A Reality Check on High-Speed Rail for California

In November 2008, California voters passed a $9.95-billion bond issue to build a bullet train that would zip passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles via the Central Valley at speeds up to 220 miles per hour. A few months later, the Obama administration threw its heft behind the high-speed rail (HSR) concept by offering nearly $10 billion to HSR projects, and the California High Speed Rail Authority anticipates receiving a good chunk of those funds. Clearly, many Americans—sick of congested roads or padding shoeless through long security lines at airports—are smitten with the romance of the rails.

But last month, at an overflow symposium in UC Berkeley’s Alumni House, a panel of experts in the fields of transportation engineering and city and regional planning urged caution. Samer Madanat, director of Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies and CEE professor, moderated the discussion.

“If it is built, it will be the largest infrastructure transportation project in the U.S. since the Interstate was constructed beginning more than a half century ago,” Madanat said. “It is a complex endeavor and requires a complex understanding of the engineering, economic and environmental issues.”

Panelists’ concerns centered on ridership, cost and environmental benefits—all of which are interrelated and will dictate the success or failure of the mega project.

If we build it, will they come?
Even if high-speed rail attracted everyone who drove and flew between the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay Area during the year 2007, it would amount to only eight million passengers per year, nowhere near the numbers projected by the California High Speed Rail Authority, explained CEE professor Mark Hansen. But even that estimate is optimistic. HSR would be extremely unlikely to capture most current air travelers due to lack of transportation connectivity in most California cities and regions.

“In Europe and Japan, where HSR has been especially successful, it is a very simple thing to take a subway to the HSR station, go upstairs and get on the bullet train,” explained Madanat. For example, access to Eurostar—the HSR system that passes under the English Channel to link Britain with mainland Europe—is easy and car-less; a typical business passenger traveling from London arrives in downtown Paris in two-and-a-half hours and can walk or take the Métro from the same station to his or her meeting. This connectivity, or short access and egress time, is essential to the success of high-speed rail, and California has very little of it.

Travelers heading to Los Angeles from San Francisco, for example, will consider the time it takes to go to and from airports at each end of the trip, versus the time spent getting to a high-speed rail station. Time spent on the line-haul portion of the trip (actual flying or riding time) is more productive than the access and egress portions. But if access and egress times from HSR stations are as long and onerous as those for air, passengers will save time by driving to an airport instead.

“High-speed rail trades unproductive access and egress time for productive line-haul time,” explained Madanat. That is advantageous to travelers, and they are willing to spend an extra hour or more in line-haul time if egress and access time are diminished. Air travel between some cities in Japan has become nonexistent, thanks to the ease of traveling by high-speed rail.

But unlike Japan and parts of Europe that are more highly urbanized and linked through better mass transit, pulling ridership from the roads and the skies will be tougher in California. And that has environmental consequences.

Tailpipe emissions don’t tell the whole tale
Proponents of California high-speed rail tout its energy-saving, greenhouse gas–eliminating characteristics. But panelist Arpad Hovath, also a CEE professor, reported on research showing that, unless ridership is very high, rail cannot perform better than air travel. To compare the carbon footprint of rail with air or driving, he explained, far more than just tailpipe emissions must be taken into account.

Horvath’s life-cycle analysis of the three modes suggests that high-speed rail will produce some 10 million metric tons of CO2 per year during construction. Furthermore, electricity to run the trains must be generated from coal-fired plants, leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions once HSR is operational.

The only way to recover the environmental costs of this mega project is to assure a high passenger load from the start; otherwise, the carbon footprint of air travel would be significantly less. “Fewer people taking the train in the first couple of years counts heavily against HSR in terms of emissions,” Horvath concluded.

Despite big challenges, the state can ultimately benefit from high-speed rail, panelists said. Carlos Daganzo, the Robert Horonjeff Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, noted that subsidies will be required during the early days of HSR to build ridership; but he suggested that, as demand grows and ridership increases, costs for high-speed rail will decline, particularly compared with costs for road travel, which will increase with demand.

Changes in alignment could help build ridership early, Madanat said. By switching the Northern California route from Pacheco Pass to Altamont, many more potential riders from fast-growing areas of Contra Costa and Alameda counties could be lured away from air travel.

Although none would describe high-speed rail as a “silver bullet” to solve the state’s transportation woes, a bullet train could encourage cities to improve public transportation and create greater density. “It could instigate a positive feedback cycle that will provide more complete mobility for Californians in the future,” Daganzo added.


Ed. note: A more comprehensive article about high-speed rail will appear in the December issue of NewsBITS, the quarterly e-newsletter of the Institute of Transportation Studies. To subscribe to NewBITS, e-mail its@its.berkeley.edu, and write “SUBSCRIBE NEWSBITS” in the subject line. You may unsubscribe at any time.

UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, one of the world’s leading centers for transportation research, education and scholarship, receives about $20 million in research funding each year. Affiliates include more than 100 faculty members and staff researchers and more than 100 graduate students.