Saturday, June 7, 2008

High Speed Politics

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

High speed rail is an inherently political project. We can - and should - discuss the technological and transportation merits of the plan, defend its purpose, its value, its need. But to make it reality we must navigate the politics of California - never an easy thing no matter what the issue - as we've seen this week.

The main obstacle facing high speed rail is this state's political inertia. For the last 30 years California has slowly but steadily fallen apart as its public services are hollowed out from a lack of investment. Californians don't like $4.50 gas and are flocking to rail travel - but without massive investment this can never become the viable alternative to oil-based travel that we need to stay afloat and economically competitive.

That investment - in rails, in schools, in health care - hasn't been forthcoming despite the obvious need for it because politicians always find it easier to avoid having to solve the state's structural revenue shortfall. The state's media, convinced that the #1 problem facing government is how to keep spending down, certainly doesn't help matters, but state politicians from both parties remain locked in an obsolete view of financial risk, predicated on the belief that anything new, anything that requires a substantial investment, is a bad idea.

Perhaps it is - from their perspective. California politicians like taking the easy way out, using cheap and easy budget "solutions" to kick the state's underlying revenue problem a few years down the road. HSR threatens them because it demands a solution - a spending solution - right now.

This problem is compounded by their inability or unwillingness to accept new realities. I've spent the last two days on California's trains - the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Surfliner, the Metro Red Line. All were packed, no matter the hour of the day. Gas prices are on everyone's mind and virtually everyone I talk to here - conservative, moderate, liberal - agrees on the need for non-oil alternatives.

California is changing before our eyes, as I explained earlier this week. The desire for new investment is there and if the state's politicians and media understood this, we wouldn't have this HSR problem. The ridiculous notions of "financial risk" wouldn't be discussed with no reference whatsoever to soaring fuel prices, to the airline crisis, to the cost of doing nothing. HSR's finances must be examined in context - and weighed against $80 billion for new runways and freeways, or the far larger economic cost of high oil prices, HSR's finances look pretty damn good.

Still, the project isn't completed, and the CHSRA hasn't yet nailed down other funding sources. This is a chicken-and-egg problem - how can CHSRA get federal and private commitments unless we've staked our $10 billion? We have every indication that Congress will pony up big money for HSR but not unless we prove we're willing to do so as well.

The absence of these guarantees, combined with their unwillingness to seek new revenues, led the State Senate Transportation Committee to suggest spending the state's money on commuter HSR and abandon the long-distance trains. The thinking is that by building the commuter segments first, voters will flock to HSR, building public support for it, and helping earn federal money to finish the system. Many strongly pro-HSR people have supported this idea in the comments on the last post, but I am more skeptical.

Here's why:

  • I don't believe the commuter HSR approach will succeed in its goal because it doesn't address the core political problem I outlined above. It would essentially leave the middle section unfunded, including the expensive Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi tunnel segments which will be difficult to find leveraged funding to support. If we can't get it now, what's to ensure that funding will materialize in the future?

  • It will not be as lucrative as long-distance rail. The State Senate's own report is inconsistent - they note that commuters will bring in just 9% of the profits, whereas most money will be generated by the long-distance riders. If "financial risk" is really their concern isn't it more risky to try and build the system on commuters alone? Commuter rail in California, wonderful as it is, remains subsidized by government, and insufficiently at that.

  • It won't generate the necessary public support to build out the system. Look at all the HSR activism that exists. 27,000 members of the Facebook group. Thousands of calls and letters generated by CALPIRG. The CHSRA's own popular online animations. All this was generated not by support of high speed commuter rail, but high speed intercity rail. Folks get excited and active about linking north to south - not by a faster Caltrain (as valuable as that certainly is). I am not confident that commuter HSR can be easily translated into long distance HSR. It serves a very different group of riders, and does not bring rail travel into a new area of life the way intercity HSR would.

  • And it may torpedo the fall HSR bond. As wu ming, a Central Valley resident, explained in the comments on the last post, Valley voters are suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects that benefit the Bay Area and SoCal and leave them out. Voters, cities, and businesses there have been counting on HSR to lead them into a 21st century economy. Cutting them out with a commuter HSR system will hurt the bond vote there, and we're going to need every vote we can get.

I think that HSR is on much more solid ground by maintaining the LA-SF core, and guaranteeing a phased approach to construction. We have every reason to expect federal support. And if not, then we reexamine how to pay for it ourselves. That might cause the usual suspects to freak out - but their concerns are based out of their desire to see as little government spending happen as possible.

Our concerns are to grow the California economy, provide an alternative to skyrocketing gas prices, provide green jobs and help fight pollution and global warming. I will put that up against the small government zealots any day - because California is changing, and people now understand the need to make the right investment.

I'm willing to be convinced that a commuter HSR approach as Phase I - with guarantees on finishing missing links - is a smart solution to our political problem. We're all on the same side here - getting HSR built is one of our state's highest priorities.


Anonymous said...


This posting indicates to me that you have just lost complete sight of reality. The events of last week seem to have overwhelmed you. You should take a bit of time off for reflection.

Think about what is going on here. CHSRA has done an absolutely terrible job in responding to the events here. Morshed solving the problem by "building a stout wall". Its hard to imagine a poorer way to solve the problem. Kopp brushing off the articles with "not important" responses.

From my vantage point, the leadership of CHSRA has been completely incompetent on these issues.

CHSRA not talking to UP for 2 years. Why not? CHSRA doing an EIR on a corridor they don't have access and haven't been negotiating to acquire. What do they expect the Senate committee to conclude?

The project as proposed has major problems. Should be voters of California be expected to issue $10 billion in bonds with all these questions not answered? That would be the voters saying we trust you. For my tax dollars, what they have shown me this last week tells me they certainly should not be trusted with these funds.

Regardless of the cost of delay, this process needs a new beginning.

Anonymous said...


"And it may torpedo the fall HSR bond. As wu ming, a Central Valley resident, explained in the comments on the last post, Valley voters are suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects that benefit the Bay Area and SoCal and leave them out. Voters, cities, and businesses there have been counting on HSR to lead them into a 21st century economy. Cutting them out with a commuter HSR system will hurt the bond vote there, and we're going to need every vote we can get."

BTW, Bay area and SoCal voters with 20 times the population of the central valley are suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects that benefit and encourage urban sprawl in the central valley.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The difference is you're focused on the CHSRA and wish to make it about their leaders and their supposed failures. I am and always have been less interested in them because the real action doesn't lie within the CHSRA offices, but on the floors of the state legislature and the Congress. They don't seem to have handled UP negotiations well, but neither did the CHSRA have a whole lot of power or leverage to conclude those negotiations - it was always going to be dependent on the legislature and on Congress. THAT is where the failure of leadership really is.

Losing sight of reality would be fretting over HSR tax dollars without asking what is the cost of doing nothing. But then you anons never seem to answer that one...

As to votes, the point was that the Bay Area and LA were going to vote for this anyway, whether it was intercity HSR through the valley or commuter HSR. My concern is that commuter HSR will have smaller margins of victory in the two major metros, meaning a big No vote in the Valley could defeat the whole thing.

無名 - wu ming said...

bay area population - 7.2 million people

central valley population - 6.5 million people

that's a difference of 700,000 people. not a huge difference.

granted, southern california is far, far bigger than either the bay area or central valley, with 24 million, but even then you're talking about 4 times, not 20 times the population.

it might seem like just a bunch of hicks and cows out here in your mind's eye, but there are a lot of big cities in the valley that are in dire need of clean, efficient interstate transportation. sacramento's the only major airport, and the valley cities get the pollution of I-5 traffic moving goods and people from north and south california through the region, as well as their own serious ag and urban car pollution, as well as all the pollution blown into the valley from the bay area (many bay area residents confuse their good fortune to have prevailing offshore winds that blow the pollution inland with the false assumption that they just don't emit any pollution).

building a network of clean transportation that encourages urban densification, brings jobs to a region with serious endemic unemployment and underemployment, and which has been used by the bay area and socal to export their oen problems with lack of affordable housing is a good idea all around.

looking down your nose at voters that could make high speed rail an easy bond election instead of a= grueling uphill battle is dumb politics.

finally, with gas trending the way it has, it's going to be very hard to maintain sprawl as it is. and at any rate, the problem with sprawl is more tied to land use policies than just access to transportation infrastructure.

Patrick Moore said...

Robert -- like your passion but frankly you need to step back and think about the politics for a second. And I don't mean politics as in a bad thing -- but as a good thing.

1) The train should *not* go through the Pacheco Pass. It should go over the Altamont.

2)By building the commuter sections first builds support. Also the commuter sections are the areas with the most endangered right-of-way. As we speak Millbrae is busy encroaching further on the ROW. Having HSR come in and demand the room for a 4 track system on the needed sections of the Caltrain ROW is critical.

I have more notes in this post

But you should stop drinking CHSRA's Kool-Aid and realize that Diridon, San Jose, and Morshed are all playing this project for their own benefits.

Rafael said...

@ robert cruickshank -

good food for thought. However, there is currently zero prospect that HSR will change the political culture in Sacramento. In particular, there is no appetite whatsoever for taking on the risk of having to build a high-speed intercity network even if federal funds and/or private do not materialize. To a politician in Sacramento, "financial risk" primarily means "risk to future state budgets" and associated electabilty. Perhaps that's a shortsighted lack of leadership, but politics is the art of the possible.

The State Senate report could have done a better job of explicitly endorsing the objective of high-speed intercity passenger rail service. It could also have done a better job of calling the spending focus it proposes something like Phase 1.1 of HSR implementation:

a. Improved oversight structure for CHSRA. Appointment of senior staff engineer responsible for liaising with other rail operators on safety & capacity issues. Definition of project sub-phases 1.2 to 2.x. Engineering design work on 1.x, focussed on laying track rather than building stations. Marketing focus shifts to securing matching funds from the federal government and private investors.

b. Decongesting the following bottleneck sections:

- southern California (City of Industry - Fullerton)
- Central Valley (downtown Fresno)
- Bay Area (SF - SJ)

In each case, the task is complex:

- full grade separation against road traffic. Increases safety and capacity via increased speed.

- effective anti-trespass & noise mitigation measures.

- SoCal & Fresno: Legal framework for sharing freight rail tracks in bottleneck sections. Full grade separation of passenger rail against freight rail. Automated obstacle-on-track detection & electronic alert system shared by all rail operators. Raised platforms (reduced dwell times). Acquisition of land for extension to 1320' at future HSR stations. Note that outside bottleneck sections, commuter rail service will still need to use freight rather than HSR tracks.

- SoCal & Fresno: define strategy for future freight rail capacity expansion in these bottleneck sections. Implementation may require upgrades to signaling, locomotives, rolling stock and/or operating procedures.

- Bay Area: Contributions to Caltrain's Project 2025 related to preparing for coexistence with future HSR. Acquisition of land for extension to 1320' at future HSR stations. Crash tests for commuter EMU equipment waiver from FRA (if required). Computer simulations for foreign HSR rolling stock waiver from FRA (if required).

c. Selected exploratory tunnels in Soledad Canyon and at Tehachapi Pass. The objective would be to better quantify the associated geological risks, precisely in order to secure federal and private matching funds. This would also send an additional signal that the long-term goal really is statewide HSR.

d. Implementation of reliable terrestrial broadband internet access on state commuter rail services. Caltrain test was successful, now explore impact on ridership & rail operations.

Clearly phase 1.1 represents a lot of heavy lifting - no federal or private investor could argue that the state isn't putting its money where its mouth is. It's just getting a move on to keep total costs down. Whether phases 1.2 to 2.x ever happen will depend on securing those all-important matching funds.

Btw 1: exploratory tunneling may also be required for the single HSR route out of the Bay Area, but first everyone has to agree on one. Time to knock some heads together.

Btw 2: the downtown extension to Transbay Terminal is part of a related but separately funded project.

Robert Cruickshank said...

amplafi, I understand the politics perfectly well - and that's what concerns me. HSR alone won't change the political culture in Sacramento but the underlying issues - peak oil, high fuel costs, problems with the airlines - ought to, or it should at least generate some political leadership to help solve these problems. There seems to be little sense of urgency in the legislature surrounding HSR and that concerns me.

That's the standards I used to assess the commuter HSR plan - will it break the political logjam that holds up HSR? I am skeptical it will, for the reasons given in this post.

rafael's approach is much more sensible and something I could get behind. I especially like the concept of "exploratory tunnels" but I suspect something more will be needed to assure the Central Valley they'll be benefiting from the project as well.

Rafael said...

"Legal framework for sharing freight rail tracks in bottleneck sections."

I was referring to UPRR & BNSF sharing a fully grade separated, multi-track freight corridor. The model is the Alameda Corridor between the Port of LA and downtown LA.

HSR trains will not be running on freight tracks. However, commuter trains will have to outside the bottleneck sections, precisely so HSR trains can actually achieve high speed.

A big problem in this context is that FRA needs to be convinced to issue a waiver for operating off-the-shelf European or Japanese HSR technology and traditional FRA-compliant passenger trains on the same tracks.

Alternatively, it could issue a waiver to permit off-the-shelf electric multiple unit (EMU) commuter trains to share tracks with freight trains. Caltrain's most recent computer simulations show that lightweight EMUs actually perform as well or better in crash tests than FRA-compliant passenger train equipment.

That just underlines how beholden FRA is to the private freight rail companies that would just as soon see publicly funded passenger rail disappear entirely from their tracks - pious declarations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...


You write

"The difference is you're focused on the CHSRA and wish to make it about their leaders and their supposed failures. I am and always have been less interested in them because the real action doesn't lie within the CHSRA offices, but on the floors of the state legislature and the Congress."

Quite frankly I don't understand this statement at all. CHSRA has as far as I can tell has almost compete independence with regards formulation and implementation of HSR here in California. I just learned yesterday that apparently they are not even subjected to oversight by the Senate Housing and Transporation committee. Anyone here know how that came to be?

CHSRA if the AB-3034 passes and if the fall 2008 bond measure is approved will be have independent authority to spend $900 million on studies and pre-construction activity. If the matching funds become available, CHSRA will be in control of the whole $40 billion dollar expenditure.

So I see the real action as indeed inside the CHSRA offices. From what I see to date, I don't approve of much they have done. We need new leadeship.

Rafael said...

@robert cruickshank -

exploratory tunneling is standard practice whenever the detailed geology is poorly understood. This applies especially in the vicinity of fault systems, which can generate very complex rock formations. They may also contains pockets of natural gas or porous layers saturated with water.

As for giving the Central Valley and Coast something out of the bond issue, AB3034 does allocate $190 million of the $950 million reserved for HSR feeder systems to the three Amtrak corridors, with each guaranteed at least 25% of that subtotal.

Perhaps the pot could be sweetened for Central Valley and San Diego residents by reducing the amount reserved for core HSR work to $8.8 billion, raising that for HSR feeder systems to $1.15 billion and earmarking $280 million of that for Amtrak plus $55 million each for ACE and NCTD. It wouldn't be a huge change to the bond structure, but at least the impact would be near-term. The total bond volume would be unchanged at $9.95 billion.

Ideally, the additional money would go toward improving on-time performance on tracks rented from freight companies. The tricky part here is that the bond is a one-off for capital expenditure, whereas what freight operators really want is for Amtrak to pay more for its annual trackage rights. Ergo, even if they are offered a nice lump sum to offer for track improvements like bypasses, freight operators - especially UPRR - may only play nice for a few years and then it's back to square one.

To avoid this trap and make delays more acceptable, the trains could be retrofitted with broadband internet access using the system trialled by Caltrain or else, a variation on the one now being installed on the TGV Est and Thalys in Europe. In cars with tables and courtesy electrical outlets, this would allow laptop warriors to at least get some work done en route. Outlets should be located out of reach of children and feature spring-loaded covers. The recurring costs could be recovered through higher fares or else by metering.

The internet access infrastructure should not cost anywhere near the $190 million shifted toward HSR feeders. The balance could be spent on things like more fuel-efficient rolling stock, e.g. FRA-compliant double decker diesel multiple unit (DMU) trainsets from Colorado Railcar. They are fugly but do offer high seating capacity.

Anonymous said...


Your concerns are definitely valid, I don't know what other people are saying.

HSR is not meant to be commuter rail, as the trains have to slow down and stop frequently, so they can't get up to the high speed which is why it's called HIGH SPEED Rail.

People framing this as urban sprawl in the Central Valley, the stops are mostly in bigger cities. How can you sprawl when the stations are downtown? Maybe there will be population growth around stations in smaller towns, but is this really sprawl?

Soon enough home price will be affordable enough(by ratio to income) for more than 10% of the population, and people won't have to move to Stockton to afford a house.

I think this move to build first in the Bay Area and SoCal is a political gamble. It could pay of in votes, but I think's it's much more likely either to lose the vote through Central Vally disaffection or through a system that doesn't do what it's supposed to, and people eventually turn on it.

They should focus on something like San Jose-Palmdale first, and then expand into the rest of the system. The SF-LA link was always the selling point, why get rid of that? Going from SF to San Jose a little faster than the baby bullet isn't what this project is all about.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Thanks for the comments, davisgrad. I think you articulated very well what was underlying my concern here - we're changing the messaging in the middle of the campaign. If folks wish to change the project into a commuter HSR project that can grow into an intercity HSR system that's one thing, but you're going to have to change the messaging and activism completely. Which suggests another postponement, to 2010, which in turn will drive up the cost even further.

In other words, davisgrad nails it when he says this is a very politically risky move.

My own thinking is this: I am not going to be beaten down by the Sacramento game. I know well how it works - hold firm to obsolete ideas and use it to grind down an ambitious, necessary, but costly idea. The State Senate's report isn't a horrible document, as rafael is right to point out - but it suffers from the same unwillingness to confront reality.

There is NO political reality in this state, if you define such reality as a politics that ignores peak oil, global warming, and the economic effects of both. I support HSR not just because I love riding trains, but because HSR is an absolutely necessary part of California's solution to those problems I just mentioned.

Anonymous said...

High speed trains are exciting but what is even more cool is the sound of the train horns.They can really scare you if you listen to them the first time. train horns can really be loud.