On Friday, four years after California residents voted to fund a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the state Senate finally approved the release of billions of dollars for construction to begin. The Senate vote, which was by no means assured, came a day after the state Assembly passed the bill and just in time to meet a deadline attached to more than $3 billion in federal funding. If the state clears the remaining hurdles that stand in the way of the line's completion, the passage will stand as a significant event in American intercity transportation history.
Of course that is a rather big if. Even the biggest proponents of the system recognize any number of political obstacles that might delay or even deny the country's first dedicated high-speed rail line. Major questions remain as to how the later stages of the line will be financed. And some basic logistical matters, such as the route of the train, will be subject to intense legal debate.
These matters, for better or worse, are important parts of the public discourse. What seems silly to question is whether Californians will actually ride the train once it's completed. Yet that's exactly what some anti-rail interests, many campaigning on the grounds of fiscal responsibility, are doing. After the vote, one state Senator persisted with the tired rhetoric that California is building a "train to nowhere." An editorial from Examiner.com asked, more bluntly, "Is California about to spend billions on high-speed trains no one will ride?":
It's very possible that the state of California and the federal government are wasting funds on creating trains that turn into ‘ghost trains’, trains that no one rides, like those seen in China.
Now what's "very possible" here is a writer trying to get attention. Still, behind this misguided assertion are the widely reported results of a recent survey that deserves further consideration. This spring the Los Angeles Times and USC collaborated on a public poll of about a thousand state residents. The findings, released in early June, suggested that the majority of Californians wouldn't use the high-speed rail system even after it's built. Nearly seven in 10 said they would "never or hardly ever" ride it. None said they'd ride it more than once a week.
The results suffer, first above all, from lack of context. (How many people presently move between L.A. and the Bay more than once a week? If it's greater than zero percent, then there'd seem to be an inconsistency with the one-third of respondents who also said they'd prefer the train to flying or driving.) But regardless of what frustrated Californians say they'll do right now, the evidence from around the world makes it quite clear that once the bullet train is completed they will ride it. Lots of them.
Earlier this year a pair of Dutch researchers analyzed the passenger market between London and Paris in recent years and found that high-speed rail has been far and away the dominant travel choice in the corridor. Using these findings, they extrapolated that if California's train can make the full trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 3 hours, it will capture roughly a third of business travelers and about 40 percent of the leisure market.
A more recent study, set for publication in the September issue of the journal Transport Policy, suggests that high-speed rail will not only cut into the air market but actually create its own travel demand. The researchers found that more total travelers — air and rail together — existed in various corridors after high-speed rail service began in the country. That means either people saw the service and decided to take trips they otherwise wouldn't have or they shifted from driving to train-riding. The former would be great for California's economy; the latter, a relief to its congested highways.
The change was particularly pronounced in the Barcelona-Madrid corridor. Here the researchers estimate an additional 394,000 travelers in the post-bullet train era — an 8 percent rise from earlier times. That's a good sign for California. The Barcelona-Madrid trip is relatively equidistant to Los Angeles-San Francisco: 314 miles to 348 miles as the crow flies, respectively. The travel time by rail is also comparable, in the neighborhood of 3 hours in each case.
Even as the total number of intercity travelers increased, the share of air passengers declined, the researchers found. In other words, more people are traveling between Barcelona and Madrid than they were before, and when they do travel they're choosing the bullet train. The researchers conclude:
According to our results, HSR has won the race with air carriers for the Spanish transport market. This result is notably clear in the Madrid–Barcelona route.
There are indeed some people who should be worried about how many Californians will ride a completed high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But unless you own a great deal of stock in Delta or Virgin America, you're probably not one of them.