This article has been receiving considerable attention in other articles and therefore merits repeating here. (Since the release of the new biz. plan, the press has had a field day.)
Below are some of the web-sites to which this article refers. But, before I list those, the headline of this article should not have used the word "engineer" which suggests professional railroad men and women with experience at designing and building trains, including High-Speed Rail.
Most of these bloggers, to the best of my knowledge, are not actual, working railroad guys, so much as railroad geeks with obsessive railroad interests. Many of the thread writers are like the high-school kids I remember who loved to show off their knowledge of details about some speciality or other. They love to insult each other with snarky comments for making fine-grained errors. Very nerdy. It's like a teen boys' peeing contest. Ah, well. Boys will be boys.
I try to read each of these guys almost every day to find out what's going on. None of them on this list are out and out HSR opposers, such as you will find in this blog, or that of Mark Powell
. Some of them will raise your blood pressure. Stay calm. They're only blogs.
The distinctions among these bloggers' positions in this article are descriptive and useful. There is the political side of things, and many rail supporters are politically/ideologically driven, like Cruickshank.
Others favor criticizing either Caltrain or the high-speed rail authority for their technical inadequacies and bad engineering decisions. Even when they are presumably correct, it's one-upmanship.
And yes, it's impossible to persuade those on one side to abandon their basic position to join the other side.
You might even consider that this HSR project is like the elephant that is studied by the fabled eleven blind men who each "see"; that is, feel something different and therefore each describes the elephant very differently.
What all of them don't say -- not being able to see -- is that this particular elephant is White! The American term for the British "White Elephant" is "Boondoggle."
11/04/2011 @ 7:16AM
The Day the Engineers Turned Against California HSR
On Tuesday, the California High-Speed Rail Authority laid down their cards in the form of a new “business plan” for the proposed line, and its cards are not good – the system is now projected to cost $98 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, which, taking into account inflation, is about twice the $33 billion figure given in 2008.* But despite the price hike, not many people’s opinions on the project seem to have changed – those who were for it are still for it, while those opposed are even more set against it.
The big transit and green bloggers doubled down “bigger picture” and charts (lots of charts!).
Yonah ran a sarcastic pie chart (which we all know is the sassiest of graphs) showing the low cost of high-speed rail when compared to California’s entire GDP (which is larger than that of all but a handful of countries).
Robert Cruickshank literally doubled down on the charts and ran the same oil and unemployment graphs twice in the two separate posts.
The LA Times, quite bizarrely, asked readers what they should write while saying that they were inclined to endorse the project at its new cost, and then went ahead and did just that today. Their back-to-the-basics arguments, with little more than lip service for the idea of reducing costs, are unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t believe that the project is a bargain at any price, and so everyone is pretty much back where they started.
Everyone, that is, except the engineers. I don’t mean actual engineers, but rather the “technical” transit activists that Alon Levy has identified before. Technical transit activists stand in opposition to the “politicals,” which include most mainstream transit advocates and the majority of transit blogs, especially the (relatively) well-financed ones. They tend to be the most boosterish, and view funding rather than competence as the main obstacle to good transit. The technicals, on the other hand, often come from math and hard science backgrounds (Alon is a math PhD and Richard Mlynarik is a pedigreed hacker), and are much pickier about which projects they support.
And after Tuesday’s announcement, it seems, California’s high-speed rail line is no longer something technicals support. The first signs of discontent came the night before the plan was officially released, from the commenters at Robert Cruickshank’s California High Speed Rail blog, who tend to be of a much more “technical” variety than Robert himself.
Commenter Beta Magellan said that the blog’s “cheerleading’s really getting to me,” and that it “doesn’t help” the cause of high-speed rail (“cheerleading” was a word that a lot of commenters used).
Joseph E. said that he may no longer read the blog, and Jack wrote that though he “love[s] this project to death,” he “just can’t see how it’s politically possible at this cost.” I’ll spare you the rest, but suffice it to say, these three readers were not alone in their skepticism.
Over at Alon Levy’s blog, the response was similar. Alon personally wrote: “Unless they cut the costs, I don’t see how I can continue to support the project.” (He does, however, seem optimistic that costs will be brought down and the project will eventually go forward, though not as described in the current business plan.)
Paulus Magnus, who has his own rail blog and has done his research on HSR finance, also said the latest news has turned him against the project, as did a few other commenters. Danny wrote: “I have been waiting for this day so I could have an ‘I told you so’ moment, and now that it is here I’m just sad.”
The objections are technical (who would have guessed the “technicals” would object on technical grounds?), but primarily involve overbuilding expensive infrastructure like viaducts and tunnels, when the line should instead follow cheaper at-grade paths. It’s not clear why exactly so many viaducts and tunnels were thrown into the project, though the three most likely candidates are:
-bilking by contractors (namely Parsons Brinckerhoff, who dominates New York and California transit bidding),
-agency turf issues,
-and NIMBY opposition. (Though Richard Mlynarik argues that NIMBYism is actually a reaction to the high costs and low benefits of transit projects – that is, an effect, not a cause.)
Clem’s blog and its commentariat, which focus on the San Francisco peninsula segment of the project (there’s a reason they’re called technicals!), get into the gory details of some of the high costs, which include a few easy to understand examples. Perhaps the most egregious is the $1.9 billion tunnel (which Clem thought was boondogglous even before the most recent business plan when it was supposed to cost “only” $500 million) they want to dig under Millbrae Station to avoid messing with the existing $100 million at-grade terminal. The decision looks to be a mix of agency turf issues, politicians wanting to save face, and PB being in no hurry to dissuade California politicians from heaping money on them for the unnecessary tunnel.
At other times PB seems to be more directly at fault, as with the $1.5 billion electrification item that the commenters believe should be at least a billion dollars cheaper.
Clem channels Richard Mlynarik’s anti-US transit contracting rage when he writes: “The fundamental issue is that we are seeing the emergence of a transportation industrial complex, very much like the military industrial complex and using the same tried and true playbook to transfer enormous sums of public wealth into private pockets.”
Oh, and that “operationally profitable” bit that the politicals have been so excited about? Alon isn’t having any of it. While he doesn’t claim the project will necessarily not be profitable, he does point out that their definition of operational profitability leaves out capital depreciation. In other words, it doesn’t include the costs of replacing train sets once they’re too old to repair or the eventual maintenance that the project’s many tunnels, viaducts, and miles of wiring and electronics will need.
To say nothing of the fact that parts of the infrastructure will have been depreciating – that is, rotting away – for up to two decades before California even starts to see full service on the line, never mind ridership. It’s possible that the project will not need further cash infusions beyond the capital investment, but the accountants don’t seem to have done any work to show that.
Politically speaking, the technicals are irrelevant. They are, quite literally, a bunch of internet commenters with a few bloggers thrown in for good measure. But unlike the politicals, many of whom will get behind pretty much anything that hasn’t been called racist by the federal government, they are willing to openly and vociferously call the California High Speed Rail Authority to account when it’s gone too far, and at two decades and about $65 billion, they seem to think it’s gone too far.
As Paul H. put it in a comment on one of Robert’s blog posts: ”When your most vocal supporters are coming out against this business plan, you know high-speed rail in California has a problem.”
* Aside from Yonah, it doesn’t seem any of the “politicals” even noticed that the real cost in 2011 dollars is lower than the $98 billion nominal figure, though Alon Levy and, oddly, Randal O’Toole, a vocal passenger rail critic, did.