Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuesday Open Thread

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

I'm headed to Arizona for the holidays and will be back on December 29. So in the meantime we'll have a few open threads every other day to tide us over.

I wish I had more time to write about this, but Yonah has an excellent post on HSR privatization over at The Transport Politic. He looks over the two kinds of privatization - of infrastructure and of management - and concludes, rightly, that both are unworkable and unnecessary. With John Mica aggressively pushing privatization it is worth taking a close look at this and pushing back against ideologically-driven efforts to fix something that isn't broken. Public entities have had great success operating HSR around the world and the US should emulate that model.

One of the very first posts on this blog reached similar conclusions about HSR privatization. Worth a look.


Spokker said...

I sure can't wait to ride on that high-speed-rail.

Jeffery Atik said...

Thanks for the provocative topic. I think this is a more complex issue than is presented here - and I would argue that the possibility of private operators should be left open.
Agreed - the line itself is a natural monopoly. That is, constructing competing lines (which plagued 19th century American railroads) is madness. But a single line doesn't necessarily mean an operator monopoly. Of course, if the state builds the line, it should be able to recover some (all?) costs. But the amount of the cost recovery will affect whether one or more private operators bid to run the trains.
It might be in the public's interest to have more than one operator - indeed this is how the arlines work now between SoCal and the Bay Area, using much public infrastructure, but offering competing services. And operators might compete both on price and quality of service.
The economies of scale may not require s single operator - two or more firms might bid for 'slots' on the line to run service.
A passenger might have a choice between the 10:00 Virgin California or the 10:15 Southwest Rail that would result in lower prices and better service.

bossyman15 said...

one question robert are you going to Arizona via plane or train?

Anonymous said...

Yup, I would have to argue that some extent of privatization is more good than bad. My opinion is that the government needs to be there to break the ground, but the private businesses need to take the reins (with fairly tight regulations for the sake of service of course). I can not defend any particular degree of privatization but what I'm leaning towards right now is the infrastructure and service being built and initially operated by the government followed by private HSR service on the government HSR lines -- kind of like what Air France is doing. I know considering our financial crisis, everyone is a bit skeptical of businesses taking over HSR, but the fact is that its businesses that drive our economic engine.

I would *not* rely on businesses for providing consistent service, but for running services in a more capitalistic style. For example, fast forward 30 years after the initial Bay-LA line is finished. By that time, the government will have finished the other HSR branches, and presumably finished or working on dozens of more rail projects. By that time, while CA Rail might still be forging territory in places like a rail corridor from Santa Barbara - San Jose, the main LA-Bay corridor will be well established. Because of the initial government investment several years ago, businesses can now tap that LAB market and make money off of it. We would have to retain the government as the owner of the infrastructure and keep the Rail Authority as a place-holder of services to maintain a good standard.

Sorry, my thoughts are sort of scattered because I'm tired. Let me try to summarize it.

Basically, the government has to start the initial investment and maintain the service and infrastructure until a service is really on its feet and ready to be handed over to the private sector. While the private sector may take over a stable service corrdior, the government will continue to maintain infrastructure and continue with 'progressive' rail policies (expansion of service, upgrading tracks, etc).

I'd like to hear what Rafael says.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the comments above. The government can provide the infrastructure, and then allow private companies to compete for the service. This will keep costs down for the consumer and make sure that the services are allocated as cheaply and frequently as possible. I would bet that with private operators we would have MORE trains than with the government operating the line.

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't see the point of privatizing any of the system. Why shouldn't the state of CA pocket any profits the system makes and use it to improve other parts of the transit network in the state and toward maintenance. Unless I'm missing something.

Rafael said...

Most railroads in Europe are still state-owned monopoly providers. There are exceptions, e.g. the UK and Switzerland. Many of those monopolies are overstaffed, highly unionized and prone to strikes at the busiest times of year - especially in France.

In 2010, the EU will liberalize cross-border passenger and freight rail traffic. In preparation, member states have separated the infrastructure ownership - a natural monopoly - from train operations, which can be offered by multiple competitors. In the UK, that has taken the form of auctions for long-term monopoly franchises on specific intercity routes.

Another option, which will soon be in evidence in both Italy and across the Channel Tunnel, is multiple providers competing on the same route. What they bid on is slots on the timetable.

Commuter traffic is a separate matter. Privatization of that has not worked well in the UK. The public service here is getting cars off the road during rush hour, which is only possible if public transportation is dependable and close-knit via intermodal nodes. The most successful models rely on fare structures that are based on geographic zones, within which a single ticket lets passengers use every type of public transport on offer: heavy rail, subways, light rail, streetcars, buses - you name it. That makes it much easier to deliver adequate coverage over an area of some number of square miles.

Conclusion: the infrastructure should be owned by the public, because rights of way, system expansion and elimination of services all have important social dimensions. However, long-term monopoly franchises to own and operate it may be awarded at auction, provided there is sufficient regulatory oversight with some teeth. Don't expect to ever see much of a direct financial return on the capital investment in the rails or catenaries. The benefits to the general public are indirect: increased general economic activity and reduced dependence of the transportation sector on imported oil.

High-traffic intercity routes can and perhaps should be served by multiple competing operators. The trackage rights income will help fund commuter services, which should be provided as subsidized public services because building more roads is more expensive (esp. if you include the opportunity cost of people stuck in rush-hour traffic jams).

Rafael said...

... long-term franchises to own and operate ...

should read

... long-term franchises to operate and maintain ...

sorry about that.

Tony D. said...

Could our future high-speed rail line, especially the segment between SF and Fresno, make it possible to close San Jose airport (SJC) and move it somewhere else? Gilroy/Hollister, Los Banos, Castle AFB?

As it stands now, SJC is an underperforming airport located smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. It's location inhibits the growth of downtown San Jose and is viewed by many as a nuisance. San Francisco Airport (SFO) is the international airport for San Jose/Silicon Valley, with SJC relegated to mostly California and cross-country flights.

Perhaps in the future, with HSR taking the bulk of travellers between SJ and SoCal, it would be prudent to relocate San Jose's airport to a remote location served by HSR; again, either in southern SCCo., San Benito Co., or Central Valley location.

Any possibilties or thought? Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think what I said is largely what you, Rafael, have said. The differences being that you are of course a lot more detailed. My thoughts were also derived from the European model you mentioned. I didn't think of this before, but now that you mention it, I do recall locals expressing their frustration with the commuter service when I went to London. That would be a key area where, regardless of stability, the public sector would have to remain in control.

Anonymous said...

Well if they want to close SJO they better not spend 1billion on that new terminal!! I dont think they would ever close it

Brandon in California said...

About San Jose Airport, any discussion about reducing or discontinuing functions there must include the FAA. And, certainly they have funded many improvements there and want that to count for something.

Anonymous said...


The only way I could see that happening would be if San Jose airport was so busy that they needed to build an overflow airport like they did in Denver. Then instead of leaving the old airport open they redeveloped the area. However, with passenger number dwindling and two airports within forty miles that have capacity for more planes I don't see that need arising anytime soon. It's just a shame that it's so hard to get to SJC on transit. Diridon station is about four miles away yet there is not direct service.

Rafael said...

@ Tony D -

it's usually extremely difficult to completely close a civilian airport. For example, consider Buchanan Field in Concord. Once one of the larger airports in the Bay Area, commercial service ended in the early nineties due to noise concerns related to the jets. Since then, it has supported general aviation, i.e. mostly propeller planes.

Nevertheless, when the city tried to close it down and move GA out to Byron near Tracy, there was a major hue and cry from the weekend aviators and the plan was dropped. What could and by rights should have been a new business district for back office operations remains the playpen of a select few while everyone else has to use overcrowded BART or congested I-80 to get to work.

HSR might eneable more flexibility IFF at least one Northern California airport has excellent transit connectivity. SFO has been thoroughly messed up in that regard, at least for anyone approaching it from the south.

SJC will also be a mess because the new BART line will terminate near Caltrain's Santa Clara station, because that's where's there's room for a rail yard.

OAK is supposed to get an unmanned BART people mover from the Coliseum station, but the project remains unfunded.

SMF is supposed to get a light rail link from Sacramento's future HSR station but again, it's unfunded. In any case, it'll be at least another 15 years before that becomes operational.

FAT (Fresno Yosemite) ought to get a light or heavy rail shuttle from the future HSR station, but they've got to sort out the ROW for that first.

The only Northern California airport with a really long runway that could support an HSR station directly inside a new passenger terminal is Castle Airport (MER) in Merced county, formerly a B-52 base for the strategic air command. If that concept were implemented, preferably at the expense of the downtown Merced station, it would take less than 40 minutes to reach check-in via HSR. That's actually comparable to SFO, thanks to BART at Millbrae.

However, I very much doubt that any politician in San Jose would be willing to advocate shutting down SJC in favor of MER. Sure, property values in the approach zone of SJC would rise. The land occupied by SJC could become a new transit-oriented district. But of course, San Jose is the center of the known universe! How can the 10th largest city in the US not have an airport of its own?

Anonymous said...

Once HSR opens what could happen is that large space at Castle should be for dense housing and buiness since there will be HSR right there.

Spokker said...

Does anyone know how many restrooms the average train is going to have? This is important information that I think has been overlooked.

One at each end of each car or one toilet per car? I don't want to keep people waiting.

Anonymous said...

A slightly off topic question for those in the know... Whenever Caltrain/HSR completes the extension to the Transbay Terminal, will the 4th & King station remain open (I thought some Caltrain's would end there) and if so, will through trains to the Transbay Terminal be able to stop at both 4th & King and the Transbay Terminal?

Spokker said...

The core supporters of the Shinkansen were practically a laughing stock. They were considered nuts.

Of course, when the thing was eventually opened, it was a smash success, and those politicians who previously denounced the project acted like they were for it all along.

I don't know how petty you guys are, but I'm pretty petty. I won't forget those who objected to HSR in California who will proceed to rave about it if and when it's a success.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 2:29pm -

iff the Merced county HSR station were moved to Castle airport, it would be under the condition that the airport be permitted to operate 24/7 in perpetuity with the option of adding a second runway at a later date. Right now, that's not an onerous limitation, it just means the county would have to adapt its future population growth and zoning strategy for Merced town and Atwater accordingly.

@ anon @ 4:51pm -

yes, 4th & King will remain open, if only because Caltrain cannot afford to retire 100% of its diesel locomotives right away. Electrification will permit the erection of a moderately high-rise building on top of the rails (cp. Grand Central in New York, albeit at a much more modest scale).

An underground station at 4th & Townsend was planned at one point but I'm not sure if it's still part of the DTX specs.

traal said...

I'm also in Arizona (Mesa) for the holidays. I would have loved to take the train, but there's no train service to Phoenix. The closest stop is in Maricopa, AZ, and the once daily train stops there in the middle of the night.

Reopen Phoenix Union Station!