Myths vs. Facts

This section addresses several myths about high speed rail and presents facts to underscore why we believe in the multiple benefits that will result in the building of high speed rail in California.

Ridership and Profitability

Myth #1

Since Amtrak loses money in the U.S., rail operations in the U.S. are doomed to lose money. (Cato Institute, July 2009)

Fact: In America, Amtrak’s Acela is profitable even at half the speed of CA’s proposed HSR system

Explanation: Even in America, rail services can and do run an operational profit. Opponents often attack the idea that intercity rail can’t make a profit based on Amtrak’s overall losses or comparisons to regular speed Amtrak or commuter lines.  This is erroneous, because speed and profitability are correlated. The fact is, Amtrak’s Acela, which only runs at an average 86 mph has run an operational profit making $41 per passenger profit in 2008 (Business Insider).  California HSR system, at an average of over 150 miles per hour, has been estimated to make approximately $2 billion dollars more revenue than it cost to operate by 2030.

Myth #2

California’s projected ridership must be wrong because it shows the system can have a number of annual rides equal to or greater than the state population. (Sources: Reason Foundation, Sign On San Diego)

Fact: Countries with well developed HSR networks, like France, have more riders per year than their populations. The projected ridership of California’s HSR system is well within the range of existing HSR services across the world.

Explanation: In 2008, France’s high-speed trains, the TGV,  had 128 million passenger trips from a population of only 62.5 million. Japan has over 352 million high speed train trips and a population of 127.6 million. When opponents in CA of HSR attack its ridership projections, they use Amtrak’s ridership numbers and compare the ridership projections for 2030 to California’s current population (Reason Foundation). They never mention that well developed HSR systems do indeed have higher annual trips than the populations they serve, and that California’s population will grow considerably by 2030.

In fact California’s projected ridership at 80,000 passengers per kilometer of route is appropriate considering the size of the cities it connects.  It is more than the line in France between Paris and Lyon (45k per route-km) but below the Taiwanese HSR line (101k per route-km), while the Los Angeles metro area is bigger than the Paris or Taipei metro areas. The San Francisco Bay Area is four times larger than the Lyon metro area and more than twice the population of the Kaoshiung metro area (CA4HSR Blog).

Effect on Cities and Development

Myth #3

High speed rail will only cause sprawl in the San Joaquin Valley

Fact: HSR shifts growth away from sprawl and into city centers

Explanation: High speed rail has operated in a number of countries for well over 20 years and it has helped reduce rather than promote sprawl. The infamous “beet field” station on France’s first high speed line is still surrounded by fields over twenty years later. As described on by the research paper on HSR, HSR service has led to greater population growth in city centers rather than urban sprawl.

Further, the California HSR Authority is planning downtown station locations for all but one San Joaquin Valley stop. Businesses and residents wanting to locate near HSR will be moving near downtowns, instead of creating sprawl at the urban edge.

Myth #4

High speed trains could sound as loud as an airplane at take-off.

Fact: High-speed trains are far quieter than airplanes operating at less than 70 dB in Japan

Explanation: The Japanese HSR system travels right through urban areas with very high population densities. After local protest against noise, the trains have developed technologies to operate at less than 70 dB in residential areas (Wikipedia)

Effect on the Environment

Myth #5

High Speed Rail will tear up huge amounts of farmland and open space

Fact: HSR uses far less land that would be necessary for an equivalent capacity highway

Explanation: The California High Speed Rail Authority is planning on using 50 to 100 feet wide corridors for high speed tracks through the state. These could serve up to 39,000 passengers/hour with 1,300-passenger electrified trains passing every 4 minutes on each track. This is the same capacity as a 10-lane freeway with the footprint of a narrow two-lane country road and none of the accidents and congestion. Another way to view this capacity is to compare it to 200 full 737s in the air every hour.

Myth #6

Coal-powered electrical generation for the train will cause as much pollution as airplanes or cars.

Fact: HSR creates only 1/10 of the CO2 of air travel and California’s system will operate using zero carbon electricity

Explanation: On September 3, 2008 the California High Speed Rail approved a policy that would power the train 100% using zero-carbon renewable energy. This will save around save around 5 billion pounds of CO2 annually compared to using standard mix of clean and dirty electricity sources in California. The train system will result in a an overall savings of 12 billion pounds of CO2 annually compared to travel by planes and vehicle if the was no high-speed train. (CAHSR Authority)