High-Speed Rail Conference Kicks off in San Jose

Update on HSR dovetails with Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco this week

Scenes such as this may be commonplace in the Central Valley by 2029. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.
Scenes such as this may be commonplace in the Central Valley by 2029. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

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The earth’s ice caps are melting, which means eventually “Silicon Valley will be under water,” said Rod Diridon, Chair Emeritus of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association,” during a keynote address at the start of the National High Speed Rail Leadership Summit, which kicked off Tuesday morning in San Jose. “Science is telling us if the polar ice melts…the water levels will go up over 200 feet, which means we’re under water right here…and that is going to occur unless we can reverse our addiction to carbon-based fuel.”

Diridon, retired politician, advocate, former chair of the California High-speed Rail Authority, and the namesake of San Jose’s main railway station, talked about how California’s High-speed Rail project will help reverse that addiction. Diridon said transportation–from cars and airplanes–now contributes nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to research from the State’s Office of Environmental Health Assessment.

High-speed rail, which is powered from electricity–and, according to Californian’s plans, 100 percent renewable electricity–will help wean people from carbon-emitting ways of moving around.

“You hear that there are no silver bullets, but this really is a silver bullet” when it comes to emissions, explained Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association, the organizer of the conference.

Ron Diridon stressed the importance of HSR to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Diridon stressed the importance of HSR to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

As seen in Diridon’s chart in the above image, HSR produces far fewer grams of CO2 per passenger mile than airplanes or cars. In fact, because of the low friction and high efficiency, all steel-wheel-on-steel rail forms of transportation consume less energy, explained the conference speakers.

But one could be forgiven for not knowing that fact, explained Kunz. “There’s a well-funded, negative campaign against high-speed rail… lots of ‘think tanks‘ continue to spread misinformation.” He talked about some of the catch phrases favored by oil-funded lobbyists, such as “train to nowhere,” “It’s a boondoggle” and “No one rides trains anymore, it’s yesterday’s technology.”

“They saturate the media,” he said.

Of course, it isn’t yesterday’s technology. It’s just technology that can replace long-haul drives and short-haul flighs, which contribute enormously to the state and the world’s pollution problems (and the profits of petroleum and automobile companies). But for now “America is currently spending over $200 billion a year still widening roads, and doing it while spending zero on HSR,” Kunz said of the current federal budget.

One of the many viaducts currently under construction in the Central Valley. Photo: CAHSRA
One of the many high-speed rail viaducts currently under construction in the Central Valley. Photo: CAHSRA

He pointed out how once California’s system is set up, other states will start to connect to it and, with sufficient change in leadership, the U.S. can start moving towards a nationwide system. But the country has a lot of catching up to do. High-speed rail was first introduced in Japan in the 1960s, explained Bonnie Lowenthal, a former assemblywoman for Long Beach. Now more than 12 countries have high-speed rail, but not the U.S., she bemoaned. “Even Uzbeckistan has it. Uzebeckistan!”

A model of a German HSR train outside the conference room in San Jose. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Many of the speakers echoed how the rest of the world, most notably China, have overtaken the U.S. in transitioning to electrically powered transportation. They hoped this conference, which continues through Thursday, can dovetail with the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, which starts tomorrow, to help remind people that reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires converting to electric transportation–such as light rail, electric commuter rail, and high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, the California High-speed Rail Authority has posted this video update of work in the Central Valley.

  • Waste…of…time and money. I’d rather see the money spent on building a more robust subway system in SF and more rail lines in LA.

  • Bob

    What about San Diego? San Jose? Sacramento? Oakland? Fresno? What about the rest of us in California? Screw your dumb subways in SF, the rest of us would like to have high-speed public transit as well.

  • cygp2p

    While I agree that your posting is a waste of time and money, you shouldn’t give up hope yet. Maybe your opinions will get better someday.

  • LazyReader

    Per seat kilometer….sure. Assuming the train has a passenger sitting in it.
    That original plan, which was supposed to cost $45 billion, is now expected to cost somewhere closer to $117 billion. Since the authority doesn’t have that money, it has adopted instead a $68 billion plan to build a “blended” system that uses some existing tracks and some new tracks and even that has been crippled by cost overruns to 77.4 Billion, putting it on the fast track (Pardon the pun) to approaching 100 billion again. A blended system means speed reductions which means the trains on this system won’t go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in times the law required when the proposition was passed.

    Also if California is pushing for more clean energy standards and mandates and more electric cars on the road; with a plan to ban all gas powered cars by the 2040s (Coincidentally the timeframe in which HSR will be largely available for public use) all the while whether it’s car or train; both are powered by electricity from the same power supply what difference does it make emissions wise if both technologies are powered by the same electric supply. Nevermind that significant funding is being paid for via carbon tax revenue which will decline if California succeeds in reducing emissions with it’s energy policy? On one end, politicians are bad mouthing automobiles for being then smiling for voters for endeavors to push for cars to get greener. Given HSR’s time delays it wont be operating SF to LA service until at least 2040, by then they’ll be 4-6 million EV and plug in hybrid vehicles on the states roads, not to mention if the cities and counties public and private bus operators electrify their fleets?

  • You are aware that some of the HSR money is set aside directly for that purpose, right?

  • Kevin Withers

    Well, at minimum, we will inherit some better rails, once the pipe-dream bubble of HSR pops due to it’s comical/imaginary funding structure.

    The sooner we face this reality and re-direct resources, the better. Jerry Brown and his religious epiphanies will soon disappear, and actual functioning politics will return.

  • Fool

    “He pointed out how once California’s system is set up, other states will start to connect to it and, with sufficient change in leadership, the U.S. can start moving towards a nationwide system. ”

    Lol. Why? Per $$$ spent intracity (metro) and freight rail are much better investments and much more Democratic than a rich person’s HSR.

    Chinese HSR is largely an extension of the metros of those cities. With 10 minute headways and traveling through never ending high rise regions.

  • Roger R.

    Views from China’s HSR as it travels through “never ending high rise regions.” https://youtu.be/TzHQku_1_BE I’ve traveled on HSR in six different countries and they all journey through long stretches of farmland and rural areas between cities.

  • Michael

    What percent of vehicles will be electric by the time this is finished? 50% maybe? Does that factor into their carbon footprint reduction analysis?

  • Edward

    How can one have cost overruns of 77.4 billion when not even 10 billion has been spent? Sounds like some truly creative accounting.

    In 2017 there were 34,794,152 Fee-Paid Registered vehicles in California, of which about 1.5 million were motorcycles and trailers. There are probably more cars and trucks now. In comparison to those numbers 4 to 6 million EV and plug in hybrids must be considered a good start.

  • Edward

    In short, Yes.

  • Edward

    You should start worrying. Jerry Brown is cheap, well let’s say economical. He is always vetoing bills that he considers a poor use of funds. Things are most probably going to change in a direction neither you nor I want.

  • crazyvag

    For projects that span decades, throwing out numbers without a date is meaningless. I mean, I could say complain why a extension to SJ costs 4 times as much as the original BART system. There’s also difference in cost at project start and at time of spend which really complicate matters more.

    Also, as is with all large projects, scope always increases as you dig deeper into details. This is true for long construction projects, software projects, and anything more complicated. It’s a shame that most people don’t understand the complexities of large projects.

    What really needs to be looked at is whether the need for the project has gone away. For example, is population shrinking? His global warming stopped? What is the alternative? Sadly, there isn’t a carbon-free technology on the horizon to a jet engine, but trains are a proven alternative. Yes, the scope for construction increased as more details are known, but it hasn’t for train sets. Those are still produced by hundreds each year, so cost isn’t likely to increase as much.

    ROW costs

  • crazyvag

    Well, for example, adding a connector to Vegas wouldn’t be that much. You could then consider Phoenix to Vegas connection. San Diego to Anaheim…

  • crazyvag

    One sad part is there’s no zero-carbon alternative to a jet engine.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’s because cities in other countries actually end at some point, unlike the boundless agglomerations of drive-thru banks that Americans inhabit.

  • LazyReader

    Baseline cost is now $77 billion — up 20 percent from two years ago — and it indicated the cost could rise to as high as $98 billion. You can read the drafted business http://www.hsr.ca.gov/about/Business_Plans/Draft_2018_Business_Plan.htmlplan here
    and delayed the SF to LA portion til 2033. It’ll be 15 years before anyone is going by high speed train to those cities. Which is 15 years bus companies have to pretty much steal their passengers. They should have just built a maglev. Shanghai’s maglev cost 1.2 billion to build but they built 30 kilometers of line, or 63 million per mile….and the 383 mile distance from LA to SF would have cost 25 billion, assuming California’s managed it properly (as if)
    It would have been a boondoggle too but maybe a less expensive boondoggle.

  • Edward

    China has several advantages: no CEQA, no NIMBY lawsuits, no national party that is allergic to any transportation not running on asphalt or using Jet-A. They just say build it here and if you are in the way too bad… move. Now!

    The Shanghai MAGLEV had to stop construction because it was getting too expensive to construct in the urban area, so you have to transfer to the metro to get to the city center. As a result the line’s balance of payments has been in huge deficit since its opening. It’s a nice joyride, but most locals just take the metro all the way to the airport. Less hassle. Less money. One seat ride.

    May I remind you that those buses have to run in the same traffic as all the cars. Got lots of time but little money? Take the bus. There will always be buses. Different market.

  • LazyReader

    Nobody knows whether anyone will want to travel on a maglev or a high speed rail or what other
    technologies will be introduced to compete against it in the timeframe it would take to complete (especially if say economics of scale permit maglev technology to decrease in cost per mile; rendering HSR obsolete). As a result, any large investment
    in fixed infrastructure over that length of time is an extremely risky venture. In an area that already has transportation infrastructure, any
    transportation technology that requires new infrastructure to be built
    is doomed to fail because it will be unable to compete against
    technologies using existing infrastructure. Station to station transportation technology is no match for something that can offer point to point service.

  • crazyvag

    Isn’t this just a function of project management? Shouldn’t projects be judged comparatively to other projects rather than management? Let’s put it this way. Say you need to repair the septic tank on your house. If the contractor you selected messed up, Should your family be forced to cancel the project and rent porta potty?

  • LazyReader

    400 miles of rail is a little more expensive than a toilet.

  • LazyReader

    High-speed rail was first introduced in Japan in the 1960s. Glad they brought that up. Japan before the Shinkansen came online, no more than 5% of Japanese households had a car. Even as the system expanded, automobile use exploded. 1990’s 65% of Japanese households had a car. 2015, over 75% of Japanese households had a car and I don’t know why Japan is incentivized to build more rail when it’s population is declining
    they’ll have 10 million fewer people by 2030, which means fewer passengers. The Shinkansen certainly added to Japan’s technological prestige in the 1960s. But they were “successful” only in the sense that they (barely) covered their operating costs. They never came close to covering their capital costs, and they failed to discernibly slow the growth of auto travel.

    Japan serves as a lesson for what grandiose infrastructure spending can ravage the economy and set you down the path of sweeping debt. Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world; a whopping 180% of their GDP. In total, Japan spent $6.3 trillion on construction-related public investment between 1991-2009. However the having neglected its roads, bridges, water treatment plants and more over the years, the United States is bound to generate a greater
    payback for such spending than say Japan. Reinvesting in crumbling infrastructure rather than building new stuff seems like a wise use of dollars.

  • Parque_Hundido

    Ummm, no.

    Japan’s HSR system is the workhorse of short and medium haul transportation. Automobiles have become more popular but they are not more useful.

    WRT capital costs, is there any transportation infrastructure that has covered capital costs? The US Interstate Highway System? Certainly not Japan’s system of motorways.

    The paving of rural areas in Japan will come as a surprise to rural areas in Japan

    I agree that Japan serves as a lesson on grand infrastructure spending. When it comes to high speed rail, that lesson is one we would do well to follow..

  • crazyvag

    If the cost to repair your only toilet in the house, goes 400% over, are you gonna cancel it and just live without the toilet? Global warming isn’t going away either. Price should be a factor, definitely, but it’s not like airports and roads are that much cheaper, and certainly less carbon friendly and less energy efficient.

  • LazyReader

    That’s what estimates are for. Someone says it’ll cost 4 times as much to fix your crapper, you kick his ass out and find someone cheaper. Most transit improvements cost well over $1,000 per ton. However most co2 trading schemes only value on the 50-100 dollars per ton. On the other hand, there are some things that can be done to reduce
    emissions at a very low cost. One is traffic signal coordination, which
    has a negative social cost as it will pay for itself in the savings to
    motorists. Other things that actually reduce traffic congestion,
    especially the use of congestion pricing of roads, also have a very low
    social cost. Those who truly worry about climate change should want to reduce
    greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest possible price. Those who promotea hig speed rail project as one of it’s myriad of solutions are not truly interested in the climate except as a political tool to
    impose taxes and regulations on people for some other reason. According to the European Union, nearly 85 percent of passenger ground-level travel in the 28 countries that form the EU is by automobile, and high-speed rail has done nothing to reduce this. For example, in 1990, cars provided 84.8 percent of ground travel in France. Since then, despite France’s aggressive high-speed rail construction program, the percentage of ground travel by car was still 84.8 percent in 2015. While rail’s share grew from 9.3 to 9.9 percent, it did so at the expense of buses, not cars. Now buses are coming back to strike the rail industry. Since HSR costs 2-4 times what typical passenger rail used to cost, buses are now at a huge economic advantage…to offer cheap service at the expense of a longer ride but at a fraction of the cost. And when buses electrify the cited advantage of “electrically powered trains”. Short answer: HIGH SPEED RAIL DOESN’T REMOVE PEOPLE FROM CARS.

  • crazyvag

    I think you’re confused. HSR is targeted at airline market, so of course, you wouldn’t see car mode shifted.

    A more accurate comparison is rail market share on Madrid & Barcelona, Paris & Marseilles, Brussels & London, Washington DC & NYC.

    Regardless, it’s actually very difficult to come up with estimates because many things are hard to predict. For example, land acquisition step happens right before construction. However, what if there’s a lawsuit that delays land acquisition by years. Should the original estimates speculate on possibility of lawsuits and the delays? Also, as you pointed out, the estimates are from 2008. How accurate do you think those are 10 years later?

  • crazyvag

    BTW. Is this a good time to point out that the National Highway system is nearly 60 years late? https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/01/after-61-years-americas-busiest-highway-is-almost-complete/550982/

    Who thinks we should have just abandoned all highways 30 years ago given the delays and costs overruns? Did I-95 come over budget based on the 1960’s estimates?

  • City Resident

    High speed rail in California is not only for transportation but also to help transform California’s land use patterns. State legislation, such as SB 375, mandates more environmentally sustainable land use. Electric vehicles support and encourage sprawl. During construction as well as on a daily basis, sprawling land use practices utilize more energy than urban land use practices and make it harder for California to meet its climate change energy reduction goals.

  • LazyReader

    So the solution is Soviet style land management practices, While baseball was the passtime for Americans, the only passtime for the Soviets and socialist countries that followed was fleeing the Soviet Union. WHICH is what Californians are doing in droves.

    2nd, subsidized public transit encourages sprawl too. In the 19th and early 20th century Eager to receive guarantees on their large up-front investments, streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents and mandated that rail line owners maintain the
    pavement around their tracks. The five-cent fare became a birthright to early 20th century voters what free college, healthcare and abortion on demand is today.

    These rules made sense in the 19th century inflation was a relatively minor phenomenon until World War I. After the war, post war inflation decimated the value of the nickel. Local governments would not release streetcar operators from their obligations to charge the uniform fare for all trips, no matter the distance. Be it five miles or fifty miles… absence of zone pricing, actually made sprawl easy to accomplish.

  • City Resident

    Your first point provides an irrelevant comparison. From Wikipedia: SB 375, signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, “takes travel time into account by acknowledging that the development of transportation and land systems affects the amount of time that the public spends driving. The bill’s objective is to lead each of California’s regions to adopt more long-term sustainable investments across multiple sectors by lessening the extent to which Californians spend time driving and reducing air pollution through these efforts. These sustainable investments are meant to decrease driving distances in order to make driving less necessary.”

  • Claude

    “But they were “successful” only in the sense that they (barely) covered their operating costs.”
    In 2015 JR West, not the most successful of the JR companies I admit, made a net profit of 139.7 billion yen, 70.4% from rail traffic, and 47.2% of that 70.4% was the shinkansen.
    It took me 30 seconds to find the annual report and less than a minute to extract the information. Before you make definitive claims, at least spend 90 seconds learning why your emotional reactions are wrong.
    All the JRs with shinkansen are profitable. Read their annual reports.