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Why high-speed rail in California is a clunker

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Bill Withuhn

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 6:50 am | Updated: 10:51 am, Wed Jan 30, 2013.

In the grand old days of trains, the fastest were called the “Flyers.” By 1938, the fastest steam trains (yes, steam trains) in America hit 120 miles an hour. California is now considering a new kind of “flyer” on the rails — trains running at 2 to 3 miles a minute.

But watch your wallet. The present high-speed rail plan, unveiled on Nov. 1, is deeply flawed, and it’s likely to become the biggest budget-buster in our state’s history.

Why should we care? Plenty is at stake for us, including tax money out of our pockets and a California transportation budget that will be deeply in the red for many decades to come. Road maintenance in many parts of  California will most definitely suffer, because our state tax money that should go for roads will be spent in great gobs elsewhere, not just in the 20 years covered by the rail plan, but forever after. Newspaper coverage in our state capital has been laudatory. Beware the happy talk.

Disclosure: I love trains. I was the senior vice president of a group of regional and short-line freight railroads operating in five states. Then, at the Smithsonian, I was hired because of my knowledge of transportation, and to study it — including every measure of costs. I’ve studied the subject for decades, for all types of transport, for passengers, for freight, and in the U.S. and overseas.

Big Fact No. 1: No rail passenger rail system anywhere on earth is profitable, if you count all the ongoing required costs over at least two or three decades, and even if up-front capital costs are not included. There are the pesky ever-after costs: for daily operations and for the recurrent major maintenance of tracks, other required railway infrastructure, and rolling stock.

A secret you — as a taxpayer — should know: Railroad managers make a distinction between costs “above the rail” and “below the rail,” the latter including tracks and all the extensive physical plant that isn’t a train. Watch for flim-flam about sustainable economics: Yes, some rail passenger systems in this world make money “above the rail.” But passenger trains everywhere run perpetually and deeply in the red — and no matter how many passengers they carry — when all “below the rail” recurring costs are also included.

Big Fact No. 2: High-speed trains are least in the red (i.e., still unprofitable as described above) when intercity distances are short and population densities are high along most of the route. Which is the case in Japan and in Europe, but not so in nearly all of California.

In the U.S., distances are comparatively much longer — dramatically increasing the costs of building and maintaining a rail line. And — a critical factor — population densities are high in only a very few areas along feasible rail routes, especially in California’s Central Valley. Oh, someone says, the Chinese are building high-speed rail systems spanning very long distances. Yes, and the capital costs are far beyond anything the U.S. in its wildest dreams could possibly finance, either privately or publicly.

In California, it’s a question of sustainability. There will be deficits in perpetuity for high-speed trains after a system is built. Long experience shows that ticket prices high enough to cover all the trains’ costs over time result in too few passengers.

Building such a system is daunting, too.

Big Fact No. 3: In California, for the safety of trains and passengers, high-speed rail routes cannot be located in our freeway medians or near freight-rail tracks. High-speed trains need extremely gentle curves, far gentler curves than 65-mph freeways routinely have. Moreover, operating 125 to 180 mile-per-hour trains on tracks that also carry 50-75 mph freight trains is a non-starter. Even locating high-speed rail tracks alongside freight-rail tracks is a big safety risk, in case of derailments on either the freight or the high-speed tracks.

And think of the safety of cars crossing a high-speed rail line. Collisions of 150-mile-an-hour trains with automobiles would be disastrous. Level crossings can’t be tolerated; tracks and every intersecting road must be vertically separated.

So, a high-speed train requires its own dedicated right-of-way and laser-aligned rails. And it requires a route that is not close to either Highway 99 or the Union Pacific tracks. Which ranchers and farmers in the south Valley have suddenly found out — when official-looking trespassers have been seen putting rail-line survey stakes in private ground.

Big Fact No. 4: And that brings up the true “900-pound gorilla” in the corner of the room: land acquisition and condemnation.  No one, let alone the California High-Speed Rail Authority, knows with any certainty what all the necessary acquisition costs of extensive private lands will be. 

Only after land acquisition is done, stage by stage, can construction begin, stage by stage.  The capital costs of construction are anywhere from $40 million to $150 million for each mile (the latter figure = $2,367 per inch), depending on topography, needed viaducts, bridges, etc. The High-Speed Rail Authority has tried hard to estimate the construction costs, but expect big overruns.

Is there a transportation alternative for California’s growth in the next couple of decades? All forms of travel everywhere in the U.S. and in the world — whether by highway, airway, or passenger train — require significant funding from the public. But the great myth that passenger trains can make money seems never to die.

Doing a little math discloses that in the Central Valley, widening Hwy 99 and I-5 where feasible on their long rural stretches — and investing in improvements to the existing Caltrain system — would be hugely more cost-effective solutions for our state’s intercity transportation challenges for at least the next two decades. After that, and when government budgets are better, let’s indeed think about high-speed rail.

But we flatly can’t afford it now. It’s a great idea whose time is yet to come.

Bill Withuhn, of Burson, a former businessman, is a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and a veteran of Special Operations. He writes the column “Old Sky Warrior” in the Calaveras Enterprise, where this column was initially published. Contact him at wwithuhn@aol.com.

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Kevin Paglia posted at 9:20 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2115

    WOW, they already have that


    good luck parking it. I can just see some punk on the ground with a pellet gun.

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 9:18 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2115

    I'll wait for them to come out with a motorcycle version: http://instring.com/2009/06/04/latest-soar-flying-motorcycle-conceptual-design/

    Seriously though, for the cost of building the rail they could fully develop a personal flying vehicle industry here in Cal. AND create jobs AND have it spread through out the US.

    Now if they can just make a pedal version I'd be in heaven ;-)

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 7:56 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Kevin... I always enjoy your creativity. Its funny how things in the past can sometimes become a reality. Your post brought to my mind and old cartoon I used to love called
    the Jetsons.

    There, everyone had their own personal flying crafts... you brought back a good memory... thanks!

  • Kevin Paglia posted at 6:50 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Kevin Paglia Posts: 2115

    It strikes me that the state would be better served by promoting local small airports and personal flying crafts.


    Be cheaper and with gps we could establish flight paths between airports. A maximum flight altitude will have to be established and a whole new set of traffic laws, but think of all the state jobs.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:14 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Pat stated...DB: Even though you were being facetious...my point was that even asinine suggestions from anyone would serve the general public better!!

    I know you got it Pat... I was just covering my basis for people like Mark Trovinger who consistantly misunderstand...

    and... 2030? By then we will have teleporters!... LOL !!!!!!!!!!

  • Patrick W Maple posted at 3:19 pm on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Pat Maple Posts: 1805

    DB: Even though you were being facetious...my point was that even asinine suggestions from anyone would serve the general public better!!

    What?... Now that jobs are leaving in record numbers and California's economy is floundering under Brown's leadership, that projection may be (slight correction follows) waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy off.
    2030? By then we will have teleporters!

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 9:05 am on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    PPat stated...Baumbach's ideas are better serving.

    Just to clarify, I am not stating we should hire 30,000 agents. I was simply stating that job creation is not a good reason to promote this project and gave one alternate scenario. The project itself should have merit no matter the number of jobs created.

    There are much less expensive ways to create jobs than high speed rail. I think Pat's observation is important. The costs will be much higher than predicted. Probably much higher than Pat estimated.

    The Boston Boston Big Dig that became a financial nightmare was an excellent example. The high speed rail system could be dramatically worse as the distance is much longer and the upkeep and expense after completion will be exorbitant. In addition, imagine the first lawsuit that is filed when a California train traveling at high speeds derails and human life is taken in big numbers... what will that cost.

  • Patrick W Maple posted at 6:59 am on Fri, Nov 18, 2011.

    Pat Maple Posts: 1805

    Lets make some corrections here: "want for ALL" or "want FROM all"?
    "...it is an "important beginning"...aimed at several key population centers"? What makes them key and why should I pay for something I don't believe in...
    "All those opposed...screaming loudest...shelved"...why would I scream about something I don't use...I don't use Interstate 10 either. " I can't imagine what it would be like without BART"...have you ridden BART?...it sucks!

    Bond passed for $24 Billion. "... that projection may be way off.
    "construction costs exceed $98 billion dollars or the equivalent of the entire State budget for a year." The $24 Billion will be ate up before a nut is turned in salaries for the big shots cronies and planning...$300 Billion sounds closer to the truth...anyone remember the Boston Big Dig? Baumbach's ideas are better serving.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 11:21 am on Thu, Nov 17, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Josh stated...It's really too bad the project couldn't start tomorrow. What a nice impact on job creation...

    If job creation is the main concern, we could hire 30,000 border agents to patrol our state boundaries. Have all of them on bicycles to help the green movement. We then would create jobs for the bicycle industry. The lock industry would be impacted as well to secure the bicycles. The sunglasses these agents all wear will create more jobs in the manufacturing of sun glasses. There will then be more jobs in the food industry as prisoners have to eat. More prisoners will result because of these employees. Transportation industry will create more jobs as buses will be purchased to transport people who attempted entry to our country.
    The employees will create more jobs in the fitness industry and gyms will open in order to keep these officers fit.
    This way, we can avoid the endless expense of maintenance of these high speed rails that never end. With all these bicycles, we wouldn't need these high speed rails anyway... and still create more good jobs.

  • Josh Morgan posted at 9:07 am on Thu, Nov 17, 2011.

    Josh Morgan Posts: 542

    It's really too bad the project couldn't start tomorrow. What a nice impact on job creation. I think environmentalists would be pushing for a project that would eliminate thousands of vehicles off the roads. I will never be built for less money than today. You'd have some very competitive bidding going on right now.

  • Kim Parigoris posted at 7:31 pm on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Kim Parigoris Posts: 470

    It is said that HSR construction costs exceed $98 billion dollars or the equivalent of the entire State budget for a year. Considering that rail lines are to be built in the Central valley, 90 minutes away from the population centers HRS was designed to serve, is it a reasonable investment of state resources? Moreover, given the dubious and ever-changing revenue projections, how much will California taxpayers be expected to subsidize this project over it’s life expectancy and at what cost to other essential state programs?

  • Brian Dockter posted at 6:08 pm on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2866

    I can see it now. Let's go to the year 2030. All those opposed to high speed rail will be the ones screaming the loudest why the project was shelved.

  • Brian Dockter posted at 6:03 pm on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Brian Dockter Posts: 2866


    Bill Withuhn, the self-appointed Devil's Advocate of HSR. What he doesn't address is the eventuality of so many cars on the roadways i twill be one giant parking jam 24/7. I've heard all the arguments against HSR. None of them acknowledge the need for an alternative to plane travel. They only argue the costs involved in this project. Shortsighted at the least.

  • Kim Parigoris posted at 2:17 pm on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Kim Parigoris Posts: 470

    Both of you have good poits about BART and yes it is in heavily populated areas, which is what the environmental zealots want for ALL of us, and why they are pushing for this HSR. Do you know that municipalities do not have to abide by SB375, if they don't want to? Only hitch is, that they will then not receive transportation funds. This is extrotion by our state government to our local governments. When I lived in the Bay Area, I took BART every day and absolutely loved it..however, as I grew older we no longer wanted to live in the city or close suburbs. I now live in the country and want to stay there. Unfortunately they will choke us all in to the cities by not repairing roads, etc. If our rural road got any worse, if they repainted the white fog lines they would either have to paint on dirt or make it a one lane road, the road is so deteriorated.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 1:20 pm on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    Good point Josh re BART... However, BART in in heavily populated areas and does and does not require as much maintenance and upkeep than what this high speed rail project entails. Also, when I go on BART, most times it is less than 1/2 full
    . http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-08-16/business/17175977_1_bart-strike-bart-spokesman-transit-agency

    Revenue report tells BART's tale

    August 16, 2009|Andrew S. Ross

    We can only hope that members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 have come to their senses by the time this column appears. Or at least before the midnight tonight deadline for a BART strike. We'll all breathe a huge sigh of relief, grateful that Local 1555 has kicked in its share of the $100 million savings in new union contracts. That means BART will be left with a mere $210 million projected deficit over the next four years to deal with.

    Interesting article ...

  • Josh Morgan posted at 10:42 am on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Josh Morgan Posts: 542

    I won't even pretend to have the knowledge about rail service that Mr. Withuhn has but I can remember very similar arguments being made when BART was in it's planning stages. I can't imagine what it would be like without BART.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 9:44 am on Wed, Nov 16, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9405

    After reading this article by Bill Withuhn , It is obvious that we should have serious concerns over such a potential financial obligation that may sink our financial boat...

    By Mark Clayton, Staff writer / January 28, 2010...
    President Obama announced 13 high-speed rail projects worth $8 billion Thursday. It is an 'important beginning,' advocates say, aimed at several key population centers.
    California the biggest winner...California will get $2.34 billion, the largest award, to help set up a high-speed line between San Diego and Sacramento by 2026.

    Key to the case that this project would be viable economically is that
    California expects its population to grow by 13.5 million during the next 20 years.
    What?... Now that jobs are leaving in record numbers and California's economy is floundering under Brown's leadership, that projection may be way off.


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