Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fresno Bee Calls on Republicans to Back High Speed Rail

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

The Fresno Bee has emerged as one of the state's leading media voices in support of the high speed rail project - and rightly so, since it will transform Fresno for the better. Today they wrote an editorial calling on Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines to support AB 3034 and high speed rail. Villines' support is key because AB 3034 requires a 2/3 vote, and since Democrats do not have 2/3 in either chamber, Republicans like Villines will need to vote for AB 3034 if the HSR bond on the November ballot is to be amended. Here's the key part of the Bee's editorial:

But the GOP caucuses in both the Assembly and state Senate have been curiously indifferent to the high-speed rail proposal -- if not downright antagonistic. That's troubling.

AB 3034 would rewrite the $9.95 billion November bond measure to make it more politically palatable to various factions, including the governor, Southern California voters and environmentalists. All are essential to the bond's passage.

High-speed rail would bring vast benefits to the state, but no region would be better served by the system than the Valley.

The Bee goes on to mention jobs, replacing high-cost car and airline trips, economic revitalization efforts in the Valley, and making it easier for Valley residents to travel to the rest of the state as the key reasons for backing HSR. And they rightly call out Republican "indifference" and "antagonism" to HSR.

Once upon a time not so long ago, Republicans were the party of economic growth. They promoted government efforts to help grow California business, to help the state meet its various challenges. Over the last two decades, however, the party has become a vehicle for rabidly anti-tax, anti-government folks who delude themselves into thinking that the 20th century can last forever, that California can thrive without innovating or evolving. As high fuel costs begin to cripple the state's economy, HSR and the jobs and affordable transportation it will provide become essential to California's 21st century economic fortunes. Chambers of Commerce up and down the Valley - groups that are usually solidly Republican - have lined up to endorse HSR.

AB 3034 isn't a perfect bill, and we have growing concerns about the bill's language that might compromise the core LA-SF portion of the system. While we investigate those concerns, we also believe that the concept of HSR must be supported, and unless we find anything in AB 3034 that is a poison pill, we second the Bee's call for California Republicans to join the 21st century and help build our state's future. Republicans backed the bay bridges and the massive state water project, both of which helped create the 20th century prosperity the state's been living off of until now. If that is to be renewed, HSR must be built.


Rafael said...

I suspect Assemblyman Villines' feigned indifference toward HSR has a lot to do with the positions of Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sen. McCain regarding publicly funded rail service.

While the Governor has expressed general support for HSR, especially after experiencing it first hand in France recently, he still frets that the state will be on the hook for more than November's $9.95 billion bond measure if adequate federal and/or private contributions fail to materialize. Either that, or the project will have to be canceled after voters approved it. Politically, both outcomes would reflect poorly on his time in office, so he's still sitting on the fence.

Moreover, the Governor probably isn't convinced yet that HSR really will turn an operating profit in California. Sen. McCain may or may not have heard of California's HSR system by now, so far all we know is that he opposes a continuation of subsidies for Amtrak. The common denominator is that Republicans generally perceive intercity passenger rail service as a permanent burden on public finances.

This is unfortunate, because HSR just isn't Amtrak - no disrespect to that fine service. Yes, the combination of high speed and excellent on-time performance that HSR delivers does require extensive - and expensive - grade separation as well as new, high-quality tracks and electrification. However, the reward is a quantum leap over trundling along - or waiting on - tracks owned by freight companies. And that leap may well be the difference between operating losses and profit.

It is not unreasonable to assume that Californians will switch from cars to rail: traffic gridlock and high fuel prices are already increasing ridership on Amtrak, BART, Caltrain, Metrolink, the LA Metro etc.

Nor is it unreasonable to expect that Californians will flock to higher speed services in particular, because people everywhere else have. Now, some may argue that Asia and Europe and even the North-East Corridor in the US are different because they have well-developed local transit systems that make it easy to get to and from train stations.

This is certainly a concern for some of cities to be served by the California system, but the state as a whole isn't starting from scratch. It does have BART, Caltrain, Metrolink, the LA metro, light rail in several cities plus extensive bus services. All are far from perfect, but the bond measure explicitly allocates $950 million toward improvements.

If HSR is approved, expect cities and counties to step up to the plate - led by the Bay Area, Fresno and Los Angeles. Indeed, there is already evidence that even modest improvements do increase ridership: Caltrain's most popular service is its "baby bullet" express trains, which are still limited to 79mph top speed but stop less frequently.

Provided it is implemented well and on budget, HSR has every chance of becoming a game-changer in the economics of passenger rail services. California Republicans need to decide if they want to be associated with that or blamed for hurting the state's competitiveness by keeping its transportation sector dependent on oil forever.

Anonymous said...

In point of fact, the Governor has made it quite clear, that if AB-3034 fails, he will not support the bond measure. That is CHSRA's greatest fear; without Schwarzenegger's support, the bond defeat is assured.

I was just reading AB-3034 and found this curious:

(b) Maximum nonstop service travel times for each corridor
that shall not exceed the following:
(1) San Francisco-Los Angeles Union Station: two hours, 42

My point here is I keep reading the train will provide service on the LA to SF segment in 2 hours 30 minutes. Yet this bill say, 2 hours 42 minutes non-stop is all the system need guarantee.

Are any trains going to go non-stop on this route? If an express train makes say 5 stops on this route, how much longer will the trip take? Rafael seems very knowledgeable, perhaps he would comment on how much extra time is added to a trip for each stop. I do know that these HSR trains take quite some time to come back up to speed.

Rafael said...

@ harold -

according to page 13 of CHSRA's implementation plan, there will be no non-stop trains between SF and LA. Of course, there may have been a change of plans since that document was published, but I haven't seen any other description of which trains will stop where.

The 2:35min estimate is quite old, so I guess it refers to SF-Fresno-LA. Ergo, specifying 2:42 for a non-stop test run gives the engineers plenty of wiggle room. Thanks to dedicated tracks, high speed trains do run on time: in Spain, passengers are entitled to a refund if an AVE is more than 5 minutes late!

As for acceleration and braking, it does take several minutes to get from 0 to 220mph, during which time it will cover at least 10 miles. That means you want station at least 15 miles apart, preferably a lot more.

Actual performance depends on the trainsets used and the elevation profile of the track, so manufacturers typically provide only power/weight ratios. The most modern technology available today (Alsthom AGV, Siemens Velaro) achieves values of around 30kW/t. For comparison, most modern cars come in at 75-150kW/t, at the expense of comparatively poor fuel economy when cruising.

Note that there are limits to how fast an express train may thunder through a downtown station. Similarly, speed limits in tunnels are often set at below the levels that high speed trains are capable of. For the California system, this means trains will probably only actually travel at their top speed between approx. Los Banos and Chowchilla, though they will come close on other sections between San Jose and Bakersfield.

Rafael said...

Sorry for the inconvenience, I copied the wrong URL.

CHSRA's implementation plan is here.

Anonymous said...


I think there is a schedule posted on the CAHSR website that shows some express trains going non stop from SF to LA. I will look for the link later because I don't have time at work, but I know it is there because I was just looking at it.

Anonymous said...

While the parties have changed over time, for the Republican party to oppose rail is historically very funny. Stanford was the Republican governor of California, and he was a railroad magnate.

What's changed is that railroads were fairly profitable, and helped lower transportation costs for other companies, so big business was behind them.

Now HSR is seen as Europeans style state spending. (which it isn't). It's really unfortunate though, as Republicans should see that their constituents will benefit.

Business people that will be able to work in SF and LA, and everywhere in between much more easily will not always be Democratic voters at all...... Few seem to recognize this.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Republican opposition to this is partly for the reasons rafael argues - that they labor under a delusion that HSR can never turn a profit, so why saddle the public with these costs, etc.

I would note, though, some distinctions between the far-right Republicans in the state legislature and the somewhat more moderate Republicans like Arnold. Whereas Arnold can be convinced to support HSR because it's good for business and the economy (the same basis that draws Central Valley Chambers of Commerce to support it), Republican legislators simply don't care. For them, the ideological principle is more important than the state's economic development.

Unfortunately too many Republicans still believe that rail needs to somehow be self-supporting, something we do not expect from roads or airlines.

And I think that comes from the fact that today's Republicans refuse to admit that the 20th century has ended. They believe that unless Californians drive everywhere they want to, that we're failing as a state. There's a class element too, as Republicans see mass transit as the domain of the poor and therefore something to be attacked.

As California sits at a crossroads, I wonder if there will be more pressure on Republicans to get with the 21st century program.

Anonymous said...

Republican opposition is far more fundamental than mentioned here.

This will be a government (public funded and operated) project. The taxpayers of the State and the whole country are being asked to pay for a project that will compete directly with the privately funded and operated airline industry.

Now if you are an advocate of more State sponsored activities in the economy and you believe that many activities now being done privately should be taken over by the State, you support a project like this, even though it might make no sense at all.

My experience tells me that privately run corporations certainly operate more efficiently than any government entity. That alone should be enough to have the average voter turn up their nose at this project.

The whole premise that this project is going to be profitable is a sham. If such were the case, private enterprise would be rushing to build and operate this system without any public funding.

That's probably why this bond measure will fail and fail badly. Here is a project that will certainly drain away public funds from more urgently needed education and other needs of the state.

I ran across this letter

which really sums up why this bond measure should be withdrawn from the ballot and forgotten:

"Wouldn't our leaders be more responsive and supportive to the people of California if they used their energy and wherewithal to provide the money that is critically needed for our strapped, declining educational system, instead of earmarking dollars and bond measures for a low-priority, nonsensical high-speed rail line that will serve but a fraction of our citizens?

Ron Ruiz, Westlake Village"