It's a bold headline from my alma mater: "A Reality Check on High Speed Rail" is how UC Berkeley bills a recent HSR symposium. Already Morris Brown is peddling this as yet another reason why HSR is terrible and doomed to fail. Morris wants us to not dismiss the symposium lightly. OK, I'll dismiss it heavily:
Even if high-speed rail attracted everyone who drove and flew between the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay Area during the year 2007, it would amount to only eight million passengers per year, nowhere near the numbers projected by the California High Speed Rail Authority, explained CEE professor Mark Hansen. But even that estimate is optimistic. HSR would be extremely unlikely to capture most current air travelers due to lack of transportation connectivity in most California cities and regions.
“In Europe and Japan, where HSR has been especially successful, it is a very simple thing to take a subway to the HSR station, go upstairs and get on the bullet train,” explained Madanat. For example, access to Eurostar—the HSR system that passes under the English Channel to link Britain with mainland Europe—is easy and car-less; a typical business passenger traveling from London arrives in downtown Paris in two-and-a-half hours and can walk or take the Métro from the same station to his or her meeting. This connectivity, or short access and egress time, is essential to the success of high-speed rail, and California has very little of it.
Oh really? This would be an accurate statement if HSR stations were going to be built on the edges of city centers. But they're not. The two key endpoints will be directly in the center of the existing mass transit networks in the state: SF Transbay Terminal and LA Union Station. Both are already served by an impressive amount of mass transit, and if Antonio Villaraigosa gets his way, LAUS in particular could be reachable from West LA and much of the San Gabriel Valley by passenger rail by the time HSR opens to SF. As anyone who is even remotely familiar with both SF and LA knows, Transbay Terminal and Union Station are both far more accessible, in a shorter period of time, than slogging through traffic on the freeways to LAX or even Burbank.
We can look to the Acela as an example. The Acela is a successful HSR route. It generates operating surpluses and has no trouble attracting riders. Sure, it helps that NYC has an excellent mass transit system. Washington D.C.'s system is pretty good, built in a very similar way to BART. Stations are located in the centers of both cities, even though DC has an easily accessible airport just across the river from downtown. Suburban DC is very car-centric, as is much of NYC outside the five boroughs, and that hasn't hurt the Acela either.
The presenters at the UCB symposium are not being realistic when they dismiss CA has having "very little" connectivity. Even in cities where the network still has some work to do, like San José (a stop they do not mention), the HSR station will be located very near to the airport (and is actually closer to downtown than the airport), putting both on an equal footing. And unlike SJC, Diridon Station has a stop on the VTA light rail line.
Of course, as Joey pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, the UCB symposium seems to have neglected the fact that HSR isn't just serving SF and LA, and includes places like San José, Fresno, and Bakersfield, where HSR would still be a compelling choice even without mass transit connectivity.
In short, their theory that HSR ridership depends on mass transit options CA lacks doesn't seem to hold water.
Travelers heading to Los Angeles from San Francisco, for example, will consider the time it takes to go to and from airports at each end of the trip, versus the time spent getting to a high-speed rail station. Time spent on the line-haul portion of the trip (actual flying or riding time) is more productive than the access and egress portions. But if access and egress times from HSR stations are as long and onerous as those for air, passengers will save time by driving to an airport instead.
“High-speed rail trades unproductive access and egress time for productive line-haul time,” explained Madanat. That is advantageous to travelers, and they are willing to spend an extra hour or more in line-haul time if egress and access time are diminished. Air travel between some cities in Japan has become nonexistent, thanks to the ease of traveling by high-speed rail.
I'm sorry, but Madanat is just plain wrong here. The unproductive access and egress time belongs entirely to airplanes, at least in California. He does not appear to have included the ridiculous security theater involved in air travel that adds up to a half hour to travel times. TSA recommends people arrive two hours before a domestic flight. Add in the travel to LA-area airports, none of which have good mass transit connections (whereas LAUS is the hub of the entire Southern California mass transit network), and it is not conceivable to me that HSR is at a disadvantage in terms of travel times. If anything it is likely to have an advantage, or would be comparable, which is all it really needs to be.
Again, we can look at reality to demonstrate the point: if HSR was such a bad deal, why does the Acela have half the market share on the Northeast Corridor? Madanat apparently didn't speak to actual Acela users:
Barry Ginsberg of Deer Park, N.Y., boarded an Acela train after a meeting in Washington.
"It's a lot less hassle and more comfortable," Ginsberg says. "When you figure how much in advance you have to get to the airport, it's a lot more convenient."
So there's another strike against the "reality check."
The other piece of the symposium report deals with emissions, and claims that HSR won't actually be the cleantech wonder we expect:
Proponents of California high-speed rail tout its energy-saving, greenhouse gas–eliminating characteristics. But panelist Arpad Hovath, also a CEE professor, reported on research showing that, unless ridership is very high, rail cannot perform better than air travel. To compare the carbon footprint of rail with air or driving, he explained, far more than just tailpipe emissions must be taken into account.
Horvath’s life-cycle analysis of the three modes suggests that high-speed rail will produce some 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year during construction. Furthermore, electricity to run the trains must be generated from coal-fired plants, leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions once HSR is operational.
Except that Horvath didn't mention the reality that the CHSRA has mandated that its trains will be powered by alternative, renewable sources to the maximum extent possible, with the goal being generation from 100% renewables. CHSRA's very existence helps bring online that capacity, by providing a guaranteed buyer of solar and wind power.
Horvath's assumptions also assume that ridership will be low. It will take about five years to reach the projected ridership levels (which is why many of CHSRA's projections are for 2030, not 2020), but once you're there, HSR will produce the reduced carbon footprint we expect.
He also charges that the construction alone will generate 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Maybe it will. But the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Even those tons of CO2 are a worthwhile investment for long-term significant reductions in CO2, since without HSR CO2 emissions are either going to continue rising and drown us in rising seas, or they'll crash totally without any alternative method of transportation when the oil gives out. And no, this symposium report does not mention "peak oil" at all. If it was discussed, UCB didn't see fit to mention it.
Oh, and the symposium report got in one last shot that Morris Brown, Stuart Flashman, and the PCL will just love:
Changes in alignment could help build ridership early, Madanat said. By switching the Northern California route from Pacheco Pass to Altamont, many more potential riders from fast-growing areas of Contra Costa and Alameda counties could be lured away from air travel.
Or Madanat could have mentioned the Altamont HSR corridor that the CHSRA is planning, which will bring the very kind of "connectivity" he claimed those potential riders needed in the form of a much faster ACE train.
Now it's possible that the problem here is with the staff producing the UC College of Engineering newsletter in which this article appeared. They didn't have to frame it as "reality check" and there may have been a more balanced discussion than what the article presented.
Still, it's a pretty lame "reality check," especially since it doesn't actually consider the realities I described above.
UPDATE: In fact, that's what seems to have happened. Alon Levy in the comments points to a post by Andy Nash about the symposium, which was apparently far more balanced, insightful, and useful than the UCB newsletter made it appear:
Professor Carlos Daganzo gave the first presentation. He showed convincingly how high speed rail can bring down the total cost of travel given the expected increase in travel demand combined with the HSR's decreasing cost per passenger model. This means that there is a very strong case for subsidizing high speed rail in the early stages of development, since it will improve the overall transport system....
Professor Mark Hansen spoke next. Hansen looked at the relationship of HSR to air travel. He believes that with HSR the air travel market will become less competitive and that the reduction in flights will be most evident in secondary airports (only a small share of SFO, LAX and SAN flights are intra-state ... although they use more than their share of capacity since they are generally smaller planes)....
Professor Robert Cervero proposed four lessons for California: (1) station siting is critical, building stations in freeway medians or surrounded by free parking will lead to more sprawl development and greater driving; (2) feeder systems are important for solving the "last mile" problem, extended TOD corridors are a good solution; (3) TOD as a necklace of pearls (e.g. like Copenhagen's approach) would be excellent, but California's current planning regime does not support this approach; (4) joint development must be high quality and pedestrian-oriented, studies of joint development in Hong Kong show that these types of joint development can be much more effective than the alternative basic systems.
So now the question is, why the biased report by the UCB "Innovations" newsletter?!