Tuesday’s high speed rail groundbreaking in Fresno has been, by all accounts, a big success. The event itself was fairly standard – lots of speeches from elected officials, including Governor Jerry Brown. Instead of turning dirt with shovels, dignitaries signed rails.
The media coverage has been very positive, solidifying California’s pro-HSR political consensus and making it clear that it’s a question of when, not if, high speed rail is built in the Golden State.
But as we’ve learned long ago with HSR, behind every silver lining is someone insisting there should be dark gray clouds. Sadly, the most prominent of the anti-HSR haters to emerge this week has been this article claiming HSR is a “waste of time and money”. It first appeared at Slate, but then Mother Jones, of all places, decided to run it.
The whole thing is utterly ridiculous, claiming that since HSR won’t be built immediately, we should turn to electric buses and self-driving cars to solve our climate problems. Yeah, right.
But there’s a huge catch. The $68 billion project is already running behind schedule and won’t be completed until at least 2028. The Los Angeles Times reports that there are still significant political and financial hurdles ahead: The system isn’t fully funded yet, some parcels of land within the right-of-way haven’t been acquired, and a deal with freight railroads hasn’t been worked out yet. There’s a very real risk the rail line won’t be completed at all.
If you’re taking Ralph Vartabedian’s concern trolling at face value, that’s a poor way to begin an article. But there’s no doubt that the project has many years ahead before passengers will be riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Lots of big projects have taken a long time to build. Interstate 5 wasn’t completed in California for about 25 years.
Meanwhile, the world has only a few short decades to tackle blossoming carbon emissions in time to keep global warming under so-called safe levels, defined as a rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius. On the world’s current carbon emissions trajectory, we’ll use up our total carbon budget by 2042. Amtrak’s true high-speed rail line in the Northeast corridor, promising three-hour transits between Washington, D.C., and Boston (down from seven hours currently on the Acela), isn’t slated for completion until 2040. Time is not on our side.
Given the incredible pressure that global warming is inflicting, we can’t waste precious resources on high-speed rail. It’s impractical to hope that truly high-speed rail—the kind that will compete with air travel—will arrive in time to do much good.
There’s so much wrong here that it’s really difficult to know where to begin. So I’ll begin with an analogy.
Most people who have gone on a diet have discovered two things. First, it’s not actually that hard to shed pounds. Second, it’s a lot harder to keep them off and avoid slowly adding them back.
What this author proposes is a crash diet to slash CO2 emissions, but neglecting long term changes to ensure the emissions stay down. As we’ll see, his proposed alternatives won’t actually cut all that much CO2. But even if they did, they’re not going to be a lasting solution. HSR provides CO2 reductions for decades, even centuries to come, ensuring that once CO2 is cut, it stays cut. It helps nobody to keep CO2 at safe levels in 2042 if you can’t sustain it and suddenly are back at unsafe levels in 2052.
But hey, let’s play along. What are his alternatives?
Instead, limited public transportation funds should be prioritized for climate-friendly projects that will pay off more than high-speed rail in the same time frame. Some options for politicians: 1) Expand the use of upscale electric buses, 2) support self-driving vehicle technology, and 3) regulate airline emissions….
That $68 billion California plans to spend on its high-speed rail system could buy 82,000 state-of-the-art electric buses, 55 times Greyhound’s entire nationwide fleet. And they could start operating immediately. Dedicated bus lanes and congestion pricing have done wonders for reducing commute-hell in many cities, like London. There are ways to make intercity bus travel more appealing, too, as evidenced by the expansion of carriers like Wi-Fi enabled MegaBus in recent years. Similar “curbside” buses are the fastest growing mode of intercity transport and are the most carbon-friendly way to travel medium to long distances in the United States.
Is he serious? Does he realize that electric buses don’t have the range to get from SF to LA on a single charge? Even if they did, it would still take at least six hours to get from downtown SF to downtown LA, assuming no traffic and no intermediate stops. HSR will make that trip in half the time while serving key destinations along the way. I don’t care how comfortable the bus is, it’s not as comfortable as getting to your destination at least 3 hours earlier than the alternative.
More importantly, as Yonah Freemark pointed out today, nobody is even proposing to buy 82,000 electric buses. It’s not on the radar at all, whereas HSR is already under construction.
If his concern is that HSR won’t be built quickly enough, why not just call for more funding to help HSR get built by 2020 rather than 2028?
Self-driving cars would also do wonders for the climate if they can fulfill their promise to virtually eliminate traffic. A recent Columbia University study showed that replacing New York City’s fleet of taxis with an optimized swarm of self-driving cars would reduce operating costs (and presumably fuel use) by more than 80 percent. Plus, you’d have to wait only seconds to catch one. Of course, there are significant technical, cultural, and legal hurdles before this vision becomes a reality — but the potential is truly immense.
This is just grasping at straws here. Replacing a fleet of taxis within a city is one thing. Using self-driving cars to get from SF to LA, a distance of more than 400 miles, is quite another. That too gets you the same problems as the electric bus – need to recharge, long driving times – as well as introducing new problems, such as crowding on the roads. Like the mythical 82,000-strong electric bus fleet, the self-driving car is more of a concept than a reality. It may be 2028 or later when it is perfected for the roads – and yet it still doesn’t address the longer travel times issue. There’s also open questions about just how much CO2 savings there would be from self-driving cars, especially if their electricity is powered by fossil fuels.
Short-haul flights, those 400 miles or less, are the single most carbon-intensive activity most of us ever do. The proportion of domestic flights that are short-haul (and thus could hypothetically be replaced with rail or bus travel) has been declining in recent years, thanks in part to a rise in video conferencing and frustration with security procedures. But total miles flown on airlines are still increasing in the United States and booming internationally. High-speed rail would do precious little to slow that growth any time soon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue new rules pertaining to air travel by 2016. Since planes frequently fly overseas, the EPA is likely to coordinate its rules with the United Nations, which could result in the first-ever emissions standards for newly built aircraft.
Actually, HSR would do quite a lot to reduce air travel on routes served by bullet trains, just as it has around the world. While reducing CO2 emissions on airlines is great, nobody has yet come up with an alternative to lighting fossil fuel on fire to power those jets. It may not even be possible to have an electric jet. HSR is not only possible, it’s been in operation for 50 years.
These three ideas all share at least one thing in common: they are fantasies. None of them exist in reality, not in enough numbers to be a practical substitute for high speed rail. His three alternatives don’t pass the smell test.
But then, this author doesn’t appear interested in reality, given how he closes his article:
High-speed rail will eventually be useful in America—just not quite yet. Besides, it would probably be better to wait for maglev costs to come down or for something like Elon Musk’s hyperloop technology, anyway.
That contradicts everything he just wrote. Neither maglev nor the hyperloop are ready for prime time. There’s no way either one would be built by 2028, and probably not by 2042. If his goal is rapid, immediate CO2 reductions, maglev and the hyperloop aren’t going to provide them. Neither are the three technologies he wishes into practical existence earlier in the article.
Ultimately this is just another typical piece of Slate contrarianism. That Mother Jones saw fit to publish it is rather surprising and suggests that when it comes to high speed rail, they prefer uninformed trolling to insightful journalism.