Video Explains California’s Bullet Train Problems
Many people in the United States are probably wondering why our rail network generally sucks. We’re the wealthiest country (by some measures) on the planet, but traveling by train here would be like stepping back in time decades for many visitors. Japan, China, most of Europe, and even the tiny island of Taiwan that worries us the most these days, all have better rail than we do.
If you just look at California, its economy alone has more people than many countries and would be the world’s fifth largest economy if it were its own country. But, even with California’s more left-wing politics (compared to the whole of the United States), they are struggling mightily to build a high-speed train between two cities.
I’m just as confused as some of you about all of this.
Fortunately, a recent video at real life story The YouTube channel explains in detail why it’s like pulling teeth to install and run a rail in California:
The effort to bring high-speed rail from Los Angeles to the Bay Area (the two major population centers) began in 1996, with the creation of the California High Speed Rail Authority, so the effort s has actually been continued for the better part of three decades. But that was only the first stage, where the ideas would be studied and developed. There was no funding yet.
Proposition 1A (the source of most problems)
The funding didn’t come until California voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008. Curiously, controversial Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, passed on the same ballot, with overwhelming support for President Barack Obama. So basically politics is complicated, and we can’t look at it through such a simplistic lens.
It hasn’t been easy for high-speed rail since then, either. Despite widespread public support and what seemed like adequate funding, things have been messy and messy ever since.
First of all, proposal 1A was very specific. This may seem like a good thing at first glance, but it was a bit too specific to deal with some of the challenges the 800+ mile rail system would face. A voter proposal cannot be changed later by a state legislature if things go wrong, so the only way to change such voter-focused laws is to issue another proposal and pass it. This is a slow and often politically charged process that can take years when you need to make changes much faster to have a successful construction project.
In other words, the plan based on the California proposal simply couldn’t keep up.
A problem with the Prop 1A plan was the system speed requirement. All trains were required, by law, to have an operating speed of 220 miles per hour. But, if you look at the best bullet trains in Japan or Taiwan, you’ll find that they rarely go that fast. They usually go 30-40 MPH slower (which is still a lot faster than a car, and faster than air travel if you can avoid insane security delays). The problem isn’t that trains can’t go that fast, as much as it’s not very profitable to go that fast when you can go a little slower for a lot less.
Worse still are the travel time requirements. The trains were supposed to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 2.5 hours (by law). The reality is that lower urban speeds (for safety) and lower speeds on tracks shared with freight rail, add up to the task being basically impossible. This led to a giant pile of lawsuits, as people didn’t like to see the state government not delivering what they voted to receive (among other things).
The other issue is that more people in the state wanted to be included. For political rather than practical reasons, route changes (which, for the reasons given above, are extremely difficult to produce) ended up making routes longer and less efficient simply to add certain towns and villages to the system.
The biggest problem was that they had no plans to start using completed segments of high-speed rail to start funding the rest. Why? Because most of the track will be new rail rather than upgrades to existing passenger rail lines. This means no one can use the thing (and pay for it) until it’s almost done. This move (something other countries were smarter about) ended up inflating costs.
Instead, the system will start in Bakersfield and end in Merced, two towns that won’t feed much traffic (and money) into the project. And that won’t even happen until 2029 (according to today’s estimates, which could get out of hand).
On top of all that, the construction project was terribly managed financially. Revenue and traffic estimates were poorly done (and ridiculous). The original plan, which was based on these overestimates, was to get companies to invest in the High Speed Rail Authority because it was going to be so profitable. But, it became clear pretty quickly that those numbers just weren’t good. The companies, which looked more carefully, passed on the “opportunity”.
In fact, no outside source of funding worked. The corporate funding (which was supposed to cover half the project) never came, but they weren’t the only ones who didn’t show up. The federal money was supposed to cover an additional 25-33% of the project, but in reality the federal authorities only covered 2-3%. That leaves state and local governments with the bag.
Worse still, Proposal 1A required the system to be financially independent, without any subsidies, once it started operating. That sounds great from a fiscal responsibility perspective, but it’s not something high-speed rail networks anywhere do. Subsidies for these systems are not only the norm, but unsubsidized high-speed rail is not even an exception. Therefore, this law will have to be amended to make prices competitive with the airlines so that there is good traffic.
The HSR Authority and Prop 1A did not see the project as a competitor to the airlines, however. Instead, they figured the traffic would come from people who didn’t want to drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Even if it were realistic to remove them from cars (it probably isn’t), road trips are still cheaper than airlines, especially if you’re transporting a family. This renders HSR fundamentally unable to achieve its ridership goals as originally planned.
One thing to do: public support
The video wasn’t quite dark, however. They pointed out that the project had great public support in California. A slight majority (56%) supports it, and the opposition is only 35% (the others are unknown/undecided). The cost is going to be insane, but if they can get voters to keep supporting him, they could still fix the problems and make him fly.
Personally, I hope they will succeed. If you know me, you might think I would argue against it (some of my views would be considered conservative), but I’ve lived overseas and understand the value of decent rail systems. If California proves it even a little, we could end up with more successful rail projects, as the people pushing for these learn from the mistakes that have plagued the California HSR.
So we really should all be cheering for it, even if we don’t live in California.
Featured Image: A computer rendering of a California HSR train traveling through the Central Valley. Image provided by CHSRA.
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