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.