California high-speed train in the new Transbay Terminal (Image Source: NC3D)
“[F]ive months before voters decide whether to approve bonds for the high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the $30-billion project has hit a new obstacle.
An old-guard railroad is declining to share its right-of-way.
Officials at Union Pacific railroad recently told the California High Speed Rail Authority that they have safety and operational concerns about running a bullet train close to lumbering freight trains.”
“High-speed rail promoters say the freight hauler’s hard-line stand may simply be a bargaining ploy, and could be overcome in any case by buying adjacent land.”
“A prominent environmental group and several railroad advocacy organizations, however, contend that Union Pacific’s refusal will prove a formidable challenge to the project at a key moment. California voters will be asked in November to approve nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance construction.”
“If voters approve the November ballot measure, project backers hope to get another $10 billion in financing from the federal government and an equal amount from private investors. Construction then could start in two to three years, and the first high-speed trains might be rolling within a decade, Morshed said.”
UPDATE: And for those who like visuals, a whole host of California High-Speed Rail animations and images. And no, none of hitting a freight train.
Union Pacific blocks Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train [LA Times]
San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal: Website And Community Meeting [SocketSite]
California High-Speed Rail Authority [ca.gov]

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by SFhighrise

    Yet again another example of big business putting personal interests ahead of the concerns for residents.

  2. Posted by Brutus

    This has nothing to do with “safety”. However, it is a good ploy to swindle a couple billion from the state and also get the state to agree to something releasing UP from future liability if an accident were to occur.

  3. Posted by badlydrawnbear

    Ahh corporate nimbyism … even more annoying than personal nimbyism.
    Someone should start asking Union Pacific why it hates America.

  4. Posted by Jimmy (Bitter Renter)

    I’ve got an idea… instead of spending $30B on high-speed rail, why not start a high-speed jet airplane service every half hour (or less) between all three major airports in the Bay Area and all four airports in the LA area (Burbank, LAX, Ontario and Orange County).
    Oh wait, they already have that ….

  5. Posted by Brutus

    ^^^I wonder how much those airports have collectively and will continue to collectively cost us…
    You forgot about Long Beach Airport though…

  6. Posted by sf

    It is not the tax and spend liberals ripping off taxpayers and emptying our wallets, but these socialist corporations.

  7. Posted by jamie

    Former Labor Secretary (I think?) from Bubba’s administration had a good blog post on the need for more public transit …
    http://robertreich.blogspot.com/2008/06/with-gas-at-4-gallon-we-need-public.html
    I’m a fan of the high speed rail … hope Californians don’t drop the ball in November because they can’t see past their noses.

  8. Posted by jamie

    By the way, if you’d like to learn about the High Speed Rail and get beyond the level of just making snarky comments about it, go to SPUR’s 12:30 pm Brownbag forum today – it is today’s presentation topic. http://www.spur.org

  9. Posted by trains

    a friend in the know pointed out an interesting fact yesterday: the airports will actually stand to benefit substantially from a high-speed rail system, and the airports themselves will likely not fight the train (though airlines themselves are another story). The thing is that the airports make money from landing fees — the bigger, long-haul jets pay substantially more fees to the airports than the small regional short-haul planes (e.g. LA-SF). With the runways and air-control system basically nearing complete capacity, runway expansion near impossible, and air traffic (particularly international traffic) projected to continue to grow (e.g. India, China, etc.), the low-paying short-haul planes are hogging up the airspace and keeping airport revenues down and will increasingly do so in the future. CA high-speed rail will divert lots of people from the short-haul flights, freeing up runway capacity for more long-haul money-makers, so the airports actually benefit.

  10. Posted by trains

    a friend in the know pointed out an interesting fact yesterday: the airports will actually stand to benefit substantially from a high-speed rail system, and the airports themselves will likely not fight the train (though airlines themselves are another story). The thing is that the airports make money from landing fees — the bigger, long-haul jets pay substantially more fees to the airports than the small regional short-haul planes (e.g. LA-SF). With the runways and air-control system basically nearing complete capacity, runway expansion near impossible, and air traffic (particularly international traffic) projected to continue to grow (e.g. India, China, etc.), the low-paying short-haul planes are hogging up the airspace and keeping airport revenues down and will increasingly do so in the future. CA high-speed rail will divert lots of people from the short-haul flights, freeing up runway capacity for more long-haul money-makers, so the airports actually benefit.

  11. Posted by David

    Hope this gets killed one way or another.
    There’s no way on earth that this is remotely economical for $30B. I love how China can build a 1500 mile high-tech train to Tibet for $5B, but the state here can’t build something 1/5 as long for less than 6 times as much?
    Get real.

  12. Posted by Brutus

    ^^^And the infrastructure already in place can be used for HSR (parking structures, rental car centers, etc) since there will be a station at SFO, SJC, and LAX at a minimum.

  13. Posted by Brutus

    David,
    I’m sure if we had the labor standards and the authoritarian government that China does we could do it for less. Cars and food cost less in China too – does that mean we’re all getting ripped off here?
    Regardless of cost, there is no infrastructure project more important to the future economy of California than HSR (with upgrades to our water system and power generation/delivery systems being the only two that even come close)

  14. Posted by Zap

    Seriously? Do people honestly believe having MORE flights would be a better solution?
    Let’s not talk about the massive damage the current level of aviation has on the environment (spewing CO2 at 20000ft is 10X more damaging then spewing at sea level)….
    but has anybody been to the Bay Area airports within the past 5 years? Can you imagine how bad it’d get with any major increase in the number of flyers. You can only throw so much money at the airport infrastructure before you run out of land for landing strips (current problem) or run into the massive bureaucracy of the TSA.

  15. Posted by urban_angst

    “High-speed rail promoters say the freight hauler’s hard-line stand may simply be a bargaining ploy, and could be overcome in any case by buying adjacent land.”
    Could this be why the government agencies were fighting Prop 98 so hard and why the farm communities wanted it passed?

  16. Posted by speed

    david, average wage in china in 2005 was $160 a month.
    i hope this passes, i would take it all the time.

  17. Posted by jamie

    Naysayers should look past their noses …. have you looked up how much it costs to maintain the roads in California? The economic benefits to airports was already mentioned. The environmental benefits …. queue the picture of the drowning polar bear (seriuosly though!). Let’s make all of the roads toll ways – you use it, you pay for it. Then let’s see if people could settle to share a ride with others on a train.

  18. Posted by noseeum

    This is exactly what transportation taxes are for. In the end who cares how much it costs? Trains will be used much more frequently than planes, they will get you there faster since you don’t have to deal with all of the airport issues, they are much better for the environment, and they’ll set the stage for transcontinental HSR, once again giving California companies a leadership position in an industry that could have huge growth potential over the coming decades.
    Completely worth the investment.

  19. Posted by Sb

    To keep up on high speed rail development, follow the transbay blog: http://transbayblog.com/category/high-speed-rail/
    I love high speed rail. It really makes travel a joy. Anyone who advocates air travel is has never put his feet up and enjoyed a drink on a TGV or ICE trains. Walk around, use your laptop at any time, keep your bags with you, no TSA lines… it’s brilliant. And California NEEDS it.
    That said, the current Pacheco Route just seems stupid. SF -> Sacramento in 2 hours is NOT high speed. And I’m not sure I want 120 MPH trains hurtling down the Peninsula. Caltrain is bad enough.
    Head over the bay and out Altamont and I’ll probably vote for it. Tear up the Peninsula and still take 2 hours to get to Sac? For 30 bil? Probably not.

  20. Posted by Usually Named

    I like the idea (though don’t know if it’s a proverbial white elephant), but I don’t think this is a long-term valid assumption:
    “hey will get you there faster since you don’t have to deal with all of the airport issues”
    All it takes is one terrorist attack on HSR to create the same issues at a train station.
    And no, going with Obama won’t placate them at all.

  21. Posted by Zig

    I hope we get HSR because I like trains but if not we could greatly improve intercity rail in the State all over
    Even the LA to SF coast daylight proposed along the coast could be made much faster with new tracks

  22. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    Usually Named – The terrorist issue has already been addressed on the Eurostar line. When you board at London’s Waterloo station, you go through security similar to airports. Somehow they get people through security quite quickly. You can step out of the Waterloo tube station and be sitting in a train in less then 30 minutes.
    And know that an attack on a train is likely to leave a lot more survivors compared to an attack on an aircraft. 100% causalities are common on aircraft crashes, rare on train crashes.
    Back to the Union Pacific monkey wrench. I’m pretty sure that they are using this as a bargaining chip to extort $ from the HSR project. I’ve been involved in two projects that required acquiring ROW land or easements from UP. In both of those projects, the impact on UP’s operations were zero. Both times UP refused to cooperate. One time they cited spurious safety concerns. The other time they simply said “no”, without explanation.
    I’ll bet that if you looked at UP’s books you would find dwindling revenue from their freight operations followed by increasing revenue from property sales and ROW access agreements. It seems like sometime in the 1980’s someone got the bright idea to use their unique right-of-ways as a way to stongarm money from other transportation projects.
    It’s ironic since those ROWs were given to the railways by the federal government during the 1800s to spur economic activity. Now they’re doing just the opposite.
    If there ever was a target for employing eminent domain, it would be against UP for tying up the valuable and unique ROWs that could be put to so much better public use than say, a once a week gravel train (yes, that’s a real example)

  23. Posted by David

    Yes, it means we’re getting ripped off.
    In any case, $30B. What else could the gov’t spend the money on? Airports? Highways? Bridges? How about upgrading the electrical grid infrastructure before we’re stuck with Nigerian-style brown-outs? how about returing it to the people who earned it and cutting taxes?
    Economic benefits? Like what? Torching $30B?
    Currently the 3 Amtrak routes in state had a grand total of 5M riders in all of 2007. By the time this boondoggle is done, let’s be really, really, really generous and say there will be TEN times as many riders, 50M. To give you an idea of how ridiculous this number is, the Northeast Corridor Amtrak express train had a total of 3.2M riders in 2007.
    At $50/ticket, that’s only $2.5B in revenues off of a $30B base (not counting interest on the bonds). Big deal. What do you think the interest will be on the $10B in state bonds when the state is facing bankruptcy? If it’s 6% rate (a joke, it’ll be more, guaranteed), the state will have to pay $600M just in interest, and I bet those “private investors” supposedly chipping in another $10B will have to get paid from the fares first. So let’s say the feds eat the cost, and the “private investors” get paid another $600M first. Now you have to maintain this train on $1.3B (less bond principal payments) to break even. Good luck with that. Amtrak’s NE corridor has annual costs north of $600M, and it’s not as high-tech as this train would be. And of course this assumption is with a ridiculous 50M riders. If ridership is more like the Acela Express, and heck, let’s say we triple it, there’s only 15M riders. Now taxpayers are going to be subsidizing it to the tune of probably over $1B/year. Just what we need. Another permanent drain on California’s taxpayers.

  24. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    David – If you want to estimate ridership on HSR, you should be using the current volume of air passengers between (SFO, SJC, OAK) to LAX. Comparing against existing Amtrak ridership is silly. Amtrak is mostly a tourist service these days. Very very few business travelers (like those who pay the highest fares between SF and LA) ride the train.
    If HSR existed, I would never fly to LA anymore. I might fly to visit Orange County clients, but not to LA proper.

  25. Posted by Brutus

    David – Do you have any idea how much we subsidize the airline industry in California alone? Much, much more than $1 billion a year over the past decade if you include all costs. Is that okay simply because it’s the status quo?
    Also – anyone who has ridden HSR in Europe or Japan would never even think of flying between here and LA if it existed. I fly to LA at least twice a month for business and would never do it if I could get there by train in a little over two (productive) hours.
    To the person that talked about terrorists on trains – we know where trains can go. They can’t be taken and used as a weapon at some remote site. HSR type trains can be remotely stopped as well. Yes, someone could take a bomb on board, but someone can take a bomb anywhere. There’s no reason to think that a train is more likely to be blown up than a stadium, downtown business district, or large hotel.

  26. Posted by Po Hill Jeff

    I can’t fault David’s numbers, although I’m completely pro-train. I’m concerned HSR will be a fiasco and discredit the whole idea for decades. Organic, incremental improvements to local rail service, on the other hand, could be cheaper and more useful. Take a look at what the Capitols and Caltrain have done over the last ten years, for example.
    As for UP, I don’t fault them for wanting to make the most of their investment. The system is rigged (and subsidised) in favor of roads these days, and our rail system is seriously in need of capital improvements. Some joint public/private infrastructure development could ease freight congestion and provide more and faster passenger service too, for a fraction of the cost of the HSR.

  27. Posted by noseeum

    RE terrorists, one of the primary issues with airport security is airport design. All major US airports were designed long before 9/11, and even those built after incidents in other countries deferred to designs from the 60s.
    In short, security was way down the list of design requirements. Anyone building a transit center will have efficient security as a major requirement. One example is the new Hong Kong airport which has a rail tram to get to it from various downtown areas. You check your bags within Hong Kong proper and get on the train, never seeing your bags again. Bag drop off and security check in for travelers is decentralized, greatly improving security and efficiency.
    I’m not sure what they’d do for HSR, but they would certainly not build terminals the way most airport terminals are designed.

  28. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    Po Hill Jeff – Yes, UP is doing right by their stockholders. Still I’m chafed that they have taken a gubment giveaway (thousands of acres of free ROW land) and are now using it to put the screws to the taxpayer. It may be legal but it just doesn’t seem fair and certainly not in the spirit of the original land grants.
    You’re right that there is a chance of HSR failing. That would be less of a risk and less cost to taxpayers if funding HSR was not done incrementally on top of the other existing transpo subsidies. Better would be to shift subsidies from the existing modes that are running out of gas (literally) towards more sustainable modes like rail. If subsidies were phased in/out gradually the pain would be minimized.
    Transportation choice can’t be left to the free market to decide because we’ll just paint ourselves into a corner. We will continue building a trillion dollar infrastructure that requires a high fuel per passenger mile cost. What happens when oil goes to $300 per barrel ?
    You have to look at least 30 years into the future for sound transport planning. The projects just take too long to come online. Ideally we should look 50 years forward.

  29. Posted by David

    Look, I’m not reinventing the wheel here.
    Comparing traffic to air passengers? Please. We’ve done the experiment (Northeast Corridor) and it’s been found wanting. And the Northeast Corridor is much more congested for both roads and flying, yet Amtrak ekes out a “profit” only by ignoring depreciation (capital costs).
    Flying from Oakland to San Diego is easy and cheap, thanks to Southwest. Takes 5-15 minutes to get through security in OAK, and boom, you’re on the plane, 1.5 hours later, you’re in SD. Driving is cost-effective if you’re driving with 2-3 buddies/family (the train or flying is not). If we subsidize flying (something I’m quite doubtful of, but you can convince with some real numbers), why compound the mistake and subsidize a massive train boondoggle?
    But anyway, the bottom line is that America has a relatively high speed rail corridor in the Northeast. It covers expenses, only by ignoring capital costs. Its ridership in a much more favorable environment is not even 4M riders/year. Fares are comparable to flying. What’s the point? It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. Take the money you’d otherwise be paying in taxes for this and buy a plane ticket

  30. Posted by NoeValleyJim

    We subsidize all transportation, not just airports. Car drivers get massive subsidies too. The budget for the TSA alone was $5.7B last year. The air traffic control system is paid for by the taxpayer and all the airports were bought and paid for with public money, none of which was ever repaid.
    http://www.trainweb.org/moksrail/advocacy/resources/subsidies/transport.htm
    How long does DC -> NYC take in a train vs. in a car? The car is faster, which is why so few people take the train.
    It is important that the HSR be at least as fast as air travel though, or you right, it won’t really get that many travelers, at least initially.

  31. Posted by Brutus

    David,
    The Northeast Corridor is NOT high speed rail – NOT EVEN CLOSE. I guarantee you that if Acela was more like ICE, TGV, or any of the Japanese trains (which would make Boston-NYC an hour, NYC to DC just over 1.5 hours), things would be much different. It’s not. It’s simply a little bit faster Amtrak train.
    Numbers to prove airline subsidy? Who pays for airports? The airlines? I think not. How is it that airlines have repeatedly entered bankruptcy yet been allowed to exit without liquidation, time and time again? How many billions were doled out to the airlines after 9/11 in DIRECT subsidies?

  32. Posted by Brutus

    If you want an example of the some of the MOST egregious direct airline subsidies, here you go:
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-12-30-cheap-flights_N.htm

  33. Posted by David

    You’re joking right? How many red herrings can you all put up? Your “egregious” airline subsidies are for small airports in the middle of nowhere. We’re talking about major airports here in CA that would in theory compete with this train. Economies of scale, etc.
    As for the train advocacy website, again, that’s a joke. Let’s go through some of their numbers, shall we?
    1) 63:1 ratio highway: Amtrak funding. Care to gander what the trip ratio is for train: car? I guarantee you is skewed far more than that in favor of car trips.
    2) TOTAL FAA spending over 10 YEARS was $54B.
    3) ALL of the airport expansions listed combined amount to less than this rail proposal.
    That’s a joke. It sure doesn’t make the case for rail, quite the opposite in fact.

  34. Posted by NoeValleyJim

    Yeah, the train advocacy website is not exactly an apples to apples analysis, but it is a laundry list of airport subsidies. TSA + FAA alone is over $11B. I don’t know what portion of that is spent in California, but if you assume we get an amount equal to our portion of the nations population, that is well over the $1B you claimed that you wanted to see. It is not exactly proof, more of a back of the envelope calculation, granted, but we are not even close to including all of the subsidies here.
    I can dig around on the heavy rail site and probably come up with something more substantial.

  35. Posted by David

    Again. My $1B number is pulled out of thin air, assuming a massive increase in riders, and we’d still subsidize to the tune (according to you) of the airports (and it wouldn’t be “well over” $1B of that $11B, CA has about 11% of the nation’s population, despite Californians’ beliefs that they’re the center of the world). Why not just stick to the airports and highways? We know they work.
    By the way, train travel is not particularly efficient either.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation
    Amtrak reports 2005 energy use of 2,935 BTU per passenger-mile[30], or 39 passenger-miles per gallon
    Passenger airplanes averaged 4.8 L/100 km per passenger (1.4 MJ/passenger-km) (49 passenger-miles per gallon) in 1998
    We can all agree the gov’t has screwed up the airlines. We can even agree that the gov’t has mostly screwed up the roads. I’ll agree the gov’t has also screwed up the railroads. So tell me why we’re going give bureaucrats another chance to torch $30B of our money?
    I’m not fundamentally against rail; I just think that this project is doomed to be a giant waste. Short fast routes like Caltrain should be, the Capitol corridor is, the route from Milwaukee to Chicago, etc make sense, and actually have good ridership. This routes should be improved and expanded before we set off on an enormous project of questionable utility

  36. Posted by NoeValleyJim

    California is 12% of the nation’s population, not 11%:
    http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html
    36/300 = 12.
    .12 * 11B = $1.32B, which is $320M over. That is “well over” to me, but what’s a few hundred million between friends? These are mostly BS calculations though, granted.
    What is the subsidy involved in all the “free” airports that airlines have? I think the best way to calculate that would be figure out what the replacement cost of them would be, then do a discounted cash flow analysis on that bundle of money, like you did with the HSR. I don’t know what number you would come up with, but it would be huge, since the LAX expansion alone has a price tag of $11B.

  37. Posted by Brutus

    Why not just stick to the airports and highways? We know they work.
    If your opinion is that the current freeway system “works” in LA or the Bay Area, well I guess we’ll have to disagree. Also, the airports are nearly at capacity (and the freeways are well past capacity), meaning that we’re going to have to spend a boat load of money somewhere. I guess you’re suggesting building more airports? Adding more lanes? Where would those airports go?
    And again, you’re talking Amtrak. HSR is not Amtrak. We’re not trying to compare modern jets to propeller planes, which is a pretty equivalent comparison.

  38. Posted by johnny

    Some really bad info being passed around here. The projected over 100,000,000 passengers per year is crazy. So is their $55 fare they say they will charge for a ride from LA to SF in the year 2020.
    (air travel today from LA to SF is around 40,000 passengers per day. Do the numbers that’s less then 15,000,000 passengers per year)
    There guys are hucksters of the first kind. Nnw the State senate transportation committee has issued a scathing report. The project should be killed before it turns into a nightmare.

  39. Posted by sidney W.

    Now *this* is what eminent domain is good for… government can just condemn the needed parts of the railroad’s easements and give them over to the highspeed rail authority. But at least the railroad’s rent won’t go up! Whee!

  40. Posted by Don

    High speed rail is important for a number of reasons but the system has to be designed for ease of use and convenience otherwise few will take advantage of it. Government is notoriously bad at providing services.

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