Politicians aren’t good at math: The Bullet Train.


A number of years ago while lecturing in Japan I had the opportunity to ride on the Bullet Train. Indeed, it was impressive. When it was proposed in California, my first thought was, “that sounds pretty good.” However, reality has reared it ugly head.

Governor Jerry Brown has long been an advocate of a high-speed rail system for California. In his first two terms as governor (1975–1983) he signed legislation into law for the study of a high-speed rail system. Now in his second iteration as governor he is hell-bent on building it.

I don’t expect Governor Brown to be a mathematician, but I do expect him to hire one.

[Source: Jerry Brown’s Bullet Train Cost Equals Eight Thousand Years Of Equivalent Air Flights, by Charlie Richards]

When one considers the costs of building the Bullet Train, one must wonder who thought this was a good idea. The whole idea of the Bullet Train is to rapidly transport passengers from Los Angeles (LA) to San Francisco (SF) and back. In theory it will travel at 220 MPH. SF is approximately 350 miles from LA (potentially less than one and one-half hours), however, when completed it is anticipated that it will be transport a passenger from LA to SF in 3 hours 30 minutes (flight time 1 hour 15 minutes for comparison).

Planes travel through the air. It isn’t necessary to disrupt homes, farms, businesses (via “eminent domain” and, thus, fight court battles). Air routes do not require tunneling through mountains (ads somewhere in the range of $25 – 45 billion to the project). Air routes do not require an “environmental review” – upwards of $1 billion.

Current estimates for the final cost are around $77 billion at the low end to more than $100 billion. Therefore, the actual cost will be substantially mote than $100 billion. However, Mr. Richards chose the $77 billion number as “accurate.”

Let’s do the math (or, more accurately, let’s see Mr. Richard’s math):

  • A round trip flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco is $97.
  • There are about 192,000 flights between the two cities per year.  That’s equivalent to 96,000 round trips.
  • $77 billion dollars would purchase 793,814,433 round trip tickets.
  • That computes to 8,269 years of free flights to and from San Francisco for everybody who makes that journey by plane.

It is worth recalling that wooly mammoths roamed the Earth a mere 4000 years ago. We can reason that probably bullet trains and airplanes will be passé in 8000 years.

But, say you, $97 for a round trip flight sounds too cheap. OK, say I. Let’s fly first class or, better yet, let’s all travel in chartered luxury jets – you know, like politicians. Let’s raise that $97 round trip ticket to $10,000 per person round trip. The cost is a whopping $960,000,000 per year. With $77 billion, Californians could travel in style for more than 80 years – and that’s the low estimate for the Bullet Train.

Now for the REALY CRAZY PART. [Directly from the Richards article] Lets go crazy and see how long that $77 billion could pay for free flights all around the United States. There are 87,000 flights per day. That’s 31,755,000 flights per year. At, say $400 average cost per round-trip flight, the total is $12,702,000,000 dollars. The money can cover every flight in the United States for nearly 13 years.

Oh well, I’m wasting my time. Our esteemed Governor Moonbeam is not about to halt his favorite project.

Roy Filly

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About Roy Filly

Please read my first blog in which I describe myself and my goals.
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2 Responses to Politicians aren’t good at math: The Bullet Train.

  1. Anne Malcolm says:

    Moonbeam just might have to halt the project when the illegals refuse to pay for it. They, after all, are running the state and are more important than the fleeing residents and their kids are the future, not my two icky 20-something sons.

  2. People often misunderstand the purpose of a public works project. The purpose is not the completion of the project with its publicized objective put to the service of the People.

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