If you were a reporter covering high speed rail in 2008, after voters passed Proposition 1A, two names would be at the top of your source list: Quentin Kopp and Mehdi Morshed. Both served on the High Speed Rail Authority, the body charged with overseeing the effort to build a bullet train from Anaheim to LA. Both had been championing high-speed rail for decades.

Photo: California High-Speed Rail Authority

But Kopp and Morshed sound decidedly less enthusiastic these days. They still believe high-speed rail is necessary for the state. They stand by the decision to build the initial leg of the system in the Central Valley — a route critics have derided as the “rail to nowhere.” They say it’s a critical piece of the line, and a good place to test the technology.

But they say the plan they envisioned – and that voters approved in 2008 – is not what’s being described by the High Speed Rail Authority today. They’re critical of the so-called “blended approach” that would force high-speed rail trains to share tracks with existing commuter services, like Caltrain, and, at least initially, require customers to make several transfers along the SF-LA route.

Officials with the High Speed Rail Authority say the “goal” is to have at least one train a day reach LA from San Francisco in under three hours. But given the transfers and the track-sharing, average travel times are likely to be significantly longer.

Kopp and Morshed say these concessions won’t produce a system that can compete with airlines. And if passengers don’t take to high-speed rail en masse, the system will falter.

I spoke to Kopp and Morshed separately, by phone. Both said they hadn’t read the business plan, but had read recent news reports about it. For the sake of readability, I’m combining their answers here.

What’s your objection to the “blended plan,” which integrates high-speed rail into existing services, like Metrolink and Caltrain?

Kopp: Real high-speed rail, you get on in one place, you get off in another. Making people transfer from one train to another in my opinion is a sure recipe for discouraging ridership. That’s why I fought to have BART into SFO, not a mile and a half away, and that’s proved to be the most successful part of the entire BART system.

You have to be running, as we’ve always predicated, ten trains per hour, in the peak hours of the morning and afternoon to generate the revenue you need so you can function without a government subsidy. It’s certainly not the project which I had in mind and others had in mind. It’s a different kind of system.

There’s even a legal question as to whether this so-called blended system — in other words, starting off with trains from San Francisco to San Jose at a top speed of 125 mph, or probably less than that if you’re using the same tracks Caltrain uses — whether that can be legally done under the provisions of Prop 1A, which was passed by voters in 2008.

Morshed: We kept saying, over and over again: In order for high-speed rail to be successful – and this has been proven in Europe, in Japan, and, of course, China – you need it to be fast and frequent. And nonstop.

If they’re going to have only one train a day that’s three hours, you might as well forget it. If you can’t compete with airplanes, you’re going to be out of business.

According to the plan, the initial route from Fresno to Bakersfield is going to generate positive cash flows, and also attract $11 billion in private investment, which will help get the rest of the system built. Is that realistic?

Morshed: Fresno to Bakersfield is the key connecting piece that you have to build in order to build the rest of it. You don’t have any choice about it. But you have to recognize that there aren’t that many people going between Bakersfield and Merced. That piece was never going to make any money. It just isn’t logical. Who’s going to ride it? And private investors aren’t going to invest in anything that’s not making money.

Kopp: No way. No way. It was clear that that first leg was not for revenue service. It’s for testing trains, obviously. For revenue, you’ve got to


to LA or to San Francisco. I am skeptical about private investment until the very end of the completion of the entire first phase, from SF to Anaheim.

So, what do you think is going to happen? Should the project be shelved?

Kopp: Absolutely not. Human beings are creative. They’ll come up with some other sources.

You have to take a long historical view. I-5 wasn’t built all at once. But, of course, the interstate highway system had a specific source of money, namely the federal gasoline tax. High-speed rail has got to get, if it can, a specific source of funding: federal or state. I don’t know how much regional sources can contribute. It’s gonna be a long haul. A much longer haul than I originally thought.

Morshed: I believe the same as I did three years ago or ten years ago, that given the growth of the state and our population, and the realities of our transportation needs, California has to build a high-speed network sooner or later.

I’m convinced it’s going to be built. But in which way, I don’t know. And with how many ups and downs, I don’t know. I intentionally haven’t tried to look at the details and second-guess people. Maybe they know something I didn’t know. I hope they do.

High-Speed Rail’s Original Champions Now Have Doubts 18 November,2011Amy Standen

  • Jay Tulock

    Morshed and Kopp both still delusional in their previous beliefs and realistic about the current Authority beliefs. A gem in the documentation of the history of the fall of the High Speed Authority.

    Jay Tulock, Vacaville

  • df

    Mother Jones – the ultra liberal, leftist, greenist, periodical in the World said on 8/11/2011 in an article titled “California’s HSR Boondoggle – Now More Boondoggly” that the California High Speed boondoggle should be ended, now, for several reasons, mostly that construction costs have already ballooned, likely to exceed $100,000,000,000.00 ($100 billion) in 2011-year dollars. Mother Jones said:
    “If the cost of the entire project balloons at the same pace as the Central Valley section, the San Francisco-to-Anaheim railroad would cost from $63 billion to $87 billion, similar to what independent analysts have been predicting. And those figures do not include inflation, which could push the final cost toward a staggering $100 billion. When California voters approved the project in 2008, the state said it would cost $33 billion, but it soared to $43 billion a year later.

    I’m no engineer, but I’m willing to risk a few C-notes that this project ends up at $100 billion or more in 2011 dollars. Any takers? This is a very long-term bet, of course, since the line isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2020—and I’m willing to put up a few more C-notes that it’ll be more like 2025 or 2030. Or never.

    Look, I’m sorry, HSR lovers. I love me some HSR, too, but this project is just a fantastic boondoggle. It didn’t even make sense with the original cost estimates, and it’s now plain that it’s going to cost three or four times more than that. What’s more, the ridership estimates are still fantasies, and it won’t be able to compete with air travel without large, permanent subsidies. This is just too much money to spend on something this dumb. It’s the kind of thing that could set back HSR for decades. Sacramento needs to pull the plug on this, and they need to pull it now. We have way better uses for this dough.” Article here: http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/08/californias-hsr-boondoggle-now-even-more-boondoggly

    Combine MJ’s call to kill the boondoggle with Democratic California Treasurer Bill Lockyer saying the project should be ended (for numerous business reasons) – http://www.nbclosangeles.com/on-air/as-seen-on/NewsConference___California_Treasurer_Bill_Lockyer__Part_3_Los_Angeles-117841823.html and the United States House of Representatives recognizing this national boondoggle as the national embarrassment that it is, and giving it the national “Boondoggle of the Year”, then this project needs to be ended today. National recognition here: http://budget.house.gov/UploadedFiles/Budget_Boondoggle_Award-traintonowhere.pdf

    • Guest1

      Florez, don’t you have a day job besides spamming high speed rail news with your drivel?


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios’ science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

Email her at astanden@kqed.org

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