Friday, March 27, 2009

The AP Falls for Joseph Vranich's HSR Denial

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

Wow, for some reason this week seems to be HSR Denier Week in the media. First we had Daniel Goldberg's moronic argument as to why California's passenger rail system is perfect just the way it is. That was a blog post on a relatively small newspaper's site, and came and went pretty quickly.

Late this week, however, a much bigger piece of HSR denial hit the national media in the form of an AP article by Deborah Hastings that was carried in the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other major papers. The article, titled "Billions for high speed rail; anyone aboard?" gives considerable space to letting noted HSR denier Joseph Vranich space to attack high speed rail without rebuttal. So it's our job to provide what Deborah Hastings wouldn't - facts.

But this country has never built a high-speed "bullet" train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.

Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.

This is simply not true. As her own article shows, the actual reason is simple and singular: the United States has not shown the political leadership necessary to see HSR projects through to completion, largely because passenger rail has for the last 50 years been starved of funding in favor of roads and airports.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready—it's still seeking local approvals—but it's farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama's high-speed pie.

This is also untrue. In addition to the already-identified list of projects the California HSR project can begin by 2011, it is believed that large chunks of the system can be ready by 2012 or 2013.

It doesn't help that Hastings steadfastly refuses to point to the role of Republican HSR opponents in killing these projects. Jeb Bush played the leading role in 2004 in killing Florida's project, and George W. Bush did the same while Texas governor in the mid-1990s. Southwest Airlines' opposition to the Texas project also played a significant role.

After misleading readers about the fate of HSR in Texas and Florida Hastings then lets Vranich spew some HSR denial:

"In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards," says author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association. In 2004 he wrote a highly critical book titled, "End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains."

He's equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.

"Here's what's going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs—to this project and that project—and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time."

Current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.

Nobody expects Obama's HSR stimulus to all by itself produce true high speed rail in this country. But if it is accompanied by a real national strategy - and Obama's budget plans suggest he is interested in doing that - then the HSR stimulus can help initiate that project, which is all anyone ever expected anyway.

Trying to make American trains run faster will always go off the rails, Vranich says, as long as planners keep trying to recreate overseas systems. "We're not Europe. We're not Japan. We're looking at shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher."

Wait a minute. I thought the flaw with HSR in California and the US is that we had too little population density for the ridership to be there. Now the flaw is that we have too much?

It's hard to keep HSR denial straight these days.


bempaing said...

"This is also untrue. In addition to the already-identified list of projects the California HSR project can begin by 2011, it is believed that large chunks of the system can be ready by 2012 or 2013."

Too bad you couldn't make it to a scoping meeting, because your dates are off. Large chunks can't be built in a year or two. Large chunks can begin to be built, but...

Steve21 said...

I've never posted a comment here, but I have been reading and following this blog from Chicago for about five months now. I want to let you know how appreciative I am that you are so diligent about reporting the news and stating your opinion.

As someone who spent a handful of years making car payments, insurance payments, performing maintenance and shoveling out upwards of $4/gallon in Michigan for the privilege of owning something that only declines in value, I'm completely in love with being able to get everywhere in my city with light rail. Not only is it faster than driving in this congested area, it costs me less than 25% of what I was paying for my own car. I sincerely hope I have owned my last vehicle. I would love to get to other destinations in a timely manner. It is for this reason that I am so interested in what happens with California's HSR project.

Investing in ourselves with things like HSR sends a strong signal about the confidence we have in ourselves and what we can do. Stopping yet another one of these projects sends an even stronger signal that we are not worth the investment. Being from the rust belt, where virtually all manufacturing (our major industry) has gone south of the border or to the other side of the globe, I cannot handle any more suggestions that I'm not worth investment.

There are more than Californians carefully eyeing the progress of this project. Remember that you're leading the way in this country and many people are excited about the possibilites. Thank you again for your insights and please keep up the excellent work.

Aaron said...

@Robert: That's not how I read his "shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher" remark. I took that to mean that Europe and Japan had higher population densities and shorter travel times, which to a certain extent is correct, but it doesn't preclude running a successful system in the right market. You don't need a city the size of Tokyo to make this work.

Having said that, I find it interesting that he keeps attacking Acela when in reality Acela is already successful despite its flaws. It's not a good argument to make: "Look at Acela, we really fucked that up, but please don't look at this ridership data that show the number of residents of the Northeast that are willing to pay to ride a wannabe HSR line."

Anonymous said...

@STeve21 "There are more than Californians carefully eyeing the progress of this project. Remember that you're leading the way in this country and many people are excited about the possibilites. Thank you again for your insights and please keep up the excellent work." Please move here and take the place of some of our 'can't do it "folks. I have been saying all along that cali is suppose to lead the nation but has lost the ability to do so thanks to an increasingly curmudgeonly and myopic population. I'd like to invite all the forward thinking people to move here and expel all the republicans and foreigners.

Spokker said...

Does the population density argument apply to airports? I mean, you put airports on the edge of a metropolitan area and somehow people find a way to get there.

Andrew Bogan said...


No need to pick on "foreigners", many of them have high speed trains already. We should bring more of them to California (along with Steve21) so we actually have some people who have ever seen a high speed train. There are plenty of forward thinking foreigners, I thought you liked the French as much as I like the Japanese.

You are spot on that California has a chance to lead the US again with HSR, and I sure hope the NIMBYs don't somehow manage to stop us.

Andrew Bogan said...

At least the article quoted Presidnet Obama on the subject of HSR:

"Railroads were always the pride of America, and stitched us together. Now Japan, China, all of Europe have high-speed rail systems that put ours to shame."

Andrew Bogan said...


Typically I share some of your concerns about Rebublicans (and I have my own about Democrats), but at least some Republicans are on the correct side in terms of HSR:

"New Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman also from Illinois, said developing high-speed rail is the country's No. 1 transportation priority."

Spokker said...

More questions on population densities. Are opponents taking the population density of the US as a benchmark for opposing trains? If you consider the vast empty land in this country, of course you wouldn't build HSR there, but connecting large metropolitan areas with trains makes a lot of sense if the stations are in the dense areas, like LA and SF.

It's like that stupid follow the lights argument. The stations should be where the lights are, the tracks are invariably going to pass through some low-density areas.

無名 - wu ming said...

i don't see why you're so hostile to immigrants and foreigners in the context of getting rail infrastructure built, jim. the whole xenophobia seems a bit of a non-sequitur; anti-train republicans much less so. why lump them together?

無名 - wu ming said...

@ spokker
yeah, large cities separated by swathes of lightly populated land seems custom-built for HSR.

yeson1a said...

Opponents of our system wont stop..thats what puts food on their tables. Some group or such wants to make sure American stays chained to the Road/Airway .We have to make sure they dont get away with their lies.We will be boarding the first trains and they will still be whining..along with the nimbys

Andrew Bogan said...

@無名 - wu ming

You are correct that California's population size and density are both good fits for HSR, as is the Northeast Corridor from Boston to DC, which almost already has HSR with Acela.

The "America is not Europe or Japan" argument is idiotic. Europe is not Japan or China either, yet HSR has proven to be a great success in all those places despite the cultural, population, and geographic differences.

r. motorist said...

Ok, HSR and immigration are totally unrelated. But, given all the "foreigner" comments, I can't help but share my two cents here.

Most of the foreigners I've had contact with seem to love the idea of living in a suburban house with a big yard and they love the idea of auto travel. Given that their home countries are far more crowded than the US, the think that yards and cars are fantastic luxuries. None of them really subscribe to new urbanist school of thought in my experience.

Anonymous said...

Yes it's not the foreigners I should have just stuck with it's the republicans. Hard to say really as there a lot of folks who are new to the country who very easily get on the right wing bandwagon, then again, there's a lot who are more liberal. I do know, however that there is an "element" in california who are all about " no" no to this and no to that and no we can't and now's not the time, and everything is too expensive, and on and on and on. not just concerning high speed rail, but concerning everything. There just this huge group of " no we can't ers" in this state. They don't belong here. They are not real californians whether or not they are from here. To be californian is to be forward thinking. If you are a relic and a square you belong in a tired old dull red state where the food is bland ( because we know you folks hate spice food, and too much color, and for god's sake turn out the lights before you have sex) God I'm so sick of it. I thought they'd go away when bush went away but they are still here being a royal pain in the ass. The haters, the "can't ers" the overly sensitive, this isn't the place for you folks. hey tired crusty baby boomer has-beens. you are over.

Rafael said...

@ jim -

"I'd like to invite all the forward thinking people to move here and expel all the republicans and foreigners."

That statement is point blank inappropriate on this blog. There are millions of foreigners living legally in California (on temporary work permits or green cards) and paying plenty of taxes without any say over how that revenue is spent.

Silicon Valley and Hollywood would not be nearly as successful as they are if they were not able to attract highly qualified foreign talent. Don't bite the hand that feeds you, the US was and is a country that depends on legal immigration for part of its economic success.

As for Republicans, they're entitled to their opinion. I wouldn't be surprised if a significant minority of them actually endorsed prop 1A. HSR is not an issue that runs neatly along party lines.

Rafael said...

@ bempaing -

I agree, all that will be ready for the public to use by 2012/2013 is a handful of grade separations, perhaps Caltrain electrification.

The Central Valley test track isn't expecting to open for testing until 2015 and commercial HSR service from SF-LA is unlikely before 2018, perhaps 2020. Certain segments may see commercial service a little earlier.

I know that's a long time, but there's no point in setting expectations that CHSRA cannot possibly meet. Building an HSR line this long takes time, all the more so because it's the very first one in the US. FRA still needs to draw up the rules.

BruceMcF said...

Odd coincidence there ... of four proposed rail services faster than 125mph, two projects are axed when a Bush is Governor, and one that gets started before a Bush can halt it is hobbled when a Bush is President.

They must not be expecting the HSR to be using a lot of oil.

Alon Levy said...

Bruce, the Acela was hobbled long before Bush was even a serious contender. It was delayed until after Bush won, but that's not really Bush's fault.

Steve21 said...

I didn't expect such a warm welcome! Thank you Jim and Andrew.

I'd certainly love to head to California, but after many months of searching for a job and checking the citizenship requirements in various HSR-friendly locations, I started a graduate program in Chicago. I fully intend to live in a place that is actively working toward bettering its future once I finish; hopefully California is one of several places where this holds true.

Maybe this has been brought up in the past, or maybe I'm the only one interested, but why not let the public get involved in infrastructure renewal? I'd love to lend a hand to a local project I cared about, especially if there were one as game-changing as HSR. There must be plenty of non-critical tasks that need to be completed in a project this size (scanning documents, tagging photos, creating electronic submission forms, etc). I mention this as I was very disappointed to recently discover I wasn't even allowed to visit a train yard, let alone help out with any projects. I understand there would be security risks with letting just anybody touch all the controls, but being barred from helping out in any way is a little ridiculous. Shouldn't I be allowed to exchange some of my free time for the ability to say I participated in something I care about?

@r. motorist: I understand the thrill of car ownership and driving everywhere. The day I got my license is one of my best memories. Driving slowly descended the list of enjoyable activities for me; it ended up being a monotonous chore in my eyes - there isn't much skill involved, it costs a lot, and the time I spend driving a car is lost time for things I'd rather do (read). Perhaps these feelings set in for others as well?

I think the difference in the frequently mentioned past rail projects and this one is the stronger emergence of the web. Supporters who participate in blogs like this one have a stronger, unignorable voice now.

Glen said...

I have to say he does have one good point, and that is spreading around this money so much that it actually does nothing more than speed up trains only 15min.We are the only true HSR project and the Midwest is really the only true network system. This money needs to be spent on 110MPH ONLY upgrades
I have seen plans for 79mph type service going after this funding.

Rafael said...

@ steve21 -

thank you for your encouragement and your willingness to get involved. You are of course welcome to continue contributing your thoughts to this blog and others focused on the California HSR project.

However, its success depends critically on securing federal funding for 1/3 to 1/2 of the total required to construct the starter line from SF to LA and Anaheim. Some funding has already been promised for HSR projects in the 11 designated national corridors, but more will be needed.

That is why Robert and I do not perceive efforts to develop HSR services in other parts of the country as competition. On the contrary, the more states have a vested interest in the federal HSR program, the more likely it will be that California's project will eventually receive the federal funds it needs to make true bullet trains a reality on US soil.

You may therefore be interested in learning more about efforts to implement HSR in the Midwest at 110-125mph, a level the readership here as called "rapid rail". At these speeds, FRA still permits grade crossings so communities can be selective in how and when to implement them. They can also prioritize quiet zones over grade crossings.

Rapid rail is not a lesser form of HSR, just a reflection that population density and distribution aren't the same all over the country. Bullet trains don't make economic sense everywhere.

A crucial objective should be to press FRA for a regulatory path toward allowing FRA-compliant freight trains and modern, lightweight, non-compliant passenger trains right of way or even tracks via upgrades to signaling and new ownership models (PPP) for the infrastructure. On rapid rail systems, there should be a combination of low-cost long-distance freight, time-sensitive medium-distance intermodal freight and time-sensitive short-and-medium distance passenger service.

Moreover, passenger rail in the Chicago area could benefit massively from moving transcontinental rail freight to a new bypass south of the city.

Given the cold winter climate, an appropriate model for the Midwest - except perhaps the Chicago area - may be Sweden or Hokkaido (northern Japan), rather than Spain or France.

Anonymous said...

Nevertheless, the quality of life has gone steadily donwhill in california over the last 30 years and the states ability to get things done has been stifled as the population has become increasing fragmented. That's part of the problem. you can no longer get folks on the same page because its a state full of interest groups. With the worlds 8th largest economy one does have to wonder where all the money goes as well. In my opinion the problem is a lack of leadership . Politicians representing various groups of people to their own benefit rather than rallying and inspiring the population as a whole. For all the perks that diversity brings, one can't deny the downside. And as for silicon valley goes, I'd say ask the engineers who lost good paying jobs to lower paid foreigners about that. That said, there is no doubt that the new population of cali be the largest users of this project so hope they support it.

Anonymous said...

Where is the active promotion of this project after the vote. yes there is a website with information but where is leadership from sac? Where are the tv ads promoting this and getting people on board and excited about the project. The only thing the public is hearing and reading are the denial articles in the press. There should be a continued ad campaign to keep people interested, informed and on board to counteract the denial.

Rafael said...

@ Glen -

HR 2095, last year's Amtrak re-authorization bill, redefined HSR as passenger service in the (currently 11) designated national corridors "that can reasonably be expected to reach 110mph or more" and allocated $1.5 billion toward it. HR 1, the stimulus bill, allocated an additional $8 billion to HSR in the same sense (according to the Joint Declaration published along with the final compromise version arrived at in conference).

USDOT's previous definition of HSR as 90mph does not apply to these $9.5 billion.

Note that upgrading from 79 to 90mph is often just a case of improved signaling. Going to 110mph requires a higher level of investment, e.g. increasing curve radii or track superelevation. However, it is technically not necessary for a service to achieve 110mph or more for more than a short section of the route.

USDOT needs to publish some documentation on how it intends to evaluate grant applications in a fair and transparent way, otherwise it's all down to which states have the most political clout and/or the best lobbyists.

Morris Brown said...

Here is a link to a letter from the UPRR to the CHSRA dated Feb 23, 2009, and sheds light on their intentions regarding the corridor.

Make your own judgements, but at least to me, the UPRR seems absolutely intent on keeping freight service going on this line and protecting its rights to do as such.

UPRR Letter 2/23/09


I never thought the day would come that I would say YAY UNION PACIFIC!

Clem said...

@Morris, great stuff! What a scoop!

Brandon in California said...

I'd agree with your assessment. And, I suspect very much that they'd get what they need/want.

If something similar has been proposed elsewhere and UPRR did not get what they wanted.... someone please enlighten the readers of this blog.

What I believe this means to the penninsula corridor is that...
...any proposal to retain freight's ability with any necessary tunneling having the intent to accomodate HSR + Caltrain at the expense of an above ground alignment accomodating freight...
...will mean:
1) more costly tunneling efforts (bigger/higher, longer due to softer grade changes, and/or... ventilation) or
2) the tunneling to accomodate Caltrain + freight cannot happen at all.

If so on #2, that means Caltrain may remain above ground and possibly at-grade where they already are... and our friendly peninsula bergs are SOL.

Anonymous said...

The want cash. lots of it.

Andrew Bogan said...

I agree with Jim. I have not yet read the entire letter, but a first glance looks like a boiler plate "you will pay us more for our valuable assets" letter.

Anonymous said...


If we put this letter (i.e. no love lost between CHSRA and the freight company) together with the original trackage agreement that gives UPR EXCLUSIVE intercity passenger rights, we have a major screwup on our hands. Caltrain owns the corridor in name only - let the best lawyer win.

If you truly are pro-high speed rail, you must work to get a different team in running the show.

There has been some back and forth on environmental issues (Bay vs. Pacheco Pass). Read the letters the California state agencies submitted. They were unanimously opposed to Pacheco. By environmental law, you are not supposed to ignore what they say, which is basically what the HSRA did.

Anonymous said...

Re the Bush brothers killing HSR. I suspect this is not a Republican issue but a Bush family fortune issue, with its links to Arab oil interests.

Anonymous said...

Re: Bush brothers and Arab Interests comment.

LOL. Are you the reason why my local grocery store ran out of tinfoil?