Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Americans Favor High Speed Trains

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

HNTB, the consulting company CHSRA has hired to conduct the project-level EIR/EIS in the SF peninsula, has commissioned a national survey to get a set of baseline data about how US consumers perceive high speed rail now that oil prices have come back down.

Remarkably for a country with passenger service that is patchy and slow by international standards, more than half of Americans (54%) would choose modern high-speed trains over automobile (33%) and air travel (13%) if fares and travel time were about the same. [Respondents were] most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71%), less expensive fares (69%) and faster trains (55%) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region.

There was a clear split between respondents who had had an opportunity to ride high speed rail trains before and those who had not. The experience gap was 28% for the fraction who would prefer to ride a train to next city and 13% for business travelers who expected to be more productive on a high speed train trip. It's not immediately clear if those expectations were influenced by the fact that WiFi on board is already available on Thalys and TGV Est in Europe.

An overwhelming majority of high-speed train travelers (82%) found it more enjoyable than plane travel. Among those who had not experienced HSR yet, the idea still appealed to 22%, while 69% responded they would still prefer to drive to the closest large city. About half of all respondents expected such trains would permit convenient travel to cities up to 400 miles away, in line with industry experts who consider 100-400 miles or 1-3 hours of travel to be the sweet spot.

The survey also showed that fewer than 3 in 10 felt they understood the environmental impact of high speed vs. traditional rail service. Of course, "environmental" can mean the impact on global warming to one person and the impact to their property to another. In this case, it appears the survey questions emphasized the dispersed benefits to the population at large, e.g. fuel efficiency and carbon footprint, rather than the changes felt most acutely by those living and/or working in close proximity to a high speed line.

The gist of the survey is that a majority of Americans perceive high speed rail as an option they would like to have. While the poll did not include the question, chances are that this same majority also approves of the strategic investment Congress has embarked on at the urging of the Obama administration. The survey also didn't ask if they considered the federal funds allocated so far - $9.5 billion - too much, about right or just a down payment.

The most recent annual "Infrastructure Report Card" compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave barely passing grades for virtually every type of infrastructure. Rail actually got a C-, but Transit earned a D, like most other categies. Granted, ASCE does have a vested interest in drumming up business for its members and, its $2.2 trillion price tag reflects the cost of getting everything to an A or at least a B. It's a lot of money - about four times the annual Pentagon budget.

However, the HSR survey suggests that the US electorate is far more willing to invest in civilian infrastructure worth having than lawmakers may realize. For the moment at least, the experience of two costly foreign wars, $4+ gasoline plus the mortgage bubble bursting because no-one in Washington was minding the financial store has concentrated minds on the need for not just repairs but new alternatives to oil-centric transportation. That is why it was so important for President Obama to seize on HSR as one example of how the US can rise again from the ashes of the bonfire of its vanities in real estate. Observers around the nation and in other countries will be watching California as it does the heavy lifting of planning and constructing the first brand-new bullet train network in North America.


Devil's Advocate said...

The enemies to the HSR are not the general public, but rather the powerful interest groups that would lose out (or perceive to lose out) from the presence of this train. They are primarily airlines (fearing competition and loss of revenue), auto manufacturers and oil companies (fearing lower sales). To these players one might add the usual self described tax payers advocates who, in the name of 'fiscally conservative principles', will always oppose any type of government sponsored project, unless it involves fighting a war, which they always support, as long as others fight it, since they prefer to watch it on CNN or FOX while drinking a beer and eating a supersized bag of French (pardon 'freedom') fries. I'm sure these players will do everything possible to convince the American public that HSR is a bad idea and totally unamerican, or even worse: 'French'!!

Rafael said...

@ Devil's Advocate -

the powerful interest groups in this case will likely be NIMBYs. Neither the airlines nor auto manufacturers nor oil companies have made much of an effort to fight California HSR so far. That's in stark contrast to Southwest Airlines' campaign to squelch the Texas Triangle project.

Btw, bullet trains are a Japanese invention. Americans appear quite content to get their rear ends into vehicles built in countries they have won wars against. The US has never waged war on the French. Baguettes at dawn!

Rafael said...

In spite of rising gasoline prices in California, Santa Barbara county's Board of Supervisors is
reversing itself on an earlier decision to consider a resumption of offshore drilling.

Says new member Doreen Farr of the 3-2 majority decision: I feel strongly that we've been a national leader in conservation and alternative energy. That's the direction we need to go. We can't drill our way out of this.

Trains are an excellent way to conserve energy, compared to cars and planes at the same occupancy rates. Electric trains are even better in that they don't depend on crude oil - they can run on anything that can be converted into electricity: sun, wind, hydro, geothermal, biogas, nuclear or fossil fuels. It's that flexibility that makes electric trains a strategic energy investment.

Santa Barbara county isn't slated to have its rail lines electrified just yet, but as for high speed: stay tuned.

Devil's Advocate said...

@ Rafael: True, I forgot the NIMBYs. They are causing trouble in Europe too, I'm sure they'll do the same here. But I still think that the airlines are going to come out once things start to really get rolling, and the oil companies too. Maybe not the american car manufacturers, those will be bankrupt before CAHSR breaks ground. I know the Japanese invented the bullet train, but hating the French is more "a la mode". And I'm sure that the 'conservatives' will somehow pull the 'French' card to convince the public to oppose it.

Rafael said...

Florida Governor Charlie Crist has failedCharlie Crist has failed to re-appoint members of the Florida HSR Authority and endorse an application for a slice of the $9.5 billion in HSR funding provided by HR 110.2095 and HR 111.1, even though the state DOT is keen on the idea.

As a result, the long-time driving force behind the effort, C.C. Dockery, has resigned his commission. In 2000, Dockery spent $3 million of his own money to campaign for HSR and Florida voters endorsed a constitutional amendment to ensure it would get built. Former Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded voters to reconsider, effectively killing the project.

Gov. Schwarzenegger talks as if he has championed HSR in California, which he hasn't. But after blocking a ballot initiative on it twice over and putting CHSRA on a starvation budget for a year, at least he allowed the electorate to decide for itself eventually. The wisdom of the crowd prevailed in California last November.

Let's hope Florida voters will soon get a chance to tell politicians in that state if they want HSR after all. Dockery's resignation may have set that cause back by a year or two. It could end up costing the Florida economy billions in construction-related stimulus grants.

BruceMcF said...

For the interest group that would seem to be the most united opposition, the airlines ... there's good reason they aren't presenting a united front. For many airlines, the short regional connector routes are not big money spinners, and meanwhile they occupy gates and runway slots that could be used for more lucrative jumbos.

Regarding Florida, ah well, their loss. At least Gov. Strickland succeeded in getting the start of a Triple-C corridor through the Ohio legislature ... a narrow Democratic majority in the House, a narrow Republican majority in the Senate, but at least there is no 2/3 rule.

Its slated for 79mph, but designed along the same line as the Chicago / St. Louis route in the Midwest Hub that they are applying as part of the Stimulus to upgrade to 110mph.

And the advocacy group Midwest High Speed Rail Association has fundraising material out where they upgrade their sketch of the Midwest and Ohio Hubs to "150mph to 220mph" Minneapolis / Chicago, Chicago / St. Louis, Chicago / Cincinnati, Chicago / Pittsburgh via Cleveland and Chicago / Buffalo via Cleveland, in addition to the Triple C.

So at least in the advocacy group, the "cautious incrementalist" camp seems to have ceded ground to "seize the initiative" camp.

anonymous said...

Talk about a vested interest group and a survey.

Take the survey for what it is. A promotional gimmick to promote HSR, hardly an objective approach.

Andrew Bogan said...

@Anon 10:59pm

The sponsor of the survey, HNTB, does have a clear bias in favor of HSR, but what was wrong with the way the survey was conducted? It looked like the questions were straightforward and the sample carefully organized. It is easy to dismiss data that does not support one's view, but I would suggest instead to collect data that does support your anti-HSR view, if it can be done.

Everyone I know who has ridden an HSR train in another country wants to see them built in America. And no, my survey of friends was not a properly constructed sample, however the HNTB survey was.

Which HSR trains have you ridden and how was your experience?

lee.watkins said...

the reasons people don't take a train in the USA - 1. too expensive compared to driving a car you already paid for, and airfair is cheaper than train faires. 2. Trains are way too slow here, and often not on time. 3. Trains don't always go to places we want to go in a timely fashion. We need more routes and more frequent trains.

All of this will cost lots of taxpayer money to fix.

Also we have all the NIMBYs that will oppose rail expansion. The easiest way to get around NIMBYs is to convert highways into rail routes, as they are already public land and many are already overbuilt with excess capacity.

However the biggest and most important challenge to meet is actually the electrification of the mainline rail routes before oil resources tighten in the next few years - which will happen what with Mexican oil (our #3 source in the USA) rapidly running dry, and low prices causing disinvestment in resource expansion to replace all the major oil wells that are about to quit. There's a real crunch ahead. The smar thing to do would be a massive electrification program of all mainline rail routes right now, double-track it, use the right of way for wind farms and solar (out west) with the rail as an energy carrier, and then expand on the network over top of aging highway infrastructure... and connect allt he heavy reail with a tiered network to rail trolleys in urban areas networked with grade-separated bike tracks in urban areas. E-bikes and light electric vehicles will also play a roll, especially with cargo hauling, as we have already seen in India with Tata's utility LEVs (even the US Postal Service is ordering them now). - Lee Watkins

TomW said...

@ lee.watkins:
1) If rail is too expensive for car owners, then surely air travel is too. However, people still fly, because the time savings are worth the extra money. If HSR offers similar travel times and lower fares to air travel on a given route, then it will attract people from driving.
2) and 3) That's exactly what the CAHSR project would solve.

Anonymous - against said...

@ Devil's Advocate who writes:

"The enemies to the HSR are not the general public, but rather the powerful interest groups that would lose out (or perceive to lose out) from the presence of this train."

Let me suggest to you that the biggest advocates for HSR are land developers and speculators, construction unions, and foreign rail hardware manufacturers.

The airlines should oppose a government subsidized project like this. Nevertheless in this California project, the airlines have not shown up with their opposition.

Reality is what it is. As of today, the project is not even close to being able to find the funds needed to build the project. As was put out though out the Prop 1A campaign, this is nothing but a boondoggle. Voters are beginning to realize how ridiculous this is and they all aren't NIMBYs.

Here is CalTrain meeting with the Authority to pave the way for HSR to run on its corridor, and they don't have the track rights for inter city passengers. How crazy can it get. Eventually there will be plenty of heads to roll when this project falls apart.

BTW, mention of what happened in Florida is hardly accurate. It wasn't the Governor that killed the project, but the voters who when they found the real truth of the cost structure reversed their previous approval. Get your facts right.

Anonymous said...

aonn against-- "Californians" as you put it are not against this project and eagerly awaiting its completion. I don't know who you've been talking too but I can tell you everyone is very excited about it as are the cities down the valley who recognize the boon to their economies. It will stimulate growth, jobs, mobility ann the overall economy above and beyond the jobs it creates designing and building the system. Just because you don't need the money or the job, doesn't mean the rest of us don't.

Anonymous said...

The only "enemies" are the usual "I've got mine screw the rest of you" crowd and in case you hadn't noticed the american people decided they have had enough of them.

Fred Martin said...

The airlines would normally be the most coordinated opposition to HSR, but they don't seem to feel threatened with the current HSR plan, which will both relieve congestion at the big airports and open up access to remote, under-utilized airports. The airlines and airports seem to be on board, which may not necessarily be a good thing for the health of the overall project. HSR-as-Airport-Enhancer should not be the primary goal of HSR.

The NIMBYs are a clear obstacle, but they are not an organized lobby, not yet anyway. Their power is to force up the mitigation costs and delay the timeline.

The real obstacle to HSR implementation is CHSRA itself. They have money coming, but they have to spend it wisely and implement a sound plan. Their ability to get more essential funding will relate to how well they can spend their initial funds. The record to date is not promising.

Anonymous said...

It’s time to hear from the NIMBYs. Ah, yes, the study that says. . . .
Coca Cola has a study proving that Coke is the most preferred beverage.
The Chevrolet Motor Company has a study that proves, irrefutably, that Chevies are the preferred automobile. Camel cigarettes has a study that. . . . but you get the idea. Indeed, CHSRA itself has launched at least three studies about how much their train will be preferred to eating, drinking and sex. HNTB is engaged with PB in developing the Peninsula into a rail heaven. Why, because studies have shown that. . . .Barnum was right.

Jon said...

this certainly isnt the first time americans have overwhelmingly supported increased rail service in polls. and of course voters approved 75% of the transit measures on the ballot last year. so if the public support is there for rail why do we have a poor rail system?

it has to be the politicans funded by interest groups particularly oil

Andrew Bogan said...

Let me suggest to you that the biggest advocates for HSR are land developers and speculators, construction unions, and foreign rail hardware manufacturers.

While all of those groups would logically support HSR, so did over 52% of Californians. Of the myriad supporters of HSR who comment on this blog, it would appear that very few of them are developers, construction union members, or foreign manufacturers. Many of us have simply ridden HSR systems in other countries and discovered that HSR is a fantastic way to travel.

Bianca said...

Not too long ago oil was at $145/barrel, and people remember that. I think many understand that we have been given a bit of a reprieve for the moment, but it won't last forever and sooner or later we will be seeing gas prices at $5 or $6/gallon.

People also understand that we have to disentangle ourselves from our dependence on oil, and High Speed Trains are a way to move toward that.

The people who oppose HSR because they don't want it in their backyard, as is the case with many Peninsula opponents, haven't stopped to consider that not building HSR means expanding airport capacity and freeways. Those projects will generate their own "NIMBY" opposition, and the HSR opponents may come to understand they have overestimated the breadth of their support statewide.

Andrew Bogan said...

As of today, the project is not even close to being able to find the funds needed to build the project.

It would be highly unusual for a project of this size to have all its funding in place several years prior to the construction phase. The voters already authorized $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds (identical to the ones that were readily sold to investors last week). The federal government has allocated almost another $10 billion for HSR, some of which will likely go to California. More federal funding is both expected and planned. Many private equity infrastructure investment funds are in ongoing talks with the CHSRA about participating in a PPP in the future. Funding the project is not only possible, but it is very much on track despite an awful global investment climate.

Resident said...

Americans Favor High Speed Trains IF... The study said IF the trains are as convenient and as cheap as cars (or flying). neither of which will be the case with California's high speed rail. Not even close. I think CHSRA and their loyal minions ought to think pretty seriously about those caveats, and make sure they happen, or else they've got a big nothing but a great big huge boondoggle on their hands.

(Go ahead CHSRA - tell folks they've got to drive 15-30 minutes or more off the freeway, into the centers of towns through neighborhoods and stop and go traffic to get to the stations, then they've got to park X miles away, take multiple forms of public transportations to get from parking to station (or some significant walking), then they've got to walk 1 mile platforms with kids and luggage.... and then get on a train that (woops) only goes BARELY incrementally faster through the bay area than a regular train. And then see how much Californian's Favor High Speed Trains.

Why do you think SV prefers SJC over SFO? Simple. Its faster to drive, easier more convenient to park, and shorter walking distances inside the station. CHSR promises to take ALL these factors in the exact opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

@resident - currently, the vast majority of train stations are in the middle of town ( in the same places hsr station will be) and rail ridership in california has grown steadily, and relentingly by leaps leaps and bounds for the past 15 years. kids, luggage and all. I'm not sure who these delicate folks are that you speak, but the ones I see actually manage just fine, including a large contingent of folks with various disabilities who actually prefer the train over any other mode of transport.

Resident said...

Lets be clear - its not current train ridership that HSR is saying they'll replace. they say they'll attract (entice) CAR and PLANE travelers away from those modes.

Airports are NOT in the middle of small cities - they are on the outskirts with extremely convenient freeway access, long term parking, and rental car facilities.

Cars go anywhere, not just in straight lines.

CHSR isn't planning on worrying about EITHER of these things.

Bianca said...

extremely convenient freeway access

If you have to get on the freeway to get to it, by definition it is not "extremely convenient". If Palo Alto has an HSR stop, I can walk to it from where I live. I can't walk to the airport.

Cars do go anywhere, but the next time the price of oil reaches $140+/barrel, people are going to be looking for alternatives to cars and planes.

Bay Area Resident said...

Bianca, the replacement for fossil fuels is practically here- it is electric cars. There is no need to expand freeways since electric cars by definition are smaller than the huge gas guzzling hogs we have dealt with out of detroit. Electric cars are the solution to the oil problem, not high speed trains.

Bianca said...

Electric cars are the solution to the oil problem, not high speed trains.

Electric cars may be smaller than conventional cars, but not by enough. Are you assuming zero population growth in California? The US Census Bureau forecasts the population of the state to increase by 13-15 million people in the next 20 years. Electric cars are not so small that we can squeeze millions more cars onto the existing roads. And you are assuming that electric cars solve the battery problems and range issues. Even the high-end Tesla has a range of only 244 miles, which isn't enough to get you from San Francisco to LA. And most of us can't afford a Tesla.

Clem said...

the replacement for fossil fuels is practically here- it is electric cars

Electric batteries (or hydrogen for fuel cells) are means of storing energy. They are not a source of energy like fossil fuels: electricity (or hydrogen) doesn't grow on trees. The electricity (or hydrogen) must be generated from an energy source.

Sources of electricity are many and varied, and all the environmental benefits that accrue to electric cars as we migrate our electric grid away from coal and natural gas, will also accrue to HSR.

This has got to be misconception #1 about electric cars.

Alon Levy said...


Airports are NOT in the middle of small cities - they are on the outskirts.

HSR's main advantage over airports is that it can serve city centers, rather than outskirts. The TGV didn't achieve a 70% market share between Paris and London by going from Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow.

Rafael said...

@ BAR -

affordable electric cars will have quite limited range, something on the order of 40-80 miles between recharges. Fortunately, advanced Li-ion batteries can be recharged fairly quickly (~15 min) if appropriate infrastructure is available - on a dedicated household 110V 15amp circuit, it'll take 6-8 hours.

Even with very modest range, expect large numbers of low income earners to be prices out of the electric car market for quite a while yet. Electric motors cost more per horsepower than internal combustion engines.

E-REV concepts like the Chevy Volt, i.e. electric cars with on-board emergency generators, have been around since the Lohner Porsche of 1900. Commercial success today will depend on gasoline prices rising sharply, due to market forces or additional taxation.

Long-range electric trains and short-range electric cars will complement one another. California needs both. In addition, pedelecs represent a comparatively cheap option for neighborhood mobility, provided there are enough bike lanes/paths to protect riders.

CityLights said...


It's quite clear that Americans will have to make some sacrifices, because current trends are unsustainable. Yes, some people will be temporarily inconvenienced. The question is only will we start building up public transit infrastructure to the point where it is practically as convenient and comfortable as the car, or will some of us keep fighting progress in the name of sprawl and pollution?

BruceMcF said...

Resident said... "Lets be clear - its not current train ridership that HSR is saying they'll replace. they say they'll attract (entice) CAR and PLANE travelers away from those modes."

Let's be clear. The growth in "current train ridership" shows that "current train ridership" is not a separate category, its people traveling, and when frequency and on time performance are improved, more of them select the train.

That patronage growth already includes patronage attracted from cars and planes.

"Airports are NOT in the middle of small cities - they are on the outskirts with extremely convenient freeway access, long term parking, and rental car facilities."

Because they do not fit in the middle of small cities, because of the need of somewhere to put the runways, and airspace access limitations.

The need to locate airports outside the middle of long established towns, that were originally built along the rail line and therefore have already have rail rights of way running through their center, creates a competitive advantage compared to air for a portion of the traveling public.

And since stop at a through station imposes far less delay than a stop for an airplane, a rail line can effectively offer more stops on a single route and create a much wider diversity of trip pairs than an air route.

"Cars go anywhere, not just in straight lines." And are a royal pain in many high density destinations ... another competitive advantage in part of the travel market.

There's a reason why HSR dominates air on trips of two hours and is competitive with air on trips of three hours ... just as there are travelers who are in a position where they would rather fly, there are travelers who are in a position where they would rather take the train.

"CHSR isn't planning on worrying about EITHER of these things."

And neither will the rail operator ... all the argument suggests is that the HSR will not capture 100% of the market ... it is based on far too much hand waving and far too substantial empirical support to be able to choose between 10% of the total LA/SF transport market and 90% of the total LA/SF transport market, but it certainly does suggest it will not be 100% of the LA/SF market.

Since the rail operator will be focused on the numbers of people who will take the HSR, rather than hypothetical 100% mode share, there's no reason for them to be "worried about it".

Anonymous said...

@resident - who is going to buy us those electric cars?

Unknown said...

It has been well proven that most business travelers do not leave from a downtown location. Most jobs have moved out of the downtown area. Having the train stations downtown is a killer for rail in the real world. Most of the claims by rail advocates show similar ignorance which is why they are totally ignored.