The problem in making the case for high-speed rail in California is that,
though it is the most populous state in the union,
there are simply not enough people packed into the 50-mile wide coastal strip
that wends its way 350 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Put
it this way: the Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route have access to some
180,000 potential passengers per mile of
high-speed track. Even by 2025, when California's population is likely to have
grown from today's 38m to 46m or so, the number of people within the coastal
strip is unlikely to exceed 85,000 per mile of
To put it yet another way, coastal Californians would have to live
cheek-by-jowl—as Japanese people in the megalopolis that stretches from
Tokyo to Osaka do—to have any chance of a high-speed rail service that offered
at least half a dozen trains an hour and did not require huge tax-payer
subsidies. Few would be prepared to make such a sacrifice. With petrol costing
half the price paid in Japan and Europe, they will doubtless
continue to use their cars for two-to-three-hour journeys
and fly for anything longer.
The irony is that California has the
highest rate of
car-ownership in the country, if not the world. It also, despite
years of neglect,
has one of the best road networks anywhere—certainly
leagues ahead of Japan's. On top of that, it enjoys a highly competitive network of
budget airlines serving its main cities. The Los Angeles Times
got it about right when it editorialised on May 16th that “California's
much-vaunted high-speed rail project is, to put it bluntly,
a train wreck”.
OF ALL the high-speed train services around the world,
only one really makes economic sense—the
550km (340-mile) Shinkansen route that connects the 35m people in greater Tokyo
to the 20m residents of the Kansai cluster of cities comprising Osaka, Kobe,
Kyoto and Nara. At peak times, up to 16 bullet trains an hour travel each way
along the densely populated coastal plain that is home to over half of Japan's
Having worked for many years in Tokyo, with family in Osaka, your correspondent
has made the two-and-a-half hour journey on the Tokaido bullet-train many times.
It is clean, fast and highly civilised, though far from cheap. It beats flying,
which is unbearably cramped by comparison, just as pricey, and dumps you an hour
from downtown at either end.
The sole reason why Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route make money is the sheer
density—and affluence—of the customers they serve. All the other Shinkansen
routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in
the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and
national chest-thumping keep them rolling.
California wants a share of that bullet-train hubris. Where Florida, Ohio and
Wisconsin have turned down billions of federal dollars for high-speed rail, the
Golden State has been pressing on with its $43-billion scheme to build a
high-speed rail service from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, with
spurs eventually to San Diego, Sacramento and San Luis Obispo.
And an expensive one at that. Between them, the federal government, municipals
along the proposed route and an assortment of private investors are being asked
to chip in some $30 billion. A further $10 billion is to be raised by a bond
issue that Californian voters approved in 2008. Anything left unfunded will have
to be met by taxpayers. They could be dunned for a lot. A study carried out in
2008 by the Reason Foundation, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and
Citizens Against Government Waste put the final cost of the complete 800-mile
network at $81 billion.
That is probably not far off the mark. Last week, the state's
Legislative Analyst's Office came out with a damning indictment of the project's
unrealistic cost estimates and poor management. The bill this legislative
watchdog put on the first phase of the high-speed rail project alone is $67
billion—and higher still if the project runs into trouble gaining route approval
in urban areas.
The report warns lawmakers in Sacramento not to appropriate
any money for the project until big changes are made in the way it is managed.
The biggest such change is to transfer day-to-day operations from the High-Speed
Rail Authority (HSRA), set up to oversee the project, to the California
Department of Transportation. Caltrans, which designs and manages the state's
major roadworks, is widely respected around the world for its engineering
prowess and professionalism.
That has not stopped the HSRA from racing to get construction started by 2012.
To be fair to the authority, $3.6 billion of the funding from the federal
government is stimulus money earmarked for use before the presidential election
in 2012. While it would make more sense to use this cash to make a start on the
link between San Francisco and San Jose, the only part of the proposed route not
plagued with political infighting is the sparsely populated Central Valley.
Besides, the White House has insisted that the stimulus money be used to create
jobs within the Central Valley, where unemployment in many farming communities
As a result, the first section of California's high-speed railway, estimated to
cost $5.5 billion, will run 65 miles between the tiny towns of Bordon and
Corcoran in the midst of the Central Valley's farmland. When it was announced
last December, critics promptly labelled it “the line to nowhere”.
In defending its decision to lay track in the middle of nowhere, the HSRA argues
that there is plenty of space there, little resistance from local residents, and
that the line from Los Angeles to the Bay Area will eventually have to go
through that part of California anyway. The small section of high-speed track
will be connected at both ends to existing lines used by Amtrak, the
government-owned passenger railway. Conventional trains will run over the new
section until the rest of the high-speed route is completed.
Some are beginning to wonder when, if ever, that might be. The eleventh-hour
compromise on the federal budget last month stripped out $400m for high-speed
rail in the present fiscal year (2010), and eliminated all federal funding for
high-speed rail for the forthcoming fiscal year (2011). That puts the $19
billion in grants that the HSRA was counting on receiving by 2016 in doubt. The
congressional action could even put the kibosh on the Central Valley track. And
because the bond vote in 2008 required the issue to be matched, dollar for
dollar, by money from the federal government, the future of California's bullet
train has begun to look decidedly hazy.