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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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A New Way to Think About High Speed Rail

Uploaded: Nov 18, 2017
I was on the original consultant team in 1998. I thought the project design and ridership projections had serious flaws. I voted against the high speed rail (HSR) bond in 2008 feeling, as did most people in regional transportation leadership, that the funds would be better spent on transportation investments within regions designed to improve commuting options.

But HSR has survived the cautions of many and though it may fail to secure funding, the board is moving ahead with a new business plan. The case below is to try and make the design better and responsive to today’s problems so we can see if that improves the project financial viability as well as improve housing options.

Please feel free to post pro or con on my arguments. But do not make political or personal comments about people and remain respectful.

Time has eclipsed most of the original arguments for HSR whether or not they made sense at the time.

One argument was that HSR would avoid $billions in airport improvements and long delays. But all the major airports have now spent $billions on improvements and passenger travel is surging again. Moreover, since 1998 and 2008 the options for having meetings online has exploded reducing at least some of the need for business travel.

A second argument was that major north-south corridors I5 and 101 would become impassable and travelers would jump for a quick HSR ride. I am open to hearing whether driving north south is worse than before as we do not drive anymore. But I always wondered how it worked for a family of four say to take HSR to Disneyland and then rent a car. The economics never made sense to me. But we do know that sometime before HSR can be completed north south that autonomous vehicles will relieve some of the congestion.

And of course the cost of HSR and the train trip have mushroomed since the original plan.

Enter the housing crisis and a chance to rethink the design of HSR for a favorable public policy plan. The current design says travelers will be able to get from Fresno to the Bay Area in an hour without needing a car. The same is true for Fresno and even less time from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles area job market. And the extensions of BART and expanded CalTrain service and the availability of services like Lyft make the last mile trip from the HSR station in San Jose doable.

If Fresno is close to job centers without needing a car places like Gilroy and perhaps intermediate stops between Fresno and San Jose are even closer.

Envisioning HSR as a car free commute option between less expensive housing markets and major job centers in the Bay Area and Southern California makes sense to me. I do not know how the economics will work out but it does address the 3 E’s—economy, environment and equity.

In doing regional growth projections, I have always felt that it made sense to explore the likelihood that some workers would live outside the region where they worker. We know this happens today as a way of finding more affordable housing but it comes at a cost of long commutes and more auto pollution. I support the option for people to make this choice but I also support giving them an even better option—less expensive housing combined with a non car commute trip.

This can also serve the purpose of improving economic prospects for San Joaquin Valley cities. While it is unlikely that a company like Google would expand there, HSR can bring commuters who will expand the demand for all sorts of economic activity in cities like Fresno and build a larger labor force there so perhaps in the future companies might be attracted.

The key to this is thinking of and redesigning HSR as three systems—one connecting the Valley to the Bay Area, a second connecting the Valley to the Southern California job market and the third for inter-regional travel between the Bay Area and Southern California.
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Posted by Illusion, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Nov 18, 2017 at 7:50 pm

High speed rail will never be able to even make a dent into the Peninsula's growing traffic woes. Neither will autonomous driving vehicles.
And the trend is going against telecommuting (several of the big players have pulled back on that).
BART is on it's last leg and just extending the grid wouldn't cut it either

The simple and ugly truth is that neither solution, even if successfully implemented, could possibly keep up even with he current demand.

We need affordable and smart mass transit...at all costs,

not some moonshot Shinkansen or autonomous Tesla Roadster (portion deleted).

Posted by bob.smith, a resident of another community,
on Nov 19, 2017 at 3:54 am

A famlily of four in one car is not typical, the average vehicle occupancy on a highway is 1.1. The Anaheim HSR terminus already has Resort Transit System that will be beefed up when HSR arrives.
The American Automobile Association estimates the cost of owning and operating a vehicle in 2017 is $0.56 per mile, so driving from SF to Anaheim would cost about $227, not including the public costs of road repair, highway patrol and medical expenses after accidents.
Self driving electric cars would have similar all in costs and still take 7 hours vs. 3.5 hours by HSR.
HSR will be faster, more comfortable and safer and the children can run around while the parents crack open a bottle of waiter served wine, so it could be a ticket price worth paying.

Posted by will.bRown, a resident of another community,
on Nov 19, 2017 at 5:42 am

HSR opens up the possibility of a day trip to Disneyland. If you leave your house in the Bay area at 6am, you could be in the resort by 11am, 8 hours in the resort, leave at 7pm and be back home by midnight.

This is much more efficient and productive than driving, which could take one day to drive there, one day in the Resort, and one day to drive home, plus the cost of 2 overnight stays in a hotel.

The same efficiency applies to a businessman who lives in LA and has an 8 hour all day meeting in SF, he can do the round trip in a day with no overnight stay, and HSR is a very productive environment, with a big comfortable seat, a large desk, high speed internet, sea-level air, dead quiet, full size toilet, coffee bar, and nobody interrupting you to switch off all devices or show you how to put on a life jacket.

HSR trains will arrive exactly on-time every time, regardless of fog, wind, or snowstorms on the East coast, so you can stay in bed an hour longer because you don't need to add padding to your schedule to account for the un-reliability of air travel.

Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 19, 2017 at 7:44 am

My daughter, who grew up in Palo Alto, has been living and working in China the last 5 years. She loves the Chinese HSR system. She uses it on trips around the country when she travels.

Does it help with her daily commute in Beijing? No. With a few exceptions, such as the mag-lev train to Shanghai airport, Chinese HSR is for distance travel, not for daily travel.

Implications here? I have always agreed with Steve's 20 years ago assessment that these HSR funds are better deployed improving local transit. California HSR has sought to solve problems that do not exist, and it is like a shell game, with HSR Authority constantly shifting the proverbial chairs to justify its efforts.

I have had occasion of late to drive to San Francisco for work meetings during non-commute hours. It is shocking how long it takes to get there and back, as I note the numerous mega-buses driving in both directions, shuttling SV workers around these parts. How much thought is being given to addressing this challenge? How much money is allocated to address this challenge? I love Disneyland experiences with my family, but sinking billions into a high speed means of transportation to get there does not provide meaningful collective benefit.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Nov 19, 2017 at 7:58 am

I make the L.A. trip once or twice every year, usually driving I-5, 360 miles each way, about 6 hours door to door including a short pit-stop around the Kettleman City halfway point. Speed limit 70 most of the way; says 55 for trucks and trailers but nobody seems to believe that. 12 gallons of 91-octane, about $40. About 1/12th of an oil change, $10. One percent of a $400 set of 4 tires, $4. Vehicle depreciation would be like $50 if I paid $28,000 for the car and scrapped it after 200,000 miles (14 cents per mile). In reality I buy a "pre-owned" car for $5000 and put another 150,000 on it, so depreciation is more like 3 cents per mile. My marginal cost to L.A. is well-under $100 each way. Won't count license, insurance and other fixed costs which I pay whether or not I go to L.A. Incidental maintenance like a brake job is minimal since 360 miles of freeway-driving is nowhere near the wear and tear of 360 miles stop-and-go on our famous Palo Alto streets which may well cost the AAA-estimate of 56 cents per mile. I'd put my discretionary freeway driving at about 1/3 that amount.

When I've flown commercial, SFO-LAX is scheduled 1 hour 45 minutes departure to arrival. United says you must be on the aircraft 15 minutes before scheduled departure, so there's two hours. Public transportation is at least an hour on each end, say #35 bus to Caltrain to Millbrae BART to San Bruno BART to SFO AirTrain to Terminal 3. Or you can drive yourself to SFO and mess with long-term parking and wait for the shuttle bus. TSA recommends "arriving at the airport two hours before your flight for domestic travel." Total adds up to the same 6 hours as driving, though if you feel lucky you might cut the TSA recommendation in half. A matter of personal preference which six hours is more stressful, flying or driving.

Envisioning HSR as a commute line to Fresno might have some interesting consequences, but like Paul, I think those tax dollars might be better spent elsewhere.

Posted by resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Nov 19, 2017 at 8:42 pm

There are many people who live in the valley that commute to the bay area. Some take the ACE train and leave a second car in that area to get to a local job. I think HSR would be a great additional choice for Bakersfield to San Jose. But to be realistic taking the HSR up the peninsula to SF is strategically a safety issue. The peninsula is already built out next to the tracks - Redwood City is not waiting for HSR and has already moved out for development along the rail corridor. As to going south LA and Orange County already have great rail systems. The Burbank Airport has a rail system next to it. I see no additional value in going south over the mountains. And going to Disneyland is better achieved by flying to Orange County. Tunneling through those mountains is a waste of money.

Posted by Eric Rosenblum, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 20, 2017 at 6:19 am

I've always had a difficult time making up my mind on HSR. I have a difficult time believing that we are one of the only developed countries where HSR isn't feasible (it feels more like anti-train bias in the US).

Something that could be helpful would be a normalization of data: after factoring in long-term amortization of the rail infrastructure, what is the expected cost/person/mile born by government vs. residents. Clearly, using the road network has cost to government (to build and maintain) and residents (buying cars and paying for gas). Is there an easy way to understand the comparison with HSR?

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Nov 20, 2017 at 12:29 pm

With or without HSR, I'm not sure we should encourage more long distance daily commuting; it's never ideal to travel long distances daily to a home office, it's just wasteful. Bay Area companies should move some of their offices to inland locations, and/or more high density housing should be built for those who accept it. Why throw technology at a problem that needn't exist? The logic behind HSR, partially, is to reduce impact on the environment; you cancel out that benefit if it enables more sprawl, more long distance travel.

Posted by Jim, a resident of another community,
on Nov 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm

It is not clear what your 'redesign' of HSR would be.

The Authority is already building the off-the-shelf European style HSR system that the voters voted for and the Legislature is now legally obliged to build.

Standard HSR systems are already optimized for the three functions you describe and regularly operate in that way over the world.

You definitely don't want to be mixing different train systems with different performance characteristics on the same bit of track, that is a real performance killer and is the main reason that the Acela can never be fast and reliable.

Perhaps you are suggesting that people need to redesign their criticisms of HSR?

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View,
on Nov 20, 2017 at 6:22 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

1 FINISH BART (portion deleted)


Look at RTD Light Rail being built out to see examples of what BART should have done. Keep a 40 year promise.


No more " trains to nowhere or the empty trains I see all the time. You have a 101 crossing at Ellis Street. Now build out to the North, especially to the Googleplex. Then solve the East Palo Alto transit problem by running trackage to East Palo Alto.


Theoretically, you could board a VTA connection to BART, go on BART directly to SFO and fly anywhere in the world. RTD Light Rail has created just that.

Portion deleted

Posted by strekage, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Nov 21, 2017 at 9:47 am

Build it. Of course we need more capacity for now and in the future.

More plane options? More airport expansion? Look at the NIMBY's already moaning about the alternative options like surf-air.

Build it. Catch up to other industrialized countries - China HSR system Web Link

Posted by brian, a resident of another community,
on Nov 21, 2017 at 10:55 am

$billions have been spent on airports, but mostly to renovate run-down terminal buildings, which is good but does not do much to increase the capacity of airports that are constrained by runway capacity.

Adding new runways to LAX / SFO is practically impossible, meanwhile international air traffic continues to grow by 7% per year.

Airport managers are in favor of moving local flights to HSR to free up runway slots for more lucrative international flights.

Posted by Hamilton, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Nov 21, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Hi Steve. I believe HSR should terminate in San Jose at Caltrain/BART and not attempt to go up the Penninsula. The reality is to make it practical we would need to trench and HSR does not want to pay for that. Rather putting those additional funds into BART and Caltrain improvements would be better and less disruptive.

However, I feel the real opportunity is to be the first implementation of HyperLoop between Sacramento/Bay Area/LA and San Diego. Thus we not only would have a faster/better system but allow us to export this technology to other regions.

Posted by HSR dreamer, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 22, 2017 at 12:35 am

Riding a HS Train is like being in an airplane cabin.

Trips for SF to SJ would be ridiculous expensive (even if space wouldn't be an issue).
These trains will not be able to handle the demand, even if they will creep down the Peninsula at an average of 45mph with 25 cars.

The thought that HSR will alleviate commuter issues on the Peninsula is ridiculous.

Un-freaking believable.

Posted by Menlo Voter., a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Nov 22, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"HSR trains will arrive exactly on-time every time,"

Really? Does Caltrain do that now? Remember HSR (medium speed rail actually) will be using the same non-grade separated tracks. You think none of them will never hit a pedestrian or car like Caltrain does?

Posted by will.bRown, a resident of another community,
on Nov 23, 2017 at 4:07 am

^ The Caltrain corridor does not need to remain stuck in the 1960s forever.

Plans are already underway to bring it into the 21st century.

The new Caltrain electric trains will accelerate quickly to 110 mph, this will incentivize the elimination of the remaining grade crossings. It is the existence of at-grade crossings that imposes the current 79mph speed limit.

The new trains will support high platforms and level boarding, meaning fast and consistent stops at platforms, eliminating the systemic delays that can be caused today by passengers in wheelchairs needing assistance to get up the stairs.

The new trains have a digital control system which enables the Control Center to precisely choreograph all train movements to squeeze maximum capacity out of the existing corridor.

The high-speed train in Japan has an annual average delay of 54 seconds per operational train, including delays due to uncontrollable causes such as natural disasters, and that is with 13 trains per hour per direction with 1300 seated passengers per train.

California can to this.

Oh, and HSR is required by law to go to the Transbay Terminal in SF, only another vote of the people in a referendum can change this.

Posted by Thad, a resident of another community,
on Nov 25, 2017 at 7:22 am

Imagine how cheap this thing would have been in 1998 compared to now.

Imagine how expensive it will be when it is eventually built compared to now.

Posted by Michael G, a resident of another community,
on Dec 1, 2017 at 7:51 pm

Hwy 5 is 80 MPH and Hwy 80 is 5 MPH. So where does $68B go for improvements? Put that same money in BART and it's equivalents in LA and San Diego and millions of people would benefit every day. HSR will benefit *at most* a few thousand a day.

For HSR to make sense you need really high population density along the route. The only place in the US that is true for is Boston-NYC-Phil.-Wash.DC

Comparing the sparsely populated CA to densely populated Japan or China is bizarre.

Posted by Philip Clock, a resident of another community,
on Dec 2, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Build dams, not HSR. C'mon!

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