Vision of Sustainable Mobility? High-Speed Rail Challenges California


Despite an eventual price tag of $68 billion and numerous engineering, environmental and political challenges, the California bullet train offers a promising vision of sustainable mobility, posing less impacts and competitive costs than expanding airports and freeways.


Sustainable Pathways of Mobility?

Moving 20 to 30 million passengers per year across California on electric-powered high-speed passenger rail, connecting downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes by 2030 sounds ambitious to some. The total cost for the mega-project would be $68 billion, with only a fraction of the funding guaranteed. Some argue ridership is overstated and that projected revenues will not cover interest on the capital let alone operating costs. The project has commenced with planning for an initial 130 mile segment in the Central Valley to make use of federal funds, but will this become the not-very-high-speed rail to nowhere?

UPDATE: California bullet train project wins major court victory. An appellate court ruling could free up funds for the California bullet train to begin construction. Read More. 

Is this “boondoggle” really worth mortgaging our future, or better stated, will California’s high-speed rail become the centerpiece of an environmentally sustainable low-carbon multi-modal transportation system?

Balancing Social, Environmental, and Engineering Costs

Consider the exorbitant costs and complicated logistics required to expand freeways and airports. Consider the ever-spiraling cost of fossil fuels, and the extreme destruction required to extract their ever-decreasing supplies. Electric car efficiency will improve, becoming more ubiquitous, but their top range charge will not soon be 400 miles. Widening freeways and increasing airport capacity will not reduce congestion, not wean us off fossil fuels, not reduce greenhouse gas levels. More and more people are moving back to central city areas, driving less and demanding alternatives. Can high-speed rail improve regional mobility at a competitive engineering, environmental and social cost with freeways and airports?

UCLA’s recent analysis of Japan’s 1960s-era Shinkansen bullet train has called into question California’s claim that their project would create 400,000 jobs and induce sustainable transit-oriented growth to cities along the route. It turns out, while minimizing factors such as population growth and pollution abatement laws with a small survey sample, the author proved to be a consultant to the lucrative and highly polluting short-route intercity air carrier market. The study does raise the question of whether high-speed rail will encourage suburban sprawl, particularly in the ex-urban locations that soon could become commuter cities for the Bay Area and the LA Basin. Without strong land use controls, such as enforcing the Sustainable Communities Law (SB 375) and the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), high-speed rail might prove an engine of sprawl.

Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen is the world’s busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers per year (March 2008), it has transported more passengers (over 4 billion, network over 6 billion) than any other high speed line in the world. Between Tokyo and Osaka, the two largest metropolises in Japan, up to thirteen trains per hour with sixteen cars each (1,323 seats capacity) run in each direction with a minimum headway of three minutes between trains. Though largely a long-distance transport system, the Shinkansen also serves commuters who travel to work in metropolitan areas from outlying cities.


In light of this record, it seems any comprehensive analysis of the Japanese bullet train would point to an engine for economic growth and the key to sustainable mobility in the country.

High-Speed Rail is Green

Study: The high-speed rail system, when it's completed, will consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less pollution than autos or planes, even after accounting for future improvements in auto and airplane fuel efficiency and cleaner, greener technology.
Study: The high-speed rail system, when it’s completed, will consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less pollution than autos or planes, even after accounting for future improvements in auto and airplane fuel efficiency and cleaner, greener technology.

A recent UC Berkeley study provides evidence that a California bullet train might be a good investment, particularly when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases and fighting climate change.

Max Pringle, East Bay Express: The study, published recently in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analyzed the environmental sustainability of a high-speed rail network compared to flying and driving. The authors concluded that the high-speed rail system, when it’s completed, will consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases and less pollution than autos or planes, even after accounting for future improvements in auto and airplane fuel efficiency and cleaner, greener technology.

…Oxera, an independent London-based consultancy, found that CO2 emissions for high-speed rail per passenger per kilometer traveled are three times lower than automobile travel, and that gap is expected to double by mid-century. Airplane CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometer traveled are four times higher than high-speed rail. The estimates account for future improvements in car and airplane engine design and construction materials. The Oxera report also showed that in 2006, short-haul flights burned nine times as much CO2 per passenger per kilometer traveled than high-speed rail did.

Deutsche Bahn
An Inter-City Express (ICE) 3 high speed train – Photo: S. Terfloth – Wikipedia Commons

Mikhail Chester (from the UC Berkeley study) consulted officials at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s high-speed rail system. They told him that European planners view high-speed rail systems as part of a unified, interconnected transportation system — not as a separate and competing transportation mode. For example, a traveler from an outlying province in Germany can use high-speed rail to connect to a flight from a big city airport. The airlines even help passengers with these arrangements. Another part of the holistic German approach is that airlines refer travelers whose flights have been cancelled to high-speed rail.

“That’s an important view that California I think may choose to adopt,” Chester said. “Basically you have to think about things like the trains pulling into airports, pulling into city centers instead of stopping ten miles outside of Fresno, for example. You have to make sure there are urban infill policies around the system.”

Becoming a convenient, cost-efficient, and environmental-friendly alternative to driving and flying requires a comprehensive approach that sometimes is undermined by petty politics and short-sighted grandstanding. What we can have here is a sustainable vision for mobility in a post-oil world.

Train to Somewhere?

High-Speed Rail route for California - CHSRA
Map of the initial plans for service along the California High-Speed Rail route, showing the Madera-Bakersfield segment now approved for construction. Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority

Many have criticized the Agency for starting the project in the Central Valley, far from LA and the Bay Area, but the segment will create a crucial link for cities with two million residents. In this section, offering sustained speeds of 220 mph, significant time savings can be offered over auto and air alternatives. And it can be done at the moderate cost of about $44 million per mile, in a similar range as projects such as France’s LGV Sud-Europe Atlantique, now under construction (211 miles at a cost of €6.2 billion, or $7.6 billion, so about $36 million per mile).

The CHSRA asserts that by first constructing the initial $6 billion Central Valley segment, then focusing on a ten-year Initial Operating Segment (IOS) to connect to the LA Basin, combined with integrating improvements to existing rail systems, passengers will have more cost-efficient options and faster rail times in the short- and mid-term. This would include $700 million for electrification of Caltrain from SF to San Jose and $500 million for upgrades to the Los Angeles Metro system. By “blending” high-speed rail with existing rail systems, efficiency can be improved, community impacts minimized, and construction costs reduced while allowing travelers better access to connecting routes in metropolitan areas.

It must be noted, the French national railway, SNCF, developer of the fast and profitable TGV systems carrying 114.5 million passengers in 2010, offered to partner with the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), sharing ridership forecasts and route suggestions. The Authority declined the offer, preferring to maintain public control over the engineering and planning work undertaken by Parsons Brinckerhoff. SNCF advanced the theory of a cheaper, more direct bullet train that follows Interstate 5 along the agricultural hinterlands instead of going where two million people live, Merced, Fresno, Visalia/Hanford and Bakersfield. Ridership numbers improve markedly by including Central Valley cities directly, serving all Californians, not just residents of the LA and Bay metropolitan areas. Proposition 1A, legally requires the project to serve these Central Valley cities. While private involvement in operations will be necessary in the future, SNCF may also have sought revenue guarantees, also illegal.

Completing the rest of the $68 billion project by 2030 will require more federal, state, local and private donations. An expensive capital investment, that promises to be operationally profitable, but only after many years of spending. The Agency guarantees the project will pay for operating expenses, profits to private investors, debt service to commercial bond holders and sufficient revenues to build segments beyond Phase I (to Sacramento and San Diego). Consider the argument made by Yonah Freemark, that the investment, compared to California’s overall economic Gross Development Product, relative to the yearly investment in freeway and road construction, as well as compared to other projects of similar scope, is quite modest. At least, theoretically.

High Speed Rail Should Not Be Exempt From Environmental Laws

Legitimate concerns remain over siting the route through the Tehachapi Pass vs the Grapevine, and Pacheco Pass vs Altamont Pass. Environmental concerns associated with specific routing, and costs regarding expensive viaducts and tunnels, will remain contentious. Thus, the discussion will take place from here.

It is clear however that this mega-project, while presenting a number of positive environmental outcomes, will have a myriad of significant and irreversible impacts to communities, habitats, and ecosystems along the route. The move to exempt the project from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), is wrong-headed, and reform of the law is as yet premature. Yes, CEQA is not perfect, yes, it results in many lawsuits from not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) types, and often results in important projects being delayed, made more expensive, embroiled in frivolous lawsuits. Yet, in my experience, CEQA is the only legislation available to those of us who stand before the bulldozers, the drilling rigs, the power plants. The 40-year old “Environmental Bill of Rights” has delivered cleaner air and water, more plentiful fish and wildlife, less traffic congestion and smarter public services. So, the well-heeled NIMBYs on the San Francisco Peninsula and the farmers in the Central Valley will have their days in court, but I expect the outcome will be a comprehensively better planned project.

Speeding Us Forward, Like it or not

bullet trail projects in the United States
High-Speed Rail in the US is as yet limited to the Acela Express between DC and Boston. However, projects are planned to connect many major metropolitan areas with bullet trains.

Following Governor Jerry Brown’s assertion, the time is now for bold visions to take on issues such as climate change and peak oil. California must lead the nation in rethinking mobility in the 21st Century. A majority of Californians recognized this by putting up $9.5 billion (approved in the 2008 referendum) of state taxpayer dollars for an alternative to automobile and aviation travel. Significant expansion of rapid transit systems have moved forward in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego to integrate with local high-speed rail stations. Following the Sustainable Communities Strategy put forth by SB 375, regional agencies have undertaken land use planning that encourages denser, transit-oriented, human-scaled communities around stations.

From here, California can set the example for the nation that, despite major financing, engineering, and political challenges, this project can and will reshape the way we move into the future. Hence, expanding speeds in the northeast US corridor already served by the Acela Express, as well as other projects across the country can move forward.

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  1. Reasons to use the Central Terminal:1) Depew isnt close to downtown nor does it have the potaitnel to be light rail accessible2) Central Terminal is on the Airport Corridor and the old Belt Line Loop3) Exchange Street Station would require trains to pull in and back out4) High Speed Passenger Rail will not be going to Niagara Falls, therefore it makes sense to reactivate the beltway and have an offshoot to Niagara Falls5) The Central Terminal Tower is ideal for government transportation offices like NYSDOT, NFTA and GBNRTC, as well as, transportation, logistics, distribution, import/export, international trade, etc. Infact this could change from a residential community surrounding Central Terminal to a Logistics campus similar to the Life Sciences Campus.6) The Central Terminal has plenty of parking for both PassengerHigh Speed Rail and a Light Rail Park and Ride7) If one looks at a 9 block campus for ECC downtown, then it becomes clear that the Bus Terminal must go! Central Terminal has plenty of room for Passenger Rail, Light Rail and Bus Terminal. Central Terminal is roughly equidistant between airport, downtown, Life Sciences Campus and Outer Harbor and only blocks from Larkin District and Humboldt Park.9) It would change the entire dynamic of the eastside.

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