The California Precedent

Like Eric @ PPB, I was underwhelmed by the NYT Magazine’s infrastructure issue, but that’s probably because I’m far, far deeper into the weeds on the subject than the average NYT reader. But I did think the article on California’s HSR project was a good primer, worth your time. I found this passage on the risks involved particularly interesting:

There aren’t really any recent examples of high-speed rail as a technical failure. Yet it is entirely plausible that the financial and political difficulties in California could keep other regions from trying to replicate its rail project. Disappointing ridership numbers, without question, could do the same.

California lacks many of the “feeder lines” that support high speed rail. Sure, there’s rapid transit in San Francisco and LA, but it’s nothing like what’s in DC, Boston, or New York. You get off the plane at midnight at LAX and at least you can rent a car. Get off the train in downtown LA and… crickets.

It stands to reason that, with LA getting religion on transit, the collapse of the housing bubble, and the price of gas sure to rise, that by the time the HSR line opens there will be more transit connections available. Certainly that’s the hope. But California will also have to create a train-centric culture that it doesn’t currently have. It would be a shame if we wrote off the whole country just because HSR didn’t work in one of the most car-centric states in the union.

8 responses to “The California Precedent”

  1. alexjonlin

    San Francisco actually definitely is on par with DC or Boston (maybe not NYC but no one is). BART has the same amount of track as the DC Metro, as well as the several-line MUNI system that’s in a tunnel downtown and out on the streets in the neighborhoods, the three cable car lines, and the Caltrain, which it shares with San Jose. The BART, Muni, and Caltrain will connect directly with CAHSR’s station in the Transbay Terminal.
    Along with the Caltrain, San Jose has the three VTA Light Rail lines and the the Altamont Commuter Express line to Stockton. By 2018, about the time CAHSR will open, the BART extension to San Jose will be open as well. Caltrain, VTA Light Rail, and the ACE all connect with San Jose Diridon Station, where the HSR will stop.
    From 4:30am to 12:30am, there is frequent LA Metro service on the Red Line to Union Station. Most of the other rail lines there run about the same hours. Unfortunately LAX is not directly connected to the network but there is a station not too far away with a frequent bus connector. In addition, LA has the second highest bus ridership in the nation, and therefore has a very large level of service all day and night.
    In Sacramento, the RT light rail stops at the Sacramento Valley Rail Station where HSR will stop.
    Maybe not all of this is quite NYC level, but it’s not nearly as bad as you make it out to be.

  2. Matt the Engineer

    A few points about LA’s transit systems:

    1. The blue line is the second busiest light rail in the country.
    2. They have a fairly large network considering the last time I was there the subway was one mile long.
    3. Considering their late entry into the world of rail (heh, says a guy in Seattle), it will take a bit of time to get high ridership – but it is growing. I’m sure the 2am ride will come when ridership is strong enough.
    4. $1.25 fares?! Sweet.

    Of course, things could have been much better

  3. serial catowner

    It’s a darn shame Gertner wasn’t as interested in informing his readers as he was in getting paid by the word to crank out a grumbly “maybe” on the subject of high-speed rail.

    The ridership on the CAHSR will not suffer from a “lack of feeder lines” because the ridership projections are to accomodate future population growth- that is to say, there are no alternate means of travel for the riders of the future, and the point of building the train is to not build those alternates.

    That is the main point that Gertner could have, but failed to, make clear to the reader- that the population of California, and the need for transportation, will grow, and that the CAHSR is to be built instead of freeways and airports. And this is not just because the train will be cheaper and faster, but also decrease emissions, improving air quality and fighting AGW. California simply can’t meet environmental goals without building the train.

    As to the extent that failure or success in California might affect other HSR systems in America, I would guess the effect will be small. HSR is becoming the transportation benchmark for the developed world at the same time that air travel and freeways are becoming dinosaurs. If America as a nation lacks the will and ability to build our own systems, companies from other nations will build systems for us, and, of course, for their own profit.

    Gertner spent a full quarter of his article badmouthing rail travel as part of his role as a propagandist, implicitly presenting us with the choice of staying with the system we have that is working, or trying something new, which might be as as bad as the rail trips he describes. But that’s not really the choice we have.

  4. Frank

    I don’t know that I made it out to be that bad. But I don’t think it’s arguable that California is car-centric for a large state with a big urban population.

    Still, you’re right that SF has pretty good transit (better than Seattle, certainly). But I think there’s still a big gap, especially in all those inland empire cities (i.e. Bakersfield, Fresno), that have just finished building tens of thousands of vacant single-family homes that will likely need to be filled before more transit-friendly development takes its place.

    Pick any city in New Jersey or Connecticut along the NE Corridor, and it’s likely more transit-oriented (both in terms of the urban plan and the actual transit options) than most cities along the CA route.

  5. Frank

    “Propagandist”? How so?

  6. serial catowner

    Well, if you do a rough word count, he spends about a quarter of his article telling us about his trip on the worst train in the Amtrak system- a train that has about the same relation to the CAHSR that the Army attempt to fly the mails in 1925 has to today’s UPS air operations.

    This nation has no experience with the past quarter century of HSR development. That could be an advantage, with us paying a small licensing fee for R&D that cost billions and took decades. Or it could be a drawback when anti-train zealots attempt to describe the HSR in terms of America’s poor intercity trains of today.

  7. Frank

    Right, but propagandist has implications — that he’s a hack working on behalf of some other entity to promote their agenda.

  8. serial catowner

    Well, he basically is a hack working to promote the car-centric agenda.

    If he weren’t, he could have presented in a few paragraphs the rationale for CAHSR, which is so simple I can almost present it in a sentence: the CAHSR is one of the ways for California to meet the transportation needs of the future, and it’s cleaner, better, and cheaper than the alternatives it would replace. Because we’re talking about future needs, if you build it, they will come. Because we’re talking about very large numbers, they only need to capture 5% of the automobile market to make money.

    Filling that out with some of the details would have made it possible for the reader to actually learn something from his article, which, as written, hardly contained any new information at all.

    And his comparison trip to Sacramento? He should have made that trip in a 40-hp car with no air conditioning, the best that most people will be able to afford in 2020, and compared that trip with a French AGV over the same distance.

    Basically, it was the AC that killed the GM electric car. If they could have test-marketed that thing in Puget Sound, all would have been sweetness and light.

    One day I got curious about the CAHSR project and spent about an hour googling and reading, to develop an appreciation of the how and why of the thing. Presumably Gertner could have done the same thing, but for *some reason* decided not to.