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Post unfairly criticizes California high-speed rail

In an editorial titled "Hit the brakes," the Washington Post yesterday unfairly criticized California's plan for a true high-speed rail system.

Photo by lslphoto on Flickr.

The first phase of the project would construct a line from Anaheim to Los Angeles and then on to Bakersfield, stretching through the Central Valley to reach San Jose and San Francisco. Future extensions would bring spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. Author's note: To clarify, the first segment to open will not be the entire first phase, but only a section of it. The initial segment is described later in the article.

The project is one of the most promising in the country. Unlike now-dead proposals in Wisconsin and Ohio, California's project would result in a true high-speed line. Trains would have a top speed of 220 miles per hour, almost 50% greater than the top speed of Amtrak's Acela Express.

That means that a passenger could board a train at Union Station in Los Angeles and be in downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 38 minutes. That's slightly less than the 2 hours 45 minutes needed to go from Washington to New York on Acela.

But the Washington Post doesn't think anyone would ride a train like that ... despite the fact that an example exists right in the Post's backyard.

Here in the northeast, by some estimations, Amtrak has captured more half of the market share for travelers in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. Currently, the largest short-haul air market in the country is between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

California's main high-speed line will link Los Angeles and San Francisco with a trip time much shorter than that of driving and competitive with that of flying, especially considering trip time to the airport and security delays.

Americans will take trains, especially when they're convenient. California has a history of supporting and building successful rail routes. Since 1990, the California Department of Transportation has been building upon 3 intra-state corridor services, branded under the Amtrak California banner.

These 3 routes rank 3rd, 4th, and 6th nationally in overall ridership, behind only the Northeast Regional and Acela Express (Pennsylvania's Keystone Corridor is 5th). And that's despite the fact that the California routes aren't high-speed.

And just this week, America 2050 released a report ranking potential high-speed rail corridors nationwide. Among long corridors (greater than 300 miles), LA-San Francisco ranked second behind Washington-Boston.

Additionally, Californians support the project. They voted in 2008 to approve nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project. That sort of commitment is nothing to sneeze at.

All of these data bode well for California. Unlike Ohio and Florida, the Golden State has a history of supporting rail. And Californians have proven that they will ride the rails in numbers, even though their state is much less dense than its northeastern counterparts.

But that's not enough for the Post. Instead they criticize the project as a wasteful and with dubious feasibility. But their arguments don't hold water.

The Post calls into question the wisdom of building the first section in the middle of nowhere. But that's not the case.

It is true that the first section of track to actually be constructed will run from Bakersfield to Corcoran, both in the Central Valley. But trains won't just run between those two cities. The new line will be connected to the existing Amtrak corridor in the Valley, meaning that even before the bullet trains arrive on site, passengers will benefit from a faster trip between Bakersfield and Sacramento.

Besides, the line has to begin somewhere. On October 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened. It ran from Carlisle to Irwin, both in the middle of nowhere. It didn't even reach Harrisburg in the east or Pittsburgh in the west. But that didn't mean that cars traveling between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg couldn't use it where it did exist.

The truth of the matter is that this is a great first step, and it's a good use of limited resources, especially since the routes on the Peninsula and in the Los Angeles area are not even settled.

The Post also calls into question the ability of the California High Speed Rail Authority to administer the project. But, as the California High Speed Rail Blog points out, the report that the Post cites as damning merely concludes that the Authority is transitioning from planning to building and needs to choose a business model.

Most disappointing, though, is that the Post seems to believe that, "In much of the country passenger rail can't compete with car travel by interstate highways. It's unclear that the public benefits attributed to high-speed rail—reduced carbon emissions and less airport congestion—would outweigh the inevitable operating subsidies."

This ignores the fact that both highway travel and air travel, at least as we know them, are possible only through subsidies. And it also suggests that California is one of the places where train travel won't work; something that the evidence seems to disprove.

The success of the California project will only make it easier for America to get behind other high-speed rail and corridor train services. That means that a new northeastern super-fast linesomething not even designed yet—will face fewer hurdles.

The Washington Post should get behind California's high-speed line not just because it's a good project with the potential to transform California and her urban areas, but also because it will make 220 mph East Coast trains more likely.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Thanks for giving this issue attention, David. As we wrote about earlier, we couldn't agree more that California's high-speed rail (along with the Northeast Corridor) is one of the most deserving projects in the country.

by Region Forward on Jan 13, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

"the first section of track to actually be constructed will run from Bakersfield to Corcoran"

The first section is actually from Borden to Corcoran, not Bakersfield to Corcoran. The additional funds redirected from the WI and OH projects may very well allow an extension of the first segment from Corcoran south to the edge of Bakersfield, but the first segment will also definitely stretch north of Corcoran to Hannover, Fresno and Borden, on the edges of Madera.

So definitely Borden to Corcoran, maybe Borden to Corcoran to Bakersfield.

by Steven on Jan 13, 2011 12:20 pm • linkreport

The Washington Post should get behind California's high-speed line not just because it's a good project with the potential to transform California and her urban areas, but also because it will make 220 mph East Coast trains more likely.

That's one way to look at it. Another is that the project will be remembered as a boondoggle and HSR will forever be associated with it, so that when the NEC argues for (real) HSR, people will say, "No way – that was a disaster in California."

But at this point, I think most sides have laid out their best arguments, and all we can do is wait and see how it turns out.

by Stephen Smith on Jan 13, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

Damn peculiar.

half of the cost left unfunded?

Seems a great case for a public-private partnership. You should be able to make money on this route. Who own the tracks?

by charlie on Jan 13, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

Matt, if you'll read closer the article said the first leg "wasn't" Anaheim to Los Angeles, which would make some sense. The current plan does not.

And it ins't quite so simply as "Califonians agreed to 9 billion in bonds", because those bonds are just the downpayment on the entire ~44 billion dollar system. As non-ca resident I don't really care how they spend their money but considering California's enormous, tens of billions of dollars budget gap, it makes me wonder.

The largest problem is that China is offering to both build and finance the system, and us being a Walmart nation will probably let them do it at the enormous detriment of the nation.

Back to the original point, this plan has many reasons to be critisized, its cost least of which.

HSR certainly has a place in our transportation plan. But spend the extra time to put the first leg somewhere useful, like between LA and SF. Spending 5 billion putting out in the valley simply because its easier is completely ridiculous.

by freely on Jan 13, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

To me building the stretch in the middle of nowhere does not make any sense either as it would involve running Amtrak diesel trains with a max speed of 100 mph on a 220 mph route.

The planning process is unfortunately a lot more difficult in urban areas as are the cost. But it sounds totally pontless at this point to build a stretch that has will hae to close to 0 benefits and bn of dollar costs

America 2050 report is very poor. I would not even consider it worthwile material to read as it:

- weights congestion very low as factor influencing hsl worthiness
- does not account for leisure travel (often 60% of the market) and is biased towards business travel (why rate air travel so high???) and ultimately is totally biased towards north east project
- Doesn't do any kind of forecasting and does not take into account car flows

by Anonymous on Jan 13, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

@freely, since you clearly haven't read anything else about the project, the first portion to be constructed in the Central Valley is in the middle of the planned main trunk line that will connect LA and SF (i.e. it is between LA and SF). So just like Matt said, this first segment is much like the first segment of the Turnpike. Or, an even better example, the first segment of the Interstate system to be constructed was the middle of nowhere Missouri. Wonder what all the HSR haters would think about that.

by Fred in RVA on Jan 13, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport


The initial HSR segment is part of the route between SF and LA. It's the spine of the future completed route.

by Matt T. on Jan 13, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

We'll see a lot more pieces like this. It's a salvo in the war over the surface transportation reauthorization bill. The Republican majority in the House has set up rules to create a pincer movement around the reauthorization. On the one hand, money can't be appropriated for transportation projects outside what's been authorized in the reauthorization. This gives John Mica considerable control over transportation spending. On the other hand, if the reauthorization authorizes more spending than the trust fund can support, the appropriations committee can cut it back. Mica says he has been assured by the House leadership that the appropriations committee will appropriate what's been authorized if there's money in the trust fund to cover it. The effect of these rules is to push Mica to write a reauthorization bill which precisely spends the trust fund receipts. If he does so, he will control transportation spending. If he doesn't, someone else will.

So a zero-sum game has been set up. What gets spent on HSR and transit won't be spent on roads. What gets spent on roads and transit won't be spent on HSR. What gets spent on roads and HSR won't be spent on transit.

Last week, Mica sat down with Barbara Boxer, who owns the Senate side of the reauthorization, to discuss it. It seems reasonable to assume that Boxer would like to see HSR money in the bill, so that California can get some. Mica has, in the past, spoken favourably of HSR in the NEC. There is, therefore, some reason to suppose the two of them will agree to authorize some money for HSR. Not, of course, the $50B that was in the Oberstar draft, but something.

So roads and transit advocates have some reason to disparage HSR, particularly California HSR. The less that is authorized for it, the more that can be authorized for their projects. Expect many more such editorials. Don't expect them to be accurate.

by jim on Jan 13, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

The hurdle with most long distance infrastructure problems is the same --the last mile problem. The northeast corridor benefits from having city's that are highly public transit oriented to being with. You can get on the subway (or get a cab) and get to a train station for a reasonable amount of money in DC, NYC and BOS and you can get to your final destination using the same.

California is not like that. There is no appreciable public transportation in in Southern California, SF is marginal, Oakland and San Jose are abysmal. The cost of the train + car rental will make this a non-starter for the vacation crowd. If you cater to the business crowd, then all you're subsidizing is a redundant form of transportation with the existing flight infrastructure.

by Rollerrink on Jan 13, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

I see the "your either with us, or against us crowd" is out in full force today.

1. Matt said the first phase was to build a line between Anaheim and LA. Thats 100% false. I am sorry Matt didn't read the aritcle, but thats not my fault and pointing out that gaffe doesn't mean I am anti HSR as I clearly stated I wasn't.

The plan is to spend 5.5 billion dollars and it isn't going to provide one lick of actual economic or transportation value.

Spend the money to do it right or don't do it at all. As someone else said, wasting almost 6 billion dollars to do nothign will forever act as a legitimate detractor, an anchor around future HSR planning and funding due to its boondoggle nature. Why can't the demostration or pilot leg connect two legitimate population centers like LA and SD? That way if the project is derailed in the future and the reamining 40 billion dollars doesn't come thru, then atleast you have one useful leg of what would have been the network.

by freely on Jan 13, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

Let me clarify something:

The first phase of the project is a line running from Anaheim - Los Angeles - Bakersfield - Fresno - San Jose - San Francisco.

However, the first section of track to open will be only a part of that. It will be a section of the first phase running only from Bakersfield to north of Fresno.

Future phases will include a spur to Sacramento (from the mainline north of Fresno) and a spur to San Diego (from Los Angeles, via Ontario).

When I talk about the "first section", I'm referring to the first section to open. That's not the entire first phase.

The Washington Post's editorial makes it sound like the first section is the entire project. That is not the case.

Let's take another example. The InterCounty Connector in Maryland will stretch from Shady Grove to Muirkirk. The first section to open will only be a short stretch in Montgomery County, but that's just one part of the project. Pretending that the rest is not part of the project is dishonest. That's what the Washington Post did, at least to some degree, with respect to the California HSR.

Now, if I created any confusion, I apologize. Let me be perfectly clear:

Eventually, high-speed trains will run from Anaheim to San Francisco. The first construction project will build only one part of the trunk line. But eventually, other contracts will be let, and the line will be extended to Los Angeles and Anaheim in the south and San Jose and San Francisco in the north. In the meantime, trains on Amtrak's Sacramento-Bakersfield route will be able to use the first-to-open section.

Later, after the San Francisco - Anaheim main line is completed, California will build spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. Those are different phases.

I hope that makes the issue clear.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 13, 2011 1:49 pm • linkreport


“California is not like that. There is no appreciable public transportation in in Southern California, SF is marginal, Oakland and San Jose are abysmal.”

This is not remotely true. Los Angeles County voters passed Measure R in 2008 and by the end of the decade, Los Angeles County will likely have more miles of light rail/subway than the DC region. There are already plans to build a subway under Wilshire Blvd to Santa Monica. The Expo Line is opening later this year and construction on the Gold Line extension is has begun. The Federal Transit Administration gave the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority another $600M

Los Angeles County also has the nation’s largest bus system and the Orange Line bus set the standard in the US for bus rapid transit.

Elsewhere in the state, San Francisco has either the nation’s third or fourth highest percent of people commuting to work by transit. Santa Clara County voters also approved a bond measure in 2008 to extend BART to San Jose.

As this article mentions, excluding Acela, California has the second, third, and sixth highest ridership for Amtrak routes.

At the other end of the state, Sprinter commuter rail service opened in San Diego County, connecting Escondido with Oceanside in 2008.

by Ben on Jan 13, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

I have added two sentences to the article clarifying that the first segment to open will not comprise the entire first phase. I apologize if there was any confusion about that.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 13, 2011 2:39 pm • linkreport

It's also unfortunate that the Post undersold the benefits of HSR as only "reduced carbon emissions and less airport congestion". By getting people out of cars and on to rail - which this likely will do - safety will be increased and time saved. A person riding a train can work, sleep, read, etc...but a person driving should not. The train will also likely generate trips that otherwise would not have happened and that's a public good as well. It also creates redundancy. After 9-11 all airplanes were grounded. It would sure have been nice to have a HSR network then to pick up some of the slack.

by David C on Jan 13, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

The largest problem is that China is offering to both build and finance the system, and us being a Walmart nation will probably let them do it at the enormous detriment of the nation.

Where did China agree to do this? Not merely express an interest in funding some portion of the system, but offer to guarantee payment of all the remaining unfunded costs of the project -- about $30 billion of the $43 billion total. I assume this would include a commitment to cover the cost overrun in the likely event that the $43 billion estimate is too low.

by Miller on Jan 13, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

The cost of the train + car rental will make this a non-starter for the vacation crowd. If you cater to the business crowd, then all you're subsidizing is a redundant form of transportation with the existing flight infrastructure.

Yes, I can't imagine why you would want to have multiple forms of high speed transport between crowded regions.

I want redundant forms of transportation within the existing flight infrastructure because the flight infrastructure is swamped.

by JustMe on Jan 13, 2011 5:51 pm • linkreport

I don't see how this can possibly be cost effective. We're talking about an 11 figure investment plus the unknown costs of actually running the system once it is built. To put this into perspective, it is more than ten times the cost of the entire Wilson Bridge and Springfield construction projects combined. High speed rail in CA isn't going to have nearly the impact.

In most circumstances the people who are willing to take rail are already doing so. Incremental improvements in speed are nice, but they aren't going to add significant amounts of riders. This sounds like a boondoggle waiting to happen.

by movement on Jan 13, 2011 6:36 pm • linkreport

It's extremely frustrating to see people repeat the stupid arguments about starting the train in the middle.

The fact is, NO project is built simultaneously. When you build a new highway, you do NOT grade the entire route, then gravel the entire route, and then pave the entire do it in sections.

That way, the grading people can do 5 miles, then move on to the next 5. Meanwhile, the gravel people can start on the first 5. Etc.

Fun fact: I-5 in california.....was started in the valley!

This is true of ANY construction project. Even home subdivisions. If there are 50 planned homes, they might start with 5 foundations. Once those 5 are done, they start with the framing and only then, maybe, do another 5 foundations. All 50 homes don't go up simultaneously.

On top of that, the starting point is THE most responsible place.

-it's the cheapest. The terrain is flat, the land is agriculture. You can build 100 miles of track for the same amount of money that buys you less than 10 in LA or SF.

-it's the furthest along the process. Many question why bakersfield-palmdale isnt first. It's because the environmental studies arent done for that section. ONLY the valley can start ASAP.

-it's the most socially responsible. Unemployment in the valley is at the best areas! It's at 24% in some towns.

-it's the safest. If no more money comes through, they can connect both ends of the line to the existing BNSF tracks and run the current 79mph amtrak trains at 125mph. Anaheim-LA? Too short for any similar speed increase to really matter.

And then, after repeating that stupid line, every critic runs straight to what the peer committee is complaining about. Except heres the thing...they should be APPLAUDING the fact that the bond created a committee to keep the HSR board in check! NO project is perfect, but unlike most public projects, this one has an entire board dedicated to finding that they can be corrected! That sounds extremely responsible to me.

And finally..."californias love thier car". Nope. They're forced to use them due to a lack of options. As pointed out in the article, the 3 california lines are among the busiest in the nation.

I also here people say "it'll be too expensive to ride".

Try this. Look up a roundtrip plane ticket from Fresno to LA. It WILL be over $250. For a 45 minute plane ride! Amtrak currently charges $33 (increasing to $59 during high demand days). Even at expensive Acela prices, it will still be cheaper.

by JJJJJ on Jan 13, 2011 7:06 pm • linkreport

One other note, lets look at the funding timeline.

2008-Voters approve 10b bond
2009-Obama hands over 2.35 billion
2010-Obama hands over $750 million.

At this point, there is enough money for the initial construction, between borden and cocoran.

2010-Ohio/Wis money handed out. Another $600 million to california.

At this point, the initial segment is confirmed to extended from Bakersfield to Madera.

2011- Congress will hand out another $1billion. As Florida is fully paid for, California is will positioned to receive at LEAST half that.

2011- Taking the new 500 million, you can probably pay for Fresno-Los Banos.

Note how the initial segment keeps getting longer?


By the time 2012 rolls around and the first shovels hit the ground, the much criticized initial segment has almost doubed in length!

And assuming another 500m in you have another section ready to go, maybe bakersfield-palmdale.

So before segment 1 is done, of course others "segments to nowhere" will be under construction.

Remember, it doesnt matter how broke California is, the 9 billion in state funding is set in stone, it's a bond. The $4billion fed bucks are also guaranteed, unless there's a global meltdown.

by JJJJJ on Jan 13, 2011 7:14 pm • linkreport

I'm with @movement. HSR is a boondoggle. As for airspace concerns (the main competitor with HSR), New York City with 3 major airports is far more congested. It's possible that an airline will follow the Porter Air model and run turboprops between LA and SF using what is now a general aviation airport with long enough runways (and they don't have to be very long: look at Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto).

I suggest that HSR supporters do the following thought experiment: Think of all the other ways that $44b can be spent on transportation. One result is complete light rail systems in both LA and the Washington Metro area, with plenty to spare. A useful metric for passenger rail comparisons is dollars per passenger-mile per year. The LA-SF HSR will score very low on this metric, unless, perhaps, trains run every 2 minutes or so.

The U.S. has rightly optimized its railroads for freight, as freight is by far the biggest user. For chump change, small improvements with great impacts can be made, such as installing automated switches where manual ones exist. If you really want to get vehicles off the road, a freight line between San Antonio and Mexico would have the greatest impact, followed by rail in the I-81 corridor. The latter may require some creativity to get trucking companies to put loads on the rails for part of their trips.

by Chuck Coleman on Jan 13, 2011 7:17 pm • linkreport

Matt once again proves that that cheerleading squad for California HSR is short on facts and long on denial. If you are using Crook-shank's blog for your information, you might as well be reading mythology. Instead of advocating for my state to go bankrupt for a project mismanaged by a backroom full of corrupt politicians (see recent conflict of interest, ethics violations and mismanagement of funds by HSR Authority Board), helping their developer and union friends get rich, please focus on the facts. You can find them in reports from the Legislative Analyst's Office, State Treasurer, State Auditor, Peer Review Panel and many others. And please, get out your map, my friend, and tell us how the Borden to Corcoran "spine" (attempted spin directly from the high-speed rail authority) AKA "train to nowhere" has anything to do with Anaheim to LA. Geez!

by Please do your homework on Jan 13, 2011 7:34 pm • linkreport


Your argument is stupid. It doesn't make sense to start building in a place where there is likely to be very little demand simply because it's the cheapest or can complete its environmental impact assessment first. The initial segment should be built where it is most cost-effective, where it has the greatest chance of generating benefits at least as large as its costs, and there's no indication that Fresno-ish to Bakersfield-ish is that place.

by Pete Dragon on Jan 13, 2011 7:53 pm • linkreport

Remember, it doesnt matter how broke California is, the 9 billion in state funding is set in stone, it's a bond. The $4billion fed bucks are also guaranteed, unless there's a global meltdown.

This isn't true. Bond measures can be repealed and the feds can withhold funding.

But for the sake of argument, let's say all the bond money and all the money promised by the feds actually materializes. That's still only $14 billion, for a project that is estimated to cost $43 billion. Where's the rest going to come from? California is broke, and with the GOP in control of the House, ANY additional funding from the feds in the foreseeable future is dubious, let alone tens of billions of dollars.

But it gets worse, because the $43 billion estimate is most likely too low. The most comprehensive study of large passenger rail project costs found that 9 out of 10 projects experience cost overruns and that the average overrun is 45%. So we can reasonably expect the final price tag to be more like $60 billion. Again, where is the money going to come from? Show me the money.

by Miller on Jan 13, 2011 8:08 pm • linkreport

I'm an AU student from San Mateo, CA, and I live only two blocks away from the Caltrain line that would also become the High-Speed Rail right-of-way for the segment between San Jose and San Francisco.

While I think that High-Speed Rail is a great idea and desperately needed in the congested region, the High-Speed Rail Authority has done a very poor job in terms of listening to the concerns of local residents. Originally, the San Francisco-San Jose segment was supposed to be the initial segment, but since the HSR Authority was in such a rush to obtain federal funding, they steadfastly refused to consider tunneling for the trains in their alternatives analysis and environmental impact reports despite some cities insisting that they would refuse to support HSR unless it was tunneled.

To most local residents in the Bay Area, the HSR Authority is really seeming incapable of caring about the concerns of residents who don't want their cities bisected by the rail line; there are literally residents who are willing to lie down in front of the bulldozers unless the line is tunneled.

So I would just suggest to GGW that it not totally dispute the validity of the Post's claims without the context of local concerns.

by Douglas Bell on Jan 13, 2011 8:47 pm • linkreport

To all those who think high speed rail is a boondoggle, the alternative isn't to not spend anything. California already has 38.5M people and the state's population is expected to increase to 60M by 2050. According to the Texas Transportation's Institute's Urban Mobility Report, motorists in LA/Long Beach/OC each waste 70 additional hours per year stuck in traffic on the region's highways. Riverside/San Bernardino has the nation's second worst traffic, and the Bay Area is tied for either third or fourth.

If high speed rail isn't built, California taxpayers will have to spend billions for new airport and highway capacity. Already, here is a list of various projects in the state-- all of which keep us dependent on foreign oil and auto-dependent sprawl.

LAX modernization ( $7B
New terminal at Santa Ana/John Wayne $600M
Sacramento Intl Airport modernization $1.3B
San Jose Intl. Airport modernization $1.2B

I-5 widening in San Diego $3B - $4.5B
Upgrade Hwy 99 to interstate standards $25B (

Additionally, the federal Highway Trust Fund has had to be bailed out with $7B - $8B per year for the last four years. The FAA also receives approximately 25 percent of its budget from the general fund-- a huge subsidy for aviation. I forgot, however, according to the oil-funded hacks at the 'Reason' Foundation and Cato and the teabaggers, highways are the perfect result of the free-market and passenger rail is unique among all modes in transportation in that it be required to cover its operating costs.

by Ben on Jan 13, 2011 9:53 pm • linkreport

A little more honesty from the anti-rail/pro foreign oil crowd is needed. Yes there are some good deals for air travel if you book two or three weeks ahead of time. For business travelers, however, it is completely different. I did a quick search for tickets next week (leaving Tues, 1/18 and returning Wed, 1/19) on low-cost carriers from Southern California to the Bay Area. If you flew on Virgin America from LAX - SFO, it would cost $299.40-- and there would be a thirty percent chance your flight is delayed leaving SFO ( On another low-cost carrier, Southwest, it would cost $327 to travel from LAX to San Jose on the same dates.

Travel on high speed rail, where you don't have to be at the airport an hour a head of time, where you can use wireless internet and cell phones, and have much more comfortable seats than what is available on a A319 or B737 compares pretty favorably.

by Ben on Jan 13, 2011 10:31 pm • linkreport

Pete Dragon

"It doesn't make sense to start building in a place where there is likely to be very little demand"

I dont think you understand what is being built.

They are building a line between LA and San Francisco. You're telling me the center section will have little demand? How is that possible...? Do the trains teleport?

And then you propose that the entire line be delayed just so some other section gets to start first...? What....?

Thats like saying the central portion of the red line shouldnt have started construction until EVERY line was ready to start.

Chuck Coleman, you're ignoring one major point. A train connects multiple cities. It's not just who is going from LA to's people who go from Fresno to Modesto, or Bakersfield to Anaheim, or San Jose to Visalia or Palmdale to Sf...etc, etc, etc.

There was one report that said "look at the number of people flying between SFO and LAX! It's much lower than the number of rail passengers predicted!"

No shit. Not only did that report ignore Oakland, San Jose, Long Beach, Ontario and other airports in those two ignored every pairing of cities.

It also ignored people driving.

Just last week, the grapevine, the main route between northern and southern california was closed for 25 hours. 8 hour detours were in store for those who didnt want to wait. Does that sound like a responsible way to run a transportation system....?


Ben, I put in FAT-LAX for the dates you looked up on expedia.

Here's the best price.
Roundtrip: from $209.99 + $21.41 taxes & fees = $231.40

Pretty crazy huh?

You also get to enjoy going deaf thanks to the loud propellers on the SAAB or Embraer aircraft.

by JJJJJ on Jan 13, 2011 11:02 pm • linkreport


I forgot to mention that air travel, if the tickets are purchased far enough in advance and you don't mind being at the airport an hour before your flight, and you don't mind a small uncomfortable seat is relatively affordable now when oil is $92 per barrel. This will not be the situation a decade from now when continued global economic growth pushes oil to $175 per barrel, as predicted by respected investment banks.

by Ben on Jan 13, 2011 11:14 pm • linkreport

It is fortunate that some boosters of HSR can write clearly in support of the project which the Post pans, unfairly and with what looks like a secret bias, even ignorance of facts, and apparent fear of the rails. The high speed trains in almost all locales around the world have suffered the same kind of reporting malaise. The Interstate Highway System as well was panned and laughed at, until Americans began to cross their country to see it and learn about where they lived. Airlines have enjoyed subsidies, as have the highways, and torn travelers into the air away from the countryside. What is so great about looking at the back of someone's head for 6 hours (if the plane is on time) across the continent if you can cross a little more slowly, say a day and a half, and enjoy the landscape? Having some decent meals with family, friends or even pleasant strangers beats peanuts and the long line to the john. I would fly anywhere if in a 'hurry' but between cities closer than 400 miles who needs to go through that rigamorole of insecurity, lack of knowing if you can be on time and the luggage will make it.

Articles such as the Post column and the people who believe it a smart item have not done their homework and smack of leaning into the support of oil companies, the tire industry, auto insurance, the car manufacturers, to say nothing of competing purveyors of conveniences that would have to make their own adjustments around speedy, on time rail services. Think about it...or just sit back and believe that available half baked material against HSR, the system proves successful in Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, and, soon Russia and China. 220mph is only the beginning of rail development, even as we see that speed rising in France and China.

The nays are just naying without much substance. Get a life. All of you will be booking seats on this 21st Century Limited, I promise.


by TGV, SHINKANSEN, ACELA FAN on Jan 13, 2011 11:27 pm • linkreport


As for ticket price:

I looked up the airfare. Looks like about $278 between SFO and LAX for next week. The current projected cost of HSR is $210. I imagine that cost, like ridership projections, is low though.

Of course you could drive alone for half that, and if you go with your family, even cheaper.

In terms of funding for construction, the actual current number allocated by the feds is closer to $3billion, with a matching number from the state bond. The rest of the state money cannot be used until it is matched by the feds or by private investors, so we're still about $30 billion short.

Some say it is greener, but experts seem to say that it will take 70 years for the amount of carbon emissions from construction to be offset by the operation of the train. All that concrete and construction equipment seems to produce a lot of greenhouse gas.

And lastly of course, our governor has just produced a budget that will cut a half billion dollars from higher education at UC. About the same amount that paying off the debt on HSR will cost.

Let's make another plan.

by wallydad on Jan 14, 2011 1:14 am • linkreport


High speed rail will still be competitive for solo drivers. According to MapQuest, it is 381.5 miles each way from LA - SF. Round-trip, this is 763 miles. Assuming a car gets 30 mpg, this is just over 25 gallons of gas per trip. Assuming gas is $4 per gallon (a generous assumption, since CA often has the most expensive gas in the US and by 2040 or 2050, oil will be much more than $92 per barrel), gas alone would cost over $100 for this trip. You also have to add incremental maintenance and deterioration to the vehicle after making a nearly 1000-mile trip.

This is just the direct vehicle operating costs. A vehicle trip from LA - SF takes 6 hrs-- 12 hrs round-trip, or 720 minutes. High speed rail is expected to make this trip in 2 hrs 40 minutes, or 320 minutes round-trip. This is 6 hrs 40 minutes (400 minutes) less travel time for a round-trip between LA-SF. If passenger value of time is $20 per hour. the passenger on high speed rail will save $133.

$100 for gas, $133 in additional travel time, and perhaps $15 for additional maintenance/incremental depreciation is close to $250 for the full cost of driving. This quick analysis leaves out the fact that the passenger can be both more comfortable and productive (wireless internet, cell phone, sleep, reading, etc...) while aboard the train. If you add this opportunity cost, high speed rail compares even more favorably.

And to your point about high speed rail vs. funding for higher education, the United States imports over $300B of oil every single year from foreign countries. Investing in sustainable infrastructure such as high speed rail will help reduce this. Of course the oil-hacks at Reason and Cato would rather send this huge sum of money to petro-dictators in Iran, Venezuela, and Russia every year than see anyone ride a train.

by All aboard high speed rail! on Jan 14, 2011 7:30 am • linkreport

the WaPo editorial is specious/unconvincing. but worse, it's boring.

that said, i have some comments.

what's the highest-ridership train line in America?

that would be The Northeast Regional -- the conventional rail/non-HSR/'slow' train from about DC to Boston. it does about double the ridership (7 million vs. 3+ million) of the Acela Express, our only version of HSR in America.

point being -- people just want to be able to get from point A to point B with dignity intact. they'd probably prefer to be able to get to point B before they turn 90, too, but connectivity is key. HSR, relatively-speaking, is unimportant. alternatively, HSR is just an additional disaster to pile onto our rapidly-growing climate problems (@see Jevons Paradox).

JHK had it right - we have a railroad system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. if HSR helps us rebuilt it, fine.

other Amtrak routes in Cali (possibly as mentioned?) are doing well, ridership-wise. again, they're just conventional rail lines.

i'm curious if Amtrak's bus services are included in their ridership numbers -- I presume so. so, for instance, if you 'take Amtrak' from SJ to LA (you can't get to LA on Amtrak from SF yet; you'd have to take our commmuter train, Caltrain, to SJ first), you might be taking a train, or a train+bus+train, or a bus+bus+train, etc. yes, it's wacked, but welcome to Bul...errr, America. if you look at this PDF map of Amtrak's routes, you'll see a bunch of green lines (as opposed to red), especially out here in Cali -- those green lines are Amtrak bus services.

if you want to leave SF on a train headed eastbound, you'll either be underground, on our metro, BART, or you'll be on an Amtrak bus -- we did away with train service on the Bay Bridge many moons ago, and I doubt the new Bay Bridge will be train-capable. smart.

I'd agree with @Ben -- Cali public transit doesn't seem to be much/any? worse than that of most northeast cities. car ownership rates, if we bothered to compare them, would probably even suggest places like LA had more/better transit than many/most northeast cities. but, all US cities have dismal transit. that's an argument for more/better rail transit, not less.

The train will also likely generate trips that otherwise would not have happened...

i referred to this vaguely by mentioning the Jevons Paradox, but at a minimum, i think it's fair to say that generating (motorized) trips is a bad thing for sustainability.

the $43 billion estimate is too low

can someone find me a Vegas line where we can bet on the over/under? if anything even remotely resembling HSR is built in California by 2030, between LA and SF, for anything less than $80 billion, i'll renounced my hate affair with BRT. i'll even donate $10 to

speaking of which, what is all this talk about trains? why don't we just build more roads and buses? BRT from LA to SF could be done by 2013, and could be done for about $1 billion, so why not? are you all a bunch of elitists? let the market decide. and such.

Californians agreed to 9 billion in bonds

is this referring to the $9.9 billion bond measure that i voted for? if so, i say we just call it "$10 billion", or "$9.9 billion", but not "$9 billion" -- even if "$9 billion" is what bond advocates wanted u to think before u voted on it (i guess it worked on you).

i love the grapevine.

i doubt most/any/all? new infrastructure will actually decrease auto congestion -- it might temporarily decrease auto congestion (for a few days/weeks/months), or decrease the rate of increase in auto congestion, but that's about it. this is probably easily-provable with existing data, but i'm too lazy to look for it.

p.s. i live almost right next to Diridon Station in downtown-ish San Jose. i can hear the trains pulling thru at night, b/c there are very few cars on the local surface streets and nearby elevated freeways. there are a lot of community meetings and city council meetings about the new master plan for the area, which is supposed to become a high speed rail hub (of course), but also possibly house a new baseball stadium, etc. HP Pavilion is right next door - it's app one of the busiest/most-used arenas in the world - SJ Sharks play there, lots of concerts, ice skating shows, etc. The area has tons of parking and is getting more -- app it's very profitable for the team owners. there is still talk of ending our commuter train service between SJ and SF (Caltrain) - that's after service cuts, increased fares, etc. our new governor, Jerry Brown, is about to gut everything -- he's a Democrat (allegedly). i don't recall Northeast train conductors generally being aholes, but ours are. sometimes they're criminal sexual child-endangering deviants too, but at least part of the blame has to be on our ticket-checking policy. much of the time, conductors are just extremely rude -- like they're doing me a favor by asking to see my ticket. i don't think we should be putting conductors in the position of having to lord over passengers like this -- it's humiliating for the passengers, and just acts as a further deterrent to train travel -- and, of course, creates these (allegedly) 'aberrant' situations. how do Japanese conductors do it? do they walk around demanding tickets from everyone? do they proposition little girls who don't have tickets? i was on the train a couple of weeks ago, and when the conductor started to come thru, yelling "Tickets please!", i mumbled in app a louder-than-whispered tone, "F*****g a******s!" -- let's just say I don't approve of this ticket-checking policy (guilty until proven innocent). I happened to see some kid behind me, as i was digging my ticket out of my pocket -- he had this shocked look on his face like, "What's up w/ this guy??". funny. guess u had to be there.

by Peter Smith on Jan 14, 2011 7:53 am • linkreport

JJJJ: You also get to enjoy going deaf thanks to the loud propellers on the SAAB or Embraer aircraft.

The Bombardier Q400 will hardly make you go deaf. I heard plenty of them make little noise while taking off when I was in Toronto. They're only allowed to use Billy Bishop airport because of their short runway requirements and low noise.

by Chuck Coleman on Jan 14, 2011 9:05 am • linkreport

@Peter Smith

If HSR switches to electricity - which I suspect it eventually will - and electricity becomes more and more renewable - which I think it will, then Jevons Paradox because an insignificant issue.

Also, generating more trips MIGHT have a cost (but not if they fill empty seats) but the solution is not to trap people at home. It is to capture those costs. By extension of your position, they best solution would be to shut down the highway system.

by David C on Jan 14, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

Chuck Coleman, Im talking about the current planes that service Fresno from LAX and SFO. They all use propellers and are either the ancient SAAB or the Embraer 120.

Planes with jet engines service vegas, salt lake city, portland, phoenix, seattle, dallas and guadalajara.

by JJJJJ on Jan 14, 2011 5:55 pm • linkreport

And yet the Los Angeles-Las Vegas corridor is the only corridor where private money is going toward HSR.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 14, 2011 9:06 pm • linkreport

I dont think you understand what is being built. They are building a line between LA and San Francisco.

Nothing is being built yet. What may get built in the relatively near future is a train-to-nowhere line from Fresno-ish to Bakersfield-ish that virtually no one will ride. They can't build a line between LA and San Francisco because THEY DON'T HAVE THE MONEY. They don't have anything remotely close to the amount of money they would need to build such a line. It's all just wishful thinking.

by Pete Dragon on Jan 14, 2011 9:39 pm • linkreport

As the article "Hit the brakes," states
"...If federal high-speed rail investment makes sense at all, it's probably in the densely populated areas where demand for passenger trains is highest....Unfortunately, the rule right now seems to be spend first, answer questions later....". T
he people who support HSR forget that trains affect development and travel. When we built trains to Long Island NY it created thousands of new homes in the suburbs but it also created tons of traffic commuting to Long Island.
Some people took the train and some didn't. Before the train nobody lived in Long Island. The same will happen Cochran and Borden. Thats what those communities are hoping thats why they are pushing for the train so hard. The Cal ACE train gets a tiny 2000 riders a day, yet spends million or billions to fund the train. Its funded by centrail valley realestate and chamber of commerce people not evironmentalist. These trains are often pushed by the least evionronmentalist types. There are many right wing developers, Orange county polititians etc.

HSR is the wrong priority, first we should focus on high density cities make them livable and affordable. HSR will be important later but to reduce sprawl one of the biggest threats to energy-gas consumption, dependence, traffic and global warming is what we need first. Then focus on the inevitable need to travel long distances. We should have HSR freight first perhaps by building the infrastructure.

BART in the bay area gets 20 times the ridership, Moscow metro has 6 million riders a day. HSR in California in 40 years has been projected (overly rosy) to have a tiny fraction of that. More importantly it promotes the worst kind of travel, travel farther and farther away.

Europe and Asia have highly dense cities first then they takled HSR. California natural tendency to sprawl will be worsened by HSR. People already pour in 100s of miles away to the big cities for jobs. We need to improve BART, LA redline etc. first, build businesses walking distance from stations etc.

by pulsar on Jan 15, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

Pete Dragon, right nobody will ride it.

So the 100,000 the currently ride the train in the central valley every month....a bunch of nobodies? Did you miss the part where it's the 5th busiest amtrak line in the country?

And even, worst case scenario, Bakersfield to Madera is built, and nothing else....increasing speeds from 79mph to 125mph is a bad thing? Having the track capacity to go from 6 trains a day to 10...or as many as demand required, is a bad thing? Freeing up room for more freight trains is a bad thing?

I guess progress is just wishful thinking.

It's a good thing scientists don't think like you. Space travel? Wishful thinking. Electricity? Wishful thinking. Toilets? Wishful thinking. After all, until it's been built, it's just wishful thinking, and thus shouldn't be built.

by JJJJJ on Jan 15, 2011 8:08 pm • linkreport


Because of more affordable land prices, the Central Valley projected to be one of the fast growing areas of the state. Additionally, high speed rail will make it possible for people to live in more affordable areas such as Bakersfield or Frenso and commute to jobs in LA or San Jose, with a reasonable one hour train ride.

This presentation by Shawn Kantor, an economics professor at UC Merced, shows the projected impact of high speed rail on the Central Valley and thre broader California economy.

by Ben on Jan 15, 2011 9:05 pm • linkreport

I now live in California again, and support passenger rail, but you don not know California. Your article is so full of errors they are not worth pointing out. The problem with the project, however, is the High Speed Rail Authority itself. The blog you site is run by a cheerleader for the Authority who would not criticize their incompetence if their test train run over his mother. The idea is great, but this project is a joke. Do not let your idealism get in the way of reality.

Jay Tulock, Vacaville, Ca.

by Jason L. Tulock on Jan 15, 2011 9:31 pm • linkreport

So the 100,000 the currently ride the train in the central valley every month. Did you miss the part where it's the 5th busiest amtrak line in the country?

What route? If you mean the San Joaquin, the ridership on that route tells you nothing about the expected ridership on the proposed HSR segment. How many riders on the San Joaquin route ride ONLY the section between Fresno and Bakersfield (or Medera and Corcoran)? That number MIGHT provide a reasonable indication of expected ridership on the HSR segment. But total ridership on the entire San Joaquin route tells you nothing.

And even, worst case scenario, Bakersfield to Madera is built, and nothing else....increasing speeds from 79mph to 125mph is a bad thing?

Another silly comment. You can't simply focus on the benefits and ignore the costs. How much is it going to cost to accomplish that increase in speed? What's the projected cost per passenger-trip or passenger-mile?

by Pete Dragon on Jan 16, 2011 12:26 am • linkreport

The level of ignorance being shown in these comments is horrific, but no less than the level of ignorance shown by Ray LaHood, star bozo of the United States Department of Transportation.

The speed will be increased next year to 90 m.p.h. already with minimal investment. For $5 billion, Ca. can go to maybe 110 m.p.h., but not to 125 without new locomotives. Who is paying for those. Then we get passengers being dropped in a farm field outside of Hanford instead of downtown? And everyone will still have to take a bus over the mountain to L.A.?

No, high speed rail being dictated in the Central Valley was a corrupt ploy by Barbara Boxer asking her friend Ray LaHood to pressure the Federal Railroad Administration to force the High Speed Rail Authority to declare they would first build in the Valley right before the November elections so that Jim Costa could keep his seat in Fresno. The whole lot of them should be imprisoned for this crime.

Jay Tulock, Vacaville

by Jay Tulock on Jan 16, 2011 12:55 am • linkreport

Investing in sustainable infrastructure such as high speed rail will help reduce this.

HSR is not 'sustainable'. i could listen to someone try to make a case that trains are, generally speaking, 'sustainable' -- as in, 'less unsustainable than everyone driving cars alone' -- but high speed _anything_ as sustainable? Unpossible.

The reason for the national 55 MPH speed limit was to save energy: Science -- it works!

The power to overcome air resistance increases roughly with the cube of the speed, and thus the energy required per unit distance is roughly proportional to the square of speed. Because air resistance increases so rapidly with speed, above about 30 mph (48 km/h), it becomes a dominant limiting factor.

Any type of rapid transit, of course, as mentioned by @pulsar, also has sprawl-inducing/maintaining characteristics -- another reason why HSR could be a disaster. The best we can hope for at this point is that the airline industry finally collapses. I wouldn't have voted for HSR if I thought we could actually pull it off. I just want some passenger rail service restored.

it seems Goldmans Sachs is about to help ruin the world w/ this carbon trading/energy stuff. somehow we have to get up to speed and limit the damage they do.

If HSR switches to electricity - which I suspect it eventually will

i don't know if i've ever heard of HSR without electricity, but i guess it's possible. in any case, i assumed electrification was always part of the plan, if not the only way to accomplish HSR. folks like me would just like to have normal passenger/conventional rail restored in America, ideally with electrification (for all the benefits this brings) -- no 'high speed' necessary.

and electricity becomes more and more renewable - which I think it will, then Jevons Paradox becomes an insignificant issue.

hmm - that's confidence! at this point, i'm confident in lots of corruption and lots of suffering for non-rich people. renewable energy? not so much.

as for Jevons Paradox -- i dunno -- it's such a perfectly cruel problem -- as if we didn't have enough problems. good article here (paywall). the only way out of Jevons, that i know of, is trying to raise taxes against energy efficiency gains -- not an easy task.

Also, generating more trips MIGHT have a cost (but not if they fill empty seats) but the solution is not to trap people at home. It is to capture those costs.

if by 'capture those costs' you mean 'have people pay prices which reflect the real costs of the energy they are consuming,' then i'm all for that -- i just don't see it happening. at this point i'm waiting for some Brisbane-style weather events to basically punch humanity in the face, to get us to slow down industrial production a bit - or, at least, slow the growth rate a bit. non-rich people are going pay, and pay _hard_.

By extension of your position, they best solution would be to shut down the highway system.

honestly - if given one transport wish, it's very possible i would wish for this. (The only other possibility would be if i went 'positive' and chose to have everyplace made walkable and bikable.) Close the entire highway system, at least to any/all automobile/truck/bus traffic. everything from now on will be walk/bike/train. i'd hope the airlines die on their own. closing the highway system might up our chances for survival by a percentage point. maybe. so that'd be a good thing. i'm gonna make sure my niece knows how to swim. seriously.

No, high speed rail being dictated in the Central Valley was a corrupt ploy by Barbara Boxer asking her friend Ray LaHood to pressure the Federal Railroad Administration to force the High Speed Rail Authority to declare they would first build in the Valley right before the November elections so that Jim Costa could keep his seat in Fresno.

holy cow - you left out Kevin Bacon.

just think of how many subsidies Republicans are going to have to pay to pot-smoking liberals who want to ride the super-duper luxury high speed chalice from The Republic of San Franciscostan to their crack dealers in Hollywood. it's a travesty! it's a sham! it's a travisham!

but those UC budget cuts? eh - no biggie.

by Peter Smith on Jan 16, 2011 2:50 am • linkreport

Cal HSR is a complete joke and should be defunded asap.

1. The ridership forcast has been based on Japan's busiest route, which we won't come close to.

2. The taxpayer is on the hook for operational losses.

3. The roads in CA are a mess, they should be fixed first.

4. The cost estimate (45 Bill) is a joke- 100+ Bill will be the cost.

5. What the taxpayer voted on, what is now promised is so different, the issue should come back for a vote with the correct data.

by jim k on Jan 18, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

Interesting take on why Obama was off on HSR and how to learn from Spain:

by Ioweegian on Jan 24, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport

Ioweegian, When Spain becomes a federal system with powerful states that will become relevant. As it is, what Obama tried to do would fit into the basic idea of getting a line or two up and running as a model. The best place to do that was Florida, where the state government was ALREADY pursuing a HSR line and was well on the way to making it happen. All the data showed it would be a success. So by pumping money in, it would break ground and start operating quickly. Sadly, the new FL Gov killed that. That's not Obama's fault.

Then they tried California, where the state again was ALREADY pursing and planning HSR. Federal money will result in a line up and running faster than anywhere else.

In other places money was invested in Higher Speed Rail, but the idea that "if they had just put all that money into the NEC things would be going swimingly" is just ridiculous. Even if the NEC got all that money, it would be a decade before any section is truly HSR because no planning had been done. And does anyone really think that the Republicans would have been more open to the idea of dumping all that money into the hands of Amtrak (instead of states) to improve rail in a half dozen mostly blue states?

by David C on Jan 24, 2012 10:50 pm • linkreport

@David - I appreciate the comment and agree with your point. I personally find the rejection of mass transit by the right rather befuddling and not really consistent with many conservative values. Feel free to share your thoughts with the author of the article on the blog. I know Brent and he works on these issues. He'd appreciate your thoughts.

by Ioweegian on Jan 25, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

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