Thursday, March 22, 2012

High-Speed Rail: You wan't ridership? I'll give you ridership!

One of my greatest concerns is that most of California still believes high-speed rail, if ever built, will serve everyone who wishes. We believe HSR to be a new addition to all our bus lines, our trolley cars, Metrolink, Caltrain, the ACE commuter, or even our Amtrak passenger services.  High-speed rail, most people insist on believing, will be an added transit provider attracting large crowds of daily commuters.  And, that's why we need it, to relieve the pressure on inter-city transit now experienced by our highways and runways.

By perpetuating the myth of relieving traffic gridlock, HSR is, by inference, identified as the alternative, and therefore a superior way of getting to and from work each day.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason?  Those train tickets will be the most expensive tickets available compared to any other transit service, per mile.  This is the harsh reality elsewhere, on every other high-speed rail service in the world.  As we've insisted, high-speed rail is the equivalent of flying first-class.  Even Acela tickets are twice the cost of normal Amtrak express service for the gain of only twenty minutes from Boston to New York.

The photo above is a facetious poke at the concept of high-speed rail's claim of the many millions that will choose that service over flying or driving.  These are the masses of riders that the high-speed rail authority wishes us to anticipate, and therefore to support the construction of their train.

The project is being represented in concept as something everyone will be able to ride because that, of course, will justify its development, in which case the overall cost magnitude would therefore seem to be mitigated. In other words, while $200 billion is a lot of money to build a train, "Yes, but that's not so much money if you consider how many people will give up their cars and stop flying" each and every year, forever.

The fact of HSR's self-selected exclusivity by virtue of its ticket costs is never part of the conversation.  The Democrats represent the project in terms of the nearly one million jobs that will be created.  For them, that is sufficient justification.  They don't appear to care what its function will be upon completion; a luxury train affordable only by the affluent.

We need to recognize the unpleasant truth that regardless of what price the rail authority currently attaches to its train tickets, the cost of tickets, surely in ten or twenty years when its actually operating, will constrain the ridership to mostly the managerial class, expense-account professionals, and well-to-do tourists.

Contrary to most expectations, it will not be the much vaunted commuter train for Silicon Valley workers 'en masse' and who are obliged to move to the Central Valley due to high housing costs on the Peninsula.  These daily HSR commute trips will be too costly and thus will draw only smaller numbers of higher level corporate managers.

In short, contrary to what we are expected to believe, this train will not be part of the overall transit equation.  It will only serve a highly stratified and limited segment of the demographic, based on its high costs. For most of us, it will be a luxury trip, a self-induglence.  Just as it is now when we take any HSR overseas.

Nor will the air-carriers willingly relinquish their market to this competing train.  Price competition is part of air carriers' survival.  Furthermore, the train will not pick up those travellers making connecting flights from or to elsewhere. The HSR train operator, private or government, can't compete on ticket price without access to those forbidden subsidies. After all, they promise the train to be profitable; hence, no bargain prices are possible.

Car traffic from SF to LA is not in such quantities as for the train to draw off significant numbers.  The north-south highways have an unfilled capacity for such trips. And, as we have repeatedly pointed out, the train's route is not where all the traffic congestion is.

For the train traveller, the already high train ticket costs are seriously increased if a car rental must play a role at the end of the trip. Families of four will not readily spring for train tickets if they need a car in LA or Anaheim. Or in San Francisco.

Someone recently mentioned in a letter to a newspaper how they would be delighted to take this train for lunch from Fresno to San Francisco, and then take the train to watch a show in Las Vegas before heading home the same day. Nothing could be more an unaffordable pipe-dream. Besides being very foolish,  that's a trip for the 1%, not the 99%.

These are all generally ignored issues in the projection of ridership numbers sufficient to justify construction of the train and consumption of such vast resources which should be better deployed elsewhere.  The point is, high-speed rail is not needed in California.

If the well-to-do want to ride such a train, they will need to invest in its development -- build it themselves with private capital -- or go elsewhere, in most cases where the train is subsidized in order to provide this luxury service.

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