HSR Doesn’t Need Friends Like These
I was really pleased to see the headline of a new op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled Don’t give up on the bullet train, California. I hoped it would be a rousing defense of the concept of high speed rail, of reducing CO2 emissions and fossil fuel consumption, of moving forward on 21st century infrastructure rather than clinging with a death grip to a 20th century model.
Unfortunately, Tom Zoellner’s op-ed is a collection of contradicting, self-defeating claims that are unworkable and won’t do anything to actually help the HSR project. Part of the problem is that Zoellner falls into the trap of blaming the California High Speed Rail Authority for problems that are entirely outside its control:
The reality has proved more problematic. The California High-Speed Rail Authority stumbled first by promising a smooth construction schedule and a $32-billion price tag. The ensuing lawsuits and engineering revisions have fouled up the timeline and bumped up the price to the current reckoning of $67.6 billion (and it’ll probably be more expensive than that). The rail authority’s latest business plan assumes ever more riders and ever less revenue but still suggests the project will ultimately be self-sustaining.
The lawsuits, along with many of the engineering revisions, are the product of critics and opponents who demanded changes or they would sue. In some cases they got the changes they wanted and sued anyway. HSR’s friends need to start by not blaming the victim.
But Zoellner’s suggestions are even more problematic:
Too many stops. There are a raft of complaints about the planned California route, but the Central Valley, now the nation’s busiest short-haul air corridor, is the right place for high-speed rail technology. However, most passengers will want the fastest end-to-end trip possible. France’s TGV embarrassed itself with the Haute-Picard station, built to encourage development in a rural area. The “beetroot” station remains in the middle of the sticks. The builders of Spain’s AVE blemished their network with a stop at a de-populated town called Yebes.
The desire to appease local politicians may be overwhelming, but California’s current 11-stop road from Los Angeles to San Francisco map routed through Fresno is too jerky and slow. The so-called Grapevine route, roughly paralleling Interstate 5 and without as many constituencies to appease, should be resurrected.
This is ridiculous. Serving millions of potential riders in the Central Valley isn’t appeasement, it’s smart service. The point of a train isn’t just to connect point A to point B, but to link up points C, D and E if it’s reasonable to do so. Bypassing the Highway 99 corridor cities would be a huge mistake, especially since the time difference between the two is not actually very significant.
Further, Zoellner betrays his bias against the Central Valley by dismissing it as “the middle of the sticks.” Fresno and Bakersfield are not “the sticks” and cannot be compared to Haute-Picard or Yebes. Fresno has about the same population as Zaragoza, a major city on the Madrid-Barcelona HSR route, and is much bigger than Córdoba, a key stop on the Madrid-Sevilla HSR route. It’s even bigger than Lyon, the first destination on the TGV system from Paris when it opened in 1981. So the idea that the Central Valley is some pointless, empty place is just absurd.
Stop pretending it will pay for itself. The hard truth is that high-speed rail almost never makes money. Only two lines of the 99 now operating in the world, Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon, make any money. And they too required considerable subsidies at the beginning.
In any event, the cost-benefit analysis has to include more than the immediate bottom line: fewer cars on the road, fewer jets in the skies, less pollution in the air.
You mean the same Lyon that is smaller than Fresno?
Zoellner is fudging the numbers here, including construction costs as well as operating costs when figuring profit. HSR rarely pays back the construction cost, except over a very long timeline. But that’s true of any major infrastructure of any kind. The key is that virtually every HSR route does indeed pay for its operations, which is all that Prop 1A requires.
Personally I would love nothing more than to stop talking about whether rail will pay for itself. It shouldn’t have to and insisting that it does is causing significant damage to the effort to build a better passenger rail system in this country. But the fact is that HSR covers its operating costs and will comply with the Prop 1A requirements easily.
Bad compromises. Rightfully wary of the affluent and lawsuit-happy residents of the peninsula south of San Francisco, state officials proposed in 2012 to run the bullet train there on existing tracks owned by Union Pacific. This eliminates the need to condemn land and build expensive new tracks, but it also creates hassles with Union Pacific, forces a drastic reduction in speed (which violates the legal mandate to create a 160-minute ride) and heightens the chances of a collision with an automobile at a grade crossing. The “blended” portions of France’s high-speed train are the most frustrating sections for riders and dispatchers. Speed and safety shouldn’t be compromised, even if it costs more.
So wait. Zoellner blamed the CHSRA for causing lawsuits, then slams it for avoiding a nuclear war with the deep-pocketed Peninsula NIMBYs? I don’t like the blended plan either but as a phase, a step toward the ultimate goal of a four-track system on the Peninsula, I’m fine with it. That’s realism. In any case, Zoellner is victim-blaming again here. If he slammed the selfish NIMBYs who demanded the blended plan I’d be cheering him on.
Not enough Mussolini. This is an unattractive lesson: Big trains like this get built with an autocratic touch. Japan’s Shinkansen train went online in 1964 after enormous domestic resistance only because of the bluster and persistence of an all-but-forgotten bureaucrat named Shinji Sogo, nicknamed Old Man Thunder by his underlings.
I don’t think Zoellner realizes that we do live in a democracy. I can’t stand the NIMBYs either, but they do have a right to use the legislative and legal processes. I think that ability should be streamlined and limited, but I don’t think we need to have some sort of autocratic approach to make HSR work.
HSR in Spain and France was built by democracies (including Socialist parties). California HSR can be built democratically as well, but only if its political leaders decide to do something positive about California’s future rather than sacrifice it for short-term gains. One would imagine that a historic drought would, for example, focus their attention on CO2 reductions. We shall see what happens.