Huzzah! California’s High Speed Train To Nowhere Cancelled – But Not Enough

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California’s new Governor, Gavin Newsom, has at least started office with a sensible decision – he’s cancelling the entirely ludicrous idea of a high speed train link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s ludicrous because trains just don’t work over that sort of distance. It’s also ludicrous because the fully autonomous car is going to make trains irrelevant anyway.

Sadly though Newsom has not managed to deal with this entirely properly, for he’s still thinking about completing the first part of it on very bad and spurious grounds.

Still, this is good news:

California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, sharply scaled back plans to build a high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Tuesday, saying the program had been botched and cost too much. Speaking in Sacramento in his first State of the State address since he succeeded Jerry Brown — who, like Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, had strongly promoted the bullet train as governor — Newsom said he would proceed with work on a 160-mile stretch in the state’s Central Valley where construction is already underway.

Not building any more than 160 miles is a great idea. Building the 160 miles is a bad one:

That was fancy. But reality wasn’t on the Democrats’ side either. On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would be truncating the nation’s flagship public high-speed rail project, the train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to run between…. Bakersfield and Merced. Driving that great strawberry patch takes just two-and-a-half hours.

That is, there’s no point in having that 160 mile stretch at all.

Some supporters over the years argued the project should continue because millions of dollars had already been spent.

That’s the sunk cost fallacy. How much we’ve already spent is irrelevant to how much more we should. What we want to know is that is the value we’ll gain from spending how much more? If the value is greater than he cost then let’s do it, less then let’s not. Given there is no value in a high speed train across those 160 miles then and therefore there’s no point in spending more.

Even the extended line wasn’t worth it:

A high-speed rail between the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay area makes no economic sense. Flights between these two metro areas take about one hour, to and from multiple major airports — five in metro L.A., three in the Bay area — while the supposedly high-speed train would probably cost more than a plane ticket and take four hours. Travelers with less money and more time can drive door-to-door between the two in about six hours.

So, shouldn’t have been started, now it’s stopped, good. And all this before we even get to the point that future technology’s going to kill the idea entirely anyway. When self-driving cars truly arrive – OK, maybe not this decade but in a couple certainly – then we step out the front door, get in, punch the buttons and then go back to sleep until we get there. Who the hell wants to go to a train station or airport when that works?

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TD
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TD

For a straightforward assessment of the politicians’ thinking about spending on massive projects it’s hard to beat Willie Brown’s (former mayor of SF and Speaker of the California Assembly) when he wrote: News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is… Read more »

starfish
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starfish

Is it too much to expect that this outbreak (even if its partial) of common sense in the US should be mirrored here by cancellation of HS2?

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Sadly, the answer is ‘Yes’. Monday’s Dispatches (C4) interviewed many who were former supporters (e.g. Darling) who have changed their minds, but the consensus still seems to be that it will be built as far as Birmingham (but cost more than the original estimate for the entire project) and then be dropped. Leaving us with the world’s most expensive railway to nowhere (sorry, Brum).

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

450 miles is no good for trains? That’s the distance I was doing between home and university in the 1980s, twice per semester.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

It’s not the distance LA-SFO (c. 400 miles) that’s the problem – many high-speed trains operate over this length of route – it’s the typical US problem that “there’s no ‘there’ there”. Business travellers to SFO are likely to be heading for Silicon valley, an hour or two’s travel back the way you came (which would be unnecessary for a self-driving car). Travellers to LA are unlikely to be heading for the area around Union station (or wherever the HS rail terminal would be).

TD
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TD

well, unless traffic is bad more like 30 minutes from SFO to Silicon Valley and, of course, you can also fly from any of the various LA airports to San Jose instead.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

It’s been a while, but traffic on US101 was always bad, and I doubt it’s got better. Apologies for my shorthand use of SFO for the City of San Francisco, I didn’t mean to imply the airport (though I’ve no idea where the planned terminus of the high-speed rail link would have been). But that’s the problem with trains – they take you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be. Even planes are more flexible – as you say, you can fly direct from Orange County to San Jose if that’s more convenient for your purpose.

TD
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TD

Newsom also said he’d finish off that line between Merced & Bakersfield because he didn’t want to return any federal funds back to an administration headed by Trump. I’m sure it’ll be a quiet train ride with lots of room to oneself should you wish to take it.