Sep 082011
 

 

A lovely artist's impression. But can it ever become a reality in the US?

Our country’s faltering attempts at creating any type of high speed rail service continue to go nowhere.

The initial poster child of President Obama’s January 2010 high speed rail program was to be a line between Tampa and Orlando.  This would have been almost fully paid for by the Federal Government, but Florida’s legislature chose to refuse the gift of $1.25 billion to build the line, because they’d then be stuck with the ongoing burden of funding the service’s ongoing operation; something which seemed likely to be costly while providing little practical value to anyone.

As I’d analyzed at the time it was announced, the distance between Tampa and Orlando is too short to benefit from high speed rail, and the associated inconveniences of getting to and from the train stations at each end would be such as to make simply driving along I-4 the better choice for most people.

The highest visibility project is on the other coast – California’s ambitious plans to build a high speed rail line between Anaheim and San Francisco, with subsequent extensions down to San Diego and over to Sacramento.

In theory, this would be a good route for high speed rail.  The distance is long enough that high speed trains can make a significant impact on journey times, while not being too long as to make plane travel more convenient and quicker.  There are good population bases at each end of the line too, making it likely to get good ridership.

But it will also be expensive to construct.  The most optimistic figures suggest at least $43 billion will be required for the initial phase (Anaheim to San Francisco); other estimates have pointed to $65 or $67 billion, and noting the propensity of transportation advocates to always massively under-estimate costs and over-estimate ridership, the real costs could be even higher still (some commentators have suggested $80 billion).

 At least two studies have suggested the projections – both of costs to construct and subsequent ridership and income – being used to justify this project are overly optimistic and poorly based.  And notwithstanding years of planning and many millions of dollars spent, even the route for the service is still contentious and undecided.

Which brings us to the present day, with California being close to bankrupt and the federal government running at massive deficits and the Republican controlled House stating that high speed rail is one of its lowest priorities for funding.

So what is California to do?  It can’t afford or justify paying for the total cost of the project itself.  But if it doesn’t start construction next year, the federal funding it has already been allocated ($3.5 billion) will be lost.  Together with $2.8 billion in already approved state bonds, this gives California $6.3 billion to get the project started, with plans being to construct a first segment unfortunately in the middle of nowhere, between Bakersfield and Chowchilla.

This was presumably chosen as being the cheapest section of the route to construct in terms of dollars spent per mile of track, with the hope being that after having built a segment of up to 140 miles, it would be easier to then get further funding for the rest of it.  But what a shame to build track in a place where it will have almost no value whatsoever until linked up with more meaningful places (indeed the construction plans don’t even include electrifying the line so it couldn’t be used by trains).  It would be much more valuable to start the project at either the San Francisco or Anaheim ends, and then build out from there, to San Jose and/or to Los Angeles, and then continue slowly south or north.  This would at least allow for some sort of short distance service in high population density areas to start operating as soon as the track was put down.

The big worry for California is what say the money runs out (as currently seems to be overwhelmingly probable) after spending $6.3 billion on something that has no value as a standalone development?  Is it prudent to spend $6.3 billion with nothing to show for it, or should the state wait until there is a greater certainty of being able to continue and complete the project?

Here’s an interesting write-up on the topic, albeit provided in a rather jingoistic and definitely pro-rail manner, by the LA Times.

Let’s close with a reminder of what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised us in conjunction with President Obama’s State of the Union speech in January 2010, announcing his ambitious plans for high speed rail in the US.  Obama said ‘there’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains’ and LaHood amplified this by boasting

And I assure you that one day, not too many years from now, ours will be the go-to network, the world’s model for high-speed rail.

One and a half years later, and nothing measurable has occurred to bring us any closer to any high speed rail at all.  The world’s model for high-speed rail?  Hardly.

  One Response to “California’s High Speed Rail Conundrum”

  1. […] I have written several times before about California’s ambitious high speed rail project, most recently in September. […]

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