Friday, December 31, 2010

Closing one eye when looking at Caltrain

In 2011, SamTrans is expected to slash its contribution by half, and if the others follow suit, it would lead to an estimated $30 million deficit and potential major cuts, like eliminating weekend and midday trains, Simon said.

Let's start with that sentence from the article. Who runs Samtrans? Mike Scanlon. Who runs Caltrain? Mike Scanlon. So, Mike is willing to not rob Peter to not pay Paul. (If you see what I mean.)

We all know that they are increasing fares and reducing service. More revenue in; less expenses out. Seems like a good idea. But will it head off that July 2011 projected $30 million deficit? Of course not. So, there's lots of public hand-wringing about whether Caltrain can survive.

Will there be layoffs at Caltrain? Will there be salary cuts at Caltrain? Will there be a re-negotiated benefits/pension plan at Caltrain? If so, why don't we hear about it? Because, if we're not told, it's probably not going on. In other words, by cutting service and increasing farebox income, Caltrain can continue to do business as usual.

What's the advantage of all this we-will-have-to-shut-down whining? You can see that with the new 'Friends of Caltrain.' The politicians who are leading this group are themselves very ambitious and eager to maintain a "railroad" leadership on the Peninsula. It makes great newspaper copy and keeps them highly visible. And they are eager to step in and "save" Caltrain. That's worth lots of votes. They intend to fill in for the high-speed rail project which was meant to bail out Caltrain by developing the Caltrain corridor. This, of course, was a totally illogical notion since there would be no increased subsidy revenues. The frequently promoted notion that electrification would reduce their deficit is laughable.

Now that HSR is no longer going to visit the Caltrain corridor for a long time, Caltrain is eager to find new friends to 'cadge' from. And, sure enough, here we come.

But, "Friends of Caltrain," what should friends be for? The answer to that question is embedded in the TV public service comment: "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." Caltrain is drunk, metaphorically speaking, on their comfortable income and too large headcount.

If we were really friends, we would ask them to get their house in order and sober up, before we provided our own tax dollars to keep them in business. Quid Pro Quo. Yes, Caltrain (or some more responsible organization) must continue the Peninsula commuter service. But, since so many of us love this phrase, let's just say that we should demand that they "do it right." It appears to me that our ambitious politicians don't have the cojones to do that.


Caltrain supporters aim for more stable funding

By: Shaun Bishop 12/29/10 9:00 Pm

Examiner Staff Writer

Caltrain needs a new stream of revenue such as a tax or toll in order to survive, according to business leaders and transit advocates planning a new push for funding.

Caltrain is the only transit agency in the Bay Area without a permanent, dedicated source of funds, and officials say that makes budgeting an annual challenge. As the agency faces a projected $30 million deficit in the fiscal year starting July 1, it needs the money now more than ever before in the agency’s 18-year history.

“The fact is if we don’t do it, there’s some question about whether or not Caltrain can survive,” said Mark Simon, Caltrain’s public affairs chief. “I think maybe it’s the first time it’s been clear to people that Caltrain’s future is clearly at risk.”

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, whose CEO led the campaign to extend BART to San Jose, is spearheading an invitation-only summit on the future of Caltrain on Jan. 21. A grass-roots group called Friends of Caltrain is holding its own public summit a week later on Jan. 29 at the SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos.

The groups plan to discuss the challenges facing Caltrain and brainstorm ways of establishing a new revenue source. Potential ideas include hikes in the sales tax, gas tax, property tax or an auto toll, though no voter polls on those ideas have been conducted yet. Some have suggested the 2012 ballot for a potential measure, Simon said.

About 40 percent of Caltrain’s $100 million operating budget comes from its three partner agencies — SamTrans, Muni and the Valley Transportation Authority — which are each facing their own budget troubles.

In 2011, SamTrans is expected to slash its contribution by half, and if the others follow suit, it would lead to an estimated $30 million deficit and potential major cuts, like eliminating weekend and midday trains, Simon said.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said a recession is not the best time to seek more money from voters, though he hopes the summits cast a spotlight on Caltrain’s problems.

“If you’re honest with the public, if you’re honest (about) your financial situation, the public will take a second look at it,” Hill said.

To make a revenue hike politically feasible, proponents will need to show clear benefits, such as more frequent service, said Andy Chow, president of the Bay Rail Alliance.

“So when we ask people for dedicated funding, they know they’re not just paying more for the same thing,” Chow said. “They’re paying more to get better things.”

Tracking the money

A breakdown of Caltrain’s funding for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2011:

$43.3 million: Farebox revenue

$7.9 million: Parking, shuttles, rental income and other revenues

$1 million: Contribution from Assembly Bill 434

$6.3 million: Operating grants

$35.1 million: Partner agency contributions (SamTrans, Muni, VTA)

$6.2 million: Other sources

$99.9 million: Total revenue

Closing the doors

Caltrain is raising fares and reducing service effective Jan. 1, 2011, to close a $2.3 million deficit in the current fiscal year’s budget.

Fare increase: 25 cents per zone

New cost of one-way San Jose to San Francisco ticket: $8.50 (up from $7.75)


Northbound trains: 237 and 257

Southbound trains: 236 and 256

Source: Caltrain

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

TIME Magazine doesn't get it

The first point is right; once they start, it will be a lot harder to stop them. Further in the article Grunwald says that if they don't build more in the Central Valley, it will "look like a preposterous boondoggle." The intimation being made in the article is that if they build the whole thing, then it won't be a boondoggle. That's wrong. No matter what they build, it will cost far too much, and will serve far, far fewer than projected. It will put too much money in the hands of the wrong people (if you see what I mean). That's a definition of a boondoggle.

Obama's "High-Stakes Gamble" as the article calls it, is driven by a number of factors, politics being the leading one. It's not his vision. He didn't campaign on it before his election. But, after the economic bubble burst and the Administration wisdom was to bailout the banks and help the states with their deficits, Rahm Emanuel, then White House Chief of Staff, and Ray LaHood, Sect. of the DOT, realized they could pump a lot of money into select congressional districts and states under the rubric of high-speed rail. It would be sort of like earmarks, but not called that.

It's not that no one ever heard of high-speed rail, but it certainly wasn't at the top of anyone's agenda in Washington. It became an instant-vision for the nation. Of course, it had been heavily lobbied in Washington by the California CHSRA delegation, as well as HSR promoters from those other states that saw lavish federal pork on the horizon.

Rahm Emanuel, former Congressman from Illinois, got $8 billion stuffed into the ARRA stimulus package at the last minute. Remember, Obama, Emanuel, and Ray LaHood are all from Illinois. So is Joe Szabo, the FRA Director. He was a former railroad brakeman and Union labor leader. They have political stakes in that state. Emanuel is now running for Mayor of Chicago. They saw this as an opportunity, not to build high-speed rail, but simply upgrade their regular Amtrak regional network centered in Chicago. They would be faster trains (like the good old days). And, they believed, it would help the unemployment problem and pump dollars into Illinois.

The article leans heavily on the Kool-Aid powered rhetoric of the HSR press-releases. Here's an example: "And yes, high-speed rail has the potential to reduce carbon emissions, highway deaths and hassle while improving productivity, promoting smarter growth and launching a new domestic manufacturing industry." So would the creation of an alternative energy system, migration from internal combustion to other new power source technologies, and making our highway systems much safer, such as the German Autobahn. Furthermore, that verbiage has been shown as exaggeration and highly distorted. HSR will not reduce highway congestion (and mortality), which exits where people drive to and from work mornings and evenings; that is, in urban/regional centers; not between LA and SF. If you repeat certain myths long enough, they acquire their own plausibility and thus demand renewed critical analysis.

The section on California in this article is rather interesting. Grunwald agrees that if they build no more than what they have funding commitments for right now, and that's about 100 miles in the Central Valley, from "nowhere" to "nowhere," it will be a stupendous waste of money. What Grunwald doesn't go on to say is the unlikelihood of further federal funding. He doesn't tell us that if this project is intended as a latter day WPA project, they sure are going about it the wrong way.

And if it is intended to be a full-blown super-fast (220mph+) HSR system, shouldn't the funding be there to actually create an operational portion of it? But that's not the point of this anticipated construction. The point is to get holes dug in the ground, to spend the money, and then claim that they can't stop now. Very few journalists are acknowledging that this project is primarily about spending money, regardless of how much or how little. The train itself is merely the glossy, seductive, cover of this sleazy book.

The rail authority is saying to us, as self-justification for the bizarre agenda in the Central Valley, trust us, this is merely getting started. It won't be anything yet, but eventually, it will be complete, operational and do everything we are promising. Eventually, we'll get all the money we need from Washington. Just trust us.

Given the history and current track-record of the members of the CHSRA Board, and new CEO, just what, exactly, is the basis for this trust?

TIME MAGAZINE,8599,2039897,00.html

Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010

High-Speed Rail: Obama's High-Stakes Gamble

By Michael Grunwald

The master builder Robert Moses had a legendary strategy for ambitious public-works projects: start now, and figure out how to finish later. "Once you sink that first stake," he liked to say, "they'll never make you pull it up." And that, in essence, is the Obama Administration's strategy for spreading high-speed passenger rail across the United States.

It's an understandable strategy, since a true national network of bullet trains could cost as much as $1 trillion, and Obama has secured only $10.5 billion to start. But it's also a risky strategy, because the Administration is preparing to sink stakes in projects that might make perfect sense as links in that larger chain but look silly on their own. The first bullet train, an Orlando-Tampa line, has the feel of a glorified Disney shuttle. The boldest project, a Los Angeles–San Francisco line, was initially designed to begin with a train from nowhere to nowhere. Ohio got $400 million to launch a "high-speed" passenger service — with an average speeds of only 39 m.p.h. (63 km/h). (Can high-speed rail help make America green?)

Yes, you've got to start somewhere. Yes, the first stretch of the first interstate highway probably looked like a road to nowhere, and the transcontinental railroad must have seemed like a pipe dream until its two ends linked up in Utah. And yes, high-speed rail has the potential to reduce carbon emissions, highway deaths and hassle while improving productivity, promoting smarter growth and launching a new domestic manufacturing industry.

Nevertheless, the optics are awful, and Republican politicians are exploiting them. The plodding Ohio line is already dead, thanks to Republican Governor-elect John Kasich; so is an $810 million Milwaukee-Madison train, killed by Wisconsin GOP Governor-elect Scott Walker. Now the Obama Administration has shifted most of the Ohio and Wisconsin money to California and Florida, doubling down on its biggest investments, hoping to build short-term momentum toward its long-term vision of a new way to move around the country.

Those four states help illustrate its Moses strategy, its high-stakes game of high-speed chicken. It's an awkward approach in an era of intense partisanship and brutal budget crises, and it's off to a rough start. But that doesn't mean it's doomed to failure. After all, neither Ohio nor Wisconsin had sunk any stakes before canceling their fledgling projects. (See the top 10 American political prodigies.)

OHIO: "High-speed rail" conjures up images of sleek bullet trains that whip around Europe and Asia at over 200 m.p.h. (320 km/h), but so far Obama is pushing bullet trains only in California and Florida. Much of his program is actually "higher-speed rail": gradual upgrades to Amtrak lines that share track with freight railroads and can never exceed 110 m.p.h. (180 km/h). This is not crazy. When the goal is to provide alternatives to long drives and short flights, top speeds matter less than overall trip times, and relatively modest investments can generate real improvements that attract new riders — which in turn can generate momentum for additional investments, and so on. Slicing an hour off Chicago–St. Louis makes sense. Improving Charlotte-Raleigh in North Carolina makes sense.

The proposed "3-C" route that would have linked the Ohio cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland at top speeds of 79 m.p.h. (127 km/h) — and average speeds of half that — did not make sense. Even as a first step towards 110 m.p.h., it seemed a pitiful alternative to driving on Rust Belt highways that aren't particularly congested. If anything, it was likely to destroy momentum for investments in high-speed rail during a time of limited resources. Republican Congressman John Mica, the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, says "dogs" like the Ohio train could imperil the entire program. "Believe me, they can really affect its future," Mica says. He'll take over the program's purse strings in January, so he's not talking about a theoretical future. (See photos of China's high-speed-rail system.)

CALIFORNIA: Before Kasich and Walker scuttled their trains, construction on the Los Angeles–San Francisco line was supposed to start with a 65-mile (105 km) stretch from Corcoran, a tiny town south of Fresno, to Borden, an even tinier town north of Fresno. Obviously, the goal of this train from nowhere to nowhere was to pave the way for a train from somewhere to somewhere, but the optics would have been even worse than Ohio's. California fortunately got more than half of the $1.2 billion diverted from Ohio and Wisconsin, which will help it expand its first link to cover 120 miles (190 km) between Fresno and Bakersfield, the Central Valley's two largest cities. (Comment on this story.)

That said, no one in their right mind would spend billions of dollars to build a Fresno-Bakersfield line in isolation either. It could only make sense as a jump-start for a line connecting L.A. to San Francisco in less than half the driving time; laying track around the densely populated endpoints would have been much more expensive, controversial and time-consuming than in the primarily agricultural Central Valley. And starting in the middle is a faster way to sink some stakes by 2012, create some jobs — high-speed rail was part of Obama's stimulus package, even though it didn't provide much stimulus — and build support for funding the rest of the $43 billion line so the completed patch wouldn't look like a preposterous boondoggle.

But there are serious questions about the rest of the line: the route, the ridership projections, how much it will cost, who will pay for it and whether it will get the political support it needs to survive. California is already facing a $28 billion budget gap, and even rail-friendly legislators are afraid that massive high-speed cost overruns could lead to vicious cuts in social services and existing transportation projects. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has clearly adopted a Moses strategy, which is why opponents want to kill the project before construction can begin. "Once this gets started, there's an unspoken mandate to finish the entire system," says a high-speed-rail cheerleader. "That's what the other side is afraid of."

FLORIDA: The L.A.-S.F. route, for all its problems, would be genuine high-speed rail. America's first planned bullet route, an 84-mile (135 km) hop from Tampa to Orlando featuring five stops and a top speed of 168 m.p.h. (270 km/h), is really too short and too slow to earn that distinction. It was fast-tracked because it's the nation's most shovel-ready project — it has all the needed permits plus the land on the Interstate 4 median — and it's Obama's only hope for a bullet train that could be ready to ride during his second term. But it's hard to justify as anything but the first link of Tampa-Orlando-Miami. Mica represents Orlando, but even he is skeptical of the Tampa end of the line; he suspects that most of the riders will be tourists shuttling a few miles between Disney World and the Orlando airport. And Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott, also a Republican, has suggested that he's willing to kill the train if his state has to help pay for it.

Thanks to Ohio and Wisconsin, Tampa-Orlando just got another big chunk of money, so Scott probably won't have to make good on that threat. The feds have now covered almost 90% of the estimated $2.7 billion cost, and the contractor selected to build and operate the line — at least seven major firms are planning bids — will be likely to cover the difference, partly because a subsequent Orlando-Miami segment is seen as a potential cash cow, and partly for the publicity sure to surround the first bullet train. "If the endgame was Tampa-Orlando, I can't say it makes sense," concedes Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. "But as a first piece of a national system, it makes a lot of sense."

China plans to spend $300 billion building a national high-speed-rail system by 2020; Spain hopes to complete a $200 billion network that same year. It's not possible to build a national system in the U.S., or even a complete regional corridor, with $10.5 billion. So the Obama Administration spread its initial grants around 31 states, hoping to build political momentum for the program around the country. Maybe states will like what they get and decide they want more. Maybe states will see Florida's spiffy bullet train zipping past traffic stalled on I-4 and decide they want something like it — even if it's not zipping as fast as it ought to be.

WISCONSIN: Then again, maybe they won't. Chicago-Milwaukee has been a big success, Amtrak's fastest-growing line outside the Northeast Corridor. Milwaukee-Madison was expected to be equally popular and a crucial step toward a Chicago-Minneapolis line that could transform the region. But Walker ran against the new train as the local embodiment of Big Government, and he won easily. No, stakes hadn't been sunk, but the feds had committed $810 million; Moses always expected politicians to cash checks like that. Walker didn't, even though the costs to the state would have been minimal.

Big Government is always a convenient political opponent, especially when times are tough and families are cutting back, and the Administration was clearly overconfident that high-speed rail would inevitably expand once stakes were sunk. Still, it's one thing to complain about federal spending and quite another thing to divert it elsewhere. Shortly after Wisconsin's money was redistributed, the Spanish firm Talgo announced plans to shut down its U.S. train-manufacturing operations in Milwaukee and relocate the jobs to a state that continues to pursue high-speed rail. "I can't wait to see the ads in Wisconsin in 2014," an Obama aide says. "You'll have some guy working on the train in Florida: 'Thanks for my job, Governor Walker!' "

The aide didn't say whether he expected to see high-speed-rail ads in 2012. By then, the first stakes will be sunk in Florida, and opponents will be mocking the Tampa-Orlando project as a ridiculous relic of a free-spending era, while supporters will be hailing it as an inspiring throwback to the days when America dreamed big and built big. It will be a proxy for a larger argument about the role of American government, and the outcome may well determine whether Obama gets to ride the train as President — and, perhaps, whether the train ever really leaves the station.

Find this article at:,8599,2039897,00.html

Copyright © 2010 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'Plan Continuation Error' by the CHSRA

My wife, an aviation and space human performance researcher with NASA, coined the phrase, "plan continuation error." It means that once you set out on a plan for which you see no obstacles, or only minor ones, you keep on going with your plan even when evidence piles up that you should change direction or stop entirely. It means flying into a thunderstorm rather than diverting, and thereby crashing. Or, launching the shuttle even though the weather tells them not to.

That's the high-speed train agenda in California. They have been simmering this vision on the back burner for decades. Same vision today as it was thirty years ago. You would think that times have changed and are a-changin' so that your vision would also change. Well, no.

As this CNBC report points out, Tom Umberg, vice-Chair of the CHSRA Board, projects 50 million residents in California in 2030. How does he know that? What if he's wrong? What's his Plan B?

Wherever Jane Wells quotes one of the spokespeople for the rail authority, predictions and threats come out of their mouths as if handed down to Moses. Umberg is now retreating on one of the rail authority's central predictions, ridership. They recently swore, on a stack of Bibles, to the accuracy of over 40 million annual passengers. Now, Umberg says "well under" that 40 million level. As I keep repeating, they make this stuff up as they go along.

About that ridership. Before the 2008 elections, they forecast 117 million annual riders. That, in their minds, justified the train's enormous costs. The costs have now gone up, the ridership down, but they are plowing ahead just the same. Plan Continuation Error.

If we all sat down and made a list of public investments that might pull California out of its economic doldrums, would you even think of high-speed rail if these guys hadn't been advertising it so aggressively on late-night television?

And, now that HSR is actually on the radar scope, where on your list would it be? In front of education (K-12 and higher-ed.), infrastructure repair (bridges, highways, runways, levees, etc.), upgrading the power grid, upgrading the water distribution system, or urban and regional public mass-transit? Are any of those less important than a fantasy luxury train for the well to do?

That the rail authority can continue to pursue this grandiose vision in the face of the dire circumstances we face for the foreseeable future is irrational and a perfect example of a "plan continuation error."


Is California's 'Train to Nowhere' a Waste of Tax Dollars?

Published: Tuesday, 28 Dec 2010 | 8:15 AM ET

By: Jane Wells


California's Train to Nowhere

California received more than $600 million in federal funds for a high-speed "train to nowhere." CNBC's Jane Wells has the details.

California is about to embark on its biggest infrastructure project in decades, a project that isn't fully funded, where predictions of profitability are being questioned, and which depends largely on the American taxpayer.

"We need to know who is paying for it and who will assume the risk," says Democratic State Senator Alan Lowenthal from Long Beach.

He's talking about the $43 billion high-speed rail line which will eventually shuttle passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 20 minutes at speeds up to 220 mile per hour. The first leg of the rail line, costing $5.5 billion—half coming from the federal government—will be constructed in the middle of California's Central Valley. Some critics are calling it the "train to nowhere".

Supporters say Californians want the train and will ride it.

"California's population is going to be 50 million by the year 2030," says the Vice Chair for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Tom Umberg. "In order to effectively transport folks from north to south, south to north, we need an alternate form of transportation, and that's the high-speed rail."

Two years ago, California voters approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds to fund the rail program. Where is the other $33 billion supposed to come from? The federal government and private partners.

So far, the feds have given $2.25 billion, plus another $616 million in funds, which Wisconsin and Ohio turned down for their own high-speed rail projects. "That is a drop in the bucket," says State Senator Lowenthal.

The new Republican Congress is threatening to cut off future federal funding, and Sen. Lowenthal is concerned about a potential lack of confidence from bond buyers or would-be private partners. "We need assurances in California that there will be additional funding. Right now we don't have those assurances."

Proponents have vowed the train, once operational, will be profitable. That would be a first for mass transit in California. "We expect well over 40 million passenger to ride a year," says the Rail Authority's Tom Umberg.

However, a study this summer by UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies calls ridership forecasts "not is not possible to predict whether the proposed high-speed rail system in California will experience healthy profits or severe revenue shortfalls."

California has no choice, say those pushing for the train. "Unless you want to build 3,000 additional lanes of freeway, 91 gates at the airports, and five new have to come up with some other alternative," says former state legislator Rusty Areias. "High speed rail has proven to be the most efficient, the most environmentally compatible, and it just makes all the sense in the world to California."

Building the rail line will also create tens of thousands of jobs in a state with unemployment over 12 percent.

But will millions of Californians, notoriously averse to mass transit, ride a high-speed rail line? Planes are faster than trains and not that much more expensive, though supporters of high-speed rail says trains are faster when you take into consideration time spent at airports waiting to board.

High-speed rail has been considered a success in Europe and Asia, but Californians have a nearly unbreakable bond with their cars. Most commuters in the Golden State skip already available mass transit in favor of long commutes.

None of this may matter if the rail line is never completed. Sen. Lowenthal doesn't think the first leg should be built until financing for the entire project is guaranteed. Otherwise, "I don't know if it's a train to nowhere, but it could possibly be an orphan set of tracks," he says. "It's kind of out there all alone."

A really smart analysis of Caltrain's situation

A number of days ago, I posted the following comment on Clem's blog. If you live on the Bay Area Peninsula, and you haven't been following this blog, you should. It's usually very substantive if not downright technical. Clem Tillier, it's author, is very pro-HSR. However, his blog is, nonethless, a very useful source of information.

"Caltrain HSR - Compatibility Blog" <>


Martin Engel said...


What I’m asking for is putting your attention to detail to work based on the hypothesis that the Caltrain corridor will not see any HSR construction for ten years.

There certainly are enough indicators in the new Washington D.C. as well as the decision to put all their eggs in the Central Valley basket, that make's that a plausible hypothesis. In any case, indulge me with an analysis of Caltrain’s options without HSR.

1. Electrification

2. Grade Separations

3. Subsidy funding for operational costs

4. Caltrain/JPB/SamTrans management

There may be other issues that you consider significant. Without HSR, what could the next ten years look like?


23 December, 2010 11:42


On the 27th, I received this response comment from Richard Mlynarik. Although I don't agree with everything that Richard says, this is a very well reasoned analysis of Caltrain's shortcomings.

The biggest flaw, as I keep saying, is that the executive team thinks and acts as if they were in the Railroad Business. That's the wrong business model. They should understand that they are in the public mass-transit and commuter business.

Thanks, Richard, for your thoughtful comments.

Richard Mlynarik said...

Martin Engel:

Re: "the hypothesis that the Caltrain corridor will not see any HSR construction for ten years."

That sort of thing is called "being in possession of a strategic plan" and is equivalent to "employing a staff with the collective intelligence of a slime mould.

Unfortunately for us, Caltrain fails on both counts.

In a better world, one in which public agencies were staffed by public service professionals possessing rudimentary levels of professionalism, competence and/or ethics, we'd have found that the plan for the Caltrain corridor without HSR is exactly the same as the plan with HSR ... the only differences would be the rate and scale of funding.

The key is that the exact same projects that benefit regional (local, regional express) transportation service in the publicly-owned Caltrain corridor are those that set the stage for and can be used by the first stages of inter-regional high speed service.

The highest priority, of course, would have been for a staff with skills above that of slime mould to have spent the last 15 years constructing stations suitable for level boarding instead of wasting hundreds of millions of your tax dollars not doing so.

The second highest priority would have been to have been fully prepared when the inevitable federal ruling came down (I have in my mail archives memos to Caltrain staff saying just this, from nearly a decade ago), to be ready to implement a global standard Positive Train Control system and at the same time finally release transportation service on the public's right of way from the dead hand of Federal Railroad Administration 19th-century freight regulation. Instead, Caltrain less than slime mould intelligence staff have actively worked in favour of FRA regulation and of being run as a freight railroad (with all the massive unnecessary costs and backwards technology that entails), and have actively promoted a unique, insider-consultant-rewarding, guaranteed catastrophe home-grown PTC fiasco.

The third highest priority would have been to have have a prioritised and step-by-step staged series of capital investment (ie track build-out) tranches ready to go, all of which are clearly in support of clearly defined incremental steps of increasing levels of rail service provided to the public.

Well, you know where we are with that. (Instead we have the impossibly stupid San Bruno grade separation as the only capital priority of the agency! Death really is too kind a fate for any of those involved in either designing or promoting or approving this catastrophe.)

Electrification comes in next, implemented in stages if necessary for funding or for transition reasons.

Note that all of these priorities, each of which can be and should have been broken down into incrementally fundable but clearly progressive (not doing the wrong thing and then knocking it down and doing it over, Caltrain style) stages, would all be directly useful for HSR at each stage, and would benefit both Caltrain riders and Caltrain neighbours and HSR riders at each stage. There's no conflict at all, if you have are in possession of a strategy. If money comes in slowly without the HSR tooth fairy sprinkling funding dust, then less stuff is done, but all the stuff that is done is useful. If an avalanche of cash descends, then there is an intelligent and well-defined plan for undertaking useful projects in an adult fashion.

As for Caltrain staff's "plan", well, it was basically to do nothing, bend over, offer up the entire corridor to HSR, pray that money would come from somewhere or other, have no plans of any type for improving Caltrain service, and in fact to actively work for the worst possible technical and service delivery outcome.

Happy New Year.

And death to the Peninsula Rail Program.

27 December, 2010 11:01

Diridon speaks ex-cathedra

Diridon does here what he does best; sell a product, albeit a highly flawed one. He's a railroad amateur despite his many junkets overseas to "inspect" the high-speed rail systems of other countries. He should know, better than most people, that there is a vast ocean between, "They have HSR; we should have HSR," and the realities of designing and building a railroad.

The CHSRA marketing job has always been smothered with exaggerations and falsehoods. The building job has been essentially the seeking of funding, designing the route to satisfy the Board's political needs, and wiggling around the enabling legislation.

What Diridon needs here is some 'deconstruction' of several of his statements.

Opinion: U.S. should lead on transportation, not be playing catch up

By Rod Diridon, Sr.

Special to the Mercury News

Posted: 12/28/2010 12:01:00 AM PST

[About that headline. How can we lead on transportation, if we're so far behind, without first playing catch up? And, how can we lead if we buy other country's HSR ideas and experience, as well as their off-the-shelf rolling stock? If you think about it, all this promotional language is gobbledegook; i.e., meaningless and pointless exhortation.]

The modern assembly line, telephone, polio vaccine, airplane, air conditioning, breakfast cereal, shopping cart, integrated circuit, solar cell and more: American inventions all.

America has a long, proud history of changing the world, making it better, leading the way with epic efforts. But that is no longer the case with transportation and, most notably, with high-speed rail.

[I don't know what the point is here. Americans have invented a lot of things. So what? So have other countries. The railroad was invented in Great Britain in the 1700s. But, you can see where he's going with this line of argument. We once had a long, proud history; we were number one in the world. We were the good guys. We led the way. But, no longer.

Especially with high-speed train. So, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves and pay Diridon, our white knight, lots of money to build this high-speed train in California, a train which, he neglects to tell us, will be manufactured overseas. And, once we have this train, he intimates, we will again be the number one leaders of the world and be better than everybody else. Which, he believes, is very important to us. In other words, we're in a peeing contest and we have been losing; but he will put us out in front again. Well, that's certainly worth $100 billion.]

At the seventh World Congress on High-Speed Rail held in Beijing this month, thousands of national transportation officials from around the world shared successes. More than 30 functioning high-speed lines and another 30 in construction were represented, including every industrialized country in the world -- except the U.S. Could we really be the only one right in continuing to rely primarily on petroleum-powered planes and cars?

Since 1964, the Japanese Shinkansen -- the bullet train -- has expanded to nearly 2,000 miles, linking major cities at speeds of up to 200 mph. France's TGV, started in 1981, operates at 220 mph. The TGV links cities across France and other high-speed systems in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Poland, Russia, Turkey and beyond.

The Japanese and French trains have carried billions of riders without one fatality. Yet more than 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands maimed on U.S. highways last year alone.

China has completed nearly 5,000 miles of high-speed rail lines and created a new type of train operating at better than 220 mph in only seven years. By 2020, it will have more than 10,000 miles of track.

The Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington, can operate at 150 mph but averages only 82 mph -- indeed, far from world class. The U.S. is lagging. But California is reversing that trend.

[Having introduced the subject of high-speed rail glories in other countries, he now trots out a litany of factoids about all those rail systems and, by inference, how marvelous they are. Aren't we jealous yet? Shouldn't we be hanging our head in shame, and then commit ourselves to spending hundreds of billions of dollars, so that we can be more like them? Fortunately, Diridon (who personifies California in this case) is going to reverse that trend.

Diridon loves non-sequiturs. The Japanese and French trains never killed anybody, but we, on our highways, have killed 30,000. So, Rod, what's your point? American, stop driving your cars. Start riding our train in California? And, by the way, those 30,000 were not all killed in California. Hyperbole and other distortions help to make Rod's case. ]

More than 14 years of exhaustive, federally required studies by the California High-Speed Rail Authority define two choices for California to serve the doubling of our population to more than 60 million by midcentury. We can build 3,000 more lane-miles of freeways and the equivalent of two more international airports at a cost of more than $100 billion, or spend less than half that to build an energy-efficient, safe and fast 800-mile, electrically powered high-speed rail system.

[This is like listening to a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Exhaustive studies. Federally Required studies. So, they must be telling the truth. Right? Actually, those studies produced exactly what Diridon and Company wanted to hear.

They tell us that we have two choices; one from the angels and one from the devil. And you know why? Because we will have 60 million residents in California by 2050. Feel perfectly free to dispute that projection. It is becoming ever more apparent that we will have nothing of the kind.

So, the choice that these "authoritative sources" tell us is that we MUST either build 3,000 miles of highway lanes and at least two more international airport (equivalents), at a cost of more than $100 billion, or. . . .drum roll. . . . we can build his SAFE and FAST high-speed train,which, coincidentally, will also cost at least $100 billion. He says that it will be half as much, but -- liar, liar, pants on fire -- we know better by now, don't we! The reality behind that false comparison is that we will have to build all those highway lanes and runways regardless, IF the population expansion meets his numbers.]

The airport and freeway systems would require further expansion by midcentury, while rail capacity is increased by adding cars to trains or trains to the tracks with minimal expense.

This alternative eliminates more than 22 million barrels of oil and 18 billion pounds of global warming gases each year.

Earlier this month, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board designated construction on the line to begin next year on a 65-mile stretch in the Central Valley, then extend south to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco. Within days, the federal government allocated to California another $614 million that other states turned down. That extends the starter project to more than 100 miles from north of Fresno to Bakersfield.

California had not expected this, but thanks to the support of President Barack Obama, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, almost 20 percent of California's 800-mile system will be under construction by mid-2012. That's more than 85,000 construction jobs and cleaner air for the Central Valley, which has the state's most serious air pollution and unemployment challenges.

[To persist in suggesting that building this HSR monstrosity is the least expensive thing we can do, is a kind of "Hobson's Choice." That is, he really doesn't present a choice at all. He also spouts a lot of numbers, like 22 million oil barrels and 18 billion points of GHG. Those numbers are based on nothing; they are worthless; a fabrication.

When Diridon says, "California had not expected this. . ." what is he talking about? Is he saying that this is a pleasant surprise party they were not expecting? BS! He and other Board members have been grovelling/lobbying for stimulus funds since early 2009.

Diridon's hopes and vision are the build-out of the Caltrain corridor running from Downtown San Francisco to Diridon's bespoke Inter-Galactic Train Station in San Jose. That the funding won't begin there but in the Central Valley instead must be a profound disappointment for him. That's not what he expected. Even his hopes to connect from the Central Valley to San Jose (so that he can start on his super-station) fell through with this last round of federal funding. And, let's just say about all those numbers, it's easy to know stuff when you make it up!]

When Obama announced his multibillion-dollar plan for rebuilding America's infrastructure in October, he said: "There is no reason why we can't do this. There is no reason why the world's best infrastructure should lie beyond our borders. This is America. We've always had the best infrastructure. This is work that needs to be done." California can be the place where America gets back on track.

[You get it? America is off track. Rod Diridon and his croneys will get America back on track. We've always been the best. How dare other countries have better infrastructure than we do? What we are reading by Rod Diridon is the hyped-up marketing rhetoric of late night infomercials where they offer products that can convert ordinary, lazy people like you and me, with almost no effort, into glorious, gorgeous physical specimens envied by everyone. Isn't this what it's all about, Mr. Diridon; appearances? Oh, and the money. Don't forget the money!]

ROD DIRIDON SR., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State, is a member and past chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. He wrote this article for this newspaper.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Oops" and "O.P.M."

Time to talk politics. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is closely coupled with Proposition 13, which changed the revenue picture in California forever. We can argue whether for better or worse. Many are still in favor of it, others oppose it.

Here is a HSR article by Jon Coupal, HJTA's president. I don't want to use terms like 'Libertarian' or 'right-wing conservative' since the understanding of such expressions requires careful explication for which I'm not competent.

Until recent years, I always thought of myself at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the "Right." But, we live in very confusing times. What I do know is that whatever other ideological beliefs are embedded in the thinking of the membership of the HJTA, they are uniformly opposed to the California high-speed train.

And, even if I don't agree with many of the other positions that this organization holds, we are in complete accord on this one issue. I say this because I continue to think of myself as a left-wing progressive and cherish my social ideals. However, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And, like "Jarvis," I want my (and your) taxpayer rights protected, not exploited.

What's the point here? As we've said many times, Republicans tend to oppose the train; Democrats support it. So, I acknowledge this one inconsistency, a Democrat who fervently opposes the train. All this is a context and prelude to Coupal's article, below.

Living in a Blue State, and on a very Blue Peninsula in this State, makes opposition to HSR an act of courage. Our friends and colleagues are more likely to be Democrats than not. And, if you oppose the high-speed train, you also, by default, oppose the transfer of federal ARRA funds to California which is a central tenet of Democratic policy. It's a dreadful dilemma. Why should a very bad project be the vehicle for restoring economic viability to our state? It's a question that every Democratic politician in the State and on the Peninsula must answer. Even beneficial ends do not justify harmful means.

There are two alternative options to building this boy's toy. We can either not spend the money at all; that is, not have the FRA send the dollars to California, but instead put it back into the Treasury as the Republicans now suggest. Or, the FRA can re-direct those funds where they are needed most, such as in upgrading and salvaging the urban and regional public mass-transit systems in our two major population regions, as well as repair our current debilitated infrastructure.

If they proceed as they currently plan, these funds will be drained off in directions we don't right now anticipate. For example, all the Parsons Brinkerhoff profits (and they will be generous) will be sent to the UK, where PB is based. A lot of material, like rail stock, etc. and certainly rolling stock, will come from overseas. Remember, the US has become the shopper on this planet, and the rest of the industrial world is the marketplace where our dollars are headed. How does that bail out California?

Oops and OPM

December 27, 2010

By Jon Coupal

California’s efforts to build a High Speed Rail system is on track (pun intended) to become the biggest public sector “oops” project in American history.

“Oops” is a small word (technically an interjection) that is sometimes uttered when someone makes a mistake. You drop your wife’s favorite serving dish? Oops. (By the way, oops is a word you never want to hear from the guy at the controls of a nuclear power plant).

"OPM" stands for “other peoples’ money.” It is an abbreviation used by fiscal conservatives to describe why public spending gets out of control. It is because elected officials and bureaucrats aren’t spending their own money (with which they would be far more careful).

Rather, they are spending OPM so there is little motivation to be responsible with it.

Throughout history, governments have planned and begun construction on large scale public projects only to later abandon them when it becomes clear that they are not viable.

The problem, of course, with abandoning a project already begun – especially in the public sector – is that it already comes with a built-in constituency dependent on its continued existence. This leads to the common phenomenon known as “throwing good money after bad.”

To be clear, the same phenomenon can happen in the private sector as well, and the same sort of “bureaucratic inertia” might sustain continued capitalization of a project even after doubts about its viability have been confirmed. But the private sector has what the public sector does not: Accountability and a harsh influence known as “the bottom line.”

Sooner or later, a high level executive accountable to stockholders is going to pull the plug on a project that has become an albatross incapable of generating a viable return on investment.

Even though it takes a lot longer to pull the plug on a public project, it still happens when it becomes painfully obvious to everyone except those too emotionally invested to be rational that the project just isn’t going to work. In the early 20 th century, the city of Cincinnati built an elaborate system of tunnels for a subway system. Later described as "one of the city's biggest embarrassments" and "one of Cincinnati's biggest failures," the project was abandoned when it became clear that it was not economically viable.

More recently, fiscal hawk Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey pulled the plug on a super-expensive tunnel project under the Hudson River notwithstanding the fact that billions had already been spent on construction. He did so for a very simple reason: It was too expensive and New Jersey couldn’t afford it.

The cheerleaders of California’s High Speed Rail project long ago ceased to be rational. Study after study now reveals that both ridership and fare revenue projections are so far off what Californians were told when they barely passed the bond measure that the project, if completed, will be a massive drain on the state’s general fund in the form of subsidies just to keep it running. Because massive, ongoing subsidies are a certainty, California would be better off burning $40 billion dollars in a huge pit rather than fund this monstrosity.

The decision to pull the plug on California’s HSR project won’t be easy. The Authority spends a significant percentage of its funding on public relations and lobbying. Between the Board of the Authority, its staff, consultants, lobbyists, the bond industry, contractors and other assorted interests with their noses in the trough, the inertia for continuing this project is substantial.

It will take someone in a major leadership position to bring a dose of reality to the fate of California’s HSR project – perhaps someone who characterizes himself as frugal and who is also facing a massive budget deficit.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -– California's largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers' rights.

Screwing the Central Valley

This is no simple, glib problem. The Central Valley in California is hurting. Something should be done. So, along comes the high-speed rail with the solution to all of the Valley's problems, right?

Some people there don't think so and consider the harm from the train's adverse impact not worth the possible benefits. The rail promoters will, of course, diminish this issue of concerns, claiming that the jobs created will outweigh the adverse impacts on agriculture. The critics (such as myself) will argue that agriculture is California's cash cow, especially with the emigration of manufacturing, and the farmers of the Central Valley should have an important voice in the decision-making regarding HSR construction.

As a high-speed rail opponent, I will assert that building a good/adequate passenger rail system, where trains go around 100 mph, would be an acceptable intrusion into the Central Valley, but only with the concordance of the land owners involved, and time would tell about what economic gains such a transit system produces. Remember, this is not freight we're talking about, it's passengers.

Furthermore, if as some proponents say, it would improve the commuter opportunities from the Central Valley to the commercial regions of either the Bay Area north and the LA Basin south, That may be a good thing, but it's not the same thing as a 220 mph high-speed train connecting downtown SF with downtown LA. Let them build fast train commuter connectivity from the outer reaches of the LA Basin and/or the Bay Area, and connect that with existing urban mass transit, such as Metrolink and Caltrain. But that's not what they are selling. And the cost differences are staggering. They have persistently claimed that they are not building a commuter railroad. In that case, what are they building; that is, what is the purpose of this train?

Also, the jobs claims are way out of line. The hyped abundance of jobs will not be permanent if they are construction related. And, those will be "government" jobs. The so-called 'permanent' jobs that they promise will be created, are based on pure conjecture; marketing hype. It depends far more on the economy than on a new rail system, no matter how fancy.

The Central Valley is a great example of the over-promising of the HSR project. It is being sold, over and over, as the cure to all problems. It will solve everything that is wrong with the economy. It is the panacea for every one of California's ills.

This is text-book. Promise too much, predict lower costs, anticipate greater results. None of which will become reality. In short, invariably, projects such as this do much less and cost much more than they forecast. Success for this project depends upon lying to us, the taxpayers, who will be expected to eat all the costs, including operational costs, forever.

We're being had.,0,6806608,full.story

Central Valley farmers take issue with proposed high-speed rail route

Officials hope to get the bullet train's first phase underway soon, both to create jobs in the hard-hit region and to secure federal funds. But bypassing towns means cutting through agricultural land.

Reporting from Hanford, Calif. — Crunching through fallen leaves in a sprawling walnut grove, John Tos frets about the high-speed railroad headed his way.

He gets why many in this part of the Central Valley are excited about a construction project that could mean tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. But a newly selected route cleaves through prime cropland his family has farmed for 94 years. Fields would be split, complex irrigation systems disrupted and operations complicated, says the grower with a graying Abe Lincoln beard.

"Ag and this train don't get along at all," he says.

Down the road at the Kings County job center, Zach Godinho is at the computer looking for work. Unemployment is a chronic problem in this region, running 30% to 40% higher than the state average. "It's like a deflated balloon," says the 29-year-old former grocery cashier and part-time high school tutor, who's been searching for full-time work for three months. If a bullet train can bring jobs, he says, "I'm all for it."

Jump-starting a decades-old dream of a vast statewide bullet train network was supposed to be relatively easy in California's rural heartland, given widespread official support and largely open, flat terrain. It would not only bring federally funded construction jobs, it would eventually draw the region closer to the sights and services of distant state population centers.

But with rail officials looking to turn dirt here within two years on the first $5.5 billion of track, they are encountering the same sort of clashing demands that have made selecting routes through Los Angeles and the Bay Area potential quagmires.

Some Central Valley communities are lobbying to steer the route around their towns, citing noise, vibration, aesthetics and loss of existing businesses. "We are rural Americana," says Ron Hoggard, city manager of Corcoran, which has pumped millions into revitalizing its business district. "What we don't want is an elevated graffiti mural running through town."

The prospect of shifting to agricultural land, however, is raising the ire of influential growers and their allies. Some hint at legal action.

"You're basically naming ag land as the path of least resistance," says Diana Peck, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. "We are not going to stand for that."

Voices of opposition

For months, the high-speed rail debate has swirled around the county seat of Hanford, a historic railroad town about 30 miles south of Fresno. The Southern Pacific Railway put Hanford on the map 123 years ago. Moaning train horns still drift across the city day and night from the downtown tracks. And a state landmark here commemorates an 1880 shootout involving a land dispute between the railroad and local ranchers.

The new era of rail development is stirring passions again. After bullet train surveyors started asking to scope out farmland earlier this year, objections from growers intensified.

Trying to quell the unrest, the California High-Speed Rail Authority drafted alternative routes that would follow the existing tracks through Hanford. That upset the City Council, which said the plans were too disruptive in a downtown that promotes tours of its carefully preserved century-old buildings. At one point, Hanford threatened to bar rail representatives from stepping on city property. "We were very much against that" route, says City Manager Hilary M. Straus.

By September, the only option left bowed east of Hanford into the nut and fruit groves Tos and his neighbors farm. Running a finger along an aerial map at his office, Tos shows how ground-level tracks and elevated viaducts would arc through squared-off farm fields at odd angles. "We've got all these parcels just the way we want them," he says. "When you go diagonally through there, it just destroys" them.

Farm groups up and down the Valley are voicing similar complaints. Some of their allies, including the Kings County Board of Supervisors, have called for the train to stick to established routes, notably Highway 99. But that option was ruled out because of high construction costs and uncertainty about cooperation from Union Pacific, which controls tracks near the road.

One problem for farmers, says Manuel Cunha, president of the 1,100-member Nisei Farmers League, is that rail officials are racing to start construction so they can secure billions in federal stimulus cash. But farmers are still in the dark about what would happen to them, he said.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall says the agency is listening. "All these things are being addressed" in environmental reviews, she says. Decisions on route refinements and some city bypass options will be made over the coming year. Ultimately, the train will need to clear a 100- to 120-foot path or about 12 acres per mile through agricultural areas, she says. Landowners would be "entitled to proper compensation" for acreage taken, she notes.

Cunha thinks the state is underestimating the amount of land that would be directly and indirectly affected. Farmers "just want to be left alone," he says. "They want to farm and their kids want to farm."

Trying to move forward

East of Hanford, along an expanse of neatly plowed fields that sprout tomatoes and cotton when the weather warms, Bob Link sees a bounty. A bullet train station planned here, near a crossroad of two rural highways, would serve Hanford and Visalia, where Link is mayor.

By state estimates, the initial leg of high-speed rail construction from north of Fresno through Kings County to the outskirts of Bakersfield would create more than 100,000 jobs. That includes additional work funded by new state and federal pledges of $1.2 billion. Link says those jobs are a good reason to accept the chosen route and get started. "They have to take it through the Valley somewhere," he says.

That's a sentiment that resonates with job seekers as well as public officials struggling with the social ills of a region recently singled out for having one of the lowest standards of living and education in the nation.

"We have high unemployment and high poverty," says Kings County Supervisor Tony Oliveira, a farmer and part-time economics professor. There is no comparison between the game-changing economic payoff of the rail project, he contends, and the modest adverse impacts on the huge agricultural industry. There are nearly 800,000 acres of agricultural land in Kings County alone, he notes.

Growers fighting the approved alignment "have a strong voice," he says, "but I do not think they represent the majority of the people here."

The Central Valley has been a "forgotten land" economically, says Oliveira, who has been at odds with other supervisors on the route issue. "We deserve our shot."

One prize several communities covet is a train maintenance yard that would come with 1,500 well-paying, permanent jobs. If placed in Kings County, the facility would easily be one of the largest employers, says John S. Lehn, president of the county Economic Development Corp.

Even more appealing for many is the idea of a convenient connection to Southern California and the Bay Area. It would break a sense of isolation, says Link, giving residents greatly improved opportunities to get to large cities "for medical reasons, education reasons and entertainment reasons."

At the Hanford Amtrak station, retirees Chris and John Sundstrom from Visalia have their overnight bags and are heading to San Francisco for Chris' 60th birthday. It's a journey that involves switching to buses in the East Bay. The couple dreams of a day when they can hop on the kind of high-speed trains they've ridden in Europe. "It's like you're flying you're going so fast," Chris Sundstrom says.

Watching the slogging progress of California's system is frustrating, she says. "It's just so slow in coming."

If all goes as planned, the nonoperational backbone of the funded Valley track will be finished in 2017. It's not clear when the state would get the additional $37 billion or more needed to begin carrying passengers south to Los Angeles and Anaheim and northwest to San Francisco.

Supporters want to keep the public's focus on the 800-mile system that would one day extend to San Diego and Sacramento. They hope that starting work in the Valley will spur enthusiasm for the entire network.

But at least one high-profile backer is troubled by the early simmer of controversy in places like Kings County. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), one of the state's earliest and strongest high-speed rail advocates, led the fight to begin the project in the Valley. Now, he's pushing the rail authority to minimize agricultural disruptions and improve communications with farmers so momentum isn't lost.

"Every step of the way, they are going to have to be working with local communities," said Costa spokesman Will Crain. "We want to make sure the authority gets this right."

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times