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?