David Levinson's Networks, Economics and Urban Systems Research Group

California's High Speed Rail: Some Facts

David Levinson, University of Minnesota

email: dlevinson@umn.edu

The proposed California High Speed Rail line would be more expensive than every other active HSR proposal in the country put together. While subsidized by everyone who pays the regressive sales tax, its users would have a higher than average income, so it is a subsidy from the poor to the rich. It would cost about $600-$1000 person or $2000-$3000 per California household before a single trip is made. This money could support about 20,000 teachers or police perpetually. For every $1 spent by the passenger, it would entail $4 in public subsidy, twice the annual expenditure of the State Transportation Improvement Program


While it is too soon to know for this system, cost estimates have already doubled. Forecasts of demand for transit are typically 25-50% too high. Estimates of costs for major infrastructure are significantly off, for instance the cost of the Denver Airport tripled from beginning to end.(See: Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition by Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter or Mega-projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment by Altshuler and Luberoff)


Conventional High Speed Rail is basically 19th century technology spruced up; there is no reason to expect that it won't work technologically.


HSR is slower than air travel in the main Bay Area to Los Angeles market. While proponents claim fewer delays at train stations than airports, that assumes lessened security precautions. Rail systems are at least as vulnerable to terrorism as air systems (See Madrid 3/11.)


The HSR system will take less than one lane of traffic off the major North-South highways. Airports will soon have extra capacity as they increase operations in bad weather with instrumented flight controls.


A study of BART (Lave 1976) estimated that more energy was used to build the system than will ever be saved by it.


Other modes are steadily getting cleaner, for instance fuel cell powered vehicles will emit only water and carbon dioxide. Any benefits from HSR depend on unproven forecasts. The energy for HSR must come from somewhere, if electric than probably coal or nuclear, both of which have some problems.

Planning and Urban Design

BART has not been particularly successful at attracting development outside of downtown San Francisco, why would HSR? It is likely that HSR will promote sprawl into the Central Valley.Advocates of rail (traditionally urban subways and light rail) claim that new rail will result in the redevelopment of "good neighborhoods" around the stations. This is true to a limited extent (e.g. in San Francisco and selected other stations, such as Rockridge), but not universally. Rail tends to promote dispersion ... park and ride lots promote what those advocates would consider "bad neighborhoods", i.e. auto oriented suburban neighborhoods, enabling people to live very far from the central city (Dublin, Pittsburg etc) and still work downtown. We can hypothesize that HSR will promote even more "bad neighborhoods", particularly in the central valley, as people choose to live 100 miles from the city and use HSR to commute into San Francisco and Silicon Valley.Downtowns as a share of regional jobs have been declining steadily for 50 years. Hence any system focused on downtown is serving yesterday's travel demand pattern rather than tomorrow's (unless it can reverse the trend, which is rather like tilting at windmills). There is little evidence that new rail starts do much to reverse the trend.


What is the best use of $20,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 ? For that amount of money it would be very easy to provide improvements to air travel into the central valley, along with many other things. HSR is the least cost effective way to provide transportation services between the Valley and the coastal cities.

Who's Behind It

There has been significant lobbying for HSR by Engineering Consultants, Construction Companies, Rail Car Manufacturers, and Local Developers. Many of the companies involved are foreign owned and controlled, including those that built the money-losing systems in France and Japan. The commission has visited these systems on foreign junkets. There is also some nostalgia on the part of train buffs and those yearning for a simpler time.


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