Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Michael Barone's challenge to the High-Speed Rail's promise to take people door to door quicker in California

Michael Barone is a well known, conservative journalist and policy analyst. Unlike the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner is a conservative newspaper.  I say this because context is important information in reading a position statement.

In this case, Barone does some interesting numbers explanation.  The classic argument supplied by the HSR supporters is the importance of the connectivity between major cities.  Although, I would ask just how much do people actually travel between major cities that are within 100 to 400 miles apart, no less and no more.  (Those are the "Goldilocks" distances for high-speed rail.)  Not only do I want to know how many people make such trips, but how much will it cost, per person, to build and operate a high-speed train to take them on this trip. In other words, what's the cost/benefit?  Is that also in the 'Goldilocks' zone? (In Florida, it's neither.  In California, it's also neither.)
Barone takes this question one step further.  The fact is that unlike many cities in other countries, both San Francisco and Los Angeles are not highly centralized business cities, but in California work and resident population regions are quite broadly distributed; that is, throughout the Bay Area and the LA Basin.  Which is one reason why both population centers suffer from highly insufficient and inefficient urban and regional mass transit services (which should certainly be greatly improved).  So, not only is getting around -- as in from home to work -- difficult by public transit, it's also difficult when the high-speed train station takes a passenger from and to the downtown station.  That's what is promised to be such a huge advantage, unlike getting to and from 'out- of-town' airports.

The fact is, the real measure of transit efficacy is door-to-door, both by distance and time.  And, suddenly, the calculations show that HSR has no advantage whatsoever.

You could argue that the vision behind high-speed rail promotion is based on an earlier time and a different place, where everyone worked downtown and the central train station was the major communication link with the outside world. Just think what our world looks like now, and what it will look like ten years from now, when the California train is intended to be running.  I contend that this train is obsolete before even one shovel full of dirt is moved.

This is yet another example of a peculiar HSR-specific phenomenon.  There are a large number of myths surrounding HSR that seek to convince us of all the advantages, such as speed, fuel and environmental benefits, jobs, benefits to the economy, and door-to-door convenience.  It turns out that upon close examination, none of those so-called advantages have any substance; they are no more than frequently repeated myths.  And, whose myths are they?  Why the promoters of high-speed rail, of course.

So, now you have to ask, why are all these HSR promoters promoting HSR?  What's in it for them?  Is this sheer altruism and their desire to serve the public?  Or is it their love of trains in general and high-speed rail in particular?  Or, perhaps, there are other, more self-serving reasons. To that question, you already know the answer. 

By the way, the first paragraph in Barone's article refers to another article by Philip Klein in the American Spectator.  You can read that article already posted in this blog.  

The lunacy of California's high-speed rail

By: Michael Barone 03/02/11 3:57 Pm 
Senior Political Analyst Follow Him @Michaelbarone

Philip Klein has an excellent piece in the American Spectator on California's proposed high-speed rail line. He shows how astonishingly fast and loose the estimates of costs and potential ridership are. 

The problem is that San Francisco and Los Angeles are highly dispersed metro areas, and high-speed rail passengers who arrive at a central station will be annoyingly far from their final destinations. San Francisco, according to these figures from Demographia, has a central business district work force of 305,600--pretty large, indeed the fourth largest in the United States, behind only New York, Chicago and Washington. But Los Angeles's central business district work force--the only likely passengers within easy distance of its Union Station--is only 143,700. That number is only 3% of the total work force in metro Los Angeles, a pathetically small percentage. And even in more highly concentrated San Francisco, the central business district work force is only 12% of the total metro area work force.

Perhaps I can make my point more concretely. Suppose you work in Century City on the west side of Los Angeles and you want to commute to a business meeting on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto. Would you want to drive to Union Station in downtown LA (over the ever-clogged Santa Monica Freeway or faster Olympic Avenue), then take a train for two hours and 40 minutes to downtown San Francisco, then drive nearly another hour down the Bayshore or I-280 to Sand Hill Road? Or would you prefer to drive to LAX, wait some annoying length of time (probably 15 minutes) in the security lines, then fly 50 minutes in the air to SFO, and drive the considerably shorter distance down the Bayshore or I-280 to Sand Hill Road? The rail trip is door-to-door five to six hours and maybe more; the airline trip is door-to-door is three to four hours door-to-door. I know which one I'd pick (if I couldn't manage to get out of the meeting altogether).

 They’re estimating an average speed of 143mph and a fare of only $105—I don’t think so.

Read more at the Washington Examiner: