November 12, 2011

Why California's #HSR is dumb

NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect further information international HSR as well as that in California.

I love the idea of high-speed rail, and in the U.S., California is well positioned. Its two big metro areas are spaced far enough apart for HSR to make a lot of sense over conventional rail. Easy extenders can go to Sacramento and San Diego.

But, right now, there's a HUGE problem. Wayyyy too many stations in between the two metro areas. I love the idea of HSR, but, if you can never get a train up to top speed, your specific plan is el stupido, Golden Staters. Modesto, Merced AND Stockton? You can't get the train up above Greyhound speed. Ditto for the Palmdale stop. Going northbound, once HSR gets through Cajon Pass, let it roll all the away to Fresno.

And other locations? Gilroy for HSR? Tulare? You've got to be kidding. There's no population base at either site. I suspect that the routing AND the number of stops are all "political gravy." Well, tough shit. You drive, take a bus, or take a local train from Tulare to Fresno, or whatever, to ride HSR. Palmdale? Not on a direct line between SoCal and Fresno. After Santa Clarita, no stops until Fresno.

Now, not all these stations may be used for every train, tis true. But, the state government's HSR agency needs to be clearer about that, as well as about tentative ticket costs and other things. And trust me, I"ve looked both there and Wikipedia. That said, the state's map says Tulare is "regional," but doesn't explain more what that means. And Gilroy is NOT listed as "regional."

This applies to HSR in other locales. In Texas, a "triangle" of Dallas, Houston and Austin would work well. But, the Dallas-Houston train can't stop at College Station, nor the Dallas-Austin one at Waco. DC-NYC would work, but that train can't stop in Philly. Florida? First, no way to do a Miami-Tampa line without even more damage to the Everglades, is there?

High-speed rail, whether here, the U.S. or Europe, has some specific needs. Stations must be at least 150 miles apart; else, standard rail is just fine. Realistically, 200 miles or so is better. Stations shouldn't be more than 500 miles apart, or else you're less efficiently competing with air travel. And, terminal cities need to have a minimum population density, an issue The Economist addresses well. More on all of this below the fold.

The correct word is actually 'antiquated.'
California's state HSR project ignores that in comparing U.S. and international HSR, too.

For example, Paris and Brussels are about 180 miles apart. Good for high-speed rail, but you wouldn't stop in Lille.  Paris and Cologne/Bonn are about 300 miles away, but Cologne's only 125 or so from Brussels, so the only way high-speed rail between those cities makes sense is as a halfway stop from Paris to Berlin, if you don't route through Frankfurt instead.

But, per Wikipedia, it turns out a lot of Europe is a mix of stupid and not so high speed, along with true HSR. A fair amount of European rail, while looking snazzy, is actually "medium speed" of 150mph or less. And, where HSR does exist, it's stupid at times. France's highest-speed rail line to Brussels stops at Charleroi, Belgium, too. or so Wiki's map indicates. Most "high speed" rail in Germany maxes out at about 135 mph. Paris to (almost) Strausbourg, Paris-Lyon-Marseilles and Madrid-Barcelona are the only European lines that hit 200 mph. California's is supposed to go at 150 mph or so, says one site, though another claims 200 mph. I think that it needs to shoot for 180 mph or better, as well as eliminating more intermediate stops, to truly be competitive. And, why are we getting different numbers? And, speaking of different numbers, let's get back to the falling ridership claims.

Also, let's get back to profitability claims. Per another Wikipedia article, China's HSR isn't profitable. I'm not sure about others. That said, in many cases, HSR runs fewer routes per day than airlines do in the U.S.

Miller-McCune says by one measure, annual profits, most HSR routes are profitable. When other overhead is taken into account, only a couple of lines may be profitable. And, another "naysayer" says those two are the only two that run without subsidies and show any profit. That's a big issue, as California is saying there will be no subsidies once the line is built.

And, yes, I know highways aren't "profitable." And, that fuel taxes could be considered a "subsidy." Of course, this gets to the whole issue of national railroad lines vs. private airlines, too.

The population density points out one final fact: The U.S., unlike most of western Europe and east Asia, simply isn't that amenable to high-speed rail, just like Russia largely isn't. And, environmentalists need to accept that. Maybe if U.S. HSR had vehicle-carrying cars, like a car-carrying ferry, it would get more popularity. I don't know if HSR elsewhere does that or not.

Of course, Europe is ahead of us in other ways. In many of its major cities, rail systems tie into airports.

I'm not against HSR in the U.S. in general. But, it's like national health care. Just as even (or especially) with a single-payer system, I want cost controls, so I want accurate estimates of ridership and ticket pricing, along with the non-politically best-designed route on HSR.

And, there's one HUGE difference between the U.S. and everywhere else in the developed (non-Chinese) world that has HSR, and The Economist nails it, too: the price of gasoline. Unless gas taxes are hiked, or our government ever addresses global warming through carbon taxes (which would hit both planes and cars more than high-speed rail) comparing HSR in California to Europe or Japan is like comparing apples and bocce balls.

In the abstract, I love the idea of HSR. But, in the realities of U.S. population density (not counting U.S. politics), this is a good example of why I call myself a skeptical left-liberal.

UPDATE, Dec. 7, 2011: An L.A. Daily News reporter, writing at Slate, largely agrees, and suggests, even, that the U.S. wait until maglev prices drop.

UPDATE, Dec. 14, 2011: An L.A. Times story basically admits everything I've blogged above about the problems with HSR. California can have very, very pricey true high-speed rail, or it can have medium speed rail that might come in on time and budget. It can't have both.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

OK, give the new look an overview. It's still got a background screen, but it's semi-white, and the font is bumped up a point on body text.