Rumors of the Death of HSR Greatly Exaggerated

Aaron Renn has a post on New Geography pronouncing American high-speed rail dead. His reasoning: the stimulus spread the money around too much, Republican Governors rejected the HSR stimulus money, rail advocates have called 110 mph legacy lines high-speed rail, the FRA hobbles good passenger rail. All of those factors are true – though some cancel out, e.g. the 110 mph pretend-HSR lines in Wisconsin and Ohio were the first on the chopping block – but California HSR marches on.

Reading California HSR Blog gives an impression that the project is controversial, but in no real risk of disappearing. While some of the money from the canceled lines went to chaff, a lot went to California, which already has enough money to build a demonstration line in the Central Valley and is already looking at leveraging other money it will get to reach either Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Moreover, although the authority still carries over a lot of past incompetence, the current administration of Roelof van Ark is looking at alternatives to reduce costs, such as reducing the number and length of viaducts and even revisiting past alignment decisions. The adults are more firmly in charge today than a year and a half ago.

There’s still NIMBYism, particularly from Central Valley farmers and from suburbs on the San Francisco Peninsula, but the former is no big deal by the standards of what TGV construction has to go through, and the latter has simply led the authority to focus on connecting HSR track to Los Angeles first and use legacy track at slightly lower speed with much less local impact to get to San Francisco. Whether the project will ultimately have a useful starter line or remain a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced shuttle depends on how much private funding it can attract, but Japan promised to fund 50% of the line, and the authority has had meetings with Spain and China. It’d be enough to do at least LA-Fresno, which is quite useful, if not as good as LA-Fresno-San Francisco.

Moreover, calling HSR dead on New Geography and saying it’s because Republican Governors rejected the money is ironic, in light of who owns the site. Aaron is interested in reform and efficiency; the same can’t be said of New Geography executive editor Joel Kotkin, an anti-urbanist so uninformed and desperate he blamed megacities for AIDS.

Kotkin may be just uninformed, but contributing editor Wendell Cox goes further: he and fellow Reason transportation hack Robert Poole wrote a report claiming, on flimsy evidence, that Florida’s high-speed rail line would have huge cost overruns and ridership shortfalls (a later report released by professional consultants said in fact the line would have been more profitable than expected). The report is a lie, and Rick Scott’s cancellation of the Florida HSR line, based on the report, involved additional lying to the court.

My explanation, hoisted from a comment I wrote on the subject on the Infrastructurist, responding to commenter Colin Prime:

1. The executive summary – i.e. what most people would read – says, “This report estimates that the cost to Florida taxpayers could be $3 billion more than currently projected.” As it turns out, in the body of the report in the section on Flyvbjerg the report says $0.54-2.7 billion, with $1.2 billion as the likeliest. None of these lower figures appears in the executive summary. That alone suggests massive deception.

2. In fact, Flyvbjerg either talks about megaprojects in general or focuses on urban rail. HSR projects don’t run over budget frequently, and when they do, it’s not by 100%. In Norway, a 50% cost overrun on the HSR line to the airport (coming from geological problems) was considered so unusual it triggered a government investigation.

3. Here’s the report on California [the projected per-km cost of the Central Valley segment is much higher than that of the Florida line]: “The California segment is not being built to full high-speed rail standards, because of a legal requirement that the line be usable by conventional Amtrak services if the Los Angeles to San Francisco project is not completed. The line would be upgraded to full high-speed rail standards when and if the much longer route is completed.”

This is technically known as “a lie.” Making the line Amtrak-usable is actually a cost raiser rather than a cost saver, because Amtrak trains are heavier and therefore elevated structures would have to be beefed up. Otherwise the line is built to HSR standards in terms of the expensive bits, i.e. track geometry and physical infrastructure; the only component that may not be included in California in this round is electrification, which is a fraction of the total cost of HSR ($3 million per mile kilometer at Acela costs).

4. In general, of the 11 factors cited for California-Florida differences, the ones on which Florida would be more expensive than California are all small things like stations and electricity; the big items involve physical infrastructure, and there Florida would be cheaper.

5. To support the assertion that HSR can suffer from a ridership shortfall, the report mentions Eurostar and THSR. Unmentioned are the many TGV lines that exceeded projections. The report also makes a spurious comparison to the Acela; it even doubles-down on the Acela comparison, and uses a false comparison to make the Florida line look slow. Florida’s travel time is compared not with end-to-end travel time on the average fast train (an average of 80 mph on the Acela NY-DC, and 140 mph on the Sanyo Shinkansen) but with the fastest intermediate segment on the fastest train of the day, connecting two small cities (100 and 170, respectively). On top of it, the Acela is priced for premium travel, with coach travel provided by the 66 mph Regional.

6. To add insult to injury, Cox and Poole dismiss Florida’s tourism as such: “The metropolitan areas in both markets [NEC and Florida] have substantial tourist volumes.” In reality, the tourist volumes in Florida relative to the metro area size are much larger than in the Northeast, and the Florida line directly serves tourist attractions (airport to Disneyland) whereas the Acela does not (minimal airport service, premium brand).

Given the above issues the study, I’d say calling it a lie is fair.

High-speed rail has challenges, many correctly identified by Aaron. The FRA is an obstacle (though the people most interested in changing it tend to be good transit activists); spreading the money around was a problem. But right-wing populists who can’t govern soon become unpopular, and are thus an ephemeral phenomenon. Rick Scott’s approval rate is 27%, John Kasich‘s is 35%, Scott Walker‘s is 37%. And it’s deeply troubling to go on a website and say that high-speed rail is dead when one of the reasons it’s dead is shoddy or dishonest work done by another contributor to the same website.

Fortunately, in California, the real obstacle is so far not a huge deal (California is planning to run on dedicated tracks, or at least on tracks shared only with commuter trains), and the ephemeral obstacle lost the gubernatorial election. Money is a problem and so is incompetence, but the incompetence seems to be waning, albeit slowly, and the money is likely to materialize. Don’t count HSR out yet.


  1. Stephen Smith

    I’m a bit skeptical of the Japanese offer – to be honest, I don’t think they truly understood what they were getting themselves into in terms of the utter transit-inaccessibility of pretty much every part of California other than San Francisco. It looked a bit more to me like a publicity stunt than an actual offer.

    At the end of the day, I think land use will be the determinant of whether it gets built, and whether what gets built is actually useful (which will then determine if the line gets expanded to its full SF-LA route, and if the idea catches on elsewhere). All of the obstacles – land, money, and regulations – can be overcome, but they’ll be a lot easier to overcome once there’s a real constituency for high-speed service. Right now, I just don’t feel like there is – there’s constituency for spending money (found within the Democratic party and within labor unions), but there’s not much of a constituency for actually using the damn thing.

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm… maybe you’re right. It could be that Japan’s offer is a marketing ploy or a political loss leader, akin to when a broker says he can find you a two-bedroom in the city for $1,500 and then tells you the best he can do is $1,900. Or it could be that it was sincere but the government might be in austerity mood; any such offer, from any country, is akin to a reverse Marshall Plan, i.e. lending California funds to buy technology from the country that’s offering the money. But even then, California doesn’t need the full 50% of the money to get to the LA Basin; with the Prop 1A funds matched 50/50, a single-digit number of billions should suffice.

      I feel like in California there actually is a constituency for high-speed service. Building things is good for politicians’ legacy, especially Jerry Brown, who tried and failed to get HSR built from LA to San Diego the last time he was Governor. The problems come from little things that matter but aren’t sexy, i.e. connecting transit, good operating plan, operating costs, and land use. The issue with California – and the reason I still support the project – is that many of the usual problems of legacy regulations are less applicable, since the tracks are greenfield (and because of the Tehachapi Loop there’s no possible way to run it on legacy track to save money). Like the now-dead Florida line, it’s one of the few places where HSR could succeed without FRA reform.

      Anyway, I’m optimistic something will be built – Bakersfield-Merced at the very least, Palmdale-Fresno most probably, and LA Basin-Fresno likely. Whether it’s done well is another matter.

      • Nathanael

        The Japanese offer was undoubtedly sincere, and was undoubtedly Marshall-plan export-our-tech stuff, but all bets are off in Japan since Fukushima. The Japanese economy is going to undergo massive changes and goodness knows what will result in the end.

    • JJJ

      “the utter transit-inaccessibility of pretty much every part of California other than San Francisco.”

      Thats a pretty ignorant comment. The kind of drivel folks who have never been to California might say. It’s not like 1.2 million people ride transit in LA every day.

      • Alon Levy

        More on this later, but LA’s transit accessibility depends heavily on whether you think in terms of “gets me to and from Union Station” or “gets me to and from where I want to go.” In principle, the connecting transit in many American cities, even LA, is very good, since it’s monocentric around the train station. In practice, it’s not so clear cut, because low ridership leads to low frequency.

      • Wad

        @Alon, don’t forget that as a point of organizing connecting service, Union Station is awful when you factor in connecting times’ where and how.

        If you were to arrive at Union Station by train today, you would have the option of the subway and its two branches, a light rail going north and east to Pasadena or east to East L.A., and buses that touch just about all of L.A. County.

        The service is already there. Now the challenge is making the transfer.

        The subway? Get off the train, go downstairs to the long tunnel, make a long walk east or west, go down to the mezzanine, buy the subway ticket, go down one more level and catch the train.

        The Gold Line? Get off the train, go downstairs to the long tunnel, make a short walk west, buy a ticket, go upstairs and catch the train.

        The bus? First, you must know which bus service you want, because Union Station can refer to: 1) the Patsaouras Transit Plaza east of the train platforms, 2)Cesar Chavez or Alameda Street where through-running buses travel (only buses that begin or end service at Union Station serve the Patsaouras Plaza), 3) the bus pad just north of the 101 Freeway where El Monte Busway buses stop (they can’t turn into the Patsaouras Plaza).

        Can it all be fixed? Theoretically, yes. Realistically, you face the challenge of trying to re-do or knock down parts of an architecturally beautiful station. As for the bus thing, having every bus go inside Patsaouras turns out to be a huge waste of time — Metro found that because of the single-entry/exit loop, it adds 5 minutes of run-time to service (this is why Metro makes this a terminal stop and keeps through-running buses along Chavez). It can’t be redone because Metro’s Taj Mahal headquarters building blocks the way of a north-side entry and exit.

    • Wad

      @Stephen, if you think land use is the make-or-break determinant for high-speed rail in California, consider that the state isn’t building from zero and scale up from there.

      If rail ridership were dependent on density and transit, the Capitol Corridor trains would be outpacing the Pacific Surfliner trains. The Southern California Surfliners have the higher ridership, even though you’d associate the area with unforgiving sprawl and lousy transit.

      The Surfliner is the second-busiest corridor in the U.S. The Capitol, third.

      Then there’s the curious case of the San Joaquins — fifth-busiest corridor and the trunk of the L.A.-San Francisco HSR network. San Joaquins run through petit-urban Central Valley cities (counties are still mostly agricultural), and this is a line that lacks “tent-pole” stations at either end. The San Joaquins can get you from L.A. to San Francisco, but require a bus at both ends.

      The real constituency for HSR is the established regular-rail ridership. We know people are riding and where they are going.

      Why are they riding? I don’t think density or transit ridership has much to do with it. People are finding their way to the train. I think it’s because people are responding to the service supply, reasonable fares and amenities (the California Cars are very roomy).

  2. Joseph E


    You don’t need transit to use HSR anymore than you need transit to use an airplane. HSR certainly benefits from good connection transit more than airports because it can be placed in the center of the city instead of at the edge, but paying a few extra dollars to take a taxi or rent a car at your destination is not a deal-breaker. Because HSR will have multiple stations in each metro area, the closest station will always be more convenient than going to SFO or LAX, and a car-train-taxi trip will certainly be faster than driving the whole route. Even the time needed to rent a car should not equal the 5 or 6 or 7 hour driving time from LA to the Bay Area.

    In the case of California, HSR will connect to a pretty good transit network at Union Station in Los Angeles (including a half-dozen somewhat frequent commuter rail lines, a bunch of express and rapid bus lines, and two major rapid transit lines which branch off in 6 directions), as well as in San Francisco. But many people will want to take a taxi or get dropped off/picked up in a car by a friend anyway, especially if they have a lot of luggage.

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  4. EngineerScotty

    Renn is correct if you interpret “HSR is dead” to mean “a large network of HSR project connecting major US cities is not a politically viable project in the short-to-medium term”. At the present time, there isn’t much stomach for a large enterprise of this sort; Renn’s stating the obvious.

    Like you, I expect CAHSR to go ahead, barring some federal budget deal that deprives it of funding (which could happen).

    However, I don’t see Renn’s piece as an argument on the merits at all. Longer term, I expect prospects to brighten up–particularly if the anti-GOP backlash in swing states such as Florida continues, and gas prices head back north of $4/gallon–a figure which appears to be a bit of a “magic number”. But what will happen with US politics in the next election cycle (and beyond) is anybody’s guess.

  5. Andy

    I appreciate your calling out Kotkin, Cox & their fellow travelers. I am continually mystified why Renn, who is generally thoughtful and logical, continues to contribute to a sloppy hack job like NewGeography.

    • Miles Bader

      I dunno about Renn, but I have noticed that there are a disturbing number of otherwise-reasonable writers who end up parroting Reason Foundation talking points and the like.

      Typically these seem to be those with (non-nutcase) libertarian leanings, so my theory is that they’re attracted by the libertarian credentials and vibe of the R.F., somewhat sympathetic to the “libertarian cultural” component (“personal autos are the only transport mode that celebrates our status as individuals”), soothed by the sort of faux-academic tone of the R.F.’s writings, and given that they don’t know much about the subject, taken in by the R.F.’s rhetorical tricks and statistical sleight-of-hand (and the R.F. is very good at what they do).

      [Not just the R.F. of course, but they represent their ilk.]

  6. Nathanael

    The real problem is that people with 37% approval can manage to stay in power for very long periods. This is due to various types of manipulation: dishonest campaigns, media control, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and even the infamous electronic voting machines.

    Every one of these needs to be addressed.

    • Alon Levy

      The main issue is that recall campaigns are hard to get running. Florida doesn’t even have recall provisions, although at one point one Democrat tried to introduce them. Wisconsin has a recall, but only a year after the original election. Unpopular people do not get back by cheating; US-grade voter suppression gives you a 2-point advantage, not a 33-point one like in Iran.

      • Nathanael

        Gerrymandering and malapportionment are huge issues, however. Ever looked at NY State Senate districts? They were drawn to be maximally unfair within the limits of the Baker v. Carr ruling. Obviously this doesn’t get you governorships, but it does get you legislatures.

  7. MobilMan

    Re: “HSR projects don’t run over budget frequently, and when they do, it’s not by 100%.”

    They do if you put a lot of tunnels in and if the costs are intentionally underestimated. The initial cost figures in that picture would have to be adjusted to “planned costs at beginning of construction” but you would still come out at around +100% for Nuremberg-Munich. In general, tunneling is the riskiest part of any new line in terms of cost and delay. E.g. KTX, Shinkansen(?).

    Important consequence for planning: avoid tunnels wherever possible. Less tunneling more fun!

    • Alon Levy

      The KTX was 50% over budget. I’m not sure about current Shinkansen lines; Tokaido went 100% over budget, because the JNR leadership lied about costs to get the government to approve the project.

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    • Alon Levy

      They recovered. But California HSR somehow manages to keep going, eventually; the Brown administration’s signaling that it doesn’t care about timeliness or costs, but will find the money as necessary, from whatever source.

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