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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

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

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