Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Yes, California, We Can Build It By 2018

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

Steve Hymon, who runs the Bottleneck Blog for the LA Times, expressed some skepticism about whether the SF-LA line will be open by 2018, as a Daily Cal article reported. Hymon writes:

Not to be a grumpy bear on this -- I know there's a lot of people that want to see the trains up and running -- but I think the odds of the system running in a decade are long. First, there's the little issue of coming up with the $33 billion that the California High-Speed Rail Authority says the project will cost (and some people say that's a low-ball estimate). The bond passed by California voters earlier this month was only for $9.95 billion.

"Some people say" is pretty poor journalism, first of all - those "some people" are the thoroughly discredited Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Association.

Second, if you're going to base skepticism over project delivery on funding, shouldn't you mention the John Kerry HSR funding proposal? Or Obama's $500 billion economic stimulus? Funding isn't certain but it sure looks likely. Skepticism is fine, but readers are still owed informed and complete reporting. He continues:

And then there's this: Look at how long it takes just to build a few miles of light rail. Take, for example, the Expo Line, which is planned to run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, a distance of some 15 miles. Construction began in 2006 and the first 8.6 miles may be done by 2010, with the remainder by 2015. That's nine years to build 15 miles of light rail, versus a decade to build 400-plus miles of 220 mph rail.

This claim doesn't seem to reflect some factors about the high speed rail project that separate it from something like the Expo Line. First, the Expo Line's phased construction is partly due to funding issues faced by the MTA. Measure R, combined with a federal stimulus, could accelerate the delivery of the final phase. Second, the Expo Line involves building entirely new tracks through an urban center. HSR doesn't. It will involve grade separations and new tracks, but those will come next to existing rail corridors. And the bulk of the route will be built outside urban areas.

More importantly, the 2018 date is not some random number. The California High Speed Rail Authority's 2008 Business Plan explains that it will take 8 years to complete final design and construction. The timetable laid out in that document uses 2012-2020 as the timeline, but Quentin Kopp has recently suggested that the Program Level EIR/EIS process and preliminary engineering could be complete by July 2010 - in which case, the 2018 target date is entirely appropriate.

Sure, the CHSRA might not make that target date. But the way Hymon reported this claim made it sound like 2018 was pie-in-the-sky boosterism, when in fact it's sourced and reasonable.

Do you really think high-speed rail can happen that quickly? Making big promises is a good way to get the public excited. It's also a good way to make them cynical when those promises fail to materialize.

The same is true of the media, which frequently makes readers and citizens cynical about government programs or passenger rail projects by casting them in an unfair light. The Metro Gold Line Extension is being delivered on-time and on-budget even though it involves a tunnel under East LA. Seattle's Central Link light rail project is going to be delivered on-time and on-budget even though it too involves a significant tunnel (under Beacon Hill) and creating a light rail ROW in the middle of a busy urban street (Martin Luther King Way).

Even on a blog, I'd prefer that members of the media focus on reporting the facts in a complete and fair manner, instead of trying to push one's own skepticism.


Spokker said...

The high speed rail funding won't materialize all at once. It'll come in increments. Kerry's bill is a good example of that. Opponents of HSR in California will keep on shouting, "It's not enough!" at each new bill or appropriation until it's finally enough.

The federal funding scenario is going along just as I envisioned it would, gradually. Now I'd like to see some progress on those private investments other than, "We've gotten some offers."

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, both the Tokyo-Osaka line and the Paris-Lyon line required about five to six years to construct.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting fact that I just noticed today:

There is only one other domestic high speed line (defined as over 250 kph sustained) in existence that connects two of the world's 50 largest metro areas: the New Tokaido Shinkansen line (Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka). No other line in any country (including Japan) does that - the CHSR will be the second in the world.

The only other line that will come close to linking two top-50 metro areas will be the KTX, when the Busan extension is completed in 2010. That will connect two top 100 metro areas (Seoul is the 4th largest, Busan is the 83rd largest). Incidentally, although the Busan extension is not yet complete, KTX already carries ~55 million passengers/year and generates an operating profit of ~$2 billion/year.

Eurostar of course connects two top-50 metro areas, but not domestically.

Anonymous said...

For completeness I should note that the Beijing-Shanghai and Turkey-Ankara lines should also be completed by the time CHSR becomes operational. The former will link two top-50 metro areas (in fact, it will link two top-20 metro areas) while the latter will link two top-100 metro areas.

Alon Levy said...

Mike, my impression was that KTX had disappointing ridership statistics.

Anonymous said...

From Wikipedia:

When introduced in April 2004, KTX ridership was an average of 70,900 passengers per day. This number was more than on the busiest French TGV line, but that on a more expensive line, and well short of initial expectations of 200,000. While earning an operational profit of about 2.1 billion won per day, this amount was insufficient to service the loans, as the construction cost grew from an initial estimate of 5 trillion to an actual 18 trillion Korean won (approx. 5 billion to 18 billion US dollars). On January 14, 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hai Chan stated that KTX was a political failure.
test ticket for KTX trial run

However, less than two years after the introduction of KTX service, the market share of rail on the Seoul-Busan sector increased from 38% (2003) to nearly 61% (2005), with air travel dropping from 42% to 25% and road travel falling from 20% to 14%. On January 9, 2006, Korail reported that average daily ridership in December 2005 had reached 104,600, an increase of almost 50%, with daily operating profit up to 2.8 billion won and financial breakeven expected by early 2007. In 2006, KTX carried 36.49 million passengers (against 32.37 million in 2005). On the Lunar New Year in 2007 (February 18, 2007), KTX carried a record 158,967 passengers. The 100-millionth rider was carried after 1116 days of operation on April 22, 2007, generating an income of 2.78 trillion won.Throughout May 2008, the average ridership reached 160,000 passengers per day.
Sounds pretty good to me. When you open a new business (are a new air route), it is typically expected to take a couple of years to get into the groove.

Anonymous said...

Also notice... KTX was always operationally profitable, but initially fell short in paying for the capital costs. The capital costs! You know, those costs that other modes of transportation don't have to worry about because the taxpayers pay for them.

Anonymous said...

Are you willing to stake any money on this being finished by 2018?

I wouldn't. Fact is these projects are almost always over-budget.

As much as I am dying for train construction to start (and complete), I'm not holding my breath for it to be done anytime near 2018.

BruceMcF said...

Shama said... "Are you willing to stake any money on this being finished by 2018?

I wouldn't. Fact is these projects are almost always over-budget.

Yet another useful illustration of confirmation bias. Projects being over budget and/or late are big news ... projects being delivered on time and on schedule are small news.

Some projects come in on time and some don't, some come in under budget, some come in over. If I was betting, I'd go for on time and over budget, since I think Peak Oil is real, and that will both increase the urgency of the project as well as play havoc with the budgets of all sorts of big civil engineering projects.

Of course, under that scenario the California HSR is worth far more than its present budget.

Anonymous said...

The Germans planned and built their Hannover-Berlin high speed line in about eight years.

Simple geography, some significant environmental concerns. Remember, this is PLANNED and built.

Anonymous said...

This is California -- add 20% to the budget and schedule. Add Quentin Kopp -- another 20%. NIMBY lawsuits: Another 10%. "Not Invented Here", "Buy American" needless reverse-engineering of cheap off-the-shelf existing FOREIGN!!! tech: Another 25%. FRA weight-adding "safety" idiocy: minus 30% trip times.

Loren said...

I wish to announce that the full business plan is now available.

It is at the CAHSR site's Library page, under "2008 Business Plan".

It's a rather big collection of documents, but it should fill in the details that the earlier-released business-plan documents had lacked -- those earlier-released documents look like some glossy and vacuous brochure.

In any case, I think that it will likely get the necessary Federal funding. An urban Democratic President with an Amtrak-loving Vice President and a Democratic-majority Congress that has several California Democrats in important positions, an interest in infrastructure spending, all looks good for the project to receive Federal funding.

Rafael said...

One thing people shouldn't forget is that a dire macroeconomic situation means a lot more people will be willing to suffer construction nuisance.

Also, it should be easier to obtain buy-in on implementation design specifics that are based on minimizing construction cost rather than minimizing visual and other impacts on the local environment.

There will still be conflicts and lawsuits, but perhaps not as many as there would be when the economy is strong. In particular, it's interesting to note that the organized opposition to the mega-project was essentially limited to a couple of self-described think tanks and residents of two small towns in the SF peninsula. A majority of Californians endorsed prop 1A, which provides direct democratic legitimation of what will now follow.

As for the implementation timeline, that will require much closer integration with the planning and execution of other infrastructure projects being pursued by other agencies at the local, state and federal level. Examples include: BART extensions to SJ and Livermore, traffic lanes in a section of the I-15 median, the SF Transbay Terminal/DTX funding issue, Caltrain electrification, run-through tracks at LAUS, shoehorning of rail corridors in Fresno etc.

Pursuing all of these projects in a stovepipe manner would almost certainly result in suboptimal solutions, especially wrt intermodal transfer points, pedestrian flow capacity, bicycle infrastructure etc. Paying attention to these issues early is essential to achieving high ridership.

So is integrating fare structures and ticketing procedures.

So is level boarding and ADA facilities.

So is anticipating that transit hubs are sometimes magnets for pickpockets, bike thieves, drug dealers, alcoholics, the homeless etc. Without aggressive policing and cleaning, underground passages in particular can quickly lose favor with paying customers, quite possibly prompting them to stick with driving and flying.

Having to walk several blocks to transfer from one service to the other, in the rain, across busy streets, with children and bags in tow and having to wait long for the connection that requires buying yet another ticket is a recipe for failure.

It's not just about getting HSR built, it's about getting it built in such a way that the customer experience is a good one door-to-doo - including the portions he or she does not spend sitting in a bullet train.

Anonymous said...

@Robert --

If the CHSRA were smart, they would be setting expectations based on when the first usable segment was completed. This would give CHSRA lots of press conference/ribbon cutting opportunities for the local politicos. The local mayor could speechify about how the opening of the HSR segment would make the local burg part of the world community and make his/her town the new center of the world.

Unless the Altamont Pass is used, there is no usable segment in Northern California (ever). However, if the Altamont Pass was chosen, every 5 miles is a usable segment.

In the Southland the story is better but I am waiting for them to screw it up.

Sigh ...

Spokker said...

What are the chances of Altamont pass being included in phase 2? If federal funding does explode why not build both alignments?

Anonymous said...

Let's compare to another transit system -- BART.

From Bart.Gov:

+ Bart planning was kicked off in 1946 - a comission was formed an in
+ 1957 they had a plan
+ Service started in 1972.

Today things are very different, and SLOWER. There is no way this train will be completed within 40 years. Look at history. We will be lucky to be alive -- but we will leave the state a better place.