Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Flawed LA Times Article on Prop 1A

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

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?


Rob Dawg said...

Prop 1a yes = insightful.
Prop 1a no = fatally flawed.

Robert, you know what that kind of litmus test is called don't you? Leave blind zeal up to the other side.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Heh. Of course that's what I believe. But I also give a lot of reasons - 190 posts so far - explaining why I believe that.

The record's there for anyone to see.

Rafael said...

Note that the recently opened Beijing-Tianjin line already operates at top speeds of 217mph (350kph) in commercial service.

Their rolling stock is Siemens Velaro gear, which the Chinese are now permitted to produce under license. Alstom, Talgo-Bombardier and Hitachi all have off-the-shelf designs that are certified to run at 350-360kph. However, operators are generally cautious about exploiting the full speed potential. In some cases their legacy HSR tracks can't handle more than 300kph, in others the extra electricity cost only makes sense if the ridership is high enough.

All this applies today, so by 2018 there will be 10 years of track record to leverage. Perhaps Prof. Moore is not familiar with the latest steel wheels HSR technology.

The fly in the ointment is that CHSRA needs a waiver from FRA to use what's available off-the-shelf. Most of the proposed network is dedicated to HSR, so that part is comparatively trivial. However, some mixed traffic situations are anticipated in the Caltrain and LOSSAN corridors.

FRA already allows mixed traffic if there is guaranteed time separation. I expect permission for moderately high speed operation (~125mph) in those sections will depend on having a single dispatcher plus PTC on the tracks and all trains sharing them. Since HR 2095 mandates PTC by 2015, chances are CHSRA will get its waiver. FRA may want try whatever new rules it comes up with in the Caltrain corridor first before applying them to more complex situation in the LOSSAN corridor. Plenty of scenario analysis, real-world testing and trial periods will be required to satisfy everyone that mixed traffic can be operated safely.

The upside is that the lessons learned will also apply to regular-speed situations. That would let passenger railroads nationwide to gradually transition to lightweight rolling stock and its lower cost of operations.

If all else fails, CHSRA and Caltrain will have to negotiate alternate service plans and, the LOSSAN corridor will have to be widened at great expense. However, given that FRA has been receptive to Caltrain's separate waiver process, chances are the agency isn't looking to needlessly bury HSR under a mountain of red tape.

Morris Brown said...


Its too bad you now need to censor your blog. Its your privilege.

I'll see if this gets through.

Paul M. Weyrich, a major rail supporter, nationally known, and Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation in an article titled High-Speed Rail v. California Deficit concludes:
If Californians hear the real cost of high-speed rail I would not be surprised if they ended up where as I have – namely, “No” on Proposition A.

Quoting from the article:

"Were I a voter in California, as strong an advocate of rail as I am, I doubt I could bring myself to vote for this project. Were the State in decent fiscal shape I would almost certainly support the project. Somewhere in the USA a high-speed system needs to be built. However, the projections of cost and ridership and revenue need to be realistic. California is just too broke to afford to build this system at this time.

Unlike the Reason Foundation, I do not think that this project would be a white elephant. Millions would ride it but the projections being sold to the voting public are way off base. If California’s fiscal condition were in order then would be the time to bring this proposition back. Passage this year is far from assured. If Californians hear the real cost of high-speed rail I would not be surprised if they ended up where as I have – namely, “No” on Proposition A. "

Robert Cruickshank said...

Weyrich is wrong and is letting his Hooverite tendencies bleed through. As we have repeatedly explained at this blog the state budget deficit does not and should not mean HSR is a bad idea or a threat to our state's fiscal stability.

That's why this is bond funding. Not $10 billion out of the general fund all at once, which of course would be reckless. California's budget crisis is not difficult to solve. It is caused by political failure, not financial failure.

Besides, just because we approve the bonds now doesn't mean they'll get sold now. We can wait until the fiscal climate improves.

This whole notion that the budget crisis means we can't do HSR is based on the most astounding ignorance of the state budget problems imaginable.

qwerasdf said...

Robert, you still haven't addressed my argument that bond debt is just debt. It's as good as throwing $660 million at HSR every year from the budget. We repay bonds through the General Fund. Do you know why we use bonds? You told me I don't understand bonds, but this is my understanding and I'm sure it's quite true. It's like a 30 year home loan and we use it so we can pay it back slower and not dump $10 billion all at once. While it's the same thing as throwing $660 million at HSR every year, we can't guarantee that funding from the budget due to partisan politics or budget disputes or whatever. That's why when we argue for fiscal responsibility, we argue that could we afford $660 million in a line on the budget for this every year?

That's why bonds secure the funding at once but repay it slowly. Thus, when we pass a bond, you better make DAMN SURE it will work and there are measures to make it work. There are too many things open in the air about this especially when it comes to things like cost overruns and stuff. You quote one rail line that has come on time, but this is a first for the US, and if you want something closer, read about the Taiwan HSR, and there's no doubt that scandal after scandal and overrun after overrun and delay after delay that it got done. But... it was privately financed, which can be no worse than a government run project.

Finally, stop calling us Hooverites. Hoover himself believed in public works projects (RFC). As a school teacher I would expect you to know that. Hoover RAISED taxes which screwed America over. You don't raise taxes to close the budget gap (we can talk about Obama's tax plans another day). I think EVERYONE HERE, me included, and Morris believe that HSR is a great idea in general.

You still have yet to address the things that Morris and I have brought up. Realistic projections and realistic costs/timeline. There are FAR too many screwups in these large projects (Benicia Bridge, Bay Bridge, etc. that you HAVE to have quite a bit of doubt no matter how well laid out on paper any project is.

Finally, it's not that we can't afford HSR, we probably can. It's just that with our budget, we have to cut other things. Most people who are in debt can still afford a new car. It's just how much more in debt do you want to be. We can afford to dump more money into Social Security and to rack the national debt up higher, but how much higher do we want it? CA spends $22.2 billion more than it receives. My source was Yahoo Finance, not some LA Times opinion blog like yours, so please tell me, if we're going to spend more like on HSR, how will we afford to keep the CORE THINGS we need like education, healthcare, etc? We will have to cut those or raise taxes right?

No one's saying public works can jumpstart economies, but there are BETTER and more NECESSARY and more URGENT projects we can jump into first.

Anonymous said...

Talk about uniformed columnists writing articles. The Sonoma News prints this article.

Prop. 1A to fund high-speed rail

Here we read:

The measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

Since I'm opposed to Prop !A, if only that were true..

Morris Brown said...

I just posted this from the LA times regarding the State's successful issuance of short term notes.

Now say what you want to about a time to be passing Prop 1A. With our bond rating so low that we have to pay almost twice in interest from a state like Mass., it is a lousy time to be borrowing more.

Anonymous said...

The correct abbreviation for kilometre per hour is km/h. kph is NOT correct!