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What History Tells Us About High-Speed Rail

In a Q&A, Stanford historian Richard White discusses the parallels between railroads of the 1800s and today's high-speed rail in California.

There are many parallels between North American trains of the late 19th century and those today, according to Stanford University historian Richard White. In writing the upcoming book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he examines how trains of the U.S., Mexico and Canada went bankrupt or entered into settlements with the government to repay them. Now he’s worried history will repeat itself with the California high-speed rail project.

In a Q&A at his Stanford office, he talked about the corrupt history of the rail, the types of public transit the government should be investing in and where a high-speed rail system can and should work.

Palo Alto Patch: Can you talk a little bit about how the lessons learned from the trancontinentals of the late 1800s can be applied to that of today’s rails being built?

Richard White: Sure. There’s a couple of ways you can approach this. What’s happening in the 1860s is the beginning of a government-corporate partnership, which, with rises and falls, persists to the present day. The transcontinental railroad depends on public subsidies; they depend on powerful lobbies to make sure that they have the political connections that they need; they become corporations that are resurrected over and over again, despite their financial and political failures. And by their very size and their very power, even though they’re not successful businesses, come to shape everything around them.

So, in that way, they’re very similar to a project like the California high-speed rail. At the beginning, the transcontinentals promised Americans everything. They were going to unite the country; they were going to save the West Coast through the Civil War; they were going to develop the interior; they were going to settle the continent. They were going to do all this at no cost to the American people.

Partially, the transcontinentals lied, and partially, these promises were beyond fulfillment by anybody. I think this ties into high-speed rail, because if everything high-speed rail said were true, there would be no reason to oppose it. Supposedly, it’s going to pay off its costs; supposedly, it’s going to deliver us high-speed transportation within California with a much smaller carbon footprint than automobiles and airplanes; supposedly, Californians are going to flock to it in such high numbers that operating costs are going to be taken care of; supposedly, (besides the bonds Californians have floated for it), the rest was going to be paid for by federal subsidies. 

The problem is, as with the transcontinentals, . 

Patch: Governments such as China, and many companies, have said they want to help fund the high-speed rail project. Do you think that this will pan out?

White: I don’t think China is in a position to fund anything. The Washington Post just did a series on the Chinese high-speed rail, and virtually everything that I’m afraid is going to happen with the California high-speed rail has already happened in China. Their technology is defective; they have to lower the speed of the trains; the building of the roads has been way over costs, and there’s been a huge amount of corruption; they’re deeply in debt; and the ridership is far less than anybody estimated. What they have in China is a huge railroad bubble. So why we would expect to get Chinese advice and help is literally beyond me. Because what they have built is a system that embodies all the failures we fear for California.

All these companies are coming to high-speed rail, because they’re looking to make money off of huge public investments. The financial help is inconsistent. They want contracts. They’re not going to give money unless it's a rebate, but rebates aren’t really contracts, because you take federal money and you give a portion back. 

Patch: You mentioned in a recent New York Times editorial that these trains can be successful in some parts of the country. What accounts for the contrast?

White: In places they’ve been successful, they’ve literally been able to pay their construction costs. Not necessarily their operating costs. That’s been in Tokyo, and then Paris and Lyon. Those routes are places where several things happen that don’t happen in California. First of all, they connect to an existing rail system in which you get off the train and get on another train. They connect cities where people can take public transit to get to the trains. If you’ve ever been on French trains, you know how integrated the whole system is. Even in France, there’s only one line that meets its operating costs.

I’m all for subsidizing urban infrastructure, and even rail infrastructure, in California. But we don’t ride subways; we don’t ride light rail. What we’re betting on is that we’re going to ride this railroad even when we’ve refused to ride all other local railroads, especially on the Peninsula.

The reason it will probably work for the Northeast corridor—and even there it will be expensive—is that people already ride trains. We simply that Californians are going to get on trains.

Let’s say in a city like Palo Alto, we wanted to ride high-speed rail. First we get in our cars. Then we’re going to drive up to San Francisco. And then we’re going to park our cars. We’re going to get on a high-speed rail. There’s going to be a limited number of stops if they ever get the thing into Los Angeles. You get off in Anaheim. You get off in downtown LA. You rent another car, and you go around. Basically, you’re still going to be driving a lot the whole trip.

Recent studies out of Cal-Berkeley show very little carbon savings—under 1 percent, compared to if we simply left our cars and planes intact. 

Patch: Do you think many people will switch over?

White: What they’re talking about is simply more people taking high-speed rail than currently take rails back and forth on the East Coast. You’re talking about every man, woman and child in California taking high-speed rail twice a year. When you haven’t built something, you can claim anything you want for it, and that’s what they do. There’s absolutely no evidence.

In almost every case I know of, their projections [of ridership] have been far higher than the number of people who actually switch over. So I’m just very skeptical, and I think everyone should be skeptical when a project is going to cost this much. And the cost is constantly rising. 

Patch: Is there any form of public transit in California that you feel could be successful?

White: If you want to get people out of cars, if you want to lower the carbon footprint, what you have to do is concentrate on most of the trips taken in California. Most are not between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most are quite local. Anybody who’s lived in Los Angeles or lived in the Bay Area realizes we have some of the worst mass transit in the country. We should be working on local things that get people out of cars and make a far greater difference. This is more difficult to do. It’s also far less expensive. It’s also far less glamorous. 

Patch: Historically speaking, what accounts for the East Coast having such a successful rail infrastructure, while the West Coast is lacking?

White: First, there’s a higher population density. There’s a strong correlation between the success of the high-speed rail and the population density.

The other one you have to go to quite specific historical developments. Los Angeles, for example, for awhile did have light rail within Los Angeles. But Henry Huntington’s lines were badly maintained, dangerous, angered many citizens and were very corrupt.

What you need is a public system where people will have confidence that it works all of the time. The places I’ve lived where they have good mass transit, you shouldn’t even have to look at a schedule; they just come. So you both need the density and a system which is reliably run. The private systems that have existed in Los Angeles and even San Francisco were not reliably run. 

Patch: Unlike other countries, the U.S. doesn’t have much of an infrastructure for high-speed rail. So I’ve heard many cite it as an example of what we could be capable of.

White: Part of it is political. I’m a Democrat, but it’s no surprise to me that these things are located in places where Democrats hope to gain votes. But, in fact, as an economic stimulus measure, this is not doing anybody any good. And many of the jobs will be overseas. The reason the Japanese and the Chinese and the French are so interested is they’re going to build the trains. We’re not. 

Patch: Especially in places such as Gilroy, where the train will make a stop, I’ve heard the argument made that local jobs will be created and more of a downtown area will be formed.

White: Well, think about this: Who’s gonna get on the train in Gilroy? [laughs] People in Gilroy might take a train to San Francisco, they might take it to Los Angeles, but as I understand it, you have to go at least 200 miles to make this really efficient, more efficient than cars. 

Developers will develop around the train station, and they will certainly make money. That’s where you have a key constituency for this, and all the contractors who are going to build it. A lot of people—contractors, developers—see this as a gravy train. 

Patch: What do you feel could be done to improve public transit specifically in Palo Alto and its surrounding communities?

White: Well, if you’re going to spend this much money, there’s a couple of things that you could do. You could improve Caltrain and extend BART. The reason BART is so expensive is because of land and other things. But if you really want effective public transit around the Bay Area, you’d use BART.

I would invest that money in light rail by the Caltrain station so you can get to other places in Palo Alto, or Mountain View or San Jose. But getting people to use light rail isn’t easy. San Jose has light rail but virtually nobody uses it. BART, people do ride. BART is also seen as a hopelessly expensive enterprise, but it’s pennies compared to this stuff. 

Patch: It looks like Caltrain isn’t doing so well right now with talks about cutting a station and eliminating weekend service.

White: What you’ll do is strangle it, make it less convenient. There will be less people who ride it, more people in cars.

It’s not clear they have any viable route in Los Angeles, or certainly the Peninsula opposes it so much, it won’t go through here at all. It will just go into the Central Valley. How they’re going to get it into San Francisco is completely unclear.

The transcontinentals, the Chinese rail—all these things, I’m afraid, are examples of what’s going to happen.

Patch: There’s no learning from history, and people trying to redo their errors?

White: Well, it’s not so much you learn from history. It’s that transcontinentals set up a structure, a kind of federal subsidizing of corporations, which remains intact. Once you have that structure, you can apply it to all kinds of things. Even though here there will be a high-speed rail authority that will run it, money will run into private hands for private property. I’m not against infrastructure spending, I’m not against even public spending, but you have to look at these things very closely, and I’m afraid this would be a 21st century version of the transcontinental railroads.

Patch: And those railroads, I’m assuming, didn’t get the ridership they projected?

White: They were actually going to be freight railroads, and they had to end up subsidizing steamship companies to raise their rates and get things shipped to the East Coast so the railroads could compete with them.

Initially you didn’t need transcontinental railroads, but you needed them about 30 years after you built them. It’s perfectly conceivable to me that in 25 or 30 years, California might need high-speed rail. By that time, there will be new technology. You won’t have this massive debt that you’ll have trouble paying off. You build it when you need it, probably more cheaply and with a more efficient technology.

So why build it before you need it, with a technology that will almost certainly be replaced in 25 or 30 years? The railroads that really could compete in the late 19th century were those that waited, not those that built first.

bubu May 10, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Good article..It suggests, why build the Oakland Airport Connector now! That money can be used to buy or ensure the exsting BART trains deliver good service. BART is truly the only mass transit in the Bay Area with 350,000 riders a day. So, I don't agre with White when he states transportation on a local region is not viable. However, long distance transport such as the highspeed rail might not come to the promised glory! Mass transit is not a cheap venture, by no means. The cost of design, build and maintain was not intended to make a profit but to provide a public service. For this reason, transit systems are subsidized.
Scott St John May 10, 2011 at 08:08 PM
I wonder if Prof. White has been out riding the train recently. I suspect no-- most middle to high income folks base their assumptions about train travel on their own car-centric lifestyles. Lots of people currently take the train-- Caltrain is packed and Amtrak California serves over 7 million people a year! That's 7 million riding a slow train!! The example that Prof. White used for traveling Palo Alto to SoCal was laughable. One would never DRIVE to San Francisco to take the bullet train! Even today you can easily take the Stanford Marguerite Shuttle to Palo Alto Caltrain. Southern California has also done an impressive job of making connections from LA's Union Station. You can take commuter rail, light rail, or buses to thousands of destinations in the area. I agree that better local connections would be terrific, and very helpful for building ridership. But the timetable he's proposing for high-speed rail will push it into the next generation, and we need solutions now! I look forward to his book, but I recommend that he take a ride on Amtrak with some of his fellow Californians from all income levels.
Dave Dee May 10, 2011 at 11:08 PM
Where to begin, where to begin. 1. No transportation mode is free of subsidies. Driving has them. Flying has them. Biking has them. Walking has them. Why should rail be required to exist free of subsidies when no others do? 2. Is Mr. White suggesting that high-speed rail is riddled with corruption? Why would this terrible “corruption” be any different than the corruption that led to the Big Dig boondoggle in Boston? It sounds like Mr. White has an issue with private industry contracting with the government. High-speed rail can’t solve the world’s problems; it is a transportation system. 3. The presentation of local rail lines in this interview is completely non-factual. Rail systems in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego have been wildly successful. Even Sacramento’s system does well. Only San Jose’s system has been a failure. High-speed rail would connect directly with the rail systems in each of these cities—plus the associated commuter rail lines (Caltrain, ACE, Metrolink, Coaster)—boosting ridership. 4. Why would anyone get in a car and drive to San Francisco to take high-speed rail? There will be a station on the Peninsula somewhere between Mountain View and Redwood City. And conveniently, Caltrain will connect Palo Alto directly to the station, no transfer needed, assuming the station doesn’t get built in Palo Alto itself. To be continued...
Dave Dee May 10, 2011 at 11:10 PM
...continued. 5. Why would I have to rent a car once I get to LA? High-speed rail will connect directly to the subway, which serves downtown, Hollywood, and Wilshire Blvd. There’s also light rail that runs straight to Pasadena, and by the time high-speed rail opens, LA will have a rail connection all the way to Santa Monica. 6. Mr. White notes that higher population densities support rail use, and in nearly the same breath says that high-speed rail is designed to gain Democratic votes. Sir, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Population density and Democratic votes go hand-in-hand. 7. Mr. White demonstrates his complete lack of understanding of public transit systems by declaring that a BART extension to Palo Alto makes sense. Sure, BART is expensive to build because of land costs, but it is expensive to operate as well. It is far more expensive than Caltrain in lower density areas like the Peninsula. BART uses subway technology that is extremely efficient in the Daly City-San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley core area, but it is a huge money pit in far-flung suburbs like Fremont and Millbrae. Please, Patch, you are doing the public a disservice. Try interviewing a professor of transportation planning next time.

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