Letters: Readers have much to criticize about proposed CA HSR
- Published Wednesday, February 6, 2008, by the East Bay Express
Readers sound off the proposed California high-speed railroad
Myths and Facts
Matthew Green's article about the California High Speed Rail
System <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/36948> and
the environmental, political, financial, and other issues swirling
around it was generally well done. However it contained several
major errors which continue to circulate despite clear evidence
to the contrary.
Myth: People traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles would get
there faster with a Pacheco HSR alignment than with an Altamont
alignment. Fact: According to the HSR EIR/EIS released last July,
the trip would be faster via the Altamont alignment.
Myth: The Altamont alignment will be "far more costly" than the
Pacheco alignment. Fact: According to the EIR/EIS, the cost of
the two alignments, including Altamont's rail bridge across the
Dumbarton Strait, would be about the same.
Myth: There would be "four to six tracks" through the Tri-Valley
area. Fact: There would be up to six tracks only at stations. Through
most of the area there would be only two passenger rail tracks.
They Cannot Be Trusted
After the CA High Speed Rail Authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass
Route over the Altamont, I can't in good faith advocate for this
project anymore. It's not just that it will impact wetlands, as the
environmentalists say, or even that it is a significantly less useful
route (specifically for anyone in Sacto or Stockton who wants to get
to the Bay Area). What's really important is that, by making such
a vital decision as the basic route for high speed rail based on
political lobbying, rather than honest evaluation of facts, the
CAHSRA has demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to manage a
$40 billion investment.
Rezoning the Big Valley
The author of your piece on California's high-speed rail project,
as well as the persons he interviewed, believe that this project will
be a high-speed rail system just like the ones they have in Europe.
In fact, it will be quite different, much more expensive, and much
more questionable environmentally.
The idea was to have a rail system that would take people between
San Francisco and Los Angeles in no more time than flying. This
would clear the airways, reduce air pollution, and reduce airport
congestion. If the state had stuck with this plan, the system could
have been built by now.
Instead, Central Valley interests insisted that it also serve the
cities in the valley, such as Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. The
line was therefore routed to the east side of the Valley, rather than
the west side, which would have been the shortest, cheapest route to
Los Angeles. That is why the map you published shows an eastward
kink. Property acquisition costs will be much higher there, because
land costs are higher, and construction costs will be higher because
there is much more infrastructure already in place that must be
The author says communities in the Livermore area fought the train
because they didn't want it in their backyards. The San Joaquin
Valley cities are dying to have it in their backyards. And that is
where it will be. The transportation corridor in the cities will
be six tracks wide -- two high-speed, two auxiliary passenger, and
two freight -- and the high-speed trains will travel at 225 miles
per hour literally through the backyards of Merced, Fresno, and
Bakersfield. The noise will be appalling. And there will be 96 trains
per day. In Europe the 225-mph trains are out in the countryside,
where few residents are around to be bothered.
Once the trains are running, the developers will arrive, armed
with their big smiles and their fat checkbooks. Valley counties will
be unable to resist the pressure to rezone agricultural land to
residential, and the farms of central California will disappear
under a sea of gimcrack suburban houses, the residents of which will
be able to commute to San Francisco or Los Angeles, thanks to the
generous taxpayers of California.
The Valley communities should be a bit more careful about what they
ask for. They might get it.
Diesel Would be Fine
In the basic engineering sense, Pacheco Pass is better than Altamont.
The high-speed rail line need only reach Bay Area rail network at
San Jose. The decision favoring Pacheco Pass is engineering, not
politics. That said, I must repeat what I've several times urged
Gov. Schwarzenegger to consider: line electrification and a top
speed of 200-plus mph is unnecessary.
Electrification is at least 30 percent of the project's capital
cost and several years of construction. Eliminating electrification
reduces top speed to about 150 mph. However, even with
electrification the average top speed is still only about 150 mph.
The most significant environmental benefit of high-speed rail is not
electrification. The line will only serve a small fraction of the
long-distance travel market. The mostly rural route will suffer
little environment impact of standard diesel-electric locomotive
The real environmental gain is how California's languishing city
centers along the route are afforded an opportunity to guide
growth and development and thereby mitigate the far more severe
environmental impacts of inner-city travel currently dominated
by cars and trucks. All modes of travel (walking, bicycling, and
local mass transit) should benefit with the opportunity to guide
Adding electrification at some later date is still possible, and
the less expensive train sets passed on to other regions in the
US struggling to build fast enough high-speed rail.
Spend it on BART
While the Express' High Speed Rail story provided an accurate enough
assessment of the current situation regarding the system's chances
of being approved by the voters, it didn't dwell long enough for my
tastes on what a successful HSR buildout will mean for us here in
the East Bay where most Express readers live.
While some space was given to Sierra Club concerns and the response
of HSR staff, the economic impact of the system -- particularly to
Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and all the municipalities in between
-- has to be dealt with so that bewildered voters can decide whether
San Francisco, San Jose, and Silicon Valley should be the sole
beneficiaries or whether we, too, might be allowed to share in at
least some of the windfall that will certainly come to the Bay Area
via increased commerce with the rest of California.
So far, we've been told by various authorities, mayors, and MTC
insiders that the system has to come over the Pacheco Pass because,
Cronkite-like, that's the way it is. From San Jose to Sunnyvale to
Palo Alto and then on to San Francisco, HSR will wend its way
entirely on the west side of the Bay, presumably because East Bay
folks will be ecstatic to contribute copiously to a bond issue
that does nothing for us and everything for West Bay interests.
If, on the other hand (or shore), the Altamont Pass were to be
selected, with the train then stopping in, say, Union City, on to the
Coliseum, downtown Oakland, and from there over into San Francisco,
wouldn't all those West Bay voters suddenly feel like they'd been
shortchanged and left facing a pretty bleak future with no nearby
stop to assure what was to have been their hyper-improved
connectivity with the rest of the state?
Putting forth this "us or them" choice by MTC is either paranoid or
nutzoid: there is a better solution for everyone, but one that is
being kept off the table, perhaps in the fond hope that voters will
be encouraged enough by the ecological argument for the train
(electric, as opposed to the huge amount of fuel any airport hop
requires) that we'll simply go along with the agency line we're being
fed. So let me ask you, what would you do with the $10 billion that
it will likely take to bring HSR through the Bay Area, assuming that,
of the $40 billion total for the entire system (and that official
estimate from the "experts" just has to be another Bay Bridge-like
joke), $20 billion is needed to connect the Bay Area with the LA
area, and the other $10 billion will be there to build LA's stations,
purchase rights of way, bypass milk stops, build intermodal links to
other systems, etc.
If your answer was not to spend on HSR but rather to invest that
same $10 billion to upgrade BART, give yourself an "A" for thinking
rationally, because there's no reason whatsoever to think that being
able to get anywhere in the Bay Area within 30 minutes -- including a
Grand Central HSR Station, wherever it might be -- isn't better for
everyone, not just some SF banker, say, who needs to pop down to LA
so he or she can ink deals selling us all out to foreign interests.
Let's face it: BART is showing its age and needs a huge infusion
of funds to (a) ring the Bay, (b) institute Express service, and
(c) become the Transit Village icons of smart growth that our
transportation agencies are forever citing but doing way too little
If you answered any other way, you're either a born and bred San
Franciscan, a Silicon Valley booster, or Quentin Kopp himself.
Let's hope Matthew Green will use his analyzing skills to probe
deeper into the East Bay's role in bringing HSR into the Bay Area.
Do the Math
Matthew Green's parroting of the press releases of the CHSRA does not
do your publication proud. There are other points of view that differ
sharply with his. Let's begin with a summary of why this high-speed
train project will be such a disaster: It will be a photo-op luxury
train for the rich and famous. It will be on TV and make the
promoters into celebrities. It will be a bottomless money pit, an
endless deficit operation. It will be a continuous drain on the state
budget. It will be the "Disneyland Express," an expensive train for
tourists. It will be the largest pork-barrel boondoggle in the
history of the United States.
The decade-long construction process itself will generate immense
amounts of pollution and greenhouse gases. Although it will take very
little vehicle traffic off the roads, it will demand high electric
loads just as electricity is to be generated by ever-increasing
coal-fired power plants. It will be a money trough for construction
companies, consultants, lobbyists, developers, the rail bureaucracy,
Parsons Brinkerhoff and their subcontractors, and too many corrupt
government employees and politicians. It is destined to be hugely
over-budget by several orders of magnitude. All the costs are
understated and the productivity and performance overstated.
Tragically, it will not solve the major traffic gridlock problems or
urban commuting and transit problems in the Bay Area or Los Angeles
Basin. So far very few appear to be arguing effectively that 220-MPH
trains running up and down California is really a dumb idea, and
would make California look like the state with expensive high-speed
trains and cheap low-speed schools. The California High Speed Rail
Authority has ignored the well-known and costly lesson that brought
the American passenger rail system to its knees: "They thought they
were in the railroad business when they should have understood that
they were in the transportation business!"
Amtrak, the surviving, vestigial, money-losing passenger rail system,
is continuously on the verge of collapse, sustained only by the heart-
lung machine of revenues from Congress. In short, building a high-
speed people mover using 19th century steel-to-steel technologies in
California in the 21st century is taking a giant step backward. In
the future, while freight rail will continue to be profitable and
make good sense, people-moving requires far more creative and
imaginative new technology solutions.
Europe and Japan have it? Sure. But they also have far higher-density
urban centers and far shorter routes. Japan has 339 people per square
acre. California has 84. Unlike the US, they have traditionally been
rail-based cultures for the masses while automobiles were only for
the rich. The rail culture and society have evolved together and rail
is an integral component of that society. Europe is, to all intents
and purposes, one large metropolitan area. The economic history of
Europe is one of high taxes and extensive services provided by the
government. Rail transit is one of them. The CHSRA promoters love to
cite these foreign examples as exemplars, but as actual analogies
they are non-compatible: different context, different problem,
different solution. The United States is a culture of individualism
and autonomy. Passenger mass transit has never been profitable and,
after the automobile, never fulfilled its promise.
Here's a comparison: Remember the futuristic, but now defunct trans-
Atlantic Concorde? It was the Mach 2 supersonic high-speed icing
on the British Airways and Air France cake. It was also the least
cost-effective mode of flying outside of NASA. These trans-Atlantic
flights were never more than advertising; the plane was a photogenic
promotional icon. Huge development costs. Huge always-in-the-red
operating costs. These flying sculptures now reside in museums.
We will remember them as expensive money losers that served the
"rich-and-famous." Isn't there a lesson here? There is a saying in
engineering: "Because something is possible doesn't make it necessary
or even desirable." California's high-speed train will be like the
Orient Express, a photogenic, luxurious promotional icon, hugely
expensive, unaffordable to most of us, and underutilized.
Do you think that the "Concorde" analogy is not close enough to the
high-speed train? How about the Eurotunnel, the 31-mile long tunnel
under the English Channel that fast trains run through? Called
the "Chunnel," this project was projected to carry 16 million
passengers per year between London and Paris. After nearly sixteen
years, it is carrying 9 million. A ticket goes for about $200. And,
they carry freight.
Here is a quotation from a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Channel
Tunnel (2004): "The history of large capital projects suggests that
almost invariably capital costs tend to be underestimated (and
revenue costs overestimated)." Original costs were projected to be
around $7 billion. The most recent number is around $15 billion. The
financiers recently "restructured" their loans again. They have not
been able to make adequate payments on their debt service, much less
the outrageous cost overruns of the construction. Why, for heaven's
sake, would our project here in California be any different? Their
over-estimates of riders and underestimates of costs are mind-
Here are the "facts" as presented by the CHSRA, taken from their
"The transportation and economic consulting firm of Cambridge
Systematics (CS) presented new ridership and revenue forecasts for
the Authority's proposed high-speed train system. The CS study, which
was prepared for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC),
shows the potential ridership of the high-speed train system in the
range of 86 million to 117 million passengers per year and annual
revenue of between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion by the year 2030.
These projections exceed the previous forecasts in the Authority's
2000 Business Plan that projected up to 68 million passengers
annually and up to $1.8 billion in annual revenue by 2020. The new
projections represent a 72 percent to 104 percent increase in annual
ridership and a 110 percent to 170 percent increase in annual
$40 billion for capital development? $2.6 to $3.9 billion annual
revenue? 86 to 117 million passengers per year? By 2030? That's 23
years from now. How can they possibly know? Predicting business
numbers 23 years out is like predicting the weather 23 years out.
There is no other word for these numbers: nonsense. I'm guessing that
Cambridge Systematics told their clients exactly what they wanted to
Let's reconsider their high-speed "facts" with the following. As it
happens, the United States already has a high-speed train system
that's operational; it's the Acela, a part of Amtrak that runs
from Washington DC to Boston, about the same distance as from San
Francisco to Los Angeles.
This Acela high-speed train had its best year in 2006, with 3.1
million riders, and $403.5 million in revenues. This train serves a
regional population of 44 million. That's greater than California's
total population. Furthermore, the federally subsidized parent rail
company, Amtrak, which runs on 21,000 miles of track in the United
States, reaching 500 destinations had a record 25.8 million
passengers in 2006. The total revenue was $2.2 billion. Shouldn't all
these numbers raise a few eyebrows when reading the CHSRA projected
Who will be the ridership on the HSR? The same executives, managers,
sales staff, and other professionals now flying up and down
California. (But only if it's less expensive and more convenient than
flying.) It will NOT be serving the great working majority of the
California population. This will NOT be another local commuter mass
transit system. It will be a heavily tax-subsidized luxury train for
the well-to-do. Overpriced and underused; is there a better reason
for not putting a mindless tax burden on our children and their
children? Reminder: bond funds are not free money; they still put
huge demands on our state budget. Every dollar borrowed will cost $2
dollars in interest over the life of the bond. Bonds, like mortgages,
cost interest on the debt, and the principle has to be paid back. Who
pays? The promised profits from the train? When you vote for a bond
issue, you are voting for a mortgage. Should we be mortgaging even
more in this cash-strapped, deficit state? I don't think so!
It is disingenuous for the CHSRA to seek a bond issue on the ballot
in 2008 for $9.95 billion without fully apprising Californians of
what the actual ultimate costs will be for this train system. The
current cost projections are, as some of the media say, "less than
$50 billion." I would venture to suggest that it would end up
somewhat more, perhaps three times as much!
They claim that by 2030 the HSR will carry as many as 117 million
passengers per year. And that works out to 321,000 passengers per
day, each day of the year. And that works out to three annual trips
from San Francisco to Los Angeles for each and every Californian.
That's marketing blather.
A fast intercity "commuter" travel system already exists. It's called
flying. The high-speed train people argue that this new rail system
would relieve overburdened airports. In that case, fix those and/or
build new ones. Think what the presently projected total costs of $40
billion for this project could do to enhance an air shuttle service
among the key cities and to develop it to go more efficiently,
faster, and safer, and develop new shuttle air terminals reached by
existing and expanded ground systems. The newest jets are far more
fuel-efficient and far less polluting.
San Jose's terminal could continue to expand. Oakland is still
underutilized. There are (at least) five commercial air terminals in
the LA area. Air commuting could operate even more cost-effectively
the way JetBlue and Southwest do now, without help from taxpayers.
Air travel will have lower per-mile seat costs than this train and
does not require the annual tax subsidies that now sustain Amtrak,
and would be required for the high-speed train.
For that matter, think what $40 billion could do to solve the urban
and regional transit problems in the northern and southern population
centers of California. That is a far higher priority for the economic
recovery of this state.
If speed/time benefits are the ostensible reason for these fast
trains, air travel is twice as fast and that commuter system is
already well established. It takes about one hour from SF to LA by
air. The train advocates say their trains will take over one hour
longer. Regardless, it's really about how fast you can get from your
house in SF or Sacramento to your desk in LA or San Diego (or vice
versa), and that's a local transit problem at both ends. Does anyone
really believe that air transit users will stop flying (at lower
ticket costs) and start riding the slower (and higher ticket cost)
A research study by Professors Levinson, Gillen, Kanafani, and
Mathieu at the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies (1996)
is titled "The Full Cost of Intercity Transportation -- A Comparison
of High Speed Rail, Air and Highway Transportation in California."
The title and article are long, but the findings can be stated
briefly: high-speed rail travel, when you do full-cost accounting,
is more expensive than either by air or automobile.
In a report by the US Congressional Budget Office (2003), "The Past
and Future of US Passenger Rail Service," a team of transportation
scientists and researchers identify many of the drawbacks for a high-
speed train such as proposed for the California north-south corridor.
Also, research shows that no one will get out of their car to ride
this train. The fact is that California's major traffic problems are
intra-city and regional, not inter-city. Urban commuter traffic is
certainly in crisis, but a 700-mile long train ride in California
-- no matter how fast -- won't solve it.
Final development costs for the entire high-speed train -- you
already know this -- will NOT be the presently projected $40 to $50
billion. It will be three times as much by the time it's finished.
(Bay Bridge, or Boston "Big Dig," anyone?) Even after capital
construction and its huge debt burden on the state taxpayers, the
operating costs will continue -- permanently -- to require massive
subsidies from our tax dollars. Time to ask, who really benefits,
such as, who owns property on or along the finally selected right-of-
"Passenger rail policy is a classic case in which most of the
benefits are concentrated among a few identifiable groups but the
costs are borne widely by taxpayers." (pg. 31, CBO U.S. Rail Study)
Parsons Brinkerhoff of "Big Dig" cost-overrun fame has been
identified as the prime contractor and will have their hands in the
HSR cornucopia of mega-funds; that is, if they ever materialize.
Parsons Brinkerhoff has a history of waste, fraud, and abuse; also
corruption and bribery. They continue to be under indictment in
Massachusetts. They are to be the lead contractor for the high-speed
train. What is wrong with this picture? Watch for those promoters,
landowners, lawyers, consultants, developers, contractors, and
lobbyists, all standing in line. It's a boondoggle for the rail
bureaucracies and their friends. It's the 19th-century rail robber
barons all over again. Could "pork-barrel" politics be an appropriate
term for this? California High Speed Rail is a financial train-wreck
waiting to happen. And all California taxpayers will be the victims.
Finally, there is one more way to understand this project. There are
many supporters -- political leaders -- who don't really care that
this project involves a high- speed train. Their real agenda is to
pump money into California's flagging economy, and if the HSR can
accumulate private or federal funding support, so much the better.
These train promoters see the opportunity for expanded employment
and development; they see this not in transportation terms but in
economic terms. It's a terrible way to run an economy, and it will
come at the expense of all California taxpayers.
The state is approaching a $14 billion deficit. Some have already
said it could go as high as $20 billion. The governor is calling
for a fiscal emergency. He also wants to provide a water management
program and health care coverage for everyone in the state at a cost
of $14 billion.
Boy, here's a hard decision! Shall we have a $100 billion boondoggle
luxury high-speed train for the well-to-do with an initial cost of
$10 billion, paid by a mortgage -- sorry -- bond issue on the '08
Or shall we make sure we have enough drinking water and health care
coverage for everybody in California? That's really a tough one,
isn't it, Judge Kopp?
By the way, will future bond issues in California be like subprime
mortgages in the current financial markets? Will the high-speed rail
bond issue be like that? And, if that's the case, wouldn't we, the
taxpayers, have to bail them out?
[BATN notes Mr. Engel, a frequent and determined critic of projects
proposed near his home, lives adjacent to the right-of-way the High
Speed Rail Authority is proposing to share with Caltrain.]
[BATN: See also:
Atherton, Menlo Park councils blast high-speed rail plans
2008 could be make-or-break year for CA high-speed rail
Comment: I'll say anything to oppose HSR, trains near my Menlo condo
Comment: Trackside Menlo Park NIMBY on "scary" push for HSR