What Just May Drive High Speed Rail to Reality

9 16 10 uliAbout 10 years ago I attended a meeting of local activists held at the Southern California Association of Governments to hear a presentation about the proposed high speed rail network. This was back when few people were aware such an effort was underway. Attendance was heavily grassroots and environmentally oriented. Few present had knowledge of the project or the magnitude of the challenges it entailed. So after the slide show (this was pre Power Point) the questions were along the lines of was there any danger it would facilitate sprawl in the Central Valley, turning Fresno and Bakersfield into bedroom communities.

I finally decided to bring a dose of reality to the proceedings. To begin I noted what a huge undertaking it would be. Then noted any bond to help build it would need a well funded campaign. Bluntly I noted that this would mean the involvement of people willing to invest real money to make the project possible because they would have a vested interest in doing so, that they saw a way to profit from it — big construction companies, developers, building trade unions, equipment manufacturers. “You’ll be getting into bed with those folks. Make sure you are comfortable with this idea. Because the bullet train won’t happen out of warm and fuzzy feelings but cold hard self-interest” I concluded.Well, not that I am prophet but in this case pretty well I called it 100% correctly–when the bond finally reached the ballot in 2008 the heavy hitters of the sort I described all those years ago did indeed put up the money for the campaign to pass the bonds.  The sole exception as far as I can tell is developers, who until now have shown scant interest in the project and its potential impact. But that may be about to change as the Urban Land Institute is slated on Thursday Sept. 23rd to hold at the Anaheim Convention Center what it calls a landmark event: California High-Speed Rail TOD MarketPlace.

So now high speed rail has the attention of folks who are intrigued at its potential to facilitate money making opportunities. Just the sort of incentive to get bigshots on board and inject the project with a dose of political mojo.

Despite ourselves, we may end up with a statewide bullet train system. Isn’t life funny that way?

  • BOB2

    It’s too bad Dana, that the people who ran this project unitl recently were so incompetent and didn’t actually listen to anyone. It’s too bad that this project, which is badly needed, has become a bloated runaway money train, without much, if any, proper analysis or planning.

    The mismanagement of this HSR project has wasted millions and continues to waste millions on bloated system design and poor planning, ignoring the incremental approach used and lessons learned from the rest of the world. This project has refused to listen to or mitigate realistic concerns from regional and local agencies or cities. This project has refused to do cost benefit analysis, has issued incompetent and/or faked modeling to justify its decisions, and continues with environmental work guaranteed to produce costly and lengthy legal challenges.

    Pro transit TOD conference hype won’t really fix those basic problems, will it Dana?

    “If”, as one local official recently said publicly, “you intend to build this, you’d better start listening and start working with…” the regional agencies and stakeholders. CHSRA is on political life support and not popular right now with the legislature or either of the two candidates for Governor.

    If you expect this HSR project to be built, you’d better demand some fundamental reform, restructuring, and accountability, and pretty soon, Dana.

    It’s really too bad, as we need and deserve a world class passenger rail network in California, and this mismanaged fiasco, if not fixed soon, may set us back years in achieving that worthwhile goal.

  • Derek

    BOB2, I think you’re blowing things WAY out of proportion. Even the authors of the Berkeley ITS report “are, for the most part, satisfied with [Cambridge Systematics’] responses and agree that their work on this project meets generally accepted standards for travel demand modeling.”

  • In many ways, high speed rail is a lot like light rail, subway or commuter rail. Exactly like urban rail transit.

    NIMBYs are NIMBYs, whether they live in Palo Alto, Anaheim or Cheviot Hills.

    Siemens has made plenty of money selling light rail vehicles to Los Angeles. Construction companies will always make money off of rail projects. Commercial and residential development about rail stations? It’s become part of the rail transit playbook!

    Most rail transit advocates came to grips with this ages ago. Just look at that 30/10 rally held last month. Of course it morphed into a union jobs rally. Who cares as long as it helps rail get built?

    Oh, and BOB2: Let’s try that incremental approach with the Expo Line. Start with a diesel DMU line, and work your way up to light rail from there…. no?

    Incremental HSR is the same as no HSR. L.A. to Anaheim might be okay with that approach, but you can’t go incremental up and over the mountains into the Valley. Japan and China won’t loan us the money to speed up the San Joaquin, either.

    We need a Shinkansen-style approach to this.

  • BOB2

    James a highly disengenous response, no one is talking that kind of incremental approach. and Derek, no one faulted Cambridge, because Cambridge developed the model, they didn’t supply it with data from a validation survey that was garbage methodology from day one. And, Cambridge didn’t make a number of incompetent calculation errors. The CHSRA did.

    James, your response sounds like it comes from the same ludicrous public outreach responses this agencies PR consultants use to hush critics, rather than respond to the real issues presented to them? Anybody who raises legitimate questions about what many in the transportation and rail profession have come to regard as a boondoggle is labled a NIMBY?

    This project is in trouble over old fashioned political games and outright mismanagment, not because most of these agencies or people in these corridors oppose the concept.

    So go ahead, come on with your specious responses, and make my day. This project is in trouble and may die as a result, a bad outcome for all of us who support a first class rail system. It’s the most expensive approach the contractors seem to benefit from, but not so the taxpayers. Maybe, this why it appears that so much contractor sponsorship money is now being spent on getting certain organizations to cheer lead for this mismanaged project?

  • Derek

    BOB2 wrote: “Derek, no one faulted Cambridge, because Cambridge developed the model, they didn’t supply it with data from a validation survey that was garbage methodology from day one.”

    According to the Berkeley ITS study, “The models developed by Cambridge Systematics for forecasting HSR demand depend on a wide variety of data sources.” So which survey was “garbage methodology”?

  • Spokker

    Competent rail transportation professionals: “Hello Bay Area Peninsula, Anaheim, Santa Clarita and anybody else complaining about this project. We just wanted to let you know that we have since fired the politicians at the CHSRA and put this project in the hands of real rail transportation professionals. They have come up with a cost-effective and intelligent proposal for the high speed rail project that implements incremental upgrades and appropriate service levels, not the pie in the sky proposals of yesterday.”


    Competent rail transportation professionals: “We’re not going to take more than a sliver of one public park, we’ll keep it down to two tracks to keep costs and eminent domain to a minimum and we just have to build one bridge over the LA River.”

    NIMBY’s, Libertarians and Friends of the LA River: “DO IT RIGHT OR NOT AT ALL.”

  • BOB2 claims “CHSRA is on political life support” Funny, all the attention it got as part of the Governor’s trade trip seems to show it is the object of great political support. This adds credibility to the possibilities of private investment which many critics have been dismissing out of hand as implausible.


    BOB2 claims “not popular right now with … either of the two candidates for Governor.” Funny, I easily found on Jerry Brown’s campaign website this plank:

    •Support high speed rail as a clean, fast, accessible alternative to air transportation and long in-state automobile trips.


    Derek, James and Spokker pretty well answered the rest of BOB2’s litany of anti claims and insinuations. Anyone who wants to explore further the high speed rail project will find useful the resource page I have compiled on the SO.CA.TA website with the assistance of Kymberleigh Richards: http://socata.net/18.html

  • BOB2

    Spokker, learn how to be effective. Invective and name calling is neither an effective or a proper response to opponents, who often have legitimtate competing points of view. I have heard lip service to the changes to which you allude, then I go to meetings where none of that occurs?

    And, Dana, yes, lame brain, lame duck, 20% approval rating last hurrah Arnold is on his last big taxpayer and/or private “foundation” sponsored junket to Asia, and he does seem to be using HSR as an excuse/pretext to go on this junket. Now , let me get your analysis right: an unpopluar lame duck Governor, playing ditch and grandstanding while the state has no budget, is an endorsement of this fiaso that carries real political clout?

    It’s too bad that the true beleiver syndrome causes such invective and mindless reaction to any calls for accountability on the myriad of real snafu’s and screwups on almost every issue by CHSRA management, consultants, or the Board? These issues are legitimate, including bloated design costs, inflated ridership, expensive routing choices, failure to address local impacts, no project budget reality, issues of fiscal sustainability in bond repayment, environmental studies that will engender lawsuits, and fincancial problems from bad business models, to dubious contracting issues. In almost every instance the CHSRA has failed to deal with any of them with anyuthing approaching the competence that one would expect, if we are ever to deliver this project.

    I wish I shared your confidence in the new management, but the jury is still out on that. Among those of us in a day to day situation working with these folks, this supposed “new direction” of the CHSRA remains still “up in the air”.

    Unlike those who seem to uncritically cheerlead for this project, the other passenger rail advocacy organizations in the State, those not just recently formed and/or sponsored by the contractors, are urging some needed reforms, including: real cost benefit analysis, independent value engineering, integration of local needs and planning, design and construction of minimum operable segments/facilities, and enhanced independent oversight to assure that this project can be done, without becoming another Big Dig? Do you oppose those much needed reforms, as somehow “disloyal” to the dubious status quo, too?

  • ml

    “BOB2, I think you’re blowing things WAY out of proportion. Even the authors of the Berkeley ITS report “are, for the most part, satisfied with [Cambridge Systematics’] responses and agree that their work on this project meets generally accepted standards for travel demand modeling.” ”

    With all due respect Derek, the Berkley ITS report did make that statement with two caveats:

    #1 They do not approve of the state of the practice for project level travel demand forecasting, most especially regarding transit projects.

    #2 Some of the estimated model coefficients are appropriate for intra-regional travel, but not inter-regional travel. CS actually constrained all inter-regional business travel to the peak periods, which may have the affect of seriously biasing the forecasts produced.

    Also, with regards to the passenger surveys used to validate the model, CS over sampled inter-city rail passengers, but employed a logit equation type in the mode choice model that the ITS academics had a serious problem with. Its my understanding that the one o the professors in question is consider an expert on the use of logit equations.

    I think it’s no secret that academics have an almost uniformly low opinion of the practice of travel demand modeling at the project level. I also think there is strong evidence for the presence of optimism bias in most project level travel demand forecasts, though it appears there have been tremendous advances in the accuracy of FTA new starts forecasts.

  • Spokker

    “I have heard lip service to the changes to which you allude, then I go to meetings where none of that occurs?”

    If it did occur the response would be the same. All of the groups I mentioned, NIMBY’s, Libertarians and Friends of the LA River, probably support high speed rail in theory, as long as it’s “done right.” “Done right” could mean it doesn’t operate near rich people’s homes, is not funded by the government or operated near a big concrete flood control panel. In two cases, the answer is always go underground, which causes the Libertarians to hammer even harder on cost escalations. Funny dynamic, that.

    As far as this project is going, there have been efforts to contain costs. Shared track between SF-SJ and LA-Anaheim. I think some shared track is being considered between LA-Palmdale as well but I’m not sure what’s going on there. Who knows if shared track is even feasible. I wouldn’t mind seeing the LA-Anaheim leg go away if that were the case.

    Yes, the project is going to be expensive because tunneling must happen under any scenario. The “detour” to Palmdale is not that bad because there are problems with a Grapevine alignment.

    There will probably be compromises in the Central Valley. Not quite the I-5 alignment Tolmach wants, but suburban stations with huge parking structures/lots. I doubt trains will serve the center of Bakersfield, for example. It’s too bad, because the Japanese have really come far on noise mitigation.

    Pacheco Pass is probably the only big thing that bothers me about this project as the Altamont Pass is the superior alignment, but I’m not going to blow a gasket over it. It’s not like Altamont is a cakewalk either.

    The corrupt politicians are a necessary evil, in my opinion. Their tactics are probably why the project has gotten as far as it has.

    I have a feeling that “addressing local impacts” basically means kowtowing to every two-bit mayor that wants the alignment underground, leading to stations in the middle of nowhere that are just as useless as the current plan.

  • BOB2

    Failure to address real issues has been and continues to be a real problem with CHSRA Spokker?

    Do you really think that folks who have been a friend of rail like Art Brown is just a “two bit” Mayor? And, do you really think he is demanding the alignment put “underground” to Anaheim for the astounding cost of $10.5 billion? Is that why so many are supporting Art Brown’s appointment to the Amtrak Board? Is he anti-rail Spokker? .

    Is Congresswoman Napolitano a “two bit” Congresswoman who is “opposed” to rail? So why has she championed funding so many of our rail projects? Is Al Lowenthal a “two bit” anti transit and rail State Senator? Are these examples of the anti-rail “NIMBY’s” that you are bleating about Spokker? And, no “policital problems” either Dana? Yeah right?

    Spokker, as I said, I sure hope you are right about the changes you allude to? Those working day to day see no real changes, indicating any real new direction from CHSRA at the local level, as yet.

    We do continue to see a full court press to prop up this politically troubled project by providing sponsorship to various groups to hold more conferences to promote things like ARTIC. We also see a more aggressive attack on critics, with things like these lame explanations of the incompetent modeling results, and more aggressive attacks like your NIMBY, ad hominen, BS. But the runaway CHSRA money train still shows no sign of any substantive change.

    So maybe this is why the Statewide pro rail passenger organizations are still in a wait and see mode, but have continued to speak out on the many specific problems with this mismanaged project?

    It’s really too bad that a few so-called “Transit Advocates”{ are so easily influenced by CHSRA PR spin and hype, but are apparently unable to effectively demand any substantive reform or accountability from CHSRA?

  • BOB2, It is funny you decry “Invective and name calling is neither an effective or a proper response to opponents” when you engage in a fair bit of it yourself (“lame brain, lame duck, 20% approval rating last hurrah Arnold”, “so-called ‘Transit Advocates'”).

    I hope everyone notices BOB2 believes in our right to BOB2’s opinion, which we are supposed to adopt 100% and immediately began to advocate on behalf etc.

    No sale. Your tortured posts contain so little substance that I find them utterly unpersuasive.

    BOB2, just keep spouting and huffing and puffing. With ineffective critics like you the project has little to worry about.

  • BOB2

    I guess all they really need is you Dana? And, a a couple of dozen billions of our taxpayer money fron those “two bit” elected officials you seem to think are your enemies?

  • BOB2, Insult me, disagree with me but please don’t mis-represent or try to put words in my mouth. Spokker spoke of “two bit” officials, not I.

    Enemies? In fact if he doesn’t mind taking the trip to L.A. on a Saturday I think next year SO.CA.TA will have Art Brown as a guest speaker. He serves on multiple boards and I’d be curious about his opinion on the bullet train and regional rail issues.

    BOB2, thanks for making me think of the idea.

    P.S. – And BOB2–how clever that you avoidied owning up to mis-representing Jerry Brown’s stance on the project…


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