High-Speed Rail Conference Illustrates Complexities and Uncertainties

June 4, 2013

UC Berkeley transportation, public policy and planning faculty discussed the complexities of building and operating a high-speed rail (HSR) system with researchers and representatives of rail systems from Spain, France, Germany, Britain, and Taiwan last Friday. 

As California pushes forward with its plan to build a state-of-the-art HSR system to connect Los Angeles with the San Francisco Bay Area, including certain cities within the Central Valley, policy makers will need to address a variety of complex and volatile issues.
Will the system be financially sustainable? Will it result in an environmental benefit for the state? What social goals should the design philosophy incorporate? How should the development authority handle right-of-way and eminent domain issues? What impact should Californians expect to highway and air traffic as a result?
Elizabeth Deakin, professor of city and regional planning, and Blas Pérez Henriquez, executive director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy, hosted the conference to help policymakers in California maximize the potential benefits of HSR and to spur a prosperous green economy during tough fiscal times. Policy roundtable discussions also explored the primary social, political and institutional hurdles that need to be overcome by such a large infrastructure project in order for it to deliver on its promise as an alternative sustainable mode of transportation.
During the all-day conference, international researchers presented detailed histories of building HSR systems in Europe and in Taiwan, including descriptions of what worked, what didn’t, and lessons learned.
Moshe Givoni of Tel-Aviv University suggested that building HSR stations near airports (rather than in more expensive, denser urban centers) might be a good way to capture a greater number of riders, which is crucial to the financial success of rail.
But as Robert Cervero, Director of the UC Transportation Center  pointed out, there is little fully developed transit located near U.S. airports, compared to many European cities.
ITS alumnus, Mikhail Chester, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, presented information on life-cycle assessment and the environmental impacts of cars and planes versus HSR.
He cautioned, however, that a number of emerging technologies make it difficult to compare deleterious environmental effects of different modes too far into the future. Automobiles are required to get much higher gasoline mileage within the next decade, while aircraft engines are becoming more efficient and fuels are getting greener.
“The National Air Space is also slated to improve, which could increase fuel efficiency of aircraft by 50 percent,” he added.
Lou Thompson, a member of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, which was established to evaluate the Authority’s funding plans, suggested that perhaps California needs a mix of HSR and better conventional rail.
“Perhaps rail should be more about how often trains run and their accessibility, but not necessarily just high speed,” he said. “Realistically, the peer review group supports the project,” he added. “In 100 years we’ll be glad we did the project. I’m just not sure about the next ten years.”
Deakin and Pérez Henriquez will co-edit a book entitled HSR & Sustainability: The Political Economy of Large Infrastructure Projects, which will be published at the end of 2013.