Friday, September 19, 2008

Truth vs. Truthiness on Prop 1A

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

I've been regretting not having the time to write a thorough deconstruction of the Cox-Vranich HSR denier report. But the nice thing about high speed rail is that we have a genuine popular movement behind it. This blog is a part of that movement; whether we're a significant part or not I leave for you to decide. For example, this blog isn't just about me and what I choose to write about - we have some of the best and brightest commenters I've ever seen on a blog. They raise the level of discussion and provide the most complete insight on California's HSR project anywhere online.

One of our commenters, "mike", offered an excellent takedown of the HSR denier study in the comments to Thursday's post. I'm reproducing it here on the main page in its entirety, because "mike" does an excellent job of exposing what Stephen Colbert so memorably called truthiness - if something feels true, it is true, even if the facts don't support it at all. The Cox-Vranich study is a classic example of truthiness - it confirms the beliefs of those who already hated HSR, even though even a cursory glance shows its basic arguments to be unusually flawed.

Without further ado, here's "mike":


Robert & others:

Intellectual garbage collection is dirty work, but someone has to do it. Here is an analysis of the important points stressed by the Cox-Vranich (C-V) report:

Projected Ridership:

C-V's ridership figures are wildly inaccurate. Using C-V's preferred measure, JR Central reported 2007 ridership of 80 million passenger km per Shinkansen route km (44.5 billion passenger km / 552 km route). In the "high" scenario, CA HSRA is forecasting roughly 27 million passenger km per HSR route km (30 billion passenger km / 1,120 km route). So C-V's claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false - in fact, CA HSRA's numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.

JR Central's Shinkansen is the densest ridership in the world. A more informative comparison would be the TGV or the new Taiwan HSR (THSR). We don't have passenger-km ridership for those lines, but we can compute passengers per route-km. The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today's populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area. And more importantly, the SF Bay Area is twice as large as the Kaoshiung Metro Area and four times as large as the Lyon Metro Area.

Cost Overruns:

C-V project an expected cost overrun of 33%. IMO, this is the most reasonable part of their report. There is some non-zero probability that this could happen. In contrast, their other claims are laughably inaccurate. That said, cost overruns are a potential flaw of any infrastructure project, so if they want to make their argument based on cost overruns then they have to oppose virtually all public infrastructure projects (which, being associated with the Reason Foundation, they might, though Wendall Cox does seem to love building highways).

[Note from Robert: I agree, though I think we are also right to insist that cost overruns be discussed with respect to reason and evidence. C-V treat them like some inexorable law of physics, which is nonsense.]

Operating Costs:

C-V claim that operating costs will be 4.8 cents/seat mile rather than the 3.5 cents/seat mile. This sounds troubling until you consider that the operating costs for US airlines are 11.9 cents/seat mile (April 2008), and on the short California routes they will be closer to 14-15 cents seat/mile. AAA estimates average car or truck operating costs at 17-24 cents/mile (sedan is lowest, SUV is highest) So even using C-V's own figures, HSR can undercut airlines by 65%! More likely, HSR would undercut airlines by, say, 35% and then give the additional 30% back to the state (or, in the first couple decades, use it for system expansion).

Cost of Alternatives:

C-V get really outlandish here. They use an average cost of $6 million/lane mile for highway widening projects despite the fact that most recent Caltrans highway widening projects have averaged around $20-40 million/lane mile. More incredibly, they use an average cost of only $33 million/lane mile for a new Bay Bridge despite the fact that the current one (which should be much cheaper than a future one, given their argument about escalating costs) cost $260 million/lane mile!! CA HSRA's cost projections are not going to be exact, but they will never be anywhere as wildly inaccurate as C-V.

Trip Diversions:

C-V claim that CA HSR will divert a total amount of highway traffic equivalent to only 175 lane-miles of capacity. This claim does not pass the laugh test. Using C-V's own (very low) ridership estimates, HSR will carry at least 35-46 million passenger-miles per weekday. 175 lane-miles of highway capacity is only sufficient to transport 4-5 million vehicle miles travelled per day, so by C-V's own calculations only about 1 in 10 HSR riders will be a road-diverted driver. They also claim that HSR will have limited success in capturing airline passengers, so fully 80% or more of the passengers in their ridership forecasts are induced demand! This is an incredible result that no reasonable economic model could generate. It also strengthens the case for HSR, rather than weakening it, because induced demand is better than demand captured from other modes. If HSR steals people from highways or airplanes, all that we can conclude is that it provides a product that is at least as good as those modes. But if HSR induces new travel, we can conclude that it is providing a product that is far superior to those modes, since people who before refused to use either air or highways are now being induced to travel by the new superior modal option.

Composition of Passengers:

C-V complain that CA HSRA's ridership numbers are over-optimistic because almost no one will ever choose HSR over driving for shorter, commuter-like trips (under 100 miles). At the same time, they claim that the low-speed Northeast Corridor is instructive for projecting what CA HSR ridership might look like. The NEC serves around 10 million long-distance intercity riders per year and 60 million shorter-distance, commuter riders per year. Thus the ratio of short-distance to long-distance riders is 6:1. Even if we omit Metro North's New Haven line, the NEC still serves over 30 million shorter-distance riders per year (ratio of 3:1). C-V's claim that shorter-distance riders will comprise only a trivial fraction of HSR riders is thus completely refuted by the NEC data that they themselves argue should be instructive.

In summation, given the horrible factual inaccuracies of the report (so bad that some of them must be intentional), I agree that going forward it is sufficient to dismiss anything from the Reason Foundation or these authors by simply noting that their track record on telling the truth is abysmal.

At the same, the fact that even under Cox and Vranich's own figures, HSR has a cost advantage of around 3:1 vis a vis airlines and 4:1 vis a vis cars should give us a great deal of confidence in its ability to successfully attract ridership and generate a substantial operating profit.


Anonymous said...

Robert, for me this blog has become entertainment. You have become the "denier".

You wrote previously:

While Cox and the Howard Jarvis Association quibble over numbers Californians are screaming for solutions to the airline crisis, to high fuel costs, and to the nasty economic downturn that we're sliding into head-first.

You have it wrong Robert. What Californians are screaming for is congestion relief in our urban areas, better transit in our urban areas. This project is not directed at those needs for today's California. The project is crazy in price. The ridership estimates are ridiculous. This project will never get built.

If the big money boys in passenger rail promotion are able to convince the voters to pass this bond, the net result will be about $2 billion down a rat hole. The 950 million will be spent by the various transit agencies who get their hands on it; it is the pork in this bond to keep them from screaming no, no,no.

Then ten percent (10%) can be spent by the Authority on items, studies etc., that are not true construction. So that's 900 million down the rat hole. No tracks laid. A pretty sad outcome.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Once again your inaccuracies and truthiness get the better of you. That $950 million you mention is indeed going to "better transit in our urban areas" - Metrolink, for example, is penciled in for as much as $150 million. Both it and Caltrain will greatly benefit from the grade separations that HSR will pay for (especially important in Metrolink's case).

You keep saying "the ridership estimates are ridiculous" even though this very post you're responding to shows that to not at all be the case. Do you even read the posts here?

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, I took a look at to see what information it contained (know thine enemy). The first one I decided to investigate was the following claim: "Ticket costs for the Acela high-speed train on the Northeast corridor are over $100, and that's for the lowest cost fare."

Using Amtrak's web site, I looked up Boston, MA (BOS) to Providence, RI (PVD). The 2151, 2163, and 2165 Acela Express trains all list that trip for $29.

There may be cheaper Acela Express trips, but I didn't feel the need to investigate further.

How can they get away with publishing such blatant lies?

Anonymous said...


Who we to to believe Robert Cruickshank, working for a PhD in history, railroad enthusiast, or two true, extremely respected transportation experts?

I'll pick the latter

Anonymous said...


Really don't be using a fare from Boston to Providence. That's hardly a trip.

Checked today for travel on Oct 20th.

Boston to NYC 89 to 105 on Acela.

Washington DC to NYC 151 to 194 on Acela.

Please post correct information. LA to SF is the route of most concern, and it is a longer distance than either of the two above.

Anonymous said...

now Morris Brown writes under anonymous. Unreal. Go back into the hole from which you came

Carfree in San Diego said...

"...if HSR induces new travel, we can conclude that it is providing a product that is far superior to those modes, since people who before refused to use either air or highways are now being induced to travel by the new superior modal option."

Mike touched on something really important here with regard to ridership numbers. Like most Californians I have a handful of friends and family in cities across CA that will be served by HSR in the future. About 10 years ago it was easy enough to jump in the car and drive to any of those cities for a long weekend. Due to congestion and gas prices those trips are cost and time prohibitive. The only reasonable option for travel to SF (from southern CA) is by air which can be and will become more cost prohibitive in the future.

Given this situation those trips happen only once or twice a year at best. With HSR I could decide at the drop of a hat to jump on the train and go to any of those cities for the weekend for something as small as a friend's cocktail party in SF or my sister's birthday in Fresno. Both of which I would have been unlikely to attend before HSR.

These are the trips that are difficult to forecast but will represent a significant segment of the future ridership numbers. If the numbers do not reflect any of this induced demand they are without doubt going to be very conservative numbers.

This new mode of transportation is going to be incredibly liberating for all Californians... and yes that also includes the deniers who in 10 years will wonder why they ever opposed it.

Anonymous said...

Respected Transportation experts?
WHAT A HOOT!!! Well if these 2 have had any input then know wonder everything is working so well!! This group and it backers are the Cause of all the problems we have now! nothing but antirail
anti-everything BS from this crowd

Rafael said...

@ car-less in San Diego -

good point. If moving between the Bay Area, Central Valley/Sacramento and Southern California were fast, affordable, comfortable and safe, people would be prepared to travel more often.

Business travelers could afford to visit customers or partners in other parts of the state more frequently, because they could get work done in transit (thank you uniterruptible briadband internet access and cell phones/PDA). More face time may lead to more trade within the state, i.e. economic growth.

Live in Fresno and want to the kids to Disneyworld or the California Academy of Sciences for the day? No problem.

Prepping for finals and need some home cooked fuel? Learn as you zoom!

Met that special someone at a party in the city but you live in San Jose? There's a florist at the station and you could easily go out with her after work...

HSR is no panacea, but it will enrich the lives of Californians.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Agree with Carless. I look forward to taking HSR to see my sister more often in Bakersfield and my co-worker in LA more often.

Brandon in California said...

True. I have close family in Sacramento. I would be much more willing to go up and see them if HSR were available.... at least 2-3 times a year. Maybe more.

As it is now, I will not consider it at all unless it is a special event; like a wedding. Flying is a pain in the but. I feel so marginalized getting in line after line, hurrying up to wait, and even having to partially disrobe to go through an xray machine (belt, metals, shoes).

And driving stinks too. I don't even consider it.

Anonymous said...

Though even when comparing flying and driving there's a lot of public money involved here. Relating to R&D from the USAF then being brought over to civilian avation. Also roads are for the most part paid for with income taxes, DOT figures have shown that the taxes and fees that motorists pay only cover about 20% of road expenses.

crzwdjk said...

The NEC short-distance riders are served primarily by the local commuter operators: MBTA, Shore Line East, Metro North, NJ Transit, SEPTA, and MARC. They're basically like Caltrain, with similarly frequent stops. In the case of CAHSR, the main benefits would be to Caltrain and Metrolink, which would use the improved infrastructure. But, at least with the current plan, it doesn't seem like there will be any benefit at all for purely local service in the Central Valley, unless the HSRA is willing to upgrade the UP tracks so that local commuter service can run there. Not that there are any metropolises on the way from LA to SF comparable to Philadelphia or Baltimore or Newark, especially since all of the above have local rail transit in addition to commuter rail.

Spokker said...

Reading about the myriad of possible trips people might take on HSR is interesting. I don't know if Cruikshank has posted an entry about this, but a post titled, "What will you use it for?" about HSR would be great for a slow news day.

Anonymous said...

All I can say, folks,
whoever is AGAINST high-speed rail are complete mental retards, who know nothing about trains and are in complete denial of our current situation. The anti-HSR are just dumb morons who are stubbornly in the way of achieving the could-be greatest benefit to California: High-Speed Rail.
I would encourage EVERYBODY to stick out their head out of the sand, read some TRUTH about all high-speed rail benefits, and vote for proposition 1A.
Everybody will benefit from HSR - not just the users, but non-users as well, because HSR will provide reliable options for commuters, not just driving in smog-filled gridlocks or flying on airlines with deteriorating service.
Let's all use common sense, ladies and gentlemen, and finally start catching up to the rest of the world.
Let's build California High-Speed Rail!

Anonymous said...

HERE HERE!!! This Old White Hair crowd keeps screaming as loud as they can ,everwhere they can .

THE rest of us here in California look forward to joing the rest of the 1st world countries

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, once again de-bunking the two least trusted names in transportation - Cox and Vranich. They are brought in by the opposition for every transportation project involving trains, light rail, etc. Another classic case of creating a 'study' for hire. Total shills.

About the induced ridership: this only means lots of cash in the economy for meals, hotels and bar tabs when we go visit our friends and family more frequently. The multiplier effect - the money we spend at dinner gives the restaurant, the cook and the waiter more cash in their pockets, which they then spend in shops and restaurants which in turn ... you get the idea - makes this sort of induced demand a really huge deal.

Don't be shy about de-bunking your friends "indecisiveness" on Prop 1A. A lot of people don't know or understand it. I brought it up at a recent company happy hour and ended up informing the eight people around me for about a half hour. An excellent line of conversation to bring up to get away from the Palin distraction.

Anonymous said...

Vote Yes on Prop1A.. all you cheap OSB ..and the old nimbys in "HOOVER PARK"

Anonymous said...

As a friend of mine at a think tank put it to me, when I said that Wendell Cox's pronouncements were "half baked:"

"Half baked??? He's not even near the oven."

Anonymous said...

Wendell Cox sure is a scum bag, when ever you see his name authoring some thing, you can pretty much tell that it's instant trash!

Angry Moose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angry Moose said...


You quote a price of $29 from Boston to Providence. That trip is about 40 minutes. There is a commuter rail train that takes maybe 10 minutes longer and costs in the neighborhood of 8 dollars.

I used to regularly take the acela from NYC to Providence on Friday after work and that trip does cost about 100 bux. This was an absurd price, especially given that the 180 mile trip took 3 hours for a high speed average of a lousy 60mph. That being said, at 6pm on a Friday, it was better to do that than spend 5 hours on a bus for 30 bux. Ahh, the price of the long distance relationship. :)

So, the point is, I think the article you cited was talking about a more meaningful trip. i.e., between one of the 4 main stops on Acela: NYC, Philly, D.C. and Boston.

Anonymous said...

I want to vote for this measure, but I have many concerns about the project. I'm really torn. I'm still undecided and despite what one poster here thinks I'm far from a mental retard. So if someone could allay my concerns, I would vote for the measure. If not, well, I'm voting no. I'll be checking this page over the next couple days. (Democracy and public dialogue in action!)

1) I can't imagine that 90 mln/annually would ride it. Anyone have statistics on how many SF/LA trips are made annually at the present moment? I really don't think the ridership numbers are realistic.

2) And what do the riders do when they get to LA or SF? Get into rental cars and sit in traffic? Take expensive cabs and sit in traffic? The point is that the train doesn't address getting around in either city--this adds a considerable amount of time to the round trip. True, the trains will take cars off I-5, in the actual cities I don't think traffic in either urban center would be ameliorated whatsoever. But people seem to be making this argument frequently (cars off the road!).

3) And who knows what kind of technology will be in our cars in 2020 or 2025 or whenever the project is completed? Will the train be the greenest and most efficient then?

4) Putting $19.4 billion into this project (and this is only the first payment), makes it impossible to fund other statewide projects (and not only transportation projects) over the next however many years. It's a lot of eggs to put into one transportation basket.

5) Having lived in Menlo Park for one year (in fact one block from the Caltrain), I can attest that the proposed path for the track will be a huge eyesore for the city during the construction phase and a huge noise population problem when you have high-speed trains zipping through. This is why Menlo Park (and other towns in the Bay Area) is suing the state. I think the environmental/other local concerns have been ignored here.

6) What's a true realistic travel time between LA and SF? Does anyone have a good idea? You can't just divide the distance between the city by maximum speed. There is a considerable acceleration period and remember that every additional stop requires deceleration and subsequent acceleration.

7) I think trains are so popular in Europe because their cities have great public transportation. It's really not a problem to not have a car with you. But in America we all know it's different. Distances are completely different. Population destiny here is much, much sparser. Our public transportation is rather minimal. In order for the train to work, we'll need significant investment in public transportation infrastructure and I don't see where the money will come from (see #4).

I know these are a lot of concerns, but then again it's a lot of money to invest. I really don't feel comfortable voting for the bill with all these question marks floating around in my head. Please convince me otherwise--I'm all for energy conservation, renewable sources, etc., etc., but I feel I can't vote for this bill

Anonymous said...

if they build it, I will ride it.

Anonymous said...

To Bill:

I know the election is over, and decisions are already made, but I just wanted to ease your fears about the passing of this project.

1: Lots of people go from LA to SF all the time. Intercity travel in CA is just limited because there is hardly an alternative to flying or driving. The Coast Starlight train takes forever because of the delays and it has to stop for freight trains to pass. Traveling on HSR as opposed to driving or flying would be a no-brainer. Cheaper AND faster. We NEED a decent inter-city rail connection. Our airports are PACKED!

2: The train would also have non-express service trains which have stops. This would help relieve congestion inside the cities themselves, and also the stations would be built in the city centers (LA Union Station for example) and connect with existing local transit systems.

3: Future autos will be greener and more efficient in the future, but that still won't help relieve congestion, and the freeway speed limit is 65, while the train would go up to 220 mph. Also, consider how many auto accidents will be prevented from taking cars off the road. You're far safer in a train than on the road. The HSR would have nothing less than the most advanced safety technology in the world.

4: It's expensive, but it's half the cost of airport and highway expansion to meet future travel demands. Plus it would save money in the long run by reducing our dependence on oil, and you could travel at a fraction of the price of auto and plane travel. It'll generate massive profits and create hundreds of thousands of jobs to boost the economy. We'll more than make up for the cost.

5: Construction is only temporary, and think of the long term benefits.

6: There would be a number of non-stop trains which travel directly from LA to SF.