High Speed Rail-Sustainability

High speed rail systems have achieved high levels of operational and safety sustainability by virtue of their state of engineering state of technology design. Setting standards of quality and performance throughout the international rail industry, high-speed rail equipment and systems can be maintained for extended years without significant depreciation or loss of reliability. High-speed rail technology and rolling stock represent the leading edge of railroad development. While opening a new dimension of speed, and a dramatic reduction of distance by virtue of their unprecedented travel velocity, high-speed trains will raise the expectations of travelers and commuters regarding rail and all other modes of transportation.

The introduction, and potential wide-spread use of high-speed rail service may be restrained by the fact the development of high-speed technology, and manufacturing of rolling stock do not take place in the United States. This absence of domestic industrial base for production of high-speed rail equipment may impede or limit development of a robust high-speed rail industry in the US. To the extent that the majority of equipment, technology and rolling stock of high speed-rail systems must be imported, the sustainability of cutting edge, high performance rail systems may be limited, and only maintained at significant expense. An optimally sustainable high-speed rail industry should be based on a foundation of domestic research, development and industrial production capabilities. High-speed rail technology presents a wide range of opportunities for retooling and modernizing of basic American industry; but traditional US rail manufacturers are not likely to catch up, or ever become competitive with existing Asian or European high-speed rail industries.

As discussed in the Funding and Finance sections of this analysis, no evidence or historic data indicate that high-speed rail services could be developed in any US venue that would be capable of financial self-support, and must be presumed to require substantial subsidy to maintain operational reliability and service quality. These low levels of financial sustainability should be early and essential considerations in evaluation of all high-speed rail development plans and proposals; before significant resources are committed to projects that will not perform at levels assumed in initial projections or promotions of high-speed rail services. Parallel concern arises regarding transportation developments that are substantially or completely dependent on completion of high-speed rail systems and services for their own viability, such as the planned ARTIC station complex in Anaheim, California. Assuming that 90% of the station’s traffic would be generated by the California high-speed rail system, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center is directly dependent upon a completed and viable high-speed rail connection that is increasingly unlikely to materialize.

Current efforts to implement high-speed rail in California have encountered limitations in virtually every aspect of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans to develop an eight hundred-mile high-speed train network linking the cities of San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and cities in between, as a competitive alternative to inter-city airline services. Having opted to build the first 54-mile segment of the system between the rural towns of Corcoran and Borden, the Authority’s planners have undertaken a $4.15 billion plan that would complete only the roadbed and rails, while the electrical power system and the trains themselves would require an additional $600-700 million to put the service in operation; bringing the overall average cost per mile to $90 million. Once in service, any high-speed train located in this part of the agricultural heart of the state would be completely removed from the inter-city corridors on which the high-speed rail concept was vitally dependent, and could not be expected to demonstrate any of the demand, ridership or performance anticipated for the system. Indeed, some of the most damaging criticism of the Authority’s plans question the methodology used to develop the system’s ridership projections. A University of California critique of the ridership projections asserts that the projected use of the system may have overestimated use by 100%; double a realistic demand. This miscalculation alone would appear to question the feasibility and sustainability of long-term operations; but when taken into consideration with the wide range of criticisms of the project’s mismanagement and out of control expenditures, the entire project appears to be financially unsustainable.

It may well prove that the only sustainable inter-city rail service will have to be supported by robust and profitable commuter services at either end, such as the approximately 500-mile, American Monorail-proposed, San Francisco-Los Angeles-San Diego high-speed monorail system. As designed, the LA- San Francisco monorail system would include a 40-mile, six-station commuter route feeding inland suburbs to downtown San Francisco, and a 40-50-mile commuter route connecting Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles or LA International Airport. The hundreds of thousands of passengers per day using approximately 20% of the inter-city monorail system would easily support the cross-country portion of the system, while providing a vital transportation link between two of California’s leading cities, and largest urban areas. Further extension of high-speed service through Los Angeles to Orange County and San Diego could be supported by multiple commuter stations in downtown San Diego and Orange County; feeding the planned ARTIC transportation center from north and south.

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