mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Golden State Blues
Another California Rail Fail

Cost increases and construction delays continue to make a mockery of the early, rosy projections of the attainability of California’s high-speed rail boondoggle. The latest example, from Governing magazine:

It was supposed to be the easiest section of the high-speed rail project: a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley that would serve as the testing ground for the high-speed trains before tracks are expanded south to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco.

But it’s proving to be more difficult than anticipated. On Wednesday, the High-Speed Rail Authority informed the Obama administration, in a contract amendment, that it expects the Central Valley track to be complete by 2022 instead of 2018 as originally projected.

Difficulty buying property and legal challenges contributed to the new timeline.

This four-year delay—on a section of track going through one of the least-populated and geographically amenable parts of the state—is just a taste of what is likely to come (if this trial run is even successful) when the Rail Authority tries to break ground in Silicon Valley or tunnel through the mountains north of Los Angeles. Costs are sure to be revised upward (the project already faces a $25 billion funding gap) and construction timelines are sure to be pushed back even further as the HSR fields lawsuits and addresses the unexpected engineering challenges that accompany all massive public works projects.

Ongoing delays make it even less likely that the train, once it is completed, will actually be a useful addition to California’s infrastructure. Telecommuting continues to reduce the demand for long-distance transportation, and new technologies, from self-driving cars to more ambitious ideas like the hyperloop, promise to revolutionize the way Americans get from point A to point B without such a massive transfer or resources to contractors, bondholders, and construction unions. The high-speed rail increasingly looks like a last-ditch (and poorly managed) effort to project 20th-century ideas about transportation into the future, rather than a carefully-conceived investment in the economic needs of future generations.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • Maddog

    Rail is 19th century technology, not 20th. It died in the US except for freight transportation, and government subsidized choo-choo trains, during the middle of the 20th century.

    In the 21st century all that is left is this modes ability to create opportunities for graft, and corruption. This is all that is left of the Blue Model. Accordingly politicians love this are attracted to it like flies to shite.

    • Jim__L

      Hey, don’t underrate the US freight rail network. It’s world-class. Trying to overlay a passenger network on top of that would be detrimental to both.

      • Maddog

        Regardless, it is still 19th century technology, but sometimes old stuff works just fine. The US military’s Ma Duce (the M1 heavy machine gun) is another example. For freight, I agree, rail is cost effective, and can handle the load, but not for human transportation. Moving light weight humans by rail is a waste, since the rolling stock is incredibly heavy and requires tremendous energy to motivate. Thus, it requires massive subsidies.

        The US freight rail system is world class, Europe would do well to emulate that, and eliminate its human rail component.

        Economically, if something pays for itself, it is a welcome addition to economic activity, if not, it has no place in the economy. Subsidies are simply a marker for political graft and corruption. Something all socio-economic systems should seek to minimize.

        Remember, the article is about “high speed” human transportation rail, not freight.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Totally agree….though the Ma Deuce is the M2, not the M1 (actually M2HB these days)

          • Maddog

            I hope that was not the first signs of dementia, because I know that! D’ ho!

    • Andrew Allison

      You’re right, of course that the California HSR boondoggle is nothing more than payola for the construction industry and unions, and a monument to Governor Moonbeam. But let’s not tar all rail with the same brush. In many developed countries, rail is an integral part of the transportation infrastructure. One of the reasons that’s not the case here is the distances between population centers, but the US fixation with cars and trucks and the enormous government expenditure on roads play a part. Incentives to move freight from from roads to rail would have a significant return in terms of reduced congestion and wear-and-tear, not to mention the half-million truck-involved accidents every year (https://www.truckdrivingjobs.com/faq/truck-driving-accidents.html).

      • f1b0nacc1

        I am not sure that I agree. About 40% of all freight traffic is rail-borne (roughly 30% of it is truck-borne), and most of that (91%) is made up of bulk cargoes not amenable for other modes of transportation. Most of the road traffic is short-range (i.e. within a given region or metro area), though certainly there is a large amount of long-haul trucking as well. My point here is that if somehow you eliminated the interstate highway system, you wouldn’t magically increase the amount of rail traffic devoted to freight (oh you would increase some of it, but not much) as the bulk of what is carried by trucks now is intra-regional, not interregional, and thus wouldn’t displace.

        Source for the numbers: https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0362

        • Andrew Allison

          No argument that short-haul belongs on the road, but consider containerized freight distribution — which is “bulk cargo”. A quick scan of the link didn’t yield the short- versus long-haul data (it would be interesting to see an overlay of road and rail freight). I have only anecdotal evidence, namely the number of trucks on Highway 101 and I5, and the condition (washboard) of the right hand lane, but suspect that on the East and West Coasts, and major cross-country corridors, a significant amount of long-haul truck freight would be better carried by rail. The point I was trying to make, however, is that we shouldn’t let the stupidity of Governor Moonbeam’s wet dream blind us to the benefits of the useful rail network.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Once again, as disconcerting as it might be, we largely agree (grin)….

            I am a big supporter of a strong rail network for freight, but I can only laugh at those who think it makes any sense whatsoever for passenger use. Containerized cargo makes great sense for intermodal traffic, but if you look at the data, 91% (by weight) of the rail traffic is bulk. My limited knowledge of the dynamics here is that most containerized shipping that does not actually go on a ship (why is freight carried on a ship cargo, but freight carried on a car a shipment?) almost always ends up on rail lines. This makes sense, as most containerized shipments aren’t heavy, just massive, which in turn would explain why you aren’t seeing them make up a high percentage of train-borne cargo by weight.

            Anyway, Moonbeam is an idiot (anyone who lived in CA in the 70s and 80s knows that!), and cargo belongs on rails for cross country shipping….

          • Andrew Allison

            I’m starting to get used to this agreement business [grin]. I think, however, we should be careful about dismissing passenger rail; it makes sense on densely traveled intercity routes like the Northeast Corridor. The Western Corridor, especially San Diego (now the second largest city in the State) to San Jose (#3) and San Francisco (#4) has similar characteristics.
            What’s crazy is the VHSR project. High speed 90-150mph could be implemented at much lower cost and would still be competitive with air (even absent the farcical TSA theater of the absurd). There may be other such corridors (Kansas City to St Louis and/or Chicago?).
            (http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/passenger/high-performance/high-speed-rail-in-the-northeast-what-next.html is worth reading)

          • f1b0nacc1

            My closest friend is a huge passenger rail fan, so I have this argument with him on a regular basis….
            The ONLY passenger rail routes in the US that actually come close to turning a profit (and even these don’t do it consistently) are the BosWash routes (the Acela corridor), all of the others lose money, some of they by very wide margins. Passenger rail *might* be a good idea for some of the other routes that you mention by some other calculation other than profitability, but I haven’t heard the case made convincingly yet. There are a few vanity projects that keep getting floated (LA to Vegas it the one I hear mentioned most often, with Dallas to Houston a close second), but the only way anyone is interested in it is when the subject of serious public subsidies are included. I live in KC, and I can tell you right now that there isn’t a lick of interest in a route to St Louis (you have to understand that KC and St Louis despise each other, if we could, we would find some way to make travel between the cities MORE difficult, not less…grin…), and though I am not against someone trying to make it work, I am not OK with paying for them to advance their hobby.
            The Euros and the Japanese are often pointed to as those that ‘do passenger rail right’, but this praise often overlooks the enormous subsidies (direct and indirect) that these routes get, not to mention the regulatory environment that cripples competition. Of course you have a few routes that survive (good on them), but unless you have the density of the Northeast corridor, and a relatively short route, I just don’t see it. Passenger rail requires expensive equipment and better trained crews for comfort and safety, these tend to price it out of the market when it is subject to competition.

          • Andrew Allison

            “unless you have the density of the Northeast corridor, and a relatively short route, I just don’t see it” is what I thought I suggested. That and the fact that the SF-SD Corridor has the same characteristics. The key point, however, was and is that VHSR is ridiculously cost-ineffective in the USA. As to your last point, the driverless train problem is much less difficult than that for the driverless vehicle. Again, I’m simply suggesting that there are perhaps a (very) few routes that make sense for fast passenger service.

          • f1b0nacc1

            SF-SD has three big(ish) cities, and they aren’t all that close together, the BosWash corridor has Boston, Providence, NYC, Jersey City, Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC. Lets call Providence, Jersey City, and Trenton one big city just to be fair and that still leaves you with twice as many in a smaller corridor

          • Andrew Allison

            You’re reaching. As I noted, there are four major cities (and there’s one significant smaller one), three of them in the top-10 in the country. SFO-LAX is the second most heavily traveled air route in the country (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World%27s_busiest_passenger_air_routes#United_States_.28September_2014_-_August_2015.29).

          • f1b0nacc1

            SFO/LAX is indeed heavily used, but without significantly higher speed, conventional rail isn’t going to be much of a challenge for it. San Diego/LA might be an interesting route, but the right of way issues are frightening (this was one of the issues during the planning for the HSR proposal), sufficient to deter any private group.

            If you can find investors willing to spend the money, great, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The West Coast route is too large, too dispersed, and located in an area infested with NIMBYs and BANANAs….not good signs.

          • Andrew Allison

            I fear that you may have lost sight on my original argument, namely that the SF-SD corridor is ripe for moderately high-speed (<150mph) rail. That would get you from SF to LA in about the forecast time to get through airport security this summer [grin]. Right-of-way is not an issue: the existing track could be upgraded for sub-150 mph trains for very much less than the cost of the Brown Boondoggle. You are absolutely right that the need for new right-of-way is the reason that VHSR can never be cost-effective. One of the benefits, incidentally, would be to reduce the crippling high airspace congestion at SFO and LAX, both of which are operating at full capacity.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I understand your point, I am just not sure that I entirely agree with it. If there was a market for rail traffic (sub-150 Mph), I suspect that we would have seen investors jump into the game and at least explore the option, but we have not seen that. While you are absolutely correct that right of way wouldn’t be an issue if you weren’t talking about <150 Mph, you would still need regulator easements that I rather doubt that the state of CA is willing to consider, unless of course the various constituency groups are paid off….which is after all the whole point of HSR in the first place. The lack of investor interest is 'the dog that didn't bark' here…

          • Andrew Allison

            You may [perish the thought!] be right, but in this case I suspect that the absence of investor interest has more to do with the State’s determination to build the stupid HSR through virgin territory than economics. The State is determined to spend what I suspect will be close to $100 billion to build something that will be no faster than a sub-150 mph route over the existing ROW which would not only cost much less but be available much sooner. We can only hope that the State also proves unable to find “investors” in the form of State and Federal taxpayers to continue the project.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I agree with you that the State is hell-bent (and if you have ever been along the route they have chosen, you will know that this is not just a euphemism…grin…) on building their HSR line in about the worst possible area, but what is to stop private investors from chosing a better route? What in fact HAS stopped them? I believe it is because that there is not enough demand to encourage a privately-run line…

          • Andrew Allison

            The demand, as we have discussed, is clearly there. I believe that’s what’s missing is a decision to do it and bring together the stakeholders. These include the State and Federal governments in addition to the owners of the ROW and rolling stock. Unfortunately, the State is blindly committed to a different approach. The HSR route, incidentally, largely parallels that of the existing active rail route.

          • f1b0nacc1

            If the demand was there, where are the investors? I don’t me now (I believe we can agree that the HSR has pretty much sucked all of the oxygen out of the room), but the ‘SanSan corridor’ has been there for some time, and we haven’t really seen any serious attempt to get any sort of passenger rail going there. Perhaps demand exists, but it isn’t ‘clearly there’, and I would like to see some evidence beyond simply assertion.
            You are absolutely correct that the proposed HSR route largely parallels the existing one, but unlike a non-HSR approach the HSR approach requires substantial construction and land acquisition. This is indeed it’s appeal…it gives a HUGE payoff to politically connected construction firms and other contractors, something that a non-HSR approach would not. That is precisely why the Dems are so enamoured of it…it gives them a whole new bucket of graft to dole out….

          • Andrew Allison

            In case you missed this: http://www.investors.com/politics/commentary/californias-64-billion-bullet-train-to-nowhere-gets-delayed-again/
            Perhaps we should be asking where are the “investors” for this crock.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Oh, the answer for that question is simple enough. California taxpayers are the investors…involuntarily of course, but since when did anyone on the left actually concern themselves with ‘consent’?

          • Andrew Allison

            You (and all other Federal taxpayers) should be so lucky. I suspect that most of any additional money flushed into this sink will be Federal.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Assuming for a moment that CA votes Dem in November (safe assumption), and President Trump is as unpleasant as he is likely to be with regard to those who oppose him, I wouldn’t bet too heavily on that.
            Now, if Hillary becomes America’s Evita, then you are likely to be right….

      • Maddog

        The “massive” government expenditure on roads in the US is less than one penny per passenger mile. It should be zero, and auto users are more than willing to pay this tiny additional amount. Rail is an important and economically valuable form of freight transportation, one can tell because it does not require subsidies.

        Trucking accidents are soon to be a thing of the past. Google the Otto self drive truck. This will be coming by 2020, and will likely sweep the industry by 2030. Humans are terrible at operating machinery and vehicles, and the self drive semi, truck, and auto will make life better for us all. It will also allow far more electrification of transportation, and lower costs dramatically.

        Mead writes about this as do I at my blog maddogslair.com, come visit me sometime.

  • Matt_Thullen

    Telecommuting is going to be greatly curtailed under the Obama administration’s new FLSA rules, which will convert millions of salaried workers to hourly workers. Hourly work and overtime are very difficult to control when a worker isn’t physically present, so I suspect that lots of companies will be calling these employees back to the office.

    • Andrew Allison

      The Law of Unintended Consequences!

      • Dan

        foreseeable consequences are not unintended

        • Andrew Allison

          Agreed, but we’re talking about a legislature which routinely passes legislation without reading it, let alone thinking about its consequences. Perhaps we should change the name to The Law of Unconsidered Consequences [grin]

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service