Train talk is not going away.
Amtrak California broke ridership records in 2010. Both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have consistently shifted policy focus onto high-speed rail — first with $8 billion in grants awarded early last year, and then with plans to spend $53 billion over six years to construct a high-speed rail across the country.
In short, there is an increasingly popular notion that trains are the solution to our congested and aging transportation network.
High-speed rail in California has received a lot of attention, given the transportation woes the state currently faces. From decaying and congested highways to overcrowded airports, California seems to be a natural spot for intercity rail — especially high-speed rail — to reassert itself.
But high-speed rail in California will simply never achieve its full potential the way it is currently being executed by the California High Speed Rail Authority.
First and foremost, high-speed operations of the scale and magnitude that give high-speed rail its advantage will be physically impossible on the proposed line.
With 17 stops between San Diego and San Francisco and 16 stops between San Diego and Sacramento, trains will accelerate after leaving stations only to have to decelerate shortly thereafter, according to the CHSRA.
Some argue that not all trains will stop at all stations. Other trains will still make frequent stops, however. This slows down “express” service — double tracking is simply not sufficient to allow the faster trains to pass, even with railroad sidings that allow trains to pull off to the side off a mainline.
Past evidence suggests rail infrastructure projects are disproportionately prone to major cost overruns. Moreover, ridership overestimation only reinforces concern about how much revenue CHSRA should realistically expect to generate. Supplementing this uncertainty is the fact that the CHSRA is currently pricing tickets at well below market value, in accordance with the “public transportation” mentality of the system.
On top of that, California’s credit rating — the worst in the nation — is not getting better anytime soon, causing the cost of debt needed to finance the project to skyrocket.
If California insists on developing high-speed rail, it must shift its paradigm. High-speed rail is not “public transportation,” and it should not be priced, financed or routed as such. Stations should be very limited in number, tracks should run straight through the flattest and most rural countryside available and tickets should be priced at or above market level.
Furthermore, private capital should play a significant role in financing the project — a point CHSRA has only half-heartedly embraced. If California high-speed rail is truly as attractive and potentially profit-making as CHSRA argues, then investors should be flocking to it. Currently, those investors are avoiding California high-speed rail like the plague.
High-speed rail is an attractive and potentially very lucrative infrastructure investment with the potential to change the way intra-regional, intercity travel is conducted in the United States.
But, as proposed, CHSRA’s plan to bring high-speed rail to both Palmdale and San Francisco, while selling tickets at half the price of airfare, is a looming trainwreck of epic proportions.
Teddy Minch is a graduate student studying public policy and civil infrastructure finance.