Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who's going to be in California to ride this high-speed train?

Two articles today.  One is about the question of HSR ridership.  Will there be enough Californians taking this train to justify its construction?  Needless to say, we believe not.  The other article refers to some work done by Joe Vranich about businesses leaving California.  The two articles go well together, because the latter hints at the answer to the former.

The population density factor

We've talked about the critical factor of population density before. Also, someone pointed out to me in another blog recently that it's not merely the total population density in a State, such as California, or a country, but what that density is along the intended HSR corridor that makes the difference between success and failure.

We already know that  the highest population density in the US is along the Northeast Corridor, from Washington DC to Boston.  It is also the most heavily used transit-intensive corridor.   Los Angeles to San Diego is right up there with the NEC in that regard. 

The case being made here is that those countries with the most "successful" HSR corridors have them running through the highest population-dense corridors. The rail promoters and the CHSRA have ignored that fundamental truth.  For example, they did not choose the LA to San Diego route first, although that has the highest promise of use.  The reason for that, as we've said many times, is politics. All CHSRA decisions have been and continue to be political ones, not transportation based. 

Rail "cultures" vs. Non-rail "cultures"

But, there's more to it than that. Those countries with the most "successful" HSR are those countries that have had, in some cases for over a century, the most extensive and extensively used railroad networks.  Yes, from inner city to inner city, including small towns as well as major metropolitan areas.  In Europe and Japan, the distinctions between urban, regional and inter-city are far less distinct than in the US.   

Rail is embedded in those cultures.  Rail suits the cultural temperament of the Europeans and those Asian countries with HSR.  For them,  High-Speed Rail is merely the icing on their railroad network cake.  And, it's primarily used by the affluent, the 'upper crust' and well to do who can afford luxury train rides, or those in the professions with travel expense accounts. 

The US, until after the second world war, was also networked with inter-city rail; a passenger rail service offered by most of the major railroad companies that made their money on freight, but provided passenger service as a 'loss-leader.'

What happened in the US after WW II was the explosion of an automobile transit culture and a commercial aviation culture.  Automobiles suited the temperament of Americans who saw their independence and individual agendas best served, not by group behaviors, such as on mass public transit, but by the ability to go where and when one pleased, on our own schedules. It was a physical expression of our freedom.

Therefore, passenger rail declined until the rail operators enthusiastically turned their passenger service over to Congress, which created Amtrak, that eternal sink-hole of permanent federal funding.  Which is to say, that Amtrak/passenger rail has been on the federal heart-lung machine to keep it alive.  

The recent, much-acclaimed ridership increases for Amtrak are not on the longer inter-city routes, but on the suburban and regional routes which serve commuters.  That, in itself, ought to be  a telling message to Amtrak's HSR ambitions.  Hear that, Albrecht Engel?

Who is the HSR market, and who is promoting it?

Let me reiterate that this conversation focuses on inter-city rather than urban and regional transit. That is the intended HSR market in the US.

Now, here comes, rather suddenly, a whole new HSR vision from our Administration that has brought the HSR industry sharks out of hiding as they smell the red meat of federal funds in the billions.  What's wrong with this picture?  That red meat from the DOT is merely bait.  The sharks are going to have to look elsewhere for their meal.  

But where?  Will the DOT find a trillion dollars to build out all those Amtrak corridors designated for HSR?  Will the DOT fund the $100 billion California train, running along a corridor the population of which is definitively inadequate? That is most improbable. Stated succinctly, there will be no further funding and there is no ridership market to speak of. 

To answer the question this first article raises, the Spanish train is used primarily by men, rather than women, and by professional "suits," guys with laptops and PDAs.  It's a money loser for the government which has to subsidize this operation because, among other reasons, it has invested so much into its development.  

Spain, as we know, is in deep financial doo-doo, like Greece, Portugal and Ireland.  This train was the last thing they needed.  Will Californians, like the Spanish, ride the bullet train? asks the author. One answer might be, yes if we wish to become like Spain, Portugal and Greece.

And if the air carriers who cover the 400 miles between LA and SF reduce their ticket costs (you can count on it) in order to compete, the government subsidy demands for operating the HSR in California will be huge and not permitted by law.  Interesting problem, no?

Then, there's that nagging population expansion question

The other argument made by the pro-HSR types is the huge population expansion in California, from 38 million today, to 50 million in twenty years.  Those numbers don't tell you very much regarding who rides high-speed rail.  How many of those 22 million more people will be able to afford HSR tickets?  Why would people need to travel more than they do now? 

And, unless there is a major economic sea-change, the middle and lower classes are becoming less, not more affluent, while a tiny handful continue to accumulate great wealth.  That does not promise a significant market for luxury train rides either.  You should be skeptical of all those population explosion forecasts.  California ain't what it used to be.  And, as such, the need for HSR  becomes ever more questionable. 
Will Californians, like the Spanish, ride the bullet train?
June 21, 2011 | Lance Williams

Financial worries are driving the debate over California’s bullet train project: Will the state find the tens of billions of dollars needed to build an 800-mile high-speed rail system?

The state High-Speed Rail Authority puts the price tag at $45 billion. Last month, the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office said it may top $67 billion, and only about $13 billion seems guaranteed. Meanwhile, California must break ground next year if it wants to spend federal stimulus money on the project.

The financial discussion bleeds over to a related concern: If we build the bullet train, will anybody ride it? California is where urban sprawl was invented. Is the Golden State’s population anywhere near concentrated enough to make rail work?

Tim De Chant, a UC Berkeley-educated environmental scientist whose Per Square Mile blog explores issues of population density, took on the topic in a recent post.

His maps illustrate his premise that California’s population density is almost identical to that of Spain, which has invested heavily in high-speed rail.

“Given the success of Spain’s rail system, it stands to reason that California would be fertile ground for high-speed rail,” he writes.

Of course, if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn’t make the projects pencil out.

De Chant’s analysis also doesn't address what might be termed marketing and cultural issues.
Europeans are accustomed to train travel.

Except in the Northeast corridor, Americans haven’t relied on rail to get around since the end of World War II, when everybody bought cars. Meanwhile, California is where the first American freeway was built, and where American car culture came to flower.

The Census Bureau has population density data. Worldatlas.com’s numbers are slightly different, but they’re in a searchable database. That data shows California's population density ranks 11th in the U.S., at 239 people per square mile. (It’s 13th if you include the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as the Census Bureau does; the atlas doesn’t.)

The densest state is New Jersey, with 1,195 people per square mile. Of the 10 states that are denser than California, eight are in the Northeast and are served by Amtrak. The other two are Ohio and Florida, the states that were offered federal rail funds but refused.

If California were a nation, it would rank 83rd in terms of population density, behind Spain and Turkey (both 241).

Other European countries with bullet train service have significantly higher population densities: France (310), Germany (593) and the United Kingdom (656).


60 more firms move jobs, work out of California
June 16, 2011|By JAN NORMAN

The pace of companies moving partly or completely out of California has accelerated in 2011, according to Irvine business relocation expert Joe Vranich.

Through June 16, 129 California companies have moved jobs, work and/or headquarters out of state, says Vranich who has been tracking what he calls "disinvestment events" for three years. That is 60 more since his last round-up April 15.

So far this year, the departures average 5.4 a week, compared to 3.9 a week in 2010 and one a week in 2009, Vranich says.

Separately, Register reporter Mary Ann Milbourn reports that out-of-state recruiters are starting to come after California workers too.

"Our losses are occurring at an accelerated rate," Vranich says. "Also, no one knows the real level of activity because some companies are not required to file layoff notices with the state because of their small size.

"A conservative estimate is that only one out of five company departures becomes public knowledge," he adds, "so that means California may suffer more than 1,000 disinvestment events this year."

No comments: