Against California High Speed Rail by Mark R. Powell

Ridership Tales

“Figures Lie and Liars Figure”  (old accounting axiom, author unknown)

There are many reasons to be skeptical about the prospect of High Speed Rail in California as portrayed by the California High Speed Rail Authority (the “Authority”).   I begin what is hoped to be a long series of short articles by writing about only one facet of one issue; the issue is Ridership.

Many concerned citizens are aware of the Authority’s Ridership Study conducted by Cambridge Systematics (CS) between 2005 and 2008 and of the conversation, led by the Institute of Transportation Studies at Berkeley (ITS Berkeley),  regarding the validity of CS’s conclusions.  What is not widely discussed is that the CS Ridership Study is the second such study conducted for the benefit of the Authority.   The earlier ridership study was conducted in 1999 and published in January 2000 by Charles River Associates (CRA).  The CRA Ridership Study touts itself as “the most advanced state-of-the-art, comprehensive intercity HSR ridership and revenue forecasts and analysis ever carried out in California, and possibly anywhere” [note 1].  So why the need for a second study?  The answer to this question is hinted at in the results of the two studies.

Boarding Type           CRA Study [note 2]    CS Study [note 3]   CRA Study (adj.)
Inter-regional                       32,002,103                       68,200,000               35,700,000
Intra-regional (commuters)   11,312,000                       24,900,000               12,600,000

Total Boardings                    43,314,103                        93,100,000              48,300,000

Inter-regional Revenue       $888,177,557                  $3,282,000,000        $1,279,000,000
Intra-regional Revenue       $  84,396,000                  $  335,000,000         $   122,000,000
Total Revenue                    $972,573,557                  $3,617,000,000        $1,401,000,000

                              Annual Ridership and Revenue Comparison
                                 Columns 1 and 2 are published values. 
      CRA Values Adjusted in Column 3 to Fairly Compare them with CS Values

Both studies relate to essentially the same HSR system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with spurs running from LA to Anaheim, LA to San Diego, and Merced to Sacramento.  Both sets of Ridership and Revenue numbers are based on HSR fares set at 50% of the anticipated prevailing airfare.  However, in all fairness to the CS Study, which boasts twice the annual ridership and four times the annual revenue of the earlier CRA Study, the two sets of numbers should not be directly compared because they reflect different years of operation.  The earlier CRA study envisioned the full HSR system in operation in 2020 while the CS study envisions 2030 as the comparable year of operation.  The CRA results can be  adjusted and made directly comparable to the CS results by using indexes found in the Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature and the Consumer Price Index. 
Ridership growth of 1.1% per year is expected to take place in the decade of the 2020’s  due to population growth [note 4] .  CRA’s ridership numbers would then be adjusted upward by 11.5% to take them from 2020 to 2030.

CRA’s revenue numbers are in 1999 dollars while CS’s revenue numbers are in 2008 dollars.  The Consumer Price Index rose 29% during this 9 year period.   The combined effect of 11.5% more riders paying fares increased by 29% means that CRA’s original revenue figures need to be adjusted upward by 44%  (1.115 x 1.29 = 1.44).  CRA adjusted numbers are shown in Column 3.

A comparison of Columns 2 and 3 allows us to clearly see the reason for the second study.  It yields the desired result!  Ridership is nearly double (193%) that of the first study in spite of the fact that fares must have been disproportionally increased to account for the nearly tripling (258%) of revenue.

Upwards of $100 Billion dollars ($100,000,000,000) should not be spent on such scant evidence of need.  Californians must demand a halt to the spending of their hard earned money until the need for HSR is proved conclusively by third Ridership and Revenue Study sanctioned and conducted by disinterested parties. 

The following page provides footnotes and links to documents that allow the reader to verify what is stated in this article.


Note 1: “ Independent Ridership and Passenger Revenue Projections for High Speed Rail Alternatives in California”

               Charles River Associates Incorporated

               CRA Project  No. 1680-04

               January 2000

               page E-2


Note 2: Same Study as Noted Above

               pages E-8 and E-30

Note 3: “Ridership and Revenue Forecasts”


               Non-dated report, last dates referred to in report are 2008

            page 11


Note 4: “CHSRA Report to the LEGISLATURE December 2009”

               page 71 (interpreted from Figure 1 bar graph for fare set at 50% of airfare)


               (this may take a few minutes to download)

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One Response to Ridership Tales

  1. Rennie Stark says:

    With actions like these it is no wonder that our State continues toward bankruptcy. The numbers make no sense at all.

    It would be interesting to test ridership interest with an experiment. Why not make Metrolink $1.00 per person for a period of time and accurately measure what ridership potential really does exist. The objective would be to fill every car, then determine what kind of fare would be necessary to cover costs. Could be interesting!

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