California Still Going Off the Rails On a Crazy Train

Like many 14-year-olds, the California High-Speed Rail project has cost a lot of money and not laid one inch of rail. It's also a sullen, ignorant, disaffected, lazy mumbler, and a new study commissioned by the rail authority shows how.

According to the transportation consulting firm Cambridge Systematics the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley (ITS Berkeley), the High-Speed Rail Authority has consistently declined to make any realistic assumptions about how many people will actually ride the train (which is supposed to connect Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in a roughly y-shaped network). Among the study's findings:

  • A sample of long-distance travelers that was not sufficiently representative, and of a statistical method to adjust for that difference that has since been proven unreliable
  • Statistical adjustments that were valid for intra-regional ridership models, but not for inter-regional ones, thereby exaggerating the importance of having frequent service
  • A structure that predetermines which high-speed rail station travelers will choose rather than allowing travelers to make the choice themselves
  • Restrictions that were based on professional judgment instead of on observed data

Whole study [pdf].

The ridership mysteries are just part of the story. Usually massive public projects generate such a wealth of studies, reports, estimates and predictions that the challenge is to wade through them all. The genius of the bullet train project is that nobody is conducting the train and yet it continues to suck in money -- more than $250 million spent since the CHSRA was formed in 1996, a $9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008, and a pledge of $2.25 billion in federal support in January. Yet the most striking thing when you start to look into the bullet train is how little planning or thought has gone into the thing. There has been almost no effort to gauge consumer demand, no comparisons to existing rail projects around the world, no serious suggestions about where the line will run, and no consideration given to the towns or property owners that might be affected in the unlikely event the train ever starts running.

You can get more details on that in my column from the August-September issue of Reason. In May I reported on the new CHSRA chief who is supposed to sort the project out. Brian Doherty considered some of the right-of-way issues in April. Back in 2008, before President Obama got the American economy back on track, Shikha Dalmia argued that American taxpayers should not have to subsidize the Golden State's fiscal train wreck. More recently, Obama decided that American taxpayers should do just that.

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  • Van||

    Get the Gratefull Dead to promote it Man!

  • Sudden||

    Like many 14-year-olds, the California High-Speed Rail project has cost a lot of money and not laid one inch of rail.

    Tim, this first line is wrong on so many levels.... so I'll start with the obvious one. Signficant portions of California's 14 year olds are already pushing a stroller or two.

  • ||

    Signficant portions of California's 14 year olds are already pushing a stroller or two.

    Two?

  • Warty||

    I shouldn't have to provide a link. So have a shitty cover by a shitty band. Enjoy, fuckfaces.

  • Jordan Elliot||

    Bullet's one of my favorite newer bands but yeah, that's a really shitty cover.

  • ||

    7 year-old Japanese kid shreds on "Crazy Train" with Ozzy @ Blizzcon 2009.

  • Warty||

    Fuckin' Christ. I wish I had talents.

  • ||

    Air guitar isn't a talent?

  • PR||

  • Jordan Elliot||

    Crazy Train is my favorite song.

    You just got even more cool points from me Cavanaugh.

  • Jeffersonian||

    You know you're in trouble when blowing a quarter of a billion clams every 16 years for absolutely nothing is actually *saving* you money compared to the alternative.

  • Greer||

    I live in a small town south of San Jose, Morgan Hill (home of the flag shirt thing on Cinco de Mayo). In the 08 election, we had a little bond thing to rennovate downtown (like $3 million or so). When it failed, the word was that people are tired of bond issues and going into debt. How then to explain the train boodoggle which passed convincingly.

    After the election, there was a lot of talk about the train coming through town. The big controversy was whether the train would be underground or street level. Since it won't stop here, most people wanted it below ground. The response seemed to be that there wasn't money to dig, so the expectation is that someday, they will take a bunch of land via emmienent domain and have this 150mph fucker whistling through town. Can't wait.

  • ||

    How about that 101 all those fucking cars wizzing by??

  • Mike Laursen||

    Yup, it's unbelievable how much time is being spent in various Bay Area city council meetings discussing whether this project, which will never actually be built, should be trenched, raised, grade-separated, etc. when it runs through this or that town.

  • Tman||

    They've really spent a quarter of billion on this thing already?

    And not even one shovel has moved?

    That's pathetic even by California standards.

  • ||

    Oh, no. CA governments can do far, far worse:
    http://www.sfweekly.com/2009-1.....-the-u-s/1

  • skr||

    That is fucking great for California

  • ||

    If the objective is to create union jobs, then not building the damn thing at all is actually a better option, since then one wouldn't have to pay for the operating expenses of a perpetually money-losing system.

    Just fucking cut out the middlemen and have the money go directly to unions without any work at all being done, thus cutting the construction expenses considerably.

  • Mike Laursen||

    No shovel work. But the High-Speed Rail Authority has been spending money on Aeron chair and coffee makers, advertising agencies and janitorial service. And, hookers, I presume.

  • ||

    " Back in 2008, before President Obama got the American economy back on track..."
    Love it!

  • Joe Biden||

    There's just something about a train!

  • Risky Business||

    You like trains, don't you Joel?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    They're gonna feel like idiots when I unveil my teleportation machine and they realize they wasted all that time and money.

    And then when they're using my teleportation machines to go all over California, they're gonna feel like even bigger idiots when they realize those teleporters they're riding are also sapping their life energy in order to power up my doomsday device.

  • Van||

    A consensus of Scientists believe you teleportation device won't work.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    A consensus of teleporter inventors believe Scientists are royal douchebags who focus on the wrong invention.

  • Van||

    Larry Niven conceptualized your device long ago, but didn't know how to build it. Wouldn't you be better off sapping peoples debit cards? You could rule the world with your profits!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Ruling an intact world sounds like a lot of work.

  • Van||

    How will you and your minions use the devices without sapping your life energy?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I only travel first class. Teleporters are no class.

  • Naga Sadow||

    What would happen if a fly got trapped in the teleportation device with you?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Then the fly goes where you go. Is this a trick question?

    This isn't some piece of shit teleporter Jeff Goldblum has hooked up to a Commodore 64, you know. Give me a little credit. I think my Dell can handle moving two beings at once without fucking it up.

  • Brian Combs||

  • ||

    Huh. So *that's* why I had two Apples blow up on me when I was in graduate school. Damn notebook blew up 2 weeks before my prelim exams.

    And my Dell notebook (bought after the double Apple suicide) blew up while I was writing my dissertation.

    It all makes sense now.

  • Van||

    Don't let the Skeptics get you down Fist. They don't realize how much teleportation concepts have advanced.

    But, I do have questions, how will you handle the Mexican problem?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The doomsday machine does not discriminate.

  • ||

    "Gentlemen, imagine being able to travel safely at incredibly fast speeds and not having to go to the stupid fart face airports."

  • Van||

    I'd like to be able to travel to San Jose from Alabama as quickly as possible, so I can get into a Texas Hold em game at one of them Californi card rooms.

    The Asian players out there are completely fearless and build big pots.

  • Mike Laursen||

    We have these machines already for quickly commuting between L.A. and San Francisco: jet airplanes.

  • ||

    Oh, and the alt text should note that the false people waiting for the fake train would be paying imaginary fares for fantasy service schedules.
    Other than that, if they ever build the things, they might be painted those colors.

  • ¢||

    The alt text should note that Fake Train is a record by Unwound.

    Aging hipster fail, yo.

  • ||

    "Like many 14-year-olds, the California High-Speed Rail project has cost a lot of money and not laid one inch of rail."

    You should get a Pulitzer for that.

  • skr||

    agreed

  • Greer||

    Fuck, I read that a couple hours ago and only now, after a couple of scotches, did I get it.

  • skr||

    It pisses me off to no end that they feel obligated to have the damn thing terminate in the center of major metropolitan centers that already have rail service. Keep the damn thing in rural areas where it can zip along at top speed and then use existing lines like the metrolink to get into the cities. But noooooo, they have to duplicate existing lines at the exact same speed (because of urban speed limits) with a line that is incredibly expensive because a bullet train is sexier.
    Or preferably, don't build the thing at all.

  • ||

    Why can't they make the Metrolink go to the airport.

    I used to live a few block from the whatchamacallit in El Segundo, and getting to the freakin' airport was easier by car.

    They can't get you to the airport efficiently from two miles away when you're standing in front of a rail station--after how many millions? Give 'em a bigger budget and it'll just stink up the place worse.

  • skr||

    taxi cab mafia

  • johnl||

    In OC, they threw away a chance to move SNA to the much larger field at El Torro, most likely because El Torro has a Metrolink/Amtrak stop. In San Diego, the Coaster/Amtrak rides along the edge of the airport without stopping then drops you off next to a bus stop from which it takes just a few minutes to get to the airport.

  • ||

    It would be better to build Personal Rapid Transit systems in areas where HSR stations are planned. For $90M in construction costs -- all infrastructure and rolling stock, if figures I read are correct, but exclusive of right-of-way charges -- a PRT system can completely cover a square mile of territory, not with just a conventional rail or light-rail line that runs through it, but with an ultralight, elevated guideway grid, so that nobody will ever be more than a city block from a system entry/exit point.

    The PRT system could feed/drain the HSR system on the one hand, and on the other, serve local transportation and circulation needs. This latter function would be economically valuable, increasing people's mobility and improving their lives, even if the HSR itself were ultimately never built. But beyond being a concentrator/disperser for the HSR, a PRT system would solve the "last mile" problem, relieving the HSR of the logistical and financial burden of having to run through reluctant towns, not to mention expensive city centers. It is possible that, in some cases, the use of PRT systems as HSR feeders could actually save the HSR system money that would otherwise be spent on digging tunnels or acquiring right-of-way in established urban areas.

    One implementation of the PRT idea is being tried at Heathrow Airport and will soon begin serving airline passengers there, after the conclusion of final integration/operation tests. You can learn more about Heathrow's ULTra system at http://www.ultraprt.com/. General information about the PRT approach, and overviews of the designs being promoted by several vendors, can be found here: http://kinetic.seattle.wa.us/prt.html.

    As a libertarian, I would prefer that public money not be spent on transit, including PRT. I think the latter can actually be profitable in the private sector, if governments can avoid tying up construction with regulations, and can help ease right-of-way or zoning issues. But if huge wads of taxpayer money are going to continue to be spent on projects such as HSR, anyway, I'd at least like us taxpayers to end up with something useful.

  • jerry||

    I already have a Personal Rapid Transit system. It's called a car.

  • ||

    Funny, if you were a smartass from MY town, you would have used the word "bike" instead of "car."

    You have a personal, sometimes rapid transit system. I have one too, and I like it just fine. There are sometimes, however, when I would rather have somebody drive me from A to B, in relative comfort and security, without encountering traffic jams, and without requiring me to empty my wallet with fare cost and tip when we arrived. Buses and Light Rail suck. Taxis are too expensive and get caught in traffic anyway. What else can we do? PRT is an alternative.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    "Like many 14-year-olds, the California High-Speed Rail project has cost a lot of money and not laid one inch of rail."

    I find your ideas concerning the sex lives of 14 yr old boys intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • ||

    I always thought it was "going off the rails on the gravy train," which might be even more apt for this story.

  • Ted S.||

    That reminds me of one of my favorite movie quotes, from the great The Narrow Margin:

    Oh, wake up, Brown. This train's headed straight for the cemetery. But there's another one coming along, a gravy train. Let's get on it.
  • ||

    i pooped three time while reading this

  • Coeus||

    I really hope you own a laptop.

  • ||

    democrats save more money than those retard republicans

  • ||

    That should be "Democrats 'save or create' more money", said with the appropriate wry sarcasm.

  • j.i.am||

    For business travelers, there's a fascinating new technology called the Internet. Even now, for the purpose of having a face to face meeting, the Internet is slightly faster than a bullet train. Recognizing this, Southwest and United airline have already cut back on their flight schedules between LA and SF.

  • Coeus||

    Screw the business travelers. I want a decent haptic feedback suit. My company will pay for business travel, but no matter how cleverly I word the pitch, I can't get my sex tourism jaunts comped.

  • j.i.am||

    haptic

    +1 word for my vocabulary. But I'm going on 50 and will have to delete another word to make room for it. I haven't been graced with much in the way of retentive memory, but I know the word pusillanimous. This would be the first time I've ever written it (after checking the spelling) and I've still never spoken it. Haptic it is.

  • CE||

    ...Southwest and United airline have already cut back on their flight schedules between LA and SF.

    Yeah, and every flight is completely full now, and you have to wake up at 4 AM to get to the airport in time to get to San Jose for your 10 AM meeting, because there aren't enough 8AM flights.

  • ||

    OT: Parents have a hard time telling if their kid is overweight. What, are they used to raising Hindenburgs?

  • j.i.am||

    I notice California is not on the report's list. In CA there we have Dept. of Public Health services billboard's that promote a healthy diet: "Our neighborhood, our rules". The Asian grocery merchants can't read these signs but it does help that they are thin and lower the average weight of Californians.

  • Greer||

    the article says that 84% of parents don't think their kids are obese but 1/3 of kids are, so maybe 15% of the parents have 1/3 of the fat kids. Could be.

  • Greer||

    or 16%

  • ||

    I'm going with the supposition that up to 84% of parents disagree with the study's definition of "obese", which is probably culled from the federal government's BMI standards.

  • ||

    You know, the BMI standards that say that someone like me (6'2", 225 lbs, muscular and physically fit) could lose 30 FUCKING POUNDS and still be considered obese.

  • ||

    Or that I could lose 80 pounds (which would be freakishily, dangerously, cadaverously thin), and still be "normal" weight.

  • ||

    Can't cop to being physically fit anymore, but when I left college I was 6'0" - 210 lbs with 4% body fat, and would have been 35 lbs overweight on that retarded scale.

  • ||

    6'2"/225 makes your BMI 28.7- merely 'overweight'. At 195, your BMI would be 25.

  • ||

    A number of SoCal cities are betting billion-dollar mixed-use projects on HSR and ancillary rail projects. LA Mayor Villaraigosa, speaking about the rail projects he presided over, said (paraphrased) "there was a lot of opposition but by God we built it anyway".

  • j.i.am||

    It's not critical, but that would be Mayor Villar. His wife, last name Riagosa, dumbed him after she found out he was fooling around a local TV news reader.

  • Mike Laursen||

    In his defense, L.A.'s women news readers are uniformly hotties.

  • juris imprudent||

    They really only need to build two lines. The green line to Vegas and the brown line to TJ. The trick will be to ensure there is only outbound service.

  • Van||

    How will you keep them from Teleporting back in?

  • CE||

    After living here a few years, I'm convinced that Californians don't realize that when the state sells bonds, they have to pay them back later, with interest, from regular taxes.

  • j.i.am||

    They're not even real bonds. If I purchased a bond to fund the construction of an amusement park and the project flopped, I would still be part owner of the empty lot it wasn't built on.

  • TB||

    I think you're right.

    It seems like whenever a bond is proposed, Californians say "whoo, I want that! FUND IT!"

    People in their right minds would ask "but where does the money come from?"

    Californians would reply "uh, I dunno, it's a bond. It's imaginary money."

    At least that's how it plays out in my head.

  • ||

    Not sure, but once a bond defaults, doesn't it become imaginary?

    Bond. Defaulted Bond.

  • ||

    Usually if a state bond defaults the bond holders get incoming tax money before the state. Therefore, they never default.

  • Mike Laursen||

    One reason is that the PRO ballot argument on every one of these initiatives always lies and says, "It won't cost the taxpayers anything!"

  • ||

    And yet, this rail line is less dysfunctional than the one they are purportedly trying to build in Hawaii, where, for political purposes, they are planning to start construction with a segment with two stops: one in a low-density residential area, the other in an empty field distant from any place anyone would want to go.

  • ||

    It pisses me off to no end that they feel obligated to have the damn thing terminate in the center of major metropolitan centers that already have rail service. Keep the damn thing in rural areas where it can zip along at top speed

    See above for why this idea is even more full of suck than what the politicos are proposing.

  • ||

    LOL, I can hear Ozzy Ozbourne Crazy Train playing in the background as I read the article.

    Lou
    www.anon-surfing.at.tc

  • Ozzy Ozbourne||

    Whah?

  • ||

    I'm convinced that Californians don't realize that when the state sells bonds, they have to pay them back later, with interest, from regular taxes.

    It's not just Californians who believe this.

  • ||

    About half of California's population are Mexican immigrants, and/or people descended from Mexican immigrants. They vote for every bond issue - because when the house of cards collapses, they all plan on moving back to Mexico, laughing all the way, leaving the actual Americans holding the bag.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Current Mexico is not a place where I would move back to, even if I was of 100% Chicano descent.

    The drug war is pretty nasty, and people like having their heads on their necks, and not placed on spikes for intimidation, as allegedly recently happened in Ciudad Juarez.

  • Mike Laursen||

    The whole project will die as soon as the High-Speed Rail Authoring blows through their current funding. All the folks who voted for it have since realized that it's going to run through their neighborhoods.

  • ||

    This was NEVER about building anything. It was ALWAYS about payoffs to a variety of favoured supporters: consultants to study, environmentalists to protest anything that might be proposed. No one ever wanted to build the damned thing.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    In Spain, Germany, France and Japan, high-speed rail actually attracted a huge number of customers, up to the point that local air connections were obliterated. People seem to vote with their feet.

    It is an expensive issue, though, and the overall balance is pretty unclear. You can aggregate the costs of building and maintaining a track and service, and compare them to the fares collected, but this is not the entire picture; there are some less visible effects, like reduction of traffic jams (and thus increase of business efficiency), or, to mention the other side, creation of yet another public service infested with unions.

    Although California coast is densely populated, the Japanese rail model may not work there, since the local politicians are extremely talented at turning cash to sh1t. If the project already cost 250 M without a single dig, it is an indication that actually starting it would be a financial disaster.

  • ||

    The planned route is nowhere near the coast. It would run down the San Joaquin Valley (an agricultural backwater mostly inhabited by undocumented workers).

  • ||

    "declined to make any realistic assumptions about how many people will actually ride the train"

    During to 2008 campaign when we had a HSR bullet measure to vote one, rail advocates ran commercials promising the creation of tens of thousands of jobs during these difficult economic times.

    At the rate the HSR plans are going, I can only assume they expect difficult economic times to remain with us until 2025...or 2030...or...

  • ||

    Why can't today's 14-year-olds lay rail like in the old days? I blame unions.

    "Like many 14-year-olds, the California High-Speed Rail project has cost a lot of money and not laid one inch of rail. "

  • ||

    Here in California (the proud home of wise and benevolent leaders "Babs" Boxer and Nancy Pelosi) we may not have business or jobs. But we have social justice and sunshine.

    Our fine legislature in Sacramento believes in a high minimum wage, the right to pay taxes, early retirement and a generous living pension for those who believe in public service and free healthcare.

    Come to Kalifornia for the sunshine and stay for the "social justice"

    (this message has been endorsed by the SEIU and the campaign to re-elect "Babs" Boxer)

  • ||

    Here in California (the proud home of wise and benevolent leaders "Babs" Boxer and Nancy Pelosi) we may not have business or jobs. But we have social justice and sunshine.

    Our fine legislature in Sacramento believes in a high minimum wage, the right to pay taxes, early retirement and a generous living pension for those who believe in public service and free healthcare.

    Come to Kalifornia for the sunshine and stay for the "social justice"

    (this message has been endorsed by the SEIU and the campaign to re-elect "Babs" Boxer)

  • ||

    I think High Speed Rail is a great idea...as long as they're all built by private companies with privately obtained capital. That way the market will decide if its really cost effective and worth building.
    Of course today every politician has to get involved to show "they care" so anything built becomes a political boondoggle. What might be the most be the most cost effective route gets changed (and lengthened) to the most politically correct route. Don't forget about all those political relatives & in-laws that need jobs as well.
    Given the distances we have to cross in the US vs. Europe maybe a Mag-Lev makes the most sense, but again, let the market decide.

  • ||

    MagLev can be done a lot cheaper than so far has been the case in Asia and Europe. The cost-effective, permanent-magnet InducTrack system was invented right here, at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

  • DirtCrashr||

    It hasn't laid an inch of rail or turned a shovel of dirt because intentionally built-in to the fluffy legalese in the Bond measure were a black-hole of suction words, verbiage that allowed funds to be diverted to various other projects and purposes - put there by a conniving and insane-clown posse of a legislature where favors are traded like poker chips at the big crap-table that is Sacramento.
    It was a fake-out, and people benefit down the line, just not train-riders.
    May the High Speed Rail Commission will last another thousand years...

  • ||

    Actually, the planning for high speed rail has been going on for 30 years now.

    Here's they way it looked in 1979:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvF7dIVVKGQ

    And here's the latest example of a video that only cost $250 million to create:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....re=channel

    Enjoy!!

  • ||

    Back in 2008, before President Obama got the American economy back on track,...

    You are joking here, right...?

  • ||

    Incredible. Maybe someone should write a novel about how a planned railway gets bogged down in leftist government incompetence, graft and boondoggling. Oh, wait...

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