High Speed Rail Will Take People out of Electric Cars?

Latest oil-industry funded editorial reaches new levels of silly

Photo: Ryan Stern
Photo: Ryan Stern

An editorial from the ExxonMobil and Koch-funded Reason Foundation made the rounds this morning with the claim that “High-speed rail would provide little or no reduction in overall greenhouse-gas emissions.” The piece was penned by Marc Joffe, a senior policy analyst at Reason.

From the Mercury News, where it ran:

Since voters approved high-speed rail in 2008, electric car technology has improved greatly, and state policies have accelerated the transition to zero-emission vehicles. Last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order setting a goal of having 5 million electric vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030.

By the time the first bullet train pulls out of San Jose’s Diridon Station it may well displace more electric vehicle trips than trips by cars relying on fossil fuels. If our electricity comes from renewable sources by then, high-speed rail would be replacing car trips that don’t produce greenhouse-gas emissions.

There are 14.5 million cars in California. Only about 500,000 are electric. Even if Brown’s objectives are reached in 2030, the vast majority of automobiles won’t be electric. So, yes, transferring motorists to a train will still reduce CO2.

At least they’re conceding (presumably inadvertently) that HSR will take cars off the road. That might be because cars, electric or otherwise, get caught in traffic jams, are far more dangerous, and don’t travel at 200 mph. HSR trains also don’t waste energy carrying fuel or heavy batteries along for the ride, since the electricity goes directly from off-board power stations to the train’s motors via an overhead wire. So whatever’s under the hood, cars always use many multiples more energy to move the same number of passengers.


But Reason wants us to simultaneously believe trains will run empty and take electric cars off the road.

Joffe trots out the usual nonsense that annual ridership won’t be what is projected, because at 38 million it “…would be more than triple the 2017 ridership throughout Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor connecting Washington, New York and Boston. It seems inconceivable that California’s high-speed rail line could quickly outperform a century-old route that serves a more-densely populated area.”

First of all, 38 million is not triple the ridership on the Northeast Corridor, which carries lots of trains run by railroads other than Amtrak. Just one of them, Metro-North, hauls around 40 million riders annually between New York and New Haven.

But he’s right about one thing: the Northeast Corridor is old–it was finished in 1917. That means all those trains back east are forced to run on tight curves and outdated infrastructure. Train and track technology have advanced as much as any other tech in the last 100 years and California’s future HSR trains, running on modern rails with modern signals, bridges, tunnels, etc. will be roughly 100 mph faster than anything in the Northeast.

A better comparison for California’s project is to look at a modern HSR system, such as the French TGV train shown in the lead image, in a country with similarly sized cities and travel times:


Joffe also makes the absurd complaint that the construction of HSR will produce CO2. Of course it will. What are they suggesting? The construction of more roads and airports produces CO2 too–but those modes then continue to produce greenhouse gases. The point is to reduce ongoing CO2 emissions, of which our transportation sector–because it’s based on cars and planes–is the biggest contributor.

None of this is new. Six years ago, Streetsblog L.A. called out Reason’s nonsensical numbers for the Exposition Line Light Rail between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. In that case, Reason claimed the rail line, when only half of it was open, was a failure because it didn’t meet ridership projections for the full line. Except that as soon as the second half of the system opened it exceeded ridership projections–seven years ahead of schedule.

But sowing misinformation about rail projects that can divert people from cars and planes is what the Reason Foundation does for a living. Obviously, the CEO of ExxonMobil or the Koch Brothers can’t write an editorial bashing HSR and expect anyone to take it as more than an attempt to stymie non-oil-consuming modes of transportation.

That’s why they pay Reason to do it.

  • zoom314

    Great article and yes I’m still for HSR.

  • Ethan

    With Newsom and the legislature lukewarm at best about paying to complete the Los Angeles connection, the resulting truncated system will be for commuters buying deeply discounted monthly passes, not $105 SF-LA tickets. The average revenue per seat will be lower than projected. If we’re going to build a commuter rail line that probably needs subsidies to break even because revenue-per-seat is lower than originally projected, we should have built it through the Altamont Pass and upgraded ACE and Valley Link from Sacramento to Merced, then on to Fresno and optionally Bakersfield. That would have better tied together the economies of the Central Valley together with the Bay Area, and served more commuters. It would also have been a great alternative to driving for commuters from the Stockton, Tracy, Modesto area who every morning turn 580, and then 680 South and 880 North into a nightmare.

  • zoom314

    Altamont has privately owned railroad tracks and land, BNSF and the UP said no to HSR on their tracks cause of insurance reasons. So Pacheco Pass is it, stop bringing up Altamont, Altamont is DOA.

  • Ethan

    You forgot or didn’t know about Valley Link which is using the historic Transcontinental Railroad right-of-way though the Altamont Pass. It was deeded to Alameda County by Southern Pacific in 1984. Valley Link will eventually connect Dublin/Pleasanton BART all the way to Stockton. Moreover, HSR through the Altamont would involve tunneling and making a new right of way. Additionally, the next planned phase of HSR is connecting from Merced to Sacramento. If HSR has planned to do that since 2008, the RoW in the valley isn’t the problem.

    Fact is HSR is currently on track to end up not connected to Los Angeles, with an expensive commuter system for people in Fresno, when it could have been a commuter system for far more people living north of Merced, many of whom actually drive on 580 in horrendous commutes and make Bay Area traffic worse. It’s unlikely many people today drive from Fresno or Merced.

  • zoom314

    Still Altamont is dead, no amount of fantasying will bring it back for HSR, that’s the reality We all live in.

  • zoom314

    HSR to LA/Anaheim is not dead, the CHSRA has been funding improvements between Anaheim and Los Angeles on the tracks that HST’s can run on there, unless one believes Reason KOCH paid garbage, but suckers will believe their junk, hook, line, and sinker.

    It’s just put off, remember Democrats do favor HSR among other spending priorities and do control the House(235 vs 200) and in 2020 the Senate and the Executive Mansion. And Speaker Pelosi controls the MACE.

  • Ethan

    Gavin Newsom December 2018: “I’ve been a long time supporter and I continue to support the Valley to Valley segment but I also think it’s time for a fresh start its time to take a more sober, honest assessment of what it is and what it isn’t and that’s what I intend to do. And frankly I’ve been critical of some of the financing plans over the past few years but I hope to get it done but with a lot more transparency and a lot more accountability.”

    We’ll see in the 2020’s if Congress is willing to appropriate $15 billion for the San Gabriel Mountains tunnel. If it’s not enough, we’ll have an expensive commuter rail built the wrong way.

  • zoom314

    H.R.658 mentions High Speed Rail, sure it’s just an infrastructure bank bill, but wait until 2020? I don’t know, maybe, maybe not, We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m pretty sure trump is for this, if He’s not, then He lied to the American Public.

    (29) TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECT.—The term “transportation infrastructure project” means any project for the construction, maintenance, or enhancement of highways, roads, bridges, transit and intermodal systems, inland waterways, commercial ports, airports, high speed rail and freight rail systems.


  • crazyvag

    I think the results are honest. California has committed around 20-30 billion towards HSR which is buying us about 170 miles of track. 170 miles is roughly 1/2 the distance between SF and LA, so we are getting what we paid for. If Federal were to pay for 1/2 and give us 30 billion, you can be sure that all parts could now be under construction.

  • Correction, there are airports in the Central Valley but they are not cheap to fly in and out of. HSR would make an absolute killing from taking over the FAT-LAX or SFO-BFL routes.

  • zoom314

    I said there are no Major Airports, like LAX or SF.

  • Fair enough. I do think that HSR is going to have a significant impact on the LAX-SFO corridor and likely completely eliminate the regional flights from LA and the Bay Area to those cities.

  • LazyReader

    High speed rail hasn’t taken anyone out of cars.

    High speed rail has not reduced or curtailed auto or air travel usage. The European Union publishes data showing modal split between buses, cars, and trains going back to 1990. The numbers show that high-speed trains often cut into buses’ share of travel, but not cars. For the EU as a whole, rail’s share grew from 7.2% in 2000 to 7.7% in 2016, while auto’s share grew from 82.4 to 82.9% and buses ate the difference, dropping from 10.4 to 9.4%. If we assume that high-speed rail’s share of total rail travel has grown from 25% in 2006 to 33 % in 2016, that means high-speed trains only account for about 2.6 % of surface travel in Europe, or less than 2.4% when air travel is included. In short, European high-speed trains get most of their riders from the former low-speed trains they operated; and from buses. This is also true in Asia. In the US modal share; there is virtually no low-speed train riders and few bus riders for said high-speed trains to capture.

    Real transportation innovations are issues of convenience, cost or speed. Trains supposedly occupy this “Sweet spot” between 50-250 miles that regular transportation cant accommodate that maybe true in Dense old urban places like New York-Boston or Tokyo-Osaka. But A 200-mph train doesn’t do much good if it is inconvenient and costly. A 550-mph airplane is far more economical because it requires less infrastructure and is faster across distances, while a 60-mph car is both economical and convenient. New technologies will compete only if they are more economical and either faster or more convenient. Trains meet none of these criteria. Buses are cheaper, cars more convenient and planes are faster.

  • relentlesscactus

    That is so wrong on so many levels it’s not even worth explaining

  • zoom314

    An Apples to Oranges comparison.

  • LazyReader

    No it’s not. HSR use hasn’t curtailed European driving. Infact by virtue of HSR increasing price vs. conventional it’s stalled it. What we know about HSR.

    – It hasn’t curtailed driving.The EU’s latest transportation statistics
    shows that air travel (page 127) is growing more than twice as fast as
    rail travel (page 126), and is growing faster than rail travel both
    within individual European nations and between European nations.


  • zoom314

    CA vs the EU? Yes it is. In CA’s central valley people have no major airports near them, so they drive to either SF or to an airport in LA County, the EU has had passenger trains since at least the end of WWII, major airports in France? Just 5, unlike in the US Europe did not abandon passenger rail, so Apples to Oranges, the equivalent of fwys didn’t start in France until about 1960 and they were Toll roads. Maybe it did not stop driving, but it is not quite the same as here, as HSR did slow it down and is good for the environment(I have a merit badge in Environmental Science). In any case CA will get more money for HSR from the Democratic House as the House has an Infrastructure Bill and HSR is a part of it, so Billions most likely will be coming our way, HSR is far from dead and Amtrak is being asked to stop in More towns. For those areas where trains don’t or can’t go, electric automobiles will be just fine.


  • Jason

    As a point of referene, the main British Isle end-to-end is comparable to driving California end-to-end.


    So like…yeah. You’re basically comparing taking LA-SF car trips off the road with more local freeway trips filling in some of the gap because induced demand. Building the rail doesn’t mean removing the highway capacity. It’s still a win.

    As for your point about growth rates, a cursory glance at your own source shows that the baseline for intra-EU rail travel is 10x that for intra-EU air travel. So, yeah…”air travel is growing faster” is not a meaningful metric here. The discrepancy is so big I’d be reluctant to draw any conclusions just off the raw numbers but it kinda looks like there’s just more slack in the air capacity than there is in the rail capacity.

  • jcwconsult

    Rail proponents almost completely ignore the needs of many riders to have cars at the destination points for a large variety of reasons.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Sincerely

    It’s not that we’re ignoring car dependency at destinations. We’re just working to ensure cars aren’t necessary there either. We are for options.

  • MJoffe

    I wrote the Mercury News op-ed because I believe that California needs financial sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. Spending $68 billion (which could early turn into $100 billion or more with cost overruns) to build this project is not a cost effective use of scarce financial resources.

    Fortunately, Governor Newsom listened to project critics and greatly scaled back the HSR initiative. I hope those of who opposed the original HSR plan and those who favored it can find agreement on low carbon, cost effective ways to help people get from the Central Valley to the Bay Area.

  • Ethan

    New reality, the Altamont alignment can now rise from the grave for HSR. ACE is coming to Merced in 2027. Where HSR is ending, for now. With billions in federal dollars maybe there will be funding for DTX, Dumbarton Rail Bridge, and ACE/Altamont electrification/grade separation/speeding up/tunneling. Upon completing those, HSR trains use Altamont to connect SF and Bakersfield.

  • Paul

    It’s amazing this author still believes in California HSR. The whole project is an obvious scam, pushed by the people who’s pockets the billions are flowing into.



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