California’s high-speed train wreck potentially not a metaphor. Update: about those profitable EU rails

**Posted by Phineas



Or, “Science kills another liberal dream.”

California voters were sold a worthless bill of goods when the voted for Prop 1A, authorizing the construction of a high-speed rail to run (eventually) from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The project is already far above projected costs: the initial 65-mile stretch from Madera to Corcoran (1) is estimated to cost $4.15 billion — so far. And there are serious doubts about the ridership projections, meaning the system would face even greater difficulty recovering its costs and paying the debt incurred to build it. Just what a cash-strapped, economically wheezing state needs.

Now, on top of all that comes news that the system may be unsafe at the speeds promised in 1A:

Professor Peter Woodward, one of the world’s leading experts on the geo-engineering of railways, said that high-speed running created “new problems” in track which “may threaten the stability and safety of the train”.

In papers lodged with the Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Prof Woodward warned that speeds as high as those proposed by HS2 could trigger “significant amplification of train-track vibrations” causing “rapid deterioration of the track, ballast and sub-ballast, including possible derailment and ground failure”.

High-speed rail in the West has a fairly good safety record, but experts are worried that HS2 plans to run trains faster than any other line in the world. Trains will travel at 225mph, rising to 250mph within a few years.

Most high-speed lines, including Britain’s existing Eurostar, run no faster than 186mph and the world’s current fastest rail-based trains, France’s TGV Est, travel at 200mph.

Some trains on the new Chinese high-speed network used to run at 220mph, but were reduced to 186mph last year on safety grounds.

Now, the professor’s estimate for the danger zone is 225mph, but that’s a not a firm limit. Much depends on the ground over which the track runs: trains in Sweden running as “slow” as 110mph were observe to create a dangerous increase in track vibrations that could amplify suddenly as the train crossed a speed barrier, with an effect similar to a sonic boom.

Of course, the problem can be mitigated by running the trains slower, as the Chinese did, but that then means fewer trains running, which lowers ridership, which lowers revenue, which means more money spent on debt interest and maintenance on a system that can’t pay for itself…

Such is Jerry Brown’s great legacy to California.

Gomez Addams, eat your heart out.

via Cal Watchdog

(1) And from whom do they expect to draw their riders on this route? Prisoners and their guards?

UPDATE: One of the questions surrounding HSR is its economic viability: Can it support itself without subsidies from the taxpayer? Backers claim that, with enough riders and fast enough trains (enabling more trips), HSR can support itself. They often point to Europe, especially France’s TGV, as proof of this.

Not so fast. In 2008, Amtrak’s Inspector General looked into this and found that HSRs in the EU were profitable thanks mainly to creative bookkeeping (PDF).

Overall Conclusions

After examining a representative sample of European Passenger Train 
Operations over a multi-year period, we found that:

a) When all revenues and expenses for the entire passenger train system are 
taken into consideration, European Passenger Train Operations operate at a 
financial loss and consequently require significant Public Subsidies, and

b) The average annual subsidies for European Passenger Train Operations are 
much higher than those for comparable Amtrak services.

Individual Findings

The review of Public Funding for European Passenger Train Operations 
provided the following findings.

1. European Passenger Train Operations are typically organized into two separate 
business entities (operating companies and infrastructure managers) whose financial 
performance and public funding are closely intertwined with each other.

2. In addition to direct funding, some of the Passenger Train Operations receive public 
funding that did not show up on the company’s balance sheet and therefore does not 
show up in the company’s financial statements.

3. Although some Train Operating Companies may report a “profit”, this profit is 
generated through a large amount of public funding provide by the European 

I suspect similar financial shenanigans will be necessary to make Governor Brown’s High-Speed White Elephant appear profitable, too.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)