A Closer Look at California's High-Speed Rail Project

May 26, 2011

More than 30 panelists from academia, public agencies, and industry placed California’s high-speed rail project under the microscope at a two-day conference held at UC Berkeley May 2-3 to examine more thoroughly its potential as well as its possible pitfalls.

“Our intention was to bring forward as wide array of viewpoints and information as we could to make certain as we go forward that we build the best system possible,” explained Blas Pérez Henriquez, Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Public Policy, who co-chaired the conference.

Betty Deakin, Professor of City and Regional Planning and Urban Design, and an organizer of the conference added: "We planned this conference while funding for national high-speed rail programs seemed to be growing. However, recent changes in direction make it all the more important to discuss California's plans."

Deakin, who helped organize the conference, pointed to a number of transportation, employment, and environmental benefits that could benefit the state if high-speed rail goes forward, but also noted a number of risks that would need to be addressed.

She spelled out genuine concerns of some residents who will be negatively affected by noise of the high-speed trains as well as the visual impacts of elevated structures or the sound walls built to mitigate noise.

In addition, some farmers in the Central Valley will have farmland bisected by the rail line, making access to their fields more difficult. Wildlife and endangered or threatened species may also suffer from noise or barriers from the train.

There are also unknowns: Will improving technologies for air travel and auto become so environmentally friendly that they reduce high-speed rail’s attractiveness? In the Central Valley, where 50 percent of the country’s fresh fruits and vegetables are grown, could high-speed rail spur further residential and commercial development into productive farmlands? Or, could it inspire new planning for more compact growth utilizing infill?

Why Ridership Numbers Matter

The ultimate success of the project will depend largely on ridership, said Samer Madanat, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at UC Berkeley, who led a panel of transportation engineers.

“Compared to auto, high-speed rail exhibits economies of scale,” he explained. “For high-speed rail, when ridership is high, costs—both operating costs and environmental impacts—are lower per passenger mile. In the case of auto travel, the greater the number of vehicles on the road, the higher the operating costs and environmental impacts due to congestion.”

To build ridership, however, he stressed the need for good public transit to transport passengers to high-speed rail stations. Without fast and easy ways to get to a bullet train, passengers will turn to air travel or their cars, and high-speed rail will lose the level of ridership it needs to be successful financially and environmentally.

ITS post-doctoral researcher, Mikhail Chester further fleshed out the differences in environmental costs and benefits of high-speed rail by explaining how life-cycle analysis reveals a more comprehensive picture of the true environmental effects of each mode. When the costs of building a high-speed rail system, which will utilize great quantities of emission-intense concrete and other materials, are taken into account, high train ridership becomes a priority to reduce environmental effects below competitive levels of air or auto travel.

The panel also examined how improved technologies on roadways might decrease potential high-speed rail ridership.

Sébastien Blandin, a UC Berkeley Systems Engineering graduate student, said that congestion on U.S. roadways costs $115 billion in wasted time and fuel per year.  He pointed to figures showing the average traveler needs 25 percent more time to get to a destination than the speed limit travel time.

Besides adding road capacity, he suggested a number of congestion mitigation strategies such as variable speed limits, better incident management, ramp metering, and shifting riders to public transportation could improve the outlook for road congestion.

At the same time, new vehicle technologies—hybrid and electric cars, mobile sensing information that allows drivers to adapt to information that will improve road conditions—are cutting fuel consumption and emissions which may cut into high-speed rail ridership.

The Challenge to Air Travel

Mark Hansen, a UC Berkeley professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Director of the National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research, explained several positive and negative ways in which high-speed rail might affect air travel in California. On one hand, a bullet train could provide congestion relief at major airports like LAX and SFO where costly delays are high and rising by cutting the number of passengers traveling to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco by air. These delays due to airport congestion could benefit high-speed rail.

But he pointed out that the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is working hard to mitigate these delays. “They not waiting for high-speed rail to save their bacon,” he added.

He suggested that air travel could play a complementary role, if, for example, travelers flew between SFO and LAX and then took high-speed rail to San Diego. But he stressed that connectivity between airports and high-speed rail are crucial to an air/high-speed rail solution, and said planners have not built that into the system.

He also warned that if ridership increases on high-speed rail and decreased on airlines, there would likely be a reduction in flights available as well as less competition for riders among airline companies.

Other topics explored in the conference included:

           - the 30-year experience with high-speed rail of the French national railroad, SNCF

            - the relationship between high-speed rail and transit-oriented development

            - the impact of high-speed rail stations on local development

            - economic development and high-speed rail in the United Kingdom

            - the role of NIMBYism in California’s high-speed rail development

            - social and environmental justice considerations of high-speed rail

            - high-speed rail and San Francisco’s Transbay Center.

The conference was co-sponsored by UC Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development. For those wishing more information about the conference, a video of the proceedings will be posted on the Center for Environmental Public Policy website in the future.