Palo Alto Weekly
News - August 5, 2011
Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts
Peer-review group calls for changes in California rail authority's ridership model
by Gennady Sheyner
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 last week 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.
"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," the report states.
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 senators 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.
In addition, the rail authority communications efforts have taken a hit in the past month, with the resignations of both its PR firm, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, and its deputy executive director in charge of communication, policy and public outreach, Jeffrey Barker. Barker had been appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009.
A representative from CARRD said Saturday that transparency is missing from the state agency.
"You can fire your PR agency and your head of communications can leave, but in the end, someone is telling them what to do. There needs to be a giant culture change to fix the systemic transparency issues, and we don't know who, if anyone, at the authority is truly interested in that goal," Nadia Naik, co-founder of CARRD, stated in an email.
However, Wall, of the rail authority, asserted that the agency is devoted to providing information to the public.
"The California High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to transparency and strives to ensure access to the project details and documents through various platforms including its website, webcasting, public meetings and more," she said.
On Wednesday, CARRD had gone public with its then-unsuccessful attempts to get the authority to release information under the California Public Records Act request. Among the requests was the peer-review panel report.
The initial request was made March 22. Despite a requirement that a decision on the request be made within 10 days, or a reason is provided that the records cannot be released, the authority failed to follow through on the request for a full three months, Naik said.
In the Wednesday letter to the rail-authority's board, CARRD co-founder Elizabeth Alexis detailed the communications between CARRD and the rail authority. In late April, Barker told CARRD that the peer-review committee had not submitted documentation of its January through March deliberations to the authority. Then in mid-May, he said that the requested information would be available at the end of the following week. In early June, he again said that documents would be forthcoming. And in mid-July, he said that there were no documents, only drafts, which could not be released, Alexis wrote. In addition, she said, Barker commented that CARRD just wanted to make the rail authority look bad on CARRD's website.
On Thursday, the day after CARRD's letter to the board and the same day that Barker announced his resignation, the authority released the report.
READ MORE ONLINE
The peer-review panel's report has been posted on Palo Alto Online. To read it, search under "Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts."
Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong contributed to this article.
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.
High-Speed Train Wreck
California's multi-billion-dollar bullet-train boondoggle was predictableand 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 millionand 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 inflated64 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 isscience 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 anywaymuch 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 minutesnoting 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, 2012thus 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.