kilometers to downtown – have low ridership, low revenue, and operating costs so high even the premium fares don’t cover them.

    Likewise, whenever people in North America have a choice between a premium-branded commuter rail and a subway, they flock to the subway by a huge margin.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    NJTransit might disagree. There’s lots of express buses, some of which make money according to the odd accounting transit tends to use. There’s also bus lines with local service all day and limited service during rush hour and the shoulders with express service during the rush. They are branding the limited buses as “GO” buses. They only stop at the intersections with crosstown bus service.


    .. at least they aren’t calling it BRT. They even say, in the video, that it’s a step towards BRT.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Okay, let me correct: if your express buses are the only way a large fraction of suburbanites can get to Manhattan, then people will ride them. Those buses aren’t competing with PATH, or even with the commuter rail lines that go direct to Penn Station; they’re competing mainly with the Erie lines.

    The shoulders with express service aren’t really what I mean by peak-only express service. Some cities, Vancouver included, have dedicated bus lanes but only at rush hour. This is independent of stop spacing, fare, branding, etc. The rush hour Broadway bus lanes in Vancouver are used by both local and limited-stop buses. Very different from the special buses that refuse to pick up inbound or let you out outbound within the city.

    On Staten Island, meanwhile, way more people ride local buses to the ferry or to the R in Bay Ridge than ride the express buses to Manhattan.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There are express bus lines all over New Jersey where the major stops are active railroad stations. They aren’t all in Bergen County. Essex, Morris, Union, Middlesex and Somerset. Some of them with “local” express bus service to Newark and service, on a separate line, to Manhattan. There are few funky lines that behave like a local bus in Newark and it’s suburbs and then express to Manhattan. One that I know of that runs local in the suburbs half the time, then express to Manhattan on the Parkway. The other half of the time it runs local through the suburbs and Newark then express to Manhattan on the Turnpike.
    I get a bit foggy when it comes to Monmouth but the buses to the Port Authority probably stop at the train station. Gawd only knows what goes on towards Philadelphia.
    Newark has had dedicated rush hour bus lanes since at least the 50s. It’s just that since they’ve been there forever, no one finds them remarkable. Don’t need them outside of rush hour because traffic is moving well enough. The Lincoln Tunnel eXpress Bus Lane opened in 1971 IIRC. At the time most of the buses came from the south because Bergen County residents were still driving into Manhattan unless they were going to Wall Street. That’s changed over the years as traffic gets worse. When did they expand the Port Authority Bus Terminal? I seem to remember “80s”..

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Not very express but I doubt very many people get on it at Journal Square to get to PATH trains.


    Alon Levy Reply:

    Is this such a high-ridership line, even? The 40-minute peak frequency suggests otherwise.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    the once an hour express bus from an obscure town in Bergen county isn’t very high ridership either.

    EJ Reply:

    Are you guys ever going to get tired of droning on about NYC transit on blogs about the west coast? It’s not applicable. Our development patterns are different, and our historic transit infrastructure is completely different.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Places where the railroad came through in 1845 look remarkably like places where the railroad came through in 1863. Or 1889.

    Joey Reply:

    Yes, we have all sorts of super special local unique conditions that make any comparison with anything else invalid.

    swing hanger Reply:

    I admit my attention wanes when the discussion wanders to talk of New Yawk area conditions (e.g. the express bus from Hackensack, it takes X minutes faster to Manhattan, etc. type talk…), but it does give some impression of conditions in a transit-rich area stateside, and perhaps a glimpse of things to come in the future, good or bad.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    New York’s far from the only place where people prefer frequent local transit to peaky premium express routes. See, for example, Vancouver. Or Toronto. Or Boston. Or from a different but related angle (frequent grid vs. hourly one-seat rides to the CBD) Portland.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Chicago? Can’t griddier than Chicago. Even rich people ride the local bus in Chicago

    BrianR Reply:

    of course our development patterns may be different but I still think there is value in learning about how transit systems work in other areas in terms of providing an additional perspective.

    Eric Reply:

    I once saw the fare recovery ratio for each bus route in the St Louis area. By far the best recoveries were for rush hour express buses from suburban park&ride lots to downtown and back in the evening.

    Of course, these only ran in one direction and only in rush hour. If they had to run all day, their performance would surely have been worse.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Do these ratios include the capital costs of equipment that sits unused for about 22 hours a day?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    It’s probably 20 hours a day because the bus garage isn’t downtown and isn’t out at the suburban end of the line either.

  5. Derek
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 07:58

    Here is a nice video review of Taiwan’s HSR, from a Californian on a 15-hour layover. It reminds me of Japan’s Shinkansen–not lavish, but functional, efficient, and much more comfortable than flying.

    Jo Reply:

    Very nice video. I have ridden HSR in Spain. I think once completed and people start riding CAHSR, I think people will think why did we not do this before.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    The problem is that they’ll get PB HSR in 2040, not RENFE HSR in 2010.
    30% as usable, 500% as expensive (even inflation adjusted).

    What’s good for the contractor mafiosi must be for the the people, right? Why didn’t we think of that before?

    StevieB Reply:

    Would you not build any infrastructure to punish evil contractors or only hire beneficent foreign contractors?

    Neville Snark Reply:

    In some region of one’s mind one feels sympathy was Richard’s view; but it is a childish, idealistic part. One has to play with the cards as they’re dealt.

    synonymouse Reply:

    “One has to play with the cards as they’re dealt.”

    I like to play double bonus video poker using an optimal strategy developed about 20 years ago. After 53 possible hands there remains hand no. 54 which is described as “zilch-draw 5 new cards”

    PB DogLegRail is worse than zilch. Draw a new hand and the odds are better.

    Neville Snark Reply:

    r u serious? ‘take the money back, we’ll like to start over …’. But maybe you just think it would been better to try playing a bit of a higher stakes game, ie say no to the dogleg, etc.

    joe Reply:

    I maybe missing something but I don’t know that Richard has ever been a major party for a functioning rail system.

    Kvetching isn’t competence.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Neither have Kopp and Diridon.

    Brian Reply:

    Neither Kopp nor Diridon have been involved in the CAHSRA for years now.

    PB on the other hand has delivered the Taiwan HSR system.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    PB has delivered many projects worldwide. Somehow the costs are only insanely high in the US, which tells me the problem is with local politicians and engineers, not the firm itself. Skanska too is facing corruption charges in Argentina (and is overcharging New York) even as its projects run well in Sweden.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    When those cards are 2-7 off-suit, it’s best to fold.

    joe Reply:

    Stop HSR because …. bad metaphor.

    I have no faith in self-appointed “technical” experts with no given track record of doing or accomplishing anything near this magnitude let alone doing so while coping with local state and national politics, I have no faith they match let alone can do HSR factors better and cheaper.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    And I have no faith in the HSR honchos, who have the same track record we do except they don’t realize that others do things better.

    joe Reply:

    You simultaneously discredit them as be equally inexperienced as you AND point that others have done “it” better implying completed work.

    And pointing that others have done it better again, implies similar circumstances but we haven’t them in the US and in CA.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    But there is completed work. Just none of it happens to be in the US. Do I need to be a teacher to complain that the local schools are underperforming? Do I need to be a doctor or another health care provider to complain about US health care costs? Do I need to be an arms manufacturer to say that defense contracts are pork? We technicals have never said “Put us in charge.” The original divisions was never about that; it was about whether the main barrier to transit revival in the US was lack of political will to spend more money, or technical hurdles causing the money to be spent inefficiently.

    Special circumstances are just the flimflam that the local experts throw at you when you try criticizing them. It’s meant to mystify the process whereas everything I’ve written has been about demystifying it. Tunnels cost several times more than elsewhere per unit of distance? It has to be about special local circumstances (most of which turn out not to stand up to any scrutiny – e.g. Paris has way older infrastructure than the Upper East Side). Trains aren’t run to any predictable schedule? Nobody really cares about schedules anyway and timed transfers are impossible. Etc. New rolling stock orders on lines that are at capacity still don’t have gangways? Special local circumstances in New York prohibit that (same local circumstances are there in Paris on lines with walk-through trains). Commuter trains park much longer in San Francisco than in Tokyo? Direct quote, via Richard: “Asians don’t value life the way we do.”

    You will never improve anything by trusting the people whose vested interest is in not changing it. The problem is that the bureaucrats know that an efficient government has no place for them. A California that cares about cost-effective rail is going to hire people with experience, who are not American. Diridon can’t try to implement any such solution; there are Germans who can do it better than he can and have less baggage. Best thing he and his ilk can do is try to make themselves indispensable by creating political barriers to any improvement that doesn’t involve them. But people who create problems just to stay indispensable are the last people who will produce any kind of competence; the best solution is to kick them out and deal with the consequences later, with people in charge who try to solve problems rather than create them.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Paris is on rock that can be dug with hand tools. Water Tunnel No. 3 is on time and on budget.

    Nathanael Reply:

    There is something definitely wrong with the way things are done in New York City. Exhibit A is the fact that a bundch of buildings were defective before the Second Avenue Subway started construction. The landlords were legally responsible and should have fixed them long ago. The Department of Buildings had issued citations to them, and should have forced the landlords to fix them long ago.

    Instead, both the landlords and the Department of Buildings managed to get the MTA to pay for the repairs, by lollygagging, refusing to do their jobs, and then shouting in the press about how everything was the subway’s fault.

    How does stuff like this happen? Well, to be blunt, it doesn’t happen in most of the US. It doesn’t happen in LA, for example. There is something especially wrong in NYC bureaucratic culture.

    synonymouse Reply:

    With a video poker machine you have already paid for the draw and a reasonable amount of the time you will get a “push” drawing five new cards.

    Van Ark was simple asking for 5 new cards on the mountain crossing deal, the correct play when the DogLeg hand amounts to “zilch”.

    synonymouse Reply:


    Alon Levy Reply:

    Holdem with humans > video poker.

    synonymouse Reply:

    With humans you have to bluff, etc. I am not good at poker face, etc.

    Casinos are not that hot on video poker as you can play for quite a while without losing too much money. One expert critiqued that greedy position, recommending a roughly 95% return to the player, and allowing them to take some time before losing. Better for business overall.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It’s less poker face than paying attention to how loose or tight your opponent is, knowing not to fall in love with every hand, knowing how much to bluff, etc.

    synonymouse Reply:

    If I “move up” it would probably be to blackjack, at least initially. But I am stuck at the civil service pensioner on a pittance level of play.

    The Graton Ranch casino in RoPo is supposed to open sometime after August – they are working on it 24-7. I’ll be there the first day, provided I can get past the door and the crowds of all the people who were against the casino, and see if there are any Game King machines. It is run by Stations Casinos, the same as Thunder Valley. I went there too but the few Game King machines they had were not very well maintained and the noise was way too loud. Not the slot machines but the canned music, even pumped into the huge parking lots.

    My kids laugh at me and inform me these places are designed for 20-somethings, not geezers. My idea of a comfy casino is El Cortez in Vegs, CalNeva in Reno, and the Nugget in Carson City.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    I wouldn’t be so confident in your speculation about van Ark’s departure. For all you know, van Ark might have sought the Tejon option solely to placate SNCF’s racetrack plan along the western San Joaquin Valley.

    synonymouse Reply:

    I believe that that the accounts of the SNCF proposal had Van Ark in a noncommital, even somewhat skeptical, position.

    His call for a revisit to Tejon was simply good and proper management, providing a “bolt-hole”. Does it not say everything about the CHSRA that they ditched the one competent guy who had actually backgrounded and grasped the whole project?

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Just checked out the video myself, and it looks like a good fit for the country. No fancy dining cars (not needed on a run of less than two hours), food service is appropriate for such a run, stations are modern and adequate for a line that could almost be a high-speed Metro.

    Speaking of that, I wonder if this railroad is operated that way. Automated ticket machines and electric faregates look like something from Washington, DC, as do the flashing lights on the platform edge to warn you of an approaching train. The stations also seemed to be lacking in seating, again looking like a Metro station where you don’t linger for very long. Still, this is appropriate for a railroad like this one with that relatively short running time.

    Seating in the “coach class” car looked like a more comfortable commuter train with 3-2 seating; “first class” looked like traditional long-distance coach with reclining leg-rest seating. The reserved areas for handicapped or wheelchair passengers are a good idea, but those seat colors–purple–ugh! Looks like the bad days of early Amtrak to me! Cue up that disco music–NOT!!

    Checked out some other videos on the same page and thought this one might be of interest; Chinese HSR vs. air service, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:


    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The stations also seemed to be lacking in seating, again looking like a Metro station where you don’t linger for very long.

    When the trains run on time all the time, people show up on time and depart on time. If they are late for their train another one shows up in a few minutes.

    Jonathan Reply:

    When the trains run on time all the time, people show up on time and depart on time. If they are late for their train another one shows up in a few minutes.

    That’s _the_ key difference between a rail service which breaks even (or makes money); and one that doesn’t.
    And then of course there’s BART. Ouch.

    Nathanael Reply:

    That’s also the key difference between a rail service which gets huge numbers of riders and one which doesn’t.

    It’s very important for the trains to run on time.

    Jo Reply:

    Correct. We must not confuse HSR stations for airports.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Also, the trains run in fixed consists- so door X on car X always stops at point X on the platform- passengers know exactly where to wait, and really only need to get to the platform 2 or 3 minutes before the train arrives- reduces dwell time also.

    Reedman Reply:

    I was in Japan, and had to change subway trains at the main Tokyo station at the peak of rush hour. The trains were packed, and many times you couldn’t get on board before the train pulled away. But, the second the train pulled away, people started lining-up on the platform for the next train at the exact spot where the door on the next train was going to be in two minutes.

  6. Keith Saggers
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 17:18
  7. Reality Check
    Mar 14th, 2013 at 17:51

    High-speed rail targeted for derail

    Harkey has engineered an effort by her fellow Assembly Republicans to push for an audit of the Authority’s “oversight and management of private contractors for the initial 29-mile segment between Madera and Fresno” — the so-called “route to nowhere.” Earlier audits, as I’ve discussed in this space, found rail officials had made risky ridership assumptions, incomplete funding assessments, and cost estimates that were borderline laughable.

    In a letter last month to State Auditor Elaine Howle, Harkey and company wrote that they want to ensure “that the Authority has proper policies, protocols, and resources in place to manage its contractors,” preconditions they deem “critical for protecting passenger safety and controlling costs.” Their letter raised dozens of questions pertaining to oversight, safety, land expropriation, and potential conflicts of interest.

    “The legislature needs to remain involved,” Harkey told me, “and be responsible for what is being proposed. And if we don’t have accurate ridership data we [should] reassess.” Referring to the seed money provided by the federal government as “cocaine for the train,” Harkey says we should “either return the $3.3 billion… or use our big state influence to swap the money for other infrastructure needs.”

    Ryan Reply:

    LOL at Union Tribune. Such an objective source…

    Jack Reply:

    This again. We have a letter some where for the Fed that said the money is for HSR or it goes back, how come every six months they think that’s going to change….

    Tony D. Reply:

    Expect this type of REACHING until the trains start rolling (the obstructionists won’t quit!)

    joe Reply:

    Recall the GAO was let loose on HSR and the Dec 6 ’12 preliminary report investigating their management practices was very positive. For example the GAO reported the CAHSRA ridership estimate has all the components of a state-of-the-art estimate. Harkey’s criticism is unfounded. The final GAO report due this (I think) this month, March.

    “cocaine for the train” That’s a winner. Probably a high paid consultant concocted that zinger.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    I have “the components of” a concert pianist.

    Opposable thumbs? Check.

    jimsf Reply:

    With all your insight and knowledge, I’m surprised you haven’t been snatched up by some global consortium of hsr builders.

    nick Reply:

    yeah i am amazed that niether richard nor syn have been given employment by pb or bechtel……………

    Peter Reply:

    It might have something to do with the fact that he routinely calls for the deaths of those people whom he disagrees with. That doesn’t go over well in a work environment.

    nick Reply:

    but syn would claim that he was under the influence of pelosi mind rays ………..

    BrianR Reply:

    “fiery deaths” none the less.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    “You have never been a king, so you can’t criticize our glorious King Joffrey Baratheon.”

  8. nick
    Mar 15th, 2013 at 16:00

    here in the uk the court has returned the verdicts on ten cases that had been brought against hs2. only one went against hs2 and the government and i believe two were given right to appeal. the one could be costly though as the judge ruled that on the matter of consultation and compensation that the process was illegal and unfair and will have to be done again. if anyone is interested the following links to all related hs2 articles


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