California high-speed rail is a slow-motion fail

Full Disclosure: I am an absolute railroad nut.  I love all kinds of trains and would ride high-speed trains every day just for fun if we had them.  So it kills me to write this — it really does.  Also, I am building a high-speed train to nowhere in my basement.  It, too, went WAY over budget, is taking much longer than projected, is plagued with supply and budget shortages, and is incomplete.

Get ready, Merced!  In just "7–10" more years, high-speed rail "will debut" in California's Central Valley! 

And you'd better plan on spending all your time riding back and forth to Bakersfield, because it cost a fortune to bring this level of climate change virtue-signaling to you!

Some $22.8 billion so far, on the easiest section to build. 

How long exactly will it take for the line to break even? 

California estimated the ticket price between Merced and Bakersfield to be between $48 and $78.  We'll go with the higher number.

In this little mental exercise, we will assume a few things: that California will run four trains on the route, those trains will be provided free of charge to California High Speed Rail (CHSR), each train carries 360 people, every train is full, trains run 24/7 every 15 minutes without ever stopping for maintenance, that there are absolutely no operating costs, 100% of ticket sales go to service the debt, which has 0% interest, that each one-way takes an hour, and electricity is free.  Oh, yeah, the workers own nothing and are happy...because we aren't paying them.

In order for CHSR to break even on this one route under the most generous and kind business conditions ever, they will need to haul 292,307,692 people at $78 one way.  Thirty-four thousand five hundred sixty people per day will need to travel between the two cities.  Keep in mind that Merced has 86,333 people, and Bakersfield has 407,615 (in between are Fresno 554,510 and Tulare 68,875...but our trains are already full and won't be stopping).

Using four always-full trains operating all the time, with no other expenses, it would take 23 years to break even on the estimated costs for this one section.

Currently, Amtrak hauls 710,000 people annually between the various stops in the San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield and Oakland.  CHSR will need to find an additional 11,904,000 people to haul between Merced and Bakersfield annually to break even in our already very unrealistic scenario. 

The Nevada Northern Railway charges passengers to work and do maintenance on the line and equipment.  Perhaps CHSR passengers will do the same.  But more likely not.  So there are going to be operating costs.

High-speed rolling stock has a service life of 10 years.  In 2004, 20 Acela train sets cost Amtrak $800 million.

I'm guessing that cost of maintenance on both the infrastructure and rolling stock is going to be, to borrow a phrase from President Trump, "uuuuuge."  I'm pretty sure the employees are going to want to be paid, too...generous California Public Employee Union pay, with health benefits and a large unfunded pension.  In the real world, trains are rarely full and less so at night.

CHSR won't break even in 23 years, or even 23 decades.  San Francisco won't have 23 stores or hotels left by the time it's built.  I'm not sure what the demand for fentanyl addicts is to travel between two empty west coast downtowns at high speed, but I bet not high enough (pun intended...and high-on-drugs people don't need trains to travel).

It's been 14 years since Obama(tm) announced how America was going to lead the world in high-speed rail.  We now have "over 49.9 miles" of 150 mph dedicated high speed track in service!  (Slow clap — it took only 10 years and $26 billion to put a man on the moon.)

In 2007, China had 263 miles of 150 mph high-speed track.  Now they have 26,000 miles...China only has $7 trillion in debt, too, compared to our $34 trillion.  China also has 1.1 billion more potential train passengers than the U.S.  Oh, yeah — China's HSR systems...basically lose money, and only one line is capable of servicing its debt.

I'm betting that the current track under construction in California never even opens.  I'm guessing that California will ban some necessary piece of equipment for construction in order to combat climate change; welders, or gas-powered railroad construction vehicles, or something.  

Either that or they just run out of other people's money.  Because if passenger rail service were profitable in this country, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern would still offer it and be building HSR.  They aren't doing that for a reason.

Image: Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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