Sunday, June 22, 2008

Quentin Kopp's Latest HSR Defense

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Been a busy weekend, so I've just got a brief amount of time to point out Quentin Kopp's op-ed in today's Sac Bee. It addresses some of the financial risk questions the Sac Bee asked a few weeks back - clearly Kopp is trying to reassure the media opinion makers that the HSR project is on sound footing. Personally I think Kopp would do well to include the fact that the cost of doing nothing is not zero and that any true assessment of financial risk has to include a comparison of the cost of building HSR with the cost to the state's budget and economy of relying on air and road travel alone to get around our state.

But at least Kopp understands the importance of fuel prices. Here's how his op-ed began:

Gasoline costs almost $5 per gallon; airline fares increase while service declines; congestion chokes freeways; air quality worsens. What's missing? High-speed electrified 200-mph trains, and the time has never been more propitious to launch a travel option recognized and used worldwide for decades.

High-speed trains use one-third the energy of air travel and one-fifth the energy of automobile travel. High-speed trains will reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 22 million barrels a year.

Whereas HSR deniers have no solution at all to the problem. To them the answer is just grin and bear it - pay the high gas prices, because god forbid a few Peninsula property owners have to give up part of their backyard.


Rafael said...

Perhaps it might be useful to take a short walk down memory lane:

When the Japanese and French railway operators first proposed high speed rail in their respective countries, their passenger services were in serious decline. JR was saddled with a narrow gauge network and SNCF was grossly overstaffed.

At the time, many members of the general public considered rail an obsolete technology. High speed rail looked like a technological extravagance, the last harrumph of a dying industry. Still, Japanese LDP politicians saw the shinkansen program as a way to curry favor with the construction industry and twisted voters' arms. Two decades later, French voters had just experienced the first oil shock and were willing to give proponents the benefit of the doubt - especially because the country already had many nuclear power plants.

In spite of cost overruns and construction delays, once the first trains started rolling, public opinion soon shifted. Consumers realized theirs had been a failure of imagination and started praising the foresight of traffic planners. Roughly doubling train speed meant this 19th century mode of transportation had become a superior alternative to both driving and flying, at least for intermediate distances.

In France, high speed rail also brought about another sea change. Provincial towns soon discovered that a TGV station was a powerful argument in attracting real estate development, light manufacturing and information services providers. Put simply, the TGV has brought them jobs. See this video (in French) for details.

In its attitudes to high speed rail, the general public in California is actually further along this trajectory than the French were back in the 1970s or the Japanese in the 1950s. There are advantages to not being at the bleeding edge.

Still, it's easy enough to raise doubts about the fairness of the route selection process, to poke holes into ridership forecasts or construction cost estimates. It's a good deal more difficult to translate dry predictions of future demographic, economic and energy trends into tangible consequences on the ground.

Specifically, CHSRA has produced eye candy computer animations of what high speed rail would look like. Unfortunately, it has not produced any that spell out the no-project and modal alternatives in graphic detail. If it had, the advantages offered by HSR would be blindingly obvious not just to them but to all Californians. Bureaucrats read text. Consumers prefer pictures and video.

Even so, many voters already accept that doing nothing is not an option: the state's key economic centers would experience near-permanent gridlock, with entirely predictable consequences for productivity loss, population health and quality of life.

The modal alternative is trickier in that it represents the devil voters already know. They may well understand that building 3300 lane-miles of highway extensions and 5 new runways would be at least as expensive as building HSR and probably, more so.

However, these capacity expansions would come about piecemeal. That gives voters more control of when individual projects are implemented, but it hides their cumulative effect on the state's finances. It also hides how much greater the environmental degradation of the modal alternative would be, in terms of land use, urban sprawl, noise, filling the Bay etc. It would also do nothing to wean the state's transportation sector off its dependence on oil.

CHSRA is asking voters to take a leap of faith. Considering the alternatives, they ought to.

Rafael said...

CoCo Times' Capricious Commuter also caught Quentin Kopp's op-ed in the SacBee.

He interprets the reference to an 800 rather than a 700-mile system as evidence that CHSRA has already decided to propose building both the Pacheco and Altamont Pass routes into the Bay Area, including a spur up to Oakland.

The official CHSRA web site still shows this "HST commuter rail overlay" thingie as something "under consideration". Perhaps it's worth pointing out that its construction would add an estimated $8 billion to the total tab. It's unlikely that private investors would be interested in funding a local overlay, so given the constraints on the state budget it will most likely remain unfunded indefinitely.

Of course, an overlay wouldn't be needed at all if Pacheco were discarded in favor of building only Altamont variation 9 minus the spur to Oakland. That would cost the same and do a much better job of serving the needs of the emerging Northern California megaregion - specifically, rapid transit between Sacramento and the Bay Area.

As discussed before on this blog, I believe CHSRA got its sums badly wrong on the SF-LA haul penalty for running trains via Altamont. An extra 39 minutes would indeed severely impact ridership, but an extra 8-14 minutes would not.

Even if Rod Diridon insisted on running trains through the station that bears his name rather than reverse direction there, there would be a possible route via I-280 and I-680.

That would allow HSR to avoid construction conflicts with the BART extension to SJ, but it would also mean there would be no intermodal station in Fremont. If this were pursued, a BART extension from Dublin/Pleasanton to the Livermore Valley HSR station should be planned. It would make a lot more sense than running an HSR spur up the East Bay, especially since there is no way to construct a standard gauge station in downtown Oakland.

It's too bad none of this is likely to even be considered. The route selection process is already very far along, so California voters will likely be saddled with an arguably inferior solution for decades to come.

Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. If Pacheco it has to be, then there are adequate alternatives to improving connections between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. The focus should be on avoiding tunnel construction and full grade separation in favor of dual tracking existing freight routes and, on switching to fuel efficient FRA-compliant rolling stock.

The Capitol Corridor is already dual-tracked but could be upgraded to support top speeds of 110mph. Oakland harbor could do with the additional capacity.

Luis D. said...

@ rafael -

The Dublin/Pleasanton BART station extension to Livermore is already getting underway. They are currently having public meetings the first or only was last Wednesday, June 18th to plan the best possible route through Livermore and on to Greenville Rd. and start the EIR studies. They are asking the public, and residents opinions and you have some great ones you can maybe forward to them through their website or email.

Here's the website:

Rafael said...

@ luis d. -


very skeptical said...

This blog it seems to me is ignoring and or trying to ignore some major economic impacts of this project.

Having a subsidized rail system compete with the private airlines will hurt them financially, and they are none too healthy right now. The airlines and the aircraft manufacturers contribute handsomely to help our dismal balance of payments problem.

All of the serious hardware for the HSR project is manufactured elsewhere and purchases necessary for the project will only add to the balance of payments problem. In the article Sustainable economy 101, Lessons from Europe and Japan, you can read other projects that also put us deeper on the wrong side of the balance of payments.

Michael Kiesling said...

Very Skeptical, the overwhelming majority of the price of the HSR project is design and construction, which are located here, not overseas. Bulldozers and trucks, lots of them.

The trains will come from a foreign manufacturer, but they will most likely be assembled here. BART's fleet of C-1 cars were French, but built in Hayward. The C-2 cars were built in Pittsburg, CA. Siemens, who builds the majority of light rail trains in use in the US, is a German company but does their manufacture in Sacramento. They are also one of the biggest suppliers of high speed trains. In economics, with the current exchange rate, the foreign companies that know how to build the trains will want to do work here, because our labor will be comparatively cheaper. Manufacturing jobs in California.

Oil for cars and airplanes present a bigger balance of payment problem than the foreign components of high speed rail. No alternative to driving or flying perpetuates that need for foreign oil.

As for airlines, they make money on some routes and lose on others. SFO is on record supporting HSR, and they live by keeping airlines happy. They must know something. Also, remember that airlines buy foreign planes from Airbus, which are 100% assembled overseas. What percentage of cars on the road in California are manufactured overseas?

Remember, the vast majority of the HSR money will go to planners, engineers, bulldozer operators and dump truck drivers, not overseas.

davisgrad said...


The balance of payments comes from low savings, overconsumption, low interest rates, and currently from oil imports, as demand is inelastic.

Even if the entire project, 40 billion was imported (it won't be, and remember, the contractors won't be foreign), it would be a drop in the bucket, compares to the hundreds of billions of dollars of trade deficit that occurs every year. (Remember HSR won't be built in a year. If it takes 10 years, that's 4 billion a year. A drop in the ocean).

The airlines are massively subsidized, you must not read this blog much. They need the state to build things like airports. Why build one type of infrastructure and not the other.

And another thing. Guess where asphalt and airline fuel come from? Imported oil maybe? You conveniently didn't mention that. Oil imports are what has been driving the trade deficit recently, as the non-oil deficit has been declining due to the falling dollar.

If anything, long term HSR helps our balance of payments. I glanced at your article, and it made some good points. Europe and Asia are ahead on things like HSR, but we have to start somewhere.

The time is now!

very skeptical said...


I have read quite a bit on this blog, and I certainly don't agree with some of what I have read.

The great myth being spread is this airline subsides. Through the taxes laid on air fares and fuel , huge amounts of monies have been generated, which pays for new facilities and upgrades.

Furthermore, why do you think Cities like San Francisco love their airports. They generate big revenues in parking, sales taxes etc.

Boeing is one of the major contributors to a positive balance of payments for the country. Take away major portions of their business domestically, and pretty soon we will have to be buying all aircraft abroad.

I'm certainly in favor of conservation of oil and HSR will lead to less oil consumption, but it is also a drop in the bucket of the overall scheme of things.

The recent articles about the UK rejecting HSR as not being green seem to have at least some substance. Why should we build a train to run 200 MPH or so if we are trying to be green, when running it at 125 MPH would use one-half the energy?

I also note that apparently in those calculations nobody wants to account for the power consumption during construction or for the consumption for the electricity. Thousands of bulldozers -- they burn fuel don't they. Power generation is inter related with regards to the primary sources from which it is generated. Clean generation, dams, solar, nuclear can be excepted (except during construction), but still a lot of electricity comes from coal and other fossil fuels.

Another myth being spread here is the worry that oil supply and production is going away. Nonsense. The oil industry has managed to keep a 40 years supply of proven reserves available and there is certainly no indication that that is ending anytime soon.

Just let me add, that I keep wondering why nobody here is advocating MAGLEV, which seems to me to much more advanced and should be practical. Why should California lead the nation with a project like this, when we should be concentrating on building new technology, which could be developed here and eventually sold elsewhere as well as used domestically.

Like most things this project is a trade off. I'm still trying to make up my mind.

davisgrad said...

Yes, but who builds the airports? Surely you know of the history of all the airline bailouts. Overall, airlines get massive net subsidies. Ok, the planes are purchased by the airline companies, but the airports are purchased through tax dollars, just like HSR infrastructure.

"Furthermore, why do you think Cities like San Francisco love their airports. They generate big revenues in parking, sales taxes etc." I agree. It's great. Let's add on HSR, it can do the same.

Tell me about how we can expand SFO, OAK or SJC, and then a defense of aviation over HSR would get into the ballpark of making a shred of sense.

"Boeing is one of the major contributors to a positive balance of payments for the country. Take away major portions of their business domestically, and pretty soon we will have to be buying all aircraft abroad." You should check up on our economics. The less is bought domestically, the more is available for exports. Now, there may be scale effects, etc. but saying that less domestic consumption will hurt exports is shaky at best.

"The recent articles about the UK rejecting HSR as not being green seem to have at least some substance. Why should we build a train to run 200 MPH or so if we are trying to be green, when running it at 125 MPH would use one-half the energy?" The Uk still relies massively on fossil fuels, whereas California is more fuel effecient. I have yet to see a study showing that HSR is more fuel effecient than airlines or cars. Naturally, just relying on convenional rail would be great, but people want to get places faster. Remember, about a billion of the bond money goes to even greener, conventional rail.

More transportation infrastructure will have to be built in this state, and it will use energy, no one denies that. But of the realistic option, HSR is by far the greenest and more fuel efficient.

And yes, cheap oil is going away. What's left is much more expensive to extract, and production is peaking. This is why we need to diversify California's infrastructure away from reliance on fossil fuels, especially gasoline and jetfuel.

I'm not opposed to Maglev per se, but it's far too expensive. We should stick with conventional HSR, but once maglev is cost competitive, it will be a wonderful option.

CComMack said...

@very skeptical

Come 2016, what solvent airline will be providing profitable air service to Sacramento, Bakersfield, or Fresno airports? I'm legitimately curious. I imagine, in the absence of HSR and the persistence of over $120/barrel oil (an optimistic figure), that only massive subsidies will allow those cities to retain meaningful air service. No, airlines are going to be looking more and more at routing passengers from smaller cities on HSR, consolidating them at larger airports like SFO and LAX, much as Air France uses TGV as a feeder for its international hub at Paris-CDG.

The loss of Bay Area-SoCal traffic will sting for the airlines, but will be a small price to pay for shedding no-longer-profitable services and flying larger, more cost-efficient planes on the more profitable east-west routes. I assume Boeing would also rather have HSR put a crimp in the domestic 737 market, than have United file for Chapter 7 and return all of its planes to their lessors.

Luis D. said...

Actually Airline companies lease all their planes, they don't buy them. It would be too costly to buy and also maintain them, which is why the run the heck out of them to take advantage of every minute of their lease!

I think it's better to use bulldozers and oil based fuel machinery to build something that is enviornmentally freindly rather then those same Oil bulldozer machines to build roadways for more Oil hungry, CO2 spewing machines!

Our electricity generating equipment will only improve as time goes on. We cannot immediately switch to all energy efficient modes of transportation overnight. This is a good start not only for California but for the entire Nation.

Oil has peaked and although it has not run out, what's left of it is hard to get. Might as well call it gone. It would cost too much and take up to much energy to reach it and it would take years to see any price drops in gas at these point in time!

Maglev is a nice technology but you (very skeptical) want to re-invent the wheel so to speak on Maglev. It is already a proven but expensive technology. It is being created and tested I beleive here in California but they too are trying to re-invent the wheel because they (I assume) don't want to buy the current Maglev equipment from overseas manufacturers. They want to invent in our own, and sell it in the country. We don't have time for that, it will also keep prices high!

In this day and age people choose not only the cheapest travel option but the Fastest! High Speed rail once it's established and hopefully we'll have more efficient Solar panels and better wind generators, will be the cheapest, fastest option to commute or travel accross the state!

Rafael said...

@ very sceptical -

- California is not the UK, whose Victorian-era rail corridors are heavily congested. Population density is much lower here and the intercity rail network much less developed. For capacity and safety reasons, California cannot massively expand both its intercity passenger rail services and freight rail on the existing tracks. New tracks are needed and, the cost difference between the kind that can support 125mph and those that can support 220mph isn't all that large - the really big ticket items are land purchases and grade separations against motor vehicles.

Ergo, it makes sense to run trains at the highest possible speeds in this state, in spite of the additional electricity required - doing so maximizes ridership on both HSR and associated local transit, all which takes more cars off the roads.

- for CHSRA's analysis of direct (operational) and indirect (construction) energy requirements, see Section 3.5. of the Bay Area to Central Valley Final EIR/EIS.

Indirect energy use for the HST system is equivalent to about six months' worth of direct use, ergo negligible for a system that will be in use for many decades. Indeed, relative to the no-project alternative, all of the indirect energy consumed in constructing the HST system will be saved in approx. one year.

The energy study did not include the modal alternative, because that would have to be developed in more detail first - a mammoth task that was well beyond the scope of CHSRA's charter. However, it's a fair bet that constructing 3300 lane-miles of highways and 5 new runways would consume more cement, steel and asphalt than building the HSR network. Operating a lot of additional cars and aircraft for medium-distance trips would incur substantially greater direct energy costs.

- CHSRA is currently working on a feasibility study for running the HSR system entirely off renewable electricity - specifically solar, wind and geothermal. The peak power demand for the entire network by 2030 is given as 794MW in the chapter referenced above. That's less than the Geysers geothermal plant and about twice as much as the Ivanpah solar thermal plant.

- global civilian aircraft construction isn't going to radically contract just because there are fewer short-hop planes plying the SFO-LAX corridor. On the other hand, US subsidiaries for trainset and related manufacturing might well be located in California. Siemens' already is. If Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi or Talgo want to make the shortlist, there will be a lot of pressure for them to set up shop in the state.

- maglev was considered but rejected for several reasons:

1. there is elevated technology risk because only a single short line has ever been built (in Shanghai).

2. there is elevated vendor risk as only Transrapid, a German company, currently has a commercially proven solution. The vendor claims long maglev trains could support up to 900 seats, but this has never been proven in commercial operations.

3. construction cost is about twice that for steel wheels HSR as the entire line has to be implemented as an aerial viaduct.

4. maglev tracks require more horizontal room than standard gauge. It would have been impossible to deploy this technology in the SF peninsula while maintaining local Caltrain service.

very skeptical said...


I'm surprised after reading your posts that you would not take issue with not at least further examining maglev as an option.

Many comments on this blog talk about getting California deep into this Century on sound economic and environmental footings.

Why then shouldn't we take a giant leap forward and embrace a new technology, develop it fully and implement it here in the US.

Now your talking about a real worthwhile undertaking, with huge potential.

I'm talking about a national program, grounded here in California developing a much better option to what is presently available. We certainly have the talent and it could be done on a timely basis with immense rewards.

Luis D. said...

@ very skeptical -

Haha, that's not anywhere near possible! The project for Anaheim to Las Vegas is estimated at about $12 Billion! If we did maglev in place of our current route I would guess it would easily be more than $100 Billion and impractical. The system isn't tested anywhere at this scale and would be the biggest, riskiest transportation in our history! Every peice of track needs to be suspended above the ground throughout the system! The equipment is very expensive! Your ideas on Maglev are not possible!

very skeptical said...

MSNBC just published an article Titled "America’s fastest train moves ahead" which deals with Maglev and the proposed run from LA to Las Vegas which has just received start up funding from the Feds.

If you believe the claims in the article the line can be running by 2015 and will cost $12 billion. I don't believe the claims necessarily, but I do believe that this technology can be developed and would prove to be the next generation of high speed rail and should be carefully looked at here. We certainly should not be building a mega project that is obsolete even before it is finished.