More on High-Speed Rail

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:

  • “The high-speed rail line needs to be a dedicated line with out grade crossings and no commuter or freight trains getting in the way.”
  • “You can’t plunk a bullet train down on an existing corridor.”
  • “Hence a virgin 400- or 500-mile track in California, in addition to its own construction, entails hundreds of massive construction projects in order to divert all sorts of cross traffic. A dedicated line also requires a secure fence on both sides of the tracks. Because it takes several miles to brake-stop a train barreling along at 200 m.p.h. — French authorities consider drivers incapable of reacting quickly enough to stimuli at top speed — fences are needed to keep cattle and curious kids from wandering near.”
  • “In addition to track beds and rails and fences and trains and signals — all built to withstand earthquakes — a large power supply and vast new electrical system with substations every 30 miles will be needed. There will be as many as 24 passenger stations along the way, most of them built from scratch, while others, like Union Station in Los Angeles, will need to be expanded significantly to accommodate millions of new train riders every year. (A small but typical headache: Union Station is on the national register of historic places, which makes renovations and expansions especially fraught.) The train plan will also necessitate thousands of pages of environmental and public-review documents. And it will require an entirely new set of safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration.”
  • “And these aren’t even the biggest problems. The monumental difficulty of the California rail project is finalizing the route. An approximate plan has been approved, but over the next year the authority will pinpoint precisely where the train will run, down to the inch. Significant purchases of land will have to be made, and in some places the state might have to exercise eminent domain.”
  • “For the moment, it’s fair to assume that the high-speed-rail project will be a vivid, 10-year nightmare for many engineers and Californians. On the positive side, the start of construction — beginning, say, with all those grade crossings — will instantly create thousands of jobs, a considerable boost given the state’s double-digit unemployment rate. But it will disrupt dozens of communities and almost certainly raise the ire of many civic activists. If recent history is any lesson — and you might consider Boston’s “Big Dig” — the train will likely encounter cost overruns, delays and perhaps even tragic accidents and corruption. Antagonistic politicians and environmental lawsuits may drive its costs even higher.”

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.