Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Who Wants High Speed Rail?

The state of California is planning a High Speed Rail (HSR) system from the capital in Sacramento to and from San Francisco and the Bay Area, and south to the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. The plan calls for a fleet of 1200-passenger trains traveling at speeds up to 220 miles per hour between these major population centers as an alternative to automobiles, buses, airplanes and existing rail service. Projected costs for the system have ranged from US$43 billion initially, now up to US$100 billion or more.

The avowed justification for this immense project is to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) and pollution production from increased automobile and airplane travel in the future, as California's population increases from the present 38 million to over 50 million in the next 20 years.

High-SpeedTrainTalk: High-Speed Rail: Why are we doing this? reveals the hollow truth behind the myth of high speed rail. Rather than a solution for a documented need for rapid ground level transportation between two large metropolitan areas, High Speed Rail is a political solution in search of a real world problem. There is, in fact, no demand for high speed rail in California, and more important, there is no documented ridership to feed such a system. Proponents of the system project ridership of over 14,000 riders per day at the Merced station, a level that exceeds the total AMTRAK ridership in New York City, an impossible accomplishment for the dispersed population of central California.

The case for High Speed Rail is couched in terms of environmental benefit, claiming that the system would reduce future Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions through the use of an electrically powered rail system, even proclaiming that energy needs could be provided by alternative sources such as wind and solar. This claim is unsupported, in that the majority of California's electricity is supplied by fossil fuels, with alternatives sources providing less than 12% of the state's energy.

Furthermore, in a study of "life cycle assessment" of high speed rail, the authors, Horvath and Chester, conclude: "high-speed rail has the potential to be the lowest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter only if it consistently travels at high occupancy [~75%] or uses a low-emission electricity source." The authors also conclude that sulpher dioxide emission levels for high speed rail would be higher than for conventional alternatives and would not be less at any measure of ridership.

Therefore, in any realistic scenario, high speed rail fails in two respects to live up to the promises of its proponents.

As if this were not enough, the construction, operation and maintenance of a high speed rail system through the heart of California would create immediate and on-going environmental damage to critical habitats along the route. Construction of the system would require immense amounts of concrete, which is the greatest source of GHG emissions of any construction activity.

"The proposed HST Alternative alignment options would have the potential to affect wildlife movement/migration corridors in this region, primarily for terrestrial mammals, depending on the selection of a final alignment." (Horvath and Chester, 2010) Imagine a 1200-passenger train passing through natural migration corridors several times a day at over 200 mph. 

With all of the negative effects of high speed rail, and an evident lack of demand for such a complex and expensive service, who is it that wants High Speed Rail?

The answer, as always, is "Follow the money."

Proponents of the High Speed Rail project are primarily real estate professionals, including the new Chair of the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA), and others who would benefit economically from the project. The gerrymandered route proposed by the HSRA just happens to pass through countryside where development would benefit key proponents of the project, including state and federal legislators with property interests.

This comes as no surprise with billions of dollars of "free" federal money available for High Speed Rail, promising that, even if the project is never built, someone will fill their pockets to overflowing with the proceeds.

Rather than the promised energy and pollution savings boon to California commuters, High Speed Rail serves most effectively to railroad public money into private pockets. 

3 comments:

  1. You make some good points, Mike... but I have to say that having seen the hi speed rail system being built here (especially in Germany and France) I think it is a wonderful thing to have. And even if the projected ridership numbers are exaggerated, the system has fulfilled its promise here. It only takes a slight hike in oil prices and the incentive to ride the train instead of driving your own car becomes quite compelling. (We pay about $8 per gallon here). If the US (which USED to have the most advanced rail system in the world) waits too long, the energy price to build such a system will have a paralysing effect.
    I use the rail system very heavily, (Cologne main train station has nearly 200 departures daily, and that in a city of under a million) and the development of high speed rail means that virtually no one flies anywhere within Europe.
    Starting such a new rail system would be brave, and investors are not going to see quick profits, but I think on balance the state would be well served.

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  3. Thanks for you comments, Vailian. It's good to see through your eyes on the Continent.

    Unfortunately, different is not the same. The US has never had the most advanced rail system in the world. It's always been pretty primitive and limited. US population is widely dispersed with little traffic demand between major metrpolitan areas, so far apart that air is the only practical transportation, if one really needs to go between them. In Europe, major cities are closer together tham most of our small towns.

    There are no private investors interested in high speed rail. The entire plan in California is based on federal and state public money. That says a lot.

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