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EDITORIAL: Taken For A Ride On High Speed Rail

khts_editorial5blurBy Paul Smith

As a retired Air Force test pilot and engineer I approach political proposals with a jaundiced eye looking to facts rather than hyperbole to substantiate claims. In the case of a huge project such as this, it helps to do a quick back-of-the-envelope analysis.

Let’s dive in. “The cost of building a two-track high-speed rail line, one that will let trains travel at top speed in both directions simultaneously, has been estimated by the U. S. Government Accountability Office at $50 million/mile.1”


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This is a conservative figure since the cost is highly dependent on the purchase price of the property the rail will occupy, the number of crossings and the need to elevate the rail or create impenetrable blocks at road crossings. “A European study pegs maintenance costs at $140,000 per year per mile, while a British study of HS rail put the annual cost at $493,000 per year per mile. 1” Google maps reveals the straight line distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco is approximately 350 miles (the California High Speed Rail Authority website quotes 432 miles while another study says more than 500 miles).

Using the estimates above the non-recurring engineering cost, which is the initial construction costs that must be funded is $17.5 Billion (350 miles times $50 million per mile). The current budget includes a $2.3B federal grant and a $10B bond sale. The cost of maintenance for ten years is $490M on the low side (European Study) and $1.725B (the British Study). The total cost for building and operating the rail for ten years is $22.4B using the lowest cost figures I cite above. Thus the cost per year of the total project amortized over ten years is $224M per year (a very reasonable engineering assumption).

Currently the cheapest airfare to San Francisco from Los Angeles is $79. To effectively compete, the proposed high speed rail would have to sell 2.84 million tickets a year at this price just to break even. That is, they would have to sell 236,286 tickets a month or 7,780 tickets a day every day. If the ticket price were doubled then they would have to sell 3,884 tickets every day. There is a combined population of both Los Angeles and San Francisco or 4.6 million people. So at least half the people in both cities would have to travel at least once a year and this number includes all residents, not just adults. So ask yourself this question. Do you reasonable think that many people would travel each day at double the price of an airline ticket and have you or anyone you know traveled to San Francisco lately?

1Highballing Along on High-Speed Trains, MachineDesign.com, November 17, 2011 by Stephen J. Mraz.

Paul Smith
Lt. Col., ret
USAF Test Pilot
Santa Clarita Resident