The Los Angeles Times and its Disgraceful Reporting on High Speed Rail

TGV high-speed trains lined up in Paris. Photo courtesy of Ryan Stern

On the morning of March 24, I was in the café car on the Eurostar high-speed train, on my way from Paris to London. I glanced out the window as we zoomed at nearly 200 mph past a stopped train, a concrete platform and some parked cars.

I asked the barista if that was Haute-Picardie station. She looked at the clock, gave a Gallic shrug, and said “probablement.” I told her how I’d read in the Los Angeles Times that California’s High Speed Rail project needs a re-design, citing Haute-Picardie as evidence that intermediate stations slow the whole system.

She chortled and said “did we slow down?”

Under the new state budget, $250 million was allocated for California HSR in the next fiscal year. With a portion of cap-and-trade funds now dedicated to the project, it will have a way to move steadily forward. This was covered widely in the press, including in the Times. But more often than not, Times coverage has been alarmingly one-sided, substandard and inaccurate.

For example, on December 15, 2011, the paper ran “Bullet Train’s Travel-Time Mandate Adds to Ballooning of Costs.” It was written by Ralph Vartabedian, the principal reporter on the beat, and Dan Weikel. It says that “In the fine print of a 2008 voter-approved measure funding the project was a little-noticed requirement that trains be able to rocket from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to San Francisco in no more than two hours and 40 minutes.” The article’s premise is that the speed requirements were virtually unknown and that was causing huge complications.

On page one of Proposition 1A, which launched the project, it says, in bullet points: “Establishes a clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system.” The obligation to complete the journey in two hours and 40 minutes is deeper inside, but it’s in the same print as the rest of the law. The speeds were well known. And existing HSR trains go fast enough to fulfill the mandate.

On Nov. 12, 2012, Vartabedian wrote a piece entitled “Bullet-Train Planners Face Huge Engineering Challenge.” He wrote that the train will “…cross more than half a dozen earthquake faults heading toward L.A,” as if there’s a big question about whether it’s prudent to run HSR in areas prone to temblors.

I wrote the following letter to the editor in response:

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by the largest earthquake in its history. There were 27 bullet trains running through the destruction zone. But early warning computers hit the emergency brakes as soon as the shockwaves were detected. The quake and accompanying tsunami killed 16,000 people and destroyed 129,000 buildings. Yet the bullet trains stayed on the tracks, continuing Japan’s perfect safety record for its half-century old network. It’s odd that Vartabedian focuses on high-speed train engineering and earthquakes without mentioning history’s most definitive real-world test.

They emailed me back that the letter was approved and would likely run in a few days.

But it didn’t. Instead, they ran letters that were negative on the project.

On Sept. 28, 2013, the Times ran a story based on their own USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, which found that 52 percent want California’s HSR project stopped. But even there, things aren’t as the Times presents it. A poll done in April of this year by the Public Policy Institute of California, shows that 53 percent still support the project. That poll, as with almost any favorable information, is ignored by the Times.

The Times will occasionally run a “positive” story. For example, in Dec. of last year they published an Op-Ed entitled “How to Make High-Speed Rail Work in California.” It was written by Stuart Flashman, identified innocently as an “Oakland attorney who has represented governmental and public interest clients on high-speed rail issues since 2004.” It doesn’t mention that he’s suing to stop the project on behalf of clients on the ROW in the Central Valley and Bay Area. Not surprisingly, his alignment suggestions–besides being unworkable–avoid their properties.

And on February 13, the paper ran: “Don’t Give up on the Bullet Train, California” by Tom Zoellner, an associate professor of English at Chapman University. One of his story’s main points was the thing that made the barista on the Eurostar laugh–that local stations such as Haute-Picardie slow things down. “California’s current 11-stop road from Los Angeles to San Francisco map routed through Fresno is too jerky and slow,” he wrote. But Japan’s famous Tokyo to Osaka bullet-train line has 15 intermediate stations. Secondary stations have extra tracks, so express trains blow right past locals, just as my Eurostar did. The fact that some trains will stop at Fresno and other smaller stations has no bearing on the overall speed of the system. But eliminating these stations and changing the alignment, as Zoellner suggests, would invalidate the engineering work and the funding, killing California’s project.

For years now, nearly every bit of HSR coverage by the Times has been like the articles cited above. I once admired the newspaper and even freelanced for them. It’s not in the self-interest of any journalist to accuse editors and potential employers. But at some point every transportation reporter has to step up and point out the obvious: the Los Angeles Times coverage of HSR is deceitful and shamelessly biased.

  • Steven White

    I’ve said the same thing for a while… Can’t stand the Times’ coverage. Every article about the train written by Ralph Vartabedian comes off as a negative op-ed no matter what the actual news is.

  • bg

    Maybe they could start with a Bullet Bus to see if people are really interested.

  • Phantom Commuter

    The Times is right in raising questions. It’s their job. California needs a modern HSR system, but the current plan blows the budget and is unworkable. The CHSRA and its plan has to go if there is to be any hope in building a reasonable system in California in the next 20 years.

  • Riggggght.

    Publishing inaccurate information is “raising questions?”

  • BC

    Describing the opposing argument as “disgraceful” makes you appear desperate.

    A 100 billion dollar project with hundreds of lobbyist, publicists, and legions of other 3 piece suits does not need your help (nor Streetsblog’s).

    Large projects like this are not progressive, equitable, or sustainable. While the 1 percenters may certainly enjoy riding HSR, and will enjoy the huge public subsidy, it will have no positive effect on the lives and livability of California.

    But imagine the daily lives that would be transformed for the better if say 20 percent of that amount went toward walkability, 20 percent to protected bike lanes, and another 20 percent for local transit. For a savings of 40 billion dollars, California would be transformed for everyone, not just the 1 percenters.

  • No straw-men please

    So money for walkability, protected bike lanes, local transit, and intercity/commuter/high speed rail can only come from one pot? Freeway funds…that’s off limits? Huh–sounds like a road-hog way of thinking to me. Also, I didn’t know the LA Times coverage was the “opposing argument.” I thought it’s supposed to be neutral. And funny, but those 35-Euro specials on the TGV in France (for distances equivalent to San Diego to SF)…only for 1 percenters? No, but that’s a good way to try and spin HSR if you’re an oil lobbyist (or if you let them frame your arguments).

  • DrunkEngineer

    Roger:

    Your example of the Haute-Picardie station is a bad analogy. Being in the middle of nowhere, SNCF can run trains through the station at full speed. The CHSRA will not be able to do that in places like downtown Bakersfield or San Jose. The noise would be too high for nearby residents, and the stations have sharp curves that will severely limit speeds. The Europeans avoid this problem by building high-speed bypasses around cities, and using existing conventional tracks to reach downtowns.

    Because of the downtown stops (and circuitous routing through Palmdale) the CHSRA will most certainly not attain the 2:40 SF-LA travel time required by Prop 1A approved by voters. On this particular issue, the LA Times is completely correct.

  • Roger R.

    Drunk engineer.

    Thanks for posting.

    I didn’t make the Haute-Picardie analogy. The LA Times did.

    I lived in Europe and I’ve studied these systems extensively. I took TGVs, Eurostars, ICEs, etc… I stayed in Ashford, Kent just a few months ago. Eurostars fly right through the center. Eurostars, TGVs, etc., also fly right through the center of Lille (and many other places). Sound barriers contain the noise very well. You can walk from the old town square of Ashford to the station in about five minutes. From the town square, you can’t even hear the Eurostars. As to the sharp turns, did you watch the YouTube link of the Japanese stations?

    Also, go look up the express run times for Paris-Avignon. That’s the same route miles as LA to SF…and that’s with trains that can “only” go 186 mph on lines that were designed and built in the 1980s. In fact, if you look at the peer reviews for CaHSR, they believe 2:30 is achievable on the route with the newest generation HSR sets.

    So, no, the LA Times is NOT correct.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Roger,
    On the issue of travel time, the LA Times is correct — and you don’t have to take my word for it. Appendix A of the 2014 Business Plan clearly shows LA-SF travel time as 180 minutes.

    Comparisons to what they do in Europe or Japan is irrelevant. The CHSRA is not following industry standard practice. If only we had a SNCF or JR managing the project, there would not be the controversy over costs and travel time.

  • Matt Korner

    Does anyone suspect that the some of the newspaper editorial boards, and even reporters, themselves, have been corrupted by undue influence? I do. The factual inaccuracies and concerted campaigns intended to kill American high-speed rail in its proverbial crib all seem very strange.

  • Roger R.

    You presented evidence from Europe. The evidence you presented, however, was contrary to reality, as I pointed out. Now you say European comparisons are irrelevant. You can’t have it both ways.

    I’m looking at the 2014 business plan right now and b97 shows agreement with the Peer Review and the CaHSRA that the final build-out will allow trains to go LA to SF Transbay in 2:32. Will earlier phases take longer? Of course. What are they supposed to do? Not run any trains until the final build out?

  • DrunkEngineer

    The Peer Review Group says that 2:32 is the “pure runtime” which does not take into account schedule padding and passenger loading. 3:00 is the travel time for actual service.

    My point about Europe is that they avoid building new HSR alignments straight through downtowns on giant aerials (with sharp turns), which is what CHSRA is going to do in places like Bakersfield and San Jose.

  • Roger R.

    Passenger loading? The law requires 2:40 hours max only for the non-stop service LA-SF, so passenger loading/dwell time is irrelevant. And eight minutes give you the pad. So you’re proving my point. Europe IS relevant again? Okay. Here’s video of the “giant” new aerial for the HSR alignment in Ashford. If you need to see “sharp turns” I’ll send you video of that too.

  • DrunkEngineer

    The peer review report states that one reason for schedule padding is to deal with “problems with passenger loading”. Also keep in mind that the service will be blended with heavy Caltrain commuter traffic, which has its own dwell time problems. 3:00 is the time indicated in the business plan and that was the time used in the forecasting. If you think it is wrong, take it up with the CHSRA (or the Judge who is hearing the Prop 1A lawsuit).

    As for running HSR on sharp turns…by all means share with us a video of 186mph operation on the kinds of curves planned for Bakersfield and San Jose.

  • Roger R.

    Sorry, but 2:32 is still less time than 2:40. Mandate fulfilled. Sharp turns and another viaduct below.

  • Leroy9

    Was in Spain. Plenty of unfinished rail tracks leading to nowhere. Ran out of other people’s money.

  • andrelot

    There are no “unfinished rail tracks leading to nowhere” in Spain, except for one project that was stopped before earthworks were even completed. What they have are lines designed to start operating with partially complete tracks, so that trains use fast tracks when available and regular speed tracks on the remaining sectors, while constructions is completed in phases – something that is not feasible on the Southern end of CAHSR considering there are no rail tracks to accommodate electric trains between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

  • andrelot

    I don’t think editorial boards are corrupted, just that from time to time they pick on certain issues, proposals and projects and stick with an editorial decision to be very critical about them.

    Could be refusing to write the name of Washington Redskins, could be a stance against high speed rail “no matter what”.

  • andrelot

    This is a common budgetary fallacy, one that assumes that dedicated funds to project A are automatically available for any competing project or tax cuts, regardless of any other consideration.

    It is a naive line or reasoning. It is like pointless discussions on whether a new jet fighter should be built or a superfund site be cleaned up.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Dear Roger,

    Here you go:

    San Bruno curve, designed for only 70mph

    S-curve leading into San Jose, designed for 50mph.

    2:32 is the “midnight cannonball-run” time, only possible when there is no other traffic on the Caltrain tracks. It won’t be the real-world schedule time. A Judge will soon decide the issue, so we will see who is right. But for what it’s worth, Quentin Kopp (who basically wrote the time requirements into 1A) says the 2:40 number refers to a real-world schedule.

  • Kraut

    Roger, it doesn’t matter how many facts you present to someone like “DrunkEngineer”. They are either paid by the group on the peninsula which has an active campaign to discredit CA HSR and spread FUD, or just can’t comprehend how HSR works and makes up lies to try and convince themselves otherwise.

  • mtracy9

    The LA Times morphed into a right-wing propaganda machine when it was taken over in 2000 by the Tribune Company.

  • mtracy9

    Drunk Engineer needs to sober up and
    stop pretending to be an engineer.

  • mtracy9

    This LA Times writer has been
    paid off by the oil lobby.

  • mtracy9

    The LA Times is a right-wing propaganda outfit.
    Everything else follows from there. When you have right-wingers
    like George Will saying that HSR is a conspiracy
    to collectivize America, it gives you some idea of the
    mentality of America’s right.

  • mtracy9

    .

  • mtracy9

    The only thing you can get our right-wingers enthused
    about spending money on is for military adventures
    in the Middle East. For the $2 Trillion we’ve blown off
    on the Bush/Cheney wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we
    could have had HSR all across the country.

  • Jeff

    I am as pro-rail as you can get, but I hope to God that this project dies. My fear is that they will build the first segment from nowhere, to nowhere and it will fail to meet ridership goals, and that will give all the ammunition opponents need from doing the rest. That folly would have reverberations across the US. Bad news bears.

  • mtracy9

    Yeah … you’re pro-rail … lol … In fact, you’re just another concern troll.

  • darklighter

    The 5th and 9th largest cities in the state, with a combined population of over 850,000 people are “nowhere”?

  • mtracy9

    Such are words that HSR foes use in their propaganda narrative.

  • Riggggght.

    Those are renderings from a Peninsula NIMBY blog and have nothing to do with the CaHSR plan.

  • coughing

    This train is great project, and still being cheered on by at least half of California, and when it’s finally built, it’s going to be the coolest thing in the state. The campaign against it has been ginned up by a handful of gadflies and rich farmers in the Central Valley, who are terrified that the labor force there might discover that some jobs actually pay actual money. It’s hard to believe that the LAT has been so thoroughly duped.

  • Oh Please! The L.A. Times is as left as you are!

  • klunkerboy

    What do you expect when the paper has become just a shill for uber-conservatives ?

  • realposter

    how childish of a society are we that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is a “troll”??

  • BruceMcF

    You think that LA is nowhere? I understand anti-Central Valley bigots calling the initial operating segment from Fresno to the LA Basin a train from nowhere to somewhere, but how can you call the LA Area “nowhere”?

    Or are you one of the people who are confused by the normal approach of building a corridor that long all several segments, and when they see that the first construction segment is from north of Fresno to north of Bakersfield, assume that is the service that is going to run?

  • BruceMcF

    Quite! The person describing the initial operating service from north of Fresno to the LA Area as “nowhere to nowhere” might have been duped by somebody else themselves, rather than deliberately spreading misleading statement with an intention of disrupting the conversation.

  • BruceMcF

    This piece is a criticism of a piece in the LA times that USES Haute-Picard as supposed “evidence” about the CHSRA alignment. If the comparison to what they do in Europe or Japan is irrelevant, then that support the charge that the LA Times op-ed is misleading people.

    Obviously if they are going to serve a downtown Bakersfield station, the Express HSR alignment should be on a high speed bypass around Bakersfield, but people are not would ever be pointed in the direction of the ALIGNMENT through Bakersfield station being unsuitable for the Express LA/SF HSR services by the way that Zoellner described the issue. His op-ed is seriously misleading and does far more harm than good with respect to supporting efforts to fix the flaws in CHSRA’s plan of record.

  • BruceMcF

    Yes, but Zoellner uses the fact that Haute-Picard was called a “beetfield” station as EVIDENCE that the CHSRA alignment has “too many stops”. Running through downtown Bakersfield but not stopping there would reduce the “number of stops” but do nothing to fix the problem with the Bakersfield alignment.

  • BruceMcF

    DrunkEngineer definitely understands how HSR works. That’s his problem in seeing what a misleading pile of tripe the Zoellner piece is: when he skims Zoellner’s piece, he projects an actual understanding of how HSR actually works, and doesn’t catch the gross flaws in what Zoellner is actually saying in the op-ed.

  • BruceMcF

    No, they are not from a NIMBY blog at all ~ they are from Clem’s Caltrain-HSR compatibility blog.

  • BruceMcF

    The Time also has a responsibility to inform rather than mislead their readers. You do not have to be a rah rah supporter of the California HSR Authority to understand that Zoellner’s argument does far more to mislead about the problems with the alignment then to inform about them.

  • I think BC is well aware that the funds are not available for the other uses mentioned. The sentiment was more along the lines of “how could those amounts better benefit the most people” than “let’s redirect those funds”. The answer is pretty well, and in a way that builds broader support for HSR by providing a robust network of first-/last-mile connections. Get more people regularly riding the train to begin with and they’ll be much more willing to support plans to improve it.

  • Ben Bethel

    Everyone, I think you’re missing the point here. This helps small local businesses and communities. With California’s population to exceed 100 million people (from the current 42 million) in as early as 35 years, people will have to get around somehow. There’s this thing called “airlift” and there’s only so many planes that you can land at a time at only so many airports. When there’s compression in a market – be it a weekend, or a convention, or a holiday, or whatever, flights are just getting really, really, really expensive. Example: my business partner booked a trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas to Phoenix, and back to San Francisco, about 3 weeks ago… cost? $800…. compare this to a trip from LAX to Istanbul then Kilimanjaro then back to Istanbul then to LAX: $1311 including all taxes and fees (base fare was around $800ish). So… this means that you either have money for these short trips or that you just stay home. If you can afford to take these trips, or have no choice, you’ll have less money once you arrive at the destination to spend on hotels, restaurants, bars, retail shops, dining out, etc., etc. Or, you’ll just take fewer trips per year. High speed rail does a lot more than you think…. not only does it get people around more quickly (for distances under 600 miles door-to-door… don’t forget that flying has about 18 lines from when you hit the curb of the airport to when you hit the curb of the airport at your destination), more safely, and more comfortably than almost any airline… it does it for less money, and takes you from city center to city center. Perhaps if more Americans had more holidays and more jobs with 4 weeks of vacation, then they’d be a little more angry at how expensive it is to fly and more in support of high speed rail… who knows, but it’s just got to happen and we’re so far behind the times!

  • Neil Sinclair

    I’ve ridden HSR in China. They have half the world’s trackage and are in the process of doubling that. The trains run full. HSR is great! But they are on the upswing and we are on the downswing. Wait til the public sees what the carbon tax will do to the price of a gallon of gas. If we do this in California we deserve a medal.

  • calwatch

    The LA Times coverage on high speed rail is skeptical. Vartabedian is very critical of the HSR, but no more so than the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group coverage, which is even more critical.

    Look, if the HSR could have been built with the bond money and private investment, with just the initial Obama HSIPR money, I’m all for it. The fact they are raiding greenhouse gas cap and trade money to build something that generates tons of greenhouse gases with a payback period of many years before greenhouse gases emitted during construction are paid back, along with the obfuscation by the HSRA of the “blended” system, means that many people are souring on HSR.

    Quite frankly, I’m voting for Neel Kashkari, even though he has no chance of winning, as a statement not that I support the GOP (because I don’t), but that HSR needs to be reined in. If Jerry Brown ends up winning by less than double digits, he will need to seriously consider how he is moving with high speed rail. In particular, medium speed rail upgrades of existing tracks, combined with boarding improvements, similar to what is going on in the Empire Corridor and the Midwest Hub, is less impactful to local communities and delivers reliability in a timely manner to more people. But that isn’t what we are getting, because the bond was for high speed rail. Instead, we’ll get a track in the middle of the state with no catenary, maintenance facility, or rolling stock.

  • Riggggght.

    Vartabedian’s job is to report the FACTS, negative and positive, as the SJ Merc, Fresno Bee, and other papers do. As to your pretend support for HSR only IF, that’s back to the usual “concern troll” nonsense.

  • Be careful when comparing last-minute flexible fares to advance-purchase non-changeable fares. Airline yield management is a refined science.

  • Funny, we built US99 from nowhere to nowhere, and then connected it to existing roads into/out-of Los Angeles and the S.F. Bay Area…

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