Friday, March 9, 2012

On High-Speed Rail, anything is possible if you have the money

You have to read this article carefully.  The author is an old railroad man.  He has a fantasy about high-speed rail in the rural Central Valley of California.  

He worked for Union Pacific, the largest freight rail system in the US.  I will mention, parenthetically, that freight rail is the most cost-efficient method of moving goods in the US. The US is the world leader in freight rail shipment. 

His vision is based on a concept of high-speed rail that he sees as being like a subway ride in New York City. Put a token in the slot, or get a card into and out of a card scanner, get on the train, go to the farmers market or supermarket, get your groceries, get back on the subway, and go back home.  Shopping chore accomplished, cheaply and quickly.  

Or, perhaps a trolley or bus ride in Suburbia, America.  He sees high-speed rail as the Everytown commuter transit rail that takes all of us who have jobs to their jobs and back home each day. 

Mr. Kandel believes that it will cause downtowns like Fresno's to flourish. He quotes a recent article which suggested the following:

“I envision, when this train is finally built, that most of the folks here in town will get up on a Friday, decide that ‘I would really like to go to San Francisco for a bowl of clam chowder,’ and then they will decide ‘you know what, there’s a really nice show playing in Las Vegas,’ and they will get back on that same train and be in Las Vegas for dinner, get back on the train and be home by midnight to sleep in their own bed,”

The man quoted here from a PBS News-Hour program is a tomato farmer from Hanford, in California's Central Valley. Mr. Brad Johns must be highly successful at tomato growing and very wealthy indeed to conceive of such a recreational trip on the California high-speed train.

Why are Mr. Kandel (and Mr. Johns) so wrong?  

I'm sorry to be the one to disillusion them. This high-speed rail system will do and will be none of those things.  Their conception is tragically erroneous and, I believe, that most Californians that support high-speed rail share that same false vision with Mr. Kandel.

What these misguided gentlemen are talking about sounds like all those trains that take residents each day to work from suburban Long Island into Manhattan. 

It should be added here that even if these trips on California's HSR are not the entire length from LA to SF, so long as they ride the HSR version of passenger rail, the per mile costs of tickets will be stunningly expensive, since even shorter trips will be run faster than Amtrak's regular service. 

If you recall the TV program "Mad Men" (which, strangely enough, had several of its actors in a video promoting high-speed rail in California), it was set in the '60s and had men (in grey flannel suits) commuting from the suburbs to downtown Manhattan each day by such trains from suburban Scarsdale or Greenwich, Connecticut.

High-speed rail, when last I checked, is, world-wide, the most expensive train ticket you can buy, outside of the Orient Express. It has to be.  It is the most expensive form of passenger rail to operate. As you may recall being told on this blog, speed costs. The faster you go, the more it costs.

The CHSRA has been promising all sorts of future ticket prices, some as low as $55 for a one-way trip from SF to LA.  Not possible. They also suggest percentages of existing air-fares.  They fail to understand how air-fare ticket prices are set. (Or, more likely, they know that this won't be the case and are now lying about it.)

Acela (the closest thing to HSR we have in the US), from Washington D.C. to Boston, costs twice as much as a ticket on a regular Amtrak train making that trip. Look it up on Google. 

We've been saying this for 8 years: High-speed rail is luxury; a premium train ride like flying first-class on an airline. Only this time the entire aircraft is for first-class passengers only. Have you checked first-class air tickets lately?  That's a good indicator of what HSR tickets will be like for similar distances.

The CHSRA now projects 39 million annual riders on their train once in operation after 2033.  A forecast of this sort for over 20 years out is nonsensical.  The rail authority bases this forecast on a number of factors, one being the population increase projection for California.  Today's population is 38 million.  They want us to believe it will be 50 million by 2030 or 2050.

That population forecast has been challenged and does not include the demographics of this supposed increasing population, since it will be Latino or Asian, but not White and it will most likely not be upper, professional income. The point here is that it will most likely not include very many high-speed rail customers.

I'm not mentioning here the need for subsidies to supplement those ticket sales, since additional operational funding will be required, as it is with every other high-speed train in the world, with one or two exceptions. That issue is not germane to this discussion.  

It is sufficient to indicate ticket prices for HSR trains as a major self-selecting discourager of riders who can't afford to ride.  There will be very few "commuters" indeed.  And there will be even fewer chowder-in-San Francisco and then theatre-in-Las Vegas customers.

The entire point of this discussion is that the government has no business building a train for the well-to-do and affluent, to the neglect of those who actually need urban and regional public mass transit in order to continue to function in the job market. 
City, County Growth and High-Speed Rail Development a ‘Two-Way Street’

Posted on 09 March 2012
By Alan Kandel

Come fall, Fresno will be ground zero for California high-speed rail (HSR) if the state legislature gives the project the green light. It is right here that construction will begin, initially on 29 miles of line linking southern Madera County with south Fresno. Located within that section in Fresno at Mariposa and G streets will be the area’s HSR – and, presumably, multi-modal – station. When construction of HSR Phase 1 connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles and Anaheim is completed and trains are running, the question will become: Will California’s planned bullet-train project impact growth locally development-, land use- and transportation-wise around stations and if so, how?

In search of answers, I consulted the Mineta Transportation Institute’s (MTI) “Planning for Complementarity: An Examination of the Role and Opportunities of First-Tier and Second-Tier Cities Along the High-Speed Rail Network in California,” study released just this month, among other sources.

Contained in the study with regard to the Fresno case study - which has implications for other Valley cities with proposed high-speed train stations (Bakersfield and Merced) - Jan Minami, Executive Director, Downtown Association of Fresno shared her vision in terms of what HSR could do for the community.

“I think the HSR gives us a wonderful opportunity to develop what we have to offer here. Fresno is the breadbasket of the world but we have not done a good job of connecting to the outside world to showcase that. HSR will offer these opportunities. It will allow people to come and share what is fresh; it will allow people to hop on the train and go to farmers markets and get fresh produce from the Valley.”

Moreover, Downtown and Community Revitalization Director Craig Scharton adds to Minami’s comments by insisting:

“People here say ‘we don’t want to be a bedroom community for San Francisco with all residential uses and no economic benefits.’ San Joaquin is one of the great agricultural centers of the world but its downtown is non-existent. Creating a business center for agriculture in downtown is one of our strategies. Part of our revitalization should be to get agri-business and related services (e.g., accountants, web designers) to locate downtown.”

More broadly, Ed Graveline, an area rail consultant, expressed that the urban sprawl that has been ongoing in the region for years will stop with HSR.

All points are visionary, the last comment being as profound as it is even. And because bullet trains will enter the Valley from the north, west and south, once built and perhaps even prior to, Valley cities, particularly those with stations, may see land-use patterns change considerably, the kind of change that encourages more pedestrian- and transit-friendly, higher-density, mixed-use infill or brownfield development, the HSR component having the potential to be the impetus for such.

A problem explained

The state’s bullet train will link the principal cities of Los Angeles, Anaheim, Irvine, San Diego, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Stockton, Sacramento, Gilroy, San Jose and San Francisco.

In the MTI study, described are cities of two types: First-Tier (“the primary centers of large metropolitan areas”) and Second-Tier (“smaller and more peripheral towns”). Part of the success of the HSR system will be in providing efficient access to and from HSR hubs for those located in the outlying areas or second-tier cities. It will be imperative.

HSR brings with it the potential to foster economic and job growth, new urban building activity and environmental improvement not only to the first-tier cities but indirectly to the second-tier cities as well. But, according to the study’s authors, “The economic, urban design, real estate market, and municipal behavior variables that may influence urban change in the context of HSR remain largely understudied. …While federal and state funds will pay for the construction of the network, local cities with stations connecting them to the HSR system will be responsible for development around their stations.

Despite the fact that station cities will have to provide station buildings and platforms, parking, and enhanced local transit connectivity and infrastructural capacity, many have not yet started planning for HSR. Some cities that have initiated planning efforts are focusing their attention on their stations as isolated entities in the system and in the city often ignoring the possible complement that adjacent stations on the HSR corridor may provide, and how the station may integrate into the city and region.” That’s key. HSR cannot exist in a vacuum.

A world of possibilities

Also key here is that “Research has, nevertheless, shown that pre-planning is essential if environmental, economic development and transportation goals are to be attained, and if the effects of transit on development patterns are to be positive and robust. Research has also shown that regional systems require planning practices. This is even more significant since the HSR will compress distances and travel times,” the study authors note, meaning that towns located peripherally to main hub cities will be an important and integral part of and contribute to the overall network and its success.

Furthermore, second-tier cities could become bedroom communities for workers working in first-tiers as housing opportunities in the former may be more affordable compared to those in the latter. Meanwhile, entertainment and retail venues in addition to cultural events and activities provided by main cities could be of appeal and therefore draw those from outlying ones.

Hanford, located about 30 miles south of Fresno, could be a first-tier or second-tier town depending upon whether or not it gets its own station. For one Hanford-area tomato grower, Brad Johns, he sees the opportunities the bullet train is going to bring with it.

“I envision, when this train is finally built, that most of the folks here in town will get up on a Friday, decide that ‘I would really like to go to San Francisco for a bowl of clam chowder,’ and then they will decide ‘you know what, there’s a really nice show playing in Las Vegas,’ and they will get back on that same train and be in Las Vegas for dinner, get back on the train and be home by midnight to sleep in their own bed,” Johns remarked a week ago on the PBS News Hour.

Spencer Michels, the segment reporter in referring to the tomato grower, noted, “Johns even hopes to put up solar panels and sell power for the train.“ Johns’s property is purportedly going to be diagonally sliced through by the train line.

Aside from the fact HSR will give travelers another viable transportation option with which to move about the state, “supporters argue that fast trains will help unclog crowded freeways, will reduce air pollution and cut transportation costs, while creating thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs,” Michels added.

There are so many pluses to this state project, more than may meet the eye, in fact.

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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