The political left has long wanted the United States to be more like Europe. Its appetite for Europeanization is clearly visible in California where the political class that runs the state has demanded a bullet train of its very own. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2015 kicking off the high-speed rail project, Gov. Jerry Brown went so far as to compare laying track for the train to the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe. In his January State of the State address, Brown engaged in evangelism. Bullet trains, he said, “are now taken for granted all over Europe.”
They are also scattered about in an uncoordinated tangle all over Europe. A recently published special report from the European Court of Auditors says the continent’s high-speed rail network is “not a reality but an ineffective patchwork” of national lines.
But that might not be the biggest problem for the “system.” Its costs are a throbbing headache.
“High-speed rail infrastructure is expensive, and is becoming more so,” said the report.
“On average,” the lines that the court audited cost nearly $30 million per kilometer (about $18 million to $19 million per mile), a calculation that did not take into account “the more expensive tunnelling projects.”
“The costs involved could in fact have been far lower, with little or no impact on operations. This is because very high-speed lines are not needed everywhere they have been built.”
“Not needed everywhere they are built?” That could apply, as well, to California’s high-speed rail, which has been called, with good reason, by a variety of observers the “train to nowhere.”
That’s not the only example of overlap. The report also noted that:
- “In many cases, trains run on very high-speed lines at far lower average speeds than the line is designed to handle.”
- High speeds “are never reached in practice: trains run on average at only around 45 percent of the line’s design speed on the lines audited.”
- “Only two lines were operating at an average speed above 200 km/h, and none above 250 km/h. Average speed so far below the design speed raises questions as to sound financial management.”
- “Cost-efficiency checks are rare.”
- “Nine of the 14 audited high-speed lines and cross-border connections did not have a sufficiently high number of passengers in their 15- and 30-minute catchment areas” — defined as “an area from which a high-speed rail station can be reached by car in a given time” — “along the line to make high-speed rail successful.”
- “Cost overruns, construction delays and delayed entry into service: a norm instead of an exception.”
The audit’s scorching criticisms are offset by some positive remarks of the European “patchwork.” (“High-speed rail is a comfortable, safe, flexible and environmentally sustainable mode of transport,” for instance.)
But California cannot ignore its relevant observations, which were presented almost as if they were directed at Brown’s legacy project. It has been weighed down by budget-busting cost estimates; it will be slower than its supporters promised it would be and will carry fewer passengers than projected; oversight lacks rigor; and it is being built where it is not needed.
So, in other words, it’s exactly what its supporters want it to be: a replica of the incomplete and hardly first-rate European model.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.