What’s the Problem?

Before undertaking a large, expensive, drawn-out project such as the High Speed Rail project all stakeholders should back up and think through the problem that they are trying to address. It is very easy to slip into the, “Here’s the Solution — Where’s the Problem?” mindset.

The California Drought

The importance of being clear about objectives came to mind when I read this article from KCBS. Evidently those concerned about California’s water problems are seeking to transfer the money budgeted for the High Speed Rail project to programs that help conserve water. The logic seems to be as follows.

  1. California is in the midst of a decades-long drought.
  2. Chronic water shortages will lead to a gradual but inexorable decline in all kinds of commercial activity, particularly manufacturing and agriculture.
  3. This will cause people and businesses will move out of the State.
  4. Hence the justification high speed rail dwindles since there will be fewer people to move around the State.

In other words, the existential crisis faced by California is not the lack of fast trains; it is chronic drought. Therefore, if the High Speed Rail team in California wishes to advance their agenda they should not say, “Support High Speed Rail for faster and more economical transport”. They should say, “Here is how High Speed Rail will help reduce drought-related problems”. In other words, they should frame their project to address the truly fundamental problem faced by Californians. Then they will get buy-in.

The problems faced by the economy in central Virginia are different from those in California. But it is fair to ask if we are making the same mistake as the Californians and jumping to a solution before defining the core problem and then working out a range of answers. In our case the problem is not “Lack of High Speed Rail”. The problem is, “How do we move people along the eastern corridor quickly and economically with minimal environmental and cultural damage?

Driverless Cars

One response to the above question is to pursue a policy of incrementalism rather than starting a large, brand new project. In other words, rather than spending enormous amounts of money on a highly disruptive grassroots project consider improving the system that we have now in order to achieve the same goals through the use of proven technologies or of technologies that will be plausibly developed in the next few years. Driverless cars provide an example.

It appears as if driverless cars are on the verge of widespread acceptance. The technology is rapidly maturing and some of them are already on the roads. So what is their relevance to the High Speed Rail project? Well, it is not hard to imagine that, in the time span of this project (10-20 years), that this same technology could be applied to trains. It would allow trains (with or without a human driver) to move faster through non-built up areas and for the trains to operate much closer to one another, thus increasing both speed and capacity without a need for additional track and without jeopardizing safety.


It is important to understand that this post is not about the California drought, nor is it about driverless cars or trains. The post makes two basic points:

  1. We need to carefully define what the goals of the project are in the context of the overall concerns and needs of the citizens of Virginia. High speed trains are not the goal — they are one possible solution to achieving the goal.
  2. We should examine ways of achieving those goals through incremental improvements and changes in order to achieve the “No Build” option (Slide # 19 in this slidepack).

An interesting challenge for the project would be to set up a Red Team whose challenge would be,

Figure out how to achieve the goals of the high speed train project without building any new track.

Could it be done? I don’t know. But it would be a fascinating challenge.

One thought on “What’s the Problem?

  1. Pingback: 2002 | ashlandrail

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