Out of Control Policy Blog

CA High-Speed Rail and Positive Train Control in the News

During the past few weeks, High-Speed Rail (HSR) and Positive Train Control (PTC) have both been in the news. 

First, last Thursday Secretary of Transportation LaHood warned California lawmakers to take action on high-speed rail. According to The Sacramento Bee:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned California lawmakers Thursday not to wait until fall for a vote on high-speed rail, urging its approval in a budget vote next month.

"We need to make sure that the commitment is there to obligate the money," LaHood told reporters at the Capitol, where he was meeting with lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state's commitment, LaHood said, will be demonstrated when lawmakers "put it in the budget and take a vote on it."

Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority want to start construction on a $68 billion rail project by early next year, proposing initially to use $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funds.

Lawmakers remain skeptical, however, and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended against it.

Not only has the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended against it, so has every other independent research group and government watchdog. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has criticized the project for relying on uncertain federal funding. Of course there are a multitude of reasons to dislike HSR in California:

  • The new line is not true high-speed rail and will not connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours forty minutes or less (as required by the state ballot initiative). The 600 mile circuitous route is at least 200 miles longer than the route would be if it were a direct line.
  • HSR will not reduce pollution dramatically. The California business plan fails to account for the greenhouse gas emissions of building the rail-line or the reduced greenhouse emissions from new cars and airplanes.
  • The slower speed will attract fewer passengers. Most high-speed rail lines attract passengers primarily from airplanes. A slower speed means fewer air travelers will switch to high-speed rail.
  • California is relying on revenue from an untested environmental cap and trade system. The revenue is supposed to support environmental causes, which HSR is not.
  • No serious private investor would touch this project. Private investors rely on making money. Almost all HSR lines throughout the world have been publicly financed because governments outside of California realize no private sector group would be interested.
  • State revenue could be better used on transit repairs, or school improvements or…

The current California high-speed rail plan is a classic government boondoggle. California should decline its federal grant. If it takes the money it will be required to build the line and operate the service. California does not have the additional $55 billion it needs to build the system. And the first part of the line will travel between Merced and the San Fernando Valley instead of starting in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco. If the Obama administration is committed to HSR, it should use the California money to begin work on a true high-speed train in the Northeast corridor. That project will not be cheap but at least it makes sense. Of course if the Obama administration understood or cared about transportation in the first place they would have started with the Northeast corridor but that is a discussion for another day.

For more on HSR in Fantasyland see my blog post here and my colleague Adam Summers excellent commentary here.

Meanwhile the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has modified its rule on positive train control; unfortunately the changes are minor in nature. The new rule requires PTC on 63,000 miles of track as opposed to 73,000 miles. The FRA changed its ruling since the 10,000 affected miles of track are not expected to transport hazardous materials in 2015. The new rule is displayed in its entirety here.

First, the positive, railroads will not be required to install PTC on routes that do not transport poisonous materials or are used for transporting passengers. Now, the negative, the change does not go nearly far enough. The FRA should be congratulated for using a little common sense to modify the rule. However, PTC is still required on most tracks. As I mentioned in a commentary here requiring PTC on any track by 2015 is problematic:

  • Railroads are one of the safest forms of transportation with a fatality rate of 0.2 per 100 million passenger miles.
  • PTC will prevent only 4% of current railroad accidents at a cost of $14 billion.
  • PTC can prevent accidents but so can many other technologies. The FRA failed to require PTC in 2005 because it miserably failed any cost-benefit comparison. Senators, most of whom know very little about transportation, decided they knew better and passed a law in 2008 mandating PTC on all class 1 tracks.
  • PTC may make rail travel more dangerous. As the railroads have to spend $12 billion implementing the technology in three years, track maintenance and ofter safety issues may be ignored.
  • PTC will make train travel slower and less efficient by prematurely slowing the train. Humans are much better at breaking than today’s PTC systems.

While the FRA decision is a step in the right direction, it is only one baby step. Congress needs to delay PTC implementation until the benefits outweigh the costs.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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