If not high-speed rail, what then?!

On Dec. 16, 2017, less than a month away, California high-speed rail construction work will have reached the two-and-a-half-year mark. This is the first major “from-scratch” intercity, heavy-rail, railroad-building effort begun in the Golden State since Southern Pacific’s Colton Cutoff (to Palmdale) line was completed in 1967 and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in 1972.

At any rate, $12.2 billion – the amount of money available to the California high-speed rail project (a goodly portion already spent or committed) – can only go so far in terms of the infrastructure actually able to be built before that money is exhausted, obviously.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost to complete the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco section (the Phase 1 part of the planned system), as of this writing, is $64 billion. That notion has quite a few people fretting over where the remainder of funds will come from to link – by high-speed rail – those two California regions.

That worry is not unfounded, I am one to admit. However, as has been expressed in the past here on the Air Quality Matters blog, many a transportation infrastructure project undertaken had been done so sans all of the necessary funding to complete such upfront – when such projects were first launched. Interstate 10 in the state of Arizona is a prime example coming immediately to mind, specifically, the Buckeye-to-Phoenix section which, the good news is did eventually get built.

U.S. transportation infrastructure spending does not appear at this time to be a high priority on Capitol Hill. That pretty much leaves states bearing the financial burden of said projects unless federal monies had been committed previously. One of those, as it turns out, is the California high-speed rail effort, the money provided to the project coming courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – from a total $8 billion pot designated for high- or higher-speed-rail-related construction work. According to information on Wikipedia, California’s share was $2.35 billion.

Alright, so what if money needed to complete the project fails to materialize?

For one, no one – neither Californians nor domestic and international tourists and business travelers alike – will be afforded the luxury of experiencing true high-speed train travel, at least, not here in the U.S., unless, of course, Texas, with its high-speed rail proposal to connect Dallas and Houston, physically gets rolling.

Furthermore, from an air quality standpoint, electrified high-speed rail, especially if the supply for that power, is generated from 100 percent renewable sources, means zero emissions produced. That, incidentally, is a key element of the California program – and that won’t happen either.

It isn’t just this: driving in this country is on the increase (3.2 trillion miles driven in 2016). This is at a level never before seen – an all-time record, to be exact.

Without significant road-infrastructure expansion to adequately handle the increased traffic, well, think congestion.

In fact, then American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in August of 2015 put the situation quite astutely, stating: “Americans realize our infrastructure needs must be addressed with long-term solutions. While other nations significantly invest in their transportation infrastructure, America now ranks 28th in infrastructure investment and continues to fall behind our global competitors. While we continue to sit in traffic, one has to ask, is this really the best America can do?”

Okay, but is high-speed rail really needed? Why can’t other types of rail suffice?

Whether built on the surface, above or below, acquiring land for new rail right-of-way is a difficult proposition. Remember my earlier statement that there hasn’t been a major “from-scratch” intercity, heavy-rail, railroad infrastructure building project in California since the completion of the 105-mile BART system in 1972. Railroad rebuilding efforts, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story. Think the recently revamped Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit or SMART service at 43 miles in length.

Meanwhile, being floated is the idea of bringing an 80-plus-mile-long predominantly east-west passenger rail service to the mid-state area, on what is being dubbed the Cross Valley Corridor. There is also some discussion of reviving service between North Santa Rosa and Willits close to California’s north coast. The Altamont Corridor Express or ACE which instituted passenger service in Oct. 1998, uses trackage owned by Union Pacific.

The proposal/idea list is long regarding what could substitute for California high-speed rail, one of the ones being advanced, apparently, is a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco Hyperloop, one whose supporters have maintained that if built, a trip via such could be achieved in as little as 35 minutes. At this point it is difficult to say if any such proposals/ideas will ever see the light of day.

Know this: high-speed rail works. It’s tried and true. It’s efficient, competitive, reliable, comfortable, frequent, safe, environmentally friendly and, of course, there is that one feature that makes high-speed rail, high-speed rail, it’s fast. To build a highway capable of handling the subsequent-to-2029 passenger loads that California high-speed rail is expected to bring; to increase the capacity in the air and at airports; or even in instituting hyperfast evacuated tube travel to do likewise, what kind of costs would be involved in terms of bringing those about?

Hint: the name of game major-transportation-infrastructure-project-wise in California, right now, is high-speed rail. Texas’ program, meanwhile, looks soon to follow suit. Should any be inclined to disagree, just remember: in all of the other countries where high-speed-rail travel is a fact of life, they most certainly cannot be wrong.

Images: California High-Speed Rail Authority (middle); Federal Railroad Administration (lower)

This post was last revised on May 5, 2020 @ 12:32 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel

11 thoughts on “If not high-speed rail, what then?!”

  1. Strictly from the capacity standpoint you raised, airports already have enough slots to handle more passengers by using larger planes. The latest Airbus single-aisle carries more than it used to. Boeing is expected to announce a replacement for the 757.

    For highways, consider that California’s population is projected to increase about 33% before leveling off. I-5 has two lanes. It has room for three lanes. That’s a 50% increase in possible capacity. Hwy 99 generally had room for a third lane before HSR came along. Those third lanes could be High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for buses and 3+ person carpools. By the time such lanes ever get built, the changeover to cleaner electric vehicles will be well underway. Those HOV lanes would easily carry more people than both adjacent lanes combined. They’d also easily carry all the new demand as the population grows. When they reach the Grapevine or Altamont Pass, the solution is expanding HOV lanes into LA and the Bay Area. This can be done for a small fraction of the cost of HSR.

    • While I don’t disagree with anything you say above, the transportation network needs better balance – people need traveling options. There is a limit to how much traffic (capacity) highways can handle. More people on passenger trains mean more freed-up spaces on roadways and in the air. Additionally, while air travel generally takes the traveler to airports on city peripheries, high-speed trains bring passengers to city centers.

      In the case of California, train travel is so limited at present. Case in point: No direct passenger train service over the Grapevine or the Tehachapi’s between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Likewise, no direct Amtrak service between the Valley and San Jose. This is where California high-speed rail could fill a definite void. Moreover, to increase the efficiency of an already efficient travel mode, I feel passenger trains need to run on track dedicated exclusively for passenger trains.

      Passenger trains by and large afford passengers comforts that just aren’t available on other modes. And, should motor vehicles someday operate themselves (aka autonomobiles), I suspect occupants still are not going to be able to get up and walk around the way riders can on a train. And, trains still have all the rest beat in one very important regard – safety.

      Finally, motor vehicles, planes and trains should not be thought of as competing modes but ones that actually complement each other.

      • There’s also a limit to how many takeoffs and landings Oakland, San Diego, and any other airport can handle. Imagine if planes were as cheap as cars. Solo fliers would take up most of the capacity leaving little room for high occupancy Airbuses to make efficient use of the system. That’s where our highways are. An already built, extremely useful transportation network carrying a fraction of the people it could. Instead of an average of 1.3 people per vehicle, that number could be 2.6, or 4. It needn’t cost $64+ billion to make that happen.

        Almost all HSR lines around the world require subsidies. CA voters were told ours won’t. I’ll believe that when I see the real budgets. Those ridership projections were made expecting $4 a gallon gas, no electric cars with cheap charging, and no improvements in airplane capacity. With those differences, HSR ridership will be lower than projected and the system will need subsidies. Instead we could subsidize buses until they become 30% cheaper with autonomous technology. We’d have more HOV lanes and a massive increase in capacity for a fraction of the cost.

        Planes and trains do compete against each other between cities of a few hundred miles. You say as much: “More people on passenger trains mean more freed-up spaces on roadways and in the air.” Since we’ve agreed Airbus and Boeing are coming out with larger planes to handle increased demand for seats, that shouldn’t be an issue and that aspect shouldn’t be a reason to spend $64+ billion on a whole new transportation connector.

        I agree freedom to walk around a train is nice and comfortable. So is the speed and potential time savings. I just don’t think those are worth $64+ billion.

        • “Almost all HSR lines around the world require subsidies.”

          This is true, though, according to what I now know, not all do. From what I understand, there are at least two that don’t.

          Which, means it’s possible the one in California won’t either.

          Using the figure of a projected (conservative) 29 million annual riders, say the average ticket price is $86. Doing the math, that works out to annual ticket sales of $2.494 billion. If California HSR lasts 100 years, then from ticket sales alone, revenue is $249.4 billion. So, say there are 5,000 permanent employees after construction is completed whose average annual salary is $50,000. Total payroll for a year is then $250 million. Extend that out over a century, and payroll for that period of time is $25 billion.

          Let’s also say yearly operating and maintenance expenses are $1billion. Over 100 years, this works out to $100 billion.

          Add these up plus the estimated $64 billion and the total sum is $189 billion spent over a 100-year period.

          Subtracting this from ticket revenue and that’s a surplus of $60.4 billion over a 100-year time-frame.

          Unless I’ve overlooked something in my figuring, yes, it is entirely possible, over the long-run, for the California high-speed rail system to be profitable.

  2. One of the most important benefits of HSR is opening up the Central Valley. New populations will be be able to reach major cities in a reasonable commute time. These will be better paid jobs than farm jobs of today. !00 miles from home to job will be quite feasible with HSR.

    We cannot provide enough water to continue the agricultural intensity of today and the new urban populations.

    • The 500,000 people living in the Stockton, Tracy, Manteca, Modesto, Turlock area served by ACE would point out they are in the Central Valley, there’s plenty of room for population growth, and a high speed upgrade to ACE would have been so much cheaper and had quicker commutes than the train coming from Merced or Fresno.

      As a commuter train, the chosen HSR path of Phase 1 serves the wrong cities and costs exorbitantly more than the Altamont upgrade would have.

  3. Expand the existing light rail systems that are in our larger metropolitan areas. This is where the greatest need exists and benefits will be seen. Eventually, a network will grow. Creating a 500 mile HSR just to have one in the State is ridiculous. The current AmTrak system is already being subsidized due to low ridership so why do we need HSR to connect these same cities? Use these funds where we’ll get the most bang for the buck!

    • You may be interested in reading the “Rails vs roads for value, utilization, emissions-savings: difference like night and day.” https://alankandel.scienceblog.com/2014/01/11/rails-vs-roads-for-value-utilization-emissions-savings-difference-like-night-and-day

      In this I do an analysis comparing road to rail. Based on my calculations, rail turns out to have the greater value of the two.

      As for train vs plane, on the east coast, the 457-mile northeast corridor hosts Amtrak’s “Acela Express” and other trains. The “Acela’s” run at a top speed of 150 miles per hour – average speed is something like 77 mph. Though not considered true high-speed by definition, last I checked, the Acela’s maintain commuter market share, between both Boston and the Big Apple, and between the latter and D.C. Though not quite high-speed, even so, this mode of travel is extremely competitive. There is every reason to believe that if run at true high speed, the Acela’s would fare even better.

      From news reports I understand California high-speed rail construction has prompted an infusion into the San Joaquin Valley economy of hundreds of millions of dollars so far. Statewide, I believe that number is in the billions. I just don’t see this same kind of return on investment with other infrastructure construction projects which, in my mind’s eye, makes the California high-speed rail project a worthwhile endeavor.

      Moreover, 1,500 are employed (involved in high-speed rail construction work) in the San Joaquin Valley alone.

  4. I think the idea of expanding HOV all the way would be more difficult and expensive than he imagines. The right of way of the HSR line is comparatively small, yet it is facing tremendous opposition from landowners, which is large part of the delay and cost increase.

    That said, improving only freeways is not a long term solution. As I tell many people, the HSR line is part of a statewide rail modernization plan. It is the long-distance connection, but there are also steps being taken to improve commuter traffic in metropolitan areas which feed into the HSR system.

    This situation is analogous to the tripod in our nuclear deterrence system — which relies on three legs. So, too, transportation in our state needs three strong legs: roads, airports, and rail lines. This is what every other advanced nation on the planet is doing, and it would be foolhardy to not do it too because it is a proven workable and efficient system.

    • The grass medians of 99 and 5 take no land from landowners. HSR faces opposition from landowners who are using their land and that’s why they don’t want it taken. Adding a third lane for HOV would if anything reduce traffic in the other two lanes, giving locals reason to support the project.

      Money isn’t free, and there are opportunity costs. Adding a third viable transportation mode has value, but that doesn’t mean it’s $64+ billion valuable.

  5. As we age the drive from Fresno to Los Angeles or San Francisco becomes more dificult. A flight from Fresno to Los Angeles or SanFrancisco cost close to $400, we will love a HSR to board.

Comments are closed.