A Strong Dose of Reality Regarding Passenger Railroading California Style

Posted on 20 March 2012

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By Alan Kandel

It just so happens I was reading where “Backers of a proposed initiative to block the California bullet train project received approval Friday from the secretary of state to collect signatures needed to place the measure on the November ballot,” as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

“The initiative, which would stop the sale of state bonds to finance the project, is backed by state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) and former Central Valley congressman George Radanovich.

“The measure needs 504,760 signatures by Aug. 13 to qualify for the ballot, Secretary of State Debra Bowen said,” the Times reported.

This move should come as no surprise really (although this news is quite disconcerting to say the least) and, at the same time, it should be a glaring indicator that the state bullet train project is anything but a done deal at this point. But writing off California high-speed rail at this stage might be just a bit premature.

Consider if you will factors such as the price of gasoline – current and future. The current average per-gallon cost in the Golden State is in the $4.35 neighborhood and projections are by summer this will escalate to an average $5 per gallon or higher. And when the cost of gasoline is high along with the prospect of it going even higher, for the driver who may be thinking about making the switch to transit, this may be all the incentive needed to make such a switch. For those already on board this mode, the service means that much more.

From the American Public Transportation Association (APTA): “Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation in 2011, the second highest annual ridership since 1957. Only ridership in 2008, when gas rose to more than $4 a gallon, surpassed last year’s ridership. With an increase of 2.3 percent over the 2010 ridership, this was the sixth year in a row that more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transportation systems nationwide. During 2011, vehicle miles of travel (VMTs) declined by 1.2 percent.”

How did California fare? According to the APTA:

  • For all of 2011, in Oceanside light rail ridership jumped 14.8 percent while an increase of 7.3 percent was realized in San Diego.Likewise for 2011 for heavy rail San Francisco experienced a 5.6 percent rise in patronage.

  • Commuter rail ridership on the other hand rose 21 percent in Oceanside, 10.3 percent in Stockton and 8.3 percent in Oakland.
  • Meanwhile, in Los Angeles this January rail ridership rose 3 percent while in the north state, Amtrak California’s Capitol Corridor ridership increased 7 percent during the same month. Also in the north state in January, in San Carlos, SamTrans and Caltrain ridership gained 34.7 percentage points while in San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (both bus and light rail) experienced a percentage gain of 3.5.

Adding to this, it was pointed out by Bill Lindelof in the Sacramento Bee, that due to the rising price of gas, “In February, Capitol Corridor train ridership increased 11 percent over the same month a year ago.”

According to Lindelof, Capitol Corridor ridership had year-over-year gains of 125,201 in 2011 over 2010’s 110,280 with 138,516 riding the train in February 2012. And that’s just on the Capitol Corridor.

It should be noted that if gas costs continue to increase – the reality is anyone who operates a passenger-carrying conveyance that derives its propulsion power from an internal combustion engine will be affected. That includes everyone from the private motor vehicle owner and operator to the air travel provider. All of which has implications for state passenger rail and its future.

Lastly, there are environmental issues to take into consideration too. Without greater reliance on public transportation – a large portion of which is rail-centered – and maintaining business-as-usual practices, pollution levels will rise. If the state’s trains are sufficiently patronized and if significant numbers of riders can be incentivized to get out of their cars and off airplanes, the quality of the air we breathe could improve considerably.

In the final analysis, passenger rail in California should be aggressively pursued – this should go without saying. Whether improvements to existing rail are made incrementally or whether brand new systems come on line and into vogue, investments in state passenger rail services over the short-, medium- and long-term represent a smart down payment on building a cleaner, healthier and brighter future.


Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

Unfortunately, there is an error in the ridership numbers for SamTrans and Caltrain reported by APTA. In January 2012, ridership on Caltain increased 10.8 percent and ridership on SamTrans went down 8.4 percent.

Thank you for providing the updated percentages.

What I found on a "February 2011 Caltrain Annual Passenger Counts Key Findings" pdf accessed through the Caltrain Web site were figures for February ridership (2009 vs 2010 vs 2011).

Ridership for the month of Feb. 2011 was 37,779 which was 10.7 percent higher than Feb. 2010's ridership of 34,120, or an increase of 3,659 riders.

What I found on SamTrans (bus) ridership from its Web site (http://www.samtrans.com/about/Bus_Operations_Information/Ridership.html) was ridership data for Fiscal Year 2011

Fixed-route = 13,474,466
Redi-Wheels = 315,926

So there is no confusion, the Caltrain Feb. 2011 vs 2010 statistics given above: the 37,779 (2011) and the 34,120 (2010) represent average weekday ridership totals.

Your entire argument is premised on the notion that there is a massive demand for transit between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is not the case. Indeed, the capacity of existing transit services between these cities exceeds demand.

You cannot equate public mass commuter transit with inter-city transit, including high-speed rail.
They are apples and oranges. A significant indicator of this is the sudden emergence of funding demands for the so-called "bookends." That is, in the two population centers where such commuter transit, including rail, now exits and does indeed require upgrading.

If you watch what has been happening in the decision-making process of the rail authority, they themselves have come to realize the unlikelihood of future funding, especially on such a Defense Department-like massive scale. Although Central Valley funding continues to be mandated by the DOT/FRA, it remains relatively underpopulated in comparison with the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin. And that's where transit investments are highly appropriate.

Unneeded high-speed is blatant pork-barrel politics. In the rest of the world, HSR is the premium, luxury way to travel by rail, and the price is the highest cost train tickets available. The government has no business building elite transit services affordable only by the upper classes.

The above commentary is more a rail ridership update or progress report than anything else.

In addition, also pointed out were benefits of rail travel and train use such as reduced emissions and lower roadway infrastructure demand. Please note also where it was pointed out that in 2011 nationwide, vehicle miles of travel declined by 1.2 percent.

You can fly for 84 bucks, who takes the train, even a fast train.

If it goes up for a vote it will be, Bye Bye, high speed rail!