Saturday, January 28, 2012

Some thoughts about High-Speed Rail from the Conservative side of the aisle

We recently met RIchard Geddes' writings in a New York Times high-speed rail debate, and we quoted some comments from him.  Here are these comments for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank, about high-speed rail.

Basically, his point is, Northeast Corridor yes, California no. Geddes suggests that $50 million per mile is a lot of money. However, if the train cost forecast is $100 billion and that's not even for the entire two phases (which include Sacramento to San Diego), it will actually be $125 million per mile.  (One hundred billion divided by 800 miles.) 

And, the most recent cost analysis, which we presented on this blog, suggests over $200 billion total costs and that raises the per mile costs to over $250 million per mile.  If true, those numbers are preposterous, and there should indeed be a constitutional amendment in California to prohibit this.

One has to wonder, if the total costs for HSR exceed $200 billion, will that not make the train actually more expensive than building all those dreaded highways and runways, the cost for which was last pegged at $171 billion?  It looks more and more like high-speed rail is regular passenger rail, only entirely 18-karat gold-plated.

We have lost all sense of scale as we persist in the hopeless high-speed rail effort. Here is what I mean:

August 11, 2011|By Mark K. Matthews, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021.

Putting a crew on the Moon and bringing them back, one of the most difficult and challenging technological achievements of the 20th century, to be repeated will cost less than half as much as building this train. 

Below the Geddes article are some earlier articles from the American Enterprise online publications.  The second one here is by Michael Barone which appeared in the Washington Examiner. Yes, he's also a conservative, but we are singling out those people who reject high-speed rail on factual grounds. 

True, not all of them do. Some do it to tweak Obama's nose. Others for other political or ideological reasons (It's evil Socialism!).  However, we'll try to stick to those conservative thinkers who have done their homework and have a thorough grasp of the facts underlying the promotion of high-speed rail in the US generally, and in California in particular.  

And, there are lots of them. So, I have to ask, where are all the professional rail 'smarties' on my side of the aisle, those who have not indulged in the political Kool-Aid that has numbed the thinking of most of the Democrats and who don't parrot the HSR blather? (Please don't answer; it's a rhetorical question.)

Anyhow, back to Barone's article, which is now one year old. What he said then was: "California is spending $4.3 billion on a 65-mile stretch of track between Corcoran and Borden in the Central Valley, which is supposed to be part of an 800-mile network connecting San Diego and Sacramento. Its projected cost was $32 billion in 2008 and $42 billion in 2009, suggesting a certain lack of precision."

We've come a long way since then, haven't we? Now the costs are well over $100 billion and the project in the Central Valley will be 40 miles longer, but still won't include electrification and other requirements for high-speed rail.  And the funding that is available will still run out without any operational high-speed rail in sight.

Finally, the third article -- all these are from the American Enterprise Institute -- is also by Michael Barone, and he suggests that the Chinese high-speed rail system, which we so envy in the White House and in Sacramento (remember when Schwarzenegger went to China to strike a deal to have them build our rail system?) doesn't look so good when you lift the layer of political prestige propaganda that the Chinese use as paint to cover all their infrastructure developments. (Actually, this article was published before the horrific HSR accident in China, and the expose of all the corruption and mismanagement.)

He states what may be the most important fact about high-speed rail, after the fact that it's costs are ridiculously high. "High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it's not a form of mass transportation."

This is critically important and it is being flagrantly ignored by our Governor and the Democratic establishment.  High-speed Rail is not a form of public mass transportation.  We cannot emphasize this enough.  We know that, based on current ticket costs world-wide, that the price of admission to ride high-speed rail in California will be $200 or more from SF to LA. Indeed, it may be much more. It will be the most expensive train ticket one can buy, certainly in the USA.  

That blocks any notions of this train performing a public mass commuter service. And, it should prohibit the taxpayers' funds from building it for an elite, affluent cohort of travellers. It is not a necessity; it's an amenity. It's a luxury. The government has no business building it!

In California, high-speed rail is unnecessary and certainly unaffordable by any rational measure. And, here's a point for my fellow Democrats. When built, it will be singularly un-Democratic.  

The right idea in the wrong place
R. Richard Geddes | 
The New York Times Room for Debate
January 27, 2012
High-speed passenger rail is a commendable public policy goal that can provide valuable benefits to the public, but should only be pursued where it makes economic sense. A project should move forward if the revenue from all sources is sufficient to cover operating costs while making a contribution to its capital costs, including paying off debt and providing its investors with an adequate return on their investment. That's true regardless of whether the investors in question are private individuals or taxpayers.

The proposed high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is unlikely to meet that test. The estimates of costs recently doubled, to almost $100 billion, and it may ultimately cost much more. Research by the Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg shows that costs are underestimated for rail projects by about 45 percent on average, the most of all types of transport projects. High-speed rail could become California's Big Dig. Moreover, ridership — and thus revenue — is often overstated.

Given uncertainty in cost and ridership, along with the fact that even the most optimistic estimates peg the costs at a minimum $50 million per mile, Californians would be wiser to first complete a line from San Diego to Los Angeles. Demand for high-speed rail between its sprawling cities could then be observed before building a much more expensive Los Angeles-San Francisco line, almost three times the distance.

But if America wants true high-speed rail, we should first improve the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Much more modest expenditures there could increase speeds on a line where there is proven demand for high-speed rail service in some of the most congested areas of the country. These cities — as opposed to many in California — have relatively dense downtown areas featuring several public transportation options at train destinations.

There are solid ways to move forward with high-speed rail in the United States, but a new line between San Francisco and Los Angeles is not among them.

R. Richard Geddes is a visiting scholar at AEI


High-speed rail is a fast way to waste taxpayer money
Michael Barone | Washington Examiner
January 18, 2011

Where can the new Congress start cutting spending? Here's one obvious answer: high-speed rail. The Obama administration is sending billions of stimulus dollars around the country for rail projects that make no sense and that, if they are ever built, will be a drag on taxpayers indefinitely.

When incoming Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio canceled high-speed rail projects, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood refused to let them spend the dollars on other forms of transportation and sent the funds instead to California and other states.

Walker argued that Wisconsin didn't need $810 billion for a 78-mile line between Madison and Milwaukee because there's already a transportation artery--Interstate 94--that enables people to get from one city to the other in a little more than an hour (I once drove that route to have dinner in Milwaukee).

Kasich's rationale? "They tried to give us $400 million to build a high-speed train that goes 39 miles an hour." Train boosters countered that its top speed was 79 miles per hour--about the same as many drivers on Interstate 71.

High-speed rail may sound like a good idea. It works, and reportedly even makes a profit, in Japan and France. If they can do it, why can't we?

A look at some proposed projects gives the answer. Take the $2.7 billion, 84-mile line connecting Orlando and Tampa that incoming Florida Gov. Rick Scott is mulling over.

It would connect two highly decentralized metro areas that are already connected by Interstate 4. Urban scholar Wendell Cox, writing for the Reason Foundation, found that just about any door-to-door trip between the two metro areas would actually take longer by train than by auto, and would cost more. Why would any business traveler take the train?

As for tourists headed for Orlando's theme parks, there is already a convenient rental car operation, with some of the nation's lowest rates, at the Orlando airport. Why would parents get on a train, pay a separate fare for each kid and then rent a car at the station when you could more easily get one at the airport?

As Cox points out, cost estimates for the Florida train seem underestimated and the ridership estimates seem wildly inflated. If he's even partially right, Florida taxpayers will be paying billions for this white elephant over the years.

Other projects seem just as iffy. California is spending $4.3 billion on a 65-mile stretch of track between Corcoran and Borden in the Central Valley, which is supposed to be part of an 800-mile network connecting San Diego and Sacramento. Its projected cost was $32 billion in 2008 and $42 billion in 2009, suggesting a certain lack of precision.

Or consider the $1.1 billion track improvement on the Chicago-St.Louis line in Illinois. It would reduce travel time between the cities by 48 minutes, but the trip would still take more than four and a half hours at an average speed of 62 miles per hour.
None of these high-speed projects are really high-speed. Japan has bullet trains that average 171 miles per hour, France's TGV averages 149 miles per hour. At such speeds you can travel faster door-to-door by train than by plane over distances up to 500 miles.

In contrast, Amtrak's Acela from Baltimore to Washington averages 84 miles per hour and the Orlando-Tampa train would average 101 miles per hour. That makes the train uncompetitive with planes on trips of more than 300 miles.

Now take a look at your map and see how many major metro areas with densely concentrated central business districts and large numbers of business travelers are within 300 miles of each other.

The answer is not very many outside of the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Our geography is different from France's or Japan's.

Moreover, to achieve the speed of French and Japanese high-speed rail, you need dedicated track so you don't have to slow down for freight trains. To get dedicated track, you need a central government that is willing and able to ignore environmental protests and not-in-my-backyard activists. Japan and France have such governments. We don't.

So we are spending billions on high-speed rail that isn't really high-speed, that will serve largely affluent business travelers and that will need taxpayer subsidies forever. This should be a no-brainer for a Congress bent on cutting spending.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.


"High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it's not a form of mass transportation."
-- Michael Barone

High-speed rail doesn't make sense in China, either
Michael Barone | Washington Examiner
February 02, 2011

Faithful readers know that one of my pet issues--pet peeves, really--is high-speed rail, which was the subject of one recent Examiner column and was mentioned in my most recent column Wednesday. Yes, high-speed rail might make sense in some high-density corridors connecting big cities with big downtowns, i.e., the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. But it doesn't make much sense elsewhere. I have pointed out that, with one exception, continent-sized countries like Russia, Canada and Brazil have not contemplated building high-speed rail lines except for those that would connect their two largest metropolitan areas.

The exception, of course, is China, which is lauded by the likes of Thomas Friedman for its supposedly far-sighted program of building a network of high-speed rail lines over most of the country. 

Now comes Patrick Chovanec, an American who is a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, with the news that high-speed rail doesn't make much sense in China either. 

"The problem is that high-speed rail is expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even. The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low. Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket -- which is doubtful given their limited incomes -- they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train. If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network."

We already see this phenomenon in the United States, as I mentioned in my Wednesday column. Bargain-minded travelers don't use the Acela express or cheaper Amtrak service from Washington to New York; they ride the somewhat slower but quite comfortable bus lines that are far cheaper. High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it's not a form of mass transportation.

Michael Barone is a Resident Fellow at AEI.


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