Sunday, June 14, 2009

The NYT On California HSR

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

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Also, I will be traveling to Germany this week for a few days on business. There will be Open Threads on both Monday and Tuesday, followed by the promised post on the new features and poll on the new banner options later in the week.

by Rafael

In his article "Getting Up To Speed" published in the New York Times magazine section on June 10, Jon Gertner discusses why California is pursuing high speed rail at all. He also mentions obstacles past, present and future and, looks into what HSR has done for other countries - notably France.

While I encourage you to head over to the Gray Lady for the full article, here are a few quotes:
  • Earlier this year, President Obama, who on a trip to France in April conceded he was "jealous" of European high-speed trains, submitted budget and stimulus plans that together allocated approximately $13 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years. It seems almost certain that at least some of that money, and perhaps a significant percentage of it, will go this fall to California’s project, which is the most developed of any U.S. high-speed-rail plan. Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation, told me recently that Californians "are obviously way, way ahead of everyone else."

  • Judging by the experiences of Japan and France, both of which have mature high-speed rail systems, [California High Speed Rail] would end the expansion of regional airline traffic as in-state travelers increasingly ride the fast trains. And it would surely slow the growth of highway traffic. Other potential benefits are also intriguing: a probable economic windfall for several cities along the route, with rejuvenated neighborhoods and center cities; several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance; and the environmental benefits that come from vehicles far more efficient and far less polluting than jets, buses and cars.

  • As someone who never understood the zealotry of hard-core train enthusiasts, I found the project’s other selling points more compelling: center city to center city in a few hours without airport lines or onerous security checks. No bus connections. No traffic. And no counting on luck [for on-time performance].

  • On a plane at 30,000 feet or in a car on a highway whose inclines have been tamed and curves eased, you can forget the great sweep of California’s topography. Rediscovering it on the Surfliner is something to say in its favor.

  • The rail authority has never been especially popular; for years its cause has been criticized as a science-fiction dream and, more recently, a government boondoggle to dwarf all previous government boondoggles. Even for the less cynical — editorial boards and legislators, mainly — legitimate philosophical questions about its mission have never fully subsided. Can California really afford such a project? Shouldn’t transportation dollars be spent instead on upgrading urban mass transit or commuter rail, both of which would also ease freeway traffic? Over the past decade, specific parts of the rail plan — tunnels, mountain passes, stations, environmental impacts, costs, ridership estimates, the technologies needed, you name it — have been challenged at nearly every turn by officials and citizens alike, as have the motives and wisdom of rail-authority board members and staff employees.

  • One of the most crucial distinctions with the [bullet] trains, finally, is invisible: they have a signaling technology, called "positive train control," that keeps tabs on the location of the trains in operation. If a train gets close to the one ahead of it, it slows down automatically — or shuts down altogether if it gets too close. A big seismic tremor or act of sabotage trips the system, too.

  • [California High Speed Rail] will require an entirely new set of safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration. The F.R.A. has largely focused on requiring trains to demonstrate crash worthiness, whereas in Europe and Asia the emphasis is on avoiding crashes.

  • By law — that is, according to the bond measure that authorizes the rail project — the California train has to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes. Adding distance might add too much time. [CHSRA Engineering Coordinator Tony] Daniels showed me a printout of a computer model demonstrating how a particular German high-speed train, one of the best in the world, would do on the longer route. "It comes in at 2 hours 39 minutes and 53 seconds,” he said. “That’s too tight for me."

  • At some point soon, perhaps by 2012, the rail planners will start the procurement process, Daniels told me. The project calls for around 100 trains, each about 656 feet long, each holding 400 to 500 passengers and each costing $30 million to $35 million.

  • At peak times, double-decker trains carrying more than 1,000 people leave Paris every 30 minutes for Lyon. "Those trains are full, full, full," [President of Alstom Transport] Mellier told me.

  • When I spoke with LaHood, I asked what the administration learned from the experiences of Japan and France. "That these things can’t happen unless you have real intense involvement from the government," he replied.

  • When I asked Schwarzenegger about the social effects of a rail line, he quickly replied, "I think people will look at the state and not just say, 'Oh, my God, I have to go from the south to the north, what a schlep.' "

Minor quibbles:

  • CHSRA will not seek additional funds from the state of California, beyond the $9 billion in GO bonds that voters approved in November 2008
  • The revised definition of the starter line is SF - Anaheim, not just to LA. CHSRA has estimated the cost for it at $30-$35 billion.
  • The distance from Bakersfield to Merced along hwy 99/UPRR ROW is around 158 miles, not 58.
  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Japan), Talgo (Spain) and others also know how to build trains capable of running at 220mph. It's just that there are as yet very few track sections in the world designed to permit such speeds in commercial operation.

Considering that California will ultimately ask Congress for $12-$16 billion to supplement state and other funding in the starter line, it's good to see such extensive reporting about the project from an East Coast journalist. If nothing else, Mr. Gertner's article underlines how the success or failure of Express HSR in the Golden State has the potential to make or break future prospects for this clean, safe and efficient mode of medium-distance transportation in other states. After aborted attempts in Florida and Texas, it's all the more important that California stick to its plans while also fixing the state's dire budget crisis.


Morris Brown said...

The article, probably the best I have read dealing with a comprehensive overview of the project, nevertheless shows considerable in bias towards supporters of the project.

Nowhere is mentioned the lawsuit presently pending, only a passing remark that Palo Alto is showing opposition.

He talks about killing air traffic on routes where HSR is now implemented in Europe, but he fails to completely mention that the airlines here are a much more competitive operation than in Europe. Even the CHSRA numbers don't talk about taking away 90% of air traffic from the route.

In a similar vein, route I-5 is very efficient for auto travel, and the percentage of traffic they can lure away from autos will be much less that CHSRA projects.

He fails to mention that all these projects come in way over budget, and this one will be no different.

Rafael says that California voters will not be asked to put up more than the $9 billion thus far approved. That is indeed what Kopp had promised, but already that promise has been broken. In Orange county, they have already spent several millions of local funds. Kopp now even talks about local funding of the order of 3-4 billion.

As been pointed out previously in this blog and elsewhere, 2 hr. and 40 min travel time between SF and LAX is nothing more than a showcase for the project. A one time trip to show it can be done. There are not planned any nonstop trips from SF to LAX; actual routine travel time will be 3 hours or longer. Then Schwarzenegger says in his private jet it takes 2 hours of air time to make the trip. The trip from Sacramento to LAX in any kind of private jet should be no longer than 1 hr. 15 minutes; in a 200 MPH prop twin it can be done in around 1 hr. 40 minutes.

Anonymous said...

What a nice long in depth article. Enjoyable read.

Spokker said...

I did the bus connection from San Luis Obispo to San Jose once. The driver didn't say a word and didn't have an OCD-like baggage handling policy. That was funny though.

Anonymous said...

Every driver has their own little personality quirks. It's like a box of chocolates.

Bianca said...

(from the article)

the stupendous cost of the rail plan is still tens of billions of dollars lower than the other option — expanding the highways and airports to accommodate the state's population growth.

This is the point that cannot be over-emphasized. When opponents throw around terms like "boondoggle" and "Big Dig" they need to be reminded that the alternative to spending $$$ on HSR is not spending $0.

The article doesn't say it quite so explicitly, but California has a history of leading the way for the rest of the country. A successful implementation of HSR will be transformational for the state, and eventually for the rest of the country.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

the article did mention Palo Alto but didn't delve into the minutiae of California litigation. Since the writer is from the East Coast, he probably figured he should leave well alone.

The author did in fact mention that very large projects tend to run over budget, though only in passing.

As for I-5: all of the larger Central Valley towns (except Tracy) are close to the CA-99 corridor. Please stop treating people who live there like pariahs. The whole point of HSR is to provide a new travel option for 85% of Californians, not just those in the Bay Area and LA.

As for local funding contributions: the deal was that the state of California's contribution would be capped at $9 billion and then only if there are matching funds. CHSRA's original funding model in 1999 was based on a hike in state sales tax, something Gov. Schwarzenegger was not prepared to entertain for the purpose. Given his own budget woes, he was also not prepared to allow - let alone campaign for - a GO bond authorization of more than $9.95 billion. This fundamental disagreement was the primary reason he put CHSRA on a starvation budget of $1 million in FY 2007.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats think in terms of which public body chips in, not in terms of which taxpayers fund that public body. To them, a "California taxpayer" is one who funds public works and services at the state level. A "Santa Clara county taxpayer" is a distinct concept, even though the actual person has to wear both hats. This subtle but important difference in terminology may be why you feel CHSRA is being disingenuous.

PDF page 25 of CHSRA's 2008 business plan talks about $2-3 billion from local sources. See PDF page 10 of Source Document 4: Financial Plan for more details.

Not sure where you have your $4 billion figure from, but it's appropriate to call CHSRA out if they are indeed quietly ratcheting up their estimates without good reason.

Andre Peretti said...

@Morris Brown
"he fails to completely mention that the airlines here are a much more competitive operation than in Europe."
False. No American airlines are cheaper than Easyjet and Ryanair. These are the airlines the TGV is competing with. You can do Paris-Marseille (480 miles) for €19 on Ryanair. Yet, the TGV has captured 80% ridership. People don't mind paying a few more euros to avoid airport stress.
It's true that airfares are expensive in Europe between towns with no HSR link, but that is an argument in favour of HSR: whenever a new line is built flying magically gets much cheaper.

Brandon in California said...

Good balanced article. At this time I am more interested in the joint Newsome-(SJ Mayor) announcment supporting a stimulus package that includes the Transbay Terminal.

Where was the CHSRA in that? Does that package include a TBT designed to accomodate the necessary cpacity of trains... or support an under-designed station. Because the CHSRA was not included in the announcement (?) I should think the powers that be are choosing to ignore the problems with the under-designed station.

Morris... take your blinders off, the US does not revolve around peninsula issues. For that matter, neither does the state.

BruceMcF said...

"He fails to mention that all these projects come in way over budget, and this one will be no different."

If by "all these projects" is meant all big capital works projects by the State of California, then so would the projects to provide the same inter-regional transport capacity by air and road.

I have no idea whether that is true or not, but given the decades of starving state budgets of necessary funds for infrastructure investment, I would not be surprised.

If by "all these projects" is meant all rail projects in the US, since that would be a lie, it would be a good thing for a reporter to avoid making that claim.

Morris Brown said...


I don't think anyone seriously believes that if a tax (say a sales tax) had been attached to the Prop 1A bond proposal, it would have ever passed. Instead what we got, both on the radio, and in the ballot arguments, was "this won't raise your taxes".

The so called 2008 business plan was not only delivered after the voters had gone to the polls, it has now been completely shown to be in-adequate as evidenced that the Authority must produce a new plan by Jan 2010 or lose its funding for the last half of the fiscal year.

Right now, funding is a serious issue. The State cannot float long term bonds at any kind of reasonable interest charge; it would appear that for the near term, any kind of serious construction funding will have to come from Federal stimulus dollars, which, at least so far as I know, do not require matching funds from the State.

AEG said...

Robert or Rafael,
Do you know yet if all of the old comment threads after all these posts will be preserved when you switch over to the new blog interface?

yesonHSR said...

I wish people that write things for pay would get facts straight!..ITS not the Pacific surfliner its the Coast Starlight and yes its very late alot..but he paints all the California rail corridors in this light and they are way better than this train.He does also mention train zealots..Well many of these "railfans"
on their talk boards think amtrak and 1950s trains are enough..why? there in their late 60-70s as are most anti-HSR people.I really dont care what they think as WE are going to be here 40 more years not them

Spokker said...

"ITS not the Pacific surfliner its the Coast Starlight and yes its very late alot"

He took the Surfliner to San Luis Obispo and transferred to a bus that took him to San Jose. Then he transferred to the Capital Corridor which took him to Sacramento.

Aaron said...

My God, it's like all of Paulistas who run around screaming about the Gold standard. If I hear about the business plan one more time...

Seriously, who is paying for all of these trolls?

Morris, lemme give you a hint: Reality has a liberal bias. Basically, any neutral article that doesn't trash a project you're being paid to oppose is biased, right?

Really, better trolling, please.

Tony D. said...


Why would the NYT give any coverage to a lawsuit that will soon be used for toilet paper? With the SF-SJ line set for billions in stimulus and their mayors pushing the project, no Judge (unless they're a former hippy still recovering from the effects of the Summer of Love) will rule in favor of a bunch of crybabies who didn't get there way on HSR routing. Again, 10 years of study, debate and finally a decision...GET OVER IT!

Morris Brown said...

@Tony D.

Only time will tell, only a short time from now, on the outcome of the lawsuit. I agree the political pressure on a judge is immense.

However, the lawsuit is based on law and any judge worth his salt is going to rule on the merits of the suit in complying to the law.

My greater concern is the possibility that when the lawsuit wins, we could have the legislature with the governor vote to exempt the project from CEQA. They have already done that on several highway projects.

Aaron said...

So basically, many of those highway projects that you support, since you go around to every forum you can find hollering that trains are a 19th century technology, have been exempted from CEQA - a bad precedent, I might add.

So now you're worried that this precedent will be used by CHSRA? Well, really - live by the sword, die by the sword.

Anonymous said...

just to set the record straight the days of constantly late coast starlights are over. That thing has been running on time and early all year- which is why I'm home on time ( and minus 400 bucks a month in overtime) every night. I'm happy for the passengers but still.... Os it's o longer the coast starlate folks. It's the "coast-is that damn thing into san jose early again?"

Why? the completion of track work over the last few years and the lack of freight due to the economy. Take away the freight and the trains run on time viola. ( which is yet another argument in favor of rail investments)

Adirondacker said...

Considering that California will ultimately ask Congress for $12-$16 billion to supplement state and other funding in the starter line, it's good to see such extensive reporting about the project from an East Coast journalist.

It's just a setup. Give California 10 billion for high speed rail it doesn't seem like much when Illinois asks for half a billion for lines radiating out of Chicago. Or when Pennsylvania and New Jersey ask for a quarter billion for the line to Scranton. Or when New York asks for a billion to lay a third track between Buffalo and Albany....

Robert Cruickshank said...

Morris, airlines are only "competitive" in the US thanks to cheap oil. Where fast trains are available as an option on a travel route - like the Acela from NY to DC - the trains hold their own, with the Acela having at least 40% of the market share and paying its own operating costs.

I-5 is most assuredly NOT efficient for auto travel. Have you ever been stuck in a 9-hour long traffic jam in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley on I-5? If you had you´d never make such a silly claim. Further, rising oil prices should indicate the folly of assuming that intercity automobile travel can be a viable option for much longer.

Finally, it is not correct to say that local contributions are in any way a broken promise from CHSRA. Their business plans have ALWAYS included local contributions as part of the overall funding package. That is a matter of public record.

Flurry said...

The I-5 north of the Grapevine is rarely congested. The I-5 within the LA area is congested, but that's a different (urban) travel area altogether. The I-5 in the empty corridor of the Central Valley is freeflowing almost all the time, and the only thing stopping 90mph on demand is getting around the slow trucks and the rare Tulare fog.

The rare times I have ever encountered congestion on the I-5 in the Central Valley are due to an accident, but once the accident is cleared, it's freeflowing again. Even on peak days like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, any delays are caused by accidents, not too many cars on the road.

Airlines can adapt to more expensive oil through better engines, better aircraft design with lighter materials, and making sure that flight loads are full.

Robert, you should check out the 100th Paris Airshow going on right now to see what's on order for the future. HSR does not have a monopoly on future long-distance travel. You pretend as if the appeal of car and air travel is going to disappear in the face of HSR.

Anonymous said...

Flurry what about all of us who don't drive? or don't want to drive to get down south? We don't get an option? What about all the hundreds of thousand of current california rail passengers? They don't get any upgrade to service? air travelers and car travelers get to use up all of the transportation pie?

timote said...

rare Tulare fog

You just lost me there with the word "rare". I've driven the Central Valley many many times scared for my life as idiots drive past me at the speed limit but unable to see past their hood.

I think that claiming traffic on the I-5 is a bad argument - I think the I-5 actually works, largely due to few real on/off ramps and long straight stretches- but you're neglecting holidays and bad weather on the Grapevine, both of which can make that drive hell.

HSR does not have a monopoly on future long-distance travel.

Nobody has claimed so, to my knowledge. The argument is that you'll gain a sizable market share in a particular distance (the LA-SF distance is perfect) and remove a rather large number of cars and planes from the system. Actually, we'll probably largely see the slacking of growth on the highway and airport berths will tend towards longer-haul routes rather than actual reduction. You'll still be able to drive the I-5 or fly within California, there will just be another choice that will help out.

Anonymous said...

"tule" fog - and its not rare! Just trying to remember how many of those 50-100 car pile ups we've had - isn't there pretty much at least one every year.? Seems like it. Hey another good reason to take the train. trains do much better in bad weather than planes or cars. it takes whole lot to keep a train from getting through.

Anonymous said...

speaking of...found this:

Tule fog (pronounced too-lee) is a very thick fog that collects in parts of California during the rainy season of the late fall and winter. It is a type of radiation fog, caused by the combination of increased humidity due to the rain and rapid cooling due to the longer nights. Tule fog makes for very low visibility and is the cause of many accidents every year.

Tule fog gathers in the Central Valley, from Bakersfield in the south to Chico in the north, and sometimes as far west as San Francisco. Tule fog is created because warm air rises. Cold mountain air descends into the valley during the night and becomes trapped due to low air drainage throughout the Central Valley. The cooler temperatures and reduced sunlight of the winter months make tule fog very slow to burn off, and it can persist for days. The air above the tule fog is warmer, drier, and lighter, further serving to trap the heavy, humid fog within the valley.

Visibility in tule fog ranges from a high of 600 feet (183 meters) to under a foot (30.5 cm). Traffic in zero visibility tule fog has been the cause of fatal accidents, usually due to multiple vehicle pile-ups. Such disasters are often exacerbated by accompanying weather conditions including freezing drizzle and black ice, which makes the road slippery but is invisible to drivers.

To stay safe during the tule fog season, avoid driving in the Central Valley as much as possible, opting for Amtrak whenever feasible. If you do have to drive, be aware that safe speeds are well below the posted speed limit in tule fog. Use low-beam headlights, as high-beams can reflect back into the car, further reducing visibility. Use your ears to determine traffic when you cannot use your eyes, and be especially wary at intersections, avoiding those with continuous cross traffic. Finally, heed and follow all instructions of the California Highway Patrol

Reality Check said...

Speaking of foggy freeway pile-ups, there were some big ones last week on Cajon Pass, smashing 30 cars and causing 15 or so injuries:

Fog, speed blamed for Cajon Pass crashes

HSR can safely maintain full speed in the heaviest of fog.

Anonymous said...

I did not know they get fog down there in the summer.