Monday, June 2, 2008

California Changing Before Our Eyes

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

Recycling this for Tuesday June 3 - follow our state election coverage at Calitics

It wasn't really that long ago that rail travel was the primary method Californians used to get around the state - and even around the country. Even into the late 1950s passenger rail was thriving, although facing a growing challenge from airlines and the interstate freeways. By the 1960s and 1970s Californians came to believe that rail was dying and cheap oil would last forever - but the rumors of passenger rail's demise were exaggerated (if not greatly). It's clear now that the late 20th century dismissal of rail's role in transportation was shortsighted and based on temporary conditions like cheap oil, and as Californians watch global warming, congested freeways, and soaring fuel prices, they're reevaluating passenger rail. Ridership on Amtrak California's intercity routes are soaring - standing room only on some trains - making a mockery of claims that there isn't the demand to make high speed rail work:

"In the last three months, we've seen a phenomenal increase in all three corridors," said Bill Bronte, chief of Caltrans' division of rail. "Particularly on the San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor."

For the first seven months of this budget year, which ends in September, ridership is up 13.6 percent on the Capitol Corridor, 11.1 percent on the San Joaquin and 4.7 percent on the Pacific Surfliner compared with last year. The Surfliner, the state's busiest train, carried 2.7 million passengers in the 2007 budget year, while the Capitol Corridor hauled 1.45 million and the San Joaquin carried 805,000.

Such was the focus of a feature article in today's San Francisco Chronicle, Trains gaining as sensible alternative to cars, from where the above quote was taken. Newspapers tend to be lagging indicators, catching up on shifts in public opinion well after they are underway - but they're also helpful in solidfying a narrative - in this case, that Californians now see passenger rail as a valuable, viable part of their transportation infrastructure:

Zac Zacarias, 40, works for Cisco Systems as a financial analyst from his home in El Dorado Hills, near Sacramento, most days. But about twice a week he commutes to Santa Clara for meetings and to show his face. Riding the train not only spares him the frustrations of a long drive through some of the Bay Area's worst chokepoints, it allows him to get some work done.

While on his way home Thursday, Zacarias sat at a table in front of his laptop computer, pecking away and waiting to call in and join a conference call.

"I have a Prius, but I would rather just sit on the train and work - or sleep," he said. "It just depends on what's important to you - time to work, time to sleep or being able to leave when you want."

The frustration for Zacarias is that the trains, which often have to yield to freight trains and occasionally have to stop when there's something on the tracks, are sometimes late - usually, he said, on the trip home.

"The biggest problem is being late," he said, "because everyone wants to get home. Three hours on the train is enough."

Zacarias' arguments show the value of passenger rail, over driving and over flying. Especially considering that high speed rail will have wi-fi service, faster trains on dedicated tracks (i.e. no more yielding to freight) and connects to city centers, there is every reason to believe that Californians will continue to see that passenger rail provides a higher quality transportation experience, whether one's a commuter or a business traveler or riding the train for personal reasons.

And as the article shows, in its stats and its stories, the demand is clearly there for passenger rail. We spend a lot of time talking up the value of passenger rail here but I am beginning to suspect that Californians already grasp this. The key, however, is providing the service - if you build it, they WILL come. This seems to be at the core of the rising ridership on Amtrak California lines - an increase that actually dates to 2005:

Trains have seen year-over-year increases exceeding 9 percent for each of the past 18 months. Eugene Skoropowski, who manages the Capitol Corridor service, says the boom in ridership can be credited to an increased frequency of service as much as to rising gas prices and a desire to escape the tyranny of traffic.

The Capitol Corridor has added a number of new trains and brought new cars into service over recent years - without which the increased ridership would simply not have been possible. HSR would dramatically increase the frequency of passenger rail service in the state and increase the available capacity, which would induce demand (a theory borrowed from freeway planners).

Right now California has ONE train a day that links LA to SF - the Coast Starlight, which takes 10 hours to link LA to San Jose. It too has witnessed soaring demand, despite ongoing problems with freight delays and the slow travel time. Given the underlying conditions - long-term high gas prices, traffic, climate change and pollution - we can expect the HSR line that connects the Bay Area to SoCal to attract a significant, high level of ridership.

But more important than the numbers, more important than the physical capacity and the dedicated rails, is the changing attitude that Californians are exhibiting. We do love ours cars, and I'm no exception - but we're coming to realize that doesn't have to stop us from embracing passenger rail as a method of travel. Californians not only WILL ride trains, they're already doing it. HSR will make those trips more numerous, more easy, and more beneficial to our economy.


Rafael said...

Note that AB 3034 reserves 20% of the $950 million earmarked for HSR feeder services for the three intrastate Amtrak corridors. Each of those will receive at least 25% of that 20%. As with all aspects of the November bond measure, matching funds from other parts of the state budget or, from other sources, will have to be rustled up before any of the bond money can be spent.

The good news is that it should be relatively easy to raise fares a little bit and get the communities served to chip in if the extra revenue is used to fund increased capacity and service frequency. Moreover, this relief can be provided very soon after the bond measure passes because it does not require extensive new construction.

The bad news is that the amounts are rather small compared to latent demand. Worse, the current state budget proposal raids public transportation funds to plug holes elsewhere. That's (not quite) giving with one hand and taking (rather more) with the other.

It is good that Amtrak's intrastate corridors are now delivering ~5 million trips a year. However, that is still a far cry from the 95+ million envisaged for the completed HSR system by 2030.

In the long interim - even longer for those cities on the phase two spurs - lawmakers at both state and federal level will come under increasing pressure to find additional funds for improving and maintaining freight tracks that are also used for Amtrak passenger trains. Given that Amtrak trains will never run fast or reliably enough to turn a profit on the whole network, that would translate to taxpayers digging themselves an deep financial hole. This is why the Republicans have been starving Amtrak of funds for many years now.

The results are predictable enough. In 2002, freight operators complained that Amtrak is short-changing them to the tune of $100 million a year (hardly a princely sum), while Amtrak complains that its passengers trains are not given the priority they are entitled to. It's now 2008. Plus ca change.

However, as with roads, it is actually the heavy freight traffic that accounts for virtually all of the wear and tear. The real problem is therefore that freight rail operators cannot pass on the true cost of keeping up their infrastructure to their freight customers. That's because the deregulated trucking industry isn't paying its fair share of road maintenance.

The resulting artificially low barriers to market entry are why there is now a glut of independent truckers, most hanging on to their rigs by the skin of their teeth now that diesel prices have gone through the roof. Still, don't expect politicians to rectify this situation - a job lost is a vote lost.

Anonymous said...

A major article titled "Union Pacific blocks Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train" has just appeared in the LA Times.

Just how this is going to effect this project will remain to be seen, but with the letter from the UP being sent on May 12th and the CSHRA not disclosing this information to the California legislature is really disturbing.

The article maintains at the very least much new environmental work will need to be done. The denials by CSHRA officials really seem weak.

One certainly must wonder how an agency can be proposing a $10 billion bond measure be put on the ballot when they don't have agreements in place. Dan McNamara's comment "This is not ready for prime time"
really seems appropriate.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Oh jesus. My guess is UP is demanding more money. They pulled a similar stunt with the Santa Cruz rail line, dragging out negotiations over public ownership of the line for years so they could get the best possible deal.

I am sure this is what they are up to. Still, it is quite an obnoxious development.

Robert Cruickshank said...

As to "not ready for prime time" - I'm sure you'll be saying that when you and your fellow HSR deniers who live alongside the Caltrain tracks on the Peninsula sue to stop construction.

Every major infrastructure project runs into NIMBYs who want to put their own personal concerns ahead of pressing social needs. In this case it's UP playing the NIMBY. The fault isn't with CHSRA but with the folks trying to use the project to advance their own agendas.

Anonymous said...

UP should be seized. It's behaved abominably for decades now.

It's not that big, frankly.
38.2 billion dollars market cap?

The State of California could simply issue bonds, make a tender offer, and buy out the whole damn company. They could then (as sole owner) take all the UP property in the state of California (and anything else they might want like the lines in Nevada), lease it back to UP under restrictive covenants which give California total contol, and then make a new IPO for the company, and use the cash to repay most of the bonds.

Of course, that would require a legislature with the aggressiveness of a robber baron. Sigh....