Brown’s Boondoggle – The Bullet Train to Nowhere

Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown

If you build it, they will come:

California’s high-speed rail project increasingly looks like an expensive social science experiment to test just how long interest groups can keep money flowing to a doomed endeavor before elected officials finally decide to cancel it. What combination of sweet-sounding scenarios, streamlined mockups, ever-changing and mind-numbing technical detail, and audacious spin will keep the dream alive?

Sold to the public in 2008 as a visionary plan to whisk riders along at 220 miles an hour, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a little over two and a half hours, the project promised to attract most of the necessary billions from private investors, to operate without ongoing subsidies and to charge fares low enough to make it competitive with cheap flights. With those assurances, 53.7 percent of voters said yes to a $9.95 billion bond referendum to get the project started. But the assurances were at best wishful thinking, at worst an elaborate con.

The total construction cost estimate has now more than doubled to $68 billion from the original $33 billion, despite trims in the routes planned. The first, easiest-to-build, segment of the system — the “train to nowhere” through a relatively empty stretch of the Central Valley — is running at least four years behind schedule and still hasn’t acquired all the needed land. Predicted ticket prices to travel from LA to the Bay have shot from $50 to more than $80. State funding is running short. Last month’s cap-and-trade auction for greenhouse gases, expected to provide $150 million for the train, yielded a mere $2.5 million. And no investors are lining up to fill the $43 billion construction-budget gap.

Once upon a time railroad trains were the cutting edge of technology and the fastest and most reliable form of transportation. That was way back in the 19th Century.

People in Los Angeles who want to travel to San Francisco currently have two main options – you can fly or you can drive. Walking, hitchhiking, bicycling or riding a bus are not practical options.

Flying is the quickest option, and will remain so even if the bullet train is ever completed. But in order to fly you have to go from point A in Los Angeles to point B in San Francisco. Neither airport is near the downtown area of their respective cities.

So if you choose to fly you will still have to arrange transportation to and from the airports and to move about in San Fransisco. That means paying for parking, car rentals, taxis, etc.

And not everybody will want to go directly from Los Angeles to San Fransisco. Los Angeles is just one city in Southern California (aka “SoCal”) and San Francisco is just one part of the SF Bay Area. What if you wanted to go from Cal Tech in Pasadena to UC California in Berkeley? How convenient is that bullet train now?

A bullet train will offer all the hassles or air travel but will take longer, especially if/when TSA takes over train security. Nor will it be substantially cheaper.

Trains are really good for moving cargo. For long-distance passenger transportation not so much. Even where trains are heavily used for local travel (subways, the Acela corridor Amtrak) They still require heavy subsidies to stay in operation.

I predict that California will lose a lot more money ($billion$) before they admit that the bullet train was a bad idea.



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31 Responses to Brown’s Boondoggle – The Bullet Train to Nowhere

  1. votermom says:

  2. helenk3 says:

    If the train ran from Los Angeles to San Francisco it would be a good thing. Right now there is only one train that does that and it is a vacation train not a business train. The Coast Starlight is not really supposed to be high speed.
    The last I heard the bullet train was going to leave from San Bernardino not Los Angeles. So you have to drive or take metro link to San Bernardino before you even start your trip. San Bernardino has no baggage room so you can not check your bags ahead of train arrival.
    You all know I love traveling by train. I have seen a lot of this beautiful country and meet a lot of great and interesting people during my travels by train.
    The Idea of high speed rail along the west coast is a good one. The planning of this one is not.
    High Speed rail really needs it’s own track so there is no freight traffic and local trains to slow it down. I would love to see a high speed rail starting at San Diego, stopping at Los Angeles. San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, then Seattle. Having feeder lines with an on time guarantee to meet the high speed train. I doubt that this would ever happen.
    Another place for a high speed train would be from Los Angeles to Los Vegas. Right now the only way to go between the two cities is to drive. The last Amtrak train between these two cities stopped in 1996. It was a long distant train from Chicago making a stop at Los Vegas. A high speed train there would attract ridership. I think the casinos in Los Vegas would be glad to contribute to the cost as it would attract customers.

    • foxyladi14 says:

      I love that idea Helen. ❤

    • Somebody says:

      LA to Vegas would be a winner!!

    • DeniseVB says:

      I’m a railfan too. What I love about the Northeast Corridor is that the stations are downtown and you can walk to your hotel. Trains are not for people in a hurry anyhow, which is my favorite part 🙂 It takes about 9 hours to NYC, which is a 7 hour drive w/o traffic. It’s always a fast 9 hours for me.

      I’ve taken Amtrak from San Diego to Ventura to visit friends. I remember that being such a beautiful ride along the coast. Is that the same line that goes to Seattle ?They should upgrade those tracks and add more Acelas that skip the small towns to make the journey faster for business riders. That would be billions well spent 🙂

      Funny story. One year my friend and I made a trip to NYC from Norfolk. She had free airline tix from her points and needed to use them. I took the train, her flight left about an hour later. Because of storms, she was diverted to Philly, missed a connection to NYC, I beat her to the hotel by 4 hours. Sometimes flying ain’t always faster. 😀

      • helenk3 says:

        Yes the Coast Starlight Number 14 goes from Los Angeles to Seattle. It is one of the most beautiful rides on Amtrak. You should see the ride through Oregon. Awesome.
        I used to laugh and say when I won the lottery i would start a high speed line from Los Angeles to Los Vegas and call it the High Roller. Have not won the lottery yet so no train

    • Ann says:

      We took a lot of high speed trains in Europe. I think they would be fantastic in this country, but they do need dedicated lines. For the same reason people drive over taking a plane (TSA bullshit, long lines waiting, canceled flights, tight planes, etc) are why people would choose high speed trains if given an option. Sometimes, planes are faster… and sometimes, they are a freaking PITA. Choices are a good thing.

  3. helenk3 says:

    FBI says no pictures during Clinton – Lynch meeting.
    Since when is that the FBI’s job?

  4. mothy67 says:

    I love how the greenies got all these bike lanes in my town. Pittsburgh has a lot of hills. How do you bike to work in snow and rain? Get to work covered in sweat? Areas near the rivers might work. What they got was idling cars realising a lot more pollution.

    • Jadzia says:

      At least in my town, they push bicycle commuting for people who are going 3km or less, which is really not a “sweaty workout” kind of ride (it helps that we don’t have hills). For short hauls like that (and I’m less than 3km from both of the campuses where I teach), the sweatiness factor isn’t much different from crowded public transport (yuck) or my good old Ford Fiesta, now ILLEGAL TO DRIVE in Paris, that doesn’t have air conditioning. The car is actually the worst option!

      • Jadzia says:

        Please note that I have not “gone native” on the A/C. The car was free because my mother in law was embarrassed that my father-in-law was seen around town driving it (they live in a small town where everybody knows them). Anyway, back in the ’90s when he bought the car, apparently the option was power windows OR A/C and he chose the windows. Because he is Old Fashioned.

  5. votermom says:

    Hey Klown,

    I scheduled the magic blathering post I was talking about for Noon eastern today (an hour from now). Do you want to change the schedule so it’s later?

  6. dailypuma says:

    Unless of course Donald Trump proposes a bullet train to Mexico, suddenly the transferring cargo cheaply aspect of the bullet train becomes appealing?

  7. helenk3 says:

    California has a whole different take on transportation then the east coast. I had a standing argument about train scheduling with my bosses at metro link. On the east coast no matter what shift you worked you could take a commuter train. On the west coast they believe only the 9 to 5 people should be able to do so. My argument was that there is a whole world that does not work those hours. If you refuse to make trains available to them, why should they pay taxes to support trains.

  8. helenk3 says:

    stolen from Marge

  9. Dora says:

    Trains are fine. It’s the pedestrians that seem to be the problem. Seriously, for 30 years each work day (weather permitting) I would leave Penn Station from the exit on 32nd and 7th Ave and walk to my building on 52nd and the Avenue of the Americas. I loved it. It was an enjoyable walk. Good exercise. I don’t know what the hell has happened to my favorite city, but it was never like this. Seeing this makes me glad I’m retired.

    New York’s Sidewalks Are So Packed, Pedestrians Are Taking to the Streets

    • DeniseVB says:

      It really ticks off the bicycle people when they walk in the bike lanes too. Actually this is the best week to be in the city, tourists are heading to the beaches and the locals are getting out of town.

      • Jadzia says:

        Don’t get me started on idiots in the bike lanes. I took my bike to school the other day and encountered: cars driving in the bike lanes, cars parked in the bike lanes, cars idling in the bike lanes for no apparent reason, people walking in the bike lanes (next to the PERFECTLY GOOD SIDEWALKS), people standing around having conversations in the bike lanes (same thing), and bicyclists standing in the bike lanes.

        I am thinking of getting a razor scooter instead because it’s just too frustrating. The buses and the drivers who stay out of the goddamned bike lane are fine. I stay in my lane and they stay in theirs.

  10. votermom says:

    My Magic thread is up, check it out

  11. John Denney says:

    Forget trains; just remove the highway speed limit and strictly enforce, “slower traffic keep right.”

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