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.