Science & Technology

Jerry Brown's California High-Speed Rail Is So 20th Century


google car

California's Governor Jerry Brown (D) is supposed to be a visonary politician. Yet his support for wasting $68 billion (the current estimate) to build a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco harks back to the age of the adding machine and the slide rule. The rail line is supposed to be completed by 2029. That's right, 2029! The whole world of transportation will have been massively transformed by then.

Autonomous vehicles will provide the bulk of personal and goods transport by then. Computer-guided vehicles can be more tightly packed on roadways and travel much faster than human-guided vehicles. Gov. Brown's high speed trains are supposed to travel between LA and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. It's very likely that speedy autonomous vehicles by 2029 will be able to make that trip in about the same amount of time traveling up Interstate 5, and do it door-to-door, rather than delivering passengers to fixed stations. 

In addition, a significant proportion of Americans will no longer own vehicles, but will summon and rent them as needed, thus reducing the total number of vehicles on our roads. All this implies that our current transporation infrastructure is way overbuilt for our future needs.

California Rail

Today's New York Times details the problems confronting the project, not the least of which is that its defenders have no idea from where all the money to fund it is going to come. According to recent polls, only 43 percent of Californians now support the boondoggle. In the Times, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) notes:

Mr. McCarthy said the governor should not bother trying to rescue the project, though he added that he understood why Mr. Brown was standing by it. "They get so invested in it, they just get blinded," he said. "That's why I think this time of year, New Year's, is the best time to step back and say: 'I tried. It won't pan out.' I think the governor would get big applause from California voters saying that."

Gov. Brown should save the money that would be spent on building a 20th century throwback project and instead spend some of it on making repairs to our current infrastructure. That would be the visonary thing to do.

For more background, see the Reason Foundation's recent report on the financial follies involved with California's high speed rail project.

NEXT: Dozens of Retired NYC Police, Firefighters Charged with Social Security Disability Fraud

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. TRAINZ.....eleventy!1!!111!!!

    1. Trainz rule. Private buses like Google's, for the privileged few, are interfering with the basic human rights of liberal renters to live cheaply in San Francisco, even if their landlords don't want to rent anymore and they can't really afford it:

      A landlord bought the building when the elderly landlord died, told them he wasn't going to do anything about it, and six months later he Ellis Acted it. He broke up a household of friends who'd been together for decades.

      And now Google will have to pay to use public bus stops....

  2. I find these predictions about autonomous vehicle use overly optimistic.

    1. U: Only if the regulators get in the way. Come to think of it...

      1. Based on the status, it is likely that autonomous vehicles will be required to have a licensed driver behind the wheel at all times "in case of system failure". I'm sure it will take years to lift this requirement. And the speed limits won't go up so long as any drivers are human. Isolated HOV lanes may become automated-only lanes or something, though.

        1. Even this could be revolutionary. It would likely drastically decrease the number of accidents, cut traffic stops to zero (getting police out of the way), and ease gridlock. Even if it took the full 5 hours to get from SF to LA, that time could now be spent doing something more productive than manning a steering wheel.

      2. I was driving a Yellow Cab in Sleepytown when Amtrak took over The Mainline of Mid-America. The Illinois Central RR Passenger Service that is, not the other one.
        I worked from 7PM to 7AM. Most nights there were 4 or 5 passenger trains that stopped at our depot along the Chicago-New Orleans track.
        Since I could not afford a car or the cab fare (60 cents) I rode my thumb a lot. One ride was from a Illinois Central RR executive. I remember him saying "We could have run the passenger service at a profit if only the government would have let us." Maybe he was dreaming. I don't know.

      3. Check. Next?

  3. Ayn Rand was hopelessly behind the times when she wrote about railroads in 1957, but Jerry Brown is a visionary for wanting to build one that will* be completed in 2029. Uh huh.

    *If all goes well, which we know it won't.

    1. But, trains are now retro-chic. In 57 they were passe.

  4. Adam Carolla has a good rant on this. It starts out, "Ever since Walt Disney built that GD monorail at Disneyland..."

    1. They say those things are awfully loud!

      1. It glides as softly as a cloud.

  5. This time, of course, it is different. I'm reminded of the early 1950s when the nation's railroads spent hundreds of millions on flashy new streamliners at the same time Boeing was developing the 707 and Eisenhower was building the interstate road system. Much of the money-losing Amtrak system is a legacy of that illogical thinking, so expect to see a few high speed rail lines limping along in thirty years with just enough fans to keep pressuring Congress to
    keep funding a technology that time has passed by.

    1. Nearly all of that spending was forced upon them by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

      History is not on the side of high speed rail. One accident and FedGov will force a speed reduction.

      What the residents of California would probably support is an Autobahn-type of road where only qualified drivers are allowed that had no speed limit. Shit, the state could easily get the qualified drivers to pay $200 annually to maintain their credentials. It's the exact type of caste system Americans love.

      1. History is not on the side of high speed rail. One accident and FedGov will force a speed reduction.

        That's what happened the last time in 1947.

      2. Plus, most of I-5 through the central valley is straight, flat, and surrounded by nothing. It would be perfect.....but the watermelons would never allow it since driving fast makes mother Gaia cry.

        1. Does anyone actually drive slow on that stretch of I-5? The last time I drove it, in 1991, you'd be an obstacle if you were doing anything under 80. Of course, that was an era when the CHP had been gutted and they had almost no speed traps. I'm sure the People's Republic has since upped their supply of Hero Enforcers.

          1. A few years ago I was on I-5 headed to Sacramento, doing about 80, when a Nissan Maxima passed me like I was parked. I thought, "Great! A rabbit to follow!" I wound it up and settled in about a 1/4 mile behind him at 125. After only a minute or two, I noticed a car in my mirror catching up, and realized that was likely only one kind of car. I flipped off the cruise control and eased into the right line. Sure enough, CHP went smoking by me and nailed that Maxima. The fine in California for triple digits is huge, so I got lucky, but it was fun while it lasted.

            The problem with that section of road is lots and lots of semis doing no better than 65, and there are a few places where the surface is just awful. A few more lanes with a nice surface and a minimum speed of 100 would be wonderful.

            1. The problem with that section of road is lots and lots of semis doing no better than 65...

              Exactly. I-5 would be much faster -- and safer! -- if trucks weren't limited to 55.

              On a busy day the best you can muster is the speed limit of 70 because of the dangerous clumping created by trucks going 60 passing trucks going 55. But on a light day, 80 is pretty much the minimum, and it's an hour faster from SF to LA.

              1. I've driven the SF to LA corridor recently. It was an absolute clusterfuck. Tons of cars doing 65 in the fast lane. Trucks attempting to pass other trucks by doing exactly the same speed.

  6. Err, trains are really more 19th century than 20th.

    1. So are automobiles.

      Of course, all this olde-timey nonsense hides the fact that trains are the right solution in certain places in America - just not in any place likely to win the boondoggle dollars.

    2. Only to those unfamiliar with the history of the technology. It's like claiming that Telephones and automobiles are 19th century technology. Advancements continued to be made until punitive property taxes on the rail lines and subsidies of the competition drove the passenger rail providers into the red.

      1. The biggest killer of rail passenger service was the 15% tax the ICC placed on the passengers. So the ICC sets a tariff which makes the cost lower than the market rate would have been, then they undo the low rate by placing a tax on each passenger. The railroad has to operate a a loss, and the passenger can't even get a loss-leader ticket price because of the tax; passenger facilities are left to rot because of the ICC scheme.

        Yeah, passenger service would have declined anyway, but at a lower rate. Certainly at a rate low enough to prevent any idea of Amtrak even being hatched.

        The really sad part is the ICC's pricing-and-taxing activities are so similar to ObamaCare that we're likely to see an Amtrak-like solution to health insurance as a result.

        1. Amtrak-like solution

          "Here, take 2 aspirin and call me in the morning. They cost $10 each and taste like a wet sponge. But you can wash them down with this $7 bottle of water."

          1. Then they'll hand you a 1099 for the $327 of health care you received. The penaltax won't be "insurance" as it will merely be the purchased privilege to see a doctor and get medication.

            The excise tax of $49.05 will still be owed at the time the 1099 is handed to you.

            1. Information technology is revolutionizing transportation in a number of ways. Look at services like Uber making the taxi regulatory scheme completely irrelevant. How long until someone produces an Uber app matching doctors with patients? Seems to make the PPACA irrelevant.

    3. And even then much of the rail construction was terrible malinvestment. And heavily subsidized too.

      1. It was a mixed bag of subsidy (allowing eminent domain, for example) and private investment. But virtually all railroad infrastructure had to be maintained privately. Roads were much more heavily subsidized, as were airports. An example of punitive property taxes: in 1956, the Jersey Central R.R. had two miles of track in Hudson County, NJ on which it paid (2012
        dollars) a property tax of $16 million!
        By the time the NJ Legislature stopped the unfair assessment on railroad property, it was too late to save any New Jersey railroad from bankruptcy.

  7. I find these predictions about autonomous vehicle use overly optimistic.

    No kidding.

  8. The 2 hours and 40 minutes travel time promise is gone. Reason now estimates 4 - 5 hours.

    1. In other words, you can drive it in the same amount of time, have a car at both ends of the trip, not have to listen to some old lady going on about her cats or some baby crying, and do it for less money than the proposed ticket price. But somehow this $68 billion dollar expense will pay for itself with increased economic activity.

      1. Plus don't forget the TSA queue and pat-down time.

  9. The best part of this is that Gov. Brown has proposed raiding the cap and trade funds to pay for the train. Of course the Cap and trade funds were supposed to sponsor green energy. But don't worry, they are going to pay the money back!

    Remember folks, California has fixed its budget problems!

    1. Can't they just paint the trains green?

      1. Like button!

  10. That 43 percent still support this thing is unbelievable. It is so clearly not doable under the proposition passed, and has been for years. I can't imagine what kind of bubble you'd have to live in to still support this.

  11. Maybe I'm just not imaginative enough, but how could you ever implement a "smart-road/smart-car" system? It would have to immediately exclude all human-driven vehicles to be of any use. Even in the most affluent and enthusiastic community, I can't imagine the rollout that involves "Okay, tomorrow is the day we all stop driving cars. Everybody got it?"

    I could see a gradual rollout of driverless cars, but I don't see those being a vast improvement without all the traffic-flow controls of a full smart-road system.

    Maybe if they built an entire redundant road system and gradually (over decades) phased people onto it?

    1. First, it has already been shown that smart cars can operate safely when surrounded by human drivers. So, as smart car usage increases accidents will go down, improving travel times on all roads.

      Second, the biggest efficiency gains will be on the interstate system where cars don't have to worry about intersections and pedestrians. Many large highways already have isolated HOV lanes that switch direction with rush hour. These lanes could easily be switched over to smartcar-only lanes, allowing smart cars to travel much faster while human drivers use the normal lanes. Eventually, when smart car usage is high enough, human drivers will be banned from operating their vehicles on major highways at all, completing the transition.

      Furthermore, there is a possibility of eventually using the freeways for modular train travel. Basically, if you were travelling from NY to DC you would get on the freeway and link up with a much larger/more efficient locomotive that would take you the whole way. This way you could approach the fuel efficiency of rail while retaining the autonomy of an automobile.

      1. Maybe I should buy that Humvee after all...

  12. The point of this project is not to build anything. That's like Teacher's Union exist to teach children. The point is to stuff as much of the public money into favorite groups and special interest. They'll win even if not a single inch of anything is build, so as long as the money is spend. Who care where the money comes from?

  13. Gov. Brown should save the money that would be spent on building a 20th century throwback project and instead spend some of it on making repairs to our current infrastructure. That would be the visonary thing to do.

  14. Choo choos and windmills: more elegant energy for a more civilized age.

    1. Not as clumsy or random as a gas turbine.

  15. The CA HSR has always struck me as being a huge boondoggle. The Google self-driving cars are an impressive technological achievement, but I think we may be expecting too much from them. I think that either they won't be able to perform well and safely in a chaotic, mixed traffic environment (or they might, but we irrational humans will take decades to trust them), or we will prohibit other types of traffic (including pedestrians and human-driven vehicles) from certain roads -- in effect creating dedicated "guideways" for the robo-cars. I would rather not build new special purpose roads for robo-cars, much less close any existing roads to other than robo-car traffic. Better, I think, to build lighter-weight, less expensive, smaller-footprint, dedicated guideway for something like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).

  16. Some short-distance air travel is relatively cheap. LA to San Fran would take about half the time and run, round-trip, maybe $150. Unfortunately, that doesn't count the strip-search time at both airports.

    I am not really a conspiracy nut, but if I were, I might note that all of these pieces work together:

    The panicmongers, Elephant and Jackass, combine to make air travel too big a hassle for any but the abjectly compliant or those who truly need it. That drives people to alternate transportation:

    Other panicmongers work on our guilt about emissions to force us to adopt expensive, inconvenient, and inefficient modes of mass transit. Those can't possibly be self-supporting through user fees, since the cost per ride is prohibitive. The only way to get us out of our automobiles is to subsidize the ride:

    Getting the hands of Fed, state, and local governments further in our pockets, and their collars 'round our necks, both as individuals and as a society. It's all about control.

    But I don't think it's really a "conspiracy" in the classic sense of being driven by the Rothschilds, the Illuminati, or the Council on Foreign Relations. I think it's just an unfortuitous confluence of "Crazy Eddie."

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.