Revisited: Will California’s second-tier HSR cities reap big-city rewards sans certain big-city headaches?

Construction of America’s newest and first true high-speed rail (HSR) line is expected to get underway this summer. It has been a long time coming – since 1996, I think. The rail line is to link Los Angeles and Anaheim with San Francisco (via California’s San Joaquin Valley and San Jose) with eventual extensions to San Diego and Sacramento. In all, it will be an 800-mile network of high-speed train tracks.

The line will support passenger train operating speeds of 220 miles per hour. Express, end-to-end, non-stop train-trip time between Los Angeles and San Francisco – the two main hubs – is expected to be 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Twenty-four (and possibly more) California cities will have stations. It is a huge undertaking and quite possibly California’s largest public works project ever.

If you remember, in “Will California’s second-tier HSR cities reap big-city rewards sans certain big-city headaches?” I wrote: “Article author Alison Hewitt in this article opens with this thought: ‘Bullet trains fuel real-estate booms, improve quality of life and create other unintended consequences by sharply reducing commute times from smaller cities to large megacities, economists from UCLA and China’s Tsinghua University observed in a new study in China. A similar dynamic, they said, could play out as California builds its own high-speed rail system.’

320px-FLV_California_train[1]“So, now I’m thinking: Is the experience with other countries’ high-speed rail systems similar to those experienced in China in regard to its HSR systems?”

I also expressed something to the effect that seeking an answer to this would have to wait. Well, I did some research and here is what I learned.

The source I searched for the answer in is: “Spain’s high-speed rail system offers lessons for California.”

Before I share my findings, I offer a prediction and that is that some of the growth in population in second-tier cities along the trunk will be directly attributable to the high-speed rail line being built and the connection these cities will have with the main hubs.

Now back to the main point.

Author Tim Sheehan writes: “Among the growing fraternity of nations with high-speed trains, Spain is considered the best geographic and cultural analogy to California and its train plans. The long-distance [Alta Velocidad Espanola] trains and their regional cousins Avant and Alvia, which share the high-speed tracks, connect major urban centers but pass through smaller cities and stretches of rural farmland, just like what is planned for California.”

In a second but related article: “Politics, not funding, drove growth of Spain’s high-speed rail,” in comparing the proposed California system to Spain’s, Sheehan wrote: “In Spain, it all happened with no serious economic study to determine whether high-speed trains could attract enough riders to justify the expense, analysts say.

“The desire for high-speed rail wasn’t to relieve clogged highways or congested airports, or even to operate a profitable system.

“Instead, the goal was to provide a modern transportation system, with Madrid at its hub, to connect the far-flung provincial capitals with the national seat of government.”

This arrangement, with Madrid located in central Spain and acting as a hub city with lines radiating out in various directions like spokes on a wheel, is different than what is planned for California.

Sheehan, in the same article, nevertheless, points out: “[Spain] has wasted money building ill-conceived routes to smaller cities that offer too few riders, said Andreu Ulied, whose Barcelona engineering and planning firm MCRIT works with the European Union to assess transportation plans, including high-speed rail.”

And, from a third article: “Spain vs. California: economic impact and benefits of high-speed rail,” Sheehan wrote: “Ulied, economist Germa Bel and others, however, say the prospects for economic gains by high-speed rail cities are murky at best and, at worst, might actually bleed commerce from smaller cities along the routes between larger destinations,” a different take from that which was presented in “Will California’s second-tier HSR cities reap big-city rewards sans certain big-city headaches?”

What is important to understand here is that, as far as I can tell, it isn’t specified whether or not these “smaller cities along the routes between larger destinations” have stations and, as well, are stops on the Spanish high-speed-train network. However, after the first high-speed rail line was built and in service, in smaller cities (the ones with stations) located between and connected to the major metro centers, business improved.

“Spain’s Ministry of Public Works reports that Madrid, Ciudad Real, Cordova and Seville, all along the oldest high-speed line, saw greater growth in the number of hotel beds than the nation as a whole after the line connecting them was launched in 1992,” Sheehan wrote. “Collectively, the four cities grew from about 70,000 hotel beds in 1990 to more than 130,000 in 2007.

“In Ciudad Real, a city of 75,000 people about 100 miles south of Madrid, hotel beds and hotel stays more than doubled between 1990 and 2007. The city’s population also grew at a much faster rate than the rest of Spain during the same period.”

The way the accelerated population growth in Ciudad Real came about, it would tend to support those research findings having to do with the high-speed rail study where China’s second-tier HSR towns were the focus. (For more on this, see: “Will California’s second-tier HSR cities reap big-city rewards sans certain big-city headaches?”).

As in some of the second-tier towns in Spain, in California, high-speed rail could play a considerable role in transporting riders from distant locations to the state’s center in the San Joaquin Valley as three Valley towns – Merced, Fresno and Visalia – provide good access to two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions – Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks. Faster connections could result in more visits to these destinations and more stays in area lodging.

The Valley’s agricultural bounty could as well be a draw.

For air care, encouraging news

Keeping it all in context, the other important consideration to keep in mind has to do with automated mobility and how harmful emissions produced from highway and air travel can be significantly reduced via efficient and environmentally-friendly electrified high-speed train travel.

Even if but a third of private passenger vehicle and airline travel is given up to that via high-speed rail, there will be a significant emissions savings. (For more, see: “What’s it gonna take…to tackle dirty air?”).

In Getting California on Track: Seven Strategies to Reduce Global Warming Pollution from Transportation authors Jason Barbose with the Environment California Research & Policy Center and Tony Dutzik and Joshua Hoen of the Frontier Group estimate reductions in annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from building statewide high-speed rail to be 2.5 million metric tons (MMT) by year 2020 and just about double that (4.9 MMT) by 2030.

The authors write: “Air travel is a large source of global warming pollution in California. Yet, for many long-distance trips within the state, high-speed rail could provide service that is just as quick and convenient as air or car travel, but with far less pollution. The state should build the proposed high-speed rail line linking Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego.”

– Alan Kandel