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The ridership fallacy of high speed rail

POSTED November 24, 2015 5:44 p.m.

California is not Europe. Nor is the Golden State Japan.
It is why the high speed 1-2 punch being served up by the California High Speed Rail and Xpress West projects are a very expensive punch line to tunnel vision.
High speed rail in California was borne out of the belief you can essentially make it work based on business travel primarily between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Xpress West is even more myopic. It is predicated on one market — moving gamblers between Southern California and Las Vegas.
Japan’s high speed rail is commuter driven. Europe it is a combination of business and leisure travel. From that aspect, the two California speed rail endeavors are no different. However, you can run all of the economic and environmental data you can to justify either project but you can’t gloss over the cultural and lifestyle differences tied to the car.
It’s something you can’t dismiss by arguing that Americans need to be weaned off their cars.
It might be practical in places like San Francisco where there is high density population, solid ground public transportation, and virtually everything you need during the course of a day plus for entertainment or recreation at night or on a weekend is literally within just a few miles.
Lifestyle for the vast majority is predicated on the car. The suburbanization of California will not be reversed by a few rather expensive train lines that run from point A to point B and nowhere else. Most Californians need a car to get to work, to shop, to access entertainment and even to get to school. The reason is simple. Most work in jobs that aren’t just a few miles away, hitting a Costco for the bulk of your food items is a heck of a lot cheaper than doing basic grocery shopping at your neighborhood 7-Eleven, and those accessing higher education beyond high school have to do so at campuses fairly far away. Sure you can take a bus to Delta College or Modesto Junior College, but if you need to be working at least part-time it becomes extremely problematic since time becomes a factor.
What does this have to do with high speed rail? Plenty.
Unlike the higher paid bureaucrats, the professors pulling down strong six-figure salaries, the politicians, and Internet-era elitists who became millionaires off of stock options, the vast majority of Californians struggle to make ends meet. Among those struggles is making sure they have a vehicle or vehicles in order to function.
They look at a $100 one-way ticket between San Francisco and Los Angeles differently than those who don’t live in a suburb, small town or even a fair-sized cities that are more sprawl than anything else. How they view it is important because at the end of the day the high speed rail ridership projections call for a lot more than just business travelers to jump on board.
That 386 mile ride between the downtowns of San Francisco and LA may take 5 hours and 44 minutes but there is more at stake than just time — it's money.
Most Californians have to have a car to function. If they have a payment, it is a set monthly expense. They see the cost of that trip in terms of gas and not depreciation, wear and tear, or maintenance costs. If they get 25 miles per gallon on the highway and gas is $3 a gallon, that round-trip is just under $96 compared to $200 by train.
High rail boosters will quickly point out the real cost is closer to a wash once depreciation and such is factored in plus time has value.
But what they don’t tell you is how the price drops significantly when there are two or more people in a car. It will still cost $96 round trip in gas to get three people from LA to SF but if they go by high speed rail the tab balloons to $600.
Then there is the question of getting to the station. Taking a taxi cab or Uber in San Francisco will cost $45 while BART is a little over $8.
Use your car all the way and you don’t have to load, unload, load, unload, and then load luggage going in each direction to and from your home. You also don’t have to worry about ground transportation — rental, Lyft, taxis or LA’s relatively poor excuse for public bus service for a major urban area — once you get there. That all, of course, costs extra.
And no matter how they market it, a car is still “quicker.”
If that sounds like sheer lunacy, perception is reality.
A business traveler may grab a briefcase, hail a cab, and get dropped off literally a thousand feet or so from the train platform.
Pleasure travelers have to find a parking space, carry their luggage, have it go through airport-style security checks and perhaps wait 30 minutes or so for a train. Then they have to do the procedure in reverse and find transportation at the other end.
The Xpress West is even more absurd. They expect people impatient to lose their money gambling to drive from Los Angeles, park in a massive lot and then travel 185 miles from Victorville to Sin City. It would cut the actual travel time in almost half to 80 minutes for $100 a round trip. Using the same mileage and gas formula, it's $96 for gas versus $100 by rail. It sounds like a bargain timewise assuming you don’t need to have a lot of mobility in Las Vegas. But unless  the train has a party train atmosphere how many revelers will opt for it?


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal  or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

 

 

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