News

Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts

Peer-review group calls for changes in California rail authority's ridership model

The California agency charged with building America's first high-speed-rail system has been using a flawed forecasting model to predict ridership for the proposed system, a peer-review panel concluded in a report that largely confirms previous criticism from transportation experts and rail watchdogs.

The five-member panel, which consists of professors and transportation experts, found that the ridership model, while "generally well founded and implemented," suffers from a series of major flaws. These include insufficient consideration of socioeconomic factors; a bias in the survey data used as a basis for the model; and a failure to distinguish between short and long trips when calculating the impact of schedule delays.

The highly technical report, which was released in late July and covers the panel's findings and recommendations during its January to March review period, confirms earlier findings from the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies and from the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD). Both groups had criticized the methodology used by the consulting firm Cambridge Systematics and argued that the California High-Speed Rail Authority's estimates of the number of people who would ride the rail system are too flawed to be used for setting policy.

The panel, which reports to rail authority CEO Roelof Van Ark, is chaired by Frank Koppelman, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Northwestern University. It also includes Kay W. Axhausen, a professor at the Institute for Transport Planning and Systems in Zurich, Switzerland; Billy Charlton from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority; Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto; and Kenneth A. Small, a professor emeritus in economics at University of California, Irvine.

The panel calls Cambridge's ridership model "ambitious" and representing a "significant improvement in practice in several respects." But the report also notes that "there are important technical deficiencies in the model and the documentation thereof." It encourages the rail authority to lower its projections.

"The Panel has significant concerns about the model formulation, primarily with respect to specification that should have been addressed during previous work," the report states. "Pending improvements to the model, we recommend that any use of the model include some steps to make the demand forecasts more conservative, especially in forecasts for financial (investment and risk) analysis."

A rail official, meanwhile, said that the report highlighted the complex nature of forecasting.

"Essentially, the report says that this is the most ambitious and most transparent modeling exercise to have occurred in this realm and, when refined, will represent best practices for this kind of forecasting in North America. The panel asserts no bias or improper practices," spokesperson Rachel Wall said in an email.

"What the panel expresses desire for is more documentation and more testing, both of which have been provided to the panel in the time between March and today, and which will be reflected in the forthcoming reports from the panel," she said.

One flaw that the panel identified involved the ridership model's treatment of out-of-vehicle travel time, particularly the time passengers have to wait when trains are delayed. The report states that the assumptions used in the Cambridge model to calculate the "constraint on out-of-vehicle travel time" are valid only for urban trips with small headways (that is, the distance and time between trains). The report cites a study showing the passengers' behavior is much different in the "intercity market." In other words, passengers are much more likely to stomach scheduling delays if they're preparing for long trips out of town as opposed to jaunts from one neighborhood to another.

The report calls the ridership model's use of this constraint "unjustified."

The panel also found "several instances of incomplete or outdated information in the documentation," according to the report. This includes insufficient discussion of such factors as fare levels, highway and airport congestion, train frequency and analysis of how the proposed train system would impact other modes of transportation, including airlines and intercity bus services.

The report is particularly critical of the survey used by Cambridge to get data for the ridership model. The company used a technique called "choice based sampling" which targets and, as a result, over-represents a specific subset of the population (in this case airline and train travelers). The firm conducted surveys in 2005 at airports, rail stations and over the phone. This included on-board surveys on Altamont Commuter Express trains, telephone interviews of Amtrak passengers and surveys of passengers at six California airports.

The report notes that while choice-based sampling is useful for making sure "enough respondents were found to choose each of the major modes," the technique is also "known to bias estimation results unless the estimation procedure is modified to take account of this sampling."

"The method used by CSI, which was believed to be correct at the time of model estimation, has since been shown to be incorrect and a new procedure has been developed which is correct," the report states. "Future estimation work should take advantage of this new knowledge."

The panel released its findings at a time when the rail system continues to weather criticism and financial uncertainty. State Sens. Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal have consistently criticized the rail authority's ridership forecasts and business plans over the past two years. Other critics, including CARRD and a group of Silicon Valley economics and business executives, issued reports criticizing the rail authority's business plan and its assumptions about federal grants and private investments.

Related story:

Rail exec's resignation prompts call for reform

Comments

Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 5:23 pm

"(T)he report ... encourages the rail authority to lower its projections."

""Pending improvements to the model, we recommend that any use of the model include some steps to make the demand forecasts more conservative, especially in forecasts for financial (investment and risk) analysis."

"State Sens. Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal have consistently criticized the rail authority's ridership forecasts and business plans over the past two years."
_____

With flawed ridership methodology, calls for more conservative financial modeling, and lengthy criticism from Sens. Simitian and Lowenthal stretching over 2 years, this project should be of great concern to many in California.

Floating bond financing for this enterprise will likely require relatively high yields. In a time of fiscal prudence -- of great concern over imbalances between revenues and expenses at all levels of government -- it's wise to table this high-cost project.


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm

All of Amtrak, on over 20,000 miles of track, carried 28.7 million passengers in FY2010. The only cost break-even route was the Northwest Corridor. All the rest required massive subsidies. It costs the government $400. dollars per seat on the Amtrak trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

Amtrak now has responsibility to create a high-speed rail system for the Northeast Corridor, with a projected costs of $117 billion. The distance from Boston to Washington, D.C. is about the same as the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles, except the population of the Northeast Corridor is denser than that of California. The ridership projection for this HSR system is 17.7 million passengers, after ten years of construction.

Ridership matters. More passengers expected increases justification for building the train. Enough passengers and the rail system could break even, and maybe even produce surplus revenues. That's what the CHSRA promised and that's where that original 117 million passenger number came from.

Before the 2008 elections, voters approved the Proposition 1A bond measure for high-speed rail, which at that time promised 117 million annual passengers. After the elections, the forecast numbers started going down. Right now, the debate is over 39 million passengers, which the rail authority insists is the correct one, even though, under pressure from the Legislature, they created a "peer review panel" of their own choosing this past January to re-examine the Cambridge Systematics analysis.

So, let's review:

1. All of Amtrak, all over the US, carried 28.7 billion passengers in FY2010.
2. Amtrak plans to build a HSR system over the same distance as California's in an area more dense than California. They project 17.7 million passengers.
3. Nonetheless, the CHSRA is standing firm on their 39 million annual ridership number.

But now, let me rephrase what I just said. Ridership should matter, but does it? If the ridership is actually much lower than the 39 million that the CHSRA promises, all justification for building the train will go away. It makes no sense to build a $100 billion train for a handful of rich folk to ride.

And that brings me to my question. Let's say that the newest numbers from the rail authority in their October business plan will be far lower than the 39 million. Then what? What difference will that make?

Or, let's forecast the future more accurately. The October business plan will not produce ridership numbers much lower than the current 39 million, and we will all be in an uproar over that. Hey, they lied again; they cheated again. Then what?

Will the Legislature then rise up as one body and say, ENOUGH? Will they terminate this project? Or, which is much more likely, will they say we need a new and more accurate study to get better ridership forecasts?

That's a game the rail authority is delighted to play until well after the $6 billion is totally spent on digging up the Central Valley.

The rules of this game as now played is that there are no cut-off points in the rising costs or the declining ridership numbers. The reason is that we are not dealing with a rational set of business decisions. We are dealing with a religion for which there is no evidence that can possibly make any difference. And, you will find far more believers in this HSR religion than you might want to believe.


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Sorry. Mis-statement. First paragraph. Northeast Corridor, not Northwest Corridor.


Posted by Anony Mouse, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

"All of Amtrak, on over 20,000 miles of track, carried 28.7 million passengers in FY2010. The only cost break-even route was the Northwest Corridor. All the rest required massive subsidies. It costs the government $400. dollars per seat on the Amtrak trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles."

Citation? Do highways "break even?"





So, let's review:

1. All of Amtrak, all over the US, carried 28.7 billion passengers in FY2010.


You sure about 28.7 billion?


2. Amtrak plans to build a HSR system over the same distance as California's in an area more dense than California. They project 17.7 million passengers.

Citation?

"3. Nonetheless, the CHSRA is standing firm on their 39 million annual ridership number.

But now, let me rephrase what I just said. Ridership should matter, but does it? If the ridership is actually much lower than the 39 million that the CHSRA promises, all justification for building the train will go away. It makes no sense to build a $100 billion train for a handful of rich folk to ride."

At what ridership projection number would you support HSR? 25 million? 20 million? Or is the answer never?

"And that brings me to my question. Let's say that the newest numbers from the rail authority in their October business plan will be far lower than the 39 million. Then what? What difference will that make?"

See above. What difference will it make to you?

"Hey, they lied again; they cheated again. Then what?"

What evidence is there for "cheating" and "lying"?




"We are dealing with a religion for which there is no evidence that can possibly make any difference."


Is NIMBYism a religion?


Posted by political_incorrectness, a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Oh my goodness gracious. This is Berkley all over again. Did anyone read the specific quotes? "The Panel found no evidence that these results are biased in aggregate or that any differences are in a particular direction as a consequence, but believes it is a relatively simple improvement that will make the model more reliable."

Thast does not = flawed for pete sakes. Of course any forecast is just that, a forecast. Try living in Seattle, WA and listening to weather forecasts. If they had to be 100% accurate, they would have lawsuits pending all the time. Who knows if more people will ride transit in 2020 or not? There will be massive expansions and projects dedicated to improving transit HSR serves. Based off research from what happened in Spain between Madrid-Seville, the most recent 30 million a year figure makes sense even with conservative estimates using some simple math.


Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Don't take the above quote ("The Panel found no evidence...") out of context. That applied to one area of criticism (4.2 Observed Heterogeneity to be exact). More telling is this quote about the lack of validation (from Section 5.1 Model Validation). My summary - they didn't apply simple common sense in s**t detection to their estimates, hence not a surprise they might be, and probably are, WAY off. From the Report:

Apparent omissions in model validation concerned the Panel. It was strongly felt that a number of checks on the reasonability and validity of the model should have been carried out and documented, to include:

Comparisons to other observations and forecasts in California developed from data sets that are different from those used in this model;
Comparisons of forecasted ridership to actual ridership on HSR systems in other parts of the world;
Sensitivity testing of the importance of assumed HSR levels of service and of alternate assumptions about highway and airport congestion;
Sensitivity testing of the effects of alternate levels of socioeconomic variables used in forecasting,
Sensitivity testing of assumptions about parking availability at planned HSR stations.


Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Quotes from the Panel's report and some thoughts.

"However, there are important technical deficiencies in the model and the documentation thereof." (Panel Report)

Technical deficiencies are clearly of concern to the Panel. For a project with a projected price-tag of $65 billion, technical deficiencies in ridership projections are of great concern to me, and likely to many taxpayers in the State.
_____

"Roelof van Ark, Executive Director of the Authority, opened the meeting by welcoming the Panel, introducing them to the project, and outlining his charge to its members. A relative new-comer to the project ..." (Panel Report)

Authority management is in apparent upheaval; Jeffrey Barker, "the rail authority's deputy executive director in charge of communication, policy and public outreach" (PA Online), recently left; "his departure comes one month after the embattled authority's public-relations firm, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, quit." (PA Online)
_____

"...the Authority is highly interested in the advice of this Panel about where to go next in their forecasting efforts, based upon the progress and capabilities to date. In addition to conducting more detailed analyses, the Authority requires the capability to assess public-private financing schemes and station area developments." (Panel Report)

Clearly, access to financing is of great importance to the Authority; and, faced with a critical Panel Report, this task -- raising monies -- just became quite a bit more difficult.
_____

"The assumptions about, data development, and summaries of several key inputs to the model should be documented. We could find little or no discussion of these inputs and their underlying assumptions:

Fare levels or structure ..." (Panel Report)

Assumptions on airfare, in particular, will affect HSR ridership conclusions; it will be interesting to see these assumptions exposed to the light of day.


Posted by Jay Tulock, a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
In case anyone missed the weasel words served by the professional analysis of fellows in the same small circle that all know each other, the terms used to criticize are scathing condemnations of Cambridge Systematics conduct. Of course, after the Big Dig in Boston, rather than being starved to death, Parsons Brinkerhoff was so called punished by being rewarded the California high speed rail contract, the biggest money green hog feed in the history of the USA, run by consultants, for consultants pocketbooks. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I spent my career both in the United States and overseas building real railroads with real money and real equipment and I am proud of my accomplishments.

Mark my words. The project as we have come to suffer by it is about to come crashing down like the dot com boom and the housing boom. And like those disasters, the criminals that created the bubbles that lined their pocketbooks will walk away with the money they stole from the people,. No one, not one person shall be prosecuted. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:20 pm

From the Panel Report:

"The level of service topic is particularly important to tie to operating and business assumptions made by the Authority, and should be attributed as such. For example, the frequencies in San Francisco (8 million residents) in full build-out of 12 trains per hour are comparable to Tokyo, with 30 million residents). The Panel questioned whether such assumptions are realistic, and what the effect of lower levels of service (decreased frequency) on ridership would be. These issues should be clearly addressed in the documentation."

So, the Authority's forecasting projects levels of HSR service 'comparable to (levels of service in) Tokyo' and, the Panel 'questioned whether such assumptions are realistic'. There's ample cause for concern here, in my opinion.

Who will buy the bonds necessary to build HSR? Given the concerns to date, will not the yields be relatively high? If ridership falls short, who pays for the operating expenditure shortfalls?


Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:25 pm

From the Panel Report:

"Model validation is the testing, and perhaps further adjustment, of the model system using data other than (and usually newer than) the data from which it was estimated.

"There is no evidence that model validation defined in this manner was carried out. "

No model validation? On a $65 billion project?

It's clearly time for further peer review here. With so much money at stake, faulty or flawed analysis is neither wise nor prudent.


Posted by InBedWithUnions, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 1, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Kill the frickin boondoggle now. California will be bankrupt by the time they expend the $6.5 billion in the Central Valley for a set of useless tracks that won't even include electrification or HSR trains and rolling stock. The most monumental, epic, historic waste of taxpayer funds, in the History of the US, is call "California's Train to Nowhere" and will go down in history as making the waste, fraud and corruption (and cost overruns) of the Boston Big Dig to look like a small hole in the ground. Democrats are in bed with unions, and unfortunately the voters (barely) approved the issuance of $10 billion in bonds for this stinker. California is better off giving the $10 billion to illegal immigrants so they can build thriving communities in Mexico and decrease the hundreds of millions being spent be counties on shelter, services, etc.


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 1, 2011 at 10:49 pm

@ InBedWithUnions:

Funny, but the first thing that comes to my mind in regard to the proposed HSR is the Big Dig. That monstrosity cost taxpayer immensely more than what they initially thought. The legislators just kept throwing everyone else's money at it.

The second thing that comes to my mind is the gross underestimation in both time and money for most transportation projects in California. How long have they been working on the Bay Bridge replacement span? 22 years? How much has that budget ballooned?

The project is certainly noble. However, it is UNNECESSARY. This state is already blessed with widely available transportation options in air, rail and road. There is no immediate pressing need for this -- especially at a time when our state can't even pay its own bills.

While a HSR might be beneficial to a certain select group of travelers in this state (those who opt to travel by rail rather than faster, cheaper and safer jets), the overall cost will be paid for by the rest of us. Something tells me that, if passed, the state will be begging for additional Billion $ yearly subsidies less than a decade after it is finished.

Most importantly, we must ask ourselves just how much is too much for our state legislators. We have NEVER been taxed as much as we are now. In addition to Federal and State income taxes, we must pay expensive tolls, sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, internet taxes, payroll taxes, cellular taxes, CRVs, utility taxes, entertainment taxes, along with many, many other higher taxes, fees, and tolls.

You have to wonder how much is enough. Will elected politicians ever run out of "noble" ideas on how to spend even more of our money?


Posted by JustACitizen, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 2, 2011 at 11:40 am

The high speed rail was a proposition approved by the voters. I voted "yes" without researching the details of the proposition. I now suffer voter remorse. I'm not convinced that I shouldn't be voting on ballet initiatives. Can we put it back on the ballet again now that we know Californians can't afford it?


Posted by Don, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

A ridership estimate of 39 million means that everyone - man, woman, and child in the state - would have to ride once a year.

Does this figure represent one way or round trips? The answer makes a huge difference.

What is the current estimate for a ticket? It was more than $90 a few months ago for one way.

How do those who live more than 20 miles (you pick a distance) from a station get to the station? By car? Where do they park? BART has built massive parking structures to serve only a few thousands of riders.

Almost every single railway system in the world is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This will be no different.

The devil is in the details.


Posted by Kenny, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Of course this project will take a lot more time (and therefore money) than expected, based on Hofstadter's Law.
Web Link


Posted by Reality, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Don,

Makes me laugh that you think 39 million riders is too high! Do you realize BART had 110 MILLION RIDERS last year alone and that system is just in the bay area!! Probably not since you are not paying attention to the "details". And the bay area only has a little over 7 million people.

As for getting to the station, same way the 110 MILLION riders get to BART. Or to the airport, or nearest public transportation. Lots of ways to get around.

You are right, ALMOST every railways in the world is subsidized, but not high speed rail. In fact, high speed rail in France and Japan pays subsidies to the regular rail system from the PROFIT it makes.

Funny how people don't realize roads are the most heavily subsidized form of transportation around!! Web Link


Posted by Blase, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm

The way this is going, the US will be the last (major and not so major) country in the world without any high speed rail. Even South Africa has one now. We'll stick with our failed model of cars and airplanes only, and we will merrily keep clogging roads and polluting.

The new American "exceptionalism".

We have become the country that can't do anything.


Posted by Don, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Hi Reality. Can you cite sources that support your claim that France and Spain make a profit on their HSR? The systems in Great Britain and China have not been profitable to date. There is an exception in Britain where one line began to break even in 2009 when private ownership took it over.

BART riders are the same people commuting to and from work every day. Divide 110 million by 260 work days a year and one gets over 200,000 round trippers a day. Sounds a bit high although many use the trains on weekends.

It's invalid to compare passenger loading on a commute system to a long haul railroad with uncertain numbers riding each day. Apples and oranges.

Mr/Ms Blase. To say that others have a system therefore we should is a weak argument. It has to be profitable, and several study groups have concluded it won't be as presently conceived. Several states have declined Federal subsidies to build an HSR because they think they will be black holes for taxpayer's money.



Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

In discussing the basis for the projections, many of the critics may be missing that many of the proponents have a very different vision for the near future of California. If you go to enough presentations and read enough postings, certain things seem to start to jump out, although if you ask directly they are denied.

Those apparent assumptions are that the Central Valley will become heavily urbanized with very dense city cores with skyscrapers (for example, see the video released at the time of the vote on the proposition). Although these cities will likely be major job centers, there is also a presumption that a large numbers of residents will be commuting to LA, SF, SJ, Sacramento,... in addition to those taking business trips, pleasure trips, ... This level of massive growth could produce the population densities found in the Northeast corridor.

If you are skeptical, listen to the politicians and business people from the Central Valley who see this as not just make-work construction jobs, but as creating major development booms. And listen to the proponents who talk about how HSR in Spain saved dying small cities by transforming them into bedroom communities for the big cities (the difference is that in California, it wouldn't be saving small cities, but paving over vast amounts of farm land to expand cities). Listen to the ridership scenarios by other proponents for the underlying assumptions.

I am noting those assumptions not because I support them -- I definitely don't, seeing them as disastrous for California -- but because they _may_ give insight into the mindset of various of the proponents and other backers of the CA HSR, and why they are so resistant to criticism of their projections based upon the current situation in California.


Posted by Herb Borock, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

Posted by JustACitizen, a resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, 23 hours ago

The high speed rail was a proposition approved by the voters. I voted "yes" without researching the details of the proposition. I now suffer voter remorse. I'm not convinced that I shouldn't be voting on ballet initiatives. Can we put it back on the ballet again now that we know Californians can't afford it?

--------------------------------------------------------------------

The voters were misled in the November 2008 election because they were presented with a ballot label, title, and summary written by the proponents of the ballot measure, instead of a neutral ballot label, title, and summary written by the Attorney General as required by law.

When I posted the following on May 13, 2011 on another thread, there was a response that Palo Alto liberals were not "hoodwinked by some abstract legalism" and "This turkey was approved by a unanimous vote of our city council."

My comments below were not about "Palo Alto liberals" or the "Palo Alto City Council" and I did not and do not consider the City Council "liberals".

I did not say that the City Council was misled by the "ballot label, title, and summary written by the proponents of the ballot measure".

I said the voters, meaning the voters of the entire state of California, were misled.

Here is my prior post:

Posted by Herb Borock, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on May 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm
The voters approved the High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act in the November 2008 election because they were presented with a ballot label, title, and summary written by the proponents of the ballot measure, instead of a neutral ballot label, title, and summary written by the Attorney General as required by law.
On January 27, 2011, the California Appellate Court in Sacramento ruled that the Legislature violated the law when it specified the ballot label, title, and summary for the bond measure.
Here is the summary of court's opinion:
"The question posed is whether, in enacting the 'Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century' to submit the measure to voters as Proposition 1A at the November 4, 2008 general election, the Legislature acted lawfully when it specified the ballot label, title and summary to be used and precluded the Attorney General from revising the language other than to include a financial impact statement. (Stats. 2008, ch. 267, 11, subd. (f)(1) & (2), pp. 15-16.)
"The answer is 'No.' The Political Reform Act may be amended in two ways: (1) 'to further its purposes' if the amendment is passed in each house of the Legislature by a two-thirds vote (Gov. Code, 81012, subd. (a)); or (2) by the enactment of a statute that is then approved by the electorate (Gov. Code, 81012, subd. (b)). The Legislature passed the 'Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century' by a two-thirds vote of each house. However, to the extent it specified the ballot label, title and summary to be used, the bill negated the Political Reform Act‟s requirement that the official summary of the bill be prepared by the Attorney General in addition to the ballot label and title that are prepared by the Attorney General. As we will explain, this ad hoc amendment of the Political Reform Act did not further the purposes of the Act and was not approved by the voters. Thus, it was invalid. Simply stated, the Legislature cannot dictate the ballot label, title and official summary for a statewide measure unless the Legislature obtains approval of the electorate to do so prior to placement of the measure on the ballot."
Here is the link to the entire opinion of the court: Web Link


Posted by Walt, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 4, 2011 at 8:27 pm

If this is half true, it would seem that our elected officials effectively threw the tax payers of this state under the High Speed Rail bus. In spite of specific warnings about the multitude of failings of the CA HSR Authority, by an expert on high speed rail, in invited testimony on the subject in Sacramento, our legislators and senators blundered ahead and foisted the current HSR disaster on the people of California.


Web Link

Cynthia Ward
High-Speed Train Wreck
California's multi-billion-dollar bullet-train boondoggle was predictable—and predicted.
3 August 2011

In October 2008, Joseph Vranich, a preeminent authority on high-speed rail in the United States, testified before a hearing of California's State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Vranich, the best-selling author of Supertrains, former CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, and a 40-year advocate of high-speed rail, had come to offer his thoughts on the state's plan to build a high-speed rail line from Orange County to San Francisco. "This is the first time I am unable to endorse a high-speed rail plan," he told the senators, saying that he found the California High Speed Rail Authority's work to be "the poorest I have ever seen."

It's fair to say that the vast majority of California voters never heard what Vranich had to say. Instead, they relied on faulty and unverified information on their ballot statements, where high-speed rail proponents touted the environmental advantages and fiscal benefits of the state's plan. Less than a month after his testimony, voters approved Proposition 1A, authorizing Sacramento to sell a few billion dollars in bonds for a project most experts, now including the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office and the University of California, say will cost tens of billions of dollars more than the official $43 billion estimate.

With his 2008 testimony now posted on YouTube, more people are listening to Vranich, who predicted just about everything that came to pass, including that the trains would be slower than promised, carry fewer people than rail authorities claimed, and cost much more than officials would admit. "I would like to see high speed rail built," Vranich told senators. "But not this boondoggle." Almost three years on, the High Speed Rail Authority has spent $630 million—and the project hasn't even broken ground yet. The vast majority of those dollars went to consultants and studies.

Vranich explained in 2008 that while high-speed rail "holds great promise in certain sections of the country," the California HSRA's work was so deficient that "if the current plan is implemented it has the potential of setting back the cause of high-speed rail throughout the United States." The Authority, Vranich argued, had learned nothing from failed projects in Texas and Florida (with another failure in the making in the Sunshine State), and aborted plans in Los Angeles and San Diego. The L.A. and San Diego projects had been undone by overly optimistic ridership estimates, pie-in-the-sky budgeting, and a callous disregard for local environmental impacts. The HSRA was repeating all of those mistakes, Vranich argued, "as if they never read a single page of history." His recommendation: dissolve the HSRA and transfer its power to a different state agency.

"High speed rail in California may be salvageable after all of this poor work, but someone else must be in charge," Vranich said. "If the authority is unable to conduct studies that have credibility, how will they ever effectively deliver a mega construction project on time and within budget?" His argument tracks closely with a May 2011 report from the Legislative Analyst's Office, which also suggests that the High-Speed Rail Authority be dismantled.

Vranich skewered every aspect of the HSRA's proposal. He insisted that passenger estimates were wildly inflated—64 percent higher than those developed by the Federal Railroad Administration and by independent studies from the University of California at Berkeley's Transportation Center, as well as a thorough report by the Reason Foundation. "The authority's projection of 117 million annual intercity passengers plus commuters is so far from reality that I have to call it what it is—science fiction," Vranich wrote in his testimony. Most studies use population density to project ridership, but as a story in California Watch noted last month, "if the measure is population density, Florida and Ohio would be fertile ground as well. Both of those states rejected billions in federal aid for bullet trains, fearing they just couldn't make the projects pencil out."

The state's HSRA assumes a bullet train from Los Angeles to the Bay Area would attract vastly greater ridership among 50 million car-loving Californians than has been achieved in Spain, Germany, France and Japan, where rail travel is commonplace. Perhaps an even better example domestically is Amtrak's estimated ridership for its Northeast Corridor. "Fifty million people already inhabit the region served by Amtrak's Northeast Corridor," Albrecht Engel, Vice-President of Amtrak HSR, told an audience of high-speed rail boosters this spring. "The population is expected to grow to 70 million by 2050." Even so, Amtrak anticipates carrying just 18 million passengers annually on its high-speed line in the busiest rail-transit corridor in the United States.

Vranich three years ago also dismissed the Authority's $43 billion cost projection, predicting the real cost to be closer to $60 to $80 billion, not including bond repayment. Since then, costs for the project have escalated far beyond what voters were promised in 2008. "The claims of profitability could not conceivably be credible, under the most optimistic assumptions," Vranich said. In the unlikely event that the HSRA's projections were accurate, the trains likely wouldn't generate enough profit to pay back the bonds anyway—much less build additional rail segments, as planned. The Legislative Analyst verified Vranich's prediction in its May report, which concluded, "If the cost of building the entire Phase 1 system were to grow as much as the revised HSRA estimate for the 100-mile segment [between Fresno and Bakersfield] construction would cost about $67 billion." However, the LAO added: "This extrapolation of costs... is based on the cost increase for a relatively straight-forward and uncomplicated segment of the proposed rail line. It is possible that some of the more urban segments could be even more significantly underestimated."

Finally, Vranich debunked the HSRA's claim that riders could make the trip from Anaheim to San Francisco in a remarkable two hours and 40 minutes—noting that the required average speed of 197 miles per hour is a feat yet to be accomplished anywhere in the world. In fact, train speeds in urban areas would be limited to around 60 miles per hour, due to safety and noise regulations. "It is unclear that any train redesigned to meet U.S. safety requirements and crashworthiness standards, which will make it heavier, can also meet the CHSRA speed and performance requirements," Vranich said.

Declaring that voters were deceived in 2008, Republican state senator Doug La Malfa sponsored Senate Bill 22, legislation that would end bond purchases on January 1, 2012—thus reducing the state's indebtedness to the amount contracted by the High Speed Rail Authority before that date. La Malfa noted that the High Speed Rail Authority still hasn't submitted an acceptable business plan, despite a legislative requirement to do so before the November 2008 election. Putting an end to bond purchases would help prevent future damage to a fiscally imperiled state.

The Vranich testimony video certainly lends credence to La Malfa's effort. Sadly, Bill 22 was voted down in committee in May, but it's eligible for reconsideration. Perhaps it's time for Joseph Vranich to reprise his appearance in Sacramento.


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