California funds high-speed rail

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  • Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - 11:19pm



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    If you understand peak oil

If you understand peak oil and the energy predicament we are about to enter into, we should be funding electricfied rail significantly more than we do now. It’ll mean we need to raise the gas tax and put a price on carbon (oh noes! new taxes!). But there is no political will to do that, even though CO2 emissions are CLEARLY accelerating the pace of climate change. Sorry, but I’m acctually not against raising taxes on certain things that need to be raised. I think it’s intellectually weak to think that taxes only need to be cut and never raised. If that’s what we do then we will see the collapse of the entire system in our lifetimes. The math on that is clear. Peak Oil and resource depletion also has huge implications about our future military spending because most Americans will likely demand the politicians of the future to fight far-flung wars to get ahold of as much natural resources as we can, instead of building more resilient systems back home that don’t use as much resources. Another predicament. It’s all how you look at the world I suppose. I think high-speed rail gives my generation hope that we can built and NOT destroy to thrive this century. Others don’t see it that way.

  • Sun, Jul 08, 2012 - 06:07am



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    ’bout that hope thing…

Hey ph, I certainly can understand that younger generations need and want to experience a hopeful future.  But I agree with the previous respondants for the most part.  It’s a gov’t project- 8 billion today will be 24 billion by the time it is fully operational (2029!? yeah sure….).  $5.8 (let’s call it 10) billion for 130 miles of track?  My old-school calculator wont do those #s but my semi-functioning noggin says about $43 million per MILE?  High speed rail is not new tech- it’s been around for decades.  Why so much?  Who owns the proposed land?  Follow the money.  I can’t believe the future for Ca. or any of us will be rosy and prosperous in the way that will benefit from a HS rail system.  Who are these folks that need to go from, let’s say Fresno, to, say, LA or SF in such a big hurry?  And if this travel is necessary, what are they doing living in Fresno?  Will this system carry freight?  Can’t they just put the tracks down the middle of I-5?   I enjoy riding BART when in the Bay Area, is it self-funding or subsidized, after 40 years?  Wanting to create a sustainable and prosperous future is what we’re all about here, but I believe this project is not really thinking outside the box.  Can half the Senate really be that wrong ( of COURSE they can, but….)?  Gotta be a better way.  Jerry Brown must be gettin’ senile…Aloha, Steve. 

I’m gonna read Frank Norris’s “The Octopus” one of these days….

  • Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - 03:12am



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    My Multiple Cents On The Senselessness Of It All

As a resident of California, I think I have some points I would like to make:

If You Build It, They Will Come?
We don’t already fully utilize the transportation options (rail, bus, and plane) that we already have. So why build and subsidize something like this? Amtrak currently takes some 9 to 11 hours from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and costs anywhere from $60 to $110, using a combination of train and bus. Shuttle bus service from San Francisco to Los Angeles costs around $45 and takes about 6.5 to 7.5 hours. I might see a real need if these buses and trains were packed and more route were being added all the time by Amtrak, airlines, and shuttle bus companies – but they’re not.

And sorry, Fresno and Bakersfield are not tourist destinations. Been there. An OC/LA to Las Vegas line makes far more sense. People already take many hours on that route and the road is PACKED. It’s shorter, passes through deserts and less private property, and you can bet a lot of Las Vegas special interests would help pay for this to boost their casinos, resorts, and even real estate prices (imagine if you had a Las Vegas condo that you could go by rail to in 2 hours).

Speed/Time Comparison
A Southwest flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles or Orange County (John Wayne Int’l) takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half and costs about $100. Let’s say you’re at the airport an hour early for check-in and the TSA security lines, but by the time you arrive you can wait 30 minutes for baggage claim. So maybe 2.5 hours maximum time.

Well, a “bullet train” service would take at least 3 hours for actual travel time between SF and LA – assuming no stops in Fresno or Bakersfield or whatever. More time if there are such stops. Let’s say, 4 hours.

And it would only take a few terrorist incidents or scares (maybe someone driving a heavy truck onto a rail, because, y’know, there are hundreds of miles of vulnerable points) to force a slow-down in speed or someone pulling a gun or a knife on board a train (as has happened on Los Angeles buses), for the TSA to start installing security scanners, initiating humiliating security theatre, and charging a security fee and graffiti-and-vandalism cleanup fee (because we’re not like Japan) – to increase the total cost and time to, let’s say, 5.5 hours. And then what? Might as well take a bus or a plane…

Cost Considerations
No, it never costs what they say it costs. For one, there will be costly lawsuits from individual property owners, and even exercising eminent domain will be difficult because those fighting will demand environmental impact studies, consultants will have to be hired, law firms engaged, etc. Appeals will be filed.

This will significantly delay construction and stretch out spending. California is currently at an “A-” credit rating, and may fall further. That would increase interest costs.

But let’s say we wanted this project to be able to “pay for itself” after it was all completed. Let’s say it would pay for itself once partial service started running in 2022. Even if the costs are miraculously kept somehow to $69 billion, the total payback over 30 years considering the time value of money (let’s say it’s around 4.4%, since that is how much 30-year California general obligation bonds are currently paying, (who knows if it will be worse by 2022 due to our continuing budget problems?) would be in the neighborhood of $124 billion.

Logistical Nightmare
To justify that kind of return on investment (at 4.4% over 30 years), the high speed rail system would need to generate profits above expenses of over $4.1 billion per year from 2022 to 2052. Assuming a generous net profit of $10 per passenger (baked into the ticket price, over and above operating and loan repayment expenses), there would need to the equivalent of 413 million passenger trips annually. Generate more profit, you can get fewer passenger trips, the ticket prices have to increase. And we already know they can’t really go above $50 to $60 to be worth it compared to a shuttle bus.

That is just impossible. Even if California’s population were to grow to an average of 60 million during that 2022 to 2052 time frame, each resident in California would need to take an average of over 7 trips annually. Since no one would need that many trips, if even half of California made that trip, that would be 14 trips annually. Let’s say (again, generously) that tickets were as low as $30 ($10 profit, and cheap operating costs despite unionization and generous pension benefits of the work force – or privatization and generous million-dollar compensation of the executive staff in their big corporate headquarters). Can half of California’s 60 million residents afford to spend $210/year on trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles? (Nevermind that the world current busiest high speed rail system, the Shinkansen in Japan carried only 151 million passenger trips in 2008. Or that the California High-Speed Train Project estimates between 88 – 117 million passengers annually by 2030 for the entire 800-mile high-speed train network connecting Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley, Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire, and San Diego. Sounds to me like there are a lot of stops there…) And if we don’t have 413 million passenger trips, then net profit to consider the investment to be worth it will have to be much, much higher.

Unkempt, Grimy Travel
If it does pan out, it’ll be an alternative form of travel. It wouldn’t really be that nice, though. The gangsters and taggers will ruin it and make it look grungy. The cheaper the transportation it will be, the more disgusting the accomodations will be, because of the class of people traveling, and because of the lack of funds to keep up with cleaning and maintenance.

One Pyrrhic Victory
There is ONE thing Californians might ironically find good about it. The Federal government would be expected to kick in $41.9 billion – maybe more, if the funding requirements go over budget. As they always do. California’s powerful Congressional delegation can do it. After all, if you look at charts of benefits, California consistently gets back less in Federal monies than it pays, even as the “red” states consistently get back more. Sorry, but it’s very true! So it might be nice for California to see the Federal money in-flows be greater than out-flows for a while…

Even if it will cost a lot, however, it’s nothing like the ridiculous costs of “nation-toppling” and “nation-rebuilding” in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the costs of the Vietnam War are any guide, the peak in Iraq and Afghan Wars spending will be about 2 to 3 decades from now. The $2 trillion spent so far on the wars thus far will be nothing compared to what will be spent, then. (And by the way, who amongst you were for those wars back in 2001 and 2003?)

Oh yeah… What will happen to Amtrak and it’s Coast Starlight and other train schedules and budget and loan repayments? What about Southwest and other airlines and airports’ current flight schedules, revenue projections, and infrastructure loan repayment schedules – that all depend on certain levels of generally increasing passenger traffic? Hmm….

Give me a thumbs up if you like what I’m saying.


  • Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - 07:35am



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    No mention of Peak Oil or related problems we face


An ok analysis of the project itself, but I disagree with many of your points on the need for the project. First, you didn’t mention in 12+ paragraphs anything about the problems we face in oil depletion and our car-dependent society. If these current systems run into the slightest problem (and I’ll say the problems they will face are at a scale we’ve never seen before) we are going to have a lot of people demanding train service that is quick, efficient, and gets them from Northern California to Southern California in a reasonable time. The airline industry will likely not exist in 20 years, so any point you made about airlines being fine and that we don’t need a viable alternative is simply wrong. High-speed rail is run on electrical power, so the potential to be carbon-neutral is a technical reality (not saying it will be for sure, but it can happen). This also leads to the general environmental/climate change issues we have with our current transportation systems that are almost entirely based on carbon-emitting finite resources. We won’t have enough resources to replace all of the internal combustion engine cars with electric cars. It won’t happen. A lot of your post is trying to maintain our current thinking of transportation and how we can keep it going. What I’m saying is we need to radically shift our priorities away from automobile and air travel and onto electrified rail. If it’s high-speed that’s the best (and most efficient) way of moving people we’ve ever invented over long distances (nothing compares with a bicycle for a short trip). Yes I do agree, knowing what I know about the exponetional money system, that this system will cost more than the $68 billion they say it will costs. I’d say we’d be lucky to get this system under $100 billion, and I think that will be reasonable, given how bad gasoline prices will be and the fact that the airline industry may actually not be around by the time HSR is finished in CA (or only for the most elite in our society, but the middle class won’t be flying very much. Too expensive).


PS: Many people besides you think building a high-speed train to Vegas is a good idea. And it may be, but I think Vegas will simply not exist once the exponetional money system ends. Its in the middle of a desert and you can’t grow anything out there. I wouldn’t invest in building a train to a possible ghost town 30 years from now. But I could be wrong about that, we’ll see.

  • Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - 08:57am

    Michael Frome

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    outright theft

It already is/was “outright theft”.  I didn’t steal a damned thing, though, but yet I get to fund it with rapidly diminishing resources.  The government stole it.  The people elected the government that stole it.  I wasn’t born just yet.

Umm.  A Reuters article telling me how the ship isn’t sinking doesn’t hold much water with me either.  It’s broke.  Gov’t sold itself some funny instruments to stuff in the trust fund so the money could be spent…er…elsewhere.  In my view, SS was, is, and will always continue to be a tax.  Guess we could always ask John Roberts for his opinion on that…



  • Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - 11:26am



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    In the end…

…any rail system will have to compete with highways and air transport to be cost effective.  Back in a different era I saw a cost breakdown of what our highway system was costing us including subsidies that we paid through tax dollars and other hidden costs.  It was a huge proportion of our cost of living.  And, that was in the days of $.35 gas.  I’m sure that number would be much higher today as we have many more roads, many more cars and trucks and gas is typically $3-$4.

I would like to see an honest breakdown of those costs compared to the costs of rail, both high speed and conventional, and how those costs are likely to change as peak oil becomes more of a factor.  Unfortunately, the politics of such calculations runs head on into our ‘love affair with the automobile.’  We still have to contend with our burning desire to be able to transport mostly one person at a time in a two ton vehicle that is oil intensive to build and maintain over roads that are oil intensive to build and maintain any time and any where we want to go.

Let me be the first to tell you, that lifestyle and era are going to be interesting footnotes to history in the not too distant future.  The question is how do we get from here to there in the least painful way possible?  Rail transport is one of the obvious answers.

Whether the specific HSR that is the topic of this thread makes sense or not, the kind of cost analysis involved in answering that question should be going on in every corner of the country.  We will break our oil addiction and we have to figure out how best to do that.

  • Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - 05:26pm



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I’d like to know why this is so expensive to build and what the heck is behind the length of time to build it? We have all this technology and machinery that the pioneers didn’t have in the 1800’s when they laid out thousands of miles of track, and here were are, talking about building a 130 mile rail line in billions of dollars and in what, 20 years? Amazing.

FWIW – I take the train to work everyday. I fully support rail/electrified rail if you will. But does it need to be very high speed rail? Maybe start small and electrify the tracks. Trains in my neck of the woods go 100+mph. Do they really need to go 200mph in Calfiornia?

  • Tue, Jul 17, 2012 - 04:48pm



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    CA High Speed Rail – wrong approach

One of the biggest issues I see with the Central Valley high speed rail project is that it will cost billions and yet server very few people in it’s first phase.  If the first phase is seen as a complete bust, there is a good chance it will be defunded for following phases.  If the first phase is intended to give them an area to work the bugs out while building the rest, they need to state that.  If they do not, expectations will be that they are building a sustainable system and that first phase will not be sustainable on its own.

For phase 1, if they get an average of 10,000 passengers a  year that want to go from one spot in the middle of nowhere to another spot 130 miles deeper into nowhere, for 10 years, that 5.8 billion comes out to $58,000 per ticket subsidized by the taxpayers.  I wonder if they could even get that many people to use it.

I’m a strong believer in building a strong rail network that can take people where they need to go, but this seems like a bad way to start that.  Worse, if it fails, it will be the argument used to kill other rail projects in the US.  If rail is going to make a comeback in the US, it needs to happen in a state that knows how to manage money, not CA.


  • Fri, Jul 20, 2012 - 06:39am



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    Central Valley is just the beginning phase

Why they are starting in the Central Valley is for a couple reasons: First, it’s where the trains will actually go over 200 mph. Building this first segment will ‘lock-in’ high-speed service down the road, which is the entire reason why they are building this system, its to connect Northern and Southern regions of the state together, not just fund local service that doesn’t connect. Second, building in the flat Central Valley will get the construction teams use to building high-speed rail infrastructure so that they are more prepare for the more complicated portions that will be built later (specifically the mountain passes into LA and the Bay Area). It makes more sense to build in the Central Valley first than it does to build HSR track in the regions that already have good rail service. High-speed rail is to connect the regions, not to be duplicative service where there are already tracks. The current plan is the right plan, and this is coming from someone who has been on the ground here in California for 3 years working with those who are making decisions about this project. It’s the right step forward.

  • Fri, Jul 20, 2012 - 05:01pm



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    High Speed Rail

I agree and would add that moving people on this rail system will mean personal expenses for autos (tires, fuel, insurance, loans, maintenance, roads, garages, emissions, the list goes on) can be eliminated or reduced.  The money spent on personal autos can be better spent on rail tickets.

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