Uneasy Riders

JUNE 18, 2010

The key is how many will ride the train. That’s all: how many people, say, 15 or 20 years from now, will buy a ticket for the California High Speed Rail train. You can’t figure out how much revenue the trains will bring in, or how much economic development it will spur, until you know that number. Of course, there are lots of studies and projections and models that try to divine that number. And you know what? They’re all different – sometimes, wildly so.

The latest report on this is The Economic Impacts of High-Speed Rail on Cities and their Metropolitan Areas. It was prepared by Economic Development Research Group, Inc., a Boston-Mass. planning firm, paid for by Siemens – makers of fine high-speed trains worldwide – released by The United States Conference of Mayors and is now being trumpeted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHRSA), which Tweeted a link to the report on June 16.

The report examines four cities around the nation, including Los Angeles, and the possible job growth and visitor spending that will come from their high-speed rail dreams. For LA, the 220-mile-per-hour trains will apparently bring with them unparalleled prosperity.

“They will make our region more sustainable and livable by providing viable alternatives to driving, reducing traffic congestion, and improving air quality and public health,” LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says in the Los Angeles chapter of the report. “High-speed rail and public transit will yield important economic benefits for Los Angeles and help transform our city and region into a more sustainable and livable metropolis.”

Driving that possible growth is this assertion in the report: “Ridership forecasts through 2025 estimate that the HSR line from Union Station [in LA] to San Francisco will transport up to 120,000 passengers daily – including 80,000 long-distance passengers and 40,000 local passengers.” That’s 43.8 million riders per year, a number that is almost certainly far too optimistic.

Of course, there are different numbers out there, some of which are even higher. In 2007, the High-Speed Rail Authority gave a “base projection” of 65.5 million annual riders by 2030 and a “high projection” of 96.5 million annual riders in that year. The 2008 Reason Foundation Due Diligence Report on our state’s high-speed rail project called those figures “absurd” and even the rail authority seemed to agree. Last year, the CHSRA Business Plan projected a far lower 39.3 million annual riders by 2030.

Even that number seems awfully high. The CHSRA’s own “Investment Grade Projection” from 2000 forecast 37.9 million annual riders by 2030. Then there’s the Reason Foundation itself, which gave a “base projection” of 23.4 million annual riders by 2030, and a “high projection” of 31.1 million. In 1997, the Federal Railroad Authority predicted about 25.8 million annual riders by 2030. And in 1994, the University of California Transportation Center in Berkeley foresaw just 22.1 million annual riders two decades from now.

Which numbers are correct? Who knows, because these types of models are apparently usually wrong anyway.

“Overestimation of intercity rail ridership has been true for decades in the United States,” the Reason report states. “Unachieved projections have remained a hallmark at Amtrak from its inception in 1971 through today.”

For example: in 1975 Amtrak predicted that its ridership would rise from a then 17.3 million annual passengers to 32.9 million in 1980. In fact, Amtrak ridership rose to just 21.2 million in that year.

It’s the same in Europe, and they’ve been running high-speed rail trains a lot longer than we have. In 1994, the Eurostar – a high-speed train running from Paris to London to Brussels – was supposed to carry 15.9 million passengers that year, its first in operation. In fact it carried 82 percent fewer – just 2.9 million.

“The CHSRA’s ridership forecasts could well rank among the most unrealistic projections produced for a major transport project anywhere,” the Reason report concluded.

Think about that the next time you read something about all the “economic benefits” high-speed rail will bring to California.

-Anthony Pignataro

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