Monday, August 25, 2008

USA Today's Strong Case for HSR

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

David Grossman is USA Today's business columnist, a former airline exec and a California resident - and today he offers not one but two columns extolling the benefits of rail for business travelers, especially high speed rail. It's best to read these in sequence to get the full effect of his argument. First up: Is Amtrak a viable solution for business travelers?

When visiting the East Coast I often use Amtrak to traverse the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., instead of flying the air shuttles or driving the toll roads of I-95. The Acela Express and even the regional trains on those routes are often quicker than flying or driving, particularly if your origin and destination are within the city centers....

But that is only the Northeast corridor. In California, where I reside, and most other parts of the country, Amtrak is a completely different product offering. In the Northeast, trains attain operating speeds of 125 to 150 miles per hour, according to Black. On the 423-mile stretch between Oakland and Los Angeles aboard Amtrak's daily Coast Starlight train, the scheduled travel time is more than 13 hours. Though the train reaches 79 miles per hour on some segments, the average speed on this day-long marathon ranges between 25 to 35 miles per hour.

Slow travel speeds are caused by a combination of mountainous terrain and sharing the tracks with freight trains. Outside the Northeast corridor, freight railroads generally own the tracks. In most places double tracks have been removed because they are too costly to maintain. As a result Amtrak must continually wait on sidings for other trains to pass, and the freight trains operated by the host railroads that own the tracks often take priority over passenger trains.

My train sat for what seemed like hours at many places along the way and at one point was delayed 30 minutes after we rammed a shopping cart someone left on the tracks. With all these impediments it is no wonder few business travelers use Amtrak outside the Northeast corridor.

Grossman goes on to explain some of the problems he experienced on the Coast Starlight, problems that will be familiar to any of us who have used the trains before, from the late arrival time in LA to the lack of electrical outlets at all seats. But his main point is that speed and reliability are the key to make rail attractive to business travelers.

It's a point Grossman develops in his high speed rail column, The case for high speed rail in America:

Passengers fill every seat in the glass-roofed Parlor Car on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train en route from Oakland to Los Angeles. Running along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as it hugs the California coast, the Coast Starlight route offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the USA. But the mountainous terrain along the route is filled with steep grades, sharp curves, and a single track, making the travel time over 13 hours for a distance that can be flown in one hour or driven in eight.

Unless Amtrak can find a way to shorten the duration of this trip, few business travelers will abandon the crowded skies or leave their cars at home. This November, Californians will vote on a proposition to construct a new dedicated high speed rail line to bypass this slow but scenic route. If it passes, the new rail line will run across the open flat lands of California's Central Valley, allowing passengers to travel between the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, rivaling the famous French TGV or Japanese bullet trains. The new line would link California's two largest cities in just a few hours of travel time.

An obvious first point is that it's not just business travelers who will benefit from this, but all travelers period. Still, Grossman clearly applies the lessons he learned on his Coast Starlight trip to high speed rail - HSR solves all of the problems of the Starlight, by providing dedicated tracks to allow fast trains to speed travelers from one end of the state to the other in convenience and with modern conveniences that make a trip far more efficient than a flight or a drive.

The price tag for this new rail line: $10 billion, and there's the rub. To further compound the issue, that $10 billion would likely only cover the construction of one line from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles. Add in California's other population centers like San Diego, Sacramento and other cities and the final price tag will be considerably higher.

As we know, $10 billion won't be enough to cover the cost of the SF-LA line. That's more like $42 billion, and California is going to need federal assistance to make it happen. Still, columns like Grossman's in a major national newspaper certainly help that cause.

The proposal has sparked numerous fights within the state. There are many vocal opponents to the high speed rail project while others want to amend the proposition before it is even voted upon. Critics and those with a self interest in keeping the status quo maintain that America's suburban sprawl is different from Europe or Japan and that the trains will travel empty along the high speed route.

But past evidence would suggest otherwise. Since Amtrak beefed up its service in the Northeast corridor with the launch of the high speed Acela trains, their market share has grown fourfold, from 12% just a few years ago to more than 50% of the air/rail market in the Northeast Corridor today. And a huge proportion of those Acela riders are business travelers.

Of all the money-losing routes on the Amtrak network, the Northeast corridor is the one exception and a similar high speed service in the most populous state on the other side of the country would likely garner the same effect, relieving much of the congestion on the roads and in the skies that are the bane of California.

Grossman absolutely nails it here - I especially love his jab at "critics and those with a self interest in keeping the status quo." Because that's what those who oppose Prop 1 are inherently saying - that the way things are in California is just fine, there's no need to change, no need to build for the future. All is well!

And his use of statistics is quite effective, even if I'm not sure about the 50% share - the Acela was at 41% back in March, but the gas price spike may have driven the Acela's numbers even higher. In any case, the Acela is proof that high speed rail can work in the US - especially since Acela isn't true HSR.

If high speed rail is implemented correctly, as has been done in many European countries with rail lines running right into airport terminals, transfer from plane to train will be seamless and render the need for flights of less than 500 miles unnecessary in most cases.

The California HSR project gets this mostly right. There'll be stations at Millbrae/SFO, Palmdale Airport, Burbank (a mile from Burbank Airport), Ontario Airport, and as is being discussed in the previous post, perhaps one at San Diego Lindbergh. Obviously something needs to be done about LAX, but that's a regional solution, not something HSR alone can fix.

The fuel and emissions savings of electrified rail lines would be enormous and the productivity gains amassed from unclogging our skies and highways would be substantial if such a national high speed rail network could be implemented and fully integrated with the existing air transport system.

But this vision is way out there and it might have to happen one state at a time. I don't know if a majority of Californians will support the high speed rail initiative this fall, but as the saying goes, "as California goes, so goes the nation." So if high speed rail catches on here perhaps the rest of the country won't be far behind.

Well said. As polls continue to show a majority of Californians do support Prop 1, we may just provide the leadership that has otherwise been lacking in this country.

The status quo is not viable. If American business is to prosper, it needs a high speed boost. There are a lot of business folks who travel between LA and SF, and many of them frequently tell me they'd love a high speed train connection rather than fighting the airports and losing time that they might otherwise productively use.

So it's wonderful to see a major paper like the USA Today getting it right, and pushing out some common sense, obvious truths that will hopefully build nationwide support for high speed rail.


Anonymous said...

And in the comment part did you not notice the Menlo Park nimbys
aready have already posted...

Robert Cruickshank said...

I did notice. They usually hit the comments section of any HSR article. Must be nice to own a million-dollar home and not have to worry about rising fuel prices!

Anonymous said...

Nimbys with million dollar homes who will press lawsuits just for their luxury. I do not have much sympathy since they already have tax breaks as is from Bush and do not seem willing to contribute much (a good chunk not saying all) for the greater good. If they cared a bit more and perhaps donated to this proposal, I'd give some care, for those who are NIMBYS, as much as I hate airplanes flying over my house, get used to it.

arcady said...

By the way, the Coast Starlight is much easier to fix than most people think. Right now, the running time is 11 hours, it takes all day, and it goes to Oakland. But imagine if the running time were slightly shorter, maybe 10 hours or even 9.5, and the train was an overnight train, then it would be perfect for business travellers. You could get to your destination by 9 am without having to wake up at 3 in the morning, and day trips between LA and SF by train suddenly become possible. Get on the train at 10 pm in LA, go to sleep, and by 8 am the next morning you're in San Francisco, having gotten a good night's sleep on the train.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody know what train stock CAHSR will use? TGV, ICE, or Japanese Bullet?? ...just curious.

Brandon in California said...

That have not decided.

In fact, I suspect that they cannot without first issuing a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the delivery... meeting certain specifications.

Anonymous said...

@cal, Robert

Any author who posts an article like that and miss states the economics as badly as this guy did, deserves no credibility. He really should retract the article and post the correct numbers.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who spills out the illogical absurdities that you have presented and completely misses the necessity of high-speed rail as you have are the true beings in this debate that deserve no credibility. If anything should be retracted, it would be those ignorant lies and, notably, that lawsuit of selfish intention.

Anonymous said...

I have read the article 2..what in the world has he said that is not all true? He points out the cost,that there is disagrement and also great promise..and hope that other systems may also come from our project.

Anonymous said...


You write:

"I have read the article 2..what in the world has he said that is not all true? "

I don't think you have read the article, nor have you read Robert's commentary.

Written in the article:

"The price tag for this new rail line: $10 billion, and there's the rub. To further compound the issue, that $10 billion would likely only cover the construction of one line from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles. Add in California's other population centers like San Diego, Sacramento and other cities and the final price tag will be considerably higher.

Robert's comment:

"As we know, $10 billion won't be enough to cover the cost of the SF-LA line. That's more like $42 billion, and California is going to need federal assistance to make it happen. Still, columns like Grossman's in a major national newspaper certainly help that cause."

And you say, what has he said that is not all true???

Unknown said...


Dude! Sure he got the price wrong (which is your only legitimate argument against this project) but the rest of the article is dead on. This project is for the benefit of all Californians, and the price tag reflects the benefit to the economy and to quality of life in this state.

Ever heard of "There is no thing as a free lunch"? Well there is no thing as a "free, fast, clean, reliable alternative to traveling around the state".

Besides the cost: What other opposition do you have? Could it be that the train will destroy your community? No. Because guess what, it wont, it will make it better.

Yes its expensive, any other reason to object Morris?

無名 - wu ming said...

correct me if i'm wrong, but aren't the capitol corridors and surfliners also making a profit of late?

arcady said...

The Capitol Corridor is the only one where I know the cost recovery figures, and it's reached 64% now. There was a time when under the old Amtrak accounting rules, the Serfliners (then the San Diegans) were "profitable", but those rules basically didn't count the costs of shared facilities, like the maintenance facilities in LA and Oakland, which these days serve many more corridor trains than intercity ones.

Anonymous said...

Morris...You mean I did not read it and come to your conclusion!!YES I READ IT...and yes 10billion is what Cailfornia is putting up.FOR the first leg..anyway goodmorning!!

Anonymous said...

Transit system don't make money, they aren't expected to make money. Kopp was bragging on a radio show, that Bart, by far and away the largest carrier in the state, was getting something like 60% of costs back from fare box revenues.

On full cost accounting, which would include paying back costs of construction (all capital costs) the bottom line is much worse.

You get these funny economic schemes. In the Bay area, CalTrain dearly wants to electrify its system. They won't admit it, but a major reason is their bottom line will look much better if they can ever succeed in converting from diesel to electric.

CalTrain constantly runs at big deficits, and all their projected operations into the future are all at deficit levels. They could save many millions per year in the costs for energy to drive the trains (electricity vs. diesel fuel), by converting.

The only problem is that conversion to electricity is going to cost around $1 billion. Now at 5% interest rate, this capital improvement would cost $50 million per year in interest costs. Any private company would charge that interest cost against earnings.

Well in the case of CalTrain (or BART or other transit groups), capital costs are not charged against bottom line. So the net result for CalTrain by converting to electricity will be a much better bottom line (less deficit).

No one is expecting HSR to ever pay for the interest costs or the cost of repaying the principal on the bonds needed to construct this line. That is the kind of accounting that is used.

I'm not saying that is really wrong, but for sure, transit systems don't pay for themselves. Every time somebody rides a bus, or rides a train, they are being subsidized by the taxpayers. That's the facts of life.

Robert Cruickshank said...

earl g., that's true of EVERY form of transportation in this state. They're all subsidized. Not a single one is provided free of taxpayer subsidies. Roads and freeways in particular.

As to morris' attempts to undermine what was a successful and strong pro-HSR column, I might take him more seriously on numbers if he didn't routinely throw around figures like $100 billion - which he has often claimed will be the true cost of HSR, without any shred of evidence to back it up.

Obviously the columnist made a slight error in confusing the $10 billion bond with the total cost of the project, but I don't see how anything else he wrote would be different if you replaced the 1 with a 4.

But that's the point, isn't it? Use the construction cost of HSR to try and scare people away from voting for it, even though HSR saves Californians money even with that cost figured into the equation.

Because HSR deniers never, ever provide a full equation - which would include the cost of NOT building HSR alongside the cost of building it.

Anonymous said...

Your qoute:

"Obviously the columnist made a slight error in confusing the $10 billion bond with the total cost of the project, but I don't see how anything else he wrote would be different if you replaced the 1 with a 4.

A slight error -- $30 billion is a slight error?

Unknown said...


I told you, you got nothing!

Rubber Toe said...

Governor to sign AB3034 today:

Anonymous said...

60 billion is a more serious error, Morris. Glass houses and stones? (or million dollar houses in your case)

Anonymous said...


Grossman makes reasonable arguments, but he should not be allowed anywhere near statistics. It's not just his $10 billion remark that's off (though I think you're overstating how far off it is...he's referring to just the LA-SF segment, so it should be something like ~$33 billion, not ~$42 billion). His 12% to 50% Acela comment is arguably more egregious. That one is like a Derail-group claim - it doesn't even pass the laugh test. There is no way that Amtrak's NEC ridership has quadrupled in the last few years. In fact, Amtrak had close to 50% market share in the air-rail market back when they were running Metroliners. The fact of the matter is that Acela, while comfortable, is not a huge improvement over Metroliners with conventional Amfleet equipment. The magic (or lack thereof, in many parts of the NEC) is in the tracks.


I am glad to see that you are taking a stand against false statistics. When will the Derail site be updated to note that your HSR cost claims are based on Caltrain numbers that you erroneously inflated by approximately 400%?


Caltrain electrification is projected at $602-866 million, depending on the rolling stock option. But Caltrain's existing stock (minus the Baby Bullets) is getting old and will have to be replaced anyway. Infrastructure cost is only $457 million. So you want a $23 million/year return.

According to Caltrain's own projections, electrification is not expected to reduce operating costs (so much for the conspiracy theory) - increased maintenance of way costs will more than offset decreased propulsion cost. The operational benefit is that you can run trains faster (particularly not-bullets, which depend on acceleration) and more frequently. The social benefit is that each driver removed from US-101 during morning or late afternoon/evening saves commuters an average of $10-20 in congestion costs. So for electrification to be worthwhile, it would have to increase Caltrain ridership during busy periods by at least 1.5 million year or around 6,000 per weekday. Could it? Maybe...peak hour ridership is currently at 30,000/day and rising, so it would need to boost ridership by about 17% of the current base (vis a vis a no electrification scenario). Of course, this ignores the environmental and noise reduction benefits of electric traction.