SF Chron: Put a Bullet In This Train!


Nobody aboard!

"[T]he most striking thing when you start to look into the bullet train is how little planning or thought has gone into the thing," a great man once said. "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."

At the San Francisco Chronicle's "Open Forum," retired Stanford professor Alain Enthoven and banker William Grindley count the ways that the California High Speed Rail project (funded in part by $2.25 billion of your money, non-Californians) deals in plain fiction.

Bullet train buffs will recognize many of the tall tales supporters of the well-flacked, Nazi-freehigh-paying train project love to spin. But what always stands out like a pregnant lady caught in the doors of a moving train is the rail authority's failure to do any kind of comparison study that would suggest how many people might ride the thunderous fabtraption:

The ridership estimates are preposterous: By 2009, the 70 million passengers advertised on the 2008 ballot measure had shrunk to 39.3 million riders by 2035, the train's 15th operating year. The Boston-New York-Washington corridor is, by far, America's most favorable site for high-speed rail. In 2008, eight years after inception, the combined ridership on all segments of the high-speed Acela train route was 3.4 million, about 6 percent of the population of the states it serves. If the California rail project were to achieve in 15 years what Acela attracted in eight, it might draw 6 percent of all California's residents—about 3 million riders.

The kind of comparison Enthoven and Grindley do here is part of the basic diligence a 14-year-old organization would have done somewhere in the course of spending its first $250 million. It's easy to run comps in Europe and Asia, where high-speed rail has been commonplace for decades. Yet the California High-Speed Rail Authority has never bothered to find out. This is as good a time as any to bring up an old journalismism: When people are having trouble getting you information, there's something wrong with the information.