Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Several reasons why we should terminate the HSR project in California

LaJollaLight is a long-standing weekly paper from the San Diego region. What Kevin Knight's comments on high-speed rail don't reveal is that the second busiest commute route in the US after the Northeast Corridor is the Los Angeles to San Diego connection.  If a high-speed rail were to be built anywhere in California, this would be the only place for it and it should be tailor-made to serve commuters, not just occasional tourists.

Well, not surprisingly, that's not going to happen.  Indeed, the San Diego segment of California's HSR project will come to the table last rather than first. 

Thinking about this project carefully, there isn't a single thing that comes to mind that is right with it. Not one.  We've been spending years listing and discussing all the problems and foibles attached to this intended blight on our state. There are now over 700 blog entries on this High-SpeedTrainTalk blog which have labored mightily to explicate this project and its undesirability.

CHSRA Board-member-for-life Lynn Schenk's article is a good example of the fantasy-land promotional verbiage that seeks to sell all of us a concept and project that is destined to not only fail, but fail in a highly spectacular manner, with enormous sums of money poured down the rat-hole. Schenk has been on the CHSRA Board since its inception.

The CHSRA Board is a political 'club' where appointees obtain long term seats for being supporters and endorsers of this project. The trouble is that this club has no railroad development experience whatsoever, and certainly no high-speed rail experience. Many of the members, past and present, have had many junkets overseas, to be wined and dined by other nations' high-speed rail industries sucking up to the rich Americans for eventual contracts.  Those trips should not be considered a skills or knowledge building experience, however. 

The one point I wish to emphasize from Kevin's article is the 'innovation' issue.  Many, along with Schenk, have made the point about how innovative high-speed rail will be for California.  Really? 

Let's look at it this way.  Let's say that Japan, China and France had developed lap-top computers forty years ago.  And now we in California are all clutched about how we are losing the computer race and therefore we should buy a whole lot of them from overseas. Would you call that "winning the future?"

Of course that's not how it happened. It is established history that a handful of visionaries devised and promoted digital technologies, such as personal  computers for our desk tops and homes (developed in their garages, literally or figuratively).

It became a flourishing industry, and an economic engine, highly competitive with continuous evolution and change.  That's innovation!  If we wish to "win the future" as President Obama likes to tell us, we need to get out in front and ahead of the R&D of other nations, not buy their HSR rolling stock off their shelves.

Kevin Knight hammers that point home by pointing out that railroad travel is 200 years old.  Other nations have based their transit needs on it for more than a century, supported it, taxed for it, and developed it continuously, including the recent development of high-speed rail.  It appears to be functional in the most densely populated regions but only as an integral part of a comprehensive passenger rail network and system, although it is not, and never will be, profitable. Think back on the computer analogy for a moment and it's creation of a whole new economy in the US. Passenger rail has always been subsidized by host governments, everywhere. Is passenger rail itself a good business model?  I don't think so. 

One of the reasons that HSR has as much use in Europe is because "Old Europe" has become one vast museum with tourism a major and profitable industry.  They also have the centralized economies, and huge tax base that can afford to build and operate these trains as national "loss leaders." California is nothing of the sort. 

High-speed rail will not do what our computer industry did for our economy; not now, not ever. So, what should we do (besides repair our current broken infrastructure)?

Innovate transit and transportation.  Create products and services that attract paying customers and become profitable enough to grow into a competitive industry.  Think outside the box, including the railroad box. Knight uses the word 'inflexible.'  Good point. 

Here's one, just one, example of moving ahead of the transportation development curve. The railroad advocates love to point to our Interstate Highway System as the prototype for a future high-speed rail network. There are many reasons that's wrong but, never mind. However, what if we turned our attention to bringing the 46,000 miles of Interstate Highway up to 21st or even 22nd century standards? 

What if we could embed into the roadway surface a continuous electric source of power as well as data?  What if our battery powered cars could continuously recharge by drawing current (remotely) from that source as we drive? What if the data source, along with the power source, would give us the option, with the flip of a switch, to have our cars controlled remotely, at constant and consistent speeds, not to weave, rear-end, or collide with other cars or objects? 

There would be far fewer accidents, congestion, or all those aspects of driving that are so fuel-intensive and demanding on us as drivers.  We could thereby solve the limited range problem with batteries.  All these capabilities have basic technologies already functional in the laboratory.  

The benefits?  The government's responsibility would not be total ownership and endless subsidies.  There would be use fees and charging fees, but these, based on volume, could compete successfully with current and future oil-based energy prices.  And the auto industry would also become active participants giving that industry in the US a whole new boost. And, instead of a gas tax, there would be an electric fuel tax to pay for the upkeep and upgrading of this system.  The smart, safe, energy providing highway. 

This is just an off-the-top-of-my-head notion and may, indeed, be unrealistic, even useless.  But, I would consider this a direction worthy of exploration as we seek new, innovative economic opportunities related to transit.

Flexibility is an inherent virtue in transit.  Fixed rail's inflexibility -- it's permanence -- is a major disability, given the per mile costs of creating it in the first place. (We are not, ever, going to replace our highways with railways!) Permanence has given way to flux in our lives and in our culture. Jobs are migrating even as we are in search of jobs.  We need to stop imagining a life with a single same job, living in a single same house, in an unchanging urban or suburban environment. That was the world of rail. As we all know, passenger rail deteriorated in the US after the fifties and sixties.  The world we lived in changed and we chose other ways to travel.

The HSR advocates talk in sweeping generalities and vague euphemistic terms to promote the program.  It's power to restore the environment, get us out of our cars, stop our flying polluting aircraft, terminate foreign oil consumption, and so on.

They have endowed these trains, none of which we have now, with magical, curative powers for our economy, our unemployment and our future.  Yet, in reality it will do none of those things, and at the same time, it will produce its own set of horrendous problems, not the least of which is staggering, permanent costs to all taxpayers.

One last point.  We all should know by now that high-speed rail is a highly selective travel mode.  The tickets cost more than any other railroad tickets.  Only the well to do, or those whose travel expenses are covered, will be able to afford to ride the train.  Yet, at the same time, each of those train seats will need to be subsidized by the taxpayers. Why would our government ask us to pay for and build such a rail system that serves only the affluent? Has that not occurred to any Democrat yet? Why is this system being shoved down our throats or sold as the unrealistic fantasy that it is?

Your View: Stop high-speed rail before it gets on track
By Kevin Knight
La Jolla
September 5, 2011

When Californians voted for high-speed rail they were shown unrealistic estimates for construction costs, journey times, fares, ridership and revenues. Lynn Schenk’s article on high-speed rail continues the process of misinformation.

She says we need high-speed rail because California prides itself on “innovation.” Sadly, compared to Google, Apple and the many San Diego technology companies that drive California’s economy there is nothing innovative about a 200-year-old inflexible form of transportation that produces basic construction and operating jobs.

She also says high-speed rail will contribute to clean air because it uses electricity. But why are trains, which use electricity whether full or empty, better than electric cars which will be in common use by the end of the decade?

As for her claim that a new rail system takes less land than widening freeways, the reality is she is proposing building brand new travel corridors, which will require massive new feeder infrastructure  and result in significant land development.

But the main issue, which she ignores, is will anyone use these trains? Who will travel long distances to a new station, built where nobody objects instead of somewhere useful, to ride to another similar station and find some way to get where they want, instead of driving direct?  In movies set in Europe people hop off a train and walk to their destination, but that isn’t reality even there, where major cities are relatively concentrated, let alone in our sprawling California. And the fact is that railways in Europe are in long-term decline. Every time a new rail line gets built there rail ridership increases briefly, then continues its decline. This is because Europeans are buying more cars and spending more time in them, like us, because cars are more convenient.

We have spent the past two years seeing just how much money government can spend on things for absolutely no end result. High-speed rail in California is likely to be more of the same — an underused white elephant, costing taxpayers in perpetuity. It’s time to stop this madness before it goes any further.

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