Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Small Collection of HSR thoughts

Here are some miscellaneous thoughts about HSR, picked up through our daily reading of all the search engine discoveries.

 A) This is a recent quotation from the CHSRA's Director of "outreach" Jeff Barker.  (You're "doin' a heck of a job, Brownie." Sorry, I mean Jeffie.)

“Our thought is to keep moving forward, with or without the funding,” said the agency’s deputy executive director for communications, policy and public outreach Jeffrey Barker, “and be ready, once the funding is available again.”

Just what does that mean?  How can they do anything without funding, including turning on the lights in their offices?  Don't all their contractors need to be paid in order to "keep moving forward?" What will they do when all their federal funding runs out?

My point here is the smoke-and-mirror problem. The CHSRA Board and their staff are a "pretend" organization.  They are "pretending" to build a high-speed train.  They will keep on pretending to go through all the motions and keep spending real, not pretend money until Governor Jerry Brown closes their offices and cuts off their administrative/operational funds.  Think of the CHSRA as a little kids' tea party, played with pretend tea and pretend sandwiches. Except the HSR party is costing taxpayers around a million dollars each day. 

B.) Here's another perspective that helps us to understand why High-Speed Rail is counter-indicated in the US. Please don't be put off by the socio-psychological jargon.  The central point is critical to our grasping the difference between the success of HSR in Japan and Europe, and why it is doomed to fail in our country:

One of the most fundamental ways in which cultural beliefs, practices, and ideologies influence psychological processes is in the cognitive schema or self-construal style that people use to think about themselves and their relation to others. 
In particular, previous cultural psychology research has identified two main styles of self-construal: independent (or individualistic) and interdependent (or collectivistic). Individuals from independent cultures, such as the United States, tend to value their autonomy, uniqueness, freedom, and right to self-expression; whereas individuals from interdependent cultures, such as Japan, tend to prize social harmony, conformity, and adherence to group norms. 
Because the self is core to our social and interpersonal interactions, this finding that culture can affect these representations at the neural level is striking and has important implications regarding how we represent ourselves and others across cultures.
This is from an article in the May/June 2011 Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, written by Dr. Nalani Ambady of Tufts University.

It also bears on what we spend our taxes on and what we don't.  The basic point is that there is empirical evidence about cultural differences.  It's not just a personal opinion that Europeans or the Japanese "tend to prize social harmony, conformity and adherence to group norms," and we in the US don't. It scientifically validated.  

What I'm driving at here with this explanation is that rail travel, including high-speed rail, is far more easily accepted, even desired, in cultures which have the attributes described here for Europeans and Asians, whereas in the US, it is no mere coincidence that we love our automobiles which we have imbued with cultural meanings about who we believe we are and what we value: "autonomy, uniqueness, freedom, and right to self-expression."

If we absolutely must, we accept crowding ourselves on trains and other public mass transit modes, but only out of necessity.  Otherwise, our sense of personal independence -- a fundamental cultural trait -- is best expressed in our primary choice of transit, our cars.  We ignore such basic human characteristics at our great costs. That also means that if our government acts coercively, obliging us through various means to give up our preferred mode of transit, we will rigorously resist. That's who we are.

In Europe and Japan, HSR is a great place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there, if you see what I mean. 

C.) A final thought about what the HSR promoters want us to believe, and what's actually the truth.

"We’ve known for a long time that HSR is globally successful – as a 2010 report by CALPIRG showed. [Edit. I love this; Cruickshank had a hand in writing it.] Most HSR systems around the world have high ridership and most are profitable. That includes, of course, the Acela. In other words, Amtrak’s plans to expand its offerings on the Northeast Corridor are plausible."

This passage is from a recent blog by Robert Cruickshank, who worships at the altar of HSR.  (Did I ever mention a book called "The Locomotive God?" You can Google it.)  I have learned that whatever he agrees with or approves of is really bad for California; while when he hates something, we should know that we are on the right track.  So to speak. 

California State Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani has made similar "profitability"  statements, as have most members of the CHSRA Board.  All, or most high-speed trains are profitable they say.  

First of all, "profitable" within a government project is an incorrect term.  They may mean "surplus revenues" or net funds remaining after operational costs and outstanding debt costs have been covered.  

And all this is highly definitional.  Most HSR systems are, in fact, subsidized, either directly, or indirectly, depending on their relationship with their host government. They do not produce enough farebox return to cover all their costs, and with several rare exceptions, do not even cover merely their operating costs.

In other HSR-operating countries, especially highly centralized ones with far larger tax rates than ours and a very 'paternal' relationship with their population, they are willing to sustain a very extensive public mass transit system at both the local and inter-city levels.  That is, they have their 'Amtrak' equivalent rail systems, but much, much better, and are happy to cover the structural losses built into the operations of such systems. 

In the US, we pay far less taxes and we tend to not wish our government to use our tax dollars to cover the costs of moving us around.  A little help, yes, but not at the rates necessary for running transit systems in those other countries.  And, just to remind you, HSR is the most expensive to build and operate.

So, back to Cruickshank's point. We know that there is a sudden outburst of interest in building HSR along the NE corridor. Not merely upgrading Amtrak's current passenger rail system, but building a brand new, from scratch, HSR operation, at staggeringly high costs.

So, here we go again!  It will be profitable, says Cruickshank, or at least, he says that profitability is 'plausible;' that even Acela does better than break even.  We don't, of course, know that for a fact.  It's what Amtrak tells us. This is all the same BS we have heard from the CHSRA for a number of years.

Their message is: The California HSR will produce over $3 billion annually, with enough left over after operational costs are covered, to extend the rail system north to Sacramento, and south to San Diego.  

Grindley and his team have taken those promises apart and demonstrated what an untrue fabrication they really are.

It's really getting tiresome.

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