Layman is summarizing the myopic "lessons learned" in an article about Spain's high-speed rail system (don't miss the "next page" buttons!) by mainstream reporter Tim Sheehan of the Fresno Bee, based in part on an interview with political economist Germà Bel. Sheehan writes:
"There is no question whether (Spain's system) can cover its costs. It cannot," Bel said. "It actually has not recovered one single euro from the infrastructure investment. The government claims they are recovering the operating costs, but the numbers are not clear."Robert Cruickshank took issue with Bel's argument and Sheehan's portrayal of it. He also faults Sheehan for holding highways to a double standard. What about Spain's highways? Are they half empty too? Do they pay for themselves, since many of them are tolled?
The busiest high-speed lines in the world are capable of making money, Bel said, including between Paris and Lyon, where about 25 million people ride the French TGV trains each year, and the Japanese Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Osaka, which draw about 130 million riders a year.
"But this is not the case with any single line in Spain," Bel said. "The most crowded operation is Madrid-Barcelona, and it has not even had 6 million people in a year."
Note that Bel doesn't say anything about population density; I think that's something that Layman is reading into it. What he and the other analysts tell Sheehan is that the system doesn't have high enough ridership, which is not the same thing. In fact, Bel's own research fails to show that population density is a significant factor in urban transit ridership.
In 2010, Bel and his colleague Daniel Albalate did an amazing factor analysis (PDF of the 45 cities in the Mobility in Cities Database (yours for only $1,608 plus shipping!) and found that the factors that loaded most heavily on service demand were as follows:
|PRIVATE_TIME (average time spent by private vehicle trip)||0.747|
|FLEET (fleet of vehicles available for public transport purposes)||0.553|
|MOTOR (number of private vehicles per capita)||-0.524|
|PRICE (average price charged to urban transport users)||-0.466|
|PARKING (number of parking spaces per thousand jobs in the CBD)||-0.221|
|DENS (urban population density)||-0.190|
|PUBSPEED (average speed of public transport vehicles in operation)||0.0722|
The key here is the absolute value of the loadings. The greater that value, the stronger the relationship between the factor and the dependent variable. In this case, the effect of GDP is more than ten times as much as the effect of transit speed. Note in particular that population density and transit vehicle speed have the loadings with the lowest absolute value.
Finally, remember that this shows correlation, not causation. It may well be that high transit demand causes large numbers of transit vehicles to be available (funny how that works!) and high population density, not the other way around.
Again, this article by Albalate and Bel refers to urban transit, not intercity rail, but the dynamics involved in intercity mode choice are similar to urban mode choice. The time difference (3.5 hours for AVE vs. 6 hours by private car), number of vehicles per capita, tolls and gas would all make a difference. Those are some lessons that California can learn from Spain, but as Cruickshank argues, Sheehan was predisposed to find problems with high-speed rail. Maybe Bel tried to tell him, but he wasn't listening for it?