California High Speed Rail to Operate Far Slower than Advertised

California High Speed Rail to Operate Far Slower than Advertised

The Project California voters will be asked to approve a nearly $10 billion bond issue in the November election as the beginning of funding for the a high-speed rail system intended to serve San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Fresno, Riverside-San Bernardino and points between. Promoters claim that the remaining necessary funding (from $45 billion to $71 billion, depending upon who you believe) would come from the federal government and private investors. There is no federal program to provide such massive funding and private investment seems highly unlikely given the overwhelming prospects for financial failure.

The Issue Based upon international HSR experience, it appears that the CHSRA speed and travel time objectives cannot be met. As a result, HSR will be less attractive as an alternative to airline travel and is likely to attract fewer passengers than projected. Notably, the CHSRA’s anticipated average speeds are not being achieved anywhere in the world, including on the most advanced systems. Incomplete consideration has been given to California’s urban and terrain profiles where HSR trains must operate more slowly than circumstances allow in, for example, France. This study, by assuming realistic speeds, estimates that a non-stop San Francisco–Los Angeles trip would take 3 hours and 41 minutes—59 minutes longer than the statutory requirement of 2 hours, 42 minutes. In the future, the CHSRA’s travel times may be further lengthened by train weight and safety issues and also by political demands to add stops to the system.

The proposed HSR system appears unlikely to provide travel time advantages for long-distance airline passengers. It is likely that HSR door-to-door travel times would be greater and there would be considerably less non-stop service than air service. Moreover, HSR would be unattractive to drivers in middle-distance automobile-oriented markets because little or no door-to-door time savings would be achieved and costly local connections would often be required (rental cars or taxicabs). Another convenience factor is that California urban areas lack the extensive local transit infrastructure that connects with HSR systems in dense Asian and European urban areas. The HSR system will experience disadvantages and commercial challenges in competing with air and auto travel that have been understated in CHSRA documentation.

Adapted from The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report By Wendell Cox & Joseph Vranich

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