demand – California High Speed Rail Blog California High Speed Rail support blog, spreading news and info about the high speed trains project approved by California voters in November 2008. Thu, 04 May 2017 02:52:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 2008 A Record Setting Year for Ridership Tue, 11 Nov 2008 16:16:00 +0000 At least here in California, according to Caltrans and Amtrak, who partner to operate the Amtrak California intercity routes:

Californians are leaving their cars, SUVs, vans, and trucks at home and riding trains instead in unprecedented numbers. Today, Caltrans and Amtrak reported a record-setting 5.5 million passengers rode California’s state-supported intercity passenger trains in federal fiscal year 2008….

In 2007-08, the Pacific Surliner carried more than 2.89 million passengers, a seven percent increase from the preceding year.

In Northern California, Capitol Corridor (Auburn to San Jose) trains carried 1.69 million riders, an impressive 16.8 percent jump from the previous 12 months. Meanwhile nearly one million passengers (949,611) rode the San Joaquins service (Bakersfield to Sacramento/Oakland). This past July, ridership shot up a whopping 32 percent over July 2007, rising above 100,000 for the first time. The Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins ranked as the nation’s third busiest and sixth busiest lines, respectively.

Amtrak ridership in federal fiscal year 2008 increased to 28,716,407, marking the sixth straight year of gains and setting a record for the most passengers using Amtrak trains since the National Railroad Passenger Corporation started operations in 1971.

Some might cluck that this is just the product of the dramatic spike in gas prices that took place earlier this year and won’t last. While that did fuel some of this ridership growth, ridership on Amtrak California routes has been steadily growing since 2002. Amtrak itself has set ridership records every year since 2002. There is every reason to believe ridership will continue to rise.

That growing ridership reflects a growing awareness among Californians of the value of passenger rail, and that was reflected in last week’s election where most passenger rail proposals were approved by voters (Measure B in Santa Clara County, the BART funding plan, is still too close to call). In the article Eugene Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor, noted that Prop 1B (passed in 2006) also intended money to be spent on rail expansion. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance delayed this, using a flawed audit to claim new cars weren’t necessary, but that has been reversed and new cars have been ordered.

We need to accelerate Prop 1A and Prop 1B rail funding. While we wait on federal matching funds for HSR – which we will press for in 2009 – California needs to wait for nobody to release the bond money for the other passenger rail projects that are awaiting funds. California legislators should make it a priority to spend that money as an infrastructure stimulus, as well as part of a long-term plan to grow rail in this state.

Record ridership is an opportunity to take passenger rail to the next level. Let’s make sure our legislators follow through on it.

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Just How Useful is HSR, Really? Mon, 10 Nov 2008 16:15:00 +0000 That’s the question being pondered by one Kent Amberson in a letter to the Merced Sun-Star this morning. While one LTE in a smallish newspaper might not normally be worth talking about, I do believe that our work to promote the usefulness, value, and need for high speed rail continues after Prop 1A’s passage. It’s likely that many Californians have the same questions as Kent, considering how unfamiliar most Californians are with passenger rail. Here’s his question:

How do you get from your house to the train station, and how do you get from the station to where you are going? In Merced you can call Dial A Ride, I suppose, but anybody that has to be in a particular place at a particular time knows that the Dial A Ride is not a solution…

Besides, not every community on the line has a Dial A Ride system. To have somebody drive you to the station is one solution or drive your own car, but where do you park if you need to for several days or even month?…

Then there is the question of when you get where you are going, what do you do?

Imagine getting to Los Angeles by train and your destination is Huntington Beach, Irvine or West Covina to mention a few. How do you get there from here? Perhaps you start looking for a Greyhound bus but again, how do you get to the bus station? Or are you going to try to figure out the local transit system?…

In planning a system like this, there has to be a way of getting to and from the station if it is going to be of any benefit to the paying public….

This is probably the reason most people prefer traveling by their own car.

Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with mass transit options in California – you can get to Irvine from Anaheim via the Pacific Surfliners, for example – and some of it is based on skepticism that other forms of transit will materialize to serve the HSR stations. By 2018 it is likely that the Expo Line will be open from LA Union Station to Santa Monica, and Metrolink service, which reaches numerous communities in Southern California, will be boosted. It’s true that Orange County has a lot of work to do in building transit capacity, but a direct bus from Huntington Beach to the Anaheim HSR station (ARTIC) would be a sensible move for the OCTA.

The main problem with Kent’s argument, though, is assuming that HSR service is analogous to automobile service. It isn’t. The high speed train simply cannot bring you door to door. Neither can an airplane. Driving may solve the door to door issue, but at a very high cost – time, gas, wear and tear on the vehicle. The fuel costs of driving in particular are likely to rise dramatically between now and 2018.

Nor is HSR analogous with airplanes. Instead HSR provides the same travel need – getting from, say, Merced to Irvine – using a third method that provides the speed and convenience of airplanes and some of the flexibility of driving. HSR stations are not going to be located on the edge of town as airports are, but in the middle of the urban area, in places that are already the nodes of local transit systems. It’s simply easier to provide transit connections to and from the HSR station than to and from an airport on the edge of town. LAX still lacks a true mass transit link, but LA Union Station is the hub of the entire mass transit system in Southern California.

And HSR will spur better transit connections, just as airports do today. It will bring more people into the city centers, making it easier to get from house to station. Certainly there will be journeys that require a car to complete, but HSR makes that easier and cheaper – you can rent a car at your destination, have a family or friend pick you up, etc, just as is done today.

HSR provides a different option for intrastate travel, matching the quickness of air travel with much of the flexibility of driving (through connections to other transit systems) at a lower price. Certainly California has work to do in expanding its non-HSR transit offerings and this blog strongly supports those projects, such as LA County’s Measure R. HSR will never be and isn’t intended to be the solution to everyone’s point A to point B trip. But it will make those trips across the state much cheaper and much easier.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias reminds us that significant improvements in bus service can be made with a relatively affordable investment. For our own HSR system to be successful that means we need to push back hard against Sacramento’s own efforts to further gut bus funding, which has already taken a significant hit over the last two years.

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High Speed Rail is Good for the Central Valley Mon, 03 Nov 2008 16:17:00 +0000 Below is a repost of a Yes on Prop 1A article written by a good friend of mine who blogs as “wu ming” (Mandarin for “anonymous”) at Surf Putah, a blog based in Davis. It’s an excellent overview of not just the case for Prop 1A, but why Central Valley voters, even those who won’t see an HSR train for decades, will benefit from its passage:

Yes On Prop 1A

There are a whole lot of reasons why Prop 1a is a great idea – reduced carbon emissions, reduced stress on crowded highways and airports, insulation from high oil prices, increased urban densities near stations, and the prospect of a massive construction project in the perennially-underemployed and housing-bubble-busted Central Valley – but beyond that, it’s also very smart local politics.

But how? you might ask. After all, the line doesn’t even run through Yolo County, and the Sacramento leg won’t be completed until a later stage in the system.

Here’s why:

1. The Capitol Corridor. In addition to the money to build the main High Speed Rail line, Prop 1a contains a huge amount of funding for feeder lines into that HSR trunk line, among them the highly successful Capitol Corridor, which runs through Yolo County at Davis. The Capitol Corridor is already running near capacity, and while Caltrans has done a lot of work improving the tracks and crossings, leading to faster trains and a very high on-time rate, the route will need a lot more funding to expand to meet local demand. Prop 1a’s funds would help run trains more often and later, which is of direct help to Yolo commuters, shoppers and tourists into both the Bay Area and Sacramento. I’d much rather take the train into Sac than drive on the Causeway, if they ran often enough.

2. SoCal gets a lot closer. Even before the bullet train line gets to Sacramento, it will be pretty easy to catch a San Joaquins train in Sacramento to the HSR line in Fresno, and then jet over to LA down the valley from there. Right now, the Coast Starlight is excruciatingly slow because it goes down the coast, but with that slow train + high speed rail combo down the Central Valley, it’ll get you to downtown LA in 4 hours or so, which is about as fast as if you drive from Yolo County to Sac Metro, park, wait around in the airport going through security and dealing with delays, and then pick up your baggage and rent a car on the other end. And unlike airplanes (or god forbid an I-5 or Hwy 99 road trip), high speed rail will have wifi and cell phone reception, so you can actually make some productive use of that time while you sip your coffee and admire the scenery.

Of course, when the Sacramento leg of the HSR is built, that’ll go down to 2 hours, which will revolutionize the way we think of SoCal, bringing it practically as close as the Bay Area. If you have friends or relatives in SoCal, if you want to take the kids to Disneyland, get out of winter’s tule fog and see the sun again, or just want to hit the beaches for the weekend, it’ll be a whole lot closer than it is today, and cheaper to get there due to the economics of long, fast trains making multiple runs a day.

3. Yolo County depends on a healthy state economy, and a state government in the black. While I tend to be wary of bond measures, building world class transportation infrastructure is exactly what bonds are supposed to be for. Especially in an economic climate such as this, big projects that employ a bunch of people, both to build and run it, is smart Keynesian economics. It’s what we did in the Great Depression, building Shasta Dam, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. When the economic cycle gets back on its feet, having infrastructure like this, which not only moves people more energy-efficiently and cost-effectively, but which also frees up highway, airport and rail space for freight, will contribute to the recovery.

And that infrastructure and job creation, in turn, will lead to a state government and state economy that has more money to invest in other things Yolo County needs. As a county highly dependent on University of California funding, as well as state assistance because of our rather smallish tax base relative to our county government expenses, a thriving state economy, goosed by High Speed Rail, will help to reverse the current death by a thousand cuts that the state legislature is doing to education and social welfare spending.

Replace a vicious cycle with a virtuous one.

4. Finally, because it’s incredibly cool. Seriously, as someone who has ridden shinkansen bullet trains in Japan, I am ecstatic at the thought of blazing down the Golden State in a bullet train of our own. One of the things about airplanes is that they are so high up that they remove you from the scenery. High Speed Rail trains, on the other hand, fly along the very surface of the landscape. With a state with scenery as beautiful as ours, be it urban or natural, riding the train will be an amazing experience in and of itself.

As a state as well as a county, passing this bond measure will determine in many ways we have not even considered what sort of future we live in. Right now the market is scrambling to find something to invest in that’s not a paper scam or an investor bubble. We should have no problem getting the investors for this train, if we have the will to set it in motion.

Vote Yes on 1a to finally bring California into the 21st century.

The above was written by wu ming and reposted from Surf Putah with his permission.

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Zombie Lies Tue, 28 Oct 2008 07:01:00 +0000 I had hoped we’d dealt with this when it popped up at Daily Kos yesterday – the commenters there gave it a thorough smackdown – but unfortunately it’s appeared across the blogosphere today, helped by the credulous and fundamentally uninformed Kevin Drum (I still don’t understand why Mother Jones would hire a moderate to blog for them) who reproduced “it” on his site today.

“It” is an email being peddled by the daughter of James Mills offering criticism of Prop 1A. Mills is another one of these “rail supporters” who are offering truthiness and outright lies to try and convince people Prop 1A is a bad idea. To the uninformed masses – which unfortunately include some bloggers – anyone who claims to have rail credentials apparently is given the benefit of the doubt when we who actually understand rail policy know that James Mills, Richard Tolmach, Wendell Cox, and Joseph Vranich are fundamentally anti-rail.

Mills and Tolmach co-authored an HSR denier op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month. I gave it the usual thorough deconstruction here on the blog when it appeared, although I focused my fire on Tolmach, since I’d never heard of James Mills. Now Mills’ daughter is circulating Mills’ own arguments to the bloggers, and some of the more gullible bloggers, like Kevin Drum, have taken the bait. As a result Ezra Klein and now Atrios are discussing its contents.

So, time to try and kill the Zombie Lies.

The email starts like this:

I am passing on an analysis of California’s Prop 1A ballot initiative from one of the leading experts and advocates of mass transit in the state of California, James Mills.

Mills’ daughter writes:

I’d like to suggest you vote “No” on Proposition 1A, the “Safe Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act,” on the basis of the following insider, expert information: my dad says it’s a bad idea.

My father, James Mills, spent his entire career in the California state legislature (1961-1983) working to promote public transportation in the state. He was President pro Tem of the Senate for a decade. He was chairman of the Amtrak board under president Carter. Since retiring he has worked as a consultant on transit issues, and in the 1990’s he served on the High Speed Rail Commission for the State of California . My dad is hard-core in favor of rail. If he says a proposal to fund a rail project is no good, then that proposal has to be a real turkey.

Notice the sleight of hand here. James Mills is not a well-known figure even in California political circles. His specific policy positions are completely unknown. But just like the notoriously anti-transit Wendell Cox, and the equally anti-rail Joseph Vranich, Mills trades on a 30-year old association with Amtrak to try and gain credibility when he passes on flawed HSR denials. The last sentence is designed to solidify the assumed expertise of Mills, but to me it just sets off alarm bells.

Which are justified when we read the specific objections:

1. Prop 1A raises about ten billion dollars in a bond issue. This is a down-payment on a project which was estimated in 2006 to cost 45 billion dollars but will probably cost more if it is ever built. Remaining funding will be sought from the federal government (10-15 billion) and private investors (15-20 billion).

Notice that, as always, no specific reason is given as to “probably cost more”. It is blind speculation. No specific figure of cost overruns is given either. Lacking those details or underlying explanations this claim lacks credibility. Rail projects around the country, including LA’s Metro Gold Line extension, have been delivered on time and on budget in recent years.

Further, and this is ironic, that $45 billion is the figure for the ENTIRE system – which in point #5 Mills claims is unplanned.

2. The federal government has never invested any amount even close to $10 billlion in a transit project.

The federal government had never spent $700 billion on a bank bailout either. Before 1971 they’d never operated passenger trains. Before 1956 they’d never spent hundreds of billions on freeways. Shall we go on?

But we have better evidence. John Kerry and Johnny Isakson are working on a bill to provide about $10 billion for HSR projects around the nation. Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden are strong supporters of HSR and want to fund it.

3. If private investment were found, the bill says that investors would make money NOT from a the profit of the transit system, but from a percentage of ticket sales. In other words, the profit of investors is guaranteed, regardless of the operating costs of the system. The Legislative Analyst estimates that the OPERATING AND MAINTENANCE COSTS of the system will be one billion per year — the State of California will cover any deficit not covered by ticket sales. It is rare for a public transit system to run in the black: normally, not all costs of the system will be covered from the fare box.

This is a bit misleading. As I understand it from what Rod Diridon explained today, those same investors also have to satisfy their own bond to the state/CHSRA and a “franchise fee” to the same. That’s quite a bit different than saying “their profit is guaranteed” – a misleading statement designed to imply that California is going to be left holding the bag while private investors light cigars with our money.

This claim also misleads Californians on the Legislative Analyst’s estimate – she has said the $1 billion figure is a worst-case scenario.

And of course, it is not rare for high speed rail systems to run in the black. In fact, they ALL run in the black. Every last one. In France the TGVs are so profitable they subsidize other slower rail services. SNCF had so much money they actually gave some to the French treasury earlier this year.

4. Premises on projected ridership are false. The only high-speed rail system in the US is Amtrak’s “Acela” service between NY-Washington and NY-Boston. This system is well established and serves large population centers with excellent public transportation tie-ins to feed it such as subways, and they carry 3 million riders a year. The French have the best high-speed rail system in the world, and their busiest line is Paris to Lyon, again large cities with major subway systems, and it carries perhaps 15 million riders a year. In contrast, proponents of Prop 1A rely on a projection of 100 million riders per year between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a figure provided by a paid consultant that happened to be Lehman Brothers. This projection of patronage is a fantasy.

This paragraph is full of outright lies. Yes, lies.

First, Acela is not true HSR and is much slower than our system will be. Anyone trying to compare the Acela to CA HSR either does not understand Acela or is deliberately misleading readers. It does not speak very well of James Mills’ vaunted “rail knowledge.”

Second, these arguments about ridership come directly from the oil company funded Reason Foundation. It is a libertarian lies being passed off as fact. Those ridership claims – specifically about Paris-Lyon – are complete nonsense. We thoroughly debunked the “not enough riders” claim last month. The key portion of our mythbusting:

Cox-Vranich’s [the Reason Foundation study] ridership figures are wildly inaccurate. Using C-V’s preferred measure, JR Central reported 2007 ridership of 80 million passenger km per Shinkansen route km (44.5 billion passenger km / 552 km route). In the “high” scenario, CA HSRA is forecasting roughly 27 million passenger km per HSR route km (30 billion passenger km / 1,120 km route). So C-V’s claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false – in fact, CA HSRA’s numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.

JR Central’s Shinkansen is the densest ridership in the world. A more informative comparison would be the TGV or the new Taiwan HSR (THSR). We don’t have passenger-km ridership for those lines, but we can compute passengers per route-km. The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today’s populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area. And more importantly, the SF Bay Area is twice as large as the Kaoshiung Metro Area and four times as large as the Lyon Metro Area.

On to the fifth and final lie, which is the most ridiculous of them all:

5. Promises of future extension to Sacramento, Orange County and San Diego are empty in that no concrete plan of any kind is offered other than the unrealistic plan for a Los Angeles-San Francisco line.

Mills is just showing off his ignorance here. Prop 1A would fund a line from SF to Anaheim – which, last time I checked, was still in Orange County. SD and Sacramento plans are in existence in full detail and can be found at the California High Speed Rail Authority website.

It’s worth closing by reminding people of the big picture here. High speed rail will create badly needed green jobs and economic stimulus while providing Californians with sustainable transportation that reduces dependence on oil and cuts carbon emissions. It is supported by virtually the entire California progressive community.

It is being opposed by the Howard Jarvis Association and the Reason Foundation. The former are the keepers of the right-wing flame here in California. The latter are a group of rabid anti-government nuts who are funded by oil companies and other leading right-wing foundations. They have been using an ignorant and pliant media to push out their “omg boondoggle not enough riders” nonsense over the last six weeks or so.

It would be a shame for folks in the blogosphere – folks who usually know better – than to repeat the high speed rail version of the “Obama is a Muslim” email.

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Their Past vs Our Future Sat, 25 Oct 2008 00:03:00 +0000 With just over a week until the votes are counted we are about to learn whether California will embrace the 21st century or go down with the sinking 20th century ship.

Proposition 1A and high speed rail are a cornerstone of California’s efforts to build prosperity for the 21st century. The infrastructure that built 20th century prosperity – including those paid for with bonds approved by voters in the depth of the Depression – has taken us as far as it can. California’s 20th century prosperity was based on cheap oil, which is beginning to run out.

And yes, it is still running out. Neither the summer price spike nor the current price collapse change the underlying facts – we are reaching peak oil which means long-term supply shortages and price increases. The current decline in prices is due to demand destruction, which means that if people take advantage of lower prices by driving more…the price will again rise. And of course OPEC isn’t going to take this lying down – the last time gas prices dropped dramatically, in 1999, was merely prelude to a steady, 8-year, 1300% increase in the price of oil.

Well before gas prices hit $4 this summer they had destroyed the American economy. The housing bubble burst in 2006 – at precisely the moment gas prices hit $3. And which areas have seen the steepest home value declines and the highest foreclosure rates? The car-dependent suburbs. Which areas have held their values and had the lowest foreclosure rates? City centers and neighborhoods with mass transit options.

This was clearly illustrated by a recent episode of NOW on PBS, Driven to Despair. The episode contrasted two young couples – one living in Hemet (east of Riverside) and one living in South Pasadena near the Gold Line. The family living in Hemet was facing serious financial distress and a lower standard of living owing to their dependence on oil. The family living in South Pasadena had more disposable income and a happier life because they were free from that dependence.

On a macro level we have already demonstrated the green dividend that results from building mass transit – a multibillion dollar economic shot in the arm. In the case of high speed rail this will be compounded by the significant economic stimulus of HSR – just as the Golden Gate Bridge and Shasta Dam were in the Depression. 160,000 construction jobs is nothing to sneeze at.

We also need to remember the environmental benefits of high speed rail. It seems global warming and carbon emissions have faded a bit from the public’s consciousness which is a shame – pollution and carbon emissions cost money and the longer we delay in reducing them and building a sustainable alternative, the more expensive life will ultimately become here in California.

To ignore all of this and embrace the status quo is to look at a broken economy and shrug and hope we somehow magically recover, and that somehow the conditions that caused the economic downturn will magically disappear. They won’t. If California wants to enjoy the kind of widely shared prosperity in the 21st century that we had in the 20th we need to reorient this state away from oil and sprawl and toward urban density and sustainable transportation. HSR will stimulate both.

It’s no accident that those lined up to oppose Prop 1A are from that shrinking group that still benefits from the 20th century status quo. The right-wingers at the San Diego Union-Tribune don’t want to see their anti-government, anti-transit dreams get shot down by voters. Dan Walters is one of the state’s leading defenders of sprawl and small government, so it makes sense that he’d oppose Prop 1A as well.

Then there is the Reason Foundation, which is swimming in oil money. They have every reason to want to kill HSR, which would undermine their anti-government, pro-oil, pro-sprawl agenda. Sure, their arguments are riddled with factual errors and their flagship study lacks credibility. But it’s all well and good in the service of defending the status quo, which has failed for America but succeeded for their oil company buddies.

It would seem to me that when a project’s opponents are the far right and the oil companies, you’re doing something right, you’ve got a winning idea.

But that’s not why HSR and Prop 1A are a good idea. They are the gateway to a more secure, more prosperous California in the 21st century. I do not see why we would listen to those who helped create the current economic failure when they pontificate against Prop 1A.

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HSR: Safe and Fuel Efficient Thu, 23 Oct 2008 03:07:00 +0000 Dennis Lytton, who has authored a post for this blog back in June and is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has now published an op-ed in today’s Daily Breeze, a newspaper in SoCal’s South Bay region, explaining the benefits of Prop 1A and high speed rail. I won’t reproduce the entire op-ed here but will include some of the salient points.

The op-ed opens by retelling a tragic story of a UC Berkeley student from Pasadena who was killed on her way back to campus while driving near Gilroy – one of the numerous automobile fatalities that can be prevented by fast, efficient, plentiful intercity rail:

Improvements in auto safety have helped reduce the rate of automobile fatalities. However, that gain is largely negated by increases in the number of miles Americans typically drive. This is a reflection of bad public policy that favors sprawl and freeways over modern rail systems and transit-oriented development. It causes our traffic nightmares, fouls our air, takes far too many lives and makes us dependent on triple-digit prices for crude oil.

California High Speed Rail would initially stretch from Anaheim to San Francisco, with future branches to Sacramento and San Diego. The system would be completely separated from automobile traffic and freight trains. The tracks would be fenced in and monitored by earthquake sensors and cameras. Safety would even exceed that of airplanes, since high-speed trains don’t carry volatile fuels that can be touched off by explosives in a shampoo bottle or shoe.

But the most important safety feature is that millions of people annually will take the train instead of driving. Europe and Japan have far fewer transportation-related fatalities than the United States – due mostly to their lower dependence on the automobile for local and intercity transit. California could potentially save thousands of lives lost per year in auto accidents if it built a state-of-the art intercity rail system.

Dennis’ points are excellent and have not been made often enough. The safety features that HSR offers are not available to drivers or those taking planes. The system’s safety will save lives over driving and will make the trains a more attractive option to travelers within California.

Dennis also reminds us of the fuel efficiency of HSR:

High-speed rail is the greenest way to move people ever invented. Trains consume only one-third of the energy used by an airplane and one-fifth the energy of an automobile trip. Nearly all of the electricity of HSR’s trains could be produced from renewable energy sources. High-speed rail would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 17.6 billion pounds per year. It would reduce California’s oil consumption by up to 22 million barrels per year (1,100 million gallons per year). At a price of $125 a barrel, savings in oil costs alone would approach $2.75billion annually. Oil costs will rise in the long run, as oil geologists agree that we are entering an age of declining oil reserves that will be ever harder to extract.

Which gives me the opportunity to repost one of my favorite images:

(Image from Alberta High Speed Rail)

Now I’m sure the usual HSR deniers are clucking, “but oil prices have fallen!” That’s true – for now. When Dennis originally wrote this op-ed the price of a barrel of oil was at $125. They’re now at $66. Of course, it is common for oil prices to decline in the autumn and winter months, only to rise again in the spring and summer. But here’s the thing – that does NOT mean we can rely on oil to serve our travel needs.

The only reason oil prices have declined is demand destruction. Meaning that fewer people are using gas to travel. If lower gas prices spur an increase in gas consumption, the price will rise again, as many economists have recognized. The only way to produce affordable, sustainable, long-term growth independent of the vagaries of oil price fluctuation is to build rail projects such as high speed rail.

As we’ve seen here, HSR is a successful method of travel around the world. It operates without subsidies, attracts millions of new train riders, and provides badly needed jobs and economic growth. Thanks to Dennis Lytton we are also reminded that it provides safer and more fuel efficient travel. The case for Prop 1A could not be clearer.

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How Sacramento (and other CA cities) Will Benefit From Prop 1A Sat, 18 Oct 2008 21:45:00 +0000 Today’s Sacramento Bee examines what Sacramento gets out of Proposition 1A and high speed rail. The article wants to generate some controversy about the fact that Sacramento is going to be included in a later phase of construction, but few of the folks interviewed were willing to play along. Instead the article provides one of the most detailed and strongest arguments for voters not living along the SF-LA “spine” to support Proposition 1A.

Rail Authority executive Mehdi Morshed said his agency’s studies indicate the first segment will be a moneymaker – and income would be used to extend the line to Sacramento and San Diego.

That’s the rub for Sacramento.

“Unless somebody builds the San Francisco to Los Angeles segment, Sacramento will never be built because it will never pencil out,” Morshed said. “You need to have the cash cow (first).”

Morshed isn’t just speaking in the abstract. Both the French TGV and Spanish AVE systems have followed a similar trajectory, where an initial line became so popular it created the political will and the financial capacity to expand new lines. The TGV puts SNCF in the black and subsidizes not only new HSR lines but the rest of SNCF’s passenger rail operations. The first AVE lines helped pay for expansions of the system, including the route from Madrid to Barcelona.

Representative Doris Matsui, whose district is primarily comprised of Sacramento, agrees, especially on the need to use a starter line to build momentum for more extensions:

“For me it would be easier to look favorably on this if Sacramento were in the loop early on,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. “We are the capital city. Why not?”

But, she said, “We’re never going to get there unless we take the first step. If California comes out ahead, we benefit.”

Matsui’s approach is sound – realizing that Sacramento benefits when the state as a whole benefits – which it will once the SF-LA line is under way.

Sacramento benefits in more tangible and immediate ways and the article’s author, Tony Bizjak, should be commended for explaining to readers that Sacramento’s existing passenger rail systems are in line for a much-needed financial boost from Prop 1A:

The bond measure sets aside at least $47 million for improvements to Sacramento’s popular Capitol Corridor passenger train line.

Sacramento Regional Transit, which runs light rail and buses, also is in line to receive at least $21 million.

Capitol Corridor train chief Gene Skoropowski is a vocal bond measure supporter, and said his trains between Auburn and the Bay Area would work in tandem with bullet trains, at first in San Jose, and eventually in Sacramento.

“Our service would likely become a major feeder-collector,” he said. “People would take our train to Sacramento or San Jose to connect up with the high-speed trains.”

The Capitol Corridor trains, RT light-rail trains and Amtrak trains would meet up with bullet trains at the downtown Sacramento railyard transit depot.

$47 million can go quite a long way for the Capitol Corridor, as would $21 million for Sacramento’s RT. For the Capitol Corridor that money could purchase new train cars, and upgrade existing sections of track to improve the route’s already remarkable on-time percentage – 93.8% in September 2008.

Other passenger rail systems around the state will receive immediate benefits from Prop 1A. The Pacific Surfliner that connects SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura, LA, Orange County, and San Diego is in line for about $45 million, as are the San Joaquins. The San Joaquin money would be significant since upgrades there could help passengers in Sacramento reach the Merced HSR station more quickly. Metrolink is to receive some money, and the long-planned Coast Daylight, a train from SF to LA via the coast route (Salinas, SLO, Santa Barbara) could also get fully funded.

The article closes by showing how Congress is already poised to begin directing federal money to the HSR project:

Congress also recently established a $1.5 billion grant program to promote high-speed rail. Rep. Matsui said California should line up well for a chunk of that money if voters approve the bond.

That money isn’t the full federal match that will be needed, of course – but it IS a clear indication of Congressional willingness to provide money, especially when the US Senate is prepared to push a much larger HSR funding plan in 2009.

Of course, Sacramento can expect to someday be included on the HSR route. We here in Monterey will never be included. But both of our cities will benefit, immediately, from Prop 1A when it passes. And we will benefit in the long term from the HSR line that will make passenger rail travel in our state much quicker, efficient, and available to all of us, even we folks on the Central Coast who make regular trips to Southern California.

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Fighting Back Against the New Hoovers Fri, 17 Oct 2008 17:50:00 +0000 Not content with denying to Californians the numerous tangible benefits of high speed rail, Prop 1A opponents have retreated into a revival of Herbert Hoover’s economic policy in order to try and defeat the most important project Californians have considered in nearly 50 years. Their argument is that in an economic crisis, we should turn to austerity instead of following the tried and true path of deficit spending on infrastructure that provides short-term job relief and long-term economic value.

For a couple weeks this blog has been doing yeoman’s work in fighting back against this nonsense, one of the few voices directing Californians to learn from our past successes instead of repeating our mistakes.

No longer.

Today we have numerous articles and media outlets starting to push back against the New Hoovers. From newspaper editorial pages to leading economists there is a growing consensus that we must use deficit spending – in our case, bonds – to spur economic growth through infrastructure projects.

Even conservative observers and federal deficit hawks are seeing the need for deficit spending, as the conservative Washington Times reports:

Conservative Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan said the fears that short-term stimulus spending by governments will raise deficits miss the point. Even the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan approved by the U.S. government — part of a more than $2 trillion international bailout of banks by governments around the world — does not change the equation.

“Maxims about debt that might be prudent for families can be the height of folly for government,” he wrote.

British economist John Maynard Keynes is credited with the basic insight, arguing that the Great Depression was prolonged because Western governments insisted on balancing budgets, raising taxes and cutting spending at a time when private economic activity had ground to a halt.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan research group, said both candidates must put together a credible long-term plan to deal with the exploding deficit, but that the government should be priming the pump in the short term.

These conservatives are joined by Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who writes in today’s column:

And to provide that help, we’re going to have to put some prejudices aside. It’s politically fashionable to rant against government spending and demand fiscal responsibility. But right now, increased government spending is just what the doctor ordered, and concerns about the budget deficit should be put on hold….

All signs point to an economic slump that will be nasty, brutish — and long….

And this is also a good time to engage in some serious infrastructure spending, which the country badly needs in any case. The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling.

The growing unanimity of opinion on the need for deficit spending for infrastructure projects is striking. Krugman, MacGuineas and Brittan join leading economic figures like Nouriel Roubini and Lawrence Summers in calling for bold action to mitigate the deepening economic crisis.

They are joined today by the Fresno Bee editorial in favor of Prop 1A which clearly understands the need for infrastructure stimulus, and directly refutes some of the fiscal arguments against HSR:

Sadly, much opposition has come from people who say they like the idea of 220-mph trains zipping up and down the state, but don’t think we can afford it right now, in a time of budget disaster and economic crisis.

That sounds prudent, even reasonable, but it ignores an important fact of American history: Many of our most important public works projects have come in times of deep economic distress — and they have been crucial elements in our recovery in those times.

Recall the Great Depression, when voters in the Bay Area passed bonds to build the Golden Gate and Bay bridges — projects that lightened the impact of the Depression on that region and were critical to the postwar economic boom. Shasta Dam was built during the Depression, and remains a linchpin of the state’s water system.

The closing paragraph of the editorial is a powerful, stirring statement that deserves to be quoted in full:

The high-speed rail project is immense, and that can be daunting. The current economic situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. In the past, Californians have risen to such challenges with vision and determination. Voting “yes” on Proposition 1A is a declaration that we still possess those qualities, and have not surrendered them to a timid faith in a status quo that is no longer sustainable.

I’ve never seen it put so well. The Fresno Bee clearly understands that our state’s very future is at stake and that Californians should be able to meet that challenge just as we have done in the past.

And what about the arguments that the financial crisis makes this a bad time to float bonds? The Sacramento Bee reports “unprecedented demand” for California’s short-term bonds:

California has secured commitments for nearly $4 billion in short-term loans thanks to unprecedented demand from individual investors Wednesday, averting a need for federal assistance and allaying fears of a cash shortage….

California secured orders for $3.92 billion in short-term bonds from individual investors Tuesday and Wednesday, 98 percent of its original $4 billion goal, according to state Treasurer Bill Lockyer….

This week’s bond sale reassured state officials that traditional lending markets would suffice.

Translation: capital markets WANT state bonds. If we float Prop 1A bonds they will be quickly gobbled up by a hungry market desperate for a safe investment.

All the HSR deniers have left is what was at the core of their belief all along – opposition to passenger rail:

“This is like losing your job and then using your credit card to put in a new swimming pool to help provide work for others,” said [Kris] Vosburgh [of the Howard Jarvis Association] of the jobs argument.

Have fun with that ridiculous “swimming pool” analogy in the comments…

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Flawed LA Times Article on Prop 1A Wed, 15 Oct 2008 20:50:00 +0000 The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote an excellent argument for Prop 1A earlier this month. Unfortunately Eric Bailey’s feature article in today’s paper misses the mark and fails to provide readers an accurate picture of the HSR project – particularly by presenting some flawed claims from HSR deniers without independent verification or refutation.

First up is Richard Tolmach who engages in some of the worst kind of exploitation – using the horrific Chatsworth disaster to argue that HSR is somehow similarly unsafe:

“After all the crashes — the train crash and the market crash — supporters may have a lot more trouble than they anticipated,” said Richard Tolmach, president of the nonprofit California Rail Foundation, a Proposition 1A foe.

Eric Bailey does provide refutation of this egregious bit of nonsense:

Metrolink-type collisions wouldn’t be an issue, they say, because the train would run on tracks separate from freight lines. Bridges and other grade separations would keep the rails away from cars.

But unfortunately Bailey does not include refutation of the Reason Foundation’s nonsense – even though this blog has provided a thorough deconstruction of that deeply flawed study, including the following points:

A report commissioned by the Libertarian think tank Reason Foundation and other foes compared California’s plans with what is rolling on the ground right now in Europe and Asia.

Instead of a profit, the California trains could yield financial losses up to $4 billion, the report contends, predicting at least 60% fewer passengers than promoters project.

mike specifically refuted that point:

So [the Reason Foundation study’s] claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false – in fact, CA HSRA’s numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.

Unfortunately Bailey just lets them rant on:

The final construction tab, they say, would swell beyond $80 billion, and other studies support that sort of conclusion. A Danish researcher who analyzed more than 250 big infrastructure projects around the world determined that new rail lines typically cost 45% more than originally estimated.

That Danish study has been challenged before. The LA Times can look a few blocks from its downtown headquarters to see the Metro Gold Line extension is on-time and under-budget. It is entirely possible that we will see cost overruns, but you can’t pull a number out of thin air like $80 billion. If you’re going to talk about overruns you need to explain precisely why and how those costs will rise. If you can’t, then you’re just making stuff up, and the LA Times shouldn’t be allowing its pages to be used for that purpose.

The article also digs up an anti-HSR prof at USC:

Professor James Moore, director of USC’s transportation engineering program, calls it “a dumb project” with overblown ridership and construction estimates, inflated profit forecasts, and wildly optimistic speeds and travel times.

“It’s technologically impossible to do what the High-Speed Rail Authority claims can be done, for any amount of money,” he said. “When it comes to predicting the actual cost of systems like this, I just say a zillion and leave it at that.”

But Moore doesn’t explain himself. At all. “A zillion?” That’s not intellectually defensible.

The deeper issue Moore is likely referring to is whether the 220mph speed can be achieved. It’s worth noting that 220mph is not intended to be the average speed, but the top achievable speed. The HSR deniers’ strategy is to claim that if we can’t meet the exact specifications that the CHSRA is promoting, then the entire concept is bad and should be rejected.

Which doesn’t make any sense. HSR is a good idea not because we can achieve 220mph but because we can get quite close, providing very fast service that will still attract riders and meet our fundamental goals of sustainable, non-oil based, profitable transportation.

We don’t have to speculate here. We can look at the evidence. The Madrid-Barcelona AVE line was intended to accomplish 217mph (350kph) with Siemens train technology. But the best they’ve been able to accomplish is 186mph (300kph). 186mph is still VERY fast, and it hasn’t hurt the success of the new AVE line. In six months the AVE trains have taken 30% of the market on the Madrid-Barcelona route. The AVE trains are so successful that Spain’s airlines have had to cut flights because their passengers are flocking to HSR.

Madrid-Barcelona is in fact a very good comparison to SF-LA. The Madrid-Barcelona corridor was one of the busiest airline routes in the world, and are Spain’s two primary urban centers. SF to LA is one of the USA’s busiest airline routes and are California’s two primary urban centers. Madrid and Barcelona are 385 miles from each other by rail; SF to LA via the HSR route is 432 miles. Even if we cannot achieve 220mph, which IS technically possible, a top speed of 186mph would put the cities roughly three hours apart. Given the convenience of train travel and the added time costs of flying this still compares favorably to the airlines, especially when you consider the cost of expanding airports to meet demand, and especially the cost of fuel (and therefore airfares) in ten years’ time.

The details do matter. And the details are likely to change. That’s the nature of large infrastructure projects. You don’t always come out with exactly, precisely the same thing you went in with. That’s not a bad thing – projects need to be adapted to conditions if and when they change. Those who claim “omg they can’t reach 220 so this is DOOMED!” are merely trying to pull a fast one on Californians, hoping that voters’ lack of knowledge about HSR and general distrust of government can cover up the basic fact that even at 186 mph HSR is going to be profitable and popular.

Sadly, this is how American journalism works these days. Journalists become stenographers, quoting “both sides” and leaving it at that, even if one side’s flawed arguments are left unrefuted. That’s a major reason why this blog exists – to push back against this and provide Californians the truth.

Note: I’ve had to turn on comment moderation for the time being, since one particularly determined spammer chose to repeatedly post the same personal attacks. I will approve submitted comments as quickly as possible. As usual, I will not reject comments merely for criticizing HSR and Prop 1A. The only out-of-bounds comments are those that engage in personal attacks or those that are cut-and-pastes of entire articles. If you have any problems submitting comments, send an email to my last name at gmail dot com.

Update: Air France is getting into the HSR business, and will operate trains between Paris and London that reach a maximum speed of 224mph.

Do the HSR deniers still want to say that 220mph is impossible?

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Ghettoizing Rail Fri, 12 Sep 2008 05:02:00 +0000 The Progressive Policy Institute released a study earlier this week calling for a major national investment in high speed rail. Their study reads like a greatest hits of the arguments we’ve cited repeatedly on this blog – the airline crisis, economic stimulus, environmental benefits, and transportation needs.

The study calls for massive investment in five national HSR corridors, including LA-SF. To pay for this the study proposes a dedicated source of funding – a Rail Trust Fund that would provide for HSR as well as other rail service. Its sources would include:

  • A ticket tax on all passenger rail systems, from $5 for Amtrak to $1 for commuter rails
  • Charging freight companies fees to haul along new rails
  • Encouraging state matching funds along the highway model (80 fed/20 state)
  • Proceeds from auction of cap-and-trade (I have also proposed using an outright carbon tax or congestion charge as well)

I would personally just close the Highway Trust Fund, which is obsolete, and turn THAT into the Rail Trust Fund. But the above proposals are a good starting point.

The Progressive Policy Institute, alongside numerous other think tanks, understands the importance of providing passenger rail service at fast speeds to both improve existing rail routes and provide new service where none currently exists. California’s high speed rail project will accomplish both goals.

But to hear the HSR deniers tell it, we somehow don’t need HSR. That’s their new line of attack – HSR is unnecessary and we should not spend $10 billion on it when we could spend the money on BART to Livermore, for example. Seriously, someone proposed that as an alternative to HSR in an email to me, despite the fact that there’s about a 100 to 1 difference in the number of riders the two would serve. I’d love BART to Livermore, but come on, it pales in comparison to the service benefits of HSR.

I’ll be first in line to agree that we need to improve existing passenger rail service. And hey, guess what? HSR accomplishes precisely that. Those who live along the Caltrain corridor will see major service improvements to Caltrain. Eliminating grade crossings means faster service and shorter trips even on local trains. Passengers could also transfer at Palo Alto or Redwood City (whichever is chosen) to make their journey to SF or San José that much quicker.

The anti-HSR forces are dominated by Northern Californians, which is significant. Southern Californians understand the benefits of HSR, partly because their region is much larger. Anaheim, Burbank, Riverside and Palmdale are already connected to downtown LA via Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner in some cases, but HSR would make those trips much faster. The Surfliners already connect LA to SD, but HSR will cut that travel time in half if not better – faster than driving. And instead of seeing HSR and other passenger rail as somehow opposed, SoCal rail advocates embrace both systems.

We can look abroad to see evidence of this. In France the TGVs aren’t the only form of rail travel. They are well integrated with, for example, the Paris Metro and the RER regional trains. All work together to boost each other’s ridership and provide different levels of service that meet most possible travel needs.

What the HSR deniers are trying to do with this “oh we don’t need HSR” argument is ghettoize passenger rail and ensure that Californians are never given the chance to use it more widely and frequently than they already do. High speed rail will bring new riders to the rails, rescuing them from a collapsing airline industry and from ever-rising gas prices. The big gap in California’s passenger rail network is LA-SF, one of the most heavily traveled corridors of any kind anywhere in the state. HSR would open that corridor to rail, providing a rising tide that lifts all boats and building support around the state for increased investment in rail.

The HSR deniers should be more honest about their motives. It’s not that they think HSR is the wrong kind of rail – but that they don’t want new rail service period. They believe, against all evidence, that California is just fine relying on planes and cars. They want passenger rail to serve a small niche and not the masses. We reject that narrow, outdated thinking. It’s time for California to join the 21st century and build a real high speed train system that can get this state moving again.

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