High-Speed Rail – The Price of the Free Lunch

High-speed rail, like they have in Japan and France, is all the rage lately. We blogged about it recently in connection with the reaction of property owners in the San Francisco Peninsula area who are now facing eminent domain takings of land near their homes, or even literally in their back yards. Our post can be found at http://gideonstrumpet.info/?p=346 

Now, some interesting facts have been called to our attention in letters to the editor in the Wall Street Journmal of February 4, 2010, p. A18. Letter writer Karl Compton of Houston takes note of some sobering figures. Proponents of the California high-speed rail project some 41 million riders a year which translates into 112,328 per day, or 4,680 per hour. As he puts it:

“With 150 passengers packed cheek-by-jowl into each car, that’s a 31-car train leaving every hour of the day and night.”

Sounds overly optimistic, doesn’t it? But then again ridership projections for proposed mass-transit projects in recent decades have always proved to be optimistic, so why should this one be any different?

Another letter writer, Frank Kingston Smith of Scottsdale, reminds us that high-speed “bullet train” tracks are not like the old choo-choo train tracks we are accustomed to.

“You don’t just lay rails, buy the VFT equipment and then run it. Rails for any VFT [very fast train] must be kept perfect — perfectly aligned, perfectly level, perfectly clean, perfectly clear. In Japan, there are two rail maintenance workers per mile on that dedicated right-of-way.”

Which makes sense. You wouldn’t want to drive a car at 100 mph on a bumpy road, would you? So what makes you think that you can run a train at 100 mph on anything but perfect rails?

So stay tuned. Bringing “bullet trains” to California looks like a long, painful process. Expensive too. Very expensive. So where is California going to get the tens of billions of dollars that will be needed for this project, when it is for all practical purposes broke?

And speaking of painful, remember that Amtrack has had problems with train crashes. Now reflect on a crash of a train going along at 100 mph. We don’t want to think about that.

Follow up. By coincidence, The Economist magazine has an article  (Gulliver column, February 4, 2010) on what it’s like to travel on the high-speed train in China, and — more important — on the impact of the newly launched high-speed train service on the airlines serving the same route. Oops! Didn’t think about that — did they? For the Economist article, go to: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2010/02/high-speed_rail_china?Fsrc=g

Also see a report from China, indicating that their latest train has traveled at 350 kph, or 218 mph. See http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-02/06/content_9439526.htm A crash at that speed would give the expression “train wreck” a whole new meaning, wouldn’t it?

For a local article, spotlightingthe controversy over the soundness of the data used in those high speed train studies, go to http://www.mv-voice.com/news/show_story.php?id=2500

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