Friday, September 12, 2008

Prop 1A Would Save the Environment - and Save Billions

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

The media narrative on Prop 1A is beginning to solidify - neat idea but omg the cost! This report from KCBS radio in San Francisco is a good example:

Proposition 1A represents a $10 billion state investment in a high-speed rail system and the timing couldn't be better.

Frustration with air travel, the high cost of gasoline and global warming have attracted environmental and transit advocates, municipalities and local business groups....

Despite the numerous green benefits, some local governments and the California Chamber of Commerce argue that funding such an expensive project would be irresponsible given the current budget situation.

“Having California in the very precarious budgetary situation we find ourselves… now is clearly not the time to be taking on this inordinate amount of debt,” said Jon Coupal, a spokesman for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

KCBS is actually better than some other media reports we've seen over the last few months about conveying to listeners the major environmental benefits of high speed rail, as well as the impact on fuel costs and the superior comfort of train travel. But they give Jon Coupal, head of the far-right Howard Jarvis Association, air time to make his false claims that Prop 1A would exacerbate our state's budget crisis. That's to be expected given the media's abandonment of objectivity for "he said, she said" stenography. So we're going to have to counter his claims often between now and November.

First, California can afford Prop 1A. It will NOT make our budget deficit worse - the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office reported that the budget can handle the impact of the bonds. Also consider that the bond money won't be spent all at once, but will ramp up as construction gets going, and will likely reach a peak after 2012, when the state's annual bond payments drop significantly.

Second, the state budget is separate from Prop 1A. The deficit is NOT a product of natural causes but of a failed budgeting process. Next year, and particularly in 2010, there will be a series of moves to finally fix that budget, including an effort to eliminate the 2/3 rule and a total reassessment of how the state raises money. However the state chooses to solve the budget deficit doesn't change the fact that Prop 1A will not break the bank, not by any means.

Finally the "omg this will cost billions!" argument ignores the fact that HSR is actually a savings over all the alternatives. The cost of doing nothing is NOT zero - it'll cost between $80 and $150 billion to expand freeways and airports, and that doesn't include the impact to consumers, the economy, and yes the state budget of higher fuel prices. Nor does it include the amount of money left on the table by rejecting the green dividend.

High speed rail will save California billions of dollars. It'd be nice if the media would start reporting that as well.


Anonymous said...

OMG World economics professor (Robert Cruickshank) declares Prop 1A will save billions.

I suggest we expand the system so that instead of only a 800 mile system we do a 8000 mile system -- perhaps then we might be saving trillions. Wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Terrible train accident in LA kills at least 10. The early news being currently posted.

Here is an accident between a freight line and passenger Metro Link on the same track. An accident like this involving HSR would have hundreds killed.

Anonymous said...

10 people die per day on california's roads. Every day. Rail is still much safer than autos.

Anonymous said...

anonymous - Following your logic, an accident like this involving an Airbus A380 would kill even more. What you fail to mention is that it is virtually impossible for such an accident to occur because freight trains don't share track with either A380s or HSTs. That's one of the main points of building dedicated tracks - it's a lot safer!

The overwhelming lesson here, once again, is that positive train control signaling (PTC) saves lives. That's what we learned in Chase, MD in 1987, where 16 people died when the northbound Amtrak Colonial collided with Conrail freight at 108 mph (much higher speed collision than this one). Since then, all equipment operating on the NEC (the fastest, busiest stretch of railroad in the United States) has been required to have positive train control, and there have been no serious accidents in spite of operations at up to 150 mph. There is absolutely no question that PTC would have prevented this accident - I guarantee you that the cause of accident is human error, either on the part of the freight engineer or the Metrolink engineer. (Incidentally, the HSR overlay of Caltrain would guarantee that all Caltrain equipment would have PTC, thus greatly increasing the safety of Caltrain passengers).

The 2005 Metrolink Glendale accident was admittedly a freak, one-in-a-thousand chance, so I don't really blame Metrolink for that (though, clearly, a grade-separated ROW would have prevented that accident...but it's just not economically feasible for Metrolink to do that given their ridership levels). The 2002 Metrolink Placentia crash was exactly like this one, though (just at lower speed), and that too would have been prevented by PTC. The USA really needs to take all the money it wastes on overpriced, expensive-to-operate FRA-compliant equipment and instead put it into requiring PTC whenever commuter rail shares tracks with a heavy volume of freight trains. The best way to save lives is to prevent the crashes from occurring in the first place.

crzwdjk said...

mike, you got this one exactly right, with one caveat. What the FRA and the railroads call PTC is some new-fangled experimental technology involving computers and GPS and all sorts of complications, still rather experimental. What the Northeast has now is just an updated version of the PRR 1930's-era cab signal system with mandatory enforcement, together with a bit of french technology to enforce speed limits. All together, a safe, reliable, efficient, and relatively inexpensive system, and it really does need to be used more widely throughout the US, especially in places with complex rail systems and lots of train traffic, like LA and Chicago.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I just knew when I logged in this morning that there would be some HSR denier trying to use the LA crash to attack our project.

There wouldn't be ANY "accident like this" on HSR since there will be NO sharing of tracks with freight. HSR will run on its own tracks. There is zero possibility of this kind of disaster with our HSR system.

HSR has an excellent safety record around the world. Those who would use this tragedy to try and undermine HSR haven't a clue what they're talking about.

Nice job on the takedown, mike and arcady.

Anonymous said...


Zero chance of an accident like this happening!!

If like this you mean a head on crash, I agree.

But the Pacheco route has HSR tracks running along side CalTrain tracks, which will have freight.

A derailment of the freight train could very easily cause a catastrophic accident, involving more casulities than this incident.

However, the deniers over on now believe that Pacheco is a dead issue with the lawsuit and UP position they won't share their corridor. Pretty interesting letter from UP to our Governor.

Robert Cruickshank said...

That letter doesn't reference HSR at all. Instead it deals with Donner Pass. This letter doesn't change anything about or introduce anything new to the discussion about HSR. We knew UP didn't want to share their ROW in the Central Valley, and they haven't owned the Peninsula tracks for nearly two decades.

As I said before, the best solution is for our two US Senators to start putting pressure on UP to let them know that their future operations are dependent on playing ball with state-level passenger rail plans.

Anonymous said...


Why the letter is important to HSR, according to is stated in their article

They are claiming Pacheco becomes impossible without use of the UP corridor from San Jose to Gilroy, and that UP is not going to give it up. They own that corridor. This blog was saying the UP was just posturing to get more money. It would seem from UP's position on Donner, they are not posturing -- they don't intend to share.

Rafael said...

@ arcady -

I'm not sure what exactly FRA is cooking up under the PTC moniker, it's a catch-all for a whole slew of technologies.

What I do know is that HSR systems all around the world use two-way in-cab signaling. If I recall right, the low-bitrate communication occurs through the rail with a data cell phone backup. It's not necessary to know the location of any given train to within an inch, only to ensure that they don't run red lights.

If one does, it is detected immediately and the driver warned to correct his mistake. If he doesn't, operators at traffic control can force a remote emergency brake maneuver. Note that the signaling blocks along the tracks are much longer than those used for slower trains.

The California HSR system would use proven off-the-shelf signaling and PTC technology rather than FRA's science experiment.

@ anon @ 10:47am -

today's tragedy did not involve a derailment prior to impact. While the worst-case scenario described by UPRR is theoretically possible and therefore does need to be addressed in operations planning, no HSR train anywhere has actually ever ploughed into debris deposited on its tracks by the derailment of any other train.

The notion that this horror scenario could happen "very easily" is a gross misrepresentation of the actual risk.

@ anon @ 2:09pm -

iff California voters approve prop 1A, the state will have a very strong case against UPRR in any eminent domain proceedings. The people are the sovereign, after all.

UPRR has not even begun an EIR/EIS for actually using its spare land in the SJ-Gilroy section to construct new track of its own. Doing so would make little sense unless it were extended down the Central Coast all the way to Los Angeles - a seriously expensive proposition.

Merely retaining the option to upgrade freight rail capacity at some indeterminate point in the future arguably does not serve the greater public good, which railroads are supposed to. To qualify, they need to actually exercise such options in the foreseeable future.

After all, letting them get on with doing just that is why Congress delegated selected powers of eminent domain to the nation's railroads in the first place. That was over a century ago, but what Congress has given it - or a court - could take away again.

Of course, I hope that CAHSR and UPRR can figure out an appropriate arrangement without resorting to legal action. This includes finding appropriate technical solutions to minimize the accident risk that remains after rail-road and rail-rail grade separation.

Anonymous said...


you write:

iff California voters approve prop 1A, the state will have a very strong case against UPRR in any eminent domain proceedings. The people are the sovereign, after all.

How strong a case do they really have? The non-political Altamont route is by your assessment a better alternative. The courts will be very reluctant to seize UPRR ROW. I don't think it will ever happen.

I'm no legal expert, but I would think a state court ruling to seize UPRR ROW even if it happened, it would take years and be appealed to the US Supreme court if necessary. UPRR has plenty of national power. The State will lose.

BTW on another small issue. You have proposed that Menlo Park might get only one grade separation in the interest of HSR saving funds. The acting city attorney at the study session when asked about that made the statement he thought it would be extremely unlikely street crossings could be closed without permission of the city being affected.

Spokker said...

In regards to this week's Metrolink accident and any comparisons to high speed rail that have been brought up here, no transportation system can be 100% safe. There are inherent risks in moving your fat ass around the planet.

To say that CA HSR should not be built because of the possibility of a horrendous accident that kills hundreds is a pretty retarded thing to say.

Cars are still more dangerous than flying or training. In fact they are even more dangerous than buses. And yet people continue to operate their own personal automobiles at speeds in excess of the posted limit.

Not killing anyone ever is not a realistic goal for any form of transportation to live up to. You make it as safe as fallible human beings possibly can, and then you let the dice fall where they may.

I will continue to ride Metrolink. In fact I rode it today.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 6:56pm -

a) referring to commenters as anon @ timestamp is really annoying. You can use a made-up nickname for your Google handle, you don't need to reveal your top-secret identity.

b) as for Altamont via the South Bay vs. Pacheco, it's not germaine to this thread. Rather, the general issue is that in some sections of the proposed HSR network, land for new rail tracks is scarce and existing railroads will be asked to make it available. Or forced, if need be.

Granted, eminent domain proceedings would be protracted and the outcome uncertain. Since there hasn't been such a case against a railroad in a very long time, it would constitute a precedent and quite possibly be litigated all the way to the Supreme Court.

However, if you think that UPRR has more clout in Washington than the state of California, I think you may be fooling yourself - especially if Sen. Obama ends up winning the presidential election. Private property is protected in this country but the very existence of eminent domain proves it is not considered sacrosanct.

c) I don't know if it is or is not legally possible to close an existing level railroad crossing against the will of the local community. It's not something I have ever advocated.

Rather, what I suggested is that Menlo Park and Atherton could choose to voluntarily offer up some closures in return for having the tracks run at grade plus some impact mitigation measures (pedestrian/bicycle under-/overpasses, sound walls etc.) The total amount spent by CAHSR would remain unchanged. If these cities wanted mitigation measures that would bust the budget allocated to the track segment, they'd have to chip in the difference themselves.

Anonymous said...

@robert removed my post? They are more dangerous than you think.

Anonymous said...

Control devices could have prevented Metrolink crash, experts say is an article in the LA Times.

luis d. said...

@ can it be said -

That's very childish! It's obvious to anybody who has common sense that HSR in the long run will save billions.

@ anonymous 11:07 -

"An accident like this involving HSR would have hundreds killed."

Wow really? What freight trains? HSR is for PASSENGERS ONLY! It's operations will be like BART in a way. I don't see any BART trains colliding every few months! I bet deep down inside your cheering at the fact that this accident happened and people died to give you an excuse to bash on trains in general! Your SICK!

You train haters need to get a damn job for Boeing or Airbus or Caltrans building more roads and stop getting in the way of PROGRESS!

Anonymous said...


Altamont and every other HSR corridor in the state also runs alongside the UP for portions, too.

Learn, don't just spout from your seat, please.

Anonymous said...

From my European perspective, I must say I'm shocked to read that a busy commuter line -- shared with freight -- is run without any form of automatic train control. Seems like an accident like this waiting to happen, and sadly it was.

When it comes to the effect on proposition 1A, what is the likely reaction of the average Californian voter? Will it cause suspicion of all rail transport, or highlight the need for modern, safe railways?

And another question, if I may: How is the FRA governed? What would it take to change the focus in regulations from the big bulky "crash-protected" trains to requiring automatic signaling?

Rafael said...

@ avinor -

there are still a very large number of Californians who are unaware that the HSR project is so expensive precisely because of the construction of all-new dedicated dual track plus grade separations against roads plus modern signaling and train control plus anti-trespass measures.

At some point, qualified engineers will need to explain to them what all that means in terms of safety relative to the status quo, preferably in video format. The trouble is that this will go completely over the heads of the majority of voters who still have only a very vague idea of what HSR is at all.

Btw, FRA is part of the US Department of Transportation. Since the tens of thousands of miles of tracks in the US are almost all owned and operated by freight rail companies, the agency's policies are skewed toward serving their needs rather than those of Amtrak or other passenger rail service providers.

It would be very difficult for FRA to update its safety philosophy, because someone would have to pay for upgraded signaling and retrofits to locomotive cabs plus driver training. Freight rail companies would benefit little from making those investments, so taxpayers would have to.

While there is currently strong interest in boosting passenger rail capacity in a few corridors, there is little appetite for a root-and-branch upgrade to the entire national rail network.

Anonymous said...


you post the following"

Rather, what I suggested is that Menlo Park and Atherton could choose to voluntarily offer up some closures in return for having the tracks run at grade plus some impact mitigation measures (pedestrian/bicycle under-/overpasses, sound walls etc.) The total amount spent by CAHSR would remain unchanged. If these cities wanted mitigation measures that would bust the budget allocated to the track segment, they'd have to chip in the difference themselves.

September 13, 2008 8:41 PM

The thought of Menlo Park having to close off three of its grade crossings so that one of them supports the train running at grade make absolutely no sense. Its a non-starter. The City would be completely split into two pieces, with east -west tranist problems too immense to imagine.

So you propose, the City pay for grade crossings at the other three intersections, so that HSR doesn't bust its budget.

Rafael, as you well know, these crossing are extremely expensive. From the CalTrain footprint study and projects going on further north, the ball park estimate is $100,000,000 for each intersection.

No City the size of Menlo Park (about 30,000) can even begin to afford such infrastructure expenditures from its own budget. The operating budget for the whole City is around $35 million per year. We struggle, like other cities to get enough revenue to pay for basic City services.

You propose local monies to pay for adequate crossings in our City, but San Francisco somehow is going to get a tunnel into the $4.5 billion transit terminal currently being designed. Why not run a high wall like Menlo Park will get into SF? Remember the Central Freeway in SF?


Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

do any of the secondary grade crossings in Menlo Park and Atherton really carry enough traffic to justify the construction of an $100m+ over- or underpass?

You're just arguing that everything should stay exactly as it is forever, with complete disregard for the needs of the rest of the state. These cities aren't San Francisco. They just aren't.

Anonymous said...

I just wonder, will the state really spend that much less money on freeways and airports because of one train going one place with maybe a few stops?

Anonymous said...


If you live in Menlo Park or Atherton the Cities just won't work without these crossing.

The obvious rejoiner: Is HSR worth anywhere near the $45 billion price tag? And besides the cost is sure to grow much higher.

Does this rail project have the right to destroy the quality of life for these residents? Look what the central freeway did to San Francisco. Great planning wasn't it? It took an earthquake and some real leadership to tear it down.

@ anonymous 2:10 pm

They will never get the ridership they propose and need to make any kind of economics work. That's why so many papers have picked up on the boondoggle labeling.

What I see happening is all the air traffic they see coming their way will make the airlines, especially South West more competitive. Not only on price but on speed. The old shuttle on the east coast let you get to a gate 5 minutes before departure not 60 - 90 minutes as is now the case. Jets flying direct line, non-stop between points 300 -350 miles apart, with average speed around 500 MPH, with many more flights per day, than train service will ever provide, will allow the airlines to keep their share of the market. If HSR is built 20 years from now, security at airports will have long been automated and very fast -- the airlines will have special low latency lines to the gates.

That leaves only traffic coming from auto to deliver HSR riders. Why do people drive such long distances today? Because they need and want their autos at the other end. It just isn't going to work.

So now I am going to get thrown in my face, its working in Europe and Japan. Different countries, different infrastructure in place. California always prided itself on great highways -- maybe not as good as used to be, but still very functional.

Anonymous said...

You know what is interesting to me is that everyone is saying "egads! the cost!!" and nobody is talking about one obvious solution: why not open up the exterior of the rail / train body for advertising - ? If the entire length of it was covered in advertisements, wouldn't that help defray some of the cost?

I support 1A fully and I believe in the overall comparative safety of passenger trains; I really want this measure to pass.

Great blog, glad I found it.