California’s Downsized High Speed Rail Plan

An artist’s impression of a Californian high speed rail station, created during a happier more optimistic era.

Governor Gavin Newsom announced, in his “State of the State” address on Tuesday 12 Feb, that he was sort of cancelling the state’s long-standing project (started in 2008, and discussed for a long time prior) to construct an 800 mile high speed rail line that was to first link San Francisco and Los Angeles, and ultimately extending to Sacramento and San Diego, saying he’d prefer to spend the state’s multi-billion dollar budget surplus on more welfare programs rather than transportation infrastructure.

However, he doesn’t want to give back the $3.5 billion in federal funding the state has already received.  Although by some measures, the state is perhaps already out of compliance with the terms of that funding and it should be returned anyway, it seems he feels that if he continues development on the first stage of the high speed rail project, he can keep the $3.5 billion.  President Trump has already asked for the money back, although his request surely doesn’t have the full force of law behind it.  At least, not yet.

As for the rest of the project, Newsom didn’t say it is now dead and buried – that would be too politically risky.  Instead, the project has been “suspended” and he is appointing a new chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, while continuing environmental reviews and doing some “regional projects” (whatever those might be, definitely not high speed rail however) in the north and south of the state.  See this article.

EDIT/UPDATE :  On Tuesday Newsom announced his plan to cancel the rail project.  On Wednesday, this was “clarified” as meaning that the project wasn’t going to be canceled.  Shame on us for misunderstanding him.  But while it is now un-cancelled, it is also totally unclear as to what will be done and when, or where the funding for the project’s continuation will come from and what the revised timelines or budgets will be.  Curiously, one of the reasons for canceling was that the present plan “would take to long” but he has replaced a published timetable that was too slow, not with a new revised timetable that would see the project completed sooner, but with no new timetable at all.  That sounds a lot like a “political” cancellation to us that will happen more gradually and stealthily, thereby arousing less controversy.  Here’s the video clip of his address so you can see if you can puzzle out what he actually said or means.

The first stage of the rail project – and now possibly the only stage – was/is to be between Bakersfield and Merced.  Originally this was planned to have intermediary stops in Kings-Tulare, Fresno and Madera.  The total line length would be in the order of 160 miles.

We understand the reason it was to be the first stage of the project wasn’t due to it being a key strategic part of the project, nor the most urgently needed part that would provide the greatest benefit.  It was because that section would be relatively quick, easy, and inexpensive to get up and operational, while being of little/no use by itself.  This would enable the increasingly controversial and unpopular project to show an early accomplishment but also being at a point that wouldn’t allow for it to be stopped, so as to help drag along support for the rest of the project.

This section of the total line would service the following population centers if it retains the same route (which it surely would – a lot of the earthworks have already been done) and stops as before :

Approx Miles   Segment Length   StopPopulation   
62          62Kings-Tulare64,000
108          46Fresno528,000
127          19Madera66,000
160          33Merced83,000


So the line would serve about one million people in total, which is a fairly low number.  Furthermore, how many of those people regularly travel between stops on this route?  And, of those who do, how many would choose to take a train, at any speed or cost, compared to driving in their own car?

We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that no-one commutes daily between Merced and Bakersfield (160 miles), or even between Fresno and Bakersfield (108 miles).

Maybe some people commute between Fresno and Madera, but that is a 19 mile segment which is better served by commuter rail, not high speed rail.  A fast train would barely have time to get up to full speed before having to slow down again on that short distance, and even if it did manage to trim a few minutes off the journey, that’s hardly a life changing experience.  Plus, a train focused on that short distance and commuters would ideally stop at other stations along the line, thereby totally destroying any potential for high speeds or quick transit times.

For the people who do travel between the towns and cities along the proposed route, travelers are already reasonably well served by CA-99, a limited-access four and sometimes six lane freeway.

In other words, there’s no clear need for any of this section of the high speed rail route, other than as part of a greater entirety.  Gov Newsom’s response is that the area has a lot of air pollution, but is careful not to attribute that pollution to passenger cars.   He adds, in an inspirational tone that politicians love to adopt to justify a major new spending program, that the region, while currently mainly rural and agricultural in nature, is well suited for substantial new development, high-tech companies, and that sort of thing.  Perhaps so, although we note that California seems to be struggling to attract new industry and new high-tech, other than around the Silicon Valley area (for high-tech) and the Los Angeles area for other type of business activities.  Rational people locate businesses close to their markets, and/or close to major transportation hubs, neither of which exist in any exciting measure along this possible rail line.

But, let’s say that new development does move in to the Central Valley area.  We have to wonder then, if a new company is established in any one of these cities, wouldn’t its employees live close to the company’s location?  Property prices are moderate all the way through the Central Valley, so there’s no need for very long commutes.  Even new industry is unlikely to result in much need for local and regional passenger rail services.  Maybe some extra rail freight traffic might be created, but there’s already a freight line running through this area.

The Problem with Short Distance Rail Services

Let’s be positive, however, and accept that somehow, from somewhere, a need is discovered.  As is always the case with any short distance travel, whether it be rail or not, there are two big issues.

The first is that  a potential traveler’s evaluation of travel options doesn’t focus only on the major journey itself, but instead takes a more holistic approach to the total travel experience.  This means also considering getting to the departure point to start the journey, then getting from the arrival point to the ultimate destination.  Is there parking at the departure point?  What does it cost, is it secure, is it covered?  How to get from the arrival point to your final destination – does that require a rental car?  When you add the extra time and costs of parking, a rental car or taxis, and the extra time to get to and from the stations in addition to the actual time on the train, then even for the full 160 mile length, there is no longer any substantial time-saving.

The second is the frequency of service.  If there are trains every hour, then that is a good and reasonably frequent service which causes few problems – as the classic saying goes, you’re never late for one train, you’re simply early for the next.  But we’d be astonished to see 12 or more trains, each way, each day, because the trains, with anywhere from 100 seats upwards to even 1000 seats, are very unlikely to have sufficient ridership to make them viable.  More likely might be four or six trains a day – two in the morning (perhaps departures at 7.30am and 8.30am), one in the middle of the day, two in the early evening (perhaps departures at 5pm and 6pm), and one in the later evening (maybe 8pm).  So most of each day would have up to five hours of waiting for the next train; it would be hard to have a half-day journey, and most roundtrips would now be a full day.

High speed rail struggles to be competitive with private motoring on shorter distances, because of the hassle factors and the need to get to and from stations at each end, the lack of much time-saving, the cost compared to driving, the inconvenience of timetables, and all the other challenges involved.  A 100 mile journey is pretty much the absolute minimum length, which means that the only significant city-pair becomes Bakersfield-Fresno, which with a 108 mile distance between them is right at the very low end of where high speed rail starts to have any relevance.  The other two cities north of Fresno (Madera and Merced) might add a few more passengers to a Fresno-Bakersfield service, but probably not enough as to justify the high speed rail extension.

As for time savings, if we say it is just under two hours by car from somewhere in each city to somewhere in the other city, and if we say it is 40 minutes by train between the two stations, that looks like a big 1 hr 20 min time-saving.  But add perhaps 30 minutes to get to the train station and park your car and then get to the platform and onto the train at one end, and add 20 minutes at the other end to get to a taxi or hire car and drive to your final destination, and add some extra time lost/wasted because the train doesn’t operate at the exact time you want to travel, and all of a sudden, the time advantage has disappeared too.

The train ends up being less convenient and not really any faster (we discuss cost issues next).

An interesting comparison could be to look at the train service between Los Angeles and San Diego.  Serving perhaps 20 times more people along its route (which extends on north of Los Angeles too), it operates 16 trains in each direction each day.  It seems reasonable to use this to guess there would be only enough people for one train a day, each way, on the line between Bakersfield and Merced.

A Look at Financial Feasibility

We’ve no idea what this route would end up costing to construct and get operational, but we’d expect it to be in the order of $5 – $10 billion.  Let’s take a mid-point of $7.5 billion.  If we assume a 4% cost of money, that would be an interest bill or opportunity cost, every year, of $300 million.  If we assume a depreciation/repairs & maintenance bill of 10% a year, that would be $750 million.  So there’s $1 billion a year of costs before you start moving trains up and down the line.

Let’s now add some staff, energy costs of course for the trains to run (fast trains use a lot of energy because the resistance/friction of the train increases at a faster rate than the train’s speed), marketing, and assorted other costs, and let’s give the operation a total budget of $1.25 billion a year.  Now, with most people traveling 100 miles between Bakersfield and Fresno, how much might they be willing to pay for a ticket?  $25 each way?  That would require 50 million journeys a year – say 1 million every week, or 150,000 every day, to generate $1.25 billion annually.

All of a sudden, the thought of starting off with either the justifiable level of service (one train a day each way) or a low-level of service to encourage people to use the train – six 100 seater trains each way each day (ie 1200 seats total) needs to be replaced with enormous Eurostar type trains (say 750 passengers per train) and – get this – 50 trains each way each day.  Except that this would now represent an investment of more than $7.5 billion because the entire line would need to be at least double tracked, and a huge number of sets of trains would have to be purchased, and larger stations and platforms, car parks, etc, built, and much higher operating costs too.

Clearly, that level of ridership is impossible to expect between these two modest sized cities.  So, do we increase the fare each way to $250, which would still require an almost equally impossible 15,000 passengers every day, and which is a ridiculous cost – that is a cost of $2.50 per mile traveled!  No-one would pay $500 for a roundtrip by train.  Clearly, there is no way to get the fare pricing to any point approaching the actual costs of the service provided.

Even if by some magical chance, $25 per passenger would be enough, it is still too expensive.  When you add to that $25 each way the cost of parking at one end, and local transportation at the other end, you’re looking at total costs for a roundtrip of perhaps $75 – $100.  If two of you travel, it would be $125 – $150.  If three, then you’re maybe at $200.  Compare that to the cost of driving 110 miles – say $40 each way or $80 roundtrip, whether there be one, two, or more people in the car.

So, at low prices to get more people on the train, you’d end up needing hundreds of times more people than you could ever expect or handle, and at high prices for the service to get closer to break even, you’d end up with no riders at all.  That’s as classic a no-win outcome as you could ever encounter.

Would It/Could It Ever Work?

So, here’s the bottom line.

We don’t think many people would ever travel on the train, even if the tickets were free.  We don’t think the train could ever do anything other than lose probably $1 billion or more, every year, no matter what the ticket price is.

The Central Valley train service only ever made sense as part of a broader rail service running between San Diego/Los Angeles and San Francisco/Sacramento.  By itself it is crazy.

There’s also a delightful irony.  The Central Valley region that would get this ridiculous high speed rail service is also the part of the state that has expressed the least interest in high speed rail.  Why force something onto a region that has the least amount of interest in it?

Better Alternatives

There are other obvious opportunities for passenger rail service in California.  If Gov Newsom actually wished to create a viable lower-cost shorter-distance rail service, why not consider the line between San Diego and Los Angeles, serving not just one million people, but more like 16 million people.  This article provides some good explanation on how this could be surprisingly affordable and tremendously beneficial.

San Francisco (a city well served by public transport) to Sacramento is right at the marginal distance for rail to be effective, but it too would have a vastly huger population to serve than that in the Central Valley.

There are already plans for private passenger train service to be brought back connecting somewhere moderately east of Los Angeles with Las Vegas using conventional slow speed rail.  Why not join forces and make that a high speed rail line.

Lastly on this point, it is tragic that the state which is the host/home state to some of the most advanced transportation thinking in the world (the new hyperloop concept) is turning its back on this truly paradigm shifting new method of travel, while continuing to plod on with a clearly ridiculous plan for unwanted unneeded rail service.

The Democratic Love/Hate Paradox About Rail

Last week saw a group of Democrats, including every person currently hinting at having Presidential ambitions for 2020, and the rising star left-wing extremist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, holding a press conference to proudly release a new Green Manifesto, full of bold statements including an aspiration to replace air travel throughout the country with high speed train travel (and a desire to eliminate farting cows).  We costed the train part of their manifesto as being about a $17.5 trillion undertaking.

After a few days of mirth occasioned by the impracticality of their proposals, they then turned around and claimed that the document they had presented was a mistake, or a Republican trick, or an early draft, or never intended as an actual policy statement, and deleted all reference to it (the internet has happily preserved it for posterity) and backed away from any specific proposals for trains or anything else, contenting themselves with uttering the usual platitudes, devoid of specifics.

This week saw the Democratic governor of California, perhaps the most left-wing of all states, disbanding his state’s already partially funded and even partially constructed high speed rail line, on a route that was a textbook ideal route for high speed rail, and a route which even had some distant chance of one day maybe getting close to breaking even.

Oh, while doing so, he also chose to blow fresh life into an abbreviated rail project that clearly has no chance to do anything except lose as much as a billion dollars, every year, while providing service to so few people it might be cheaper to buy them all cars and give them free gas.

Except that, on Wednesday, he “uncancelled” his cancellation, but now without giving any details or affirmation as to the total project lead time or funding or anything specific at all about the complete San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento service.

So, do Democrats love or hate trains?  Hard to tell.

And the really surprising thing about California’s ill-fated high speed rail project?  It first came to life during the governorship of a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger!

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