New and Serious Errors Discovered in LA Times HSR Fares Article

May 11th, 2015 | Posted by

In addition to the flaws described yesterday in the Ralph Vartabedian article on high speed rail fares, several people have discovered serious errors in the article’s core assertion: that the proposed fares for the California HSR system are unusually low when compared to other HSR systems around the world. Vartabedian made that charge in order to cast doubt on the notion that California HSR fares would be cheap:

But compared with current average prices on several high-speed rail systems in Asia and Europe, $86 would be a bargain, equating to about 20 cents a mile or less, the Times review found. The analysis was based on a 438-mile route in the mid-range of what state officials expect the final alignment to measure.

The average fare on Italy’s 434-mile bullet train from Milan to Salerno was 25 cents a mile. The fare on China’s 809-mile line between Beijing and Shanghai was 22 cents per mile. China discloses little about its high-speed rail finances and many academic and transportation experts say it heavily subsidizes its fares, as do many other foreign operators.

The French bullet train from Paris to Lyon is often cited as a line that is profitable, but it has a fare of 52 cents a mile. The German bullet train from Hannover to Wurzburg charges 46 cents a mile. The price comparisons were based on tickets purchased at least one week in advance, averaged over various times of the day and classes of service.

On the East Coast, Amtrak’s Acela system, the closest thing to high-speed rail now operating in the U.S., charges an average of about 50 cents a mile for the 454-mile trip between Washington and Boston.

It turns out Vartabedian’s claims for the average fares on those other routes is simply wrong.

Paul Druce from the comments on yesterday’s post:

You missed the best part: They got the fare yields completely wrong for the European HSR systems. As best I can tell, they used RailEurope (which completely rips people off compared to actually purchasing through SNCF or DBahn) and did a 50/50 averaging of first and second class tickets.

And of course they’re ignoring the actual average one way fares for air: $140 for 4th quarter 2014 between Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan regions

Taupe Avenger:

And in response to that comes this from Kevin Wang:

You can be sure that if it was the California High Speed Rail Authority that had screwed up this comparison, Vartabedian would never let them hear the end of it. Instead Vartabedian makes the error and he’ll just continue bashing HSR as if nothing had ever happened.

LA Times Completely Botches Story on HSR Fares

May 10th, 2015 | Posted by

When I saw the headline “Doing the math on California bullet train fares” for a brief moment I thought this might be an interesting and informative story about what riders might expect a fare to be in the late 2020s when the system opens from LA to SF.

Then I saw that Ralph Vartabedian was in the byline. And sure enough, the story is about as flawed as you’d expect from such a biased and inaccurate reporter. His story is basically attempting to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the fares while deliberately ignoring piles of evidence that prove the California High Speed Rail Authority’s argument that it is totally reasonable to expect HSR fares to be cheaper than the airlines.

He starts off by pointing out that the system has to generate enough riders to break even – but if fares go too high, people might not take the train, threatening the ability to generate an operating profit:

The current $86 fare is calculated in 2013 dollars based on a formula that prices tickets at 83% of average airline fares to help attract riders. The rail fare is an average that includes economy and premium seats, nonstop and multi-stop trains, as well as last-minute and advance purchase tickets. A premium, same-day nonstop bullet train trip would cost more than $86.

But compared with current average prices on several high-speed rail systems in Asia and Europe, $86 would be a bargain, equating to about 20 cents a mile or less, the Times review found. The analysis was based on a 438-mile route in the mid-range of what state officials expect the final alignment to measure.

There’s a LOT of flawed assumptions going on here. The biggest is ignoring the cost of flying – which as Joe Mathews realized recently is no longer cheap or convenient. Vartabedian also fails to explain why European and Asian HSR fares are higher – in part the reason is because governments there are increasingly demanding that fares pay down the capital cost of building the line, which is an absurd demand.

Vartabedian plays the usual trick of quoting only government officials and their critics, giving the reader the impression that the critics’s arguments are of equal weight to the better-informed government officials. But in this article it’s even worse, as the critics are not even identified as critics – they’re passed off as neutral observers or even, in the case of Joseph Vranich, as “a high speed rail advocate.” Vranich is anything but that, and has spent years attacking the California HSR project. So have William Grindley and Alain Enthoven, whose claims are passed off as fact despite Grindley, Enthoven, and Vranich having been repeatedly debunked. Vartabedian never mentions, for example, than Enthoven owns property in Atherton next to the proposed HSR route, rather significantly biasing his analysis.

Vartabedian does quote one pro-HSR expert, Frank Koppelman, but goes out of his way to cast aspersions on his claims, calling them “unproven” and, as seen below, describing them as vague and uncertain:

Last year, about 10.7 million people flew between the five airports in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the three airports in the Bay Area, one of the nation’s most competitive markets, according to federal figures. Recently, one-way fares between L.A. and San Francisco have been as low as $68, but can exceed $200 for next-day travel.

Koppelman said that although it would be a small fraction of the bullet train’s projected ridership, shifting roughly 25% of air travelers to high-speed rail, as the state projections suggest, would be a significant achievement.

However, like other experts interviewed, Koppelman said even the best ridership projections are only estimates. “People don’t realize how difficult these things are and how many things can change that aren’t in the model,” he said.

The problem here is that Vartabedian sets this up as two sets of competing claims – the “experts” like Vranich, Grindley, and Enthoven – who Vartabedian failed to identify as HSR opponents – and Koppelman, whose claims are supposedly suspect. Vartabedian doesn’t try to examine any facts here.

If he had, he’d discover that there is a huge pile of evidence from all over the world – including the United States – showing that where HSR is an option, travelers will flock to it instead of flying. The Acela has over half the travel market in the NEC. Madrid to Barcelona had once been one of the world’s busiest air corridors, but it lost over half its business to the bullet train once the AVE link was completed to connect those two cities. And those are just two of many examples.

Vartabedian also ignores rising oil prices that have already caused the costs of flying to soar. Nowhere does he mention that airlines themselves want HSR on short-haul routes like LA to SF. All of the major airports along the HSR route want the project to be built because they know it will feed their traffic. So when Vartabedian offers this quote:

“It is a vastly important market to the airlines and one they have fought hard to establish,” said Robert Ditchey, a former airline executive and a co-founder of America West Airlines. “Somebody in that market is not just going to walk away.”

…we know it’s hogwash, because current CEOs very much want HSR and do not see it as a threat. Rather they see it as an opportunity to open up more slots at existing airports for the more lucrative medium- and long-haul flights that they really want. Don’t take it from me. Take it from legendary Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher.

Toward the end of the article, having run out of HSR critics to pass off as independent experts, Vartabedian goes completely off the rails and repeats a soundly discredited argument about HSR not being a strong travel choice in California:

Predicting how many travelers will leave private cars decades from now presents its own challenges. Fuel costs could rise sharply, pushing travelers toward a fast rail option. Or the convenience of more efficient, possibly even self-driving, cars could entice people to use the road.

Just how many people drive between L.A. and San Francisco is itself an unknown, state transportation officials say. The full cost of operating a car over the 383-mile trip is about $222, based on federal government figures. But if drivers simply consider fuel costs, they would run about $65, based on the average national fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon and current fuel prices.

“With a family, it’s four train fares versus one car, and taking the train may require a car rental at the other end,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of USC’s Metrans transportation program. “I don’t see high-speed rail as competitive in the family market.”

This is all simply wrong. Cars, whether self-driving or not, take twice as long – on a good day – to make the trip between SF and LA as will the bullet trains. And they do so in far less comfort.

Speaking as someone who has repeatedly made the trip from the Bay Area to Southern California and back, I cannot tell you how many times I wished there was a bullet train so I could take that instead of a car. That’s especially true now that I have a family of my own. On Saturday my son vomited all over himself on a long drive to see my in-laws. We were able to pull over quickly and get it cleaned up, but it took 30 minutes to get everything relatively clean to get back on the road, and even then it was not a comfortable rest of the trip.

Had that trip been taken on a train, there would have been an attendant who could have taken care of some of the cleaning duties. We would have been able to go to a bathroom, get my son thoroughly cleaned and changed, and our trip would have continued in much more comfort than it did in the car. In fact, on our return trip, we used a ferry rather than drive the whole way, and despite it being more expensive than driving, it was far better for everyone – including my son, who loved being on the big boat.

When you travel with a family, cost becomes only part of the equation. Travel time is the biggest factor, and 2.5 hours on a train beats 6+ hours in a car every time, no matter what, and if you don’t believe that then you’ve never actually traveled anywhere in a car with a child.

Comfort is another important consideration. The ability to go to a clean and spacious bathroom to change your kid’s diapers, or a cafe car where everyone can get food, or a comfortable seat where everyone can play cards or read a book or play on their electronic devices is a big advantage over the cooped and confined automobile. Or a cooped and confined plane, for that matter.

Vartabedian also makes the assumption that gas prices will remain cheap forever – “based on current fuel prices,” he says – which is an absurd claim. Gas prices crashed briefly last winter, but they’re soaring fast here in spring. The long-term trend is still upward, and even at the bottom of the gas price market around January 1, prices were still higher than at any time prior to 2006.

If one wanted to write a useful piece of journalism looking at HSR fares, they’d examine fares around the world. They’d investigate how those fares are set. What is the amount of subsidy? What do the system administrators expect the fares to pay for – operations? construction? debt? profit? How have the fares behaved over time? How have HSR routes drawn travelers away from flying and driving?

Unsurprisingly, Vartabedian didn’t want to write that story. He wanted to write yet another smear job on the HSR project. And once again, he looked foolish in the process.

Japan’s Prime Minister Touts HSR In California

May 4th, 2015 | Posted by

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is visiting the United States this week, and his trip began in California. According to the Wall Street Journal, a big part of his California stop is to act as the “salesman-in-chief” for Japan’s high speed rail in the hopes that California will choose it for its own HSR project. Abe met with Governor Jerry Brown and other state leaders to tout Japanese technology:

More background from the WSJ article:

Exporting Japan’s bullet-train system, known as the Shinkansen, is an important element of Mr. Abe’s strategy to revive his nation’s economy. Winning contracts in the U.S. would help bolster Japan’s bid to expand business in other markets, particularly in Asia’s developing nations, and compete with rivals from China and Europe….

The Japanese consortium bidding for the California project hopes that Tokyo will help finance the new project with a cheap loan from the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Supporting Kawasaki’s bid in California is East Japan Railway Co., Japan’s largest operator that runs a massive railway system crisscrossing the Tokyo metropolitan area, as well as long-distance bullet trains.

Japan Times has more detail on the Kawasaki bid:

The technology is based on Kawasaki’s efSET, short for environmentally-friendly super express train, and is designed to achieve an operational speed of 350 kph.

Eyeing competition from Germany’s Siemens AG and others, Kawasaki says efSET is adapted to stress energy conservation, ride comfort and safety, including fire resistance — qualities often demanded in bids for overseas rail projects….

Employing its expertise in shinkansen, Kawasaki started developing the concept design of the efSET in 2008, sporting a sleek aerodynamic head to cut air resistance.

The manufacturer says it incorporates key devices and tools employed by the shinkansen, which has built a reputation for reliability.

Made of aluminum alloy, its lightweight body helps to reduce energy consumption, an environmentally friendly feature that would appeal to eco-conscious California citizens, the sources said.

For those who really want to geek out on the trainsets, you can read more about the Kawasaki efSET here.

The article also points out that Japan is touting safety as a key feature of its technology and its experience – particularly because they may not be able to compete with China on price:

Under Beijing’s “railway diplomacy” strategy, Chinese train builders have been increasing their presence in the United States. In October last year, China CNR Corp. won an order for subway vehicles in Boston, outdoing Japanese competitors.

But the record for China’s high-speed rail service was marred by a fatal accident — a 2011 collision in Zhejiang Province that the Chinese government said killed 40 people.

“No one was injured on shinkansen trains when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011,” an official from a company in the Japanese consortium said.

The Wenzhou crash was a major tragedy. But it did not get much attention among Californians. I doubt that a single crash will undermine China’s chances at winning a contract involving California HSR – especially if China can throw more money at their bid and thus reduce the cost to the state. Japan’s safety record in a seismically active area will be quite compelling to earthquake-conscious Californians, but will that experience trump a more lucrative (to the state) bid from China? We shall see.

Abe’s visit to California and his emphasis on high speed rail shows just how seriously Japan is taking this project and this opportunity. It is also a reminder that even as the right-wing Congress dithers, California HSR still has powerful friends around the globe.

Santa Clarita Rallies To Dump HSR Tracks Onto Someone Else

May 2nd, 2015 | Posted by

Earlier this week over a thousand residents of Santa Clarita and nearby communities held a rally to demand that some other neighborhood be stuck with the HSR tracks that they don’t want.

Their message rang loud and clear: Get the bullet train out of our communities and put it underground.

More than 1,300 vocal residents of communities along the Palmdale-to-Burbank section of the high-speed rail project recited a litany of issues and concerns with the controversial project on Monday, including vibration, noise, the possibility of depressed home values and potential risks to water supplies or increased seismic activity….

In the mind of Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean, the high-speed train should go underground in Burbank and stay that way until it reaches Palmdale.

“We are saying we want a seat at the table, but they must listen to us,” McLean said. “We are speaking with one voice.”

Adding their voices to Santa Clarita’s Monday were representatives from Acton, Agua Dulce and the city of San Fernando, which recently joined with the city to create the North L.A. County Communities Protection Coalition — with the goal of presenting a unified regional front to urge the High-Speed Rail Authority to put the train underground wherever it runs.

Of course, there are people in Burbank, Glendale, and Los Angeles who want the tracks to go underground all the way to LA Union Station. Proposals have been floated by Peninsula NIMBYs for a tunnel all the way from SF’s Transbay Terminal to San José.

It’s not practical to build half the HSR route in a tunnel. Even if it were, it wouldn’t be cheap – and yet many of the critics at this rally cited the rising cost of building HSR as a reason to not move ahead with the project. Which is it? HSR is too expensive, or it’s not expensive enough (because the state won’t spend billions more to build a tunnel under the mountains)?

The ultimate goal of these NIMBYs is to dump tracks they don’t want into the laps of residents of Sunland, Lake View Terrace, and maybe even Pacoima – who aren’t exactly wild about having these tracks in their own backyard.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is doing the right thing in conducting a study of the so-called “east corridor” that would include the tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains. But it’s a longshot, even before the costs are considered. Santa Clarita shouldn’t be putting all its hopes on that concept. Instead they would do well to examine the current route through their neighborhoods, look for ways to mitigate the impacts, and if the Highway 14 alignment is chosen, work to get the project funded and built quickly so that residents aren’t spending years or even decades in limbo.