Friday, April 22, 2011

More about the Caltrain/High-Speed Rail debacle

First of all, the author of the article below doesn't really understand the context of Caltrain, of the High-Speed Rail Authority, or the context of their relationship.  He also doesn't understand the context of the political environment that sustains this misbegotten mega-project.  It's a short article. 

But, he does see that there are problems. Even some of our elected officials see that there are problems.  Unfortunately, they are quick to offer implausible solutions to these problems well before they even begin to understand them. The recent Eshoo, Simitian, Gordon show-and-tell is a good example.  

For some time, aware of Caltrain's deplorable financial situation, I have tried to ignore Caltrain as a distraction from the real issue, which is the High-Speed Train project.  Circumstances -- context -- no longer permit me to make that distinction.

Briefly, Caltrain has been "in the red" for years. They have declared "fiscal emergencies" every year for the last several years. The entire construction of this multi-layered organization has been designed by business-school drop outs. Subsidy dependent, as are all urban and regional public transit systems around the world, Caltrain has created itself into a mismanaged text book bureaucracy with rubber stamp board oversight (or lack thereof), excessive and overpaid executives, and general incompetence to cope with their central problem, sustained operational support.

Although this year has been described as worse than ever for Caltrain, and that they anticipate the largest operating deficit ever, it turns out that they, Ooops, discovered an additional $3.5 million they didn't know about, and that they intend to dip into capital development funds, and that they don't have to either cut their schedules or close any stations.  Another crisis averted  Year, after year, pulled away from certain death over a cliff by a stroke of luck.  Is that any way to run a railroad? When will we start taking a hard look at Caltrain, rather than listening to their endless folk-stories?

We've pointed out many times that like many railroad operators before them, Caltrain believes itself to be in the railroad business rather than the urban and regional public mass transit business.  And therefore they are using the wrong business model. For example, even as they confront what they are telling us; i.e., bankruptcy, they persist in wanting us to believe that electrification will solve half their operating deficit problems.  They've managed to convince the entire Bay Area Peninsula of this.  They're lousy managers but great BS artists. 

Caltrain and High-Speed Rail have a Memorandum of Understanding.  It's a certificate for a marriage made in hell. Each rail organization is dependent upon and intends to exploit the other.  Caltrain anticipates that HSR will build grade separations and electrification for them to use, so that they only need to buy the new rolling stock.  

In exchange, the rail authority gets the use of the rail corridor for free forever for their additional two tracks -- and, ladies and gentlemen, they MUST HAVE their own two tracks. Such a deal! Both organizations get what they want, and we don't.  And besides that, we will pay for it all. Maybe that's not such a deal. 

What all this is, is called "empire building." It is not understood to provide the people of California what they need, since that has never been studied.  There is no "master plan." There is no strategy, no policies that encompass the transportation needs of all Californians, intra- or inter-city. They all make it up as they go along.

What we are watching is a 'build-it' obsession, paid for by us, the taxpayers.  Yes, we have a major problem.  We just haven't begun to understand it yet.

Keeping Calif. high-speed rail plan on track

Friday, April 22, 2011

Californians have embraced the idea of high-speed rail tying together our state but, like many dreams, it has lost some of its glow in the harsh light of reality. This is especially true on the Peninsula, where a majority favors the high-speed train but community after community has opposed plans to build it.

Opposition has so hardened as the California High Speed Rail Authority fleshes out the scope of its plans for the San Jose-to-San Francisco segment that a trio of legislative leaders - Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Los Altos - on Monday urged the rail authority to shrink the project's size and complexity yet ensure that high-speed trains will run seamlessly from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Add to the mix the Peninsula's other rail problem, the financially challenged Caltrain, which had threatened to shut down half the rail line's stations and severely curtail service. A short-term financing solution emerged Thursday, and Peninsula service will continue (see below) as it has for more than 100 years.

The future of the high-speed intercity and the historic intracity rail services is linked - the lawmakers called for a "blended system" - but it is not the same. The lawmakers' plan calls for sending high-speed rail down the same tracks as Caltrain, where the high-speed trains would pass the slower commuter trains much as express trains pass local trains.

A key point of contention was the rail authority's proposal for separate tracks and especially the idea of running trains along elevated structures. Shared track addresses community concerns. At the same time, Caltrain needs to secure separate long-term funding.

In pursuing this California dream, the rail authority must serve many masters - the Legislature, the Federal Rail Administration and the public - during an economically challenging period that has dried up much public funding. It also must offer private investors the promise of a relatively short-term return on their investment with a minimum of risk.

The authority risks derailing the project unless it prioritizes community values in shaping the scope and size.

This article appeared on page A - 11 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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