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More on High-Speed Rail

Shirley Ybarra
June 28, 2009, 11:01am

My colleagues have written extensively pointing out questions regarding high-speed rail. 
Sam Staley has provided a pragmatic look at what makes high-speed rail work, such as large population centers and realistic expectations and also evaluated whether the US high-speed rail can copy Spain.   Bob Poole has an article entitled “High-Speed Rail Should be Called Moderate-Speed Rail” and Adrian Moore reports on the Government Accountability Office assessment of high-speed rail.

A long article worth a read about the proposed high-speed rail project in California appeared in the June 14, 2009 New York Times Magazine.  The article by Jon Gertner looks at some interesting issues regarding the project.

He begins his research by taking today’s train from Los Angeles to Sacramento-- taking 12 hours, 25 minutes including two bus segments.  He was fortunate to be “on time” as this route has been known to be 11-12 hours behind schedule.  The purpose of his trip was to meet with the California High -Speed Rail Authority established in 1996 and located in Sacramento and to see how the Authority might build the line for some $33 billion.  Potential additions to San Diego and Sacramento could cost billions more.

As he notes, “If it can get started, the California high-speed train would almost certainly be the most expensive single infrastructure project in United States history.” 

“In a country with no real experience of bullet trains — the Acela, which runs between Boston and Washington, doesn’t exceed 150 m.p.h. — it isn’t immediately obvious what makes the systems so advanced and expensive.”

He goes on to explain a few issues:

Gertner also travelled to Europe to take a look at the high-speed rail manufacturers and experienced the rides first hand.  He has related his experience in the article with observations regarding the equipment and routes in Europe and whether it applies to the US market.

He also suggests, the California High-Speed rail project should be thought of as 8 connected segments thus thinking of the line in pieces instead of total project. But some “segments” have already had problems such as problems over the size of a planned rail station in San Francisco or a not-in-my-backyard standoff with the city of Palo Alto, still unresolved,  over the route of the train through town.  For any big project these issues are to be expected and delays (read higher costs) are likely.  Any delays add to the cost.

The issues addressed by Gertner  add more questions to the funding issues addressed elsewhere for example those noted by Sam Staley looking at Randall O’Toole’s “blistering attack of high-speed rail.”

While the California project is considered “further along” than the other potential high-speed rail corridors, the funding remains the issue not only for California but for all of the other potential corridors.  The Obama Administration has acknowledged the $8 billion available (for some 6-8 corridors) is a “down payment.”  A great deal of funding is needed just to build one segment never mind “the system.”  And then we have to think about the operating costs.  Perhaps we should consider all of this “up front” and not dive into the deep end of the high-speed rail pool.  

Shirley Ybarra is Senior Transportation Policy Analyst

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