California HSR redux

California High Speed Rail Blog: Taking the Coast Route purports to discuss The Transportation Experience.
It might be worth reading the book The Transportation Experience to see what Garrison and Levinson (i.e. me) actually think.
(And in contrast to the blog-author’s assertion, both gas prices and global warming are addressed as issues, with possible solutions considered).
HSR rail is ultimately gussied up rail technology, which has its niche in high density areas with available Right-of-Way (and no intervening mountain ranges). The book, and another book by Garrison, do describe other technologies that hold some promise, but this book is primarily about understanding the historical process of transportation development, and why it creates the problems we have.
The blog author here is clearly imposing his imagined assumption of conventional opposition onto Prof. Garrison, who is a very out-of-the-box thinker, who does not fall into the traps that swallow either of the ends on the conventional axis (pro-auto, pro-rail) .
There are several other issues here
Certainly $4/gallon gas is more expensive than $3/gallon gas, but we are not talking about a project (California HSR) that is even marginally cost-effective.
The cost (and energy used) in construction will be enormous.
The rail, as all transportation projects, will promote sprawled development in the Central Valley which will now be in commuting range of the Bay Area or metropolitan LA.
The question is not whether this is a project which is beneficial (which it is not), but whether it is the best use of scarce funds (which it most certainly is not). If you had $40 Billion to spend on transportation in California, what would you do, what would serve the most people the best.
Granted air travel is not terribly convenient, but once the same security apparatus is imposed on HSR (and it will be), HSR will not be the simple urban transit-like (or even Amtrak-like) experience fans would wish for.

4 thoughts on “California HSR redux

  1. While I would be the first to admit that HSR is quite expensive, your argument that HSR will not be a particularly beneficial improvement for California seems a bit specious. The alternatives – road and air – do not provide capacity improvements, and they both rely on carbon fuels, while HSR will not only significantly expand the number of possible movements between the Bay Area and SoCal, but it will also be possible to power it using renewable power sources.
    Second of all, while you suggest accurately that HSR may cause some sprawl in the Central Valley, the downtown, already-developed locations of the majority of the service’s stations will likely induce densification because of their pedestrian and transit-oriented nature. The same cannot be said of either air or road alternatives.
    Third, the CAHSR Blog’s argument that California mimics Spain in levels of density is a valid one, and suggests that the investment here will be a valuable and attractive one.
    Finally, I am a bit confused by the data provided in association with your book review here (
    The transit ridership numbers quoted for some of the cities (DC, Atlanta, Portland, Sacramento) are far lower than these transit systems are currently experiencing, indicating that the insight garnered from these out-of-date numbers may be spurious.

  2. Thanks for your comment.
    That air and car currently rely on carbon fuels is of course fact. The supposition that rail will not is still that. By the time the line is open I suspect cars will be more powered by electricity than fuel directly (the switch to plug-in hybrids will occur fairly rapidly as more and more new cars adopt the technology). The source of energy for electricity of course might be anything, that is for the electrical sector to address, but the mix for electrified rail and electric car will be very similar in 10 years time. I suspect aircraft will take much longer to convert away from carbon.
    There will be some densification of areas near stations, but most people will access rail via car, just as with the airports. Downtown is not where the action is anymore, most people work outside downtown), cities are quite dispersed. So while urban densification to a small extent may be an outcome, it is too small to be a serious justification.
    Third, California and Spanish densities may be similar, the Spanish HSR is not profitable (including capital costs), and California density (at current cost and income and value of time levels) is insufficient for the line to be profitable.
    The data in the book includes lots of datasets, not just the one on those pages. Of course numbers change over time, and transit ridership is higher than it has been for a few years (though nowhere near the post-war 1940s peak).
    The general point remains, those transit systems require enormous subsidy (which does not of itself mean they should not be subsidized, but is a fact that should be acknowledged in honest discourse), much larger than for cars according to any objective numbers. The whole transportation financing system in the US is arcane and dysfunctional, but one dysfunction does not justify another.
    I have certainly traveled on rail and HSR systems in a number of counties (Japan, France, Germany, UK, Switzerland, US, Canada), and they have their role in the right context. Not all of those cases are the right context, and the US is the least of them. None of them are profitable.

  3. The argument that HSR in other countries is never profitable is simply untrue, as I’m sure you know, when it comes to operating costs: the SNCF made more than a billion euros last year, mostly on the strength of the TGV lines. Japanese lines are also profitable. It is true, of course, that construction of these lines is expensive. But the LGV-Est (France’s newest HSR line) will ultimately cost ~4 billion Euros. If the SNCF maintains its existing profit margin, such an investment becomes profitable, considering it could singlehandedly be paid off in four years.
    You argue that you’ve travelled on HSR in the US, and that HSR here was in the wrong context. Since the US only has one pseudo-HSR, the NEC’s Acela, I assume that’s what you’re talking about. Are you telling me you think that NEC high-speed train travel is inappropriate? Should the people who take the trains today be taking airplanes or driving their personal cars? The success in both ridership and profitability of the Acela indicates that this service is in exactly the right context.
    You also write that “downtown isn’t where the action is anymore.” Yes, downtowns across the country have lost their relative share of regional employment, but downtowns remain the largest business centers in every region. Downtowns along the Northeast corridor and in California are actually doing quite well and expanding significantly, so even though much of the employment will be outside of the downtowns, why would the significant number of individuals working downtown choose to drive or take flights when train travel provides a superior alternative? Do not dismiss the huge number of people who continue to work and live in CBDs.
    In terms of the energy argument, surely cars will be converted to non-carbon fuels (or electricity) over the next few decades, but as you pointed out, airplanes will not. For long-distance travel like LA-SF, then, HSR seems like an increasingly desirable choice over increasingly expensive and environmentally deleterious airplanes.
    You also repeat the typical “transit requires a lot more subsidies than cars” argument. This has been disproved over and over when the larger consequences of car ownership are considered. Not only does car ownership induce poor uses of land (such as an overabundance of parking), but it also increases pollution, causing health problems that society as a whole must remedy. Car dependence may not seem like it requires as much as a subsidy from government, but the “choice” most people have to make to buy cars (because in most places they have few other choices) is ultimately a subsidy to the auto industry. People have to devote an enormous of their personal incomes to car ownership, something that would not be nearly as necessary if transit were more readily available. As a result, the “subsidy” we need to be discussing is overall societal transportation expenditures. A car-based society costs a whole hell of a lot more than a transit-based one.

  4. I agree that HSR will never be cost effective, but as you can see gas is back down around 3.60 a gallon right now, I think the oil companies took it as high as they could to see what consumers would do, and to see if we would pay 4.00 plus a gallon, and now they Know we will, the backed it down where it seems a bargin these days. What short memories the public has! I would love to see a HSR, Monorail system, and any other forms of mass transit as long as it was really effective. Being in the automotive business I feel there is a huge number of people who would never trade their personal vehicles in for any form of mass transit!

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