Ridership forecasts for the California high-speed rail project are so unreliable that it is difficult to predict whether the proposed bullet train would be profitable or suffer severe revenue shortfalls, according to a report released Thursday by transportation experts at UC Berkeley.
The researchers are saying that we just don't know what ridership will be on a future HSR system, and because of that we don't know if the system will make more money than it costs to build and operate. This should be an uncontroversial statement. We haven't built a HSR system, it will take thirty years to complete, and nearly all of the HSR lines around the world do not generate enough revenues to cover costs. In addition, transportation forecasting has always been plagued by inflated ridership claims and underestimated costs. Yet what seems like a gentle critique about methodology leads to out of scale responses from HSR proponents:
In a written response to the university researchers, the rail authority's chief executive, Roelof van Ark, took particular issue with the conclusion that the bullet train might experience revenue shortfalls. He called it an "extraordinary statement" without foundation, adding that his agency still believes its ridership estimates are a "sound tool for high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."
It is not clear how a statement about the difficulty of knowing how many people-of-the-future will ride a proposed train in 30 years is an "extraordinary statement without foundation." Here is what a "good, independent" proponent for HSR says about the report:
Johnson and Madanat trade on the notion that “the Acela only does 10 million, so obviously anything higher than that is just not credible.” That is quite simply a bullshit argument. The Acela is actually a limited form of HSR that does not achieve the speeds or the capacity of California HSR. HSR systems around the world routinely carry more than 10 million riders. California’s will too, assuming we build trains that can cover the SF-LA route in under 3 hours and connect city centers to city centers with frequent service.
I have no idea what HSR systems around the world have to do with the proposed California system. The California system is projected to have more than nine million people go through the Anaheim station annually. That's more travelers every year than currently go through Penn Station in New York City--which is the busiest station in the western hemisphere.
The good, independent source also has this to say:
There’s a disturbing trend in recent “official” reports on the high speed rail project. Authored by people who either do not understand HSR or who have shown opposition to HSR, these reports take known uncertainties, turn them into controversies, and slap an indefensible but high-profile, overstated conclusion about how their findings suggest huge problems with the HSR project.
I'm not sure what special knowledge you have to know about HSR. This is where HSR veers into evangelism. Proponents of HSR complain that critics of HSR make flawed assumptions. They know that the critical assumptions are wrong because the HSR proponents know the true assumptions. It is the silly researchers, academics and "opponents" of HSR who can't see the truth. Which is apparently this:
This is merely an assertion by Madanat that is unproven. He’s basically saying that if headways are low, people won’t just show up at a station and board a train, they’ll schedule around when the HSR trains are operating. But by 2035 there will likely be significant demand for HSR trains, and headways could very well be frequent enough that it would be feasible to essentially drop by the station and grab the next available train.
And here are some typical comments:
"That quote about any ridership above Acela means it is unreliable is just a buch of bullshit. As long as certain people don’t get there way and a true HSL is built, it will most certainly be higher than Acela."
"We need more media that actually talks about the huge advantages of high-speed rail. I’m sick and tired reading newspaper articles from people who haven’t even seen a high speed train in real life."
Well, I don't know how to refute a claim about what it's going to be like waiting for a train in California in 2035. I have no idea what the headways will be in 2035. I don't know what good it will do to see a real high speed train, either. I've seen some, I've ridden some, and they're great. So are Ferraris. If the California line really gets over 11 million people as projected, that will be about two trains per hour at capacity every hour of every day of the year. (Trains generally hold about 300 people, and I haven't seen anyone propose gigantic trains and the then required gigantic stations.) But the larger point is that no one knows what headways will be in 2035. No one knows how much tickets will cost. No one knows how much business travel will be replaced by telecommuting. It's the future! We have no idea what is out there.
Rabid proponents of any policy make reasonable discussions about best policy choices impossible. Building HSR has real opportunity costs. A network for the nation will cost between $500 billion and $2 trillion, give or take. That's a lot of money. That is money that once spent on HSR can't be spent on anything else. I'm all for spending money on transportation, but even if HSR pays for itself it is not clear that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on intercity travel should be our top priority.
UPDATE: Apparently people have proposed giant trains at giant stations. This doesn't change my argument considering these giant trains don't exist currently. They may not end up as part of future HSR projects.