Logistical woes mount for high-speed rail

high-speed rail in cityA new special report conducted by the Los Angeles Times has thrown very cold water on the California High Speed Rail Authority’s plans for bringing a bullet train to the Golden State.

Through an in-depth investigation, the paper revealed embarrassing details of the train’s lurching progress toward an apparent morass of spiraling costs, spooked investors and — worst of all — an engineering disaster in the making.

Heads in the sand

In one particularly galling example of misfeasance, when California’s main project management contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff, raised the alarm years ago, it was simply ignored by the authority’s top brass. A document obtained by the Times revealed that Parsons Brinckerhoff had briefed state officials on the spiraling cost projections in October of 2013. “But the state used a lower cost estimate when it issued its 2014 business plan four months later,” noted the Times. “Jeff Morales, the rail authority chief executive, said he was not aware of the Parsons Brinckerhoff projection. A spokeswoman for the authority declined to discuss the differences in the estimates.”

Opposition to California’s high-speed rail project has been strong since Gov. Jerry Brown first threw his weight firmly behind the idea. Critics have predictably held up the Times report as proof that they saw its failures coming from a figurative mile away. As the Reason Foundation suggested as early as 2008, “cost overruns were likely, state and federal funding would not be sufficient to cover the costs of the project, the state would have to spend more money, and private investors would not be making up the difference,” as Scott Shackford noted at Reason.com.

A policy earthquake

The challenges revealed by the report go far beyond those objections, however, raising the specter of dangerous environmental damage done virtually blind. “It will be the most ambitious tunneling project in U.S. history. Crews will have to cross the tectonic boundary that separates the North American and Pacific plates, boring through rock formations and earthquake faults, some of which are not mapped,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted. James Monsees, “one of the world’s top tunneling experts and an author of the federal manual on highway tunneling,” said the plan was unrealistic. “Faults are notorious for causing trouble,” he cautioned.

That trouble could well become calamitous — especially given California’s propensity for large earthquakes affecting populations centers. As the Los Angeles Times added:

“A 2012 report by Parsons Brinckerhoff, obtained by The Times, warned the rail authority that the ‘seismotectonic complexity … may be unprecedented’ and that the rail route would be crossing faults classified as ‘hazardous.'”

But the tunnel trouble arose from the authority’s inability to surmount public criticism to easier, more direct routes. “The original plan was to build the train route up along the 14 Freeway, but a host of nearby residents from Pacoima to Acton, many freaked out about a high-walled train corridor cutting through their towns,” according to Curbed Los Angeles. “Angry citizens in San Fernando even interrupted an informational meeting in on the rail project to protest its dangers to the local economy and the ‘death wall’ that would split the town in two along the route.”

That led the authority toward the current, disparaged tunneling plan — and, last month, a request for “permission to test-drill deep beneath the Angeles National Forest to determine the feasibility of digging a rail tunnel through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Clarita,” as the San Gabriel Valley Tribune noted. Among officials, the fear of another public outcry has yet to abate. “In what only can be described as an unusual process, the U.S. Forest Service is asking the public for their thoughts on whether to allow the rail authority to proceed with its tunnel study,” the Tribune added.

15 comments

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  1. Ronald
    Ronald 27 October, 2015, 05:52

    The bullet train will be competing against the multitude of airports in CA as well as the constantly developing technologies that are affecting the way we do business. Just like the land phones that have become obsolete as a result of cell phone technologies, future travel needs may be impacted in the coming decades as a result of the ever growing virtual world.

    Since state law says that the system MUST OPERATE WITHOUT A TAXPAYER SUBSIDY, the end results may necessitate higher fares per mile, compared with other similar rail systems worldwide, this will adversely affect ridership projections. Thus, it’s understandable that an investment in the bullet train provides significant ROI risks to that invested capital.

    Driving or flying from a multitude of airports can be done at virtually any time of day, but the inflexibility of how many train departure times would be available from a limited number of trains would impact the convenience factor offered by cars and planes and thus also adversely affect train ridership. The snowballing effect of lower ridership would be higher fares for those that do use the train as there would be no state subsidies available. Lower ridership would further impact the ROI risks for invested capital.

    Reply this comment
  2. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 27 October, 2015, 07:21

    If theres a way for california demacrats for their pork barrel projects they’ll find them the bullet train should be called the Pork Train

    Reply this comment
    • fletch92131
      fletch92131 27 October, 2015, 10:01

      Spurwing is absolutely correct, nothing will stop the progressives from spending your dollars on useless projects.

      Reply this comment
    • Sean
      Sean 27 October, 2015, 12:18

      HSR = Hamhocks, Shoulder and Rump

      Reply this comment
    • ricky65
      ricky65 27 October, 2015, 15:41

      ..or maybe the Gravy Train in honor to the pork fest this folly presents to all Jerry’s D-Rat friends.
      But I prefer to call it the Brown Streak after its most ardent supporter Jerry Clown.
      The man is a raving lunatic who is so desperate for a legacy that he has hitched his horse to this HSR delusional fantasy.
      The Brown Streak moniker is fitting in that his legacy will never be more than a skid mark on the dirty shorts of history.

      Reply this comment
  3. michael
    michael 27 October, 2015, 07:31

    There is no ROI for this train. The malfeasance in infrastructure projects like the bay bridge demonstrates that projects like HSR are union and crony give backs regardless of the cost to taxpayers. This project is going to be just like the Alameda county transit buses I see with 2 or three riders except a lot more expensive.

    Reply this comment
  4. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 27 October, 2015, 08:05

    The solution is obvious. Put this revised version of the HSR prop back on the ballot for voter approval. Outdated polls show it would lose by a 2-1 margin — and it’s gotten much worse since those polls were taken.

    Such a vote is the way out for politicians who have committed to this madness and now don’t know how to stop this speeding train wreck heading down nonexistent tracks. Let the voters do their job — it’s a justified case for voter-assisted termination of this painful madness.

    Death will come to HSR eventually. Voter-assisted “suicide” of HSR will end the agony gracefully, and with finality.

    Reply this comment
    • bob
      bob 27 October, 2015, 08:30

      Death will come to HSR eventually.

      But not before the special interests milk the taxpayers for every penny possible.

      Reply this comment
    • ricky65
      ricky65 28 October, 2015, 13:35

      Well that might be the smart play but unfortunately it makes entirely too much sense. Perhaps if the horrific numbers involving the finances of this disaster finally wake up and spook some of Browns comrades into open revolt it might happen but I doubt it.
      One thing about the D-Rats. They stick together like lemmings and all go over the cliff together no matter how crazed their leaders might be.
      unchained.
      What we are seeing is the real Jerry Brown- totally unhinged, delusional and unimpeded by having to worry about another election. And totally desperate. After four terms of office he has nothing to show for it except a state falling apart largely because of the anti-human policies he instituted.
      I think we will have to pry the old coot’s false teeth from the cold steel rails of the HSR tracks after he dies.

      Reply this comment
  5. Bill Gore
    Bill Gore 27 October, 2015, 09:17

    The entire concept of a ‘bullet’ train is SO 1950’s..Cheap, reliable twice daily chicken trains, like in Guatemala or India, between SD-LA-SF. Use existing track. Use a trendy biofuel steam engine (now your talking) with conductors in Mad Max outfits. Solar panels on the roofs of all cars for zero carbon emissions. Super cheap tickets….Just throwing out some ideas here…

    Reply this comment
    • tmaddison
      tmaddison 27 October, 2015, 09:34

      Sure, speaking as a daily train commuter, I ride the Amtrak often – and it can hit upwards of 90mph on clear track.

      Amtrak already sends several trains a day between SF and LA (and has links down to San Diego..)

      If we simply double tracked existing lines where needed an set up “express trains” with fewer stops, we could get a train from LA to SF in four hours or less – which compares very comparably to air travel if one includes all the hassles and extra time needed to deal with that.

      More frequent schedules would actually attract more ridership, which could then lower prices… And we’d be on our way to a real solution that works with existing infrastructure.

      For a bullet train, something that ran along existing freight right of ways between LA and Las Vegas would actually be possible and make money, but then that would be “making sense”, which is not possible…

      Reply this comment
      • fletch92131
        fletch92131 27 October, 2015, 10:06

        But of course, that’s not how the proposition read, they promised high-speed rail throughout the state, I believe.

        Reply this comment
    • Richard Rider
      Richard Rider 29 October, 2015, 15:58

      Bill Gore, two “chicken trains” a day between SF and LA would carry MAYBE 5000 people each way. Even with conventional trains, that would be a massive cost (rework of system) for paltry ridership. And just far too slow for any “day trippers” such as myself. Planes still rule on that run — more so from SD to both SF and SAC.

      From door to door, my SD to SAC “bus” run on SW Airlines takes 3 hours. 3.5 hours tops.

      Reply this comment
  6. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 27 October, 2015, 16:13

    You have a choice….Drones thick as fleas or a few super fast trains per day.

    San Diego airport is an obsolete hell hole with no growth potential. LAX is marginal. Sacramento and Oakland are insufficient. SF is just a plain toilet on all levels.

    We need diverse, comprehensive transportation alternatives or economic growth kaput!

    Reply this comment
  7. Norman
    Norman 29 October, 2015, 14:50

    Please someone, do a projection of what running MegaBuses instead of HSR would cost. I believe it’d be maybe $5B at most and cost much less to operate. The ‘high speed’ is a joke. Door-to-door tune will be very high. Buses could run every fifteen minutes from many ‘depots’.

    Reply this comment

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