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By Andrew Holland on Jul 12, 2012 with 8 responses

Why The Northeast and California Need High Speed Rail

As I wrote yesterday, I believe that High Speed Rail (HSR) is the best option for linking the country’s major regions together. The past week has seen two major developments in America’s development and deployment of high speed rail.

First, last Friday, the California Senate approved $4.6 billion in funding for the construction of the first section of the state’s HSR. This would allow $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to be released to the state. Second, on Tuesday, Amtrak released its updated proposal (pdf) to upgrade its Northeast Corridor (from Washington DC to Boston) to true high speed rail, capable of cruising at 220 miles per hour.

Differences Between California and the Northeast Corridor

The plans for the Northeast Corridor and California are necessarily very different. The NEC would take an ‘iterative’ approach, whereby service is slowly and steadily improved along existing right of ways and along existing routes. This makes sense for the NEC because it is the corridor of the U.S. with the best existing rail service, including the Acela line, which actually approaches internationally-recognized levels of high speed service. Amtrak’s iterative approach — what Amtrak calls “Stair-Step Service Milestones” — would slowly upgrade existing infrastructure and rolling stock over the next two decades, initially focusing on choke points like the Baltimore tunnel (a civil-war era relic) and building a new trans-Hudson tunnel into Manhattan. By 2040, they anticipate that the whole thing will cost $151 billion, but by the end, it could lead to 90 minute rides between New York and both Boston and Washington, with New York to Philadelphia being only 37 minutes apart (close enough to commute).

California, on the other hand, has a very low level of existing rail service. I tried to find a way to get by train from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, and there simply was no way to do it, without taking multiple buses and switching between local and regional trains. Therefore, it will have to try a ‘big bang’ approach whereby it builds as much as possible as soon as possible. The first link in the line to be built is the Bakersfield-Fresno link, which has been decried by opponents as a “train to nowhere” because these San Joaquin Valley cities are clearly not major metropolitan areas. However, this line is important as a start both because the planning is the easiest (it’s flat, and acquiring land is cheap) and because it would nearly complete the unconnected rail link between Northern and Southern California. The entire project is projected to cost $68 billion by the time it is done — it’s unclear where the balance of the funding will come from, but it will be more difficult to kill it once building has begun. This will link San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Ultimately, as I wrote yesterday, more transportation options are needed in America’s densely packed regions. High speed rail has the ability to promote dense, urban development over the oil-dependent sprawl-oriented development that has prevailed in the U.S. for the last 50 years. While this type of infrastructure development was appropriate in a world of low gas prices and no environmental problems, in today’s dense urban areas it no longer makes sense. The best part of taking high speed rail, for me — and most other people living in America’s cities — is that it will not require a trip to the airport. Going from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in New York is one of the great parts of living on the East Coast. People living in California and within 500 miles of Chicago should have the same opportunity. That will also promote economic growth and development to happen inside cities — an imperative as the country’s open spaces fill up.

Why Doing Nothing is Not an Option

When opponents talk about the high costs of high speed rail (and they are high), they are comparing it to the cost of doing nothing. But that’s not an option. Building new interstate highways has a cost per mile from $5 million up to beyond $20 million. In California, the state estimates that building the same amount of transportation capacity as the full high speed rail plan in highways and airport infrastructure would cost $114 billion, vs. the projected rail cost of $68 billion. On the East Coast, I suspect the numbers would be similar, or even more disparate, as the land for highway expansion is simply not available.

Finally, a note about what I said in yesterday’s post about my skepticism about the funding model: government funding to government-sponsored companies. I take Amtrak between Washington and the New York area pretty often (my family lives in northern New Jersey) and the level of service and attention to detail drives me crazy. From the 1970s-era cars to the overpriced microwaved food, there is much that can be improved. Even on the few occasions when I travel by the Acela (only when someone else is paying), it’s a better experience, but still doesn’t meet levels I’ve seen when I’ve taken the train in Spain, Japan, or France. That said, it is better than domestic air travel these days, so I’m not sure that outright privatizing of the line would make it better. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Mica has proposed legislation that would privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and there is some logic to that: this section (the only part of Amtrak that makes money) is used to cross-subsidize the other routes that lose money for every passenger.

William Lind, one of the only conservative activists in favor of rail (he writes for the American Conservative’s Center for Public Transportation) has made a coherent case that the big-government highway-building program of the ‘50s and ’60 undermined the free-market passenger rail companies. In a world where private actors paid the full cost of transportation, I think rail would still win — but until government gets out of the highway and airport business, there must be a role for government in the rail business too.

Also see: The Logic of High Speed Rail in America

  1. By Bob Barker on July 13, 2012 at 5:00 am

    The private RR companies lost money on passenger rail in the 20thcentury. It was always subsidized by freight profits. If Amtrak is always a money loser, why would other HSR systems make money?

    Interestingly, you note that you don’t take Acela unless someone else is paying. Won’t that be equally true of  HSR in California as well?  Moreover, their population growth is among the less affluent who certainly can’t afford HSR travel. 

    • By Andrew Holland on July 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Bob – good questions. I’m actually not sure that any transportation system could actually make money in the United States today. The Interstate Highway System is only funded by about 50% of the gas tax – the rest is direct subsidies. And – it has outsourced the biggest marginal costs to users: buying a car and filling it with gas. The Airlines consistently lose money, even without having to pay for air traffic control or the infrastructure of building airports.

      So – at some point, we have to realize that mobility has to be a national priority, and is worth some amount of government funding.

      • By Douglas Hvistendahl on July 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm

        Much of the need is not for high speed over long distances, but for large capacity at smaller distances. For this reason, a solid investigation of personalized rapid transit should be included in any plans. The information I have is that the best of these combine very high people moving capacities with lower costs than most of the others.

        • By Mike on July 15, 2012 at 2:07 pm

          “Much of the need is not for high speed over long distances, but for large capacity at smaller distances.”  If this was true, the airlines wouldn’t have any passengers, and our interstate highways would be empty.  Obviously both are swamped with passengers.  All you have to do is add up how many flights per day there are between major city pairs, and how many people on each plane and you will come up with millions of potential passengers for high speed rail.  There is no reason long, medium, and short distance passengers can’t all use high speed rail.  Some can go only 1 stop, others can travel hundreds of miles all on the same trains.  This is how they work all over the world.  In sum, we need both high speed rail connecting city centers to city centers and airports, and we also need more regional and local rail… its all part of an integrated rail network.

  2. By Bob Horstmeyer on July 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm


    A large group of Silicon Valley businessmen and engineers studied CA HSR and wrote a report in 2010 that showed that CA HSR is totally flawed.  See I won’t repeat what is in the report since you can read it yourself.  But the report is just damning. The people who conducted this study and reviewed it are people who make decisions regarding asset allocations to risky technology projects on a professional basis.  I know several of these people and they are honest and smart people.  They helped build Silicon Valley.  They are not risk-averse, NIMBY people; they are risk takers who know good engineering from bad.  When the best brains tell you the project “stinks” and would get an “F” in any business school class ; I think you have to reconsider the wisdom of CA HSR until the HSR people produce a decent business plan.

     CA HSR, as currently proposed, is a waste of money.  CA HSR might  be nice to have but so are lots of other infrastructure items that are really needed in CA for safety and future growth and CA does not have unlimited financial resources .  HSR will hurt CA in the long run and create ongoing operating costs that will cause cuts in teachers and other critical items that the state really needs.  The HSR proponents and developers will be long gone when the long term HSR bills come due for payment.  This has happened in San Jose with the expensive but almost unused light rail system.

    And if you want to stop sprawl then you really need to put a hold on HSR.  I haven’t seen any comments yet on the environmental impact of turning the CA Central valley into one large suburb for LA and the Bay Area.  But if we run a high speed rail line into the Central valley, well then it will just be suburbs and strip malls as far as the eye can see.  The commute from Silicon Valley to Tracy is 1.3 hours and Tracy just exploded with subrban homes in the last 15 years.  For a one hour train ride you will have access to unplanned new sprawl towns up and down the Central Valley.  No one has even mentioned this issue in the debate.  

    HSR is great in Europe.  Probably makes sense in the East Coast but the engineering -economic analysis shows it does not make  sense in CA.  Fly or Drive.   I dont know anyone who is complaining about the flight between the Bay Area and SoCal other than a minority of train fans.  

    Polls in CA show that the majority of the public wants a re-vote on HSR because they now understand what it will really cost and what we are really going to get in the CA HSR system, which is a lot less than promised for a lot more money with more expensive train tickets.


    • By Mike on July 15, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      “Fly or drive”  You must not be out there doing either… they are both is failure mode.  I don’t know anyone who thinks flying hasn’t deteriorated to the worst conditions ever over the past 5 years.  The airlines are all courting bankruptcy as they cannot afford to run planes with oil costs approaching $100 per barrel.  Every time fuel prices rise, the airlines cut more things and add more fees.  These trends will continue until the airlines are all out of business, and/or taken over by the government and run at a huge loss.  The airline industry has no future given that its main fuel source is constantly escalating in price.  Experts predict oil will surpass $200 per barrel this decade – that’s during the next 8 years! 
      Driving is in an equal mess as epic congestion has paralyzed the nation, at the same time fuel prices are making driving less and less affordable.  Both of these trends are getting worse with no solution in sight.  The ONLY solution to both of these is high speed rail.

    • By Andrew Holland on July 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm

      Bob – I didn’t want to comment on the specifics of the plan – as I know there’s some controversy there. As I stated, I think it would be better for this to be a private project, not a government-sponsored company that does it. However, over the course of this project – and it is going to take a while to build it out- I do think that there will be many opportunities to get it right. The case for HSR is strong in California. If the current plan or the current leadership isn’t the best, then the governor should update the plan.

      Along those lines, I was concerned when I saw that they turned down a proposal from SNCF (the French rail operator) to run the system.

      But- none of that undermines the fact that we need new transportation options in California, and new HSR is much better than new highways or new air routes.

  3. By Jonathan Isakoff on September 7, 2012 at 12:23 am

    HSR will be a $98 Billion white elephant in California.  In order for this to be viable, they have to compete with flights, which they won’t be able to do.  Additionally, the ridership projections they used when they devised this plan were just not realistic.  They will not have enough ridership and so will have to subsidize the system.. guess how… TAXES.  Amazing how a state running a huge budget deficit is cutting funding for schools and police, yet is going to build a system that will not be self sustaining.  It’s a boondoggle.

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